Chapter 17

Haven

When Keelan was asked on the day he was discarghed what he knew about Robert Murrell and why he’d been at that bus station that day, he had looked down at his hands and remained silent so long I’d thought he wouldn’t speak. When he finally looked up I saw a hollowness in his eyes that solidified the air in my lungs.

“What do you know about Robert Murrell?” The question was spoken softly, but had an awkward weight to it as if there were a set of old fashioned scales and his side had a little more mass than mine.

I forced myself to slowly exhale and draw in air before answering. I didn’t know what to say. On the one hand it was public record, on the other he seemed to know more than he was letting on. The question felt like playing Russian Roulette; say the wrong thing and I could lose him.

“He was an associate of Jeanine Mor,” Alex spoke up when I’d taken too long, “aka the Architect, and was known as her private hatchetman, aka the Spectre.” Keelan nodded slowly as if this was not new information, as if it was just what he’d expected. “He’s killed dozens, that we know of across, the US and is suspected of a handful of assassinations overseas. His last job was a couple in Texas, Beth and Mark Beetle. He was a science teacher. She was the manager of a mom-and-pop health food story. They were quiet ustanding citizens with no ties to any criminal activity. We don’t know why they were targeted. Their backgrounds were clean.” His voice trailed off as Keelan looked down, his left hand picking at the cast on his right as if picking at the scab on an old wound.

“Too clean…” I said. Then it struck me like a punch in the kidney. “That was them, wasn’t it? Your parents?”

He opened his mouth several times, like he wanted to speak but couldn’t force the words out. In the end, he just nodded. I had a driving need to protect him but how do you protect someone from their past? His eyes met mine and I realized what the hollowness in his eyes had been; he’d been lost in memories of his parents, of their death. I reached for him, to pull him into a hug, to shield him, to comfort him, to give him everything I had and never let him go. Instead, I settled for covering his hands with mine. “I’m so sorry.”

Keelan shook silently as he gripped the cast more tightly. “Yes,” he said after a moment, withdrawing his left hand and wiping his face, “he was there-”

“What?” I was lost. Who was where? Had I asked a question? Had Alex?

“Murrell, he he was there the night my parents died, but-”

“Alright, Mr. McCormick, here we are,” a nurse bustled in pushing a wheelchair. “Your ride’s waiting downstairs, and-” she paused looking between the three of us. “Oh, I’m sorry officers, I hope I wasn’t interrupting.”

“No,” Keelan said before I could open my mouth, “thank you. I’m very much ready to get out of here.” The chuckle he gave her was strained.

Before the nurse could push him out the door Alex asked, “What were you going to say about Murrell?”

“Oh, it was nothing. See you later, Haven?” There was a small rise at the end of my name as if he wasn’t sure of the answer.

I smiled. “As you wish.”

Keelan covered his mouth on a burst of laughter, real laughter, and I smiled. Alex didn’t even try to disguise his roar. “Really, Haven? Princess Bride?”

I ignored him. It was clear Murrell knew that Keelan had survived the attack that had killed his parents. I had a cruiser posted outside Basil’s house and had even managed to talk Basil into making sure his brother never went anywhere alone.

I hadn’t realized at the time that Keelan’s doctor had been Avery’s wife. We’d had cruisers watching her house since the trailer park incident. When we went to discuss anything she might know about Murrell, Karen Ellory M.D. was nowhere to be found. What we did find, however, was the photo I’d glimpsed in her office before. On the side angled away from anyone in front of the desk, where only she could see it, was a picture of Murrell, herself and a small boy, much younger than his current sixteen years. Dr. Ellory’s son did look an awful lot like his father.

It had only been a couple days since we’d seen her and we spent the next couple weeks searching for anywhere she might have run to. Our last lead was a cabin in a forest just outside the reservation and therefore outside of the Guard’s jurisdiction. We contacted local law enforcement with a request to check the property. They reported a fire had broken out at the address and the debris was still being cleared. They would let us know if they found any remains. I had the sour feeling that they would.

I scrubbed my hands over my face. There was nothing I could do with exhaustion making my mind run itself in circles. Besides, I needed to shave this sparse five-o-clock shadow before I went over to have dinner with Keelan. Basil had said he’d cook if I’d keep his brother from rearranging his house for one night.

Keelan opened the door when I knocked and my grin petered into an awkward smile as he just glared at me.

“Um, surprise. Basil invited me to dinner. With you. Tonight.” I cleared my throat trying to remember what I might’ve done to earn this death stare. I couldn’t think of anything. “I see you got your cast off? How does it feel?”

He looked pointedly at the street behind me and back. “My arm feels fine. I feel worse for the babysitters you’ve told to sit on me in the freezing cold.”

Right. “Ah, yeah, you told me Murrell-”

“Isn’t going to come after me.” He let out a long breath. “Look, he said he wanted to talk. I didn’t believe him at the time, but,” he grimaced, “I mean, he didn’t even have a gun on me. It was a beer bottle. He used a smoke bomb as a screen and didn’t personally hurt anyone.”

“He caused a panic and people got caught in a stampede. You got caught in the stampede.” I couldn’t believe we were doing this right here on the porch.

“Look, he’s gone now anyways right? Took his wife and kid? What more would he want from me?”

“Wait, how do you know that?” He sucked in his lips looking a little sheepish. “Keelan? That’s not public information.”

He narrowed his eyes at me. “Fine, but you better not get angry with him.”

“Who?” He turned and walked back inside and I had no choice but to follow, closing the door behind me.

“I mean, it’s not like he said not to tell you, but I figured it was need to know information.” He took my coat and hung it on a mirrored coat rack on the wall.

“Who?” I was beginning to feel like an owl.

 “Alex.”

I wiggled a finger in my ear as if cleaning it. “I’m sorry, what? I can’t have heard what I think I did.”

“Alex told me. Or rather, he told Basil while I was opening up the living room a little. It really made me feel claustrophobic before.” We stopped in the entryway to the living room and he was right, pushing the couch away from the front window and back to the far wall really did open the space up. Blackout curtains would be good if he planned on being able to see the tv screen, especially in the summer, but otherwise it was a good setup.

Right now, Sean was watching an animated musical about an ice queen, but instead of staring transfixed at the moving colors and lights he was dancing to the songs in that jerky way that was only cute on kids.

“Why did Alex do that?” A voice inside angrily said it was my place to have told him or not and I didn’t like someone else taking over. I shook my head to get rid of the thought. Bison were very territorial but this was weird.

“Maybe because I said I was going to run away.” I growled at the same time what sounded like pans crashed in the kitchen. I wasn’t the only one upset at the thought. Keelan just beamed at me, reached up and patted my cheek. “Don’t worry. I won’t run as long as you dismiss the watchdog.”

I grin, seeing an opportunity. “Promise?” I asked, my voice low.

Keelan’s breathing hitched when he met my eyes and his face couldn’t be redder if he’d dunked it in beet juice.

Just then Basil came in and swept up his son. “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” I let out a breath, deflating.

“Whatever, Batman,” Keelan said, playfully sticking out his tongue at Basil.

Basil smirked. “Dinner’s ready.” He turned and headed back to the dining room.

I motioned gallantly for Keelan to lead the way and he did. “Besides,” he said as he passed, eyes gleaming, “If I don’t run, you can’t chase me.”

I stalked him into the kitchen as he giggled and walked faster. Once in the dining room, I had to make Keelan sit and not help with bringing out the large platter full of grilled cheese or the pot of tomato soup. He grumped but I knew his arm still had to be a little sore or he wouldn’t have let me. As I grabbed the platter, Basil brought out the soup and Keelan set Sean up in his high chair. I just shook my head. It seemed he was incapable of sitting still.

Keelan looked around at the food with a frown.

“What?” I asked.

“There’s something missing… Ah! I got it!” He snapped his fingers. “Pickles! I’ll go get them.”

Basil raised an eyebrow, “You don’t like pickles.”

“You haven’t seen me for ten years,” Keelan retorted, bringing in a jar of pickle spears and setting them between the grilled cheese and the tomato soup. “There. Perfect.”

Keelan ended up eating most of the pickles, mostly squeezing the juice and seeds onto his grilled cheese before dipping it in tomato soup. Basil refused to try it, but I was partners with Alex and had learned some things weren’t as bad as they sounded, so I gave it a go. Once. Once was enough. After dinner, Keelan insisted on cleaning up and I offered to help him. Not so much offered as simply jumped right in without permission. He tried to push me out, but as I stood head and shoulders above him with at least twice as much muscle, he couldn’t budge me. I took him stomping back to the sink as aquiescence and began the task of drying and putting away the dishes. We got into a mini water fight until Basil cleared his throat as he came in for some bowls, spoons and triple chocolate brownie ice cream stashed in the freezer.

“I suggest you wrap up soon if you want any,” he said, waving the treat in front of Keelan’s face. Keelan rushed through washing after that.

“I’ll be right in, I’m just gonna take the trash out,” Keelan said as he dried off his hands and shooed me toward the living room. Basil had dished out a bowl of ice cream for me and Keelan. The hollow thud of a trashbin falling over, glass clanking and crashing while cans and other waste made hollow or thunking sounds, came from the rear door. I rushed through the kitchen and out the back. Keelan was righting a large green trashcan so it’s wheels were pointed away from the house and replacing the scattered detritus inside it.

“Keelan, you alright?”

“Yeah,” he forced out a chuckle. “You know me, just jumping at shadows.” He looked pale and his movements seemed overly controlled and a little shaky as if he were fighting a rush of adrenaline. But if it had just been jumping at shadows, why did he act as if he was still hyper aware of them?

I took deep breath in through my nose as I scanned the driveway and yard where someone might reasonably hide. I neither saw nor smelled anything that didn’t belong. Still. Maybe I’d have the Guard watching the house switch to plain clothes rather than removing them all together. At least as long as I could.

Chapter 16

Keelan

I’d wound up staying an extra night in the hospital when the hole in my back started leaking blood unexpectedly and I had to pay another visit to the OR. That had sucked. Until today. Here I was, bundled into a wheelchair on may way to stay with George where I’d be out of the way but with someone who wouldn’t provide more stress. Or at least that’s what I’d thought.

“I thought I was staying with George,” I said petulantly. Hey, I was allowed to be. I was injured.

“He’s got his own job. He doesn’t need more responsibility.”

Ouch. To be fair, he was right, but still. That stung.

“I’m not too much of a burden for you?” I sniped. “What about the construction company.”

He grimaced then sighed. “You’re not a burden.” Waving his hand in the general direction of the Moran’s house to indiate the crew who weren’t present, he continued, “and they’re just down by one. Most of what I did was planning and meeting with the clients, anyway. I can do that from home and notify Alan if there’s anything I need the crew to do.”

Right. Just down by one. I didn’t count. I don’t think he was looking to hire more when he’d brought me in, so I guess it made sense. I shrugged, trying push the feeling of hurt away, but only succeeded in pulling on the stitches in my back. I sucked in a breath and held it until the pain subsided.

