Chapter 21

Haven

“Where is he?” My arm was across Murrel’s chest where’d I’d slammed him against a tree. He just grimaced at me, grunted as the air whooshed from his lungs.

When I’d found out that Keelan had gone into the woods alone, I’d immediately gone after him. I didn’t shift as my shoulder holster was the only gear I had on me and I didn’t want to leave it behind. It hadn’t been too difficult to track him through the trees until the trail dead ended. I’d walked around, trying to pick up his scent again but found nothing. That is until I practically collided with Murrell. He seemed to be as shocked to see me as I was to see him. Although we both recovered quickly, I had a gun and I used my size to overpower him long enough to put my handcuffs on him. The handcuffs were inscribed with runes by witches to prevent a shifter from accessing their animal form.

“Where the fuck is he?” Fear terrorized my imagination, fueling the rage I already felt toward the asshole in front of me. They always talk about bulls seeing red. I figure it had more to do with fights ending bloody than with blacking out or having one’s vision shaded in the color. All I know is I didn’t see red. But I wanted to. I slammed him back into the tree again, ignoring the crack from his torso and pained cry from his contorted maw.

That’s when I heard retching and whipped around, letting Murrell collapse to the ground. Keelan who’d seemingly vanished bare minutes before was on his knees outside a grove of oaks, heaving partially digested food and stomach acid. I rushed to his side, kneeling  near his head so I could keep Murrell in sight as well. Turned out that had been unnecessary as Alex had followed me and now stood over the prisoner. I nodded my head at him before gently placing a hand on Keelan’s back.

Keelan jumped, falling backwards on his ass, his eyes rounded and darting. I put my hands up placatingly. “Keelan, hey, love. It’s just me. You’re okay. You’re safe.” I slowly moved toward him and pulled him into my arms where he collapsed onto my chest and cried. “I’ve got you. I’ve got you.”

It took a few minutes for him to cry himself out, but as soon as he did he wiped his face almost angrily and pushed away from me to stand up. “Fucking hormones, dammit.” As I stood, he looked at me, as if he hadn’t realized I was there. “Why are you here?” His lips pressed into a thin line. “Were you following me?”

I gaped at him. No ‘thank you, you saved my life’, no ‘I’m sorry for going off alone’, nothing but censure for having the audacity to make sure he was okay. I tried to reign in my temper with a deep breath. “I fucking saved you. What other goddamn way could I have gotten here so quickly without fucking following you.” Well, remaining calm was a wash.

His eyes flashed. “I didn’t need you to fucking save me,” he snarled. He paced away, running both hands furtively back and forth through his hair, mussing it up. After a minute of deliberate breathing he turned around, matching me glare for glare. “Fine.” He glanced to where Alex was standing guard over Murrell who’d pushed himself into a sitting position and had leaned back against the tree. “I was going to bring you here anyway.”

“Why?” I couldn’t keep the suspicion from my voice. Why did he seem unafraid of Murrell? Why had he planned to bring me or Alex, or both of us to a rarely visited part of the reservation? Some questions found voice. “You’ve been avoiding me the last couple of weeks. Were you running around with him?” I knew he hadn’t been, I’d had too many eyes on him, but I needed to see his reaction.

“Right,” he drew out the singular word with a scoff. “You know, if I’d honestly wanted to ditch your spies, I would’ve. And you’d never find me. I chose to stay. I chose to be protected. I chose family. I have always chosen family. And I always will.” With each exaggerated word, he jabbed my chest with a finger for punctuation. “What I wanted to show you is in there.” He motioned toward the grove he’d vomited in front of as he went to stalk by me, headed back toward the festivities.

“Where do you think you’re going?” I asked, wrapping my arms around his torso, pinning his arms from behind; that was for my own protection as I recalled the jab to the sternum. I may have cooled off some at his speech, but I definitely wasn’t going to let him walk back alone.

I could feel him relent a little, his head falling back to my chest. He was looking up, but not at me, at the stars visible through the trees. “Asshole,” he whispered. I chuckled, giving a quick squeeze before letting him go.

I grabbed his hand and turned to head to the grove he’d said he’d wanted to show me only to stop dead as I saw Alex on the ground. He coughed, groaning as he moved to push himself off the ground.

