"You're a strong personality," he said, surprising her. "Most nonpredatories would automatically see you as dominant, and as for predatory changelings, they decide according to the individual. Your owl schoolmates must've figured you were tougher than them."
"Huh." But it made sense. The owls had been scholars from a nice family, while she had been very hard-case. "Anyway, the horses and owls can't have dug the caves. They hate being shut in."
She almost spewed coffee all over the table. "There are snake changelings?"
"Why wouldn't there be?" He refilled her cup. "They're rare, but they exist."
"You think a bunch of snakes created those caves?" She shivered, recalling all those times she'd been alone in them.
"Changeling snakes, Talin." A reprimand. "No more or less animal than I am."
She bit her lower lip, feeling about five years old. But this was Clay, so she admitted the truth. "I can't help it. Leopards are dangerous, beautiful. Snakes are creepy."
"I think the snake changelings would disagree." He leaned back in his chair, a predator at ease in his territory.
She felt his foot touch the rung of her chair, knew it to be a possessive act. But she was having too much fun to call him on it. "Are they as human?" She scrunched up her nose at his scowl. "You know what I mean. When you walk, it's with this feline grace. What do they take from their animal?"
His lips curved again, full, tempting. "Calling me graceful, Tally?"
"I'll call you vain in a minute." But he was graceful, lethally so.
Both his feet touched her chair now. "Snakes are very...other. They tend to scare people on a visceral level, even when in human form. But that makes them no less human."
"No," she agreed, thinking of how the world judged her children.
"A long time ago, I saw one after she shifted. She had black-diamond scales that shimmered like an oil slick does in the rain - full of rainbows."
The image was startlingly beautiful. "If they were there, under the farm," she asked, "why would they leave?"
"A hundred things - maybe the colony disbanded or they decided to migrate elsewhere." He shrugged. "Now, tell me about the dead children."
That quickly, their little interlude was over. No more talk about mysterious changeling snakes and the quaint beauty of corn-farming country. But his feet remained on the rung of her chair. Taking strength from that, she began at the beginning. "I left the Larkspurs at age sixteen to enroll in a scholarship program at NYU." Somewhat to her shock, she had proven very bright once given a chance, so much so that she'd graduated the purgatory of high school two years ahead of schedule.
Clay sat with such feline stillness, she couldn't even see him breathe. "You never gave the Larkspurs a shot, did you?"
"No." The simplest and most painful of truths. "The scholarship was one provided by the Shine Foundation." She looked up to see if he recognized the name.
"Human backed," he said. "Financed by donations from a number of wealthy philanthropists."
"Its aim," she picked up, "is to support bright but underprivileged children who might never otherwise have a chance to shine. That's what the brochure says and I guess they really follow it. All the kids I look after are disadvantaged in some way."
"What did you study?"
She folded her arms. "Child psych and social work."
"You hated the social workers."
"Ironic, huh?" She made a rueful face. "I thought I might be able to do a better job. But I never got into the system. I graduated at twenty-one, and was offered a position in the foundation's street program."
He didn't push her to get to the point, and for that, she was grateful. She had to approach the horror obliquely, wasn't sure she could survive full-frontal exposure. "We help get kids off the street and into school or training. Devraj - the director - makes sure there's no corruption, no favoritism."
"Sounds very worthy." Open cynicism.
Her hackles rose. "It is! The foundation does so much, helps so many." He had no right to mock them. "I work with the eleven-to-sixteen age group."
"Tell me about it." So proud, so unwilling to accept the helping hand she offered. "I get all sorts. Runaways, nice but poor kids, gang members who want out."
"What's your success rate?"
"About seventy percent." The other thirty, the lost ones, they broke her heart, but she kept going. She couldn't afford not to or the ones she could help would suffer.
"You said Mickey was yours."
She gave a jerky nod. "So was Diana. She was found this week, around the same time as Iain. He belonged to one of my colleagues in San Francisco. Thirteen and already able to speak seven languages - can you imagine what he might've become?"
"Three Shine kids? Interesting coincidence."
"Not really. The killers and the foundation work in the same pool - marginalized and vulnerable children."
He nodded. "True."
"And the other seven Max told me about were scattered across the country. None were Shine scholars."
"So there's no specific connection to San Francisco. Why come here?"
"To set up Jonquil. He's fourteen, ex-gang. This was a new start." Her voice broke.
Getting up, Clay walked around the table and tugged her to her feet. The simple contact destroyed her center of gravity even as it gave her courage. "Clay."