“Besides,” Basil said, “it’ll give me an excuse to spend time with Sean.”

I just grunted as he pushed my wheelchair out to the car and helped me in. Great. I was basically going to be shoved into a corner and used as an excuse for my brother to fool around with his boyfriend. Or maybe his husband? It was possible.

It was all well and good that Basil didn’t feel like talking on the way back. My energy was quickly waning and with the mood I was in… Well, it was best not to talk.

That’s how we passed the next week. Not talking except when he checked on my injuries. Not talking when I found him asleep in a recliner with his toddler (not his lover, after all), Sean, curled at his side. Not talking when he walked in on me and Sean playing with alphabet blocks.

The only reason recovery took as long as it had was because I had to make sure the bones in my right arm set correctly. If I didn’t they’d have to be rebroken and reset, or I’d have to live with it. Neither was really an option I wanted to contemplate. All of this was just stalling me here. Could it be a sign?

If it was, then what did that say about the fact that I haven’t talked to Haven since the day I left the hospital. Basil had shown up right after Haven had left and seemed more dower, which I hadn’t considered possible, than when I’d shown up for a job. He’d seemed to be mellowing a little before the hospital, though, and for the life of me I couldn’t think what changed.

But I decided I’d had enough. I wasn’t going to stay in a place where I was clearly not wanted. The decision came when I was playing with Sean in his playroom. Yes, he had his own large and incredibly furnished playroom separate from his bedroom. That was thanks to my brother’s company and craftmanship; he’d built the house himself. I’d gotten used to playing with Sean as I had nothing else to do since being locked away like a princess in a tower. Except I wasn’t awaiting rescue from my prince; it was more like I was being cloistered away from Bowser’s fury.

Sean’s favorite toys were the little egg shaped people with weighted bottoms so no matter how you pushed them over they’d pop right back up. Made him squeel and giggle every time. So, of course, I made the middle two fingers of my left hand legs with the index and pinky as hands that I used to punch the little egg-people just so I could hear him laugh again. The playroom actually had a small three foot slide that I pulled away from the wall and helped him climb the stairs, watching as he raised his arms and slid down with more excited squeals. Basil just happened to walk in the one time Sean lost his balance at the top of the slide and I swung him up into my arms. He stormed across the room and snatched his son away.

“Don’t do that again!” he shouted.

“Do what? Keep your son from hitting his head?” I snapped back. He just pressed his lips together for an instant and that was it. “You know what? That’s fine.” I threw up my hands and pushed past him. “Thank you for your hospitality.” I spat as I stormed down the hall.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he growled, following me into the guest bedroom. I ignored him as I grabbed my duffle and started throwing my things in. “What do you think you’re doing?”

I shot him a quick glare as I passed. “You have eyes and I assume there’s a brain somewhere in that huge head, you figure it out.” I’d zipped up my bag before I realized that I hadn’t left a pair of socks out. Angrily I yanked out a pair of socks and sat on the bed, holding back a wince as I bent to put them on, a dull ache throbbing through my ribs.

“You can’t go. The doctor said-”

“I can walk.” I stomped my feet into the shoes I’d pulled from under the bed rather than bend over and tie them properly. I went to grab my bag and dropped it instantly having forgotten about my arm. Maybe catching my nephew had put a strain on my right arm but there’s no way I was going to admit it and I’d do it again if I had to. I snarled and snatched at it with my left hand.

Basil got to it first. He lifted it and set it on the bed by him. And away from me.

“What do you want, huh?” I flashed. “You want me to admit it was my fault? Fine. Ma and Pa burned, screaming, because of me. Happy? They would have been better off staying here. Of course I know that. You think I don’t know that?” He just blinked at me. “I was the one that got involved with the wrong people. I was the one that crossed the wrong people. You never got to say goodbye and it’s all my fault.” My chest heaved as if I’d been running for an hour. Every inhale hurt. “I’m here and they’re not. Because of me.” I swiped at my eyes as I looked down and away. I was not going to cry. I wasn’t. My throat closed. It took a moment to get the next words out and it sounded like the worn strings on an out of tune guitar. “Can I go now?”

 “I’m so sorry, Ash. I-” I jumped when an arm slipped around my shoulder and Basil crushed me to his chest while another much smaller hand awkwardly patted what it could reach of my back from the other side. “I was never mad at you. Never.”

“What?” I stared at him, shocked. I pushed back and he let me go but kept his hand on my shoulder. “But you always made your constpated face when you looked at me.”

“Constipated?” His brows rose exaggeratedly.

“Yeah, you always wore it when you were really angry. I thought- Well, I thought you blamed me. Which I didn’t blame you for because I blamed me.”

“And that is why you burst out at me. Because you were okay with me putting the blame on you. I see.” His said it in a contemplative tone, setting the wiggling Sean down on the bed.

I punched him in the shoulder. “Fine. I do blame myself, but I wanted you to tell me it wasn’t. I wanted you to say I did the right thing. I wanted-” I sat on the bed and Sean crawled into my lap, laying his head on my shoulder. “I don’t know, I guess I wanted someone to forgive me.”

“I don’t blame you.” He paused, “Well, not for everything. I blame you for not telling me, for not letting me help you. But, I know why you made the deal.”

I opened my mouth to deny, to lie, to deflect, but just ended up emulating a fish out of water.

“It was because of me.” I shook my head head; this was a nightmare.

He shouldn’t have known, he couldn’t know. “No, Basil, that’s not-” But he continued right over my protestations.

“I was going to die. I wasn’t even aware at the time how close I’d been to it. In the right hands, my wolverine’s fighting instinct could be turned into a berserker serum. Gangsters, warlords, kings, countries – they all used them before. It nearly wiped us out. We became an ‘endangered species’,” he used finger quotations, “even though there weren’t enough of us to continue the species without interbreeding. Now, we’re just the random appearance of a recessive gene.”

“That’s not what happened.” It wasn’t true. I had to make him believe it wasn’t true. “She didn’t know about you. I was just young. All I saw were dollar signs.” It was a lame attempt, I could hear it in my voice, but what else could I do? He always took everything so hard. He wasn’t perfect. He’d made mistakes. But I never knew him to make them twice. And he always took his big brother duties seriously. I just couldn’t let him do that this time.  

“Do you remember our ninteenth birthday?” He sat next to me and laid back staring at the ceiling. “We’d just graduated high school and we went to Tammy Peters’ party the week before. There was alcohol. The funny thing is I don’t remember drinking any. Yet, I blacked out and woke up at home two days later. Nobody remembers where I was. The party had devolved into a run during which Tammy thought I was with Elliot, Elliot thought I’d gone with Samantha and Emma, who thought I was with Ramsey or Effy or Maple. There was some speculation as to who’d been able to keep my attention for two days without coming up for air.” I opened my mouth but he held up a hand. “In the end, you were the one that found me and brought me home. The next day you had a flashy job with fancy suits and people called you ‘Sir’.” He paused, searching my face as if he were reading a transcript, brows pulled toegether. “You know, I never asked you this, but where did you find me?”

There was a reason I avoided being alone with my brother after bringing him home that day. He’d see through even the most plausible lie. I opened my mouth, but years of keeping the secret petrified my vocal chords. Maybe I’d contracted laryngitis? I just pressed my lips together and shook my head. Feeling drained, I lay back next to him, our arms pressed together. Sean crawled around to sit with a leg on either side of my head. He grasped my cheeks with both of his tiny hands and leaned over to look me upsidedown in the eyes, babbl a mysterious, though no doubt profound, string of words.

I couldn’t help it. I laughed. I gripped my ribs as I laughed through the pain, the years and years of pain and guilt. Then wheezed with very physical pain when little Sean stood up unbalanced and made a big flog right on my torso, his knees digging into my chest and his hands pressed into my stomach. Basil plucked him off me and patted my knee as I curled protectively on my side, laughing through my groans.

“Good. That’s settled.”

“What?” I gasped, pain slowly subsiding. “What’s settled?” I wasn’t going to answer his last question, but he already knew. “You’ll stay here.” I could only watch as he set Sean back on the bed, where he crawled over and curled up with me, and my twin unpacked my bag.

Chapter 15

Haven

“The MO seems a bit off too.” Alex sat in a chair in the corner, legs propped on the kitty corner chair and arms across his chest as he contemplated the ceiling.

I grunted, seething. It wasn’t that Alex was being disrespectful or that he didn’t care about Keelan. I knew that. But seeing him so relaxed just pissed me off. It was his fault I hadn’t been there when Keelan left. Somehow the keys hadn’t been in the morgue and I’d had to help him find them. It was his near constant prattling that had kept us from getting to the bus stop sooner, perhaps preventing Murrell from injuring Keelan.

“Kinda surprised it was just a smoke bomb.” He paused. “White phosphorous is his schtik. He wouldn’t deviate without cause.”

“I’m sure I can find a needle and thread to fix that flapping hole in your face,” I growled as I paced past him again toward the emergency room entrance. For the first time in recorded history there was no response from my garrulous partner. Smart. He was just trying to help keep my mind busy, keeping it from running wild. I knew that, but it wasn’t helping. My mind just kept replaying the morning.

We’d stopped at the nurses station for the ICU to pick up the keys which hadn’t yet been transferred to the custody of hospital’s security. Then my phone had rung and since it was George, I answered. I could invite him out for drinks. Asking him for some advice couldn’t hurt. I mean, he’d gotten Keelan to give me a chance before, maybe he could do so again.

I hit talk, but before I could speak he’d said, “It’s Keelan.”

“What about him?”

“He-”

“Haven, we’ve got a Code 8 half a block from here.” Alex cut in next to my shoulder.

“Sorry, George, gotta run. We’ll talk about Keelan later.”

“B-” George started as I hung up.

Alex and I took the stairs for speed and could hear screaming a block away and as soon as we got outside. A billowing white mass chased several scattering inividuals from  the North. Now, without authorization or unless the situation becomes serious, the Guard are trained to approach every situation in human form. This minimizes the risk of unduly escalating a situation and maintains a sense of order civilians rely on to feel safe. Thus, we moved toward the commotion pulling our weapons but keeping them half lowered.

The white smoke made me think white phosphorous but there was none of the telltale scents. I glanced toward Alex for verification but he just shook his head. Terrified shifters exited the thick smoke in both animal and human form. I dodged out of the way of a stag carrying a child. There were a couple gunshots and one of the fleeing birds dipped a couple feet before continuing on, its wingbeats a litte more labored. I raised my own weapon as I went furthur into the dissipating smoke signaling Alex to move around the other side.

Lewis had a familiar cornrowed bounty hunter in his grip while Clark was examining a scoped rifle he held. Spread over the hood of a police cruiser parked at an angle to the curb were a pair of Glock 19s, a saturday night special and an impressive array of knives. I scanned the annoying man wondering where he kept all of the gear. Alex came around the other side and I raised my eyebrows at him in question. He just shook his head and continued to scan the area as he approached Lewis.

