"How's Cori doing?" Ashe was worried for his friend. Even he hadn't known that Cori liked James.
"Understandably upset," Marcus raked fingers through his hair. "Greta and three other wolves are searching for Marco. I hope they find him soon."
"Aedan, may I see you in the house for a moment?" Nathan hadn't said anything until now. Tall, with dark-blond hair and green eyes, Nathan, Cori and Dori looked very much alike. Cori and Dori were his daughters, after all, and Ashe wondered where both girls were since Nathan and Lavonna were inside his garage.
"Sure," Aedan answered, nodding to Nathan. He punched the code into the keypad at the back door and he and Nathan walked into the kitchen, shutting the door behind them. Adele rubbed Sali's shoulders as Marcus spoke softly to his son. Attempting to remain unnoticed, Ashe edged away until he was standing next to the back door. He could hear if his father were speaking to Nathan in the kitchen. He was.
"Aedan, we may have trouble," Nathan said. Ashe strained to hear the rest. "You're not going to like this," Nathan went on. "We've got at least three werewolves who think this murder is a vampire's work."
"Both of us have solid alibis," Nathan said as Ashe continued to listen to the private conversation. "But Old Harold was at the school, stripping the floors by himself. I called him—he wasn't lying when he said he hadn't gone anywhere else after sundown, but we must be on guard against any rumors. We don't need to go back fifty years because a werewolf decides to point the finger at a convenient vampire."
Ashe silently agreed. James, a senior and nearly eighteen, was still considered a child by the community and that made the crime worse. James and Marco had been born nearly a month apart and had grown up together. Ashe could understand Marco's grief and anger; he'd feel the same if anything happened to Sali.
"Have you been to the site? Did you scent anything?" Aedan asked.
"Yes, and it baffles me. I couldn't get any scents except those of Cori, Ben and Marcus. They were on the scene before I was called. Cori ran to Marcus' house since nobody was home here."
"Then someone was very careful," Aedan growled. Ashe knew what that growl meant; his father was becoming angry.
"Aedan, we may be reading this wrong and the perpetrator may be caught or come forward tomorrow, but it certainly doesn't look good. Did anyone else besides Sali's parents know you were going to the city?"
"No." Ashe drew in a breath at his father's answer. Was someone trying to frame his father for this? At least Ashe knew his parents couldn't have been involved and were above suspicion. Not only did Marcus and Denise DeLuca know about the trip to Oklahoma City, but Sali had gone with them. Ashe wanted to talk the whole thing over with Sali, but Sali was walking out of the garage with his father, likely headed home to wait for news about Marco.
"Where did they take the boy?" Aedan asked.
"They took him to the O'Neill's barn. Obviously the Johnsons are distraught."
"Did you see the body?"
"No. The wounds were only described to me by Marcus. By the time I was called, they'd already moved James."
"You think Cori can tell you anything?"
"I had to place compulsion for her to sleep, Aedan. She was screaming and crying until I did."
"Do you think they'll let us examine the body? If they're going to accuse a vampire, we should have the right to defend ourselves. Old Harold didn't do this; I'd bet my life on it."
"As would I, but nobody was there to verify his whereabouts."
"And there's no motive," Aedan sighed. "Harold has very little contact with any of the children. He cleans the school long after they're gone for the day. Ours know him because he's vampire." Ashe recognized the truth in his father's words; Old Harold came by the house often to speak with Aedan. Nearly everyone called the vampire Old Harold, although he appeared as young as his father did. Old Harold acted old, if that was something you could gauge. He always smiled at Ashe, though, and asked about lessons during his visits.
"Aedan, I think we should contact the Council." Nathan's words interrupted Ashe's thoughts, frightening him. The Council. The Vampire Council. Ashe knew little about the Council, except to fear it. His father seldom mentioned it, but Ashe knew the Council was in charge of vampire Enforcers and Assassins; those elite among the vampire race that tracked down rogues or investigated other crimes.
"The werewolves may contact the Grand Master as well."
"Better that than allowing things to get out of hand. We're an experiment, Aedan. Don't forget that. There are only twenty communities like ours in the country, and both the Council and the Grand Master are watching." Ashe blinked. An experiment? He'd never heard that before. He wanted to ask questions. Itched to ask questions. But his father would know he'd been eavesdropping if he did. Who would have the answers—that he could ask, anyway?
