"Ahh, Ghastek," Nataraja said as if greeting a favorite pet. "I was just pondering Kate's new amusement. He would be her..."
I indulged him. "Apprentice."
"Apprentice." Nataraja rolled the word in his mouth, tasting it. "How modest. Considering his age, it's actually appropriate, although out of character."
"I hate to disappoint you, but our relationship is strictly professional."
Nataraja's laugh polluted the air. "Of course," he said, as if humoring a small child. "How insensitive of me."
I smiled at him. "Indeed. Now that we've established that you have appallingly poor taste, would you like a chance to chat with me as a representative of the Order or shall I make my exit?"
"Suddenly you're all business. Very well." Nataraja leaned back. "I'm dissatisfied with the direction your investigation has taken you."
I bared my teeth at him. "I find that amusing. I don't answer to you."
He didn't say anything, so I elaborated. "I work for the Order and the last time I checked the Order didn't report to Roland."
It was amusing to see the effect of the name. Both men jerked, as if shocked with a live wire.
"As you can see, gentlemen, I have access to the Order's database." Which was a blatant lie but they had no way of knowing it. Roland's name short-circuited their logic. If they realized how I knew the name of their leader, they both would suffer an instant apoplexy.
"Here is what I know, and please, correct me if I'm wrong. Ghastek's shadow vampire was tailing Greg Feldman. It was killed suddenly and you haven't been able to extract an image of the killer from the mind of the journeyman who had been piloting it. You've made no effort to disclose this information to the Order, which is understandable since you'd have to explain why your vampire was following the knight-piner. What I don't understand is why you have been making so much noise over a single vamp."
A long pause stretched and then Nataraja jerked his wrist in a kind of "tell her" gesture and looked aside, seemingly losing all interest in our conversation. Rowena remained tranquil, her hand on the snake's head. I wondered what went through her mind.
"We've lost more than one vampire," Ghastek said.
"You have proof?"
Ghastek opened the briefcase and extracted a stack of photographs. Deja vu. He walked forward to give the stack to me. Derek stepped between us, wordlessly took the pictures from his hand, and delivered them to mine.
I looked at a black-and-white image of a deceased vampire. The bloodsucker lay in a crumpled heap, its wiry body pitifully broken. Thick dark blood stained its pallid hide. The vamp was coated in it, as if someone had dipped his hand into the blood and smeared it all over its taut skin the way one would rub oil over the skin of a chicken to prepare it for roasting. The bloodsucker's bald cranium had been neatly cracked and wet emptiness glared at me where the brain had been.
The second photograph. The same vampire, this time placed on its back to better display a long gash that split its torso from the genitals to midchest. Yellowish ribs protruded from the blackness of bloody tissue. Someone had used a very sharp knife to cleave the cartilage of several ribs on the left side, separating them from the sternum, not sawing but slicing in a single motion with awful force. The vamp must have been turned on its side to allow the stringy clot of its nearly atrophied intestines to fall out. There was no fat attached to the intestines, so the killer didn't have to bother with cutting it. Same with the bladder and colon; both organs had atrophied within weeks of undeath, so he didn't have to deal with the mess.
The diaphragm was neatly slit, both to remove the remaining intestines and to gain access to the esophagus. He must have peeled back the diaphragm and worked his hand up the chest cavity until he could grab the esophagus and cut it. Then he simply had to pull the esophagus out through the hole, and the blood-soaked, useless lungs and bulging heart would come out with it. I've seen this before. That's how you gutted a deer.
"He took the brain, the heart, the lungs, what was left of the liver and kidneys, but discarded the intestines," Ghastek said.
I raised an eyebrow, since I didn't see the intestines, and he murmured, "The next photograph."
I looked and saw the ugly wet clump of innards in a puddle of blood. Unused, they had shrunk until they resembled tough twine.
"Admirable skill," Ghastek said dryly. "The cuts were made with almost surgical precision. He has an excellent knowledge of the vampiric physiology."
"Any chance of it being an inside job?"
Ghastek looked at me as if I had accused him of devouring small children.
"We are not stupid," he said, meaning I'm not stupid. "All of our people with that degree of skill are accounted for."
"Besides this one and the shadow, how many did you lose?" I asked.
"Four? Four vampires?"
Ghastek shifted uncomfortably, looking as if he had tasted something slimy and sour. "We aren't happy about the situation."
"Where are the other photos?"
"We have none. The others were taken. We were not able to recover the bodies."
"What do you mean, taken?"
"Something killed them instantly, severing the link between their minds and the navigators who piloted them. Then their bodies were removed before our field team was able to recover them." He produced a piece of paper covered with neat typescript. "Here's the list of the locations, dates, and times."
Derek took the list from him and gave it to me. I glanced at it and put it in my pocket. Six vampires and seven shapechangers. Someone was trying to start a war between the Pack and the People and was doing a damn good job of it. Who would benefit from it?
"You're out six vampires and you can account for only two of the bodies. Are you positive that the other four aren't active?" The idea of four unpiloted vamps running around the city made me hurt with dread.
"They are deceased, Kate!" Nataraja snapped out of his reverie. "Why don't you ask Curran and his pet lympago what was done to our property?"
A lympago was an inaccurate term to use for Corwin but Nate seemed so happy to have found it that I let him wallow in his own ignorance.
"I spoke to the Pack," I said. "I've been able to clear Corwin to my satisfaction."
"That's not good enough for me," Nataraja said.
"It'll have to do." All of this verbal fencing strained my patience. "His m-scan didn't match."