Thrown To The Wolves
Police Captain Dempsey rubbed at his eyes while slouching over his desk, shoulders twitching reflexively each time Cora’s crying took on a particularly loud pitch. Without looking up, he said, “And you’re sure it’s him?”
“I’m positive.” Cora mopped at her tear-stained cheeks with the handkerchief that had been given to her. The sodden fabric muffled the rest of her words. “As soon as I saw his face, I knew it. Even through all the b-blood and filth and those awful bite marks…”
Then her expression crumpled into another sob.
The police captain had interviewed enough upset women to recognize one on the verge of hysteria, and said nothing else while pulling a cigarette out of his pocket. As he lit it, his attention flickered to the third figure in the room.
Detective Hayes hovered behind Cora’s chair, his attention unwavering. The brim of his hat cast his eyes in shadow, but the grim set to his mouth and his utter silence revealed his tension. One hand rested against her upper arm as if to steady her, squeezing gently whenever her breath hitched. At the sound of the police captain’s disgusted sigh, he glared over.
Dempsey remained unabashed. “Don’t give me that look. She can get plenty of cuddles from you. I need answers.”
Cora blotted her eyes and said in a thick voice, “How many more times do you need to hear it? That was Tierney.”
“Miss Marshall, the body is almost hamburger. I just want to be sure we’re upending two cases based on irrefutable facts. It’s going to take a few hours to get Dominic Tierney’s dental records and make a comparison, and in the meantime I’m not about to make any hasty—”
“Is there a tattoo of an eagle on his back? A big one with the wings on each shoulder?”
In the short silence that followed, she lowered the handkerchief from her raw face and looked up at the police captain, too miserable to even enjoy his expression. “It’s in red and black ink and there’s writing beneath the talons. The words say—”
“You convinced me.” His voice had also changed, now deathly serious. “There’s no way you could’ve seen the back of the body from where you were standing.”
Then the man grabbed at a pile of coffee-stained papers on his desk and pulled one free. The scratch of pen strokes sounded overloud in the office as he quickly scrawled a few lines, and Cora found herself shifting uneasily. Hayes watched him feed the note into the glass pneumatic tubing system but remained silent as the paper shot out of sight.
When the police captain only resumed puffing at his cigarette, thumb rubbing at one eyebrow as if he was lost in thought, Cora fidgeted with the handkerchief in an effort to keep quiet. It didn’t work. “What’s going to happen now? Will your men have to interview me again?”
The question drew a hard smile to Dempsey’s face, and his eyes seemed to clear again. “Feel free to celebrate, Miss Marshall. We’ve got nothing more to do with you. The fact that you identified the thing that killed members of the Saxby Pack, a case that was officially handed over to Hayes while you were busy having hysterics in the morgue, means the Isaac Marshall case is now connected to it. You and your father are now entirely Hayes’ responsibility.”
“You mean, you’re…”
“Throwing you to the wolves.”
“That is a horrible attempt at humor, Captain.”
“It’s not supposed to be funny. It’s just the bald truth.”
She drew in a breath to ask how he could be so cold about things, but Hayes spoke up first. “How are your boys handling the loss of a big case? Will they fight against giving me the case file and any collected evidence?”
“I’ll send everything over before they find out it’s more than a rumor.” Then a sardonic gleam appeared in the police captain’s eyes. “I won’t lie to you, Sam. There’ll be bad blood over this. A lot of people inside the station and out of it will think she’s escaping justice.”
Cora nearly choked. “You can’t still believe I had something to do with this.”
“Why not? You hire a wolf to prove your innocence and then your father’s murder turns out to be related to a case involved with his old pack. Now it’s out of our hands and there’s no one on our side who can make sure Isaac Marshall’s killer is found. It’s a damn lucky coincidence, especially for someone close to being charged and tried. DeLuca had just picked out the suit he would’ve worn while formally arresting you. Said he wanted to look good in the papers.”
Despite everything, Cora felt a laugh bubble up. “Captain, your men—who all dress terribly, by the way—have interviewed me three times. You all very well know I’m not bright enough to scheme up an intricate conspiracy like that.”
