She studied me. "What's a hedgehog?"
"A animal with needles on its back."
"How do I know it isn't you who is doing this? It started when you came."
"Good question," I said. "We didn't do it, because we have no motive. We want the panacea. Making sure Desandra safely gives birth is the only way to get it. Why would we attack her or your guards?"
Hibla clamped her jaws shut and didn't answer. We climbed the stairs, made our way through more hallways, and finally emerged onto the roof of the main keep, a square of stone.
Derek turned and sniffed. Hibla did, too.
"I smell urine," Derek said for my benefit.
They walked to the edge of the roof, and the stench hit me, a musky, ammonia-soaked odor, like someone had mixed vinegar, onions, and fresh urine, given it a good shake, and let it fly.
"Ugh." Derek grimaced.
"Cats." Hibla loaded so much scorn into the word, her voice was practically dripping with it.
A stain marked the stones by the west edge. Derek shook his head and paused by it. "Marks."
Long white scratches scoured the stone, where a cat had dragged his claws across the floor. The scratch marks were four feet long. Tall bastard.
"How did your people not hear this?" Derek asked.
"The castle is full of strange people," Hibla said. "They probably heard it but didn't note it." She bared her teeth. "He marked in our territory. In our house. When I find him, he will die."
Shapeshifters. The fact that he'd killed two of their people was less important than some scratches.
I surveyed the landscape. On the left the sea stretched to the horizon, blue and inviting. I would have to go swimming before this was over. On the other three sides mountains rose, like tall folds of green velvet.
"How many ways can you get to Gagra?"
"The port is the best way. Most of the roads have been destroyed by natural disasters, but there is a mountain pass to the northeast. And the railroad. The trains don't run, but one can walk it. Also there are small private train cars. They go slowly, but you could hire one in one of the bigger cities."
"These shapeshifters are strangers. Suppose a group of them came here. You said they're not local, so they wouldn't know the mountains and they likely have equipment and gear. They don't know the land. They could've flown partway, but gliding always lands you lower than your starting point. It doesn't seem very efficient or very fast. And they would be very noticeable, especially if they flew during the day."
Hibla nodded. "They didn't come through the port. I am notified of everyone who arrives."
"That leaves us with the railroad or the pass. Is there a way to check if anybody came through either?"
Hibla nodded. "There is a fort at the pass. I can tell you by tomorrow if anyone came through."
"What about the railroad?"
Hibla shrugged. "That will be harder, but I will ask some questions. I'm going to station additional guards on the walls and put another sentry here."
"Have them carry torches or flashlights," Derek said.
"We can see in the dark," Hibla said.
"He's right," I told her. "Even with night vision, in the dark you might not notice a guard being attacked right away, but you would notice a fallen torch. It's a pain in the ass and it's tedious, but it's better than being dead."
Hibla nodded. "Yes. You have a fair point."
"I would also interview my people," I said.
"I know every one of them. None of them did this."
"It goes to the theory of the crime," Derek said. "We don't know why these murders are happening and we need to figure out why, so we can anticipate their next move."
I nodded. "Two of your people are dead, Tamara and the guard by the gate. We need to know if there was any link between them. They could be random victims, or they could be part of a pattern. You need to reconstruct their lives. Did Tamara and the other guard have enemies, were they in debt, and so on? Right now we don't know enough."
"They could be targeting Desandra," Hibla said. "They could be targeting one of the packs. They could be targeting Lord Megobari."
"Exactly," Derek said. "We need to collect information and then we can howl in the dark."
* * *
Hibla led us back to the main keep and left us to our own devices in the main courtyard. It was mostly empty, except for some djigits tending to the horses. Above us the sky was so blue and beautiful. I stared into it. Maybe I'd see a flying monster and solve all of our problems.
"Are you waiting for a clue to fall on your head?" Derek asked.
"Yep. Tell me if you see one coming."
"My super mental powers must be getting rusty."
We walked toward Doolittle's room.
"Thoughts?" I asked Derek.
"Jarek," he said. "He has the most to gain."
I had to agree with the reasoning. Desandra's father was the only one who really won if she failed to survive. He wouldn't want to be blamed for it, so he'd somehow hired or allied himself with some weird shapeshifters and now they were trying to nuke his daughter. It was a good theory. Except again Jarek Kral the founder of the dynasty didn't fit with Jarek Kral the daughter killer.
"Why take the bodies?" I thought out loud.
"Hiding the evidence. For kicks. Or food."
I glanced at Derek. Cannibalism was forbidden to shapeshifters. Eating human bodies triggered a catastrophic avalanche of hormones that led straight to loupism. It drove the shapeshifters insane.
We reached my room. I opened the door and stuck my head in. Empty.
Nope. No Curran. Yep, he had a plan. Yep, I wouldn't like it. Now he was actively avoiding me. Great.
The door ahead opened and Barabas stepped out. "A moment of your time, Alpha."
"Sure." I nodded at Derek. "Will you take the scale to Doolittle?"
He nodded. I passed him the bag and he walked off. We watched until he walked into Doolittle's room.
"He's getting grimmer and grimmer," Barabas said.
"Yes. Before long he will start emitting his own dark cloud."
"Maybe we can all sneak around under the cover of his darkness. Do you have some information for me?"
"Yes. But not here." Barabas started down the hallway, back to the stairs. I followed. We climbed the stairs and turned, Barabas opened a door, and we stepped out onto a wide, square balcony.