James led the way to the attached parking garage, and my mouth watered at the sight of his 1970 Boss 302 Mustang.
Damn. That car was every man’s wet dream. The Mustang sported a custom black on black paint job with black rims, blacked-out taillights, and black leather interior.
It had badass written all over it, and I really wanted to drive it.
“So when are you going to let me take her for a spin?”
He laughed, and the sound echoed through the vacant lot. He shook his head, his tousled, dark brown hair almost hiding the mischievous glint in his eyes. “Never, Ari. Never.”
James opened the driver side door and leaned his elbow against the roof with a wicked grin on his face.
I pouted. “We’ve been on gigs before where I’ve saved your life. You’d think that’d earn me at least a lap around the block.” I folded my arms across my chest and arched a brow.
“I’ve saved your ass as many times as you’ve saved mine. We’re even.” James slid into the car in a fluid motion, not bothering to hear my response.
I rolled my eyes and opened the passenger side door, climbing in beside him.
“I’m a perfectly safe driver.” My Honda Civic was still in one piece, so that was saying something.
James put the Mustang into drive and navigated his way out of the garage.
I pursed my lips together. “This isn’t over,” I warned.
“It never is,” he said with a grin that had me instinctively smiling back. I caught myself and schooled my expression, but he’d already seen it.
James winked at me, and I fiddled with the knobs on the stereo in an attempt to hide the blush rising to my cheeks. He did that sometimes. Flirted. Why, I wasn’t sure.
I didn’t think of James as anything more than a friend, and I was pretty sure he didn’t see me as anything more than that either. But sometimes he’d give me a look, and I’d get all flustered for no reason.
I sighed. Now really wasn’t the time to contemplate the intricacies of male and female platonic relationships. Setting those thoughts aside, I turned my mind back to the task at hand.
We were on our way to see Daniel Blackmore’s biological father. James and I had never partnered up on anything involving the Pack, so Pack secrets weren’t something we’d ever had to navigate. And when it came to shifters, everything was considered a secret.
They were one of the most private factions.
I wasn’t sure how forthcoming he would be. Partners or not, James would only share so much, and I had a feeling that it would be limited to only what he considered absolutely relevant to the case.
“So who’s the father?” I decided it’d be best to start with the obvious.
“His name is Eric Delaney. He’s a wolf out on the South Hill.”
The South Hill was on the nicer side of Spokane, Washington. Houses were nestled fairly close, but the views of the city were stunning. The cramped houses were a fair tradeoff for a lower crime rate and cleaner neighborhoods.
“So I take it that the kid took his mom’s last name since they don’t match? And, not that I’m complaining, but why did he decide to call for help? Why isn’t he moving on like Jessica and her husband seem to be?”
James shrugged. “I think the last name was agreed upon during the divorce.” His knuckles tightened on the steering wheel but his eyes stayed firmly in front of him. “Eric called our Alpha yesterday morning. I didn’t hear the conversation, but no shifter would let their child’s murderer go unpunished. He may have been off the grid for the last few years, but Daniel was still his son. He was still Pack. Even if none of us knew it.”
“You didn’t know Daniel was being raised in the human world?”
He shook his head. “We didn’t know it was possible for a nonshifter to bear a shifter child. I don’t think Eric did either. Most shifter children experience their first …” He trailed off.
“Experience their first what?”
The corner of his mouth lifted in a rueful grin. “It’s not important to the case.”
I rolled my eyes. “Fine. Who’s his Alpha?” Each clan had its own direct Alpha and they all report to the Alpha of all of the Pacific Northwest Packs, Declan Valkenaar, who ruled with an iron fist. Declan Valkenaar lived here in Spokane, WA, in the heart of the Pack lands, while the Clan Alphas lived within the surrounding territories. Most of their identities were kept private.
James smiled again and trained his eyes in my direction. “Nice try.”
I pouted for a moment. “Alpha names aren’t secret. All of Washington knows it’s Declan at the helm of the Pacific Northwest Pack.”
James snorted. “True enough, but that doesn’t mean we shout it from the rooftops, either. We like our privacy.”
I rolled my eyes and moved on to my next question. I knew a losing battle when I saw one.
“Is it possible that Eric could have been involved in his son’s murder?” I didn’t like the idea that a parent was capable of harming his own child, but I had to ask. If Delaney had been away from his son all these years, it made me wonder just how much his son meant to him.
James gave me a sideways look, his piercing gaze asking me if I was stupid.
“What?” I asked.
“No shifter would harm a child. Let alone one of their own flesh and blood.”