Hayes had started prowling around the office, hands in his pockets while listening to them. Now he stopped by one of the maps tacked to the wall, studying it as he said, “She’s not safe, Captain. In fact, she’s in more danger now than before. It’s never a good thing to be connected to somebody who’s killed wolves.”
Dempsey shrugged. “I didn’t say the gossip would be right. Just that it’ll exist. Giving you control of a case where pack members died and the killer was simply found on human land is one thing. But people are going to be mad at finding out a wolf is in charge of solving what happened to one of the city’s elite. They’re going to be mad and they’re going to be scared.”
“Then it’s a good thing I never worry about being popular.” Hayes made a final circuit around the room before stopping behind Cora again. She twisted enough to look up at him as he added, “Shoot the files over to my office and have the car put in my storage unit. Don’t think I forgot about the cute joke your boys pulled the last time I took on a case involving a vehicle. That $500 parking ticket was tough to swallow.”
The police captain shrugged. “I’ll make sure the transition is smooth. After that, no promises.”
When Hayes glanced at her, Cora knew it was time to leave. A wave of dizziness ran through her as she rose, still clutching the handkerchief. “I take it this means we’ll never meet again, Captain.”
“I hope not, Miss Marshall. Despite everything, I wouldn’t enjoy seeing you behind bars or on a slab.”
Somewhere behind her, Hayes growled, but she only nodded, refusing to be shaken. “I certainly won’t miss your way with words. Goodbye.”
“Good luck.” The man’s voice was drained of its usual sting, and as he watched them go, the expression on his face seemed more appropriate for someone staring at two corpses.
It left her unusually silent as Hayes guided her through the hallways and into the public area of the station. The sharp glances and outright glares from officers and citizens alike made her all too aware of how puffy her eyes felt from crying, and it was suddenly hard not to stare down at her shoes. A strange dread gripped her as they approached the massive door that led outside, the thick glass distorting everything into vague, unrecognizable blurs. What if everything remained bewildering once they were outside? What if nothing ever felt normal again?
Then Hayes’ voice brushed her ear, low and sure and rock-solid. “Easy. We’re almost out of here.”
She drew in a shuddering breath as he reached for the handle. “I feel like I’m in a nightmare.”
The flash of camera bulbs certainly convinced her she was awake, and so did the hubbub of voices as reporters rushed around them, jostling each other for the best positions and shouting questions.
“Miss Marshall! Is it true your father’s driver was found?”
“Did you have a hand in his death?”
“Did you hire wolves to kill your father?”
“Oh, my God,” she moaned, trying to duck her head before her swollen eyes and reddened nose could be seen.
Hayes snarled, a guttural sound that shook anyone who heard it bone-deep. Still covering her face, she sensed more than saw him lunge past. Then one of the reporters yelped, and all voices fell silent as the crack of a bulb against concrete rang out. The bodies around her pulled back in a wave, leaving one man choking in Hayes’ grip while staring at his broken camera.
As soon as Hayes dropped him and grabbed at the next man, they all scattered like rats. Cora watched, dumbfounded, as they ran in different directions, leaving her and Hayes alone on the steps.
He caught her arm, eyes still feral. “Come on. They won’t follow us.”
“Won’t you get in trouble for that?” Despite her words, she was smiling, and twisted back for one last glance at the sad remains of the camera.
“It’s my job to get in trouble. A little more won’t hurt.”
They both fell silent as they reached his car, and it was only once they were on the road, the police station safely out of sight, that Cora finally relaxed enough to sigh.
Hayes didn’t look away from the traffic, but his head angled toward hers. “Do you want me to take you home?”
“No. I don’t want to go back just yet. I’ll only sit there in an empty room and think about what I saw.”
“Then let’s get you somewhere quiet.”
He took her to a small cafe in a section of the city that was clean but drab, away from the frivolous boutiques that drew in shoppers and the business blocks that belonged to harried bankers, doctors, and lawyers. In the distance, factories whistled shift starts and belched smoke from their blackened stacks, and the cars that passed by looked like people on their way to someplace more important. Right at that moment, Cora appreciated the sensation of being invisible.