Ashe heard Aedan walk toward the back door. Quickly, Ashe slipped away to stand beside the SUV. Adele was still talking to a few others inside the garage and Micah Rocklin and Principal Billings had come in after examining the crime scene. In nearly thirteen years, Ashe had never seen anything like this. He'd known that one werewolf died when he was six after an unsuccessful challenge against Marcus DeLuca, but that was werewolf tradition. None of the Pack had spoken that werewolf's name afterward, although his family had grieved privately for him. Ashe hunched his shoulders.
"Son, we'll get to the bottom of this." Ashe didn't know whether his father realized he'd been listening or if Aedan felt Ashe needed comfort as he slipped an arm around Ashe's shoulders.
"Mom, can we take Sali's books to him?" Ashe tapped the bag of books that lay forgotten on the kitchen table. Sali had left them in the back seat of the SUV the night before. Now, Sunday morning had arrived, accompanied by an aura of aching sadness. Ashe found his mother in the kitchen, putting a casserole together to take to the Johnson family. It was the way things were done in Oklahoma; if somebody died, you brought food to the family. Adele knew many of her human customers and did the same for them.
"If you'll hang on until I get this out of the oven, I'll put a batch of cookies together for Sali and his family."
"Yeah. Oatmeal raisin," Ashe nodded, naming Sali's favorite cookies.
Later, when they dropped by the DeLuca home after delivering the casserole to the Johnsons, Ashe learned from Sali's mother that Marco had shown up just before dawn, naked, filthy and exhausted. Denise expressed relief that he'd come home on his own and explained that Marco was now in bed, sleeping. Sali gripped Ashe's elbow, pulling him down the hall and into his bedroom while Adele talked with Denise.
"Dude, what's going on?" Ashe whispered the moment Sali's door was closed. Sali's room looked normal for Sali—the bed made but rumpled, with a few items of clothing flung carelessly across the furniture. Schoolbooks were piled in a stack on the floor, mostly forgotten. Sali was a sports fan and posters of athletes littered his walls.
"Dad called the Grand Master last night," Sali whispered his answer to Ashe's question, flopping onto his not-so-neatly made bed. Ashe sighed at Sali's words. To him, the Grand Master was the Werewolf King.
"Is somebody coming to investigate?"
"Yeah. Dad thinks it's for the best."
"Yeah." Ashe wondered if Sali's mom was telling his mother the same thing. "Sali, what do you think happened to James?"
"Don't know. Dad and Micah couldn't get any other scents around the body except Cori's, and she's the one who found him. They'll question her, too."
"Cori wouldn't kill James."
"I know that. You know that. Do the adults know that?" Sali flipped over on his back. "This is so messed up."
"Did Marco say anything? When he came home?" Ashe realized he was still holding tightly to Sali's bag of books. He half-rose to pile them on the bedside table.
"Mom and Dad pulled him into the den and shut the door. I didn't hear anything."
"Yeah. And now he's asleep," Sali added glumly.
"Why would somebody want to kill James?" Ashe was back to the question that was circling his brain so often it threatened to develop racecar sound effects any moment.
"No idea. Did you sleep last night?"
"Me either. Not after we got to your house, anyway."
"Want to get a cookie?" Sali blinked hopefully at Ashe.
"Yeah. Let's get a cookie." Ashe wasn't hungry, but he wanted to humor Sali.
"Sali, only two, lunch is just half an hour away," Denise DeLuca warned as Sali carefully lifted aluminum foil off the plate of oatmeal raisin cookies. The pile of cookies was meticulously inspected as Sali searched for the two largest. Ashe waited patiently for his friend to make a choice.
"We were gonna go to Six Flags," Sali munched on a cookie. "On Thursday. Mom said I could invite you. That's not gonna happen now."
"We'll go another time." Ashe spared a glance at Sali—no doubt, his mother already knew and had kept it a surprise. Ashe thought he'd be working at Cordell Feed and Seed the entire week of spring break. And it wasn't often that Marcus offered to take Ashe along on a family outing. Ashe also wondered how this would affect the whole Randy Smith thing. Full moon was Tuesday, during spring break.
"I'll come over early tomorrow and go to Cordell with you and your mom," Sali stuffed half a cookie into his mouth.
"You still want to?" Ashe was surprised.
"Yeah. Bein' around the house gives me the shivers."
"As long as it's okay with your parents." Ashe remembered the conversation his dad had with Nathan the night before.