“Alex, you alright?” I withdrew my pistol and pushed Keelan until his back was to one of the grove’s trees as I scanned the our surroundings for Murrell. Nothing.

“Ugh,” he coughed again, “I think so.” His voice sounded a little hoarse. He pushed himself up enough that he was on one knee with the other foot flat on the ground in front of him as he looked around. “That son-of-a-witch choked me out. Well, at least he can’t change while- Fuck.” He pulled my cuffs from the ground beside him. They looked scorched, the runes melted on the metal. “How the fuck did he do that?”

The handcuffs were the most expensive pieces of standard equipment our station had. As a shifter reservation, we needed something that could be used on individuals who could just shift to get our of human restraints more than anything else. Destruction of city property, yet another charge to add to his already extensive list.

“Keelan, you know anything about this?” He seemed to know more about Murrell than he should. I looked back when he didn’t immediately respond. He was leaning against the tree where I’d put him, his head leaning back against the bark, eyes closed and mouth twisted slightly as he rubbed his stomach. It felt like my rib-cage might’ve grown a little smaller. “Keelan? You alright?”

He cracked an eye wearily. “Stress and morning sickness aren’t exactly soothing on a stomach individually, let alone together.”

“Wait, what?” It took my brain a second to catch up with my ears. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”

“Yep.” His lips tilted up a little, wanly. “You’re gonna be a patriarch.”

And with those five words, my world transmogrified. It wasn’t as if it was wholly unexpected, but he’d gone the hospital a couple weeks ago and hadn’t called me. I’d thought that meant he wasn’t pregnant. I mean, you’d tell someone so world changing as that as soon as possible, right? I suppose I hadn’t exactly tried talk to him either. I’d thought he’d wanted space.

“Congrats, guys,” Alex croaked, finally standing with his own gun out as he scanned the perimeter, “but can we focus here? We’re not out of the woods yet. Pun intended,” he added with a not-quite-feral grin. I could see a slight discoloration on his neck where I guessed he’d been choked out.

Right. This was something we had to deal with later. “I’ll take point. Keelan you stay in the middle and Alex will cover the rear.”

Keelan’s eyes opened, flashing to the entrance of the grove. “What about the-”

“Once you’re safe and we have backup, we’ll come back to take a look.” I smiled what I hoped was a reassuring smile.

“You don’t understand,” Keelan said, pushing off the tree and heading to the entrance as he spoke, “it’s Dr. Batista, well, his body, and-” sound cut off as he simply disappeared at the widest gap in the tightly packed grove. The trees almost looked like they were molded like that, perhaps by an ancient druid. I immediately followed Keelan, barely squeezing through the opening and the raw smell struck me, but Keelan just stood off to one side. He had his phone flashlight pointed at the face of a body who definitely looked like the dead twin to the little balding doctor.

I felt something on my back and looked around to see a disembodied hand at the center of it. I grabbed Keelan’s elbow and pulled him back outside where the hand seemed to grow a body. It was Alex.

“Damn, dude, what happened?” he whispered. “I tried to follow you but hit a wall,” he looked down at his right hand almost forlornly, “and thought I’d lost my best friend.”

I snorted. “There’s some kind of barrier. If Keelan hadn’t walk in first I don’t think I would’ve noticed the gap in the grove.”

“Damn. You know, I didn’t notice it before either.” His eyes scanned the grove.

“There’s more. I’m pretty sure it blocks scents; Dr. Batista’s body is in there.”

“Whoa, for real?”

“It also blocks out sound,” Keelan added. “Oh, don’t give me that look. I was in there before you arrived, remember? I couldn’t hear anything from outside, not even the wind.”

I hadn’t known I was making a face and wondered if it looked at all like Alex’s skeptical one.

I sighed. “This changes things. If we all leave, we might not be able to find it again.”

“You won’t,” another voice piped up, instantly drawing all of our attention. “But it’s a good thing we have this guy.” Chase held up a birdcage with a long-crested eagle at the bottom, wings out slightly to keep balance as a hood covered its eyes.

“And that is?” I asked.

Chase put a hand to his chest dramatically, “Dear, me. What is the Guard coming to?”

“Jesus. Cut to the chase, Chase.” Alex rolled his eyes with annoyance, belied by a faint lift to his lips.

