Bumble(Legend of the Ir'Indicti,Book 1)(8) by Connie Suttle
Ashe stole a glance at Sali, whose face was set in concentration as he folded the cardboard seed packet display and slipped tabs into slots. Shapeshifters lived the same number of years a werewolf might, but vampires lived forever unless they were killed somehow, or walked into the sun. Ashe took the old man's twenty, rang up the sale and gave change back, then handed him the bag containing the gloves.
"Thank you," Ashe said. The old man grinned and nodded before shuffling toward the door.
"Hey, I actually got it together." Sali set the assembled display in the floor.
"There's hope for you yet, you've mastered cardboard," Ashe smacked Sali on the arm.
"Yep. Cardboard today, string theory tomorrow," Sali laughed.
"Dude, you're into string theory?" Ashe teased, grabbing the box of seed packets that came with the display and stuffing the small envelopes into empty slots.
"Yeah. I think Dori plays with a ball of yarn when she turns to ocelot," Sali grinned.
"That looks great," Adele said, admiring their work on the display when she returned. "I can fix lunch here or take you by the Burger Hut or Taco Palace," she offered.
"Taco Palace," Sali said immediately.
"All right. Come on, then." Adele flipped the closed sign in the window, setting the little clock on it so customers would know she'd be back in fifteen minutes.
"What's going on?" Sali and Ashe stared at three highway patrol cars sitting in the Taco Palace parking lot as the old Ford bounced through the entrance.
"They probably wanted to have lunch together," Adele said. "Here's money. Try to bring some of it back." She handed Ashe a twenty.
"I'll try to keep the taco vacuum turned on low," Ashe elbowed Sali and slid out of the truck behind his friend.
"I'll be back in an hour," his mother promised before driving away, the truck creaking a little as it pulled out of the parking lot.
Ashe blinked when he walked up to the counter—the county sheriff was also there with one of his deputies, their wide backs blocking the counter from Ashe and Sali's view. The sheriff and his deputy carried their trays of food to a table shoved against the same one the highway patrol officers were using. "What's going on?" Ashe asked the woman behind the counter as he and Sali came forward to place their orders. They recognized her; her family owned Taco Palace.
"They found a body south of town," the woman replied. She looked to be in her late forties, but her red hair was still red, no gray, and she had a nice smile.
"Wow. Anyone from Cordell?" Sali asked.
"No. Not that I know of," she said. "It'll probably be on the news tonight." Both boys turned in their order, grabbed a table and Sali offered to pick up the tray when their names were called.
* * *
"Mom, the police found a body south of town; that's why they were at the Taco Palace." Ashe and Sali climbed into Adele's old truck when she came to pick them up.
"I know, honey," Adele said softly.
"How did you find out?" Ashe watched his mother's face; it appeared pale and drawn.
"Greta Rocklin called. She said it was Terry Smith, Randy Smith's father."
"What was he doing here?" Ashe and Sali both knew Terry Smith was human. Randy Smith's mother, Dawn, was werewolf.
"No idea. Greta said he was shot and left in a ditch south of town. It was on the noon news."
"Do they know who did it?" Ashe's eyes were wide with shock and worry.
"Not yet. They're waiting for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation to make a statement. Since the Smiths lived in New Mexico, they've called state authorities in on this."
"This is terrible," Ashe muttered softly. Sali dug an elbow into Ashe's ribs.
"You two shouldn't even know who Terry Smith is," Adele pulled away from the Taco Palace.
"Mom, the older kids gossip sometimes—about Randy Smith," Ashe's voice was nearly a whisper. "They're all afraid of getting into trouble if they let something slip."
"Honey, don't worry about that, all right?" Adele patted Ashe's knee. Ashe knew what his mother was thinking; he'd thought it often enough recently. But his mother didn't know that he'd hacked the Principal's computer and read the full contents of the note.
Watering the plants later, Sali glanced at Ashe a time or two. And when Adele was far enough away, Sali whispered at Ashe. "You're still going tonight. Right?"
"Yeah." Ashe stared at his shoes. The water from the hose Sali held made a tiny river that parted around Ashe's old sneakers and ran toward the drain in the greenhouse.
"You'll be all right, just get in that tree and don't make a sound," Sali hissed.
"That's easy for you to say," Ashe mumbled. The more he thought about it, the more worried he became. His desire not to get caught warred with his craving to know what the Pack would do about Randy Smith and what the latest on James and Terry Smith's murders might be. The chance to hear that information firsthand made Ashe itch with longing.
