Mom and a few of the aunties appeared at my door, gasping in shock at the mess and the smoke. Ignoring their murmurs, I strode out into the street, working up a decent head of steam while I worked through what might have happened. The kids were in school, and most of the adults were at work or indoors. We ran perimeter checks on occasion, but it’s not as if the valley was under twenty-four-hour guard.
I heard the school bell ring down the street, announcing the end of lunch, and paused. The high school kids were allowed to run home for lunch if they wanted. Between the werewolf stuff and the regular human adolescent roller coaster, their bodies went through more food than could be easily carried to school. It was easier for them to run home and scarf down as many calories as possible just to get through the day. “Free lunch” left them unsupervised for a good hour of the day, but we tried to emphasize trust and personal responsibility in the pack. Obviously, that had come back to bite us on the ass.
I marched to the school building and called all five high school students to the office, which was basically the supply closet at the end of the classroom. If I was going to question one of them, I would question them all. Frankly, if one of them had anything to do with the fire, their friends were smart enough to distance themselves by ratting them out. Cousin Teresa gave the little kids busy work and sat with me while I marched the teens away.
Their chatter and teasing died the minute I walked into the tiny room. The kids sat up a little straighter and put on their serious faces. They eyed me solemnly, all long, coltish limbs combined with baby cheeks and huge eyes. Of the five, only three, Ricky, Rebecca, and Benjamin, were able to phase, but they all recognized the authority of the pack leader. They knew that disrespect and sass would get them into trouble with me and then again with their parents. It was a double whammy of adult supervision.
My eyes narrowed at Benjamin and Ricky, the chewing-tobacco enthusiasts whom I’d forced to overindulge to the point of vomiting. They were good kids but had been known to cause more than their fair share of trouble. This included accidentally setting my workshop aflame with a badly timed M-80. Had their pyromaniac antics escalated to intentional damage? Were they trying to get back at me for the puking?
“Do any of you have anything to tell me? Something to do with my office?” I asked, giving each of them my best motherly glare. The kids’ eyes went wide, and their mouths clamped shut. “Look, if you did it because you thought it would be funny or you’re upset with me about something, it’s not OK, but I get it. I did a lot of stupid stuff when I was a kid. But it’s better to go ahead and fess up to it and take your licks now than to lie. Because then I’ll be pissed at you.”
Silence. “No one knows who gave my office the arsonist’s makeover?” I asked.
Teresa gasped. “Someone set fire to your office?”
Benjamin, the oldest of the group, shook his shaggy brown head. “Honest, Maggie, we wouldn’t do something like that. My dad’s still pissed at me for the chaw thing.”
“And we’re afraid of you,” Lila added.
The other kids nodded solemnly. I gnawed on the inside of my cheek, focusing all of my energy on keeping my frustration and temper in check. I believed them, which meant that my anxiety over the whole episode had just doubled. It wouldn’t do to explode all over these kids just because I didn’t get the easy answer that I wanted. Breathing slowly through my nose, and getting a nostril full of the smoky stink rising from my jacket, I sighed. “When you were on your way home for lunch, did you see anything strange or see anyone who isn’t part of the pack wandering around?”
The kids shook their heads.
“We just heard that crappy old-timer music you like blaring from the shed,” Ricky said, smirking at me. Ricky was the resident smart-ass, which sort of endeared him to me. Rebecca, his twin, elbowed him in the ribs.
My mouth twitched. That smart-ass little answer was exactly what I needed to snap my mood back into place. I kept my voice level but serious. “OK, until I say otherwise, I want you guys to keep an eye on the little kids,” I told them. “And if you see anyone you don’t recognize walking around, tell the nearest pack member. Don’t try to approach them yourselves.” I saw Benjamin bristle a little. “Even though you are all clearly bad-asses.”
Benjamin smirked, appeased.
“Well, how about we skip the history quiz this afternoon?” Teresa suggested. The kids whooped and hollered. Teresa added, “And as a community service project, you can go over to the center and help Maggie clean up her office.”
“Aww.” The kids groaned.
Teresa lifted her brow.
“I mean, yaaaay,” Ricky said in the least convincing cheerful voice ever.
I laughed. “I’d appreciate it, kids.”
“Shouldn’t you call the cops?” Teresa asked as the teens filed out of the room.
“I sort of am the cops around here,” I reminded her. Teresa had lived in Portland for a while, after getting engaged to a male from one of the local packs. She lived there for two years, an incredibly long engagement for a were, before deciding that he wasn’t a good match, and moved back home. Her mother had told my mother that the bastard had called it off and mated with a human.
City life had left Teresa a bit out of sorts. She was used to public transportation, restaurants, movie theaters, cooperating with the human authorities . . . .
“Oh, right,” she said, frowning. “It’s just been so long since we’ve had any sort of trouble. I sort of forgot the procedure.”
“It’s OK. Thanks for sending the kids over. I’m pretty sure I have a brigade of aunties helping me already, but the kids will make the job go faster. Do you need anything here at the school?” I asked as she walked me out of the schoolhouse. “Supplies? Snacks?”
“Nope, we’re pretty much covered, as long as I can get the Gilbert kids to stop chewing on the nap-time mats.”
“I miss nap-time.” I sighed.
“Who wouldn’t?” She chuckled, waving me away.
When I arrived at the office, the smoke had all but disappeared. Mom and the aunts and gathered outside the building, whispering among themselves, while the kids worked.
