Pack_dynamics_cover_final

Julie Frost lives in Utah with her family, which consists of more pets than people, along with a collection of anteaters and Oaxacan carvings, some of which intersect. She writes an eclectic mixture of science fiction and fantasy, which has appeared in Cosmos, Unlikely Story, Plasma Frequency, Stupefying Stories, and many other venues, and has been a Finalist at Writers of the Future and the Hidden Prize for Prose. This is her first novel. She whines about writing, a lot, at agilebrit.livejournal.com, or you can follow her on Twitter @JulieCFrost.

Pack Dynamics by Julie Frost

After seven horrific months as a POW, Army Ranger-turned-PI Ben Lockwood just wants a safe, boring life. With his boss on vacation, he takes what looks like an easy case of pharmaceutical espionage he can work from his desk.

Now he's caught in a three-way collision course between a ruthless werewolf on the hunt for a cure for his dying vampire wife, a mad scientist whose multinational company doesn't even research supernatural medicine—and himself. Ben's nanotech-injected blood holds the key to the vampire's recovery, and the werewolf doesn't much care if he lives or dies in the harvesting.

Ben thought he was done fighting wars when he got home from Afghanistan, but his hard-won sanity and his girlfriend's life are both at risk. He'd rather die than lose either. The battle lines are drawn in a billionaire's basement, and retreat isn't an option. No matter how outgunned he is.

CURATOR'S NOTE

Julie Frost is a new writer, but she's drawn a lot of attention with her short fiction. I met her at Salt Lake Comic Con last year when bestselling author Larry Correia (best known for Monster Hunter International) dragged me aside and told me I should publish her. PACK DYNAMICS is an excellent book, a new and exciting take on werewolves. We debuted her book at this year's Salt Lake Comic Con, where she stood smiling in front of a stack of her books—she sold out completely in two days. I wanted to put her book in this StoryBundle to give her more exposure. – Kevin J. Anderson

 

REVIEWS

  • "I've always hated books about werewolves—until I read Julie Frost. There's a warmth, a viciousness, a wisdom, and a sense of humor that somehow combine into something joyous and unique. Highly recommended!"

    – David Farland
 

BOOK PREVIEW

Excerpt

Chapter One

Ben Lockwood couldn't breathe.

They'd shocked him unconscious in the grocery store parking lot with one of the new-generation stun guns, dropping him before he had a chance to pull the Micro Desert Eagle he carried. He blinked awake with a massive headache in a dim, echoing room so big its walls were hidden in shadows. A man and a woman looked on as a tall guy with a crooked nose bound him to a cold metal chair with a scratchy rope, tight enough to numb his arms.

Ben was groggy, not quite all there yet, but aware enough to warn them, "No, bad idea, bad idea, that is such a bad idea," and then the panic attack steamrolled him before he could tell them why.

Even as he wheezed like a broken accordion, he automatically catalogued height, weight, and demeanor. White male, buzz cut, brown hair, police baton—thug. White female, short blonde hair, scarred left eyebrow, hunting knife—scary competence. White male, tall, crooked nose, slight German accent—leader. All of them wore tight black t-shirts with an embroidered yellow logo he didn't recognize, a stylized lower-case 'I' inside a cursive 'O' Tan cargo pants and heavy boots completed their ensembles.

They took turns demanding information about the new client of the private-eye firm he worked for. But talking was impossible—tying him down never went well, even when nobody was punching him.

The leader slid on a pair of fingerless sap gloves, leather and filled with lead, and shattered Ben's glasses against his face, sending the eyewear tumbling away into some far corner of the room. A couple of ribs snapped next, and the pain made his vision go white for a few seconds before it went black around the edges and spotty in the middle. Ben caught the tail end of the question as his ears stopped ringing.

"...investigating for Alex Jarrett?" the leader asked.

"I don't—I can't—" Still breathless, memories roaring to the surface with the taste of blood—a dusty cave, an enraged Afghani insurgent. At least these guys spoke English. "Wait." Ben fought desperately to get a grip on himself, but his heart pounded so hard against his ribcage he thought it might crack from the inside.

Jarrett, Jarrett, Jarrett, what…? Oh. Pharmaceutical espionage. The new case Ben's boss, his girlfriend's mom, had handed off to them while she vacationed in Australia. Supposed to be easy, and safe. Something he could do from his desk. Ha.

Now he recognized the logo on the shirts—Ostheim Industries, one of Jarrett's big rivals. There'd been a sniff that Ostheim was involved somehow, but details were sketchy so far. Maybe they'd just become less so.