“What?” Chase fluttered his lashes petulantly. “You don’t recognize the man you just let get away?”

*****

“How did you know where to find Dr. Batista’s body?” I asked for the n-th time. Robert Murrell sat unconcernedly with another pair of spelled cuffs connecting him to the table and an ankle cuff specifically designed for bird species. It contained a spell to shrink with the wearer’s size and act as a tracker and/or stunner. It almost seemed unnecessary after acknowledging Chase’s nearly supernatural ability to track this guy. Almost.

“I know a witch’s spell when I see one. Don’t you?” He said it so flatly that I couldn’t be sure he was mocking me or not. My vote was the former. He looked over my shoulder at the one-sided mirror. “Look, we’re getting nowhere. Do you wanna make a deal or not.”

“I can’t be sure you have something we want?”

He just pulled his shoulders up slightly and let them fall. “Then it’ll be on your head.”

I stood at the sound of a knuckle on the glass behind me. “We’ll be back. Drink some water. Wouldn’t want you to get dehydrated.” We’d turned up the thermostat to literally make him sweat but so far he hadn’t so much as looked at the bottle of water he’d been given.

Alex and I stepped into the hall, pulling the door closed. Just up the hallway another door, this one leading to the viewing room for interrogation three, opened and Captain Thurgood stepped out.

“What is it, Cap?” Alex asked.

“Come with me.” We did. He led us down a flight of stairs and through couple halls to a conference room. When we stepped in Keelan was standing at the window fidgeting with the hem of his t-shirt, twisting it around a finger. The now-taught fabric exposed a small convex curve to his abdomen.

I turned to the captain. “What is this?” We’d spent the last day and a half, give or take, interrogating Murrell and I hadn’t had time to have a real talk with Keelan. He’d called several times, but I’d been too busy. At least that’s what I told myself.

“Just hear me out okay?” When he crossed his arms over his chest he looked… vulnerable. I just nodded and leaned against the wall by the door. Alex and Captain Thurgood took seats at the table. “Okay,” he nodded slowly, gathering his thoughts. “Okay. So, you know how my parents died eight years ago?”

“Yes,” I said slowly.

“Well, I didn’t escape the house. Not on my own, at any rate.” He took a deep breath and sank into one of the comfortable computer chairs surrounding the long, oval table. “I was in the house. Their shouting woke me up. My bedroom door was closed and I never closed it. Not while I slept. I tried opening it to get to them but the handle scorched me. The windows were painted shut. We hadn’t gotten around to fixing them yet and I panicked and called out to them. You know,” he looked down at his hands, lacing and unlacing the fingers, rubbing the backs of the knuckles with his thumbs, “witsec set us up with a house that had small tunnels running through the walls and floors as a safety feature for small form shifters. But… My claustrophobia wouldn’t let me near them. My parents had already shifted and were in the tunnels but they came for me anyway. Mom had shifted back to calm me down and just convinced me to shift as my dad took my computer chair and threw it through the window. Kinda wish I’d’a thought of that.” His chuckle was strained. “We were only on the second floor, so I’d’ve been okay. Probably. Well, actually, likely not, as a small grenade came in the window.”

He now sat still, staring at the table as if it were a window into the past. I wasn’t sure if he realized he was crying. You couldn’t hear it in his voice unless you were listening for the faint hitch in his breath every now and then or how his vocal chords were stretched just a hair too tight. “Dad jumped on it like in the first Captain America movie only this one actually did go off. It wasn’t just any bomb either. It was a white phosphorous bomb and mom had caught some of the shrapnel as she shielded me when dad had jumped on the grenade. I think dad died instantly. I don’t know. But if he didn’t, I couldn’t hear him scream. Mom screamed, though.” He cupped his hands over his brow as if he couldn’t bring himself to face us. It felt wrong somehow, with him on one side of the table and the three of us on this side. Like we were a tribunal deciding whether to pass down judgement.

Still standing, I walked around the table and pulled out a chair from beside Keelan. I sat, angling myself to face him. I reached an arm around his shoulders and leaned my forehead against the side of his. I didn’t say anything. What was there to say? I’m sorry? That wouldn’t take away the memory of watching a loved one die a horrific death. I was sorry though, for not trying harder to reach him, understand him. For not listening to him. I rubbed circles into his back as he shook silently. Captain Thurgood never talked much but I was grateful Alex, who always seemed to have something to say, had the presence of mind right then to say nothing.

