Victor Sinclair had been found by a windtech checking on the turbines at the wind farm this morning, a mere week after Murrell’s release. Victor had been beaten so badly that he’d looked dead, but when emergency services arrived they found a pulse and he’d been rushed to the hospital. I had two unis on guard round the clock to ensure his safety. If I was going to put Murrell away for good I needed to know his involvment and Victor could be key. I wasn’t having someone else disappear on my watch. In the meantime, there was somewhere I had to be.
Since the first wedding reception was cut short by officials traipsing through to assess the scene of Dr. Batista’s murder, Nita had decided to have it rain-checked. This time, however, they planned it for early afternoon at the Julien Duvall Memorial Park. What had once been open field had been turned into a playground named for the kid who’d died after being rescued from Saltech’s hidden basement. It was a subsidiary of Morloch Industries, Jeanine Mor’s company.
There were swing sets and a tire swing off to one side while a basketball court claimed the other. The far side was an outwardly fallow field specially cultivated for children’s Werival matches, though hardly anyone played today. Picnic tables and camp grills, the small metal kind that stood rooted on sturdy poles, lined the area closest to the parking lot. The wooden castle that sprawled in the middle was the real draw. It had monkey bars, slides, stairs, tunnels, and a couple short zip-lines, to name a few. There were even underground areas and an aerie.
I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, to find I had to park a ways down the street as the parking lot was full. I hadn’t gotten very far from my car when I heard my name being called. I stopped and faced a woman jogging up to me from behind. Her average height, tawny skin, and dark hair and eyes tweaked my memory, but I couldn’t place her.
“Yes?” I asked politely.
“I’m sorry,” she huffed as she slowed to a stop in front of me. She was a little shorter than I’d thought. “You’re one of the Guard right? I think I heard Nita mention it before. Or is that the other brother?”
“No, I’m Detective Riley.” I didn’t offer more information no matter what she claimed my sister told her. “Is there something I can help you with?”
She looked away, eyeing the street as if deciding what to say. “Can I walk with you?” She may not have been easy to read, however I doubted that was what she’d wanted to ask. I just nodded and we continued toward the park. Her eyes seemed to be searching for more than words as they flitted over the road, trees and people as we walked. “I heard you have the body of a man by the name of Dr. Miguel Ezequiel Batista?”
I stopped, watching as she followed suit, turning to look at me. “And you are?” I asked, studying her face for any hint of intent, suddenly curious as to how she knew my sister.
Her mouth made an ‘O’ shape and she face-palmed. “I’m sorry. Where have my manners gone?” She put out her hand. “I’m Michael Roman.”
My eyebrows rose at the masculine pronunciation of her name as I automatically shook her hand. She seemed to recall something and started digging in her bag as I asked, “Were you related to Miguel?”
“He’s my dad.” She pulled out a business card and handed it to me. It read Crescent Moon: Teas, Supplements, and More, with the slogan Live Naturally on the front. On the back was her name and contact info. “I’m named after him, well the english version. Oh, and I am a girl, they were just hoping for a boy and decided to keep the name,” she answered my unasked question. “I’m actually super glad they did. It’s a great conversation starter.”
“Oh.” What did you say to that? She knew her father was dead, but wasn’t distraught. So, I poked. “It must have been tough when you learned he died. How did you find out? I wasn’t aware he had any family.”
“Oh, I, uh,” her fingers fiddled with her purse strap, “my aunt told me. Well, not my aunt, but she was always like an aunt, you know?”
“Yes, but you’re his family?” I redirected.
“Yes, well, they got a divorce when I was thirteen or so, but he’s always been there when I needed him. For the most part,” she chuckled softly. “We kept in touch all the time, talking maybe once a week, or every other week or whenever. But, um,” she paused looking hard at a tree off to the side, “we had a fight around Christmas.”
“Yeah, he kinda sent me a letter saying he might, um, die soon. He sends them every couple years.” She patted her purse absentmindedly. “This time I called him to tell him to stop. It was upsetting mom.”
“I’m sorry, but I have to ask, was he suicidal?”
“What? No, of course not. It’s just he gets a little,” she waved her hands around her head, “lost in his head sometimes. I mean, you know what he is right? I mean, um,” She paused, suddenly blinking fast and looked away, swallowing hard, “what he was.”
So, she must have just been in shock earlier. “A doctor?”
