Jane Feral had never been in a hospital before. She studied its spotless corridors and busy staff with interest while handing her business card to the nurse behind the reception desk. “I’m here to see Captain Albert Dempsey. He was admitted three days ago.”
The woman looked like a battleaxe of a nurse, broad and grim and pragmatic, and when she stared at Jane’s yellow eyes and then the box of chocolates beneath her arm with open suspicion, Jane remained as polite as she could manage. “I heard he’s had visitors since yesterday, especially for work-related reasons.”
“That’s an understatement. He’s been acting like he’s in an office instead of a hospital. Let’s see some formal ID, please. Anyone can have a business card printed.”
Jane supposed the request was only fair, considering the captain had been shot by a she-wolf, and handed over her city-issued license for being a practicing thaumaturgist. She always hated showing it because of the red bolded letters declaring AMATEUR as the answer to which academy she had been taught at, which was the worst stigma a freelance enchanter could have.
The nurse took down the information without comment. As she returned the license and a visitor’s badge, she said, “He’s out on the grounds for recuperating patients. Go back out and take the side path leading around the east wing of the hospital.”
“Thank you.” Jane was confident of finding her way; she had already caught his scent, including the nuances. It was healthy, free of infection or pain, and filled with irritation.
Despite the gray pajamas and robes every patient wore, it was easy to pick out the captain. He sat by himself on a veranda that overlooked the lawns and courts set up for gentle exercise. Away from the main hospital and its odors of disinfectant and illness, the air took on the freshness of sun-warmed grass, but Dempsey watched other patients with the expression of someone who would rather be anywhere else.
When he saw her and all but rolled his eyes, she grinned. “Good morning, Captain. How does it feel to have an entire skull again?”
“Rotten. They got me through the operation just to kill me with boredom.” His hair wasn’t combed back like usual—she guessed patients weren’t allowed pomade or other extraneous items during their stay—but he was neatly shaven and looked otherwise like himself. Fully recovered.
When she took the other chair at his table, he sighed. “Why are you here?”
“I have a get well gift for you.” Then she set the box of chocolates between them.
He eyed it and then her. “I didn’t think you paid any attention to social niceties, Miss Feral.”
“You did save my life, Captain.” She thumbed through the pile of newspapers on the table but had to admit to herself that she was more interested in him. “Thank you.”
When he realized she was sincere, the skepticism left his expression. Enthusiasm didn’t replace it, but he still pulled off the lid to glance over the delicate truffles nestled in their paper liners. Jane realized she was studying him with too much care, but it was hard to look away.
She had expected to find a man shaken or at least out of his element from a near-death experience and subsequent surgery. Or worse, suffering from aftereffects. Instead, Dempsey didn’t seem diminished at all. She told herself that the relief stealing through her heart was merely because he was the only human who listened to her and was in a position of power to do something about it.
Just then, he looked back up at her. “Can’t say I have a sweet tooth, but I appreciate the gesture.”
“Maybe the bottom layer will be more to your liking.”
When he lifted the gold cardboard sleeve that separated the chocolates from what waited beneath, his expression changed. Then he pulled out the matches and one of the cigarettes she’d packed in there and lit it up in record time. He breathed out a lungful of smoke, and all the tension had left his face. “Christ, I needed that.”
“I assumed as much.” Jane finally chose a newspaper and began scanning the front-page articles. Unsurprisingly, they were all about the discoveries at Mallow Manor. When it became clear the captain wasn’t about to speak, she began reading one aloud.
“Questions remain after the bombshell reappearance of Isaac Marshall. The renowned businessman went missing weeks ago and was feared dead by many, including his only daughter, Miss Cora Marshall. Sources close to the police maintain that Mr. Marshall is recovering well after being found captive in a secret room on property belonging to notorious playboy Frederick ‘Freddy’ Davenport, whose list of confirmed depravities grows with each passing day.
“Miss Marshall is staying close with her father while he recovers and is quoted as being ‘very relieved’ to have him safe and sound and back at home. Herself a near victim of Freddy Davenport’s diabolical occult practices, it remains to be seen whether further light will be shed on high society’s unraveling secrets.”
She glanced over at the captain, who listened without interest. “There’s more, but it’s just a bland rehash of what we already know about Freddy and his friends being very naughty in their mansions.”