Inside, no one flinched at the sight of Hayes’ gold eyes, and the waitress sounded bored as she led them to a table. Cora rubbed at her temple while Hayes ordered coffee for them both, too worn out to maintain any composure. When they were alone, she nervously played with the fringe at the edge of the tablecloth, admitting, “That was an awful experience. I’m glad it’s over.”
“Are you feeling any steadier?” His voice sounded only even, but concern gleamed in his eyes as he watched her.
“Yes, I’m feeling better. It’s just… the poor man.”
The words didn’t seem to reassure him any, and he kept searching her face. “You knew him a lot better than you let on.”
It wasn’t a question, and she drew in a shaky breath. “I didn’t, actually.”
There was a soft growl from him. “Miss Marshall, putting aside the fact that you knew about a tattoo that couldn’t be seen with his clothes on, you’d be the first socialite I’ve met to cry over a servant who was nothing more than a familiar face.”
“Detective, I swear to you, I don’t know what’s going on. The moment I saw him there on the table, my head started spinning and it still hasn’t stopped. Yes, Tierney was good-looking and charming, and yes, he proved irresistible whenever I saw him stripped down to his braces and covered in engine grease, but I wouldn’t call mere sex the same as actually knowing a person. Would you?”
His eyes narrowed slightly as he studied her, their gold heavy and intent, but then the set of his shoulders relaxed, and he looked away to run a hand over his hair. “I need your trust, especially now.”
At that, she leaned forward, desperate for him to believe her. She needed at least one person on her side, and the idea that he might see her as a liar hurt more than expected. “You have it. I don’t know anything about what he may or may not have been involved in. Our fling started the day he was hired and ended a month later, and during that time his first name was the only private detail I teased out. After that, he was simply Tierney, staid driver for my father. I really didn’t think I was hiding anything by failing to mention a brief affair that happened years ago.”
“Why did it end so quickly?”
“He wanted the job more than me.” Then she felt her cheeks sting.
Hayes nodded, some of the tension leaving his body, but whatever he might have said in response was lost as the waitress approached with their coffee. Cora thanked her with a subdued smile. Hayes just pushed the cream and sugar to her side of the table.
“I suppose the police reports went into detail about what I had for breakfast the morning Father disappeared.” Despite the sour words, her expression brightened as the rich, heady smell reached her, and when the waitress returned with a plate of chocolate-dipped cookies, she immediately grabbed one.
Hayes stuck to the coffee. “Just a lucky guess. I don’t think you take anything plain, Miss Marshall.”
Her smile warmed as she glanced at him, almost forgetting how raw her face felt from all the crying. “You’re being very kind, trying to cheer me up instead of dumping me off at home.”
“Seeing your first dead body is rough.” Then he nodded at her hands, which had absently braided the fringe. “Especially when you keep thinking about it.”
She managed a hiccup of a laugh while smoothing it back into place. “I’ve done this since I was a girl. Braided anything possible whenever I was caught up in unhappy thoughts. Luckily, I don’t think very often. They say ignorance is bliss and I believe it.”
When she looked up again, she found his gaze had slipped up to her face. Something about the way he sat there, intent on her even with his body angled toward the entrance and one hand within easy reach of his holster, drove the last of her shivers away, and she sipped at her coffee with steady fingers.
As she bit into the cookie, he suddenly said, “You know, most socialites I’ve met in this line of work didn’t cry over the hired help even when they did know them.”
“Oh, I can think of one. Lady Cagni. Her husband is from across the sea, a count of something or another. Anyway, his valet died from the flu and she was so upset because she had just finished matching the servants.”
“She wanted them all to have red hair and blue eyes. And they did… until the valet died. It’s a rare combination, she said. It takes her months to find replacements. I thought she was going to hyperventilate while explaining it all to me.”
Hayes raised an eyebrow. “I’m not talking about someone who thinks it’s the same as a knife missing from a set of silverware. You hide it well, Miss Marshall, but you really feel things.”
“I guess that’s true. Even though it should be impossible, I still miss…” Then her voice faded, and she felt a frown crease her forehead as she struggled to remember the name. Sometimes it seemed at the tip of her tongue, as if the sigil hadn’t been able to fully erase it. But the sensation didn’t harden into anything she could hold onto, and she gave up with a huff of breath. “I still miss the man I planned to elope with, even though I can’t remember his name or how he looked. And before you ask, I’m sure it wasn’t Tierney.”
