"She's not exactly trustworthy," Mercy muttered, "but this has the smell of the Alliance. Psy teams don't like to attract attention."
Riley nodded in agreement as they headed off, deciding to take the car since they had a lot of ground to cover and others were already working the streets. They came up blank at the Embarcadero warehouse, and in the Tenderloin, though they got out and traversed the entire suspect section on foot. All other known sites yielded the same result.
Panic threatened to twist Mercy's heart into a knot. It was all she could do to keep it together. "Where else?! God damn it!"
Sweating despite the cold air as they stood beside the car, Riley tried to think. That was his strength when it came to chaotic situations. Right now, the mating dance was playing havoc with his mind, but with Mercy beside him - even a distraught Mercy - he found a measure of control. "Let's go back to the basic facts," he said. "Our grid covers the Alliance. So we work on the assumption that the Alliance did this. No ifs, no buts."
She nodded, eyes full of fire.
"Then, the next question becomes - why would the Alliance take them in the first place?" he said. "It's very deliberate - three SnowDancers and four leopards."
"Either a declaration of war," Mercy muttered, kicking at a tire, "or a big fat 'fuck-you.' "
He considered that.
"Riley, the killings - there have been two confirmed cases in Tahoe. What if - ?"
"Damn." He reached out to brush sweat-damp strands of red off her face. "I forgot to tell you in the mess yesterday - one of the comm techs forwarded me a bulletin. Seems the two victims were lovers. Enforcement's charged the husband."
The sheer banality of the crimes seemed to shock Mercy out of her burgeoning panic. "Oh." A quick nod, a jerky breath. "Okay, okay." She shoved her hands through her hair and he could almost see her pulling her sentinel skin around herself.
"If we can't answer the why, let's try the how." She placed a hand against the hood. "I can see how your three boys might've been taken - pretty girl distracts them, another spikes their drinks, then the girls 'helpfully' lead them out. Everyone thinks they're drunk boyfriends, nothing sinister. But our kids were out having dinner, not in a club."
Riley nodded. "If it was me, and I had to get four sober people to do what I wanted, I'd grab one while he or she was separated from the group, then force the others to follow by threatening the one I had."
"The thing is, you know about how loyal we are - would the Alliance?"
"They've proven to be smart. They study the enemy before striking."
"So your scenario is a possibility." Mercy's claws were out, though she didn't seem to realize it. "But unless there were a lot of attackers, it'd be hard to control that many changelings, especially once you had them in a van or truck."
"Unless you use the threat of death against one to force the others to behave" - his brain made a cognitive leap - "or to dose themselves with a tranquilizer." Every single captured changeling would've tried to find an escape hatch, but if someone was holding a gun to the head of a friend, they wouldn't have dared risk an action that didn't promise a hundred percent chance of success. Packmates did not sacrifice one to save many. The Psy called that a weakness. Riley thought it their greatest strength. "But even if they're all knocked out, what then?"
"Exactly." Mercy began to pace up and down the street, both of them deliberately ignoring the fact that the tranq doses in their scenario could've been fatal. "If it's a message, we need to receive it. Otherwise, we don't know who did it, and they don't get credit. And the Alliance likes to make a splash."
"We need to factor in another thing - the kidnappers need time to get away after delivering the message." The wolf in him saw a hint of possibility. "We need to be searching isolated places where the missing wouldn't immediately be found, but where they wouldn't not be found in a reasonable amount of time."
Mercy apparently located a hair tie in her pocket because she began to pull the flowing strands of her hair into a messy ponytail. "They're not totally familiar with this city, so they won't go far from their 'circle' of movement."
"We need to dumb the search down." Riley straightened, seeing the truth. "We've been searching in places they probably have no clue how to even find."
Mercy's eyes turned night-glow. "There were reports of possible Alliance movements in the streets leading up to the Palace of Fine Arts. It fits. It's not so isolated that the missing wouldn't be found, but it's isolated enough that likely no one will pass through it at this time of the morning." The clock had just ticked over five thirty.
They were already moving as she finished speaking. Adopting Mercy's hell-on-wheels driving technique, Riley had them on the Palace grounds five minutes later.
Magnificent in daylight, the huge pillars that curved out from the rotunda were ominous in darkness. Mercy deliberately avoided looking at the glassy surface of the lake to her right. No going there until necessary.
Using her night vision to negotiate around the pillars, she kept her body low to the ground, trying to pick up a scent. What she found instead was a jagged claw mark in the grass. "Riley." This had been made by a wolf.
He was beside her in a second. "Scent's dissipated, but it's fresh."
They all but crawled on the ground, alert to any other hint that the mark might've been made by one of their lost packmates. Riley found the next bread crumb - an earring with dangling glass beads.