“What’d you do this time, Chase?” I lifted an eybrow.

“I would’ve gotten a big payday if your boys here,” he nodded at Lewis and Clark, “hadn’t tackled me and ruined my shot.”

“You saw Murrell?” Alex’s wandering eyes instantly snapped back to Chase.

“Duh, why else would I be here?” The omega rolled his eyes.

“Where did he go?” I demanded.

“He flew off.” When we all stared blankly at him he raised his brows and smirked. “Oh, ho. You didn’t know what species he was? And yet again I prove my intel gathering is better than law enforcement’s. I thought you guys had tanuki’s on the payroll. The FBI do.”

“His species would’ve been in the report if the FBI had a tanuki,” Clark scoffed, resting the rifle on one shoulder.

“Ye of little faith. Though you should have less in the FBI with Donald Merriweather as Director. Have you heard his latest stance on shifters-”

That was when my own scanning eyes caught sight of something at the center of what had been the smoke and I got tunnel vision. I rushed forward and crouched beside Keelan’s body, blood slowly stretching away from him on the slight downward slope toward the curb and the sewer drain there. He lay partially on his side, legs twisted and his left arm trapped beneath his torso. From his back protruded a shard of glass. My throat clenched. With shaking fingers I reached out to check his pulse. I couldn’t feel anything. Hoping I’d just gotten the wrong spot I shifted my fingers and pushed a little harder, my chest squeezing harder with every beat as if a boa constrictor coiled around it.

Then he groaned. Without thought, I lifted him. I hadn’t maded it far before hospital staff someone with a stretcher stopped me. I’d laid him down and stayed by him as he was rushed back to the hospital. It was only later that I realised I could’ve killed him when I moved him. Yes, we’d been close, but I knew he’d been bleeding and that glass could’ve been jarred, or fallen out, or been shoved further in. If I’d waited just moments, the risk would’ve been minimized. 

Staring at the doors separating the emergency room from the waiting room, I prayed that my fear hadn’t caused him more damage. I’d been trained for these type of situations. I shouldn’t have been so irrational. I turned to pace back the other direction and nearly tripped over my partner who stood nearly toe to toe with me in a wide stance with his arms crossed.

“I know you’re worried.” His eyes stared into mine, implacable. “But there’s nothing more you can do for him. Help me catch the man who caused this.”

I eased my clenched fists open a milimieter at a time as I focused on my breathing. Punching my partner would get me nowhere but suspended where I’d be of no use to anyone. Plus, he was right. Closing my eyes I took a deep breath and stretched my fingers wide on the exhale.

“Good.” Alex nodded sharply. “Now, Murrell’s not known for leniency. So, why smoke bomb? Seems a little odd that he’d randomly switch now.”

“First time for everthing. He could’ve switched in an attempt to throw us off the scent.” I focused on slow even breathing.

“When he could distract us more with extra cusualties? Still doesn’t make sense.”

I forced myself to sit in a chair but couldn’t stand sitting for more than a second. I went back to pacing but with more deliberate, measured steps. “Maybe he just didn’t want to risk poisoning himself.”

“Could be.” Alex resumed his position in the chair from earlier. At closer inspection, I could see the tightness of his shoulders, faint worry lines around his eyes. Although he had his one leg tucked under his chair and the other folded on the chair with the flat of his foot on the seat and an arm resting across the knee, I knew he was not really relaxed. From that position he could launch himself from the chair to dive out of the way or attack with a powerful kick. “But I wonder if all those crimes are really his?”

“You’re not suggesting-” I glowered.“What if I am? He always put my bear on the defensive just by entering the room. I mean, think about it. When had he had the time to rig that trailer in Cloverfield to blow and how had he accumulated so much wh-of the ingredient in less than a day?” He looked around sheepishly as if saying “white phosphorous” around civilians was worse than speaking on the topic here in the first place.

I opened my mouth to retort, it had been Murrell who’d caused the havock today and Avery was dead. Right then a young doctor in her late twenties entered the room, her sweeping gaze giving me pause. We weren’t the only ones in the waiting area, but for the first time I noticed the amount of space between us and everyone else. Had I really seemed that unstable?

I watched as she approached George. We’d notified Keelan’s family as soon as we could, but with the virus going around only George was able to make it. My bison wanted to bull his way into their conversation but by the wary glances I was getting I was better off staying where I was. So, I planted my feet and crossed my arms stubbornly against my bison, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the pair a couple rows over. With shifter senses this place wasn’t particularly private.

“Mr. Kirchner?”

He looked up at her from where he’d been seated staring blankly at his phone. Upon recognition he jumped up. “Yes? How is he?”

She glanced around the room, clearly not wanting to talk here. “I’m Doctor Ellory. I performed your cousin’s surgery. He’s recovering. Would you come with me?”

“Yes, of course.”

I’d been able to stay calm while I could hear their conversation, but couldn’t hold back when they were going to leave. I found myself right on their heels as they passed through the door she’d come through.

Dr. Ellory stopped just on the other side of the door when she realized I’d followed.

“Excuse me, who are you?” she demanded.

“Detectives Riley and Lovett.” I hadn’t been aware that Alex had followed me. I turned to him in time to see him flipping the leather flap back over his badge. “We were first on scene and have some questions for the patient.”

“He’s in no condition to answer questions at the moment.” She glared at us as if we were ambulance chasers. “He’s asleep. Right now I need to talk with his family. We’ll let you know when you can speak with him.”

My shoulders stiffened and I glared right back.

“He is family,” George said, placing a hand lightly on the doctor’s wrist and drawing everyone’s attention back to himself. “Please, if you would.” With a polite smile he motioned the doctor to continue. She glanced back and forth between us and I did my best to emulate George’s polite smile. I don’t think I did very well, but she just grimaced and motioned us to follow. She took us to an office a few doors down the hall with a simple, if elegant, L-shaped desk. Her school degrees hung on the wall and a collapsible dual picture frame stood next on the side by the wall, tilted so it faced her chair, a picture of her son was on one side but I couldn’t see what was in the other.

“Very well,” she gave a short nod. “He has two cracked ribs and his right arm has been broken in several places, likely a result of the stampede. A shard of glass punctured his back nicking a rib and just missing his right kidney. He was lucky. But it’s going to take some time for him to heal. He shouldn’t shift for at least a few days, maybe even a week, and it may take two to three more shifts after that between which he should rest. He’ll need help. Is there someone he’s staying with?”

“Me.” An unexpected voice spoke up from the doorway.

Chapter 14

Keelan

When I got back to the waiting room, Haven was nowhere in sight. Nor was Alex. I waited for a few minutes before deciding to head to the bus stop. If they left me behind, I didn’t have much time until the next bus and if they hadn’t… Well, I wasn’t sure I should stay in Haven’s company with my thoughts in a jumble.

We’d been high school sweethearts. We’d been in love. Hell, we’d been engaged. Then things exploded and I left him with no explanation, no closure. Sure it’s been a decade since then, but I didn’t expect this. I’d been sure Haven would’ve settled down by now, had a couple kids and a white picket fence, the whole shebang. I’d been prepared to be happy for him. Okay, no, I’d been prepared to avoid him during what should’ve been visit of one or two days tops.

Then we’d had sex. In a cave. Triggered by my heat. I know I shouldn’t have taken drugs some rando-omega gave me, but they’d worked. I’m not pregnant. I’d taken the test this morning. I wasn’t sure wether I was happy about that or not. Maybe both. If I had been, I’d have a reason to stay, try again. Maybe there was a chance to be happy again. But not having one means that I won’t screw up another person’s life.

I saw a bus at the bus stop and jogged over. It wasn’t my bus. I still had a few minutes. The sooner I got back to the house the better. With the kids sick, I wanted to make lunch and prep for dinner before I packed my things. It was more difficult than I thought to make food that a sick kid’s tender stomach might keep down. It was better if it stayed down. For everyone.

During the last couple days I got to learn about child vomit, which is reminiscent of a drunk’s. Neither seem to have functional depth perception. Your average adult or high schooler who are mearly sick would try to find an appropraite receptical for their stomach’s rejects. Still, a drunk’s puke is different from a child’s in one significant way: unless it’s your job, you don’t have to clean up after a drunk.

I about posted an eviction notice on the contents my own stomach when I had to collect, dump and sanitize after Ryan and Liam were done spray painting with stomach acid. Once Samson got in on the action, I was restricted to food preparation. Namely soup. Chicken noodle, tomato, plain broth. That was about all the kids could keep down. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could continue staying in that house and not just because of the vomit. With my aunt turning her house into a make-shift quarantine zone, I didn’t think I’d have a place to sleep.

I felt bad about looking for another place to stay, but it wasn’t like I was much help with the kids. It felt awkward asking Kate if I could stay at her house when there would be no one home. The only other cousin I was close to was George. I mean I suppose I could ask Haven, but… yeah, probably a bad idea, which would most likely be succeeded by more bad ideas. Which sounded better and better now that I’d be safe for a few months before my next heat. Even then, I wouldn’t leave my meds behind again.

I popped my bluetooth earbud in and dialed George. Just in case Haven and Alex had been waiting somewhere out of immediate line of sight of the waiting room, I decided to send a text explaining. I pulled open a message box and sent a quick ‘Didn’t see you in waiting room. Heading to bus’.

“Hey, Keelan, what’s going on?” His voice startled me out of wording my text message.

“Hey, George.” It took me a second to remember why I’d called him. “Is there any way I could bunk at your place for a while?”

“Mom running a hospital again?”

I paused and looked at my phone, wondering if there was an app for prescience before answering. “She’s working on it. How did you-”

“If there’s an opportunity, mom will mother every person she can get her paws on. She may complain, but I swear it’s what she lives for.”

“I can see that.” I winced a little. She’ll probably see it as cowardly but I didn’t want to prove my incompetence by getting even further underfoot. “I know, I should probably stay and help out, but -”

“Say no more. If you don’t mind it, I’ll make up the couch. I don’t really have extra rooms or anthing, but you’re welcome.” Checking the sign at the bus stop, the bus was due at any minute.

“Thank-you-thank-you-thank-you. You won’t regret it, promise.” Maybe I was really just being selfish after all, as the more time I took off of work the longer it would take for me to leave. A little guiltily, I asked, “Is there anything you want me to pick up before I come over?”

“No, I think… Well, actually, could you pick up some spaggheti noodles and-” I pulled open a memo pad in my phone to keep track as he went through a list. It wasn’t a long list but he seemed to be naming things off the top of his head so it took him a few seconds between items. He also seemed to talk to himself, commenting on when he’d last got a certain item and how low it was. A woman murmured in the background. “Hold on a sec, Keelan.”

“Hello, again.” The words were whispered close behind me with a waft of stale beer. If it hadn’t been for something that felt remarkably like the barrel of a gun pressed to my lower spine coupled with the passersby, I would’ve considered the words more of a suggestion. I was confident I could take an unsteady drunk on my own. As it was, if I used any move to get out of the way, there was the danger that I wouldn’t be fast enough or the bullet would hit one of the other people nearby. Not an option. Nobody seemed to notice what was happening. I’d just have to wait for an opening. But it was the faint scent hidden under the alcohol that kept me from acting. Smoked sage. It was the scent of charred flesh, of hopelessness, of nightmares.