“What’s your point?”
“I have several, in fact.”
Then a nurse approached their table, carrying a phone with a long cord so that it could be used out on the veranda. “Captain? There’s another call for you from the department.”
The tone of her voice made it clear that this wasn’t the second or even the third.
Dempsey didn’t look surprised. “All right, I’ll take it.”
The woman frowned at the cigarette in his hand, but he noticed and shot her a look that sent her away in silence. He still sounded annoyed when he spoke into the phone. “What is it?”
Jane ate one of the truffles while the captain listened to the other man on the line. “Why are Grayson and Leary working on the same part of the case? They hate each other. Send Grayson to find and interview any neighboring farms or homes near the manor. He needs the experience.”
She couldn’t quite make out the response, the words reduced to muted murmuring, but Dempsey began rubbing at his forehead. “An official warning from what? Yes, I’m aware of our dress code and its requirements. What I meant was, how the hell is Grayson breaking it? No. Find him and have him call me.”
When he hung up, Jane took a second chocolate and said, “Having to manage your minions long-distance?”
“The kid’s up to three warnings because he won’t shave his face. He just got hit with another complaint about it.”
The phone rang just as the nurse was halfway to their table to take it back. She rolled her eyes and left again while Dempsey answered. “Yeah? We’ll go into your argument with Leary later. Just tell me why you’re walking around like you don’t own a razor. That’s it? It’s a common problem. Put hair conditioner on five minutes before you shave. It softens the stubble enough to keep you from scraping your skin all to hell. Yeah. I’ll be back tomorrow. We’ll go over the rest then.”
When he hung up, Jane couldn’t help smiling. “Did you just have to explain to one of your men how to properly shave his face?”
The captain’s response was to sigh out another smoke cloud. “Grayson didn’t have a father growing up, and his mother sure as hell couldn’t teach him how to handle a rough beard.”
Jane studied him. She didn’t often pay attention to her emotions and most of the time thought she would be better off without experiencing any at all, so it was hard to understand the strange tug at her heart at that moment. “You truly care for your men, don’t you?”
He eyed her, wary once more. “And?”
“It’s just an observation.” She glanced out at the gentle green lawn, unsure of why she wanted to continue speaking about it. Unsure of what to even say. “A lot of humans assume wolves in a pack act as one mind. That there is a closeness and trust and loyalty that connects us all from birth. If that’s true, then it’s only to a lucky few. For the rest, it’s a fantasy. An illusion. The alpha-kings and their queens are spoiled children who never grew up, and the rest of us are their toys. I think if more of them cared for and protected their own as deeply as you do, then the packs of Crescent City wouldn’t be so thoroughly broken.”
Her gaze remained on a group of patients playing a gentle game of croquet until he responded, his voice slipping toward something gentle. “Having met your former king, I’m going to take a wild guess that you’re speaking from personal experience.”
“Mm. Plenty of it. I’m very sad you weren’t able to break a chair over his head as well. Speaking of, how did you know Isabelle is his lover?”
Dempsey shook his head. “You were back in the conservatory for the whole meeting? I told you to stay out.”
“And I ignored you. I thought that if they used magic to attack, I could reverse it. And I slowly was, at least until Isabelle caught me out.”
“Why wasn’t your equipment fried along with our enchanters’?”
“Do you really think a wolf pack desperate enough to work with humans has any talent left in their midst? I was the brain behind Saxby magic, and when I left, no one could replace me. My enchantments are five years out of date, but they have nothing better. And I was already clever enough at that point to make sure any spell I created could never be used against me.”
Nicotine seemed to have brought back the captain’s sardonic humor, because he only laughed. “Humble as ever, Miss Feral.”
She still had the newspaper in her lap and now folded it, following the original creases with careful precision. A decision crystallized in her mind, one that felt right and yet made her stomach flutter. “Jane. I think we’re beyond a surname basis now. Don’t you?”
The man was always good about avoiding direct stares with her and Sam, which most humans forgot about while dealing with wolves, but she still felt the weight of his attention in the short silence that followed.