The anxiety attack eventually faded, leaving him wrung out, soaked in sweat, and exhausted. And not just a little pissed off. "What the hell?" he managed. The shakes refused to stop, and panic crouched on the edge of his consciousness, waiting to pounce.

"Tell us what Alex Jarrett hired you for, and what you know!" the thug barked.

He had to be kidding. They'd snatched Ben out of a parking lot and broken his glasses and his ribs for this? He closed his eyes and decided to be disingenuous. Maybe they'd slip and give him more information. "We call it 'private investigation' for a reason. Even if I knew, I wouldn't tell you."

The woman crossed her arms, red-painted nails like claws drumming her biceps. "Unacceptable."

"Fuck you." Normally Ben didn't use language like that in front of women or people who outranked him, but this one had kidnapped and beaten him, so she was special.

They hit him again. Several times. Shouting questions, which also never went well, and the breath caught in his throat as his heart tried to gallop out of his chest and adrenaline flooded his system. Intellectually, he knew what was happening, because he'd been dealing with panic attacks since he'd come back from Afghanistan nearly two and a half years ago—but logic didn't particularly help in situations like this.

He hadn't cracked for insurgents. No way would he crack for these clowns.

They stopped, eventually, whether to give themselves a break or to give him time to think about it, he didn't know and couldn't ask. Half-conscious and zoning out, he was brought back to full, sputtering, and pained awareness by the icy bucket of water the thug dumped over his head.

The woman backhanded him, snapping his head around and leaving another bleeding welt on his cheekbone from the oversized ring on her index finger. "No sleeping."

The large and drafty room had an "empty warehouse" feel to it. A lone fluorescent shop light shone down, and Ben realized that night had fallen and people would be getting worried about him. He shivered in the breeze from the broken windows high above as his captors ate… something. The smell made his stomach flip over, and he clenched his jaw and swallowed hard to keep from vomiting. They didn't offer to share their meal with him. Just as well.

The leader walked out with the thug, leaving the woman alone with Ben still bound to the chair. She stalked around him, carrying a knife with a wickedly-curved serrated edge. Ben tensed when she stopped behind him and laid the cold blade under his eye.

"We're getting the information either way." Her breath was warm in his ear.

"Go…" Ben swallowed thickly. "Go to hell." For a second, he didn't realize that he'd been cut, until the fresh blood ran over his lips and stirred another bout of nausea. He decided that talking was stupid and might get him killed, and he clamped his mouth shut and refused to say any more.

The woman got tired of asking questions that were answered with silence, and she sullenly slouched in her own chair with her arms crossed, kicking Ben awake every time he began to nod off.

The thug came back after a few hours, and Ben wasn't any more talkative with him. When the leader arrived with the sun struggling through the grimy windows, he found his people in a state of frustrated agitation, and Ben in a far more battered condition than he'd been the previous night. Not talking, on reflection, hadn't been smart either.

Ben was so out of it that the beating that commenced had the sense of happening to someone else. They hammered him with fists and a length of rebar and questions, and the more they abused him, the more determined he was to give them nothing. Army training stood him in good stead for this, and, hey, at least they weren't poking him with syringes. They hadn't figured out that particular button yet; with any luck, they wouldn't.

The leader hefted a cattle prod in one hand and the stun gun in the other, eyeing Ben sideways with an expression that only superficially resembled a smile. "This," he said casually, holding up the stun gun, "puts out up to five hundred thousand volts, according to the manufacturer. It knocked you out in the parking lot pretty as you please. However, we don't want to knock you out. Knocking you out is counterproductive." The new stun guns that would actually render an assailant unconscious had come in handy for Ben in his profession, but they had their downsides, too. One of them being that guys like this could get one as easily as Ben could.

"I'd prefer it," Ben rasped, spitting blood. His blurred vision honed in on the cattle prod, which brought back all kinds of memories from Afghanistan. None of them were happy.

"Of course you would. Now this—" The leader let the shop light gleam off the metal tips of the cattle prod. "—only puts out about eleven thousand volts. It's actually one of my most favorite toys, because it's painful as hell but doesn't cause any lasting damage, so I can use it repeatedly." He paused. "Tell us what we want to know, and I won't use it on you."

Shit. Ben closed his eyes and tried to breathe. He thought about making something up, anything to stop them, but lies had a tendency to come back and take a bite out of his ass in a situation like this. He decided to keep it to a simple lie, at least. "I. Don't. Know."

"That's really a shame."

