It hadn’t been a good day. First had been the fight with Keelan, followed by news from Alex that AJ hadn’t been able to do anything for Peter. And then Victor Sinclair had shown up and been less than helpful having no useful information on top of asserting his intention to sue the department for allowing “the Architect’s slave boy” into his husband’s hospital room. I was exhausted from the day’s activities and had just been forced to acknowledge by my annoyingly demanding stomach that I hadn’t had anything to eat since the night before. No, it was definitely not a good day.
I’d just stashed my badge and gun when I heard a knock at the door. Not expecting anyone, I cautiously retrieved my gun and held it to one side as I peeked through the peep hole, then promptly threw open the door. “Keelan? What-” Keelan stood there with a backpack and a duffle in hand.
He flipped his head to the side, curls flopping as he interrupted. “I’m not running.” He stepped forward pushing his way inside and all I could do was let him. He plunked his things by the couch before dropping onto it and facing me. “I won’t apologize for helping Robert or working with him.” My lips pressed together as my eyebrows drew close but he held up a hand forestalling the argument he must’ve seen on my face. “I know we have our differences, but this is where I want to be. With you.” After a moment of silence, during which all I seemed capable of doing was staring, his determined look faltered and he looked down, unsure, shifting where he sat.
I didn’t know what to say. I’d honestly thought he’d leave and there was no way I could stop him. I hadn’t expected this, but I suddenly felt as if I could fly. Now that would be a sight, a bison with wings, I snorted. Keelan’s eyes snapped back to me, hurt. “Sorry.” I covered my mouth but couldn’t stop the grin. “I was just imagining ‘when bison fly’.” The tension broke.
He started laughing. I mean really laughing. The kind of laugh that laugh bubbles out uncontrollably, pulling all stress with it. He gripped his sides and even tried to hold the corners of his lips down giving him a funny open mouthed look. I understood, I was laughing with him and the muscles in my cheeks had never felt so abused. I fell to the couch next to him, my legs unable to bear my weight any longer.
“Okay,” he started as laughter fell to intermittent bursts. “I have an idea but you may not like it,” I opened my mouth but he covered it with both of his hands, “just hear me out.” I narrowed my eyes at him and nodded. “I’m not going to quit working with Robert. No,” he said as he pinched my lips closed on a low rumble that was climbing my throat. “However, I propose you work with us. Friends close and all that?” His eyes were wide, hopeful, as he searched my face and slowly let go of me but I just pursed my lips. I still didn’t like it, but he was offering to let me protect him.
I scratched my chin. “I don’t know…”
“Oh, come on.” He rolled his eyes. “Just think of it as undercover work.”
I grunted, my lips trying to betray me with a smile before I wrestled them back into place. “Fine. But we bring Alex in on this.”
His sly grin told me I hadn’t succeeded in hiding the short-lived smile. “I expected nothing less.” He leaned over and briefly covered my lips with his. I pulled him back into me as he moved to get up. I really was starving now, but for something far other than food.
“So, it’s not a single or even a pair of people we’re looking for, but a group,” Basil said after Alex informed the group as to the contents of a letter Victor Sinclair had received from Peter a couple weeks back. Apparently Peter had been a part of the group that was killing people, though he kept reiterating that no one was supposed to die and that it was for the greater good. Sounded to me like he was trying to convince himself more than Victor. How killing shifters was supposed to benefit them was still unclear. He did, however, leave a last will and testament.
“How come we’re just now hearing about it?” The question grated a little but I could tell Keelan hadn’t meant to sound accusing by the open eyed, child-like look on his face. “I thought we were a team.” Or maybe he was.
I sighed and scratched the back of my neck. “He didn’t read the letter until a few days ago and we were under orders not to speak about it, but Kelly Merlo somehow got ahold of it. You’ll likely see it on tomorrow’s front page.”
“I can just see it now ‘Serial Killer Cult, Coming to a Neighborhood Near You’,” Alex said with the intonation of movie trailer voice over.
“More like ‘Architect’s Heir, The Cult of Keelan McCormick’.” Keelan’s lips twisted in distaste. “But you know, I think it may actually have something to do with Jeanine.”
All eyes were focused on him and as he looked around, he sighed. His eyes settling on Murrell who sat on his other side despite my glares. Keelan said, “Robert, would you get the map for me?”
