A Fateful Finding
Cora glanced in the rearview mirror and bit her lip in anguish while her foot pressed harder against the gas pedal of the stolen car. The retreat had already disappeared from view, and it didn’t look like anyone followed her. The sigil burned like a brand, forcing her ever onward.
She shouldn’t have eavesdropped. At the sound of footsteps approaching the door to her room, she had hurried over, bored and eager for any news. She’d gotten it. Nobody had come inside, but she’d recognized the head doctor’s voice while he murmured to the officer outside. Not all the words had been clear, but the urgency behind them was unmistakable.
“Keep a close watch on her. I’ve just received word they found the crazed man’s secret laboratory. It’s at one of Davenport’s properties. The country manor, I believe. They already uncovered evidence related to her father, and, well… let’s keep her isolated for now in case of some last act of magic triggered by these discoveries. Allow no one inside, not even members of my staff.”
The vague intimations had ignited the sigil in a way she hadn’t felt since Father had disappeared, crushing all willpower with a blinding headache until she gave in and became a puppet to its command: go find him.
Her fingers didn’t feel like her own while she gripped the steering wheel, strangling the fine leather in frustration. Her attempts to be noticed and caught by the guards or staff members had all been fruitless, and now here she was, barrelling down the road. She even knew exactly where to go.
The only country property Freddy hadn’t sold was Mallow Manor. One of the places included in her bet with Hayes. Hayes. Cora’s heart throbbed just thinking about him, but she wasn’t hopeful enough to believe he’d find out about her escape in time. The sigil was hellbent on bringing her back to Isaac Marshall, and now it finally had a lead on where to go to begin tracking him. She could feel how the nasty little thing tightened its control with each breath, replacing pain with numbness now that she obeyed it.
It had been years since Cora had visited the manor. Old Man Davenport had still been alive then, and had regularly held hunting weekends for his friends. Cora’s father was among those, and she had spent many hours exploring the estate instead of standing with the other wives and daughters while the men shot at pheasants.
The manor itself looked much like she remembered, dour and heavy in the way that only a home filled with generations’ worth of relics and furniture could be. Police officers surrounded it while enchanters and detectives worked, oblivious to everything except their pursuit of finding and collecting evidence.
Unfortunately, there were also reporters and spectators cordoned off to either side of the driveway. Cora kept her gaze fixed on the manor ahead, even when the first shouts of recognition were followed by the flash of cameras in her face. The sigil throbbed in time with her heartbeat while she parked and got out, keeping her steps brisk as if she was meant to be there.
Inwardly, she felt like she had stepped right into Hell, but there was no turning back, not even when the officer at the front door held up a hand at her approach. His uniform looked as neat as his blond hair beneath his hat, and his closed-off expression suggested he wasn’t about to be swayed from his duty. “Miss, you can’t go in. This is a crime scene investigation.”
A surge of relief quickly evaporated beneath the weight of the sigil. It pushed words into her mouth and choked her when she tried holding them back. She swallowed hard but gave in before the officer noticed her struggle. “I’m Isaac Marshall’s daughter. I was told he might be here, and if he is, I demand to see him immediately.”
The officer eyed her and then called inside for the nearest higher-ranked man. An enchanter responded, a tall, gaunt fella who Cora dimly recognized as being one of Enchanter Byrd’s underlings. As they murmured to each other in between glances in her direction, her hands convulsively strangled the handle of her purse.
The sigil didn’t want to wait, and she found herself speaking again. Her tone came out cold and dismissive, mimicking her father’s idea of proper behavior. “This is ridiculous. What is your name?”
“Enchanter Leary, Miss.” The man sounded unimpressed by the imperious words but took a step closer to study her. “Who called for you? You’re supposed to be with an escort at all times.”
“I fail to see how those questions are relevant. All I want to know is whether my father has been found. I’d like to speak with Detective Nichols. He’s in charge of the case against Mr. Davenport, isn’t he?”
“He’s away on other business. Now, Miss—”
Her next words grew frigid even as the sigil seemed to burn away her skin. “I won’t be put off. What did you learn about my father?”