When it came down to it, the cattle prod wasn't any more effective than their other methods. Less so. Flashbacks pushed him into oblivion at least twice, his overloaded mind shutting down as a defense mechanism against the raw, red agony. The leader enjoyed using it, and zapped him again and again, for what seemed like ages. Minutes and hours stretched and contracted, not linear or constant anymore, and Ben had no idea how many had passed. He reckoned time by how many blisters and burns the thing left on him.

They wouldn't let him eat or sleep, which added even more hallucinatory happy-times to the intermittent panic attacks that his exhausted body and brain insisted on hitting him with at random moments. He was allowed up once to take a leak, and he noted almost clinically that it came out bloody. But that didn't seem too serious, because he was bleeding from a lot of places by then and one more was just… one more.

After they'd shoved his head under water for the eighth or tenth or fifteenth time—he'd forgotten how to count by then—and his story didn't change, they were convinced he didn't have what they needed. They stopped asking questions, handcuffed him to a horizontal bar suspended from the ceiling far overhead, and lashed his back with a dog chain, over and over and over the network of scars left by Afghani insurgents.

The last "I have no idea, really, I don't" had been wrung from him hours (days?) ago, and he reverted to his Army training, chanting his name, rank, and social as a litany. He couldn't remember where he was, here or there; the experiences bled together in his head and across his shoulders and he didn't know what anyone wanted from him anymore. Maybe they didn't know either. Maybe it didn't matter.

The leader grabbed a handful of his hair, wrenched his head up, and growled into his face. "You people had better back off. Or your girlfriend is next."

Janni…! His body tensed as his mind roused, and he struggled against the ropes. "Don't you touch her," Ben tried to say. It came out in a hoarse, incomprehensible whisper through cracked lips. While the leader watched with wry amusement, Ben continued struggling until he exhausted himself, then hung there by his bruised and bleeding wrists, limp and panting and wishing like hell he could pass out. The chain slashed across his chest once, then back across his stomach, and his wish was granted.

◄ ◊ ►

"Are you going to behave yourself tonight, Mr. Jarrett?" Megan Graham asked her boss.

They stood in the sitting room just off the front foyer of his Beverly Hills mansion, a room crowded with comfortable dark leather furniture and light wood accents. Over his protests, she appropriated his scotch glass and set it on the heavy oak mantelpiece surrounding a fireplace large enough to roast a whole elk in. Frowning, she set to work re-knotting his tie and flicking imaginary lint off his tux, getting him ready for yet another charity fundraiser. One strand of his shaggy brown hair would not stay off his forehead, and she gave up trying to make it cooperate. She made a mental note to schedule him for a trim—and make sure he actually went. He'd skipped out on the last two appointments, so she was going to have to get his barber to come to the house. Again.

"You wound me, Miss Graham," Alex Jarrett said. He was the CEO and head researcher at Jarrett Biologicals, and she'd been his personal assistant for over five years. They'd fallen into an easy routine. "I always behave myself." He gave her a roguish grin. "I'd behave even better if you'd come with me."

Part of that easy routine consisted of him hitting on her—without meaning it—and her shooting him down. Sometimes she wondered how he'd react if she didn't shoot him down.

But tonight wasn't the night to test her theory that he'd actually run screaming in the other direction if she accepted his teasing advances. "No, you'd be worse. And for once, I'm getting a well-deserved night off." Actually, she was getting a well-deserved and rare night off that didn't involve her lycanthropy, which he didn't know about. If she had her way, he never would.

With as much energy as Alex had, keeping her inner wolf at bay was difficult at the best of times, and tonight he was emitting pheromones like crazy. The full moon would rise in a couple of nights, and the timing made her itchy, which she covered by swatting his hand when he reached for the scotch again. He must have worked out a knotty problem in his basement lab earlier, she thought; he was practically bouncing. She only had to Change during the moon, but sometimes she did it under undue stress.

Working for Alex Jarrett put her in many, many stressful situations.

She was almost surprised he hadn't twigged to the wolf, but he could be remarkably oblivious at times for someone who was supposed to be a genius. She guessed people saw what they expected to see… and, much like the Spanish Inquisition, no one expected lycanthropy. Werewolves and vampires were only "out" to each other and people who needed to know, because the days of torches and pitchforks weren't too far out of memory. As the CEO of a big pharma company, Alex knew about it in general, but he didn't know about her in particular, and that's how she liked it.

Megan put a hand on her hip, shook a finger under his nose, and continued. "I swear, if you call me at midnight to bail you out of whatever trouble you get into, I'll take a month-long vacation to Hawaii. And leave my cell phone at home."