“Sorry about that.” That’s right, I was still on the phone with George. “Lunch period’s over and I have a patient waiting. Can I call you back in an hour?”

“Robert Murrell,” I wispered so quietly anyone more than a foot away couldn’t hear.

The barrel momentarily pressed harder into my spine. “I wouldn’t do that again if I were you.” He slipped the phone from my hand before I can tuck it in my pocket.

In my ear George said, “What? What do you mean? Do you see him? Is he there? If Murrell is nearby, you need to get somewhere safe pronto.”

Instead of answering him directly, I aimed my comments at Murrell. “Careful. The hospital’s just up the street from here.”

“So, he’s with you and you can’t talk.” George’s tone was instantly crisp. I knew I could count on him to understand. “Where are you in relation to the hospital? Are there any details you can give me? I hear cars but that could be anywhere.”

“There’s lots of emergency personnel there. In fact, I just came from there and saw a couple detectives wandering the halls.”

“Lose a body did they?” I could almost hear the smirk.

I couldn’t think of an answer to that. What body? I hadn’t asked why Haven and Alex had been there. Maybe there was something in the news? I didn’t know as I hadn’t followed local news channels since I got here. Hell, I hadn’t checked any news networks since I got here. If I had maybe I would’ve known Murrell had escaped custody and I could’ve kept moving, become a ghost. You can’t hurt a ghost.

“I haven’t told anyone,” I stalled. The sound of squeeling brakes brought me back into the present and I looked up to see a bus had pulled to a stop. As the doors opened, I remembered George. “Well, this is my bus. Are we getting on or-”

“You can stop trying to give clues to George.” My breath froze in my lungs as if willing Murrell’s next words to be a lie. It wasn’t the words that froze my blood. It wasn’t physical threat at my back. It was the tone of his voice, as if this were just another Tuesday. Just sweeping another floor. “Sorry, but we need to talk. Privately.” Just another conversation.

I slipped my hands casually in my pockets. I cursed the need to go to the hospital for my lack of weapons now. I did however, have the double ringed brass knuckles and surreptitiosly slipped them on. The bus had loaded and it’s breaks sighed in annoyance as the vehicle trudged down the road. Two women stopped to talk while a yound man paused at the benches to search through his backpack. The kid apparently had been in a hurry, because as soon as he found his phone he dashed toward us. Heads turned as a car backfired up the street, including the kid who smacked right into Murrell. Murrell hissed, stumling back, and dropped his gun.

And it shattered.

I spun coming face to face with a man I hoped I’d never see again. I’d built him into the stuff of nightmares. He’d been a giant, an ogre, a flaming demon from hell. But he wasn’t much taller than me and his muscles denoted speed rather than strength. And he had no gun.

The remains of an empty glass beer bottle lay shattered on the ground between us, but, by the clarity of his eyes, he hadn’t drunk any of it. He seemed just as surprised as me and was that distress lining his eyes? If it was, it was short lived as his face settled into the blank stare of a puppet.

Shit.

I’d seen that look before. The night my parents died. Cold. Calculating. Callous.

I immediately brought my left hand up defensively while throwing a directed punch at his jaw. Anywhere on the jaw would cause the brain to bounce with a high probability of knocking him out. Unfortunately, he didn’t seem inclined to let that happen. He made a rounded motion knocking my arm wide while ramming his open hand at my throat. I brought my own left hand up knocking his high. He aimed a kick at my chest. I fell backward into a reverse somersault to avoid getting hit in the solar plexus.

In the middle of that I ran into a problem. If you’ve ever dropped anything glass you’ll know that when it shatters not all of it stays at the impact point. I felt something go through my clothes and into my back causing a blinding pain and halting my escape, making the attempt seem irrelevant. It took what seemed like forever for me to get past the pain and take in the visual, auditory and olfactory information my brain had continued to collect.I wasn’t sure, however, if my senses were working since it smelled like a sewer, sounded like a war zone and all I could see was undulating white smoke that just made me want to hurl. I tried to roll over to get to my feet. I’d barely twisted when the pain threatened again. I couldn’t move. But I had to move. If I didn’t my nightmare would find me. I didn’t want to burn, but white fire threatened to engulf me whenever I moved. By the time I managed to get on my stomach, I didn’t have any energy left to crawl much less stand. My limbs wouldn’t recognize orders, flopping like dead fish. Then, blessedly, everything went dark.

Chapter 13

Haven

“What do you mean the body’s gone?” I stared at Meagan, dumbfounded.

“I mean the body is gone. Missing. Disappeared. Maybe it used its legs and walked away.” She threw her hands up. “What do you think ‘gone’ means?”

“Calm down, Megs. Breathe,” Alex said, shooting me a glance. “He’s just a bit slow sometimes. Start from the beginning. What happened to Avery’s body?”

“Fuck, Alex, I am breathing.” She glowered but Alex just held her gaze until she looked away. “Well, something just seemed off about him, you know?”

“What do you mean?”

“He survived too long for most of his burns to have been from white phosphorous.”

“What?” I broke in. That was impossible. They’d had to contain and decontaminate the scene. Meagan just rolled her eyes at me.

“Ignore him,” Alex said, refocusing her attention on him. “Go on.”

“I talked with the doctors who treated him. Copper sulfate bonds with white phosphorous neutralizing it and forming cupric phosphate which makes the locations of the white phosphorous visible because cupric phosphate is black. They said about 5% of his burns had been from white phosphorous.”

She said that like it meant something. Maybe to her it did.

“And?” I asked.

“And,” she sighed, “he shouldn’t have died?”

“Why not?”

They neutralized it. He was just in the ICU until he could get enough energy to shift. He’d have scars but he shouldn’t have died. So, I requested they hold the body in the morgue until we could get a forensic pathologist to look at it.”

“What did Jodi have to say about it?” Alex asked.

“She just got back today. She and Davy were on vacation until yesterday. She came in this morning to start and called me in saying the body was missing. I didn’t believe her and came myself, but, as you can see, no body.”

“Who was the last person to see it?”

“One of the orderlys, I think. The signature on the transfer paperwork doesn’t even have the customary capital first letters to at least give me a set of initials. But the person before them was Dr. Batista who called time of death.”

Dr. Batista was a short, balding middle-aged man who didn’t seem to have enough hours in a day to take a couple minutes for some questions. Turns out we didn’t need to walk beside him long to find out that the orderly who took Avery to the morgue was not someone he knew. The man just figured he was a new hire. There was a scar from hi left ear, along his jaw, to his chin that reminded him of a lousy plastic surgeon he worked near once. Therefore, the man must be human as any shifter who got plastic surgery would lose all the work when they shifted. Or they’d die when the new components settled where they shouldn’t. Either way.

“What would a human want with a badly burned shifter body?” I asked as we stepped in the elevator.

“The government wants to experiment with genetic integration.” Alex’s eyes sparkled in amusement.

“No,” I shook my head, “he was secretly a legendary shifter..”

“He was an alien come down to research the best test subjects.”

“He was a time traveler.”

“And his body is still moving through time and space.”

“So, no worries, then. We’ll find his body in the same spot in ten years.”

“You forgot about the space part. He’ll appear 40 miles above the earth and slam into the winshield of a passenger jet.”

I grin at Alex. “That’s one to tell the grandchildren.”

“You have kids?” I turn to face Keelan, framed by open elevator doors.

“Um, no. No, I don’t.”

“Well,” Keelan smirked, “you need them in order to have grandkids. Are you here to visit one of the kids?”

I looked past where Keelan held the door open as a couple and their toddler stepped into the elevator. The placard on the wall pointed toward the nurses station of the childrens ward. Clearly neither Alex nor I had remembered you had to push a button on the panel. That or we just assumed the other had done it since elevator had moved as soon as the doors had closed. Turns out our ride had simply been summoned. Worked out for me.

Once inside, Keelan stepped to my left, keeping as far away from the family as possible. I sniffed. Something smelled foul and it was coming from Keelan.

My nose wrinkled involuntarily. “You feeling alright?”

“You can smell that, huh?” He grimaced. “Yeah, several kids got the rotavirus at the New Years run a couple days ago.” The family got off at the next floor. “Highly contagious,” he explained. “Ryan and Liam have been staying Samson’s room until either the virus runs its course or Katy gets off duty. We thought is was just run-of-the-mill food poisoning but then Liam’s fever climbed to 104 degrees. Turns out the only thing we can do is keep them hydrated.”

“Why didn’t Rayen say anything to me?” I couldn’t believe my own sister didn’t feel comfortable asking for my help.

“She probably knows you’re unreliable,” Alex chimed in.

I grunted. I knew he was right but still…

By this time we’d made it to the lobby.

“Anyway, I just talked to Rayen. She’s going to take time off and stay at Aunt Peggy’s to help out. A couple of the neighbor kids came down with it and were invited to a kind of vomit-bowl sleepover so their siblings won’t catch it.”

I watched as he zipped his coat all the way to his chin, pulling up the hood and stuffing his hands in his pockets. I felt concerned when he slung an obviosly full backpack over his shoulder. 

“Where are the kids?”

“They should be home now, or very soon anyway. Rayen came and picked them and Aunt Peggy up.” He checked his watch. I knew that watch. He gave a small wave, and turned to head out. “Well, I’ll see you later.”

“Do you need a ride?”

“You offering?” He smirked.

I just raised an eyebrow.

“Oh, get a room,” Alex mock-gagged.

“Stuff it.”

“That’s what he said.” Alex winked at Keelan.

I smacked the back of his head. “Gimme the Keys.”

He patted his pockets. “Shit, I think I left them in the morgue. That’s just craptastic.” He turned and ducked down the hall before I could take another swing.

“So-” I started. I wanted to talk about New Years but I wasn’t sure where to start

“Think I have enough time to use the restroom?” He shifted a little away from me. I couldn’t tell if he really had to go or if he was uncomfortable around me. I’d sent him a couple text messages and even left a voicemail which had left me questioning my own sanity, but I’d felt hopeful when he said he’d been dealing with sick kids the last few days. But now it seemed as if my fears might not wholly be unfounded.

“Oh, you have plenty of time. Alex will no doubt feel the need to talk to nearly everyone he runs into between here and the basement.” “Great!” he beamed. I barely had time to return his smile before he disappeared in the direction of the restrooms.

Chapter 12

Keelan

Everything was not fine. New Years day had started out bad. I’d had sex with my ex-boyfriend, current boyfriend, friend-I-went-on-another-first-date-with. That was awkward. It had actually been really good, better than I remembered. Which made sense since I haven’t seen him in a decade. Then it was bad. Alex had walked into the aftermath with our scents all over the place. He’d known immediately what I’d forgotten.