“You always talk fancier when you’re nervous, you know that?” he said, still grinning. When she glared at him, he added, “All right, Jane. You’ve buttered up my ego long enough. Why are you reading news articles to me when we both have inside views of the case?”
Despite being in a private setting, Jane still glanced around. “Our views have been at odds before. The city initially viewed Isaac Marshall’s disappearance as a murder and was ready to charge his daughter for it. Now Mr. Marshall is alive and well, and the scope of your investigation has widened to include much of high society, a renegade thaumaturgist, and the Saxby Pack. I’m very curious about the city’s plans, considering how most of the major figures in this crime are already dead.”
The captain raised an eyebrow. “Maybe ours widened, but yours should still be razor-thin since it’s only focused on one person.”
Jane nodded. “Cora Marshall. I doubt the papers are right about her feeling ‘very relieved’ right now. Although, that’s better than reporters finding out about the sigil controlling her. I trust your ability to keep it secret, but I can’t say the same about the rest of the department, especially if your investigation uncovers some of the clues ours has.”
“Like Isaac Marshall’s hidden ledgers? Or how Harold Beaumont wrote his clients’ name in code but didn’t alter dates or payment amounts in his notes? Give us some credit. It’s our job to find things.”
Her expression must have tightened, because he added, “Relax. We’ll prove there was an illegal transaction between them, but not yet. This is a sprawling case, and our enchanters are already overworked from analyzing every piece of magic Beaumont did for Davenport’s cultists.”
When she sagged in relief, he studied her carefully. “You really think that thing would kill her at this point? It got what it wanted. She’s back with her father, and he’s the type who thinks he’s untouchable to the rest of the world. He gave an interview through his lawyer and then dismissed my boys like they were servants.”
Jane leaned toward him, pitching her voice low in case the nurse tried to return for the telephone. “Remember Freddy’s hand? Now imagine that same demented imagination filling Isaac Marshall’s requirement to prevent Cora Marshall from revealing the sigil exists and is controlled by him. I’ve looked through his notes very carefully and have been able to deconstruct all the elements of the enchantment. Even if her father is willing to let the binding of his daughter become public knowledge—which I doubt, since illegal magic is one of the rare crimes the upper crust can’t bribe away—Harold Beaumont was obsessed with escaping detection. The sigil will kill her and rip itself free. Within a few days, it will rot to nothing, leaving no evidence of the magic he created. I assume Freddy’s hand no longer exists.”
“Disintegrated after that first day like it had been dropped in acid.” Then Dempsey sighed. “So, you want breathing room to work out how to save Miss Marshall.”
“Please.” Jane meant the word to come out crisply, but instead it sounded very tired.
The captain stubbed out the butt of his cigarette and immediately lit a fresh one. “I’ll see what I can do. No promises. Are you confident about getting it off without killing her?”
“Let’s say I’m confident in my progress. I just don’t know how much longer it will take to complete and test a reverse spell. Believe me, I’ve been asked again and again for a clearer amount of time. I can’t give it.” Despite herself, a sour note had entered her voice.
Dempsey noticed. “Sam’s not taking it too well, huh?”
“I saw his face when he received the letter from Isaac Marshall declaring his services were terminated. He looked ready to kill.”
“Well, tell him to hold back. I don’t want to see him in one of the cells when I arrive at work tomorrow. Besides, Miss Marshall is a tough nut. I don’t see her cracking underneath her father.” Then the captain’s voice turned brisk, professional. “I’ll keep an officer on watch outside Marshall’s home, and they’ll be followed when either of them goes anywhere. With how this case has been, the mayor is paranoid about ending up with more dead bodies.”
Then he paused, as if waiting for her to protest. She didn’t. She and Sam felt the Saxby Pack might not have its tail fully tucked between its legs. Maybe city officials weren’t the only humans they wanted to attack… And if other people stood guard, that left more time for them both to work on saving Miss Marshall.
When she remained quiet, Dempsey finished with, “Aside from that, I’ll focus our resources on the other figures involved… for now.”
Aware that it was the best he could do, she nodded. She had given her first name, but he hadn’t offered his. Better play it safe. “Thank you, Captain.”
He studied her again. She had to admit the attention wasn’t unpleasant. “Al. Never Albert.”
Despite the mammoth task ahead of her, she smiled. “Al.”