Brand walked along the yellow crime scene tape that cordoned off the dilapidated building. His gaze wandered over the stained brick wall and broken windows. He remembered when the building was new, how modern it had seemed rising out of the barren landscape. The abandoned industrial complex south of downtown had deteriorated from a Denver landmark into a crumbling eyesore over the last several decades. Glare from the bright, early winter sun prevented him from seeing inside the dim structure.
The patrolman guarding the perimeter passed a long, appraising look over him. Brand nodded to the man and handed over his identification. The uniformed officer glanced at the badge. He gave Brand another once-over and frowned. “Private security? You’re not authorized to be in this area.”
Between his height and the presence of the wolf inside him, most humans found Brand intimidating. They would never be able to define exactly what bothered them, only a vague sense of strangeness. The more sensitive they were to the energies of the natural world, the harder he had to try to put them at ease. If the man in front of Brand had been a wolf, his hackles would have been raised.
Brand pulled off his sunglasses and smiled without showing his overlong canine teeth. “Detective Grant asked me to stop by.” He kept his voice light, trying to convey that he was just another guy, there to do his job when he’d rather be anywhere else.
With a pensive creasing of his forehead, the officer seemed to come to the conclusion that Brand was no threat, and his expression eased. He turned to speak into the radio at his shoulder. “Tell Grant a guy named Brandon Geirson from Sword Security is here to see him.”
For Brand, dealing with humans was easier than interacting with his own kind. Aggression was counterproductive, rather than required. He appreciated that humans responded better to courtesy than intimidation, something that would never work in the brutal subculture into which he’d been born. The constant battle for rank among the Broods of Fenrir brought out unwelcome feral tendencies.
The crackling that answered was all but incomprehensible. The patrolman handed back Brand’s identification. “He’ll be here shortly.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it.” Brand slid his sunglasses back into place.
“Sure thing.” The officer nodded and resumed his scan of the area.
Grant emerged from the building a few minutes later and jogged over to the edge of the cordoned-off area. He made a beckoning gesture with one thick-fingered hand.
Brand ducked under the yellow tape. “What’s going on, Grant?” They’d never met under what could be called pleasant circumstances, so Brand wasn’t surprised Grant seemed perturbed.
Grant led the way toward one of the oversized loading doors that had been propped open. Police personnel wandered in and out of the building. Snatches of conversation drifted over to them.
Grant paused several feet short of the entry. “We got a call about a body inside. Your company is the security outfit for this place?”
Brand swiped a hand down his face. He hoped some kid hadn’t thought to have an adventure exploring the empty derelict and instead had fallen down an open elevator shaft. It had happened before, and the guilt gnawed at him. “They don’t pay for anything but one guard doing occasional walks of the outside.”
Grant made a note, then fixed his astute eyes on Brand. “Must be frustrating for you.”
Brand sighed. “It is. I’ve tried to talk to the owners about it, but they aren’t interested in spending money to keep out trespassers.”
“Well, in this case, it’s not some adrenaline junkie looking for a new high.” Grant shook his head. “Wish it was. Lady in there is all slashed up.”
Brand froze in the act of scratching his jaw. “She was murdered?”
Grant looked over his notes and gestured toward the page with one finger. “The coroner’s hemming and hawing about bites that look canine, but there’s no animal I know of would do that kind of damage.”
Dread slithered up Brand’s back, raising the hairs on his neck. “Canine?”
Grant flipped a few pages in his notebook. “Maybe some coyotes came in after the guy was done with her and had a snack, who knows?” He shrugged. “All I know is, there’s no dog-like thing on Earth that would slice her up that way.”
Brand knew firsthand that wasn’t true. Bloody images bubbled up from the deep place he’d buried them. His stomach turned while he battled the painful memories. “Why’d you ask me to come here?”
“I need to know about anything unusual going on in the vicinity.”
He met Grant’s cool stare. “Kids come to get their kicks exploring the empty building. It’s been happening since they closed the factory down years ago.”
Grant scribbled some more notes. He pushed a few buttons on his phone and held it up for Brand to see. “You know her?”