The enchanter hesitated. “All right. Come with me and I’ll show you what we’ve found. You’re about to be disappointed, though. It’s merely some personal belongings that may belong to your father. We needed to reach out to you anyway for confirmation, so at least this will save time for everyone involved.”
“But you haven’t found him?” She wanted to cry in relief. The sigil grew subdued, its presence fading into something that felt hot and angry, like a fresh bruise.
“No. The body we discovered has already been identified beyond all doubt. It’s not your father.”
The enchanter led her into a kitchen crusted over with grime and rotting food. Flies buzzed around their faces, but the smell was a much worse experience, and she was relieved when they began descending rickety wooden steps down to the root cellar. The natural darkness quickly gave way to the artificial lights. The air took on the stench of old earth and then an odd, clinical odor. Something like… formaldehyde.
When Cora realized they were about to enter Harold Beaumont’s secret laboratory, she asked, “Are you saying you’ve found Mr. Beaumont?”
“Well, what’s left of him.”
Before she could ask what exactly that meant, they reached the bottom stair. A squat wooden doorway gaped ahead, revealing concrete floors and plaster walls covered in all sorts of pipes, tubes, and wiring. Voices echoed in a confusing rhythm. The flashes from police cameras were constant.
Then the enchanter stopped her with a sigh. “Are you sure you want to come in here, Miss Marshall? We haven’t yet taken away the body, and it isn’t a pretty sight.”
The sigil gave her no choice. “I insist.”
Inside, the lighting turned bright and sterile, shining off of the maze of metal tables and glass instruments. Papers were scattered everywhere. Flies zipped by in a frenzy.
The police stood out very starkly in their dark uniforms, but Cora’s gaze instead jumped to what most of them surrounded. It was the kind of chair typically used for medical or dental exams, able to be positioned at various angles. At the moment, it reclined back like a chaise. Trays of tools and mirrors had been set up all around it. The officers and enchanters blocked much of her view… but not everything.
Blood had dried in a large pool around the chair. A stiff hand, still wearing a medical glove, hung toward the floor. A scalpel waited inches away, too crusted over to glint.
“My God,” said Cora, her revulsion genuine. “What happened to him?”
“It was a madman’s death. He tried to perform an appendectomy upon himself and bled out. He’s been dead for a few days.”
Her horrified voice drew the attention of a nearby man while he loaded files into an evidence box. His plain suit and youth suggested he was a junior-level detective, without any real authority, but he approached them with a frown. “What is she doing here? No one was supposed to bring her out of hiding. Orders from the captain.”
“I had to come as soon as I heard there was news of my father,” replied Cora, trying not to sound bitter even as the sigil throbbed against her scalp.
Enchanter Leary cleared his throat, but the other man didn’t give him a chance. “You brought her down here? It’s an active investigation.”
The enchanter’s stooped shoulders straightened in indignation. “If this case is expected to be solved as quickly as possible, why not save time whenever we can? Miss Marshall will need to identify any possible belongings of her father. If she can do it right now—”
“That’s not the point, Leary.”
“And you’re not the lead detective of this case anymore than I am, Grayson. Now’s not the time to pull rank on me.”
The argument continued from there. It was clear to Cora that without the presence of Captain Dempsey or another figure experienced in directing a group, the well-oiled machine behind investigating a scene quickly began to grind. Even as relief threaded around her heart from the possibility that she might be sent away, the sudden hiss of a welding torch caught her attention.
On the far end of the room, a man worked on one of several locks set into a steel door. The sigil urged her closer despite the sparks. When Enchanter Leary walked over, now red in the face, she said, “What does he expect to find inside?”
“We don’t know, but this property needs to be fully examined. If there’s a locked door, we have to break through it. Now, please, if you would just come over here and look at this. As soon as you answer, we’ll take you back outside and into safety.”
“Good,” said Cora, able to speak that much of her mind.
The enchanter took her to a table where boxes of bagged evidence were neatly stacked. Within moments, he offered one such bag over to her. “Don’t take it out. Just look at it and tell us if you recognize it.”