I passed Keelan a tissue box when he started sniffling. Half a box later, his face was dry if a bit red and slightly puffy. “Sorry,” he said, voice thick.

“No need to apologize,” Captain spoke softly. “Whenever you’re ready.”

Keelan cleared his throat and Alex entered the room with a bottle of water which he passed to Keelan. I hadn’t even noticed he’d gone. I nodded my thanks and open it for my mate. He would likely have gotten annoyed at me any other time for doing that but just now he took it without comment.

“Not long after, uh, the grenade,” he said, clearing his throat. “A ph- um, an eagle came through the window. I tried to get away, but it scooped me up in its claws.” He smiled weakly. “I kinda lost consciousness mid-flight, but he dropped me off at the US Marshal’s office the next state over. He made me promise not to tell anyone that he’d helped me. Said he’d kill me if I did…” I couldn’t tell if he was smiling or grimacing. “But recent events have proven he was bluffing.”

I wasn’t sure I liked where this was heading. “And this eagle…” I left the sentence open ended.

“Is Robert Murrell.”

“Why didn’t you come to us sooner?”

“Because I needed information from him and turning him in would’ve been a betrayal.” He looked at me, his hazel eyes, more blue today, begged me to believe him. “I owe him my life.”

I sighed. “But do you owe him our child’s life?”

“No,” he winced. “You’re right, I should’ve said something sooner. This is all really dangerous and could’ve gone bad fast. It’s just-” He bit his lip. “I didn’t think you’d believe me if I told you the truth.”

I squeezed his hands. “Of course I would.”

He met my eyes and nodded. “Okay. Then, there’s one person who wasn’t caught with Jeanine Mor.”

“What do you mean?”

“The one person she trusted to ‘take care of things’,” he put up his hands with two fingers up as rabbit ears and curled them down to emphasize the fact that what he’d just said was innuendo for murder, as if it needed emphasis. I smiled at that but it only lasted a second. “Avery Lange.”

Chapter 20

Keelan

“Oh my gawd, I’m so nervous,” Nita paced back and forth in one of pair of closed pavilions set up for the brides. They’d decided to have their wedding in the meadow furthest south on the reservation. There was a slight rise in the center that was popular for stargazing and for weddings. Although humans preferred days or evenings for weddings, shifters often had midnight ceremonies and while new moons were favorite stargazing nights, full moons were prime for shifter ceremonies.   Nita’s was no exception.

“You look amazing, Nita. Nothing’s going to go wrong,” Rayen said as she stepped into the crowded space and hugged her sister tight. It was a good thing she’d come in just then as Nita’s whining was like sandpaper on a sunburn and I was about ready to snap.

She chuckled and swatted her sister’s shoulder. “Now you’ve gone and jinxed it.” She grinned anyway.

“They’re just about ready out there,” Haven said as he let the entrance flap drop. Haven was standing like a guard at the opening and I had chosen a seat in the far corner opposite him for the last couple hours, Nita’s movements like a wall between us.

A couple weeks ago, I’d given in and gone to the clinic to get tested for led poisoning. I’d just caught Dr. Batista at the end of his shift and he’d motioned me to follow him to his office. As he retrieved my medical file, he mentioned something about taking a preemptive shot, just in case. But he went silent after opening my file, something he read putting a crease between his brows.

“Well, I suppose we can’t do that, after all. Especially in your condition,” Dr. Batista said. “I’ll have a nurse take a blood sample and we’ll decide what to do if it comes back positive for lead poisoning.”

“I’m sorry, what?” I had a condition? Did I have cancer or something? It wasn’t common among shifters but it wasn’t unheard of. “What condition?”

“You weren’t informed? It was noted in your file from… Ah, here it is. January 6th.” He pulled a page from my file and handed it over. “Lemme see who the attending was – oh. Right. Well,” he looked up at me apologetically, “with your levels of hCG, either you’re pregnant or you have testicular cancer.”

“Does it have to be one of those?” I asked, too stunned to fully compute his words.

“Well, it’s unlikely to be the latter, but just in case we can set up an ultrasound for today.”