The heat.

I hadn’t been perfectly honest when I’d told Haven it was impossible that I was pregnant. Actually, it was entirely too possible. Yes, I’d taken the meds but it wasn’t as if they were the quickest format. I’d just have to get a test as soon as possible. Or a morning after pill.

I had Haven drop me off at the corner store and picked up one of each. I decided to wander over to the Daily Grind as I tucked the bag in my coat pocket. Sure, it was out of my way, but I wasn’t sure if I could face Aunt Peggy just then. She’d have a lot of questions and I had a sneaking suspicion she hadn’t waited for me at the park in order to force me and Haven together.

Turns out, the Daily Grind didn’t open until noon New Year’s day. Heading home with a sigh, I passed the alley the led along the kitchen side of the café to the riverfront and caught movement in my periphery. I went took a couple steps back and saw Peter with his arms crossed against the door to his shop halfway down the alley. Looming over him was a man in a Ralph Lauren suit. His hands were folded neatly in front of him but his nearness to Peter and his wide stance said he was anything but amicable.

Tucking my hands in my pockets, I slipped a brass knuckle on the middle two fingers of my right hand and fingered my lock-blade with my left. I wasn’t left handed but if it came to it I wanted it ready.

“Hey, Pete,” I said, smiling with all my teeth as I approached the two men. “I was just looking for you.” I looked between Peter and the stranger’s faces concernedly as I stopped by next to them. “Is there a problem?”

“No,” Peter said immediately, “this man was just leaving.”

“We’re not done here.” The man poked Peter with every word using a broad finger and his extra inches for intimidation. “I’ll be back. And you,” he turned toward me and sniffed, a lascivios smile spreading on his face, “can come with me. Seems I’ll be in town a little longer and could use the compa- GAH.”

So, I grabbed his hand, ducked under his arm and pulled it up behind his back while folding his index finger backwards. You would have done the same if he’d been reaching for you like a piece of property with filthy hands. Okay, so his hands were clean, technically. Metaphorically, I had my suspicions.

I couldn’t quite whisper into his ear, but as a shifter he could hear me anyway. So, I told his back that I didn’t want to see it again and if it messed with my friend again it would have to find itself a new spine. To enforce my point, I pressed my blade to his back enough to cut through the expensive suit and bite into the flesh beneath a little. He made a weird grunt growl that I took for assent and backed off, releasing him while positioning myself so he couldn’t immediately grab me.

He turned and glared at me and I raised empty hands with a small smile. He brought his hand to his lower back and came away with a couple drops of blood. He went a shade paler before trying not to appear eager to leave the narrow alley. What little slight-of-hand I’d learned was useful sometimes. In making it seem like I’d had no weapon he immediately mind automatically went to the partial-shift myth told around campfires. And one who could do this would be very dangerous indeed. I couldn’t. But he didn’t need to know that.

I turned to face Peter, but instead of praise or relief, I saw anger.

“What?”

“You shouldn’t have done that.” Yep. He was mad. At me. “Now, you’ve put yourself in their crosshairs.”

I’d already secreted my knife back in my pocket and slipped in my right hand, dislodging the knuckles.

“Whose crosshairs?” I grinned. Adrenaline flooded my veins and the giddyness grew. Ignoring how he rested his fists on his hips, I turned toward the main street. “So long, Peter Pan. I’m thirsty.”

He grabbed my arm and turned me back toward the rear entrance. “This way. We can talk in my office.”

“Second star to the left?”

“The right,” he chuckled.

His office was barely big enough for a desk, two chairs and a small filing cabinet. I sat down in the worn blue chair in front of the desk while Peter got a couple cups of coffee and sat behind the desk in a slightly nicer computer chair.

I rolled the coffed cup between my hands, warming them up. “So, about that guy…”

“You shouldn’t have done that.” He leaned back in his chair and looked at his ceiling in exhasperation. “He represents some company that’s looking to franchise and wants to buy me out. That was their lawyer.”

I snort. “If that was a lawyer, I’m a fighter pilot.”

“What do you mean?”

“If he were a lawyer, you think he’d just leave? No, he would’ve spouted off violations. No, that boy was a thug, I’m sure of it.” I paused thinking about his Ralph Lauren attire. “Maybe 75% sure.”

He stood and came around the desk to stand between me and the door. “Well, to be safe you better give me the knife.”

I opened my eyes wide. “What knife?” He just held out his hand. “Oh, fine.” Whatever made him feel better. I had another one in my boot and a box cutter on the back of my belt. I pulled out the knife and the forgotten bag slipped out as well.

“What’s this?” Murphy’s law dictated that the bag tear and leave it’s contents exposed.

I reached quickly for the items and nabbed the pregnancy test as Peter picked up the morning after box containing one toxic pill.

“You-”

“You know what,” I broke in, forcing a laugh, “Silly me, I should really get home before anyone really starts to wonder where I am.”

Slipping the box from his limp fingers, I slipped around him and out the door.

My thoughts soured as I walked. I couldn’t afford to be sick for a few days if I took the pill, but I didn’t know what I’d do if it turned out I was pregnant. I’d take the test as soon as possible. This one said it was accurate within a few days. Thinking of aborting Haven’s baby made my stomach queasy, but it would be safer than having me for a father. I didn’t want to think about it.

Fortunately, when I turned the corner toward the house I spotted Ryan and several neighborhood kids dodging snowballs. Snow had started falling a week prior and it had been piling on ever since. Ryan had his back to me so I snuck up, indicating to the opposing side that they were to stay quiet about me. I gathered some good packable snow as I crept closer and rolled it into a missile. I aimed point blank at the back of his head and let loose. That’s when he turned around.

It him square in the face. All the kids roared as Ryan scooped snow out of his eyes.

“Oh, you have no idea who you’re messing with,” he said with a grin.

“Hmmm,” I tapped my chin, “I seem to remember something about you losing a hot cocoa battle.”

He grinned evilly. “But this is war.” without missing a beat he dove for his stockpile and started firing. I sprinted across the field of battle and joined a red-headed girl in a green parka and a somber looking boy in blue with a couple more at the far end of the snow brick wall they’d built. The streetlights had started to come on as the skirmish ended. My face was frozen but I couldn’t help smiling as I watched the kids walk home. All but the boy in blue, however.

“Hey, kid, it’s getting late. Shouldn’t you head home too?” I gestured toward the street.

Ryan walked over, slinging an arm around the boy. “That’s right, you’ve never met Grandpa’s youngest. Samson, this is Keelan. Keelan this is Uncle Sam.” He said the last with a wink that just made Sam’s nose crinkle in distaste, but he didn’t protest no matter how much he clearly wanted to.

“Oh, uh, nice to meet you Samson. Or do you prefer Sam?”

“Samson is fine,” he said quietly.

“Why don’t we go inside and get some hot chocolate? I don’t know about you, but I’m freezing my ass off.” I covered my mouth. “I mean I’m freezing my buttocks off.”

Ryan just lauged. “Grandpa’s worse.”

We were all grinning as we stepped into the house. My day had ended up going pretty well after all.

Then came the vomit.

Chapter 11

Haven

I followed the scent to a clearing. A sudden screech made me look up and I saw an eagle diving after a mink that was falling through the air. I was sure it was a mink as I’d followed Keelan’s scent here. I didn’t spare a second to wonder why this was happening or who the eagle was. I just ran.

  I was just in time for Keelan to catch the hump on my back and ran a few more steps before whirling around to catch sight of the eagle. The eagle had broken the dive and climbed back above the treetops where it circled and cawed, probably insults, but I didn’t speak bird. I just knew there was no way he was getting my mink. I jogged a little ways further into the trees to a cave I’d found a few years back.

Once inside it took some coaxing to get him down off my back. He scurried over to a low overhang in the rock wall and scoote under it. As soon as I shifted, I pulled out my two-way radio.

“This is Detective Riley. I’m code six with a skittish party.”

“Code 4?”

“Code 4.”

Putting the radio back down on my sack, I made quick work of starting a fire in the ring of stones set up to one side where the ceiling naturally sloped upward toward a narrow opening, a natural chimney. Then I made my way over to where he stowed himself. I moved slowly to not startle him.

Speaking softly, I called out to him. “Keelan, it’s just me.” I crouched down and peeked under the ledge. He’d moved a little further along the under the ledge before curling up in a tight ball. I lay down so my eyes were level with him. “Ash, hey, it’s just me. It’s Haven.”

I could all but feel his eyes roll, but he still uncurled and made his way to me one step at a time. “That’s it.” I scooched back to give him space. I’d just turned to go get some food from my pack to warm up when an intense smell hit me. I barely felt it when a delicate hand touched my back but it was all I could focus on. It trailed along my side until it splayed across my chest with Keelan staring me dead in the eye. He smelled so good, I could do nothing but remember how he felt under my hands, how he tasted while ignoring a movie at the drive-in, how he looked when kissed by firelight. The last one wasn’t a memory as I stared at the naked man before me and realised I wasn’t wearing a stitch either. What a happy coincidence.

I wanted nothing more than to feel him again. Dipping my head I traced a line along his jaw with my tongue, my hands discovering lean corded muscles where tender flesh used to be. He was beautiful, always had been.

He urged me to sit, then sank over me one knee on either side.

I hold his waist to stop him. “We shouldn’t.”

“Is is me?” The look on his face was like the needle of a vindictive acupuncturist.

“No, no. Of course it isn’t.” I take a deep breath to steady my thoughts but it just seems to addle them further. “God, I’ve missed you. You don’t know how much.”

“Then it’s fine.” His smile was the most sultry thing I’d ever had the pleasure to lay eyes on. When he planted his smile on mine, I was lost.

******

Waking up with the sunlight streaming in wasn’t new. What was new was being in a cave with a naked man in my arms. A very familiar man. Who I’d just slept with. I heard a buzzing sound from the other side of the cave. Extricating my limbs as carefully as possible from where they were entwined with Keelan’s, I crept the few steps to where my cell had been going off and slipped it from the pack. Twenty-three missed messages. Nearly all of them were from Alex. I listened to the most recent one.

“Fuck, dude, cap’s mad as shit. He’s got everyone searching for you. You better be in a ditch somewhere or you’ll wish you were.” I could hear distant shouts in the background. “Sorry, gotta go.” I look at the time stamp which said 10:43 am. It was 11:00 am now. If they hadn’t found us already, they would soon.

I got out my pants and put them on, taking my shirt over to where Keelan now curled up on the ground near the dead fire. “Keelan?” Gripping his shoulder lightly, I give him a gentle shake. That’s as far as I got before Keelan jabbed me in the ribs and rolled away. It hadn’t hurt as much as when he’d solidly hit my solar plexus, unable to get the leverage from his position, but it still made me grimace. What did he go through to make him so on edge even before he’s fully awake?

“Hey, the guys are coming,” I held out the shirt to him. “They’ll be here any time.”

Keelan shook his head as if to clear it as he stood. “Sorry, uh, yeah.” He reached for the shirt but before he could pull it over his head he stopped and looked at me in shock, “wait, what?”