“What a mess.” Mom sighed, kissing my cheeks and checking me over for obvious wounds. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” I promised, wiggling out of her grasp. There were people watching, for goodness sake. “And I’m not sure what happened. We might need to have a pack meeting later, OK? Can you all tell your families?” The women nodded earnestly. “For right now, how about you go home and let the kids do the heavy lifting? Burn off a little of that energy.”
I heard my aunt Bonnie, Ricky’s mother, whisper, “Please, Lord,” as the ladies dispersed.
I walked into my office and found that Rebecca, the most organized soul in the group, had already started sorting through the papers and trying to salvage some of my ripped file folders. Ricky and Benjamin were in deep conference regarding which caustic substance would best clean the smoke marks from my ceiling.
After convincing them that hydrochloric acid was probably overkill, I directed the others to help me gather my paperbacks and throw what couldn’t be saved into the Dumpster out back. As I leaned over to right my slashed office chair, I caught the faint whiff of a familiar scent. Something clean and floral under the smoke.
Fabric softener. The same sort of April Fresh scent that had lingered on my truck.
I leaned closer, inhaling. It was new, definitely not something that had been clinging to my chair that morning. I tried to circulate through the room and subtly sniff the kids to check if maybe they’d cross-contaminated the chair with their moms’ laundry habits.
But kids today, what with the Dateline sex-predator exposés, notice when an adult sniffs them. Frankly, that made me feel better about the kids’ survival instincts. And it ended up being an exercise in unnecessarily creepy futility, because none of them smelled April Fresh. Spring Meadow? Mountain Breeze? Sure. But not a whiff of April Freshness.
I didn’t know what to make of it. I believed the kids when they said they didn’t barbecue my office. And we hadn’t had a stranger wander into town for random vandalism in, well, ever. And I couldn’t shake the odd coincidence that the undercarriage of my truck had smelled like dryer sheets. Who the hell would want to cut the brakes on my truck? Or toss my office? One act seemed rather serious, while the other just annoyed the hell out of me and cost me a new wastebasket. And who the hell used so much fabric softener that it obliterated all other traces of their natural scent?
Eli. The pack’s former alpha would have thought of something like that as he was terrorizing and attacking people near Cooper’s home in Grundy—Susie Quinn, a couple of teenage hikers, Abner Golightly. Cooper had been convinced that he was doing it himself, that he was having some sort of wolf blackout, which was exactly what Eli wanted him to think.
Cooper had a harder time remembering his time as a wolf than most of us. The more time a wolf spends with the pack, the clearer memories are during the phasing. There was a sort of collective memory among us, which could be unfortunate, given some of the stupid shit Samson pulled while on four legs. Since Cooper had spent nearly two years away from the pack, he was practically an amnesiac. When people started dying and Cooper thought it was possible that he could hurt Mo, he thought his only option was to leave.
Eli would have pulled something sneaky and backhanded like messing with my truck or setting fire to the “seat of my authority.”
But Eli was dead, which left me without a suspect list.
I CIRCULATED THROUGH THE VILLAGE, warning the older members of the pack to keep an eye out. And able-bodied pack members were going to be running perimeter a lot more often. We didn’t want the police traipsing around the valley. I couldn’t run fingerprint analysis on my own truck or my office door. So, beyond increased patrols, there wasn’t much I could do.
And that’s what had me on four legs, running along the lip of the valley on a Monday evening. Well, I was supposed to be running along the edge of the valley.
After Uncle Frank mentioned our possible intruder problem, Lee had shown up with “reinforcements,” big burly males from his pack to help run patrols. I think he saw it as some sort of courting gesture, a “see how well we will all work together when the two packs are in-laws” thing. He kept trying to organize us into pairs and send the troops to “strategic locations” in the valley, but he didn’t know where those points were. And again, he just wasn’t that smart.
The meeting spiraled into a chaotic mess, and it took Samson bellowing “Shut the hell up!” at the chattering mob of weres before I could get everyone calmed down and paired off.
Of course, Lee refused to be paired with anyone but me. But I’d managed to ditch him just outside the village while he was distracted. I took off through a tight passage under a bunch of scrub pines. He was too big to fit through and hadn’t managed to catch up to me in more than an hour.
Wandering aimlessly in the dusky, purpling woods, I wondered where Clay was. He’d been paired up with Teresa. I’d planned on partnering him with Samson, but my cousin suddenly had to pee during the assignments. He came back in just as Alicia stepped through the door, eager for a day outside since my mother had offered to watch the boys. And somehow, conveniently, Samson was the only wolf left without a partner.
My big dumb cousin could be downright devious sometimes. His interest in Alicia was an interesting development. It was a little strange, as werewolf males didn’t typically spark on widows, particularly widows with children. But if Alicia made Samson happy, I’d help negotiate for her paw myself.
On the other hand, Teresa was showing clear interest in Clay, which was a problem. Clay and I had gone on two dates so far, and we’d had a great time together. Clay could take my mind off the stresses of the pack, but I didn’t forget myself completely. It felt safer being with him than the constant emotional carnival ride I seemed to be stuck on with Nick. But how was that was going to work with Teresa? I hated to think of her seeing us and feeling jealous, upset, alone. She’d already been screwed over by Cupid once. Maybe I could try setting her up with one of Lee’s packmates. Some of them seemed smarter than he was, though not as handsome.