“Really? That’s fast.” I didn’t know if I preferred lead poisoning, cancer, or a baby. They all sounded like a bad idea at the moment. Lead poisoning could probably be counteracted when caught this soon, cancer was scary but most were beatable, but I knew I couldn’t bring myself to abort a baby. I just didn’t have it in me. Was it wrong to pray I had cancer? “Um, okay. When?”

“I’ll set it up while you get your blood drawn and we can do it right after.” I swallowed, my throat dry, as I followed him to an examination room. It didn’t take long for a chipper nurse to draw a few vials of blood and for another scrubbed individual to push a machine into the room. He introduced himself as Andre Lopez, the sonographer, and he had a very open and relaxing personality.

His eyebrows rose slightly and he smiled when Dr. Batista came into the room. “Hey, Martin, how was your vacation?”

“Oh, it was sunny,” Batista replied genially. “The retreat didn’t allow electronics, which was fine at first but I just couldn’t hold out. That’s when I heard about everything and booked a flight home.”

Andre chuckled. “Finally joined the modern era? Well, we’re thankful you did. This man’s a work-a-holic,” Andre said turning back to me. “Hasn’t taken a day off in years, but he’s the best.”

“I hardly think that’s true,” Batista replied. “Now why don’t we get started?”

As Andre hooked up the machine.  I hand’t realized how comfortable I’d been in their presence until my mind wandered back to the matter at hand. It felt like I’d swallowed a jar of firebugs, the buzzing of their little bodies as they thunked against the container in frantic attempt to escape.

“I’ve got this doc, if you wanna head out. I know your shift is over.”

“That’s alright, Andre. I’m just gonna be here for moral support,” he added patting my hand. I smiled, grateful. Moral support sounded nice just then. Later, the blood tests proved I didn’t have lead poisoning or testicular cancer, but when I saw the bean that was my baby on a black and white screen, I knew I was lost.

*****

“The march is starting,” Haven interrupted my thoughts. I could hear two wooden flutes echoing and countering each other in a slow rhythm with a faint leather drumbeat keeping time. I stood and took the first spot by the tent flap grateful Rayen was between me and Haven in the lineup. We walked slowly up the aisle and I stood furthest from the center where the brides would stand. There was one long aisle that broke in the center and most of those attending sat on the ground in human or animal form with the exception of the elderly or infirm sitting in folding chairs with cozy blankets. It was warm for the month, with no snow and sunny days, but it was still chilly. This didn’t affect most shifters as much as their human counterparts, some of whom scattered in the audience wore coats instead of jackets.

The brides approached from either end of the aisle and met in the center, friends and family spread around them. Lavinia wore a sleek white dress of silk with minor lace accents, her black hair down in waves accenting her pale skin. Nita wore a Native American styled dress with long leather fringe instead of sleeves and lining the bottom of the gown from around her knees. Blue and teal triangles accented the sides and under her bust. As they approached each other, Selene touched their silhouettes with silver drawing all eyes.

The shaman spoke of trials and love followed by the brides vows. At the end they each held onto a small wooden shaft with six long ribbons leading off it. Each bridesmaid and groomsman grabbed the end of a ribbon and we danced to a slightly livelier drumbeat weaving in, around and between them, the ribbons tying their hands together until we could weave no more and tied our strand in a knot with one of the other’s. You probably guessed this, but Haven and I tied a knot. For the rest of the night the two of them would be tied together.

The crowd burst into wolf whistles, cat calls, and cheers from those in human form and all manner of noises from the shifted crowd. There was movement everywhere; some people moved off to the buffet tables lining one edge of the clearing or to the sitting tables on either side. The band struck up a beat that had people dancing and some of the crowd swept the brides up in a wicker love seat and danced with them seated, giggling and making out alternately, in the air.

I moved out of the press to avoid any accidental elbow jabs, not at all because Haven was one of the bases for Nita and Lavinia’s love seat, and headed for the food. There was quite the assortment, mostly meat but vegetarianism was gaining traction these days, even in the shifter community. I avoided all fish, since my baby didn’t seem inclined to let me have any, and went for a steak and salad.