The sigil’s pulse shot into a frenzy until she felt dizzy. “It’s Father’s signet ring. I’m sure of it. You found it here?”
“Yes. We’ve been examining Harold Beaumont’s lab notes. Some included materials for enchantment use, and your father’s ring was one such example. No, don’t press me for more information. I’d rather wait for someone with more authority to tell you anything else.”
Before the sigil could force her to argue, a murmur started up back by the entrance. A handful of words, repeated among everyone present until they rushed toward Cora and the enchanter like ocean waves. The expression of every person who heard them changed from tired, intent, or grim to complete shock.
“The captain’s been shot. He’s in the hospital. It was some wolf bitch and Nichols. Nichols. The bastard two-timed us with the Saxbys.”
As soon as Cora heard the pack’s name, she dropped the ring back on the table, heart racing. Her next words were her own, and they rang throughout the room. “Was anyone else hurt?”
The junior detective, Grayson, responded, but not to her. His face looked very pale, but he sounded furious. “Someone get her outside and make sure she’s watched over until an unmarked car can take her back to the station. We don’t know who they’ll come after next or what’s safe right now.”
Cora knew a refusal was out of the question. The entire atmosphere had changed. She found herself escorted by four silent officers through the back of the manor and into the isolation of the formal garden, which was severely neglected. Some part of her noted that Freddy must have sent away all servants when Harold Beaumont had taken over the manor for his work. The rest of her still spun in shock. The sigil throbbed uneasily against her scalp, unsure of what to do, and she found herself pacing along the shaggy hedges and overgrown rose bushes, staring at the distant road that could take her away from this terrible place.
Then she heard a voice that made her heart sing. “Get out of here. I need to talk to my client.”
Hayes was bloodied and missing his hat, but he looked as unfaltering as ever while ducking between two hedges to approach her and the officers. They blocked him. “Sir, stay back.”
The bright gold of his eyes blazed at them. “I’m unarmed.”
“Stay back. No one gets close to her, especially a bloody wolf. If you argue, then we’ll move past the talking stage before you can blink.”
Cora tried to sound reassuring even though she wanted to just melt into his arms. “Hayes, it’s fine. I’m all right, and I don’t care what they hear. Are you hurt? There’s so much blood…”
“Saxby blood,” he said, shortly. “The alpha-king made some stupid decisions today.”
Then he scrutinized every inch of her face before adding, “What about you? Who got you out of the retreat?”
“I did it myself. The guards and staff all believed I’m a little feather-head helpless at doing anything. It was extremely easy to take a hairpin and stick it into the cord of a desk lamp in my room, which shorted out the entire wing of the building. Climbing out the window and down the trellis in the middle of the chaos took less than three minutes.”
Despite the watchful officers, he smiled faintly. “Always so clever, Bunny.”
The sweetness of his pet name for her sharpened the agony of her next words. “Hayes, there’s undeniable evidence that my father was here.”
She didn’t need to say anything more. She could tell by the way his expression changed that he knew the sigil had been involved. Then he looked past her at the manor’s entrance, jaw tightening as she added, “It is Harold Beaumont’s secret laboratory. And he’s in there, dead.”
“I know. I can smell it,” he murmured, turning back to her. Every line in his body suggested tension. “We need to leave. Now.”
“Sir, again, she’s not going anywhere,” said one of the officers.
“Unless I’m being detained, then yes I am,” said Cora, already turning toward the gravel path that would lead to a back road out of the property. Then she found herself surrounded by bristling officers, neatly cut off from Hayes. “Stop this. I’m his client.”
“Miss, we’ve just learned of a situation involving the Saxbys, and let me tell you, no wolf is taking off with a human right now.”
From the way a muscle jumped in Hayes’ jaw, he was trying very hard not to snap. “You don’t know the full story. I’m no longer with the Saxbys, and Miss Marshall needs to be somewhere safe. Immediately.”
“Please…” began Cora, sensing the growing agitation from the officers.
