When the bodies of cat shape-shifters start piling up in Boston's magical underbelly, Chief Magical Investigator Marissa Holloway finds one common thread that ties the victims together: all were old flames of FBI Agent Harper Cruz. And since Marissa's lover Scott Murphey once enjoyed a one-night stand with Harper, the Fury has twice the incentive to crack the case wide open before the killer's green-eyed gaze turns in Scott's direction.
Everyone knew that Cats got way more than their fair share of lives, but the poor guy spread-eagled on the alley floor would have called BS on that. Well, if his life hadn't been permanently snuffed outnot an easy thing to do to one of the shape-shifting children of Egyptian goddess Bast. I had to give his killer an A for effort. He (or she) had gone to extreme measures to put an early end to this Cat's ninety-nine lives.
Yeah, ninety-nine. The Bastai, also known as Cats, weren't confined to a measly nine lives like Garfield; unless, of course, someone hastened them to an early graveas with the dark-haired man on the ground. Usually, the only way to keep a Cat six feet under involved decapitation or incineration. But while the corpse sprawled on the ugly concrete had taken a beating, his head and skin were still present and accounted for. Mostly.
Which left little ole me, Fury and Chief Magical Investigator, puzzling over why tall, dark, and deceased wasn't pulling the usual feline resurrection routine.
The heavenly aroma of my personal nectarStarbucks coffeehad me spinning from the corpse and catching sight of my mortal partner on the Boston Police Department. Trinity LaRue, five feet ten inches of Southern charm and grace packed into a gorgeous body that caused all too many men to underestimate her. Criminals who made that mistake only got to make it once. When Trinity got done disabusing them of their sexist notions, they wound up either incarceratedor dead.
I accepted the jumbo green and white paper cupjust my sizeshe held out and flashed a smile. "I knew there was a reason I let you be my new best friend."
She took a sip of her low-fat, no-sugar, caffeine-free cup of blandness (gods save me from mortal health kicks) and rolled her eyes. "You let me be your new best friend because nobody else wants to put up with your moody ass."
I smirked. "Yeah, there's that. Plus, you drive a bitchin' car."
Her eyes lit up her dark-skinned complexion at the mention of the electric-blue classic sports car her big brothers had rebuilt for her recent birthday. (Turning the big 3-0 definitely does a number on mortals, as Trin's new obsession with blah food and copious amounts of exercise showed.) The bitchin' car made the hot pink fuzzy dice I'd gotten her as a gag gift look much snazzier than expected. Then again, just about anything looked good in a Porsche Spyder.
Trinity nodded toward the vic. "So?"
My breath huffed out as I finally admitted what I'd been trying to deny. "Same MO."
This time, she drew the same word out in her signature Southern drawl. "Soooo?"
"Soooo, same killer as the other two."
Proving that she was indeed my new best friend, she took the opportunity for a little gloating. "And?"
I shot her an annoyed look but gave her what she was digging for. "You were right and I was wrong. Boston has its first arcane serial killer."
She did her best to look solemn, but the lips twitching upward thing were a dead giveaway to how she really felt. Not that she took pleasure in the Cat's deathTrinity was, quite simply, very good peoplebut at the challenge we faced. I could count on one hand the number of arcane serial killers to hit the headlines over the past couple of decades. Nationwide. It wasn't that we supernatural types were less violent than mortalkindfar to the contrarywe just tended to be much more in-your-face when it came to killing. We were also less prone to going bat-shit insane, not counting the magic-fueled Rage that gave Furies our super strength and speed and, all too often, drove the weaker-willed of us quite literally crazy.
Add that to the fact most arcanes did everything they could to avoid drawing the attention of Furies, who embodied the magical equivalent of mortal law enforcement, and it explained Trinity's current excitement.
In the months since we'd taken out the traitorous Fury who tried to break the Peace Accord between mortals and arcanes, our caseload had been relatively mundane. Several tragic but easily solved murder cases. A few incidents of domestic violence in Boston's magical Underbelly. A straightforward robbery of the Belly's biggestokay onlyarcane bank. Not surprisingly, a goblin-on-goblin affair. They put the greed in greedy. All open-and-shut cases for the most part. Things had finally heated up again a couple weeks ago, when the first of twomake that threemale Cats had been discovered tortured and disemboweled in downtown alleyways.
Trinity tilted her head and looked down at the corpse. "What's that smell?"