I picked a table with no people as I wasn’t feeling very sociable tonight and settled on a metal folding chair. Many of the guests had been part of the setup having each grabbed an item or two on their way up the trail this evening. It saved on trips and allowed us to have at least some tables and chairs. There was an area set up with a pen and several adult, or at least teenage, supervisors for the the little ones. Not that the temporary plastic fence would truly hold any of them but it made it easier and most of the kiddos liked to play together. I noticed Ryan and Sam playing whack-a-mole with a few of the toddlers who were sticking their hands through the holes, giggling every time their hands were lightly smacked.

“So, you’re the big one’s mate.” An omega one might describe as lolita slid into the chair next to me, his back to the festivities.

“We’re not married,” I said curtly. I didn’t want to talk to anyone and he seemed like a talker. I focused on my food, cutting it into smaller and smaller pieces. I didn’t feel like eating, either.

“Semantics,” he waved a hand airily at my comment. “You know, I think we’ve met before.”

“Oh?” I glanced back up at him. “I think I’d remember to avoid you.”

“Ouch, that stings.” He put a hand over his heart, his eyes wide in mock hurt. “And after all the help I gave you on New Years.”

I took in his cornrows, blindingly white smile and his pale brown eyes that seemed to match his skin. Then I replaced his current attire with a pale white robe. “Ah. I’d say thanks but,” I motioned toward my abdomen where a not-quite-yet visible baby bump was growing, “your meds didn’t work. I didn’t realize they put cheap brands in those pens.”

“Excuse me,” he said with an annoying grin, “but I only get the best brand. Doesn’t do to have weak shit in my line of work. You probably needed a stronger dose because both your parents were omegas.”

“And what is your line of work exactly?” My parentage wasn’t exactly a secret, nor was the science behind a male and female omega creating more potent omega offspring, but most people didn’t know about the former and usually forgot about the latter after high school. “Things’ve changed since I left but I don’t know of any omega who needs to keep more than one of those things on them for emergencies. If they can even afford them.”

“Oh, I’m just your standard bounty hunter. I believe you’ve seen Murrell recently.” His flippant attitude had my blood boiling, but his words froze had frost creeping up my spine. Maybe my hormones were assisting in the clash of temper and fear. Either he could read people very well or I wasn’t doing enough to guard my features. “Perfect. Could you tell me where he is?”

I hadn’t seen Murrell since he scared the shit out of me announcing Avery’s presence in Hidden Pines. He’d asked for my help which I hadn’t processed through the vice-like fear that had gripped me until after he’d disappeared. I still didn’t know why he needed my help or, for that matter, why he’d stuck around. Once I heard about how he’d been married to Karen Ellory, I figured her missing son was with him, the father. It wasn’t ideal, but he’d keep the boy safe. So, why had Murrell stayed? I hadn’t been able to find him and he hadn’t tried contacting me again since, so I had no idea.

“You may not have poisoned me on New Years, but that doesn’t mean I trust you. I don’t even know your name.”

“Oh, sorry,” he exaggeratedly face-palmed, “how silly of me. Really, sometimes I swear I earned the nickname, Goose. I’m Ch-”

“Chase!” An arm wrapped around Chase’s neck and a fist knuckled over the dreds on the top of his head.

“Fuck, Alex,” Chase said, voice just shy of snarling, “not the hair. You’re gonna make it frizz.”

Alex just laughed as he let him go and moved to sit down on my other side, dodging a swipe from Chase on his way by. I put a leg on the chair blocking it from him. “Uh-uh, you’re not gonna use me as a meat shield.”

“Oh, come on. You’re perfect. He won’t dare touch you.” I just stared at him until he moved to the next seat over. “Fine. Leave me without a hope in the world.”

I rolled my eyes setting my leg back down on the ground under the table, it had been uncomfortable, not to mention cold. The tables were set up with blankets draping to the ground reminiscent of a kotatsu to help stave off the chill. Most of the shifters here had higher natural body temperatures but it was still March in Michigan. That’s when I noticed a bird sitting near the trunk of a tree just inside the treeline, bobbing its head side to side, flashing moonlight off its beak. When it saw me the bobbing stopped and I realized who it was. This might be my only chance to get information.

“Here you go, honey.” Kiki walked up and put a plate in front of Alex. Fish. What was with the man. Still, it gave me the perfect reason for bailing on my current company as I felt my stomach begin churning at the scent.

“Sorry,” I covered my mouth making it seem worse than it was, “I have to go.”