I rolled my eyes. “You just said he’d been off the grid. He all but abandoned his son which I’m pretty sure is something no shifter would do either. Can we really afford to make any assumptions here?”
A snarl worked its way up James’ throat. “You ask an awful lot of questions.”
“That is part of the job.”
I drummed my fingers along the window’s edge.
“Why is the Pack helping him? Eric Delany left, and as far as either of us are aware, his shifter son had been living in the human world separate from the Pack.”
I got the same sideways look.
Fine, yeah whatever, stupid question.
“Do you know the situation between Eric Delaney and Jessica Blackmore?” When Daniel had first gone missing, Jessica and her husband had assumed he’d been taken for ransom. They were well off and lived in a safe neighborhood with little paranormal activity. If there was bad blood between Jessica and Eric, it was possible that it had started out as a simple abduction. Maybe he wanted to use Daniel as leverage against his ex-wife and something went wrong?
“Not much. Only that they separated three years ago, and that during the divorce he asked for leave. The Pack didn’t get involved since no one had expected the relationship to last in the first place. Relationships between shifters and non-shifters are rare. Those of us around when Eric began courting Jessica saw it going downhill.”
I mulled that over in my mind as we made our way up Freya Street. “How does that work exactly? I assumed that shifters weren’t allowed to marry non-shifters?”
James gave me a curious glance, clearly reading more into my question than I’d intended.
“Any Pack member can marry outside of the Pack. But it is frowned upon. Non-shifters are prohibited from living inside the Compound. We don’t trust outsiders,”
“Hey!” I smacked his arm.
“You’re an exception,” he said.
Liar. I bit my tongue and waited for him to continue.
“It would be difficult to maintain a relationship when the core of who we are resides within the Pack. Not impossible,” he added. “Just … difficult.”
We pulled up to a single-story home. James killed the engine, and we both stepped out of the car. The house matched the modern style of the neighborhood, but where the other homes on the block were pristine with manicured lawns, Eric Delaney’s house was a wreck—peeling paint, overgrown shrubbery, debris piled on the side of the house.
Making sure my blades were visible within my leather jacket, I left my bag behind and made my way up the short pathway leading from the street to the front door. James stalked behind me. He gave the impression that he was the muscle in this situation, which basically, he was.
James and I had completed several gigs together. None concerning Pack business, but every now and again he’d pop in and freelance when he wanted to kill some time. He didn’t need the money. He owned Hills Fitness, and between that and his work with the Pack, he was doing just fine. But he never passed on a case involving vamps.
I was pretty sure he did it for information, an in of sorts, since things were so hostile between the Pack and the Coven, but I didn’t mind. Though I’m sure if the Coven knew about it, they certainly would. But hey, what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them.
We had a routine already, and he typically hung back and let me do the talking. Most people were intimidated enough by his presence. He didn’t have to work all that hard at it.
Climbing the few steps to the door, I rapped three times and waited for a response.
No one answered.
I knocked three more times and again waited, doing my best not to fidget. Patience was not a virtue of mine.
After several long moments, there was the distinct sound of a lock retracting and the door opened just a crack.
“What do you want?” the man behind the door asked in a gruff voice.
I could make out his olive skin tone and fall of chestnut hair, just like Daniel’s.
“Eric Delaney?” I asked.
“Yeah.” The word was slurred.
“I’m Aria Naveed. I’d like to speak with you about your son’s death.”
“You mean my son’s murder,” he growled. His eyes took on an eerie shifter glow, and I had to fight my instincts to take a step back.
“Yes, his murder,” I said, in what I hoped was a calm and soothing voice. “I’d like a few moments of your time to interview you and see if you might be able to present any leads. I’m trying to bring down your son’s killer, and I need your help to do that.”
Eric Delaney looked a bit crazed. His eyes were bloodshot and his hair was a mess. I faintly wondered if maybe he was having trouble sleeping. Then mentally slapped myself as soon as the thought crossed my mind. Of course he was having trouble sleeping. His kid was just murdered.
Unless he’d willingly caused his son’s murder, he wouldn’t be getting any sleep any time soon.
Eric peered over my shoulder and eyed James up and down before his eyes strayed to the car parked at the curb. His nostrils flared as he inhaled our scent, and I watched recognition flash the moment he realized James was a shifter.
All color drained from his face, and he began alternately eyeing the car at the curb and James. Why did he keep staring at the car? It was probably one of the most beautiful vehicles on the streets of Spokane, but I wasn’t sensing admiration in Eric’s eyes. I was sensing fear.
