"As Beast Lord, I now accept your offer."
Damn it. The Mutual Aid Agreement bound me to disclose all knowledge of the incident.
I stared at him helplessly. "How do you always do that? How do you always maneuver me into doing something I don't want to do?"
Curran's face lightened a little. "I've had a lot of practice. The Pack contains thirty-two species in seven tribes, each with their own hang-up. Jackals and coyotes pick fights with wolves, because they have an inferiority complex and think they've got something to prove.
Wolves believe themselves to be superior, marry the wrong people, and then refuse to divorce them because they cling to their 'mating for life' idiocy. Hyenas listen to nobody, screw everything, and break out in berserk rages at some perceived slight against one of their own.
Cats randomly refuse to follow orders to prove they can. That's my life. I've been at this for fifteen years now. You're easy by comparison."
And here I thought I was a challenge. "Pardon me while my ego recovers."
He grinned. "It's a benefit of having principles. Boxed into a corner, you will always strive to do what you think is right, especially when you don't like it. Like right now."
"I suppose you have me all figured out."
"I understand why you do things, Kate. It's how you do them that occasionally pisses me off."
Occasionally? "I want to assure you, Your Majesty, that I spend long nights lying awake in my bed worrying about your feelings."
"As well you should." A half-laugh, half-growl reverberated in his throat. "Provoking me won't work. Tell me what you saw. Or should I make a formal request in writing?"
This was apparently a "let's teach Kate humility" day. He had me by the throat.
I thought back to the scene, reconstructing it in my head. "I came in by mule from Ponce de Leon. There were seven shapeshifters. Two in wolf form, scanning the scene for scents. One was here." I walked over to indicate the right spot. "Male. Looked like a typical European wolf, Canis lupus lupus , coarse dark gray fur streaked with sandy brown, especially on the nose. The second one was here." I crossed the street to approximate location. "Might have been a female, but I'm not sure. Brown, almost cinnamon fur, black or very dark chocolate muzzle and dark ears. Light yellow eyes. Looked like Cascade Mountain wolf to me."
"George and Brenna," Curran supplied. He was watching me with intense interest. "Jim's best trackers. Go on."
I crossed the street to the other side of Dead Cat. "Two shapeshifters here, sliding a corpse into a bag. Both female. The one on the right was average size, lightly built, ash-blond hair cut in a bob. Never saw her face." I took a wide step to my left. "Native American, slightly plump, dark skin, early forties, long hair in a braid. Pretty."
Curran said nothing.
"Perimeter guard here." I pointed to my left. "And here." I turned to indicate the second spot.
"And one right there." I stabbed my finger where the guard had stopped me. "The two in the back looked similar, dark-haired, Latino with a touch of Indian, possibly Mexican, young, male, short, compact, very quick, trouble in a fight. The guy who stopped me was in his midthirties, maybe early forties. Military haircut, light brown hair, hazel eyes, muscle heavy, a dedicated bodybuilder. Not as quick as the other two but I got the impression he could carry me and my mule both. Spoke with a touch of an accent, Aussie or New Zealand. Favored his left arm a bit. Might have been hurt recently. You want me to describe the clothes?"
Curran shook his head. "How long were you here?"
"About a minute and a half, maybe two." I crossed the street over to where I saw Brenna yelp.
"Brenna found an arm right here. I think perhaps a female arm, because the sleeve was pale and shimmered a bit. Some kind of metallic fabric, an evening gown or blouse, not the type a man would typically wear unless he was very flamboyant."
"Tell me about Jim."
"He materialized out of thin air right here. Very dramatic." I raised my head. "Ah. Probably jumped off this balcony." I recounted the conversation. "That's all I got. Didn't see the body.
Didn't get any details."
Curran's face took on this odd look. It looked almost like admiration. "Not bad. Natural recall or something the Order taught you?"
I shrugged. "Not the Order. My father. And it's not perfect. I typically forget the most important item on my shopping list. But I'm trained to evaluate the situation for possible dangers, and seven shapeshifters packing away a dead body in the middle of the night on a deserted road is a lot of danger. Your turn to share."
"A deal is a deal." Curran stepped into the road with me. "She wasn't killed here. The scent of blood is faint and the ground isn't stained, but still dirty so nobody rinsed the pavement off.
The body had been cut into at least six pieces. This is a dump site, chosen because one of our
offices is only eight blocks away. That's the closest they could get to our territory without being stopped by a patrol. There were at least three of them, and they don't smell human. I don't know what they are, but I don't like their scent."
Better and better.
"Can't tell you much more than that, except that Jim had his best cleanup crew with him. I know every person you described. They're very good at what they do."
And none of them had said anything to him about it. The million-dollar question was why?
"Once accepted, the assistance of the Order can't be declined," I told him. "I'm now part of this investigation. That means I'll have to come into your territory and ask uncomfortable questions."
"I have some questions to ask as well." Liquid gold drowned Curran's eyes. The tiny hairs on the back of my neck stood on their ends. I really didn't want to be Jim right now.
"I'll contact you to schedule time for the interviews." He turned and walked away, leaving me in the middle of the street. Beast Lord, a man beyond mundane niceties like good-bye and thank you.
As I walked back to civilization, I realized that for the first time in the six months I had known Curran, we had managed to have a conversation and part ways without wanting to kill each other. I found that fact deeply troubling.
A SMALL BROWN-PAPER PARCEL WAITED FOR ME by the door of my apartment. I stopped and pondered why in the world it hadn't been stolen. The apartment, which I had inherited from Greg, wasn't in the worst part of town but not in the best one either. My guardian hadn't been concerned with security; he'd bought the apartment because it was close to the Order.