"Dude, I'd go myself if I were able." Sali's words forced Ashe away from his thoughts.
"Sali, will you do something for me?" Ashe gazed at Sali. Sali's black eyes stared back across a slatted table filled with plants.
"What?" Sali lifted the hose again to water plants on the table.
"Tell Cori I'm sorry about James."
* * *
"Son, keep the doors locked," Aedan instructed as he prepared to take Ashe's mother out for her full moon flights.
"Okay, Dad." Ashe nodded at his father.
"Don't let anyone in," Aedan continued. "I don't care who it is, don't open the door. Your mother and I can let ourselves in. Is that understood?"
"All right, Dad." Ashe was worried, now. What was making his father afraid? He'd watched the six o'clock news with his mother and there wasn't much information to be had regarding Terry Smith's death. The only evidence given was that he'd been shot, his body left in a gully south of Cordell. A reporter had interviewed the Washita county sheriff, but all he said was the investigation was ongoing. Ashe wondered what they'd say if they knew about James's death.
Both parents walked through the back door into the garage while Ashe watched. Aedan had one of the automatic door openers in his pocket and closed the garage door behind him. It was only a few minutes after nine, so Ashe gave his parents fifteen minutes to get away before sneaking out of the house and shutting the garage door again, using the keypad outside the garage. Slipping into his denim jacket, Ashe began to run.
* * *
"Dang." Ashe was halfway up the tree when he looked down. If he fell, he could break something—at least fifteen feet stretched between him and the ground below. "Don't think about it," Ashe grumbled to himself, grasping the trunk firmly and climbing farther up. His watch showed nine forty-five as he settled into a fork where the trunk split and branched out.
Each of the forked branches was as thick as Ashe's waist and quite solid. Ashe wriggled on his perch to get comfortable, braced his shoes against the tree trunk and prepared to wait for the werewolf Pack to arrive. It didn't take long, as it turned out. Marcus and Denise DeLuca came to the clearing with Micah and Greta Rocklin; Packmaster and Second, with their mates. Ashe heard them clearly and blinked several times when he heard Marcus say a word that he'd ground Sali for using. They were discussing Terry Smith and why he'd come to Cordell, followed by discussion and speculation on why he'd been murdered.
"And right after James," Greta Rocklin, Ashe's Transformational Arts teacher said. Ashe could tell from her voice that she was troubled over the event.
"No way the two are connected. This is just a strange coincidence," Marcus said. "Has to be."
"You think Terry found out that Randy sent the letter?"
"It's possible. He may have come to plead Randy's case. He has a right to petition the Pack before we make a decision."
"As a human mate. That doesn't carry much weight," Micah observed. "It would have been better if Dawn came."
"Maybe not. She was really mad and accused us of framing Randy," Denise DeLuca pointed out.
"That's ridiculous. Ben heard Randy talk about werewolves with that human child. Nathan placed compulsion on the human so he'd forget. All those records are in the Grand Master's files, now."
Ashe knew who Ben was. Benjamin Billings. Principal. PhD. Werewolf. The one who would volunteer to execute nineteen-year-old Randy Smith. Ashe shuddered, gripping the tree trunk even tighter. He couldn't help but wonder where Randy was right then and if he knew his father was dead.
"The Hoffs think Old Harold killed James." There it was; part of the information Ashe waited for. Sali wasn't aware of this and Ashe hadn't mentioned eavesdropping on his father's conversation with Nathan Anderson.
"Old Harold wouldn't do that." Greta Rocklin snapped at Marcus, her voice clear in the moonlit night.
"I don't think so either, but the Hoffs and Pat Roberts do," Marcus' voice sounded placating, as if he were attempting to calm Mrs. Rocklin down. "They're the reason I called the Grand Master instead of the Packmaster from Oklahoma City."
"If it wasn't a vampire, then who might have done it? And no scent around the body except Cori's? That's really strange." Ashe could see Sali's mother through the oak's branches; she'd wandered away from the others, staring at the full moon overhead, her arms hugged tightly against her body. Ashe knew her well enough to realize how upset she was.
"Cori couldn't have done it," Micah Rocklin said. "James would have gotten away from her. He was a fully-grown werewolf and she's still not a mature panther." Micah was defending Cori, making Ashe appreciate Marcus' Second more than usual.
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