—PsyMed report on Sophia Russo, minor, age 8
Max had been a cop for over a decade. It didn’t take him long to connect the dots. Staring out at the city streets, he tried to wipe out the image of Sophia slipping softly into the last good night, unable to believe that this smart, steely woman would ever give in to death without a fight. “And do you think suicide is preferable to rehabilitation?”
“I believe the choice is the individual’s.” A pause. “But if you’re asking if I would ever make that choice—no.” She tapped the screen of her organizer with a little laser pen. “Would you like to talk about the second suspicious death?”
Convinced by her absolute answer on the issue of suicide, he turned his mind back to the case. “Carmichael Jones,” he said. “Massive coronary in his suite while at a meeting in the Cayman Islands. Maid found him—pathologist ruled he’d been dead for at least two, three hours at that stage.”
Sophia didn’t say anything for almost a minute. Then, “Do you have all this data in your head?”
“Yes.” Startled at the question, he glanced over, caught those night-violet eyes watching him with a focus that felt like a touch. “Don’t you?”
“No, I have other things in my head.” She dropped her gaze to the screen of the organizer, cutting off that topic, but he felt its shadowy echo all around him.
His hands clenched on the steering wheel. “Do you have nightmares?”
“Psy don’t dream.” It was the nonanswer he’d expected, but then she added, “It’s easy for them to say that,” and he knew Sophia had looked into the abyss and screamed.
Even as he opened his mouth to reply, she spoke again, and this time, her words were icily pragmatic. “Carmichael Jones was Councilor Duncan’s main advisor in relation to the property arm of her business.”
Max let her retreat for now. “Construction’s a big part of her empire from what I’ve heard.”
“Yes. She’s had a lot of success building changeling-aimed complexes.”
“Hmm.” He considered what he knew of changelings. His friendship with Clay—and another DarkRiver sentinel, Dorian—was solid, but it had been earned through blood. In general, when it came to strangers, the predatory species tended to maintain a reserved distance. “How did she manage that?”
“She has an agreement with your friends’ pack. I believe it’s proven a beneficial arrangement for both parties.” A little movement as she settled against her seat, the scent of her a tantalizing stroke across his senses. “There are rumors the SnowDancer wolves are a silent party in many of these deals, but no confirmation.”
Max whistled. If the cats were chilly when it came to outsiders, the wolves were downright glacial. “Did Carmichael Jones deal with the leopards?”
“No. Nikita is the main contact—which is unusual.”
Caressing the car through a turn, he shook his head. “Not really—I have a feeling her daughter was meant to be the original lead.” He’d never met Sascha, but he had met her mate, Lucas, briefly during his previous trip to San Francisco—on the trail of another butcher, one who’d eviscerated children like they were so much meat.
“Detective . . . Max. Are you well?”
He realized he was squeezing the steering wheel hard enough to turn his skin bloodless. “Yeah.”
“You have nightmares, too.” Soft words. “They always pass.”
The statement hit him with the force of a ten-ton truck—she was trying, he realized, to comfort him, this J who had more nightmares inside her skull than he’d ever see, even if he lived ten lifetimes. “Nikita,” he said, his voice dropping as he fought the urge to bring the car to a halt, to take her into his arms, to comfort her, “probably took over when Sascha defected.”
She didn’t pursue the subject of nightmares. “Yes, that makes sense.”
“And Sascha is her blood”—he knew better than anyone that that didn’t always mean what it should, but in this case—“maybe she needs the contact.”
Sophia shook her head. “Nikita cut off Sascha the instant her daughter proved flawed.”
Her words, coupled with the direction of his thoughts, threatened to pitch him back into the past, into the life of another unwanted child. “Do you think,” he said, slamming the door on those memories, “that Sascha is flawed?”
“It doesn’t matter what I think, only what Councilor Duncan believes.”
“You didn’t strike me as a coward, Sophia.”
Utter stillness. “What is it you want from me?” It was an outwardly calm question, but he was certain he heard a bewildered vulnerability beneath the surface.
It made him feel like a bastard. “I’m just trying to know who you are.” And why she spoke to a part of him that had gone quiet a long, long time ago.
“Nobody,” she said, her tone so flat, he could’ve imagined the soft-voiced woman who’d told him his nightmares would pass. “I’m nobody.”
Sophia spoke over him, the dark, broken girl inside her panicked. He was pushing too hard, seeing too much. She wasn’t ready to be exposed to the light, wasn’t ready to bare the scars that scored her from the inside out. “Getting back to the financial situation,” she said, the words coming out in a fast, staccato beat, “the cumulative effect of her advisors’ deaths, while not huge, has been enough to cause Nikita significant problems in terms of her overall business reputation.”