Rogue Page 49

“You’re sure it was a woman?” Michael asked, his stride once again smooth, but noticeably quicker and more determined.

My father nodded. “We have a working description, but no idea who she is or why she’s targeting toms in our territory. Or where she came from, though we’re guessing somewhere in South America, based on the scent.”

The barn rose before us at the end of the dirt path running down the center of the western field. In my childhood, it had been my secret retreat, but instead of afternoons spent in the company of Oliver Twist and Jane Eyre, I now associated the smell of fresh hay with death and decay, because for the second time in as many days, we were using the barn as a makeshift morgue.

With a stoic heave, and not so much as a grunt, my father pulled open the big double barn doors. Again. And again we filed in after him. But this time, as Owen and Vic unloaded the plastic-wrapped bundle from the back of the van, my father gave directions to Jace and Ethan, who scampered up to the loft to push down the only three hay bales left over from last season. We weren’t going to put the body of a Pride member—a man who’d spent several childhood summers on our ranch—on the floor.

“The most obvious starting point is the unidentified stray scent on Jamey’s body,” my father said in his Alpha voice, as Owen careful y peeled strips of duct tape from the plastic. “I’m willing to bet this stray is our anonymous informant, and that he saw Jamey with the tabby. With any luck, he’ll have some useful information for us—like her name, and where she’s going. So the first order of business is to identify this stray.”

When the sheet of black plastic draping Jamey’s body fell open, a limp hand fell with it, hanging to brush the side of the hay bale. It looked for all the world like an image from a cheesy horror movie, and was every bit as surreal.

Owen clomped forward in his boots to gently lay Jamey’s hand over his stomach. As thoughtful as the gesture was, it didn’t really help.

There’s only so much you can do to make the sight of a dead companion easier to accept. Especial y under such gruesome circumstances.

My father came forward first, while the rest of us stood watching him with our hands in our pockets. He stood silently at Jamey’s side, as if to say his final goodbye, but I could tell by the rise and fall of his chest that he was breathing deeply to take in the scent. He would no more lean down and blatantly sniff Jamey’s corpse than he would lay him on the floor. Or leave him exposed as a meal for nature’s scavengers.

Finally, he stepped back and shook his head. “I don’t recognize the scent, but that’s not really surprising. I can’t remember the last time I saw a stray in person. A live stray, anyway.”

I glanced at Marc in amusement, and he smiled back. My father probably didn’t even realize his mistake; he truly never thought of Marc as a stray. He thought of Marc as a son.

Michael came forward next and actually took Jamey’s hand in his own. I knew in seconds that he hadn’t recognized the scent, because when his breathing resumed its normal rhythm, he didn’t offer us any information. Yet he stayed with Jamey for almost a ful minute, staring down at his friend’s face as if he were lost in some distant memory.

Eventually, Michael shook his head and retreated silently to a spot near the door. To avoid looking at anyone, he cleaned the wire-rimmed glasses he only wore for show. Marc and I stepped into the space he’d vacated. Marc inhaled deeply, and I did the same.

Then I froze.

Son of a bitch! My fingers clenched around Marc’s, and his knuckles popped in rapid succession. He yelped in pain and tried to pull back his hand. I barely noticed. When my hand relaxed, his fingers slipped from my grasp. He rubbed his bruised knuckles, smiling broadly at me. He’d identified it, too.

“You recognize the scent?” Michael asked, his voice sharp and clearly skeptical.

I nodded, and Marc’s smile widened even further.

My father arched both eyebrows, already impatient with the suspense. “Well?”

“Dan Painter,” I said, excitement making a breathless whisper of my voice. Things were final y starting to make sense. Some things, anyway.

Ethan shook his head. “What the hell is Painter’s scent doing on Jamey Gardner?”

I indulged in a gloating smile, thrilled to be more in-the-know than he was for once. “Clearly Painter is the anonymous informer.”

Owen frowned, shifting his hat back and forth on his head. “That’s not quite as clear as you seem to think it is, sis,” he drawled. “At least not to me.”

“I second that.” Parker’s gaze flicked uncertainly from me to Marc.

“Let me see if I’m understanding this correctly,” Vic began, propping one arm on top of the nearest stal door. “Greg’s been getting anonymous phone cal s, al from the same man, reporting the rogue tabby’s kills and tel ing us where to find them.”

“So far, so good.” I winked at him for good measure.

“Thanks.” He glanced at my father, then continued. “Presumably, this caller has been following the tabby around, watching her. And now you think he’s this Dan Painter fellow. The same stray you guys caught and released in Arkansas, what? Three days ago?”

“Right.” Marc nodded.

Yet I felt compelled to correct one minor misunderstanding. “Actually, I caught Painter. Me. All alone.”

Vic grinned. “My mistake.” I smiled in acknowledgment, and he continued. “So, we think Painter is spying on the tabby, then ratting her out. But do we think she had something to do with the missing stripper, too?”

Prev Next