Among the power brokers of Atlanta, the People ranked pretty high. Only the Pack could match them in the potential for destruction. The People were led by a mysterious legendary figure, who chose to call himself Roland in this day and age. Roland possessed immense power. He was also the man I had been training all my life to kill.

I circled a big pot hole in the old pavement, turned onto Dead Cat, and saw the crime scene under a busted street lamp. Cops and witnesses were nowhere in sight. Gauzy moonlight sifted onto the bodies of seven shapeshifters. None of them was dead.

Two werewolves in animal form swept the scene for scents, carefully padding in widening circles from the narrow mouth of Dead Cat Street. Most shapeshifters in beast form ran larger than their animal counterparts, and these proved no exception: hulking, shaggy beasts taller and thicker than a male Great Dane. Past them, two of their colleagues in human form packed something suspiciously resembling a body into a body bag. Three others walked the perimeter, presumably to keep the onlookers out of the way. As if anyone was dumb enough to linger for a second look.

At my approach, everything stopped. Seven pairs of glowing eyes stared at me: four green, three yellow. Judging by the glow, the shapeshifter crew hovered on the verge of going furry.

One of their own was dead and they were out for blood.

I kept my tone light. "You fellows ever thought of hiring out as a Christmas lights crew?

You'd make a fortune."

The nearest shapeshifter trotted to me. Bulky with muscle but fit, he was in his early forties.

His face wore the trademark expression the Pack presented to the outsiders: polite and hard like the rock of Gibraltar. "Good evening, ma'am. This is a private investigation conducted by the Pack. I'm going to have to ask you to please move on."

Ma'am . . . Oy.

I reached into my shirt, pulled out the wallet of transparent plastic I carried on a cord around my neck, and passed it to him. He glanced at my ID, complete with a small square of enchanted silver, and called out, "Order."

Across the street a man congealed from the darkness. One moment there was only a deep night shadow lying like a pool of ink against the wall of the building, and the next there he stood. Six-two, his skin the color of bitter chocolate, and built like a prize fighter. Normally he wore a black cloak, but today he limited himself to black jeans and T-shirt. As he moved toward me, muscles rolled on his chest and arms. His face inspired second thoughts in would-be brawlers. He looked like he broke bones for a living and he loved his job.

"Hello, Jim," I said, keeping my tone friendly. "Fancy meeting you here."

The shapeshifter who had spoken to me took off. Jim came close and patted Marigold's neck.

"Long night?" he asked. His voice was melodious and smooth. He never sang, but you knew he could, and if he decided to do it, women would be hurling themselves into his path.

"You might say that."

Jim was my partner from the days when I worked exclusively for the Mercenary Guild. Some merc gigs required more than one body, and Jim and I tackled them together, mostly because we couldn't stomach working with anybody else. Jim was also alpha of the cat clan and the Pack's chief of security. I'd seen him fight and I would rather take on a nest of pissed-off vipers any day.

"You should go home, Kate." A sheen of faint green rolled over his eyes and vanished, his animal side coming to the surface for a moment.

"What happened here?"

"Pack business."

The wolf on the left let out a short yelp. A female shapeshifter ran over to him and picked up something off the ground. I caught a glimpse of it before she stuffed the object into a bag. A human arm, severed at the elbow, still in a sleeve. We had just gone from code green seven to code green ten. Shapeshifter murder. Accidental deaths rarely resulted in detached limbs strewn across the intersection.

"Like I said, Pack business." Jim glanced at me. "You know the law."

The law said that the shapeshifters were an independent group, much like a Native American tribe, with the authority to govern itself. They made their own laws and they had a right to enforce them, as long as those laws didn't affect nonshapeshifters. If the Pack didn't want my help on this investigation, there wasn't a lot I could do about it. "As an agent of the Order, I extend an offer of assistance to the Pack."

"The Pack appreciates the Order's offer of assistance. As of now, we decline. Go home, Kate," Jim repeated. "You look worn-out."

Translation: shoo, puny human. Big, mighty shapeshifters have no need of your silly investigative skills. "You squared this with the cops?"

Jim nodded.

I sighed, turned Marigold around, and headed home. Someone had died. I wouldn't be the one to find out why. It irked me on some deep professional level. If it was anybody else but Jim, I would've pushed harder to see the body. But when Jim said no, he meant it. My pushing wouldn't accomplish anything except straining relations between the Pack and the Order. Jim didn't half-ass things, so his crew would be competent and efficient.

It still bothered me.

I would call the Paranormal Activity Division in the morning and see if any reports were filed.

The paranormal cops wouldn't tell me what was in the report, but at least I'd know if Jim had filed one. Not that I didn't trust Jim, but it never hurt to check.

AN HOUR LATER I LEFT MARIGOLD IN A SMALL stable in the parking lot and climbed the stairs to my apartment. I had inherited the place from Greg, my guardian, who had served as knight-diviner with the Order. He had died six months ago. I missed him so much it hurt.

My front door was a sight like no other. I got in, locked the door, pulled off my noxious shoes, and dropped them in the corner. I would deal with them later. I unbuckled the leather harness that held Slayer, my saber, on my back, pulled the saber out, and put it by my bed.

The apple pie beckoned. I dragged myself into the kitchen, opened the fridge, and stared at an empty pie plate.

Had I eaten the pie? I didn't remember finishing it. And if I had, I should've taken the empty plate out of the fridge.

The front door had shown no signs of forced entry. I did a quick inventory of the apartment.

Nothing missing. Nothing out of place. Greg's library with his artifacts and books looked completely undisturbed.

I must've finished the pie. Considering the insanity of the last forty-eight hours, I had probably just forgotten. Well, that sucked. I took the pie plate, washed it while murmuring curses under my breath, and put it in its place under the stove. I couldn't have pie, but nobody could deny me my shower. I stripped off my clothes, shedding them on the way to the bathroom, crawled into the shower, and drowned the world in hot spray and rosemary soap.

Tags: Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels Vampires
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