“Haven, you in there?” a voice called from outside.

“Fuck!” Keelan tugged the shirt on quickly. It was all I had to spare, but luckily it reached mid-thigh on him.

“Haven,” Alex said as he stepped up to the entryway, “you should really code 4 on the radio if you’re okay and -” He stopped short when he looked over and saw Keelan. With Keelan wearing my shirt and the cave smelling of me and him, “Ah.” Alex was trying not to grin. “I see. Well, you should at least tell someone if you’re going to ‘take care’,” yes, he did use air quotations, “of your mate when he’s in heat.”

“I’m not-” was all Keelan got out before Alex disappeared back outside. I almost wish he’d stayed so I could know what Keelan was ‘not’. Was not my mate? Was not in heat? Was not going to stay?

“Were you?” I glanced at him. “In heat, I mean.”

“I thought I was going into one.”

“Why didn’t you say something?” I growled. He shifted one step back, lowering his center of gravity and his seemingly relaxed hands hung loose a couple inches from his sides, ready to move in any direction. I inwardly kicked myself for making him take a defensive pose. It wasn’t that I didn’t want kids or didn’t want to be with him, I most definitely did, but I didn’t like being tricked into anything.

“I wasn’t sure.” He stared at my chest, not making eye contact but keeping me in sight. “It just started when I got to the lake. So, I went off on my own. Then an eagle swooped in and swept me off my feet,” he met my eyes briefly with a half smile, “and not in a good way, either.” He shrugged. “Then I fell and you brought me here and… well, there wasn’t much thinking after that, was there?”

“Are you sure your heat’s over?”

“Yeah, I took some meds before I was snatched. It ended hours ago.”

I gathered my gear and we headed back to find his things. Hopefully Alex was gone along with anyone else who’d been looking for me. No such luck. As soon as we walked from the cave Wallis, Davies, O’Connor, Lewis, and Clark cheered with a couple catcalls thrown in when Keelan stepped out from behind me. I glared at each of them in turn while placing myself between them and Keelan, blocking their view again.

I knew they’d tease me mercilessly at the precinct, but they’d no doubt get it out of their system in short order. I just hoped all this hadn’t scared Keelan off. I hadn’t known even a week ago how much I’d missed him. I had to keep telling my heart the pressure it was feeling wasn’t life-threatening. Problem was I was starting to think it might be if I lost him again.

Keelan didn’t stop to change when we got to his things. He just scooped it up and kept walking. When we got to the parking lot, it had cleared out. I had expected Keelan’s family to have stayed to help find him or at least to take him home when they were told he was okay and coming back.

“Come on,” I nod my head toward my SUV when he looks over his shoulder at me. The morning light practically made his skin glow and his hazel eyes shine. It was all I could do to continue, “I’ll take you home.”

He nodded slowly, his face clouded. I wanted to take him in my arms and kiss his worries away. I opened the passenger door and he got in. As I put the car in drive I saw Alex jogging our way, waving. I didn’t stop.He’d be fine. Everything would be fine. Just fine.

Chapter 10

Keelan

  I’d ridden with Uncle Joe to the park since he and Aunt Peggy had another fight. Discussions my ass. She’d been making small comments all day about how she wasn’t feeling well. The last time she said she might skip the run and asked me if I’d stay with her. Uncle Joe just looked at her and said if she wasn’t bed ridden she could damn well stay home alone. I would have stayed with her except she threw up her hands and said that she’d go but that if something bad happened it was on his head.

When Kate and Rayen stopped by just before dusk to grab the family’s food contribtion, she’d told Uncle Joe that they had insisted she go with them, but they sure looked surpised to me when she’d climbed in the back seat with Ryan. You’d think her Kate’s family would be used to things like this by now. Once inside the car she said something to Rayen and Kate. When they looked at me she said something else I could’t hear with closed brows and waved a clear indication that they should start moving. Too bad I couldn’t read lips.

We weren’t able to get out of the house until well after sundown. We’d gotten in the car about ten minutes after Aunt Peggy had left only to realize the keys were missing. Uncle Joe swore up and down that he always put it in his jacket pocket. We looked for fourty-five minutes before Uncle cursed half a dozen times, then went to his room and fetched his ‘spare’ keys. I’d followed him. He aparently had three ‘spare’ keys, all in different places and all but one were missing. That one was in the toilet tank of the half-bath on the first floor.

The car ride spent with Uncle Joe was silent. I’d thought it would be an uncomfortable silence, like meeting your boyfriend’s parents for the first time, but it wasn’t. It was the kind of silence where it almost feels like a trance, your mind wandering but never settling on one thought. There was no expectation of conversation.

I expected him to rant or complain about Aunt Peggy. To yell at slow drivers or flip of pedestrians. To grouse about his aches and pains. He didn’t. He just turned the radio to jazz and hummed along to the music.

“I didn’t know you could sing Uncle Joe,” I said.

He grunted. “Heh, who says I can?”

I laughed, “Fair enough.” His eyes crinkled with a half smile.

When a car cut in front of him just as our light turned green, I thought he’d curse, name call, flip the guy off, shout. Anything. He just sighed. It was a heavy sigh, but with anyone else that was the equivalent of them saying ‘they probably had a good reason’ or ‘maybe they made a mistake, we’ve all done it’.

“Is something going on Uncle Joe?” I asked. “You seem… off. Not yourself?”

“Hmm?” he grunted. “S’none of your goddamn business, boy.”

“But-”

“Leave it be, dammnit.” He cast me a sour look.

Well, his surly mood was back. Oddly, it made me feel a little better. Whatever his issue with Aunt Peggy, it wasn’t as important as I thought. Another car pulled out in front of us from a side street only to pull into a gas station a couple blocks up. He just honked the horn. Well, I hoped it wasn’t important.

When we pulled in the parking lot there was still about a half hour until sunset and the parking lot was half full. Most of the people already here had kids. There were several benches along this side of the lake where kids were putting on or adjusting their ice skates. Adults were too but not many. Some of the older kids with the adults were pulling littles on sleds around the lake while others were teaching beginners how to skate. Many of the kids out there, however, had already learned and were having a blast.

Uncle Joe and I made our way toward one of the fires where George and Kate were helping Aunt Peggy work a metal grill full of steaks.

I bump George in the shoulder right as he went to flip a t-bone. “Mmm, something smells good.” The steak slipped.

“Shit, Keelan,” George hissed annoyedly, “that one almost hit the ground. Then where would we be.”

“Oh, stuff it, George,” Kate chuckled, motioning with a pair of tongs at a wolf laying on the other side of the grill, head on paws, watching the grill line with intent. “Sam’s been eyeing that cut since you tossed it on the grill. He’d’ve pounced if it had hit the ground. And if he didn’t, you know there are plenty people already shifted who’d think nothing of eating meat with some dirt on it.”

She had a point. Behind Sam were a few more wolves, a couple coyotes, mink, racoons and even a bear various states of feigned repose. Some of them were alphas.

I grinned at Kate. “Let’s test that theory.” Without thinking I snatched Georges tongues and picked up a piece of meat, and struck a pose with one hip cocked with a hand propped on it, one leg bent and turned out and my back arched. “Who wants it?” I asked, the grey wolf and the bear stood immediately, and tossed it toward between them. They both dove for it. They circled each other, the bear taking swipes at the wolf while the wolf moved in and retreated, dodging swiftly. While they were distracted a smaller brown wolf snatched it from between them and darted away.

“Keelan!” George snatched the tongues back and glared at me. “What the hell was that?”

I gaped, looking from George to Kate’s raised brows and wide eyes and back. “I-” I didn’t know what had come over me. It had been years since I’d done something so reckless as attempt to instigate a fight between alphas. In fact it was-

“Sorry, guys.” I took a step back, quicly zipping my coat up, flipping my hood and stuffing my hands in my pockets. “I gotta go.”

Without looking to see if they were angry or waiting until they’d stop me, I wound my way through the thick crowd making a beeline for the trees, praying I wouldn’t draw any alpha’s attention to the fact I was going into heat before I was safely away from the crowd. It wasn’t until I was in a clearing a little ways into the woods that I realized I’d completely forgotton to bring my supressants.

“Damn, bitch, you reek.”

I spun to face a man that looked like the essence of the word ethereal. He was small and his brown skin was kissed with starlight and the only thing he wore was a robe that seemed as if falling snow had been spun and woven to make it.

“Excuse me?”

“I said you reek. You should really take your meds if you haven’t already. You are not gonna have a good night if you go on like this.” Then he tilted his head and eyed me up and down, smirking. “Or maybe you will.”

I ground my teeth, forcing my hands to remain at my sides.

He seemed to notice my lack of gear. His smile dropped and concern wrapped in irritation overtook his features. “Do you even have meds on you? You’re making my job more difficult.”

I looked him dead in the eyes my lips flattening. “Unless you’re willing to give me your meds, maybe you should just keep stepping.” It wasn’t likely he was an alpha, most weren’t like Nita. The wind shifted blowing his scent to me as if some force wanted me to confirm my theory.

“Oh-ho, look who’s the big bad bitch. Maybe you should be better prepared.”

I scanned him as he did me. “Oh? Look who’s talking. What kind of prep can you have in that negligee.”

“This old thing? Mmm, it’s just so comfortable,” he grinned and hugged himself, slipping his hands into the sleeves. They came back out one holding a knife the other an epipen. I widened my stance. “Chill, they’re both just for self defense. But here,” he tossed me the epipen which turned out not to be an epipen.

My eyes widened. “Woah, I can’t take this. Just one dose…”

“Ah, keep it. It’s close to its expiration date anyway. It wouldn’t make it to my next heat. I don’t know what brand you use but it should help even a little.”

I didn’t hesitate any more. I could feel my skin buzzing like a swarm of bees were trapped unerneath and it was becoming difficult to keep my brain focused. I’d used one once before, after my parents died. I pulled the cap off and jamed the needle end into my leg. I took in a few slow breaths. The buzz slowly dulled to a low hum. When I looked up to thank the rude stranger he was gone.

I was likely good for now, but it was better to play it safe and find a nice hidey-hole to lay low in until most people had gone home the next morning. I recapped the now-empty needle and tucked it in my coat pocket.

That done, I removed my clothes as fast as I could and tucked them in the crook of a split oak tree nearby and shifted into a mink. I was suddenly much warmer and I shook and stretched, settling the little used muscles into place. It felt good. Standing on my hind legs I began scanning the trees around me, searching for one with good roots for den potential. I’d likely be here for a few days.

Huh, for the first time in a long time I had people who might search for me if I didn’t contact them. No matter. I could go back for my cellphone tomorrow afternoon after everyone had gone home. I’d be a lot less likely to come across an alpha. That’s when I heard it. The screech of a bird of prey. I looked up and saw it diving toward me. So much for taking my time. I ran towards the nearest trees. Even if I didn’t find a hole to hide in, the eagle would be at a disadvantage with all the branches. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it that far. Talons wrapped around my middle and I was lifted from the ground. I twisted, trying to get out, trying to bite any part of the bird I could. I must’ve gotten a tender spot because he shrieked and dropped me like an active grenade. I gave a toothy grin. Until I looked down.

