The window of my office didn't exactly afford the most picturesque view in the city. There was the liquor store - a cliché, perhaps, but there it was - a few houses with boarded up windows that looked like they'd been squeezed in, jostling for space; and the steps leading down to the subway. It might not have been pretty, but it was pretty typical of the district. It could have been any corner in the city, nothing about it to indicate anything special. But if I tipped my chair back so my eye-line shifted a little higher, to the rooftops, then there, silhouetted against the slate-grey sky, I would see the sentinel.
To the casual observer, the figure would have just looked like a man standing on the top of the building, perhaps enjoying the view, bird watching, or contemplating suicide - all popular pursuits in this area of town. But to those who knew the importance of the street, the man's presence took on new meaning. I knew that he had been there now for four hours, barely moving, his gaze relentlessly scanning the scene beneath. I knew that when he did finally leave, he would be replaced by someone else. That building would always have a sentinel on it because the street marked the edge of Kenai territory, beyond that, it was No Man's Land for about a block and a half, then you were in Arctic territory.
Humans crossed these invisible boundaries every day, back and forth between territories without even thinking, without even knowing there was anything there, but to a werewolf, such boundaries were as uncrossable as the Berlin Wall - back in the day - and those who crossed without permission did so at risk of their lives.
I was not a werewolf. Nor, strictly speaking, was I human. Courtesy of my grandmother, I was one-quarter werewolf. I remembered my gran as a kindly old lady, smelling faintly of lavender, who had an apparently inexhaustible supply of hard candy secreted in the various pockets of her cardigan, and who occasionally turned into a wolf. As a child, I found these changes hilarious, as a teen, I found them embarrassing, as an adult, I just missed my gran, regardless of her shape. At no point did I find it weird. I, myself, didn't turn, even at full moon - though it could make me a little angsty and I lost more boyfriends that night than any other - but my heritage gave me a certain affinity with the creatures without being one of them or having to pledge allegiance to one of the four packs that shared the city. I could smell where the boundaries between the pack territories were, but I didn't have to stick to them, and could cross with impunity.
Best of both worlds.
Or a failure to fit into either.
Certainly, humans looked at me differently when they found out about my ancestry, wondering if I might tear their throat out for fun, while werewolves could smell the mix of wolf and human on me and didn't like or trust it.
Perhaps that feeling of not belonging in either world was what led me to becoming a private investigator, a job that attracted the loners of the world. People rank private eyes and part-wolves about on a par on the scale of general mistrust, and as long as I was already being mistrusted by both factions of society, I figured I might as well make some money out of it. Besides, I liked puzzles and got off on solving them. As far as I knew, I was the only part-wolf investigator in the city, a position of distinction that made people avoid me like the plague until the wires got crossed in the simple, segregated circuits of their lives. Humans and werewolves didn't mix much socially, but shit happens, and when it did, I was there to pick up the pieces.
All of that, I guess, was why Kenai King came to me.
I heard the door open in my outer office and went to see who was there - recent financial complications had left me without a secretary. I opened the door and stood, wide-eyed like an idiot, staring at my three visitors. Two of them would have made anybody stare; they were massive slabs of muscle, their bald heads almost reaching the ceiling, their low brows advertising equally low intelligence, their over-sized bodies stuffed into ill-fitting suits. But it was the third, less immediately arresting man, who had stopped me in my tracks.
"Miss Malone?" The silver-haired man smiled, showing his sharp canine teeth.
The last person I expected to find in my office, first thing on a Monday morning, was the most powerful werewolf in the city, perhaps in the country.
"Pack Leader," I replied, showing my knowledge by using his proper title. "What can I do for you?"
Pack Leader Kenai King's unsettling grin remained on his face as he answered. "Someone is trying to kill me. I'd like you to find out who."
Four werewolf packs made their territories in the city, and while you could not put all of them in order of supremacy, the Kenai were undoubtedly top of the pile. Since the time of King's grandfather, the Kenai Pack had held the center of the city, all the best areas and most expensive real estate. The boundaries might fluctuate through skirmishes and minor wars but, for now, at least, the Kenai seemed immovable and invincible, and Kenai King was known as a ruthless leader.
King turned to his vast bodyguards. "Stay here."
He then strode past me, leading me back into my own office with the confident air of one who has been the most important person in every room he walks into his entire life. I followed, closing the door behind me.
"With respect, Pack Leader, aren't people trying to kill you part of your job description?"
King nodded. "That is true. But this is different. Closer to home."
"Perhaps you'd better tell me the whole story."
King sat down with athletic elegance. He moved with the animal grace that so many werewolves strived for and achieved with varying degrees of success. He was in his sixties now, but still in good condition and still a very handsome man for his age - if you liked that kind of thing; I got over my daddy issues some years ago.
"Last week was the Lunar Hunt."