He lifted his eyebrows in mock alarm. "You wouldn't. Who'd dress me and tie my tie?"

"What are you, three? You're perfectly capable of getting yourself dressed, and Chambliss can tie your tie." She gave him a subtle sniff. At least he'd showered and didn't actually reek of scotch. Maybe he'd only had the one.

"He's not my type." Alex twitched his lips. "Also, last time he did my tie, he nearly strangled me. I think he was mad."

"No! Shocked, shocked, I am, that you'd manage to tick your butler off with some form of outrageous behavior." She turned him around and shoved him toward the entry and his waiting red stretch Bentley. "Go to the fundraiser and try not to embarrass me. Here, take your coat, it's pouring out."

"You're awfully eager to get rid of me tonight. Big plans?" He shrugged the overcoat on as they stepped into the elaborately marbled foyer.

"My plans include a glass of wine, a bowl of microwave popcorn, and an MST3K marathon." A corner of her mouth turned up. "You don't have to worry about any other men in my life. No one's going to replace you." This was sadly true. She hadn't found a guy yet who would understand her getting up and leaving in the middle of a date when Alex was having some sort of crisis and needed her immediately. Which invariably happened, because Alex's date-radar was unerring. She suspected it was intentional.

He rubbed his goatee and stopped at the front door. "Watching Joel and the 'bots make fun of bad movies sounds a lot more fun than the damned fundraiser. Which ones do you have queued up? Can I come over?"

"Alex…"

"Okay, fine." He pouted. "I'll try to be good."

"See that you do. Hawaii's nice this time of year." She smiled as she said it, and he grinned back at her.

"Yes, ma'am."

◄ ◊ ►

Hans Ostheim circulated around the fundraiser in the swank hotel's ballroom, barely keeping his frayed temper in check and fangs and fur from erupting. His wife Idna had practically pushed him out the door, when he'd initially resisted leaving her home alone, as sick as she was.

"Are you sure, darling?" he'd asked, running his hand through her formerly-lustrous black hair, now brittle and faded. She lay propped on pillows under a heavy forest green and burgundy comforter in their enormous walnut canopy bed. The blackout curtains were closed tightly against any encroachment of daylight, even though clouds obscured the sun. The dark wood paneling and low ceiling might have been oppressive to someone unused to close quarters, but to Hans and Idna, this was simply their home den, and they were comfortable in it.

Their romance, seemingly ill-fated from the start, had survived decades, and the thought of losing her drove him to the depths of mad despair. "Forever" had a whole new meaning when the individuals involved were a vampire and a werewolf who had met and married during the Second World War, cutting a swathe through Nazis together.

"I'm sure. Alex Jarrett will be there, will he not?" Idna gave him a small, pained smile. "Perhaps a personal appeal will soften his heart."

"Bah. I've tried calling him dozens of times. The fact that I'm able to poach two of his best employees will have to do." Mike Reed and his assistant Brandon Kincaid had already pioneered a few breakthroughs, and Reed had called him earlier with cautiously optimistic news. Something about rabbits.

But still… "Reed and Kincaid are good, but they're not Jarrett." She caressed the fur sprouted on his arms. "Go, dear, and speak with him. The worst that can happen is he'll say no."

"Worst for him," Hans had rumbled. He kissed her, finished dressing, and left, and here he was. He'd seen Jarrett across the room a few times, always in the company of either a business rival or some vapid female. Opportunities for getting him alone seemed nonexistent.

At last, Hans buttonholed Jarrett as he turned away from the bar with his fifth scotch. Hans wondered, not for the first time, at the man's prodigious capacity for alcohol. "Jarrett? A private word in your ear?"

"Ostheim." Jarrett looked slightly chagrined at being cornered but allowed himself to be steered to an alcove hidden by a potted plant. "Where's your lovely wife?"

"Resting at home. She is—" Hans swallowed. "Unwell, still."

"Really? I thought—huh." The fact that Idna was a vampire was an open secret among the circles they both walked in. "I'm sorry."

"You can help." Hans looked Jarrett in the eye.

Jarrett didn't avoid his gaze, but he shook his head. "No. No, I can't, Ostheim. My company's never done stuff in the supernatural realm, and I'm uncomfortable with starting. It would take years to spool up to where we could find anything useful anyway."

