I WAS in deep shit.
I folded my clammy hands on the glossy conference room table in the heart of the Western Division Shifter Council Headquarters and forced back the bitterness roiling inside me. The table stretched out for miles, with two parallel lines of stone-faced shifter council members and enforcers facing me. I wilted under the force of twenty irate gazes.
The head of the Western Division Shifter Council—who also happened to be my mother—sat at the end of the table, equally disapproving and irate. At twenty-one, I didn’t need my mother to fight my battles for me, but it would be nice if she didn’t actively fight against me. To her right sat my older brother Aiden. He’d been groomed for years to step into the Council ranks, and he now acted as my mother’s aide during official functions. To her left sat the newest council member—my mother’s fiancé, Darren. Hail, hail, the gang’s all here. Awesome.
Everyone who should have been on my side literally faced against me. Sure, I’d messed up, but was a little moral support too much to ask for?
“Ladies and gentlemen, let’s get started.” Mom didn’t bother projecting her voice. Not only were we all shapeshifters with preternatural hearing, but the dour mood of the room meant there was no excess chatter, so no need to call the room to order. She turned to me. “David, are you ready?”
Pretty sure I was going to vomit from nerves, I nodded instead.
A grizzled older man, a beaver shifter named Ward, stood. “With your permission, Councilwoman Sherman. Due to the personal connection between you and the young man, we ask that you let others handle the questioning.”
Anyone who hadn’t grown up experiencing the nuances of my mother’s expression would have missed the tightening around the eyes that said she was pissed. Her tone was completely neutral when she conceded. “Of course. That is acceptable. I assume you intend to lead the interview?” She nonchalantly tucked a strand of dark auburn hair behind her ear before folding her hands on the table in front of her.
While I appreciated her use of the word interview, everyone in the room knew she meant interrogation.
Ward nodded and reached for a folder in front of him. He cleared his throat. “Mr. Sherman, I assume you know why you are here?”
Not like I could forget the shitstorm I’d inadvertently launched the day before yesterday while the rest of the country was igniting Fourth of July fireworks. Damn. Has it only been two days? I folded my hands together to hide their trembling. “Yes, sir.”
“You acknowledge you used Shifter Council technology to illegally access information on the internet?”
I didn’t need my mother’s subtle head shake to warn me of the trap. “I used Council technology to search for information online.” Granted, a trip into the deep web was a bit trickier than a Google search, but nothing I’d done was, strictly speaking, illegal.
“And your reasons for using Shifter Council technology for your search?”
“I needed the computer’s extra firewalls and bandwidth.” Simple. To the point. No more information given than asked for. Exactly like my mother had coached me to respond.
“And why did you need the extra bandwidth and firewalls?”
I could tell by the gleam in Ward’s eyes that he thought he tripped me up with this question. “It’s always good to have extra protections in place when snooping around the deep web.”
“Deep web?” A female shifter about my mother’s age cocked her head. There was something so doglike in the act that I’d have pegged her as something canine, even if I didn’t smell the musk of wolf. “I’ve heard of the dark web. Is there a difference?”
Before I could answer, my brother spoke up, in a grating, pedantic tone that made me want to growl. Of course, he’d saved my bacon—mostly—so I couldn’t roll my eyes the way I normally would have. He’d always been a know-it-all, but among the council members he was a total Percy Weasley. He even had the matching ginger hair. “The deep web is a broader classification of the internet that houses information that is intentionally hidden and not accessible through standard web browsers. The dark web is the anonymously hosted websites buried within the deep web and is known for its anonymous marketplaces that often sell illegal products, like drugs, weapons, and people.”
Several of the council members sat straighter in their chairs at that. Even my mom. Holy crap. Had I stumbled onto an illegal trafficking operation?
Darren leaned forward, his voice tight. “What were you looking for on the deep web?”
Usually I was the guy with questions. As a journalism major, questions—like words—were my thing. Being on the other side of the Q and A felt like wearing a slightly too-small itchy sweater. I shrugged to dislodge the phantom itch and faced Darren. “I was searching for adoption records for a friend.”
“Enough of this farce,” Ward snapped. “What is your involvement with the Moreau Initiative?”
I blinked dumbly at him. “The who now?”
“The Moreau Initiative is a group of scientists researching and experimenting on shifters,” Darren explained, expression grave.
“What? No way.” I looked to Mom for verification. Her grim expression told me that yes, such a group did exist. “You think I’m involved with someone like that?”
No one said anything, but the condemnation emanating from the many council members made it clear they actually thought I was involved with a group that experimented on shifters.
Ward braced his hands on the table in front of him. “Mr. Sherman, are you trying to tell us it is a coincidence that you accessed a Shifter Council computer and just happened to make a connection to the world’s biggest threat to shifters? And in doing so, allowed them direct access into the US Shifter Council’s network?”
My vision grayed, and I grew light-headed. “I did what?”
“I ask you again, what is your connection to the Moreau Initiative?”
“Nothing. There is no connection!” If what they said was true, I was in even more trouble than I’d thought. The Moreau Initiative? As in Dr. Moreau, like the H. G. Wells novel? Surely the name and the experimenting-on-shifters thing wasn’t a coincidence.
“Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”
“Mr. Ward,” Mom said sharply, “my son’s actions may have been inadvisable, but I can assure you there’s no connection between him and the Moreau Initiative. We should be focusing on mitigating the potential fallout.”
“That’s what I’m doing. We need to know if we have a traitor in our midst. If your son is in league with the Initiative—”
“—then your whole household is compromised.”
“Wait a minute!” Mom sprang to her feet.