Bruises and cuts covered the woman’s swollen face. Brand swallowed to alleviate the sudden tightening of his throat.
At the bottom of the frame, bloody gashes in her clothing made the pain she had endured before her death obvious. Teeth marks were visible along one side of her neck. Not canine, not at all, though Brand understood why someone who didn’t know about the existence of his kind might assume that. He closed his eyes briefly and searched for calm. His temper flared, but he regained control. “No, I’ve never seen her before.”
Grant harrumphed. “That’s all I’ve got for you right now. I’ll call your office when we clear out of here.”
“Thanks.” Brand offered his hand, and Grant shook it with a short nod.
While walking back to his motorcycle, Brand mulled over what do to next. Leaving the investigation up to the police was out of the question. Even if they could figure out who’d done it, they were ill-equipped to deal with one of the brood. The responsibility of seeking justice for the woman’s death fell to him.
The leader of the brood in the Denver area was a long-time friend and one of his biggest clients. In all likelihood, a member of Erik’s brood had murdered that woman. That placed Brand in a dangerous position since he wanted to put the wild animal down.
Brand pushed through the office door amid the protests of Erik’s assistant.
Erik pinned Brand with a stern stare, then waved his assistant back. “It’s all right. Call me when Harris gets here.” She nodded, giving Brand a disapproving glare as she exited and closed the door behind her.
Erik stood, his hands braced against the dark wood of his desk. “You’d better have a damned good reason for barging in here like this.”
Coming to Erik’s office unannounced was a rather serious breach of etiquette, and relationships between brood males were strained at the best of times. Brand had distanced himself from his own kind for several reasons, but the most prominent was the constant power struggles. Existing outside the social structure of any brood, he was always considered a threat.
The complex rules of propriety even kept him from being able to apologize for bursting in without increasing the tension between them. Instead, he ground his teeth and crossed the office with slow steps. He lowered himself into a chair in front of the desk without breaking eye contact. Erik sat a few seconds later.
Brand cleared his throat. “I just came from a jobsite of mine where police found a woman’s body.” He kept his voice level, though he wanted to shout. “She was murdered by one of us.”
Erik leaned back in his chair and laced his hands over his stomach, but didn’t speak for several beats. “You’re sure?”
“I wouldn’t be here otherwise. The bites I saw were from a brood male, no question. I need to know who you think could have done this.”
Erik showed off his complement of elongated canine teeth in a silent snarl. “Why? You’ve no dominion over my brood.”
“She was shredded,” Brand said, his voice harsh with disgust. “I won’t abide it, Erik, not even from one of yours.”
As anger overtook him, Erik’s eyes lightened from blue to arctic white. “You are not in charge here. You gave up that right, so back the fuck off.” He growled, a low, menacing sound. Fury radiated from Erik in waves.
Brand could almost see the infectious cloud of rage. Through an often-practiced strength of will, Brand reinforced the barriers that isolated him from the emotions of others. Around humans he didn’t have to exert as much effort, their feelings were so much easier to shut out. The churning, mercurial emotions of the brood put Brand constantly on edge.
When Brand didn’t respond to the challenge, the tension in the room gradually eased. Erik’s fingers drummed on top of the desk. “It wasn’t one of mine. We were running at my lodge last night, like every week of the full moon. All males accounted for but one.”
Brand leaned forward. “Who was missing?”
“Lucas has been gone for a few weeks. I was going to call you in to help me look for him if he didn’t turn up by the full moon.” Erik ran a hand through his spiked blond hair. “He’s not aggressive. There’s no way he killed a woman, Brand.”
The sincerity and affection in Erik’s voice was cause enough for Brand to doubt Lucas was the culprit. “I’ll look for him, but if I find out he’s involved, I won’t spare him.”
“Fair enough.” Erik bent his head to write for several seconds, then held out a sheet of paper.
Brand reached for the note and looked down at the address printed in Erik’s neat handwriting. “A young male striking out alone isn’t unusual.”
