His hazel eyes were wide with shock as they moved from face to face finally locking with mine. I froze as if I’d looked into the eyes of a gorgon. This was like a dream and a nightmare rolled into one. This was everything I wanted, but by the look on his face, I was scared Keelan would run. It was too soon, he was still so on edge. I had to calm him down, but words turned into jumbled letters and my limbs had turned to stone.
“Well, fuck-a-duck,” Alex said, his grin showing a little too many teeth as he slammed his open palm into the back of my shoulder. My stone shell cracked. No, Keelan had to be at least entering his heat for this to have happened. I took in a breath. That’s all I had to tell him to make this misunderstanding go away.
“No,” Keelan said, scooching to the edge of the table. “No, no, no. No-no-no-no.” Nita took a step back as he stood and faced Rayen. “I. Am. Not. Pregnant. That’s impossible.”
She glanced between me and him, pursing her lips. “Reeeaaally?”
He met my eyes for a split second with uncertainty triggering the memory of New Year’s Eve. When he said he’d been fine. Unlike women, male omegas only went into heat two to four times a year which left a few months before one missed a period and by that time… Yeah, you could usually tell by then. I’d hung out with him every night for two months since late January and hadn’t smelled a thing, but that could just be because I grew accustomed to the changing scent. For a second I thought he’d admit the possibility, but he just pressed his lips together as he returned Rayen’s stare.
“Oh? Then what’s this?” Nita leaned her head out from behind Keelan and just then I realized she had her hands up his sweater. I narrowed my eyes at her and growled. She just shot me a wicked smile.
Keelan pushed her arms down and stepped away from her and a little further from the table. “I just need to exercise more. That’s all.” His voice was firm but his chin dipped and his arms crossed over his torso.
“Oh-ho,” Nita continued to tease, “so defensive. Are you sure you’re no-”
“I’M NOT PREGNANT!!” This was shouted into a lull in the music and nearly all eyes in the the building turned in our direction. Keelan’s eyes were wide, his mouth agape, as he took in the looks of the club-goers: from interested to skeevy, amused to derisive. He mumble something about going home as he pulled up his hood and pushed his way through the crowd. The music thumped on but eyes still followed him as he left.
I grabbed his forgotten coat, glaring at Nita, and went after him. I caught up to him in the parking lot where he just stood and stared at Kate’s car, probably realizing he had no way home. I slowed and stopped just out of reach.
“Keelan?” I asked tentatively, not sure how he’d react.
He just sighed and turned toward me. I held out his coat and he stepped forward to take it, but then he just stood there staring at it.
“Are you alright? Nita was just being Nita and-”
“It’s a misunderstanding,” he said still looking at the coat. I held my tongue. Let him talk if he wants to.
“Would you like a ride home? We could hang out and watch a movie with Basil and Sean.” He looked at me then, a wan smile tugging at his lip, and nodded.
“He’s gonna laugh at me. He’s been telling me to see a doctor.” We meandered toward my truck as Keelan slipped the coat on.
“Who, Basil? He thought you were pregnant?” How long had Keelan known? Or at least suspected?
“No,” he scoffed, confusing me. “I probably have lead poisoning from the Moran House.”
“Wait, what?” I said stopping with the driver’s door half open. That would be serious, but- “But that collapsed a month ago.”
“What happened to Lucille?” Keelan asked gaping at my SUV.
“She was just on loan. This is Zoe,” I said patting the top of the car. “Zoe, this is Keelan. He’ll hopefully be sticking around for a long while.” My smile widened as Keelan burst out laughing and climbed into the passenger seat.
He patted her dashboard, as I slipped into the driver’s seat and pulled onto the road. “Nice to meet you, Zoe. Please take good care of me.”
“Oh, I will.” I caught Keelan staring at me as I pulled onto the road.
He cleared his throat and changed the subject. “Symptoms of lead poisoning can show up anytime. I suppose I’ll have to see a doctor now to be safe.”
I nodded. “To be safe.” I watched the road as he stared out the window and we remained silent the rest of the way to his brother’s.
“Somebody crack open a can of tuna?” Alex entered the building in front of me, a hand up to cover his mouth and nose.
While I was being shocked by the announcement of my boyfriend’s maybe pregnancy at my sister’s bachelorette party the night before, a fight had occurred in the kitchen at The Daily Grind and we had yet another dead body.
“Aren’t you a bear?” Meagan called out from the kitchen.