Chapter 9

Haven

Avery was a bundle of bandages, tubes, and drugs. I could see where sliver of skin around his face, hands and fee, but even one of his eyes had been covered. Instead of looking less like a corpse he looked more like one. Or rather a reanimated one. It was almost like we’d summoned a necromancer to help us talk to Avery about his death. I wasn’t sure if it would’ve been more morbid if that were possible or if it was worse because we were going to interrogate a man who’d, for all intents and purposes, been murdered, even if the reaper hadn’t stopped by yet.

Avery’s remaining eye cracked open and traveled slowly from me to Alex. A man in a navy suit stood clicked a briefcase shut on the wheeled table by the side of the bed before turning and walking out with a nod to me and Alex.

Avery opened his mouth to speak and the near whisper would’ve been completely inaudible to a human, but made us just move closer. “He’s not here.”

“We know,” Alex said softly. “We came to see if you know where he’d go or why he was here.”

His head moved minutely left then right with a grimace. “No. Bastard just said not to tell.” He coughed and took a few shallow breaths. His voice was like pouring dry stones into a pit. “Shoulda listened.”

I grimaced. It was my fault. If I hadn’t been so distracted that day… Well, there was nothing I could really do for him. There was nothing I could say. There was nothing.

“Maybe.” I looked sharply at Alex who was nodding his head in serious thought. “If you hadn’t told us where he was you’d’ve probably been fine.”

A scoff snapped my head back to the bed. “Fucker woulda still killed me; I mean most people don’t look up.  Least this way I was able to set up my will.” He went silent, staring at the ceiling. “You know. I still had the invincible belief going for me. Thought I had time.”

He turned his eye toward me. The pupil was dilated with painkillers and he seemed to look through me.

“I’m so tired.” His eyelid drooped.

I nod once, slowly. “We’ll let you rest.”

“Wait,” his eye shot open, “I don’t know if this helps but he used to work for Jeanine Mor.” He’d worked for the Architect, too.

Alex put a hand gently on Avery’s shoulder. “Anything helps. We’ll talk later okay? Get some rest.”

There was no answer as we padded from the room. We’d just gotten to the elevators when we heard it. The code alarm.

We got to the room just as they were pulling the sheet over Avery’s head.

“Hey, Kiik,” Alex said quietly into the phone. “I’m on patrol tonight… No, I know you wanted to go… Sorry, Kiik, I can’t just… Yeah, it’s that… Okay, have a good run, but be careful, and remember to stay in a group… Love you, too… Bye.” He stared at the phone in his hand for a minute. “Shit,” Alex hissed. “We’ve gotta get that asshole.”

I flashed him a wry smile as I turned onto Elm. “Feeling a little ‘frustrated’ over there?” I teased. We were almost to Mystic Lake.

“More than you, I’m sure,” he grinned, eyes flashing. “How is Keelan anyway? Can he walk today?” I grunted, grateful I had to turn left, allowing me to turn my head away. “Oh-ho, I see you need the run more than me.”

“Fuck off.”

“He swore! Wow, must be serious.” He dropped the chiding manor as we pulled into a parking space. “But seriously, Haven. I know what happened at the hospital really struck a chord. Just… be careful.”

He was right. I had been thinking about Avery. He’d put off so much because he thought he had time. Then he was gone. I had a chance with Keelan again and I felt a driving force to pursue it. An urgency that hadn’t been there before. But it had also provided clarity. I wanted Keelan. Not as we were or for who he had been. He was different now and I wanted to learn about him all over again.

However, tonight I had a job to do and no idea who Murrell’s next target might be.

We climbed out of the car and headed toward the crowd wandering around several tables of food and half a dozen large metal rings containing burning logs. Not everyone here was a shifter and some of the shifters were aquatic. They wouldn’t be going on the run and would maintain the food and fires, and watch over children.  

The lake had several inches of ice on top and dozens of kids and adults alike slicing into it with their skates. There weren’t as many people on the ice though and I wasn’t sure if it was Murrell or the fact that the sun had set and the official start time of the run was near. There were many already in their animal forms from wolves to bears, hawks to horses.

I noticed Basil, already in his wolverine form, watching us as we passed before heading toward a pack of wolves who were picking through a table loaded with steak. The only time food wasn’t provided for a run was during hunting season and that lasted one night on the reservation.

“Lovett! Riley!” We stopped and turned toward Captain Thurgood where he stood at the nearest fire in a warm parka issued to humans and shifters in the Guard who weren’t as winter hardy.

“Sir,” we said as we jogged up to him.

“I want you boys wandering the perimeter tonight.” Captain Thurgood had an air about him that brooked no nonsense and only rookies made the mistake of challenging him for dominance just because he was human. “We don’t have as many that can go out as we’d like, so I’ll need you each on your own route.”

“Sir.” I nodded. I knew it would be like this; there weren’t many guardsmen whose animal form were as big as mine and Alex’s.

“But make sure you check in.” He looked each of us in the eye to reinforce his command. “I don’t want to think you’re being lazy only to find you dead in the morning. Clear, Lovett?”

“As a laser cut crystal, Cap,” Alex said with a wink. Captain Thurgood just grunted and waved us off.

We got our assignments, grabbed our gear and started for the far side of the lake. When Thurgood took over, any Guardsman who patrolled a run had to shift separate from everyone else. At first there was resistance from the officers who thought a neighborly approach was best, but as the Guard’s authority in the community grew, regulating disputes, supervising runs, and maintaining the law became less like pulling a rotten tooth from the back of an alligator’s mouth. Everyone knew what happens during a change, but somehow doing so out of sight gave us more mystery, as if we were doing something more than a simple shift.

Out of sight of any civilians we removed our clothes, tucking them in the bottom of our respective packs. Next in were the glocks and clips. A pair of knives and a radio were clipped to the outside before slinging the strap around my neck. These packs were specially designed to each sized shifter so alex and I had the same kind. Along with the neck strap, there was a waist strap, both of which were speciall fitted to our shifted forms. Doing so kept the pack and it’s contents within easy reach for a quick shift to human while keeping it from knocking around our legs in animal form. Alex had already started his shift so I waited, keeping an eye on the surrounding area.

The nine foot tall polar bear that replaced Alex wuffed at the air and sat back on its haunches. He waved a paw at me to go ahead. Shifting isn’t painful like humans seem to think. Yes, our bones morph, our muscles stretch and contract into new shapes, and our brains rewire themselves for animal senses. But that’s the things. The brain during all this becomes disconnected from all the nerve ending in the body as it forms new paths itself eliminating pain. Well, except that we get pain perception back at the end of it. But the change itself is an almost intoxicating kind of bliss.

When I stood on all four hooves, I was about a thousand pounds heavier than the polar bear. But bigger doesn’t always mean more dangerous. We nodded to each other before each heading to our respective assignments. Other shifters would patrol the perimeter in pairs but we’d be wandering the interior solo. It was quiet with enough snow to hide any green but so soft it seemed to absorb sound. I’d come across several groups of shifters and a few individuals. I encouraged the loners to join a group or head back to the campground. It was almost dawn and I had started to make my way back when I smelled it.

Chapter 8

Keelan

Once I’d gotten spackling done at the Davison house, Basil had me painting their kitchen. They’d wanted a garish shade of orange, but, hey, I didn’t have to live there and I only had to stare at it for a few hours.

After new years, my brother would have me sanding baseboards at the Moran’s. I’d taken a walk-through of the place with him because most of the crew wouldn’t be around to begin with.  Basil had said something about it being a fixer-upper a new couple to the area had bought. It obviously needed a lot of work. I’d be tearing away the paint on the running boards and trim of the main floor to begin with.

I was looking forward to starting that job as I’d be alone again for a little-

“Oh, my god, you have to try this one on,” Nita said. She’d dragged me to the local bridal shop, the Next Chapter, which catered to men as well, and was traipsing down the aisles like she owned the place.

“Yeah, uh, they’re all going to look the same on me,” I said as she forced another tux into my arms. Apparently, there was a difference between the cuts, the fabric, or something else I couldn’t understand.

“You have no imagination.”

She’d already picked out her dress for the wedding. It was shoulderless with a lace-up back and hugged her curves until about mid-thigh where it flared out. The print was red, gold, and black arrows and lines in a Native American Indian print on a white backdrop. She’d shown me when I’d first started dating Haven. I mean the first time I first started dating him. Last night had been our first date. I knew that because Haven had walked me to my family’s front door. And then he’d kissed me. Again. He’d done so several times on the way home ever since we’d agreed it was a date.

I still didn’t know what I was going to do with the information. I’d been planning on moving on and still held on to that like a lifeline. I figured I had until Nita’s wedding to figure out if this was real. After all, she’d made me her best man.

“…sixty seconds.” I turned in time to see the door shut and realise I’d been led into the changing room. I sighed. Nita had used my wandering mind against me. I hung up half a dozen tuxes I hadn’t noticed her piling on me. Wait… “What was that about sixty seconds?” I called out alarmed.

“You better hurry up and change, space cadet, you’ve got thirty-nine seconds left.”

“That’s not enough time,” I squawked even.

“It’s down to thirty before I change you myself.” I could hear the evil smirk in her voice. “Chop, chop.”

I ripped my clothes of and was nearly panting as she opened the door.

“You missed a button.”

My hands froze at the top of the shirt. Sure enough, there was an extra buttonhole up there.

She tsked as she walked forward and smacked my hands away saying, “You never could dress yourself.”

“You just caught me in compromising positions.”

She started on the tie. “Well, if I didn’t mom would have. And then you’d have been hitched with several calves of your own by now. Or kits, since you’re a mink.”

If that had happened, I wasn’t sure the residents of Hidden Pines would have the life they did now. But I couldn’t bring myself to say so. I’d exposed my family to censure and left them high and dry in the aftermath.

She stepped back to examine her work. “You know, this one looks silly on you. The wide lapels make you look way too skinny.” She went over and flipped through the suits, picking the second one in. “Try this one next. I think it’ll be perfec for yout.”

She’d been right on the money. The one she’d picked had been perfect. The relief didn’t last long as she then started shopping for a vest, shoes, a tie, a tiepin, a pocket square, cufflinks, and she spied a pocket watch she also thought would be ‘perfect’. And I couldn’t even tell her she was wrong. I also couldn’t let her buy my outfit, so had to give up more of my precious savings.

But I’d make it up between now and her wedding.

As we exited the store there was a high pitched squeel. We turned in time to see a toddler barreling toward us on her tiny legs. She smashed into Nita’s legs screaming ‘ma’ over and over and giggling.

“Hello, little bee.” Nita swung the little girl up and propped her on one hip. The girl squeeled in delight when Nita poked her in the belly.