Darren placed a staying hand on my mother’s arm. She relaxed under his touch and sat. Then he turned to the group. “Ladies and gentlemen, perhaps if we let David walk us through the events of that day, completely and honestly,” he emphasized, “we can get the full scope of the situation.” A bobcat shifter originally from the East Coast, Darren always struck me as a little pompous. I blamed it on what my friends and I laughingly called the Napoleon complex, shifter-style. Occasionally people whose shift is a smaller animal will sometimes compensate by being extra assertive.
Pompous or not, he was right. If anything I’d done put shifters in danger or my mother’s career in jeopardy, I could give them the details. The problem was, it really was one giant coincidence. I just hoped they’d believe me.
“Joey Franke asked me to see if I could find any adoption records for him.”
“That’s the Asiatic lion shifter who didn’t know he was a shifter, right?” a portly boar shifter whispered to his neighbor.
Since it seemed applicable to my story, I answered. “Yeah. Turns out he’s half shifter, but he hadn’t known. Since it meant that his parents had lied about something—either one of his parents was a shifter, or he was adopted—he wanted to know which.”
“You searched for adoption records online? Aren’t they sealed?” the female wolf asked.
“Depends. A lot are open adoptions, which are public record. I started there.”
“I take it you didn’t stay there?” A sleek panther shifter leaned forward, the light catching in his odd chartreuse eyes.
“The thing is, Joey was born in Iran. The records there are less reliable. So I wasn’t really surprised when the public records search didn’t come up with anything. Then I dug down a layer. And then another. By that point I got caught up in the hunt.” There were several predatory shifters in the room—they would understand the compulsion that came when you got the scent of your prey and started tracking it. Sure, my prey was information, but that didn’t make the hunting instinct any less forceful.
“When I’d reached the limits of what I could do with my technology—and I’ll admit, I was a little leery of hacking into Iranian records—I knew I needed something with more processing power. And the Shifter Council protections are top of the line.”
“You used official technology without permission to hack an Iranian government agency.” This time he wasn’t asking a question, and the cool satisfaction in Ward’s voice gave me chills.
I cringed. “Yeah.”
“What information did you access that triggered the Moreau Initiative’s attack?” Darren asked.
“I don’t know.”
He narrowed his eyes at me.
“Honestly,” I said quickly. “The script was still combing through government-sponsored adoptions versus private adoptions, working my way out from Tehran. One minute I was tweaking the code, the next Mom’s computer had been hacked. Then the other hacker initiated a data mine, and it was a race to cut the connection before they got too much information.”
“Do we know how much of our information was compromised?” the panther shifter asked.
A council member at the end of the table held up a glowing tablet. “The preliminary analysis just came in. The initial findings of the electronic investigation team indicate that, thanks to Aiden’s quick actions yesterday, the breach was closed almost immediately. As far as they can determine, no confidential data was accessed. They will know more after additional investigation, but they are cautiously optimistic.”
The relief I felt was short-lived.
Darren said, “While this is reassuring, I recommend David be taken into custody—”
“—through the duration of the investigation.” He glanced at my mother, his expression softening a bit. “I don’t think anyone here”—he raised a brow in Ward’s direction—“believes David had any malicious intent, but there’s a lot at stake. Not only to shifters, but to you and David. Until we know for sure how much information they were able to collect, it’s best to play it safe.”
“No way! I’m in the middle of my internship, and I’ve got my graduate school college visits coming up. I can’t do any of that if I’m holed up in some Shifter Council prison.”
“It wouldn’t be a prison, David. You’ll stay at one of the Shifter Council safehouses while our investigators conduct a full risk assessment and recovery plan.” The minute he mentioned the risk to me, I should have known Mom would be sold on the idea.
“But my plans—”
“Are nothing that can’t be put aside for now.”
“I can’t just—”
“You can. The alternative is you get brought in forcibly. I don’t think you understand the seriousness of what is happening, Mr. Sherman.” Ward leaned forward, eyes narrowed at me.
I pressed my lips closed. I had no doubt Ward would follow through on his threat. I couldn’t tell if he truly thought I was working with an enemy, or if he was taking some pleasure in stepping on my mother’s tail. Either way, I didn’t like the man.
“We’ll have to take your personal computers into custody as well,” Darren said, making a note on a file in front of him.
“What?” The sound I made sounded more screech owl than fox. “Why?”
Both Darren and Aiden looked at me like I’d turned into an imbecile.
“You did the same searches on your personal equipment that you did on your mother’s, correct?”
I glared at Darren. “I didn’t search in the same place.”
“Your code is as good as a signature,” Aiden said. “You know that. The Moreau Initiative, or whoever they used to lay and spring the honeypot trap, will be skilled enough to search for your unique coding sequences. We need to access your equipment to determine the risk.”
I sputtered. I couldn’t argue with them. What Aiden said made sense. My brother always made sense. It was the most annoying thing about him.
“So be it.” Mom beckoned to one of the enforcers standing guard at the entrance to the conference room. “Jack, escort my son home. Confiscate his electronics. David, pack a bag. By the time you’re done, the safehouse will be prepared.”
“Ma’am.” The enforcer, a wolf shifter a few years older than me, nodded. He came to stand behind my chair, wrapping his hand around my elbow. The grip was light, but it assured me that if I objected, he’d be ready and willing to force the issue.
I stood and numbly followed the enforcer. I couldn’t believe this was happening.
Before the door closed behind Jack and me, I heard my mother say, “Okay, ladies and gentlemen, let’s clean up David’s mess.”
I fought against the prickling in my sinuses. I wouldn’t cry. For once, though, it would be nice not to be the family fuckup.