“And you eat sushi,” I added. “Specialty sushi, at that.” We moved into the wider kitchen in the back. One wall was lined with sinks and an industrial dishwasher that was just a giant metal box. A small row of stoves lined another wall while a multilayered oven took up a section between what were likely the pantry and walk-in cold storage. An island stood in the center with a small rack of cookware hanging over it.
“Screw you both. I do like sushi which canned tuna is not.” He pulled out a tin of mint scented wax to put on his lip just under his nose to try and block the scent. It definitely didn’t smell like flowers in here; I held out my hand and he set the tin in it as I copied his actions.
The center island was perpendicular to the rear exit we’d entered and we stepped carefully as a layer of water coated the linoleum floor. We rounded the counter opposite and came face to tail with a shark, the tail fin curling around the side of the counter.
“What the hell?” Alex exclaimed as I turned and headed around the other side and stood behind Meagan where she examined the head of the shark.
“Same as before,” she said. “This is definitely a shifter.”
“You’re sure?” I asked, knowing the answer yet not wanting it to be true. She looked over her shoulder at me, an incredulous eyebrow raised. I sighed. Right. How else could someone fit a great white shark into a space this small without a larger doorway or being sliced into pieces. The thing was twenty feet if it was an inch.
First Karen, now this. This was the second death where a shifter had been found in their animal form post-mortem. It had been easier with Karen as a coywolf isn’t too much worse than a human to move around. We’d managed to keep the animal form part of her death out of the media. This one, though, would require the assistance of a tanuki to get it back into human shape before transportation. This meant that Meagan had to do the shifted examination now since she wouldn’t have a chance later. Though our animal side is bound to us, is an essential part of us, the human body is our core. It’s unnatural for a shifter to stay in animal shape after death. The media was already all over it.
“I think he was given a paralytic,” she continued. “There’s a puncture mark just behind the gills. I’m thinking he was tranqued mid-shift.” That made sense. Once a shift is started it has to finish. Partial shifts are a myth after all, like unicorns and pots of gold sitting at the ends of rainbows. Also, if he’d been able to move the kitchen wouldn’t have just a couple pans, plates and a chair lying around. And what was with all the water?
“Looks like someone might’ve waterboarded him.” Alex had moved to examine the knocked over chair. There were cut ropes fallen around it.
“You think they were looking for information?” I asked.
“Maybe they just wanted him to turn. A serial killer with a penchant for killing shifted shifters?”
“You thinking Murrell?”
“No, this is only the second.” Meagan broke in.
“That we know of,” Alex grumbled.
“But if I had to guess I’d say something about this makes it feel more ritualistic.”
“Well, lets not give him a third,” I said.
“Did you want to call him or shall I?” Alex stretched as he stood and turned to face me. Him was AJ Belmont, our resident criminal advocate, delinquent counselor, and royal pain-in-the-department’s-ass. He wasn’t a lawyer but he did what he could to help ex-cons find jobs and have happy homes. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a wonderful idea that people can change, that they can become upstanding citizens. It usually doesn’t happen like that, though. However, since he was our resident trash panda, he was brought in to help return Karen to her human form.
To be fair, he wasn’t really a raccoon, but a Japanese raccoon dog or tanuki. Tanukis looked a little like raccoons but had rounder faces and bodies, no tail, and, where raccoons at least had opposable thumbs, tanukis had regular paws. Tanukis were, for reasons unknown to the greater population, blessed by the Selene, goddess of the moon, to work with subtle earth magics. They were herbalists, especially good at infusing magic into their work. Although the scope was fairly narrow, it was steadier and more reliable the chaotic human witch magics.
I was happy to find out that he’d already been called for before Alex and I had arrived. We didn’t have to wait too long before he walked in. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I took a small bit of satisfaction from the look of distaste on his face when he took his first breath of stale air. Unfortunately for my enjoyment but fortunately for my nasal passages, he pulled out a bundle of herbs from a brown leather satchel and lit it. Turned out it was sage and, while strong, wouldn’t normally be able to cleanse the air of the putrid stench. There was an undertone of some kind of song, seemingly wordless, that gave the sage more potency, freshening the air.
“Hey, AJ,” Meagan greeted as she stood and gave the man a hug. “Sorry about this, I know you’re busy.” She gathered her gear that she’d spread on the center island and stepped back around the island to make space for AJ at the head of the shark. When he knelt down (yep, right in the water), I followed Meagan’s example. Alex, however, decided to lean against the counter behind the tanuki.