Murrell smirked at me then nodded. He walked over to the far wall by the doors to the backyard and reached up to a larger photo frame on the wall, lifting it off its hook. He settled the frame face down on the table so everyone could see the map of Hidden Pines spread out on the back side of it. There were two dots on it and as we watched Keelan placed another where Peter had been found.
“Keelan, honey, what are you doing?”
He just shook his head, however, as he started indirectly connecting the dots with marker. When he was done, the map was crisscrossed with a pentagram.
“Arkham, what does this mean?” Basil asked, brows furrowed as he studied the map.
Keelan had his head down and had a hand on each temple, rubbing them. I placed a hand on the back of his neck and rubbed a circle. “You okay?”
He looked up at me with a half-hearted smile. “I’m good.” He glanced around the room taking in his brother’s concern, Alex’s confusion and my own eyes focused on Murrell where he was leaning against the table across from me, as he glared at the map as if he were trying to reduce it to ash with a look.
“This,” Keelan began, indicating what he’d drawn, “is the basis for the final project Jeanine Morr had been working on. It’s a spell.”
“What’s it do?” Alex asked.
“Have you ever heard of the Song of the Chimera?”
“Like that lion goat serpent thing?”
“Yes, that was the most famous one which is why it got labeled as ‘the chimera’ when, in fact, that was just one of many. The most recent one was in the 1930s when a pair of brothers created the jackalope.”
“I thought that was a couple taxidermist brothers that got bored one day,” Alex said.
“Well, that’s a common misconception. That’s what people believed because there’ve never been any sightings of the species, but that’s because there was only one to begin with. You see, they’d attached the species to a young boy-”
Murrell cleared his throat drawing Keelan’s eyes and my irritation. “But I digress,” he continued. “This is a witch’s spell meant to combine multiple shifter species to create something new, like a hybridization of animal spirits.”
“Like creating a mule with a horse and donkey?” I asked.
“More like splicing two different types of apple trees and melding them together to create a new kind of apple. Originally, they tried to combine the whole being, both human and animal sides, into one creature but those fell apart too quickly. The jackalope you mentioned earlier,” he nodded again at Alex, “was after they started separating animal from human and melding the animal forms together. However, those were more like rabid animals that killed everything on sight with no sentient intelligence to control them from within. It’s still theorized that it’s impossible to create a true chimera. Even the human side of the jackalope couldn’t keep the rabbit and deer from trying to oust each other like a virus. He only lasted a few months before his dual nature destroyed him.”
“You seem to know an awful lot about it.” I inwardly cringed almost as soon as Basil said it.
Keelan looked at his brother balefully. “Of course I would. Who do you think did the research for Jeanine?”
Basil’s face pinched. “I know, I’m sorry.”
“So, each point on here marks the death of one of our victims?” Alex, thankfully, brought everyone’s attention back to the map. “So, these last two places will be next.”
“Actually, right here,” Keelan tapped the paper where one of the points landed in the woods. “This is about where we found Dr. Batista.”
“But he wasn’t shifted when we found him,” Alex said.
“Is he even a shifter?” Basil asked. There was a collective sigh around the table.
“What if he was?” This time all eyes found their way to me. “I had a conversation with Batista’s daughter and she said… Well, she said he was a tenin.”
“Yeah, right,” Keelan said at the same time his brother said, “Those don’t exist.”
“Meagan did say his back had been sliced open,” I said.
Alex nodded. “They could have removed the wings to keep us from figuring it out too soon.”
“Are you implying it’s too late?” Basil asked.
“Nothing’s too late until the doc declares time of death.” He paused and scrunched up his face. “And sometimes not even then.” Murrell chuckled at that.
“Okay, so we have a location, we just need to figure out the when. Keelan?”
“What about May 11th?” Murrell said.
“How’d you pull that out of your ass?” Alex asked.
Murrell shrugged. “The others all died about a month apart. I looked it up and it seems they were all killed on the new moon.”
“Keelan?” I asked and we all looked back to him.
“Yes,” he drew out the word before nodding. “Yes, that makes sense. I mean the new moon is symbolic of a fresh start.”