Why would he be afraid of someone in his own Pack? Both Eric and James came from Clan Wolf.
I didn’t know what James did for the Pack, but whatever it was, it was scaring the hell out of Delaney.
Taking a step back, Delaney opened the door wider and motioned for us to come in.
I moved to take a step into the house, but before I could pass the threshold, James slid in past me, blocking my way. He stood still as stone for a tense moment before making his way farther into the house. Stupid shifter habits, always thinking women needed to be protected. James knew better than most that I was capable of looking out for myself.
Rolling my eyes, I followed James into the house and was immediately hit with the overwhelming stench of booze and sweat. I wrinkled my nose and did my best to breathe through my mouth as Eric led us through the entryway and into the living area.
James and I sat down on the beat up leather sofa and silently waited for Delaney to settle himself in the matching chair directly across from us. He avoided eye contact, focusing instead on his trembling hands balanced on his knees.
The smell in the room was all encompassing. I could only imagine how it affected James with his enhanced shifter senses. I had to blink my eyes repeatedly just to keep them from watering, but I was fighting a losing battle.
I composed myself the best I could and tried to size up Eric Delaney. He was small for a man. Around my height of five-foot-seven and much thinner than I would have expected for a shifter. Most shifters were built with corded muscles and an athletic body. Eric was so thin he appeared sickly and malnourished. I surveyed the room and spotted several empty bottles strewn across the carpet and several shards of broken glass, likely remnants from previous bottles. There was a questionable pile in the carpet near the window, and the flies buzzing around it led me to believe it was vomit.
I returned my gaze to Eric and took a breath, instantly regretting it as the smell of vomit hit my nostrils, and I inwardly gagged. God, what had he been doing, drinking himself into a coma?
“Mr. Delaney, when was the last time you saw your son?”
He didn’t seem to hear me. He continued to wring his hands and looked nervously back and forth between James and me.
“Mr. Delaney?” I prompted again.
Still nothing. I pinned James with a questioning look.
He sighed. “Eric, I’m not here to hurt you. Answer her questions. Please.”
I raised a brow, but James didn’t bother answering my unspoken question.
“But you’re the—”
James shook his head and sent a pointed look in my direction. Eric caught the meaning and closed his mouth.
What had Eric been planning to say? What was James hiding from me? I chewed my bottom lip. This whole Pack secrecy thing was going to get old. Fast.
“If you’re not here to kill me, then why are you here?” His words were little more than a whisper.
Wait a minute. Did he just say kill? Holy hell! I was seriously missing something, because why the hell would anyone assume that my best friend was a murderer?
James sighed again. “I’m here to work with Miss Naveed. She isn’t Pack, and this is Pack business. Just answer her questions truthfully.”
Eric nodded, and though his shoulders seemed to relax, he still sent worried glances toward James every few seconds.
I repeated my question but couldn’t help my gaze straying to James, who firmly ignored me. He eyes were glued to Delaney, and I could tell from the clench of his jaw that he was holding himself back from meeting my gaze with effort.
“Umm … the last time I saw Daniel was about three years ago,” he answered.
I turned my attention back to Eric. James could be dealt with later. “And why is that?” I gentled my voice as to not spook the man.
“Err … I have a drinking problem,” he whispered, a deep flush rising up his neck. “Jessica, my wife.” He scowled and shook his head. “Ex-wife I mean. After she left, she refused to let me see him.”
“Is there anyone who may have wanted to use your son against you?”
“Are you sure? You don’t have any enemies who—”
“No.” Delaney was shaking his head. “Look, I don’t go out. I don’t have friends. I can’t think of any reason someone would want to use my son to get to me.”
“Did your wife have—”
Eric looked down between his feet and pulled at his hair with an agitated noise. “No. Jessica isn’t the type of woman to make enemies. She’s pleasant to everyone. She doesn’t make waves. It isn’t her style. She’s demur. Submissive. She doesn’t even gossip behind other women’s backs.”
“It’s been years since you two—”
“I know my wife!” Delaney pushed away from the sofa and began pacing. Despite being in his human skin, he looked very much like the agitated wolf he was right now.
“Eric.” James’ voice was quiet but echoed with strength. Eric instantly stilled. “Did you have anything to do with Daniel’s murder?”
“Do you believe your ex-wife capable of any involvement in his murder?”
“Do you believe her husband could—”
A growl rumbled deep in Eric’s chest. “I don’t know, but if he did …” He let the threat hang in the air.