Every full moon, werewolves gather for a state-sanctioned hunt. One of the agreements reached in the General Amnesty - which had first allowed werewolves to live among humans as equal citizens - was that hunting was a cultural tradition and could not be completely outlawed. That said, hunting a human at any time, as wolves had pre-1917, was obviously not compatible with being a worthwhile part of society. So a compromise had been reached. The werewolves would be given one night a month - the night of the full moon - when they could hunt, as a pack, with impunity. More than that, packs would be given the names and details of certain people that the state could well do without for them to hunt. These people were usually rapists, child-molesters and the like, whom the police had either been unable to catch or whom they knew to be guilty but lacked the evidence to convict.
Evading the nose of a wolf was not so easy. There had initially been some opposition and some protests that, as punishments went, this one was probably cruel and definitely unusual, but the voices of defense for such people were never very loud, and when the number of such crimes began to drop as criminals responded to the new and terrible penalty for their actions, even those few voices were silenced. By now, the Lunar Hunt was viewed as an essential part of a civilized society and people wondered how we ever managed without it.
"It is one of the few times," King continued, "when I can get away from my bodyguards - in the heat of the hunt, anything goes. People forget themselves. We were chasing the prey through the alleys not far from our heartland."
Though they hold large territories, most packs have one particular area that they identify as 'home'.
"I was leading the chase - naturally - and we caught up to him on one of the side streets. As the pack was descending on him, I felt someone grab my collar and pull me back. Now, when the hunt ends, it's a bit of free for all, everyone jostling to get their pound of flesh, and a young wolf might not look too hard at who he's got hold of. I just assumed that some over-eager pup had grabbed me by the scruff without looking - not knowing who I was. So, I turned around to put him in his place."
Kenai King paused in his story. He untucked his shirt from the waistband of his pants to lift it, twisting his body slightly to show me a bandage stuck across his side.
"If I hadn't been so quick to turn, the knife would have gone into my back and I might not be here talking to you."
"Did you get a look at the guy?" I asked.
King snorted. "If I got a look at him, we'd have taken care of this ourselves. He turned as I moved, keeping out of sight as he stuck the knife in. A knife!” he spat contemptuously. "What sort of weapon is that for a wolf? I lashed back at him - claws out, but I just caught the palm of his hand. Drew blood, though."
"He ran?" I guessed.
"By that point, he knew he'd fucked the whole thing up so he took to his paws. I yelled for the rest of the pack..."
"What had they been doing up to now?" I wondered.
"Feeding," said King, bluntly. "At the end of a hunt, a bomb going off wouldn't distract a wolf from the kill. It was the perfect time for an assassination attempt."
All this was interesting, but not unusual. To attain their lofty position in the city, the Kenai had made enemies in all the other packs, and while King had inherited a large territory, he had not been shy about enlarging it over the years whenever an opportunity presented itself - a street here, a warehouse there; anything ill-defended fell prey to the ruthless expansionist outlook of the Kenai Pack Leader. That sort of attitude did not make you friends, it also meant that the Kenai territory was a rich treasure for any Pack Leader with the balls to try and take it. And the first step to that would be killing King.
But that sort of intrigue was the everyday life of werewolves. If King had held the Arctic, Hokkai or MacKenzie packs responsible, then he would have responded with border raids, taking revenge in blood. He certainly wouldn't be consulting a down-at-heel private investigator, who was only a part-wolf, a week after the event. Something more was going on here.
"The pack gave chase," King went on, his voice changing slightly as he spoke, subtly hardening. "I was regrettably incapacitated by my wound but my personal guard and my court went after the assassin. He was bleeding from the wound I gave him, so following him was no problem for any werewolf. He left a trail even you could probably have followed."
I ignored the subtle insult. "Where did it lead?"
King's ice blue eyes flicked away from me for a moment, as if he was wondering if coming here and sharing this with an outsider had been such a good idea. "You must be wondering why I came to you."
"I'm thinking you're about to tell me."
"Those guards out in your office; they are far from the best of my protectors. They are the most stupid. They dumbly do as they are told without any question. Dumb loyalty is sometimes the best kind. They don't have the intelligence for self-interest."
I leaned back in my chair, feeling for the first time as if the balance of power had shifted in my favor, even if I wasn't quite sure why. "Pack Leader, if you have something to say then perhaps you had better just say it."
King's eyes found me again. "The trail led to Heir's House. There it ended. The trail led to my sons."
That explained it. If King were to die, then by natural werewolf law, one of his sons - usually, though not always, the eldest - would take his place as Pack Leader. There had been cases of sons getting a bit impatient and hastening that day, and there had been cases of sons effecting a coup when a Pack Leader seemed weak. But if any of his sons had been planning to oust King, then they could not do it alone, they would need the support of members of the Pack Court. If King suspected his sons, then he also had to suspect his own closest allies.
He could trust no one in his own pack.
So he had come to me. And based on the fact that it had taken him a week to do it, he was not happy about the necessity. Either that, or I just hadn't been his first choice.
"The relationship between myself and my sons," King continued, "is not a close one."
"I had heard." It was common knowledge in the werewolf community, and I tried to keep up with all the gossip.