“And Selene is said to walk the earth at those times and, if you’re superstitious, you wouldn’t want her watching while you systematically destroyed her children,” Basil added.
I rubbed the back of my neck. “Well that’s in less than a week, so-”
“Look who I caught trying to sneak out?” Chase walked in the back door, one hand on Levi’s elbow. “Like father like son, eh?” Chase winked at Murrell who just marched the boy back out the door. I was glad I wasn’t having to have that conversation. But then I looked down at Keelan and remembered the likelihood that I would end up having a similar conversation sometime in the next eighteen years dampened my glee a bit.
Alex went immediately to the coyote and picked him up in a bear hug. “Chase! How’ve you been? Get any good bounties?”
“Well, I just caught the kid does that count?” He jerked his thumb back toward the low angry growling in the backyard.
“Not quite. You don’t get paid for that. But we’re grateful you stopped the whipper-snapper.” Alex grinned.
“Whipper-snapper?” Chase guffawed. “What, did I step back into the 1950s or something?”
“Sometimes it feels like it,” Keelan grimaced, slapping my leg playfully.
“Turns out I did get some juicy info. Here,” he said as he pulled out a file from his messenger bag.
Keelan pulled it over before anyone could reach for it and when I moved to take it from him he just swatted my hand. I decided it was easier to read over his shoulder. Alex came around the table to Keelan’s other side to do the same. There was a photo taken from a distance just inside the cover. In it, Avery Lange was talking to a woman with her back to the camera, but her clothing reminded me distinctly of a certain dragon that had arrived a little over a month ago and had seemingly taken up residence in the area.
“I think I know her,” Keelan said slowly.
“That’s Learza from the Regional DA’s office. She’s the one that got Murrell off.”
His eyes widened as they shot to me then back down at the photo. He pointed at a woman standing to the side on a cellphone. “Really? She doesn’t look like a dragon.”
“What? No,” I tapped the picture, “I’m pretty sure this is her, though I can’t be certain.”
“Sure smelled like a dragon,” Chase chimed in.
“You’ve met dragons?” Alex asked, surprised.
“Duh,” Chase said as he punched his brother’s shoulder with a dull thud that just made Alex grin. “My work takes me all over. I’ve met all kinds of people.”
Alex shook his head disappointedly. “And you still can’t find anyone who’ll marry you.” This time Chase’s punch made Alex’s eyes tighten, though he still held onto his grin. Alex looked back at the photo. ”What is she after,” Alex mused.
“Why don’t you idiots stop staring at a photo that you can always go back to and read the rest of the file,” Chase answered. “Oooh, can I have a cupcake?” He asked Keelan with great big puppy dog eyes. Keelan laughed and motioned for him to go ahead and Chase eagerly picked out the one with the most frosting. Keelan flipped the photo and we continued to read the file.
When Murrell followed his son back into the house, I barely waited until Levi had passed out of the room to growl, “Would you care to explain why your sister is in cahoots with Avery and what Learza has to do with everything?” Chase snickered in the background, muttering something about cahoots.
I’d thought Murrell had been closed before but at this he seemed statuesque.
“Is Seija in trouble?” Keelan asked, more empathetically, giving me a hard pinch.
“Are you in trouble?”
Murrell gave me a cocky grin. “I’m never in trouble, right, Haven?”
I growled. “Mmf, wai-” Chase said around a mouthful of cupcake. Had there been more of them on the cooling rack? He pulled out a flashdrive and handed it to Alex as he finished chewing and swallowed. “This should help.”
“And this is…”
Chase rolled his eyes. “It’s the master of the conversation between Learza and Robert the day she got him off, no pun intended.” He winked at Murrell, eyes twinkling as Alex grinned.
“What’s it gonna be?” I asked the hawk.
Murrell just waved an arm at the flash drive as if to say ‘be my guest’ with a smirk. But there was something in his eyes, whether the strain at the corners or slight shadow under them, that made me press my lips together.
He glanced to the stairway, then sighed. It was the kind of sigh you’d hear from someone at the end of the bar as they spent their last dime to forget everything for just one night. He sat at the table directly across from me, but didn’t look at Keelan. There was no smirk, no sarcasm, as he looked me in the eye and said three words. “Put it in.”
Chase sprayed the table with cupcake crumbs.