Then she heard it. A voice just at the edge of her senses. A commanding baritone she had argued with many times. The sigil flared into life, and only the ring of officers kept her from running toward the sound. Even as her fingers clenched into fists, tears filled her eyes as she realized what must have been behind that steel door in the lab.
As Hayes swore beneath his breath, she spat out a word she’d hoped to never speak again. “Father.”
A figure emerged from the same back entrance she had used to reach the garden, already wrapped in a blanket and flanked by enchanters. Her father looked unshaven and slightly disheveled, his fine suit now wrinkled as if that was all he had worn since his disappearance, but he didn’t seem bewildered or in shock so much as vaguely irritated, shaking off people and their questions.
When his voice rose above all others, it was in a calm command, not a desperate shout. “I’m cold, filthy, and have been without sustenance for days from being trapped in that damn cell without contact. Once I’ve been driven home and given a chance to address all three of these issues, I will answer questions.”
He hadn’t yet seen her, but with each passing moment, the pain from the sigil grew worse, swelling into a pressure in her head that felt dangerous. She couldn’t stop looking at him, and only her sheer force of will prevented the sigil from opening her mouth in a scream.
Then she heard Hayes growl just before smoke billowed all around, taking away her sight. It was so thick that she couldn’t even see the officers circling her, but in the next moment someone grabbed her arm and tugged her into a flat-out run. She didn’t know which way her father was, which meant the sigil didn’t, either. Her mind spun from the tiny bit of slack created by the confusion.
By the time she recognized Hayes’ hand against her arm, they had moved far enough from the smoke to see each other’s faces. “Did you do that?”
“Jane’s work, technically,” he said, keeping them to the soft grass so that their steps wouldn’t sound against the gravel pathway nearby.
Despite the pressure in her head, she laughed. “They probably think you’re kidnapping me. They didn’t even trust you to begin with.”
His answer was a mere scoff while he continued guiding her away as quickly as possible. From the shouts of the officers, they weren’t going to let him off if they caught him.
“Where are we going?”
“Somewhere that’s not here.”
Her hope shattered within the next breath, because her eyesight had cleared enough to realize they were nearly at the road—moving away from her father. The pain from the sigil turned blinding. “I can’t. I can’t leave him.”
The urge to return forced her to wrench her hand away from Hayes. When she resisted turning toward the manor, the agony left her bent over and panting for breath. Suddenly, she tasted blood and realized there were trails of it trickling from her nose. The sigil was ready to move beyond mere pain if she continued to fight.
“Goddamn it.” Hayes caught her chin. “Cora? Cora, listen to me.”
The sound of her name in his voice somehow gave her the strength to look up at him, gasping as the sigil’s control increased into something skull-cracking. She couldn’t speak, shaking while staring at him in desperation.
“This isn’t the end,” he said, his eyes as intense as his words. “No matter what your father or the sigil makes you do.”
She felt close to fainting but managed to say, “He hates wolves. Oh, go before he sees you. He’ll make you hurt much more than me if he knows how much I… I…”
He stopped her agonized words by running a thumb over mouth. “I know. This isn’t the end. I promise you.”
Then he released her, and she had to turn away from him, each and every muscle in her body compelled to move toward her father. She felt sick and dizzy, unable to speak while wiping her face clean with a shaking hand.
Officers found her just as the final wisps of smoke cleared, and her last true thought was the hope that Hayes had gotten away. She couldn’t respond to questions beyond a shake of her head, all focus trained on her father, who was about to get into an unmarked police car.
When he saw her, faint surprise filtered into his expression. “Cora. How did you…”
“We’ve been trying to find you, Father,” she managed, hating how happy she sounded despite the nausea settling into her stomach. The sigil burned beneath her hair in slow, steady pulses, pleased to be back with its master. “I suppose there’s a lot to explain.”
“Never mind. We’ll discuss it later. Right now, I’m tired. Let’s go home.”
When her body moved like a marionette to obey the order, she felt like screaming. Instead, she felt herself smile. “Of course, Father.”