Hayes nodded. “Your father would’ve fired him after finding out.”
“That and he was only a fun fling. This was something different. I know it, somehow, even if I can’t explain why.”
Something changed in the wild eyes that watched her. The natural harshness of a hunter’s gaze seemed to soften for just a moment. “You would have been happy with him.”
“Yes.” She felt the truth of it ring in her heart. “It’s funny, Detective, but drinking myself silly throughout the night and waking up in strange beds in the morning became as dull as sitting at home like a spinster with her knitting. Oh, it was fun at first, make no mistake, and Father’s face would turn such an amazing color whenever the latest scandal would hit the papers. But I started feeling empty, like nothing really mattered.”
“I don’t know. All the memories of meeting him are now gone. But I know it was very serious, and that I was, too. They wouldn’t have taken so much of my mind away otherwise, would they?” Then she drank some more coffee, suddenly feeling awkward. “Why are you curious about all this? Surely, it has nothing to do with my father’s disappearance.”
He hesitated, as if choosing his words carefully, but in the next moment his expression changed. Then he snapped his head toward the doorway, eyes brightening into a feral hue that she was beginning to recognize. “We’ve got company. No, don’t turn around. I’m about to tell you who it is. It’s the diplomat from the Saxby Pack.”
She worked hard to keep her voice hushed. “So they do want to work with you.”
“We’ll see. Avoid meeting her eyes or showing your teeth when you smile. Wolves who don’t live among humans take those as signs of aggression.” He dropped his hand from his coffee to his side holster, and she knew then that the diplomat was approaching their table.
The back of her neck prickled as the she-wolf stopped within polite speaking distance, ignoring her entirely. “Detective Hayes.”
The hours that had passed since her outburst at the police station hadn’t improved her disposition any. Her face was still tight with anger, and her words still glacial.
Hayes kept his own voice even while stirring his coffee. “What is it, Rowan?”
The diplomat’s mouth twitched as if she fought not to snarl. “Alpha-king Saxby has already agreed to put his faith in you to solve the mystery of what this creature was and who set it upon us. But the news of it being the driver of your client’s father has left him wary. He wishes to see her and ascertain for himself that she isn’t involved in a conspiracy with you.”
Cora bit back a stunned laugh. Perhaps wolves weren’t so different from humans after all… at least not when it came to ridiculous suspicions. “Ascertain how? That could mean anything from a truth spell to old-fashioned torture.”
The diplomat curled her lip at the question, but when Hayes straightened in his seat, eyes flashing in warning, she reluctantly answered. “We’re not about to risk human wrath. We want a simple interview. No human can erase the scent of guilt from their skin.”
The day was already too strange to feel anything as normal as fear, and Cora answered without a hint of trembling. “Detective Hayes knows much more about these matters than I do. I just follow his advice.”
There was a terse nod from the diplomat before they both glanced at him. He was still stirring his coffee, gaze traveling around the neighboring tables almost absently, but when he spoke, his voice was clear and hard. “We’re not stepping onto Saxby territory. If we agree to this, we’ll meet you on no man’s land or the turf of a pack willing to play neutral host. Even then, we’ll only walk in once I’ve got a Mange locked in place.”
The name was completely unfamiliar to Cora, but the diplomat obviously recognized it. Recognized it and didn’t like it, for her mouth tightened again. “Is that truly necessary? We’ve never been the ones to break an oath.”
At that, Hayes met her gaze for the first time, and his eyes were so hot and feral that the other wolf actually stepped back. “Don’t pull that moral act on me. I knew the wolf who last held your role in the pack. He never had a disloyal moment in his life and yet I saw his bloody pelt nailed to the traitor’s wall. Tell the alpha-king that if we meet him, it’ll be under the security of a Mange. Now get out of here.”
The diplomat stiffened but said nothing else. A nod to them both and then she turned and left, heels crisp against the floor. A few people at other tables watched her go with mild curiosity before returning to their drinks or conversations.