“No…” she looked me dead in the eye, brows drawn together as she searched my face for something. “You sure you don’t know? But you’re with Keelan and you know her. I thought-”
“There you are, Haven,” Aunt Peggy broke in, “We were beginning to think you’d bailed on us, naughty boy.” I turned around to give the matron a hug. “Now, come along or you’ll miss the Love Me Knot.”
“I’ll be right there.” I pulled out my own business card and turned to pass it to Michael. As soon as Michael came into view she was swept into a fierce hug by the elder woman who’d squealed at the sight of her.
“Hey, Aunt Peggy.” Michael patted Peggy’s back and looked for all the world like a fish out of water. “Can’t… breathe.”
Aunt Peggy let her go and stood back, hands on the girl’s shoulders as she scanned her, her smile like a beacon. “Are you still single, Mikey? You should come too.”
She propelled us up the hill cutting through the trees on a shortcut to the park as she pattered away about who was present, who had bailed and who she was excited to introduce to her favorite god-daughter. We exchanged looks, mine sympathetic and hers wry, at least until Aunt Peggy turned her attention to me. She poked me in the side demanding when I was going to propose to her prodigal nephew and keep him in Hidden Pines. I shied from telling her he’d already refused such a proposal. I’d just have to try again. And again and again, until he said yes.
Love me Knot was a game commonly played at weddings, or matings as traditional folks called it. It was as traditional to us as throwing the bouquet was to humans. A giant ball of intertwined ropes lay on the grass in the center of the tables. Any adult could participate but it was generally singles who grabbed one of the loose rope ends. Then you had to work with the others to unravel the huge ball. For the rest of the night, or in this case afternoon, you had to stay with the person on the other end of the rope. It was like forcing people to go on a date at the wedding.
I won’t lie. Some couples did find their future at the other end of the rope, more than you’d expect even. It was still not a sure-fire way to gain a partner. Not to mention, I already knew who my ‘the one’ was, so I felt it to be pointless. Turns out we made it just as they were about to start. I saw several married couples in the mix, which wasn’t uncommon to make sure someone was on every rope. In the end it was a game, after all. More often than not, there were mini games throughout the night that the teams of two would participate in. I noticed, with relief, that there were no more free rope ends and a scan of the crowd showed me Keelan was filling a plate.
Nita was standing on a chair so she could see over the heads of those around the central knot. “We have one more spot people,” she called, one hand cupping her mouth while the other waved a half-inch thick braid of rope around. I tried to duck out of her line of sight through the mill of spectators as I headed toward the buffet table, but the movement seemed to draw her eye as she called excitedly, “Haven! Haven, Come here!”
I turned, ready to throw my new acquaintance to the wolves… except she wasn’t there. Michael was gone, having successfully disappeared into the crowd. For probably the fourth time in my life, I wished I weren’t so tall. I waved my hands in a gesture along with shaking my head as I told her I was rather hungry would prefer to sit this one out. However, several of the crowd including a couple fellow officers and no few friends and family members ushered me into the center circle. I was trapped.
Almost as soon as I touched the rope, it slid around my wrist and tied itself. It would remain fastened there for six hours, the set limit for the artifact. It had been bought by the community center from a witch for these type of events. Which explained why AJ was participating, if he’d been the one to bring the stupid thing. Selene forbid anyone who damaged or lost a piece of it. Usually it was a favorite game, but there didn’t appear to be as many single adults present as I’d thought. The lucky ones had probably ducked out before the Love Me Knot had been dropped on the lawn. People were understandably leery of putting themselves in a position where they were magically tied to someone else. It was only a game but breaking the bond forcibly could be hazardous.
It wasn’t surprising to see Jaci, Rayen and Alex had been dragged into this game. It required sixteen couples or thirty-two individuals, no more no less. We started untwisting ourselves, like a reverse maypole, ducking under and going over each other. It was a trial sometimes as a few who were in a hurry managed to twist themselves up more. At one point one of the shorter participants, a young woman who was likely playing for the first time, had to get her rope over me and I had to all but sit on the ground. When everyone was untangled, the crowd erupted in cheers, jeers, and guffaws as people saw who was tied to whom.
I blinked at where Chase and Kate laughed and high-fived at discovering themselves as a team, though Chase did shoot me a tight smile. With a purple cord between each of them, Jaci and AJ seemed to be trying to look anywhere but at each other and Alex was leading a blank-faced Basil towards me. A tug on my own cord made me look around to follow it to its source: Raiden.
“Son of a witch,” I exclaimed under my breath as he walked toward me.
His eye twitched.