Erik shook his head. “He wouldn’t leave without talking to me.”
The intercom buzzed. “Harris is on his way up,” the assistant’s smooth voice said over the speaker.
Erik pressed a button on his phone. “Send him in.”
Brand stood and turned to leave.
“You should stay for this, actually,” Erik called after him. “It’s a meeting with the Bioden lawyers.”
Brand’s company handled the security at all of Erik’s construction sites, so the name was familiar. “That’s the biotech outfit giving you a hard time with the new project?”
Erik nodded. “They’ve been glad-handing and paying bribes all over town. I can’t even get a foundation poured at that site off Mississippi Avenue because of the permit and license bullshit they’re shaking up.”
Brand moved to a credenza along the wall at a right angle to Erik’s desk and leaned against it. “What’s the problem?”
“Loki only knows.” Erik made a dismissive gesture. “They claim the construction will cause problems at one of their nearby warehouses.”
A knock sounded on the door, and Erik called for them to enter. The assistant showed two men into the room and retreated once more. Both men had the polished, easy manner of long-time businessmen. The taller of the two wore a navy suit, his dark hair impeccably slicked back. He extended a hand toward Erik.
Erik clenched his sharp-edged jaw and stared at the offered hand as if he were seriously considering biting it. “Harris, I don’t have time for your idiocy today. Sit down and get to the point.”
Harris swallowed and brushed at his knee as he took his seat. “A hundred-thousand-dollar donation to Mr. Rivera’s leukemia research fund would see this matter resolved without issue.”
Erik pressed his hands into the desk until his fingers mottled from the pressure. “That’s ridiculous.” His voice was low and dangerous. “He can have half that.”
Harris glanced at the man next to him. After a brief pause, the unnamed associate nodded. Harris’s eyes popped open, but he covered his shock quickly and turned back to Erik. “That will be fine, Mr. Sorenson.” Both men stood. “We’ll get out of your way now.” Harris crossed the room with the measured steps of a man trying his best not to scurry away, with the other man following close behind him.
Erik watched them go from beneath a furrowed brow. He reached for the phone and slapped the intercom button. “Molly, have a check cut for Harris and get him out of my building.”
Erik released the button before she responded. He paused to run his fingers through his hair and made the blond spikes stand up even more.
Brand cleared his throat. “I thought you were going to tear them apart. Glad you didn’t. Cleaning up their guts for the rest of the afternoon isn’t my idea of a good time.”
Erik smiled, but the strain was obvious around the edges of his mouth.
Before Erik could respond, Brand’s phone rang. Not wanting to take a call in Erik’s office, he gestured to the door and nodded his farewell before exiting into the lobby.
He pulled the phone from his pocket and glanced at the display before answering. “What is it, Cam?”
His assistant replied, “I’ve got Detective Grant for you.”
“Put him through.”
Harris and his colleague were still in the lobby, arguing with an annoyed-looking Molly. Brand turned his back on them and stared out the window at the darkening street.
Grant’s gruff voice came over the line a few seconds later. “I need to know if you’ve had any nuisance animal complaints at the factory site recently.”
Brand watched the cars roll slowly to the stop sign at the corner. “None of my guys have reported anything. Why?”
“When we canvassed the neighborhood, someone said they saw a wolf about a week ago. I’m wondering if that’s the answer to our bite mark dilemma.”
Brand hesitated before responding. “Isn’t a coyote a lot more likely? There hasn’t been a wolf pack in Colorado since the nineteen twenties. The closest wolf is probably hundreds of miles away.”
If Grant wondered why Brand had such detailed knowledge of wolf movements, he didn’t ask. “According to the witness, the animal was huge with dark red fur.”
Brand rested a hand on the windowpane and leaned his forehead against it. Red. Perhaps a dozen of their kind had that coloring, including Erik’s mate, Bera. The red coat was a trait specific to her father’s line. Björnkarl’s offspring were troublesome and, like their sire, tended to follow their own rules.
That the wolf had transformed so far from the full moon considerably narrowed the list. Few among them were powerful enough to transform more than a week away from the moon’s peak.