"You've had many innovations in pharmaceutical nanotech just this year. One more, to the benefit of both of our companies—"

"Seriously, I wouldn't even know where to begin. And how do you run experiments? And get FDA approval?" He raised his hand. "Never mind, I don't want to know. I found out way more than I ever figured on during those Senate hearings that made you hate me."

"Jarrett, please—"

"I'm sorry, okay? I really am. But we don't have a paranormal division, and I never plan to have one. I hope you find what you need." Jarrett's mouth turned down at one corner.

Ostheim's phone interrupted their conversation, and Jarrett used that as an excuse to make a less-than-graceful exit. Hans was tempted, just for a moment, to turn his wolf loose on the man's retreating back, but the display on his screen told him that his nephew and chief of security was on the line. "What, Deiter?" he barked, pushing the wolf aside, although his claws were still extended.

"The assistant of the private detective Jarrett hired? He knows nothing of importance."

Deiter's methods weren't always… gentle. Hans turned away from the room for more privacy. "Have you left him alive?"

"For now, unless you require his death."

"Not at the moment. Cut him loose and tell his people where to find him. With, of course, the proper incentives to not get the authorities involved."

"As you wish." Deiter ended the call, and Hans went back to the excruciating chore of pretending to have a good time at this party while being worried sick about Idna.

◄ ◊ ►

Alex breathed a sigh of relief at having extricated himself from Ostheim's clutches. The man gave him the creeps, so he went back to the bar to replenish his scotch and get the crawly feeling off his shoulders. Megan had actually sounded somewhat serious about Hawaii, and he ruefully decided that this would be his last drink, with a minimum of outward sulking. However, the forty percent of his brain not working on the latest problem in gene splicing was bored, again, and Alex knew he was bad news when he was bored.

"So, idiot," he said to himself, "you'd better find someone to talk to, or Megan will go to Hawaii for a month and you'll have to learn how to knot your own tie."

He recognized a tiny African-American woman in a tinier black dress, sitting at one of the tables by herself and scribbling on a phone pad she'd apparently snagged from the front desk of the hotel. Her long black hair was styled in a loose mass of ringlets falling to below her shoulders, and Alex's hands flexed with the desire to run his fingers through it. She was clearly uninterested in the party, but the short, unpainted nails of her free hand tapped a staccato rhythm on the table, and she gnawed on her lip in a distracted manner. He decided to ask her about it because personal boundaries just didn't mean as much to him as they did to other people, and he pulled up a chair and sat next to her.

"Miss Miller, what's a nice private detective like you doing at a fundraiser like this?" he said, crossing his ankle over his leg. "You look like you're having about as much fun as I am."

She didn't look up, and her miniature mechanical pencil continued moving across the page. She was sketching some of the partygoers, giving them speech bubbles. Sheets from the phone pad lay scattered in front of her. "I'm working your case, Mr. Jarrett."

"Oh, call me Alex." Alex poked through the pictures she'd drawn, sipping his drink. "Hey, is this me? Can't be, I'd never use such a lame pick-up line. And I don't waggle my eyebrows like that."

"Yes, you do." Another drawing joined the others—Ostheim. She'd captured his pissed-off expression, salt-and pepper hair, and solid build with just a few lines.

"I thought your mom was working my case." Janni's mom Pamela owned the PI firm he'd hired. It was a small operation and not on the radars of the circles he traveled in, which meant (he hoped) that no one would find out he had suspicions about industrial espionage—including his own board of directors.

She gave him a Look from deep brown eyes. "My mom is taking a long-deserved vacation in the Australian outback. She left me holding the reins of the firm. Therefore, I'm working your case, Mr. Jarrett." She lifted a cool eyebrow as she emphasized the "Mister" part. "She wouldn't have put me in charge if she didn't think I could handle it."

Ooh, a challenge. This was instant reason to like her—as if he needed another besides the fact that she was damned cute and exuded competence. Here was a woman he might actually have to pursue, which made a nice change from the norm. "So, are you making headway? Is there someone here acting suspicious?"

"Everyone in this place wears a mask. It's a matter of peeling away layers until you get to the crunchy center of who they really are."

"Does this help?" He took a closer look at the pictures. She'd drawn her figures within square frames. "Are you storyboarding?"

She gathered them up, embarrassed, and stuffed them in her little clutch bag. "Observing."

"That's so cool; I never would have thought of drawing to—"

Her phone rang, and she scrabbled it out of her purse and looked at the screen. "Excuse me. Oh, thank god. Sorry, I have to take this."

He nodded, and she got up and stepped away. He decided to eavesdrop anyway. "Ben, where the hell—" she started.