"Perhaps you have not heard to what extent matters have deteriorated," King went on. "Two weeks ago, I threatened to disinherit all three of them." He pulled a smile that was closer to a snarl. "Perhaps I should have gone through with it. Then, they would have had no cause to kill me."
"More likely, if you had actually disinherited them, they would have come after you by more direct means," I suggested.
King nodded. "Perhaps. But I would have preferred that. To see one of those wastes of space actually winning support for himself, raising an army to take me down. Better yet; challenging me to single combat. To see that would have been worth dying for. At least I would die knowing I had sons who were worth a shit. But a paid assassin sticking a knife in my back?" He shook his head. "I suppose it's all I would have expected of them, but for a Kenai to stoop to such depths is a sad sight indeed."
"Do you have any idea which of them might be responsible?" I asked.
King shifted in his seat, uncomfortable talking about the inadequacies of his bloodline. "Tanner would be the most likely to take action - and I pride myself he does at least have a little of his father in him. But he's rash and hotheaded. Last year, he nearly bit the head off an old friend of mine just because he complimented the female Tanner was with."
I was tempted to ask what 'complimented' meant in this context, but let King go on.
"You can't rule a pack with that sort of thin skin and quick temper. He'd undo all I've achieved in a matter of months. But that same attitude makes me think he wouldn't hire a killer. No, give Tanner his due, he doesn't back away from a fight, doesn't hide in the shadows." King shook his head. "Gray is another matter. Always alone, sullen. Certainly always looks like he's plotting something. Then, there was that female of his - quite inappropriate and I told him so, and he's hated me ever since. Yes, the others may dislike me, but Gray's the one who hates me. And not with a clean, pure anger; he keeps it bottled up. If I had to put money on it..." But even as he spoke, his mind seemed to change. "Then again, I think he wants to be Pack Leader the least. Has no time for it. Not like Hudson."
"Power-hungry?" I suggested.
But King scoffed.
"I wish. No, he would enjoy the financial freedom of it. He likes to play. Women, gambling, you name it. Human women, too. Don't misunderstand me; a young male should have his time in the sun - make a few mistakes, sow a few wild oats, anger a few fathers. I certainly did." He chuckled at the memory of his younger days. "But Hudson is a wastrel, pure and simple. And shows no sign of growing out of it. I cut him off financially last year in hopes of him calming down some. I think he'd like to be Pack Leader just to get hold of the purse strings and then we'll see the wine flow. The Emperor Nero would have nothing on Pack Leader Hudson - fiddling while the Kenai territory burns before him."
He paused again.
"But with the money comes responsibility. And a scoundrel though he is, Hudson knows that it wouldn’t be fun all the time and that he'd have a target on his back. He may want the money, but I'm not sure he wants it quite that badly."
King ran a frustrated hand through his silver hair.
"Not a one of them is fit to be Pack Leader, and, to a wolf, they hate me. But to pick one who would dare to take that final step..." He shook his head. "Perhaps they all did it together. That way, Tanner would get power, Gray his revenge and Hudson his money. But I'm not sure I can see them working together like that, either." He growled under his breath, his wolfishness coming to the surface. "I just don't know, damn it. One of them, two of them, all of them. The guilt lies somewhere in Heir's House. And I’d like you to find out where.”
Obviously, I was going to take the case.
Getting mixed up in werewolf politics is dangerous as hell and a good way to make enemies. When a werewolf uses the phrase 'enemy for life', they meant until they killed you.
On the counter side; the Kenai Pack was extremely wealthy and King was offering me a blank check. But neither of these arguments, against or for, really entered into the decision for me.
Frankly, I would take the case because it was a mystery, and I never could turn away from a good mystery. It was a change from the usual inter-species squabbling and human husbands thinking their wife has gone for a bit of tail - as they say - that made up my day-to-day case load. But above all that, it was the chance to enter into the world of the packs. I strolled through werewolf territory with more awareness than the average human, and, through my gran, I had been a bit more involved in werewolf life, but the secret inner workings of the packs I knew only secondhand. This was not a world into which humans, or part-wolves, were often invited.
I couldn't pass the opportunity up.
To King, my acceptance of the case seemed to be a formality - it had never occurred to him that I might say no.
"On Friday night I am hosting a gala at the Pack Lodge to welcome my new mate. You will come along to get a closer look at my sons, as well as another assurance of my safety. Can’t be too careful now."
He was probably right. He couldn’t even trust his bodyguards anymore - werewolf loyalty tended to be to the pack itself rather than the Pack Leader, and Tanner, Gray or Hudson might well win support as younger, more energetic leaders, or by good old-fashioned bribery.
"I'll be there," I nodded.
"I just said you would." Kenai King did not request obedience; he assumed it, and he got it. He sent a glance over me from top to bottom and cocked his head. "Dress well. This is a formal event."
"I'll check my wardrobe."
The werewolf shook his head, took out a wallet - made from a skin that I decided not to look too closely at - and handed me a bundle of notes. "Don't skimp."