I raised my paper cup toward her in a mocking gesture. "Real coffee, not that no-taste soy crap. You probably forgot what it smells like."
"No, seriously." She knelt next to the corpse, slapped a latex glove on her left hand, and started prodding the odds and ends littering the patch of concrete around the Cat.
I got down to business myself and handed my coffee cup to a hovering newbie before opening myself to the stores of magical energy beneath the ground. I shifted to Fury form, blond-haired and blue-eyed mortal body morphing into charcoal-haired, emerald-eyed badass, complete with the red leather uniform that served as the immortal world's equivalent to a police badge. My eyes were drawn to the brilliant red serpents tattooed on each arm as magic changed them from ink-on-skin portraits to living, breathing Amphisbaena: the pair of magical creatures bonded to a Fury. Part companions and part magic-boosting familiars, Nemesis and Nike were the two accessories I never left home without.
They hissed at me in greeting, twining themselves around my arms much as they did in tattoo form. I gave each one a caress before kneeling next to Trinity. My nostrils flared as I took in a breath. This time, armed with the enhanced senses that came with the whole Fury schtick, I smelled what she had right away: a heavy, pungent odor that reminded me of a cross between freshly mown grass and skunk. Yum.
Then again, with the scents of refuse and rot around us, no big surprise I hadn't smelled it in mortal form. Autumn in New England meant that allergies could be hell. Yeah, even immortal badasses have to deal with high mold and pollen counts.
I took another, larger sniff and made a face. "What is that?"
"Copycat," Trin said. "I already asked that question."
"Funny you mention felines." The detective who held my empty coffee cup sidled closer, pitching the cardboard container in a Dumpster as he passed. Since he didn't seem petrified of my serpentine ladiesand they weren't spitting venom his wayI let him.
Suddenly, he said, "Catnip."
Trinity snapped her fingers and nodded, while I just blinked. "Huh?"
"You know, kitty crack? Somebody has a really warped sense of humor." The newly promoted detectivethe badge hanging from his leather belt identified him as Casssquatted beside me and nodded toward the corpse. "May I?"
I arched a brow at Trinity, who just shrugged. Oh, what could it hurt? Maybe he'd pick up on something we hadn't. "Go ahead." He set the coffee down and slipped on a latex glove, then leaned forward and took in a deep breath. His eyes seemed to flash with some inner light as he sniffed the air. My nostrils flared in sympathy. Better him than me, seeing as how my sense of smell was now enhanced.
Cass's gloved hand whipped toward the Cat's mouth and pried it open before I could stop him. The mown-grass-skunk smell tripled in intensity. The rookie grimaced but didn't back down from the grisly sight revealed: The Cat's tongue had been ripped out and replaced with a thick wad of jagged-edged, triangular leaves. Catnip.
I stared down at the Cat with morbid fascination. "Warped sense of humor, my ass. This killer gives a whole new meaning to the phrase Cat got your tongue."
Trinity made a disgusted noise, then frowned at the catnip. "Wait, the other two vics didn't have that shoved in their mouths. Did they?"
Good point. "Nope. No way Sahana would have missed that. Neither had his tongue cut out, either."
"Okay. So… Killer decides to start taking the tongues as a souvenir. But why the catnip?"
Cass looked up at her. "Calling card."
"Killer doesn't think the police connected the first two murders together, so he decides to leave a calling card. Ripping the tongue out could show personal rage at this vic. The catnip…" His voice trailed off and he shot me a distinctly uneasy look.
Aw, c'mon, Cass. Don't go chickenshit on me when I was just starting to warm up to you. "Go ahead, you're doing okay so far. What about the catnip?"
He cleared his throat as if needing the time to choose his words. "I studied arcanes a lot before I managed to land the assignment to this unit, Chief." Chief? Oh hell, I might actually have to make this guy a full-fledged member of our newly formed Magical Crimes Unit. "Especially on the interracial relations of the arcanes with the largest populations in the Boston area. I know I don't need to tell you about the race known as Cat Public Enemy Number One."
Now I was starting to feel distinctly uneasy. Not hard to figure out why, since I was sleeping with Scott Murphy, a member of the race known as Cat Public Enemy Number One. "Let me get this straight. You're hypothesizing that our perp is a Hound based on, what, the fact that Cats and Hounds are archenemies? Cass, have you ever heard of a little thing called a racial profiling lawsuit?"
Trinity let out a snicker at that.