Alex watched her pull the phone away from her ear and stare at the display in wide-eyed horror before slamming it back to her head.

"Where is he?" she asked through gritted teeth, practically sprinting for the exit without even pretending to say goodbye, or stopping at the coat-check for the wrap she'd surely brought to keep the downpour off.

This alone made Alex decide that whatever was bothering her must be more exciting than anything happening at this shindig, so he got his own phone out and called Phelps, his driver.

Less than a minute later, he climbed into the front seat of his reddest and shiniest stretch limo, shaking the rain out of his hair, loosening his tie, and undoing the top button of his shirt. "Follow that blue Hyundai. Discreet distance." Not that the Bentley was "discreet," but he had to work with what he had.

Janni wasn't exactly being careful, Alex noted. She drove way too fast for the wet conditions, weaving in and out of traffic without signaling, and they trailed her into a warehouse district in a dodgy part of town with broken streetlights and smashed windows and deserted buildings. She screeched to a stop next to a man lying on his stomach, sprawled half in the street and half on the sidewalk.

In one motion, she leaped from her car and splashed to her knees into the gutter beside him. She tore away the bindings holding his wrists behind his back, flinging them into the darkness with more force than seemed strictly necessary.

Phelps, a former Army drill sergeant who looked the part, had parked a half a block away and unbuttoned his jacket for easier access to his handgun, just in case. Alex started to get out, but Phelps put a hand on his arm and shook his head.

"Phelps—" Alex started.

"We don't know what's going on yet, sir. Try to rein in your impulse control problem and hold off for a few seconds, at least." Sometimes, Alex thought he had a too free-and-easy relationship with his employees, but they frequently stopped him from doing things that were monumentally stupid, so it paid off in the long run.

But even as he spoke, Phelps was already moving the car. When they pulled up beside Janni, Alex jumped out into the pouring rain, and Phelps popped the trunk so they could get a blanket. Alex stuck his head back in the car and hit a button on the dash that would call his stereotypically English butler. "Chambliss, do me a favor, have Doc Allen come over, tell him to be ready for just about anything."

Chambliss sounded resigned. "Are you injured again, Master Alex?"

"Not me, this time." Alex frowned; he couldn't get a good look at the guy from here, so he stepped back out into the street.

Janni had put herself protectively between them and the unconscious guy, but she took her hand out of her purse, empty, when she saw who they were. "You followed me?"

"Well, yes, you looked like—" Alex stared at the still form on the sidewalk and stopped. "Holy shit," he whispered.

The man's back was a mass of bleeding welts showing through a shredded T-shirt, the rain hadn't managed to wash the blood from his face, and livid cuts ringed his wrists over old scars. Alex had a sinking feeling that this was his fault somehow.

"Ben's been missing since yesterday morning," Janni said, hiccupping through tears. "He went to the store to get milk."

"Should we move him, boss?" Phelps asked worriedly.

"We can't leave him here," Alex pointed out.

"They said if I called an ambulance they'd kill him in front of me," Janni said. Ben's body had dammed the torrent of rain running through the gutter, and the water overflowing up onto the sidewalk threatened to drown him.

"That settles it. Get in the limo, Janni. I've got medical facilities at my place as good as any hospital." Alex gripped her arm. "We'll take care of him, okay?"

Janni nodded tightly, and Alex helped her roll Ben onto the blanket while Phelps kept watch. Alex noticed that Ben's chest and abdomen were pretty welted up too, although not as badly as his back. Phelps met Alex's eyes; he'd noticed as well, which was good because Alex paid him to be observant.

◄ ◊ ►

Unfortunately, Phelps's eyes couldn't be everywhere, especially in the middle of a thunderstorm in the dark. He hadn't seen Deiter Ostheim on the roof across the street, looking through the scope of a rifle and talking to his uncle Hans via his Bluetooth. "You're not going to believe this," he said, "but Alex Jarrett is right in my sights."

"What's he doing there? Never mind. You get a clear shot, take him out. Then the private eyes won't have a client anymore, and I won't have a business rival who won't help me even if I practically get down on my knees and beg."

"That son of a bitch," Deiter breathed. "I know his assistant has been deflecting your calls, but you actually asked him outright and he said no?"

"At the fundraiser tonight."

"Well then." Deiter's jaw tightened, but he knew his uncle had someone in his pocket high up in the board of Jarrett's company. Perhaps with Jarrett out of the picture, they would be more amenable to a change in direction for the company, and turn their researchers loose on paranormal problems. With smug satisfaction, Deiter tightened his finger on the trigger.