Cora watched Hayes drain his coffee in one go. Except for a muscle twitching in his jaw, he already appeared calm again. “Well. You’re really something when you bring out your dominant side.”
His eyes darkened to their usual gold. “You don’t have to see them even if they agree to everything. It’s your decision.”
“I meant what I told her. I do trust you, Hayes.”
Her answer turned his glance into a full stare, one completely unlike what the diplomat had received. Cora found herself quickly adding, “But I have to ask: what is a Mange?”
“It’s a long explanation, but if you really want to know, I’ll tell you.”
“Oh. No, that’s all right.” She picked up the remaining half of her cookie and dipped it into her coffee while adding, “Whenever people try to explain something complicated, I never understand them. As you can imagine, my tutors all hated me. One even called me a pea-brain and expected me to cry over it, but I just laughed at her. I’ve always known what I was, even as a child.”
To her surprise, he offered a wry smile. “I like a challenge and I promise I won’t call you a pea-brain.”
Then he reached for the salt and pepper shakers discreetly set to the side and placed them in the center of the table. “Let’s say these are two packs with a lot of bad blood between them: the Salt Pack and the Pepper Pack. One day, the Salts send their diplomat over, claiming they want to negotiate a peace treaty on their land. The Peppers are just as tired of fighting but aren’t about to trust their enemy. In reality, both packs would then start fighting over who holds the negotiations until too many wolves die to keep it up, but for the sake of this conversation, we’ll say the Pepper alpha-king immediately agrees to travel into Salt territory to discuss the treaty. The catch is, he’ll do it only after a professional hostage is set up on his land.”
Cora watched him set the cream pitcher by the pepper shaker.
“Meet a member of the Mange Pack,” he said, looking up at her again. “The Mange Pack lives on the outskirts of the city. They don’t have control over good land, they never whelp any tactical geniuses to get them on the map, and they never want to form alliances with other packs. But there are a lot of them and they all fight like berserkers. Snuff out one and you’ll have the whole damn pack after your throat, no matter who you are or where you are. Absolute killers.”
“What makes them good hostages?”
“They’re mercenary instead of egotistical. They love hiring themselves out as bargaining chips among other packs because they get paid a lot and they also get to kill a lot if it all goes wrong.”
Cora studied the arrangement before her. It was utterly silly, comparing merciless wolf packs to tableware, but it also made more sense in her mind than droning textbooks or bitter tutors. “So, the Mange wolf stays among the Peppers as the Pepper alpha-king steps into Salt territory. And if the Salts did anything to him, then I suppose as a hostage the Mange wolf would be killed in response.”
“Exactly. And then the rest of the Manges would go after the Salts in vengeance for breaking their promise of peace talks and triggering the death of the Mange being held hostage.”
“And that’s truly enough to keep the Salts from trying anything horrible?”
“Let’s put it this way. Two years ago, the Farrogut Pack tried using a similar setup as a trap. The Manges overwhelmed them, skinned the bodies to drive home the point, and carried off anything valuable. The pack that later took over the territory had to rebuild certain rooms because the bloodstains were too deep to be scrubbed out.”
Cora took the pitcher to add more cream to her coffee. “That does sound very definite. So, if you hire a Mange, we won’t be in any danger at all.”
“It’s a better than average chance of surviving, anyway.” Despite the grim words, he winked at her. “You sound like you understood all of that.”
She smiled over her cup. “I suppose I did.”
Silence fell between them, relaxed and unhurried. She watched his hands as he replaced the salt and pepper shakers to their original positions. Despite the grisly nature of their conversation, his fingers remained precise and steady. Nothing about this—not the revelation about Tierney, not the diplomat from his old pack, and not the dire warnings from the police captain—had shaken him. She’d never met anyone so steady.
Frankly, she’d never met anyone like him at all. It was easy to recognize that bubbly feeling filling her full despite her scratchy eyes and lingering headache; it was that cherry-sweet warmth that came with a man making her feel good, whether it was a simple compliment or a sticky-skinned night. But she was surprised to feel so… comfortable around him. Yes, that was it. Comfortable, as if he would never sell his memories of her to a newspaper, or grow angry after too many drinks and try to strangle her, or throw her out of his house in the morning before she could find her shoes.
