"I saw the m-scan of the crime scene," Ghastek said, coming to life like a shark sensing blood in the water. "There was no power print except for our vampire and the piner."
Shit. Me and my big mouth. I should carry a banner with a big sign, "Confidential Information Given Away Free!" At least it would let people know upfront who they were dealing with.
"You must not have been looking at the right m-scan. The one I saw had a clear power record of the murderer."
I could almost feel that formidable brain working behind Ghastek's eyes. "Would you be willing to provide us with a copy of this other m-scan?"
"Would you be willing to tell me why the hell your shadow vampire was tailing Feldman?"
"Perhaps we merely wanted to keep an eye on the piner," Nataraja said.
I pretended to consider it. "No. I don't buy it. Keeping a vamp in the field is too expensive for casual surveillance."
"We have nothing further to discuss," Nataraja said.
"A pleasure seeing you, too," I said.
"Ghastek, escort the Order representative out of our territory." Nataraja grimaced. "We wouldn't want anything to happen to her. I simply couldn't bear it."
Ghastek gave me an odd look and walked out with us, leaving Rowena and Nataraja behind.
As soon as we were out of Nate's earshot, I stopped. "You don't really have to escort me."
"But I do."
"In that case I have a question."
Ghastek looked at me.
"If I were to taint a living animal with necromantic magic, how would I do it?"
"By taint you mean... ?"
There was no way out of this question without giving myself away. I was too stupid for this job.
"A sufficient amount of necromantic magic to produce a blended power print."
I strained to keep from gritting my teeth. "Pale orange."
He thought about it. "Well, the most obvious answer would be to feed an animal on necro-infused flesh. If a rat gorged itself on the flesh of a vampire, the necromantic magic would show up in its stomach contents. Some of it would make its way into the blood stream. But, since it's obvious, it's also wrong. I've scanned animals that fed on undead flesh before and the power print showed a pure necromantic arch."
"The magic of the undead flesh overwhelmed the magic of the animal?"
Ghastek nodded. "Yes. To produce a blended power print, the influence of the necromantic magic would have to be very subtle. In theory - and this is only in theory - it would have to involve reproduction."
"I don't understand."
"If you ask me nicely, I might explain," Ghastek said.
"Could you please explain this to me? It's important and I would very much appreciate it."
Ghastek allowed himself a smile. It touched his lips and vanished in a flicker, as if it was no more than a muscle twitch. I showed him my teeth.
"You're much more pleasant when you talk like a human being," Ghastek said. My smile failed to disturb him. "The bravado is amusing, but it becomes tiresome."
I sighed. "I'm a merc. I walk like a merc, I talk like a merc, I act like a merc."
"So you admit to being a walking stereotype?"
"It's safer that way," I said honestly.
For a moment I thought that he somehow understood the deeper meaning of my words. Then he said, "We were talking rats?"
"Yes. And I did ask nicely."
"In theory, if I take a female rat and feed it undead flesh, while allowing her to mate and carry offspring to term, then repeat the process with the offspring, somewhere down the line the descendants of the original rat may display permanent influence of necromantic magic, which will produce a blended power print. Something along light orange on the m-scan."
"Thank you." He smiled.
THE WATER OF SHIVA'S FOUNTAIN WAS REFRESHING. I splashed it on my face, fighting an urge to lay down on the lovely cold concrete. Nataraja's little test had sapped my reserves, but I had once again prevented the show of power he was trying to provoke. I sat on the rim of the fountain. "I'm tired. I feel soiled and in need of a shower. How are you?"
Derek gripped the rim with his hands and dipped his head into the water. He shook, flinging droplets from his wet hair and washed his nostrils the way shapechangers did when they wanted to clear a strong smell from their noses.
"That place reeks of death," he said.
"Yeah. You know, it's not wise to mouth off to Nataraja."
"Look who's talking."
"He expects me to mouth off. Still, it was pretty funny. What did you think of Rowena?"
"You don't want to know," he said.
"You're right. I probably don't. She bothers me," I admitted.
"Why? Because she's prettier?"
I winced. "Derek, never ever tell a woman that someone is prettier than her. You'll make an enemy for life."
"You're funnier than she is. And you hit harder."
"Oh, thank you. Please, continue to reinforce the fact that she's more attractive. If you say that I have a better personality, you'll find out how hard I can hit."
He grinned. We walked to our horses.
"Be careful on the way back," I said.
He gave me a puzzled look. "I'm the one protecting you. You be careful."
I shook my head. I finally got my knight in shining armor. Too bad he was a teenage werewolf.
"You think the People are gonna try something?"
"Not the People." I slowed down. "The Pack and the People lost roughly equal numbers and the murders took place right on the border between them. This string of killings feels carefully managed."
"By someone who would benefit from a war between the Pack and the People."
"Would you let go of Nataraja already?" I frowned at him. "Nate above all is a businessman. Yes, he would like to diminish the Pack. In an outright conflict the People might even win, but it would leave them so weakened, a baby burp would knock them down. The war isn't cost-effective for the People right now, that's why we got invited into the Casino. For all of their posturing, the People are worried. Not only are they out six vampires, which are expensive to replace, but they also sense a deeper threat. Why do you think Ghastek is walking us home?"
"What threat?" Derek shrugged.
I had forgotten how good it felt to talk a theory out. "Have you ever heard people say 'pulled a Gilbert'? You know where the saying comes from?"