“Come on, you gotta see this,” Meagan whispered and tugged my arm. Can’t say I wasn’t curious. It was rare to see a forced change, you generally had to get a warrant to do so and judges in general were leery about it with shifter’s rights activists pushing to make it illegal.. I let her pull me down by the shark’s tail.
“You probably shouldn’t stand there.” AJ’s voice was flat as if he didn’t really care. Well, then neither did I. I wanted to see this and wasn’t going to crouch like Meagan was to see between the shelves of the center island. With my height I could see AJ’s head and torso over the counter as he waved a feather toward the body, pushing the rising smoke before it. It wasn’t sage this time. It smelled a little of burned hair, coal and the lavender did it’s best to disguise a skunk-like scent..
I wondered if he’d set up base speakers when a low thrum vibrated through the floor. Not just the floor, it hummed in the air like electricity and danced through my bones. It was a song that called for change, but a change I couldn’t give it since I was already in my human form. It was glimpsing Selene as she ghosted through by during a new moon, but never being sure it wasn’t your imagination. It was making love under a full moon, looking into a face I’d never forgotten. It was the slowing beat of a heart as sleep overcame my weary body. It took me a second to remember to breathe and I hadn’t even realized I’d closed my eyes. I opened them as the music ended and I looked around confused. It felt like I’d lost a part of myself, but that was wrong. I still felt my otherself, but where he was usually hyper vigilant, always just under my skin, he was dozing. I mentally poked him. Any other time, he would have jumped at the chance to shift and I was lucky that he didn’t take the bait this time or more of the kitchen would be wrecked. But.
“What the fuck did you do, Belmont?” I stalked over the now human body to loom over AJ. He ignored me as he stood, replacing a brass bowl in his satchel on the counter after dumping the ashes in a ziplock baggy. I slammed my hand on his bag as he grabbed the strap, and snatched a fistfull of his shirt. “He’s not responding, what the hell did you do?”
Alex jumped forward, his hand gripping the wrist above AJ’s shirt, the other at my elbow. “Haven, dude, what are you doing? Let him go!”
AJ met my eyes, his slanted ones flat with annoyance. “I did warn you, did I not? It’s not my fault you got high.”
“That was not a warning. A warning is ‘hey, I put weed in this magic potion and you’ll lose the ability to shift’,” I growled, my fist tightening in his shirt. A sharp pain at the curve of my neck and shoulder made my hand open and AJ stepped out of reach with a cold glare. I shook my hand out as I turned a glare on my partner. I hadn’t noticed when he’d let go of me.
“What?” he shrugged, not moving to put his baton away. “It was your brachial plexus or your head. At least this way you can tell me what the fuck just happened.”
I took a deep breath, letting it out in a slow half growl. He was right. Things might’ve gotten worse if I’d continued. I poked my bison again, but he just continued sunbathing. I resisted looking over at the tanuki, but kept my left hand on his bag to keep him from leaving.
“This trash panda,” I couldn’t hold back a downward slanted lip curl, “just did something so I can’t shift.”
“Like at all?” Meagan asked from the other side of the counter. I just glanced at her and heard scratching on paper as I finally looked at AJ. “Interesting.”
“So.” I emphasized each word slowly. “What. Did. You. Do.”
AJ sighed. “I did exactly as I was asked to do. I forced your victim to change back to his natural state.”
“What were you burning?”
“That’s proprietary information and you don’t have a warrant,” he replied stiffly.
“I smelled weed.”
“Yes, I use cannibis in this tincture. It’s my own blend. Helps people relax. Which is necessary when you want them in human form.”
“Wait-wait-wait.” Alex stepped forward, grinning like a fool. “You mean my partner here was dosed with pot? Oh, that’s too much.” His machine-gun bursts of laughter grated on my nerves. “So, wait, if he’s high, how come he’s so ornary?” Alex asked wiping away tears. I flung AJ’s bag at his head, it had more weight than expected and Alex fumbled it. AJ dove for it at the same time but it still landed in the water. I grinned inwardly as AJ stood, half soaked, his bag dripping.
“I think ornary is his natural state.” AJ glared at me while uselessly swiping at the water on his bag. At the door he stopped, looking at Meagan to say, “If you need me again, my fee just doubled.”
“There you go, again, making friends,” Alex thumped my shoulder.
“Do you know when I can get my- Oh, my god.” We turned toward the lobby door to see Peter standing in the open doorway, staring down at our feet.
I glanced between the body and Peter. “Do you know him?” I asked slowly.
“You could say that.”