The image of the murdered woman flickered through his mind. Her tortured face wrenched his gut. He’d been witness to similar scenes more often than he cared to remember. With tension tightening his chest, he realized the woman’s condition bore an eerie resemblance to how he’d found Alice years before. His pulse raced, thudding in his ears.
The moment it took to compose himself seemed to go on forever. “It’s probably a stray dog.” His voice sounded choked. “I have a meeting.” Brand hung up without waiting for a response and ran from the lobby.
Alice smiled when heavy footfalls echoed down the hallway to her lab. Only one person could make the simple act of walking sound so urgent. She straightened from the enzyme analysis she’d been working on and stretched her back with a sigh. Brand didn’t usually come to her work, and she wondered what had brought him there.
His shadow fell across the doorway a few seconds before he came into view. Long-limbed and muscular, he looked the same as he had the day he’d saved her life nearly a century ago, like an oversized helping of trouble. He wore his dark hair—almost unheard of among their kind—shaggy and unkempt. His jaw was set in an angry expression that an observer might assume he meant for her, but she knew better. Still, she felt her smile slip. “What’s got you so wound up?”
His shoulders relaxed as he leaned against the doorjamb. “Don’t know what you mean. I came to say hello.” His eyes slid away from her and scanned a row of test tubes on the lab table between them.
Alice bit her lower lip. Brand didn’t avoid eye contact with anyone. He also didn’t lie. The combination of the two made her heart race. His evasion covered something terrible, and she could only think of one thing that bad—Arnbjörn. Memories of the agony he’d inflicted on her rose to the forefront of her mind. Fear climbed from her chest into her throat. She couldn’t breathe.
Brand’s attention snapped back to her. He darted into the room and caught her as she fell from the high lab chair, his arms too tight around her.
Panicked, she pushed at him in a pointless attempt to escape the trapped sensation that pulled her under a veil of terror. In the dark place she retreated to in her mind, she felt, or perhaps heard, a deep, resonant beat. The note pulsed through her, and drew her attention from the desperation spiraling out of control.
She opened her eyes, which she hadn’t realized she’d closed, and stared up at Brand. His wolf’s power wrapped her in a blanket of warmth that kept the fear at bay. She found it so easy to believe, while he was near, that Arn could never hurt her again.
He smoothed her hair with one hand. Concern tightened his mouth while his blue eyes searched her face. “Better?”
She nodded, but still couldn’t speak.
His calloused fingers moved over her cheek, rough, but gentle. “I’m sorry.”
She leaned her head against him and sighed. He was the only one of the brood ever to have apologized to her. An apology was a rare gesture in their world, implying a degree of subservience one didn’t just give away, certainly not to one as low-ranked as she. “He’s in Denver?” She didn’t need to specify who he was. In fact, she didn’t think she could actually say his name without stuttering, though so much time had passed.
The soothing motion of Brand’s hand stilled and he frowned. “I don’t know for sure it’s him. A woman was killed by one of us last night and a red wolf was reported nearby about a week ago.”
Alice swallowed. In her opinion, that was pretty solid evidence. Still, she had doubts. If Arn was in the city, wouldn’t he have come for her? “I haven’t felt him,” she said with more confidence than she felt.
“That’s good.” Brand showed her a tight smile, the kind he used when trying to hide his teeth so he wouldn’t frighten her. He put her on her feet in an effortless motion. “The wolf might have been Bera for all I know.”
“I appreciate that you don’t want to scare me, but I’d rather know he might be out there.” She trailed off at the end, but managed to finish before her voice failed her entirely.
Brand pulled her into a hug before she could protest. The reflexive terror in response to his nearness clenched her stomach, and she struggled against succumbing to it.
After a mercifully short embrace, he backed away, then reached to hold her face between his palms. “I won’t let him hurt you.”
Since he’d found her, broken and bleeding by the side of a road, he’d never let anything harm her. So why did she find it so hard to believe him? Alice nodded into his large, warm hands and tried to smile. “I know.”