Cass tightened his lips at the derision in my voice, but again, he didn't back down. "No, Chief. I may be new to detective work, but I served as a patrolman for five years. I'm not a complete schmuck, you know."
Damn, either I was getting bad at guessing mortal ages, or he had a real baby face. I wouldn't have put him much past twenty-two or sothe same age as Scott's baby brother. And there was someone I didn't want to think about at that particular moment.
He pointed to the Cat's partially open mouth. "In ancient times, Cats used to rip the tongues out of their enemies. Sorta like certain Native Americans collecting enemy scalps." Trin and I both winced in sympathy. "The practice is called counting coup in honor of another Native American practice that allowed warriors to gain honor for striking enemies without getting injured. Since the race Cats warred with the most, especially in ancient Egypt, were the Hounds, they started reciprocating in kind except, of course, they took it one better."
I screwed up my nose. "Let me guess. They shoved catnip in their mouths to replace the tongues."
"Exactly. And historically, that was the gravest insult you could give a Cat. It was like saying they were lower than domesticated animals. And Cats who survived having that done to them in ancient days were killed by their own people. They were viewed as mercy killings."
Nemesis and Nike slipped to my upper arms, radiating soothing emotions my way. I shifted uncomfortably, having no trouble picturing the upcoming battle with Scott. For Warhounds, family meant just about everything. Even if that family had disowned his mother and her half-mortal mutts. "Wait, that doesn't mean the killer has to be a Hound. Anybody who knows their arcane history could have done this. I mean, if you read that in some mortal book, it has to be fairly common knowledge."
Cass stared down at his suddenly clenched fists. A muscle worked in his jaw, and Trinity and I shared a questioning glance. Had our baby-faced detective left some crucial detail off of his résumé?
"Okay, so I stretched the truth a little. I didn't read the stuff about Cats and Hounds in any book." He inhaled and exhaled deeply. "And I didn't get lucky guessing that the catnip was in the vic's mouthI smelled it."
Wait. Pretty much the only beings who could outsmell Furies magically speaking were… Nah. Couldn't be.
"I'm not exactly a hundred percent mortal." He lowered his voice, no doubt to make sure only Trinity and I could hear. "My great-grandfather was a Hound. Full-blooded." Oh, that only made me like him more. Mr. Innocent had lied on his résumé. I couldn't blame him one little bit, with all the anti-arcane sentiment I'd come across during my years on the force.
Still, Cass could get in big trouble if anyone besides Trinity or me found out. Ever since the Peace Accord that ended the Great War between mortals and arcaneswhich mortals referred to as the "Time of Troubles"all those who had more than one-sixteenth arcane blood running through their veins were subject to disclosure laws that were supposedly meant to benefit usjust like the so-called "one-drop" rule was supposed to benefit Native and African Americans way back when.
And that totally explained the flash of amber light I had seen in his eyes when he sniffed out the catnip. While half-blooded arcanes took after their arcane parents, if their descendents married individuals with primarily mortal blood, those arcane abilities became more diluted with each generation. I was willing to bet that the enhanced sense of smell was the only thing Cass had inherited from his Warhound ancestor. That, and his oh-so-youthful glow. No wonder he'd been able to pass for so long.
"Ooookay, don't take this the wrong way, but Trin and I didn't just hear that." His white pallor warmed up several notches, and he released his clenched fists. "But hypothetically speaking, explain how what you didn't just say relates to our case."
"The counting coup habits of both Cats and Hounds have been pretty much edited out of history, as far as outsiders are concerned. Especially for those who intermingle with mortal society. They have to act civilized, at least on the face of it, though there are still bloodthirsty members of both races who engage in the old ways from time to time." His expression grew inscrutable as he glanced down at the Cat's corpse again. "Great-Grandfather made sure that all of us with any drop of his abilities were raised knowing everything about Hound history, just in case we'd ever need it."
I met his gaze unflinchingly. "So what you're trying to say is you don't think any other arcane races besides Cats or Hounds would have known about the tongue and catnip thing."
He shook his head. "And I highly doubt that a Cat would have done this to another of his kind."
Trinity arched a brow. "Are you so sure about that?"
"I have to agree with him, Trin." Much as I didn't want to. "Based on what I know about Cats, and what Cass just told us about the whole counting coup and catnip thing… Odds are we're looking for a Hound as the perp."
And with my luck, tracking him down was going to lead to a second off-again phase with my own not-so-cuddly Warhound. Oh well, there was always my backup lover, Jack Daniels.
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