“Yes,” Sophia managed to say as they reached the entrance—to be met by a well-groomed young female in blue overalls. Her name tag identified her as the chief mechanic.
“Detective Shannon, Ms. Russo, please follow me.” With that, she led them toward an isolated and sealed workroom at the very back of the garage. “This was Allison Marceau’s car.”
Eyes on the crumpled wreck of what had once been a dark green sedan, Max blew out a surprised breath. The majority of cars these days survived most impacts with the passenger cage intact. This was so much spaghetti. “Car versus tree?”
“Out near Modesto,” the mechanic answered, heading to the computer station built into the large workbench at the back of the room. “She was discovered by the leopards after they heard the sound of the initial impact.”
Max made a mental note to talk to Clay, find out anything that may not have made it into the official files—Psy, and even many humans, had a tendency to disregard the acute nature of changeling senses. Could be the cats had scented something that could’ve caused the crash—maybe even caught a hint of another person in the vicinity. “You did the work on this yourself?”
“Yes.” She pulled up something on the screen in front of her. “According to the data stored in the onboard computer,” the mechanic continued, “Ms. Marceau didn’t brake but accelerated on the turn.”
Sophia stepped up beside the other woman. “That’s not in the file.”
“Councilor Duncan asked me to keep it out of the official record.”
Sophia glanced at him, her unspoken thought clear. Suicide?
“Funny coincidence,” he murmured under his breath. “Is it possible,” he said, “that the car could’ve been rigged so that the brake was read as the accelerator by the computer?”
The mechanic replied with a positive answer, but said she needed more time to investigate. “The computer’s memory chip was severely damaged in the crash—it took me close to two weeks to retrieve what information we have at present.”
“Anything you find out,” Max said, writing down his cell code for her, “I want to know.”
Ten minutes and a few more questions later, Max and Sophia exited the garage into the crisp air of San Francisco. “Let’s walk. I need to think.”
They were almost a hundred yards down the slight slope before he vocalized his thoughts. “Humans aren’t the only ones vulnerable to psychic attack. If the car’s systems prove clean, then Allison Marceau could’ve been coerced to do what she did.”
Sophia realized she was walking too close to him, close enough to feel the rough caress of his body heat. “The psychic control of the aggressor would have to be considerable.” His arm brushed hers, a hard, warm stroke. “Marceau was a Gradient 7 telepath.” A warning shrieked in her head, but she didn’t move away. “Her shields would have been airtight.”
“All you need,” Max said, his gaze distant, “is a crack, a fissure.”
Her arm burned where he’d touched up against it, and though she knew it for a psychosomatic reaction, the contact having been muted by the layers of clothing between them, she clung to the sensation. “I’m certain Councilor Duncan would’ve weeded out anyone whose conditioning was suspect.”
“Maybe, maybe not.”
“You’re thinking of Sascha,” she said, shifting a single dangerous inch closer to the living heat of him. “I wouldn’t consider that a parallel.”
“No?” His hair lifted in the breeze blowing off the bay, baring the clean, perfect lines of his face.
“Psy are almost obsessive about bloodlines,” she said, her thoughts buried in memories of a past that proved the truth of that assertion beyond any doubt. “It’s a loyalty unlike human loyalty; nevertheless, it is loyalty.” Compared to human love, Psy familial loyalty was a wintry, practical thing. And it was very much conditional.
Sophia had failed to meet those conditions as a child, and it had cost her her parents’ allegiance. Yet it seemed to have held for the Duncans, notwithstanding the very public nature of Sascha Duncan’s defection. “It may be that the Councilor protected her daughter because Sascha is her genetic offspring.”
Max gave a humorless smile. “Funny—Nikita’s about the coldest woman I’ve ever met, but she was probably a better mother than mine.”
It was an open door. And the lost, painfully lonely part of her wanted to walk through that door so desperately that she found the words. “Your mother was inadequate?”
“She hated me,” he said, his tone austere, as distant as his expression. “Truly hated me. I don’t know why she carried me to term, because I’m certain she wanted to kill me the instant I was born.”
Sophia tried to glimpse in this hard-edged cop the vulnerable child he must’ve been. She couldn’t. But she did understand a truth that “real” Psy weren’t supposed to understand. “It hurt you,” she said, attempting to say the right thing, to hold on to his trust. No one had ever shared such a private thing with her out of choice. It made her heart turn oddly heavy, a thick ache in her chest.
“She died when I was fifteen.” Words that sounded calm, but his voice was sandpaper against her skin, harsh, rough. “And the hell of it was, I missed her. Even though she’d given me up to foster care more than once, treated me worse than you would a dog when I was home, I missed her.” A rush of wind rippled through his hair at that moment, and it seemed to act like a spray of cold water. He blinked, shook his head. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”