She’d heard him snarl like a beast and talk about murder as casually as most people discussed the weather, and yet it was suddenly clear to her that, even under far better circumstances, she’d put her life in his hands in a heartbeat.
The waitress approached, then, the smell of nicotine heavy on her clothes. “Anything else?”
Cora demurred with a polite smile, but it was as if the woman’s presence had pulled the rest of the world back into existence, and while Hayes set out enough coins to cover the coffee and leave a decent tip, she glanced around at the other patrons hunched over in their seats, eating or arguing or reading. Everything had shifted in a way she couldn’t pinpoint, and now the coziness of the cafe suddenly seemed remote and dim.
Then Hayes stood and offered a hand. “The sun’s going down. Let’s get you home.”
She nodded, realizing there was no way to postpone the inevitable.
The drive home was quiet, and Cora felt a throb of misery at the sight of the house lit and waiting for her arrival. The servants would be tired, and the rooms would breathe the lingering presence of her father, and the sigil would be its own form of his ghost, burning at her scalp as she tried to sleep. Suddenly, she didn’t want to go in. Suddenly, she wanted to run off screaming in the night.
Instead, she tried a smile as they pulled into the long driveway and got out. “What do private detectives do at night?”
“I’m betting nothing as glamorous as a socialite.” In the darkness, his presence was solid and reassuring, encouraging her forward even when she glanced over at the car garage, unlit and empty.
The maid opened the door without any change in her expression, even when Cora turned to Hayes and asked with a trace of desperation, “Will I just be trapped here again?”
He smiled a little. “Miss Marshall, I’m going home to a mountain of paperwork. You’re not about to miss anything interesting.”
“I know, but… what am I supposed to do tomorrow? And the day after that? Wait until you either hear back from the diplomat or catch a break in my father’s case?”
“What did you used to do to keep busy?”
“Whatever Father told me to.” She didn’t need to raise her hand to the back of her head to explain why; a flicker in his eyes showed he understood.
In a different tone of voice, he asked, “What about before that?”
“Whatever he told me not to do.”
At that, Hayes sighed and stepped inside with her. Surrounded by the gilded wood and plush carpet of the hallway, he appeared wilder than ever. “It’s killing you, isn’t it?”
Hope rushed through her, leaving her breathless. “I want to find out what happened. I don’t want to read whatever letters you send me, or listen to you after it’s over. I’m in this mess up to my neck, and I can’t just sit here like a little bird in its cage and wait for the cloth to be removed. Please.”
There was a beat of silence before he nodded. “Tomorrow, I’m planning to interview the two lovers who saw Tierney while he was a monster. If you want to tag along—”
“But there’s a condition.”
“I don’t care.” Suddenly, it didn’t matter that she’d be sleeping in an empty house, or that none of her old friends returned her calls, or that the morning newspapers would have screaming headlines about her. Now she had something to do.
As if sensing her distraction, Hayes stepped closer. “I still want you to hear it. If I keep involving you in some of this investigation, then in return you’ll never strike out on your own. I don’t want you looking for evidence, talking to witnesses or people who might know something, or otherwise going into something dangerous by yourself.”
“Agreed,” said Cora, immediately. She could feel herself beaming.
Hayes didn’t look nearly as happy. “I’m dead serious. The revelation about Tierney threw everything about your father’s case up in the air. Whoever was responsible for that has a nasty streak, uses magic no one recognizes, and doesn’t want to be caught. You could walk right into a trap if they’re clever enough. So no sleuthing on your own, all right?”
When Cora nodded, sobered by the words, he searched her face, his eyes dark and intent. “I know you’ve been going through hell, but I’ll help you through it. You won’t be trapped anywhere.”
She nodded again, heart pounding against her ribs from his closeness as much as his words. And when they said their goodbyes, she barely heard him mention that he’d return around noon, instead caught by an insistent whisper in her mind even after the door closed between them.
You’ve felt something like this before, didn’t you? Not with him but another. The sigil couldn’t burn everything away. But is this an echo of that, or something new?