Lavinia strolled up not far behind her daughter. “She really wanted to see you and you did say you were headed to lunch, so I thought we could go together.” She turned to me with a serene smile. “If it’s alright with you?”

“Of course.” I turned toward the little girl in Nita’s arms. She hid her face in her mother’s neck and peeked at me with one eye. “May I have lunch with you miss…” I pause, exaggeratedly trying to remember her name. “Elfie?” A small smile tugged tugged the corner of her lip but she bit it. “No? Was it Ella?” She stopped biting her lip as she shook her head. “Not that one either, huh?” I snapped my fingers. “I got it! Your name is Esther!”

By this time she was grinning. Lifting her head up she looked me straight in the eye and said, “I’m Erink, silly.”

I clapped my palm to my forhead in defeat. “Of course! How could I have got that wrong?” I bowed.“I’m so very sorry.” Presenting my hand for her to shake , I said, “My name is Keelan.”

As she took my hand, an earthquake spoke from the child’s stomach. “I’m hungry,” Erin announced. We all burst out laughing. She looked at each of us in turn seeming to get more and more angry. “What?” We laughed harder.

In the end we went to Daily Grind for a light lunch. It had turned into my favorite place to go for coffee. They had sandwiches, chilled pizza slices with odd but tasty combinations like spinach, fresh tomato and artichoke hearts, and other to-go items that you could also eat in if you wanted. Plus the owner had a very welcoming personality, like drinking hot cocoa during a blizzard. We’d started talking when I’d first stopped in few days ago and I’d made a point to stop by again.

Lavinia sat by with her back to he window while I sat so I could see all the exits and Nita and Erin sat with their backs to the main part of the restaurant around a tall round table near the back.

“Keelan! I was disappointed you didn’t come in for your morning coffee today. I wanted you to meet my husband, I really think you’d hit it off.” Pulling up a chair, he turned toward the rest of the table. “And who are the lovely ladies you’re escorting today? Why, Nita, this is quite the surprise. You don’t stop by very often anymore.”

“Yeah, well, I’ve been selling more propteries in the cities lately.”

He clapped his hands together. “That’s fantastic! So, business is booming and I hear you’re finally tieing the knot soon?”

No pun intended, I thought, chuckling.

Nita shot me a look. I figured she’d have slapped my shoulder if it was in reaching distance.

“Actually, this is my fiance, Lavinia. Lavinia, this is Peter. He’s a god with coffee beans.”

“How do you do.” She sounded like she should be in a black and white movie. Looked like it too.

“My, you landed a goddess, eh?” Peter said, nudging Nita with an elbow. Lavinia stiffly pulled Erin into her lap and started running her fingers through the girl’s hair as if to straighten the immaculate locks.

“Right?” Nita grinned teasingly. “I’m the luckiest girl in the world. I have a gorgeous fiance,” she reached over Erin’s empty seat and tickled her belly to make her giggle, “and the cutest little girl imaginable.”

“I’m so jealous,” Peter said wistfully. “I’m trying to convince Victor to have kids.”

“Oh? That’s great!” Peter grimaced. “Oh, not so great?”

“He sees a lot of broken homes at work.”

“Well, you’ll work it out. I know it.” She patted his arm. Motioning toward the far corner of the room, she continued, “I see you’ve finally set up some computers.”

There were six computers sitting along a high-set counter with tall swivel chairs in front of them. A sign over them said that the price for an hour of computer time was a Daily Grind drink. One person sat in the corner alone while another pair sat at the far end, but all of them were drinking from covered to-go cups.

“Yes and it seems to be going over well.”

“Should you allow people to drink near them?” Lavinia asked, eyeing them dubiously.

Peter grinned slyly. “Each person who uses them gets their own user and if something happens to my equipment, they’re banned for however long I choose.”

“Sounds like a library.”

Peter turned to me, his eyes sparkling. “Where do you think I got the idea? Oh, hey, Max, I’ll be right with you,” he called out to the man who’d just walked up to the counter. To us he said, “Anyway, we’ll have to hang out sometime. Let me know a good day. Wait, you’re all going to the New Year’s run tomorrow right?”

“The what?” I said at the same time Nita said, “Of course!”

“Great! Maybe I’ll see you there.” With a wave he headed back to work.

I looked dumbly at Nita. “The what now?”

“The New Year’s run.” She face-palmed. “Oh, right, I keep forgetting you weren’t here for the start of that. Everyone spends the day playing ice games on Mystic Lake, there’s a race, there’s ice hockey, some people ski, and, oh, my god, the Thompson’s started selling their whisky there, the humans come, there’s-”

“It’s a day of fun and games and a night spent in your second skin ” Lavinia cut her off with a hand on her arm. She looked at me apologetically, “I’m sorry, she can run on at times.”

I snort. “I remember.”

“I do not,” Nita interjected.

“Ma,” Erin whined and tugged at Nita’s sleeve while wiggling in her seat, “ma, ma, ma, ma, ma.”

“What?”

“Pee pee,” she said plaintively, her tiny face contorting in pain.

“Of course, sweetie,” she lifted the toddler out of the chair, “Let’s go. We’ll be right back,” she added to Lavinia and me.

I spun my cup in my hand, occaisionally taking sips, while Lavinia seemed to straighten and reorganize everything on the table.

“So,” I began lamely in an attempt to break the awkward silence. “What do you do for a living.”

Lavinia settled back in her chair after placing the salt shaker. “I teach first grade at

Manistee Elementary.”

“Oh.” I took another sip. “Is Mrs. Strictling still the warden there?”

“Warden?”

“Sorry, bad joke. She was the principal of elementary and middle school when I went there. She was very strict and not very nice.”

“Ah,” she gave a half-hearted laugh. “Yeah, she’s the high school principal now. She used to be quite strict with my sister and I when we were kids, but she’s softened over the years.”

“That’s hard to believe,” I scoffed. “One time I just went to the bathroom and she busted me for not having a hall pass even though Mr. Long’s classroom was right across the hall and he never gave bathroom passes. I got a lunch detention and Mr Long had to start giving hall passes for the bathroom.”

“Yeah, Aunt Sylvia wasn’t the easiest person. I think she had some control issues when she was younger. There was this one time when she’d come to visit when I went out with some friends to the bowling alley and she flipped when I came back after 10. I was sixteen and it was a friday night. Plus I had permission from my parents.”

“Wait, back up a second. Did you just say ‘Aunt Sylvia’?”

“Holy crap, that makes sense now.”

“Excuse me?” Her eyebrows did their best to hide from her indignation in her hairline.

“Sorry, sorry,” I raised both hands placatingly, “I didn’t mean it like that. It was just how you looked,” her lips thinned, “no, I meant your eyes like you kinda seemed irritated whenever you saw me,” her eyes narrowed slightly as her chin came up and she looked down her nose at me, “yes, like that. Perfect” I said and snapped a quick photo with my phone.

Her tone was quiet, the kind of quiet that made you strain to listen but that you knew would end badly, “You do nothing but add insult to injury.” I cursed my wayward tongue.  “You should never have come back.”

I sat stunned. I knew I’d tripped over myself in that speech, but this seemed to go much deeper than that. I’d thought we were getting somewhere, like maybe we could be friends. It seemed however, that all I did was antagonize Nita’s fiance. It was okay, though. I took a breath. I’d be leaving soon anyway. It might be better if I just left and came back for the wedding. Or just tell Nita she had to find a new best man.

“Oh, my god,” I jumped out of my chair and was in a low crouch with my arms up and my hands stiff and flat before I realized it was Nita and Erin I’d been prepared to attack. She just looked at me, an eyebrow raised, as I slowly stood up and pretended I’d been stretching for the dubious benefit of the rest of the café that had stopped to watch. “Jeez, Keelan, what are you taking and where can I get some?” She chuckled as she picked up my phone where I’d dropped it on the table. “But you know what, Honey Bee,” she turned the phone toward Lavinia, “he had you there. You do look like your aunt.”

Lavinia’s shoulders went slack for a moment, “oh, my god, I do. Ugh.” She slid the phone back across the table in my direction.

“You know,” Nita’s grin turned sly, “I used to have a thing for Mrs. Strictling.”

Lavinia’s breath hitched and her eyes dilated a little. This was as good a time as any to make my farewell.

“Well, I should head back. I promised Ryan we’d shoot some hoops.” That was a lie.

“Oh, come on,” Nita pleaded, “we were going to go to the movies.”

“Maybe next time.” I was just a couple bus stops away from the greyhound station. I didn’t really have anything in my backpack that I needed to go back to aunt Peggy’s to get.

Peter came over right then, “You’re heading out too? Let me give you a ride.”

“No, that’s alright. I can walk.” I put my hands in my pockets and felt the cash I’d made so far.

“It’s no trouble, I have to get home to get dinner started for Victor and Peggy’s is  practically on the way.” No. I had to go back for my parents’ ashes first.

“Okay. Thanks.”

Peter ran to get a last-minute cookie for Erin. I ended up standing next to Lavinia, watching as Erin squeeled excitedly and offered part of her cookie to Nita who valiantly accepted it, making Erin giggle even more at the drama.

“Uh, Lavinia,” she turned her head to meet my eyes, “sorry about earlier. About, well, everything.” Lavinia’s pale lavender eyes stared back impassively for a moment as if searching for something.

Then she looked away again. Before I could walk away defeated she said softly, “Alfred was the youngest of us. He had the friendliest dispostion and a heart-melting smile. But he was a kakapo.” Her eyes welled, but she blinked away the tears. “You can guess what happened.” She turned to fully face me and I got it. I got why she hated me. And I didn’t   blame her. The only thing I could do was listen to her, for her. “You worked for her. The Architect. You helped her. And she did so many awful things. I don’t know what he went through. I don’t know if my brother is still alive or not. Maybe he’d be better off dead. And you had a hand in that. For that, I will never forgive you.” My head jerked to the side, my shoulders hunching, as if the words had been a physical blow. I blinked my eyes a few times in a short burst and concentrated on each breath, gripping my thighs to keep from crossing them defensively over my chest. “But you also brought her down. I was angry. Furious. I still am. But. She can’t hurt anyone else, not anymore. You did that too.” It was getting more difficult to breathe. “And for that, I can never repay you.” My eyes snapped back to hers.

She stared at me openly, her guard down, and continued, “So, don’t leave. Not yet. Not because of me.”

“I-” wasn’t sure what to say. How had she known? Should I deny it, try to play it off?

A slight smile graced her lips. “I teach six-year-olds, remember.”

All the tension I’d held broke in a cascade of laughter. “Ouch, I think I got third degree,” I said as I wiped away tears.

“Hey, you coming, slow poke?” Peter called from the doorway. Somehow, Nita had been slain in the time I’d looked away and was now slouched against the wall with Erin sitting on her lap munching on both halves of the cookie.

“I’ll be right there as soon as I can find a way past the cookie troll.” The little girl giggled, spewing crumbs across the floor. Turns out the price was a cup of milk.