Talin felt her stomach knot at the thought. "Thank you for sharing all this, Max."
"Why did you?" Clay's eyes were watchful, his hold on her so proprietary it made her feminine instincts spark in warning. "It's confidential information."
"I researched this town before I came in." Max might've been human but he held Clay's gaze with solid confidence. "Aside from the obvious Psy presence, DarkRiver and SnowDancer control San Francisco. And" - his tone shifted, became sharper - "the jury's recently gone out on whether the Psy really do continue to have more influence than the cats and wolves."
Talin's mouth went dry. The Psy made certain they were the sole power in any major metropolitan city, were ruthless in eliminating opponents. But if Max was right, then she'd begged the aid not of a friend, but of a man with a powerful network of influential connections. It shook her. What if Clay thought she'd only come to him because of his link to DarkRiver?
"You always intended to ask us to get involved," Clay responded, his fingers stroking over her hip. She would've objected except she had a feeling that it was an unconscious act. And disturbing as it was to her senses, she liked it.
"I wanted to meet one of the senior pack members first. Changelings help their own - I wasn't sure you'd bother with lost human children." Max's tone was blunt.
"Still doesn't answer the original question."
"I need backup." Max's mouth twisted. "Like I said, Enforcement doesn't see this case as a priority."
Talin felt her anger spike but kept her silence. None of this was Max's fault.
"You're saying you're on your own on this?" Clay asked, sliding his hand up and down in a caress that threatened to make her shiver. She shifted but it only made him pull her closer, the heat of his body both a warning and a seductive kind of comfort.
"I have some friends in this city who'll step in if necessary," Max answered, "but yeah. The M.E.s usually get excited about unusual murders, and with the organ removals, these would qualify, but all I got this time were by-the-numbers reports. There's pressure coming from somewhere, but hell if I know where. Especially if Shine is clean." He tapped the side of his beer bottle.
"And," he continued, "whatever marked these children's brains as different, well, we don't have it to work with. I've been able to get hold of some medical scans taken prior to death - usually as part of a Shine eval. Maybe you'll spot something the M.E.s didn't. Won't be hard. I'm not sure they even looked." A cynical smile. "Enforcement, the great protectors."
"I don't have medical training." Frustrated, she clenched her hand against Clay's T-shirt again, gripping the soft material in her fist.
"I know someone." Clay fingers stilled before he cupped his hand boldly over her hip and squeezed. Stomach tight with awareness, she released his T-shirt but remained tucked against him, needing him more than she feared whatever it was that was growing between them. "You have any issue with me sharing the files?"
"I asked for your help. I have to trust you." Max's face took on a thoughtful cast. "You know the one thing I've always admired about the Psy?"
Startled by the sudden change in the direction of the conversation, Talin asked, "What?"
"They might be a race of ice-cold bastards, but they don't abuse their kids. I've never heard of any sexual or physical abuse within a Psy household. Leave it to us animal races to sink that low."
"Don't be impressed." Clay's voice vibrated with withheld fury. "They begin their abuse at birth. Psy aren't born emotionless, they're conditioned into it. Their children have no choice but to obey - refusal gets you rehabilitated."
Max frowned. "Rehab?"
"The process wipes memory, destroys mental capacity, basically turns them into walking vegetables."
"Christ." Max shook his head. "But even with that, I'm not convinced they didn't make the better choice. Their children aren't the ones being beaten to death."
Talin was still wrestling with what Max had told them when they reached Clay's lair late that night. He pushed something on the Tank's dash. "I've unarmed the lair's defenses. Get your butt inside before you start snoring right here."
"I'm not the one who snores," she muttered, walking away from the vehicle and into the lair.
Darkness, complete darkness.
"Lights." Her breath began to come in panicked bursts. "Full power."
Strangling fear threatened to close around her throat as she scrabbled at the wall, trying to find the computronics panel. She was sure she'd seen it earlier today. God, she had to find it. The dark, it was closing around her. Suffoca -
She spun around, gasped at the sight of him. His eyes were night-glow, an eerie green-silver that was completely cat. "You can see in the dark!"
"Of course I can." He said it like it was the most normal thing in the world. "Panel's five inches to your left. Middle pad."
She tried to pretend calm as she found it, then pressed the central pad. Light poured out from a ceiling fixture. "You don't have voice activation."
He grunted. "Does this look like a palace?" A pause. "I'll get one of the techs to put it in tomorrow."
"No, you don't have - "
"I said I'll get it done." His tone told her he was just itching for a fight.
She decided for grace instead. "Thank you."
A dark scowl as he began to unbutton his shirt.
Her barely steady heartbeat took another jagged leap. "What are you doing?"