I didn’t look back as I scurried to the edge of the field. I turned back just past the treeline to make sure I wasn’t being followed then headed further in until I saw Murrell’s silhouette through the leafless tree limbs gliding low over the treetops. I debated going back and telling Haven everything. Ever since I’d gotten the sonogram I’d been avoiding him. It wasn’t that I thought he’d be unhappy, or didn’t love me and I sure as hell loved him. It was that I knew he’d be even more driven to protect me, wrapping me in a wall of bubblewrap, and I needed answers.

Alex had given me a pained expression when I’d asked about the café and Peter had flat out told me to leave it alone or he wouldn’t bring me back on when the café was running again. Basil and Sean were practically glued to my side when Haven wasn’t around and it had been a struggle making excuses not to move in with him. He’d let it go, for now, only because with my brother he’d have eyes on me at all times. Aunt Peggy seemed to know more than she should as she’d been dropping by and forcing family to hang out when neither Basil nor Haven were around. I hadn’t been alone for a minute the last couple weeks to even hear my own thoughts. I knew why they were doing it. They thought Murrell was a serial killer who was somehow evading capture without leaving the reservation and had beef with me.

The only reason no one was with me right then was likely due to everyone thinking I was in the company of someone else. I really hoped this conversation with Murrell wouldn’t take long because I was going to be in big trouble. I hadn’t thought seriously about running away for a while now, but I was starting to feel claustrophobic and my fuse was looking a little frayed. Okay, a lot frayed. Fine, it was practically non-existant. I needed to know what Murrell knew, but turning him in would be a betrayal and I owed him my life. Plus I was sure by now that he wouldn’t kill me. A glance behind me and a long inhale through my nose told me that we were too far for anyone to be able to help. Maybe I was ninety percent sure he wouldn’t kill me.

He moved down through the trees until he landed on a low branch and I continued until I stood just outside a small, close-knit horseshoe shaped grove of oaks. He dropped from the branch, back-winging before he hit the ground and landed softly before shifting.

“You didn’t bring me here to kill me, now, did ya?” I half-joked with a short laugh as I tucked my hands into my pockets feeling for my usual brass-knuckles and knife. Hey, I may have felt suffocated with all the over-protective people in my life, but that didn’t mean I was reckless. Well, not completely reckless, I mean I was in the middle of nowhere with a wanted-criminal-plus-dangerous-shifter.

His features remained impassive, though it was hard to tell for sure in the shadows of the trees. “I have to show you something.” He stepped into the grove. I took a quick look around before following him as I slipped the knuckles on. Once inside, the smell hit me like a sledgehammer; decay, rot, death. A body lay curled against the trees on the far side of the grove, meaning it was only a couple feet away. The small man was naked and what smelled like old blood caked in trails away from his throat. How the hell had I not smelled this before?

“A witch’s spell is hiding this spot from shifter senses.” Murrell responded to a question I hadn’t thought I’d spoken aloud.

“Why?” I whispered, as if speaking would disturb the dead.

“The Architect-”

“Is dead,” I said firmly, immediately covering my mouth with my hands at the volume of my voice. Then I realized just how silent it was; there was no wind, no leaves rustling or twigs cracking, no branches scraping one another or any animal sounds whatsoever. It was like the outside world didn’t exist. Still, I continued in a lowered tone. “There’s nothing she can do now. It’s been a year and she’d been in prison for nearly a decade before that.”

“That doesn’t mean she didn’t have reach or that no one knew her plans.” He motioned at the body. “This one was killed months ago. My guess is January 13th.”

A chill ran down my spine. I tightened my fist, ready to crack him in the kidneys any moment. “How would you know?”

“It was a new moon.” He turned his head, eyes locking with mine. “There were two more after, correct? Each were also killed on a new moon.” He watched me, waiting for something, but I didn’t know what he was getting at.

“What does that have to…” my voice trailed off as I realized what it meant and it was not good. Not good at all. “Oh. They got earth and water, which should make him,” I indicated the body with a nod of my head, “the moon element. An owl or wolf maybe.”

I moved toward the body and crouched slowly, turning on the flashlight on my phone.

“That’s why you’re still here,” I said, realization dawning. “You think it’s her. Your mom.” I looked over my shoulder at where Murrell paused in the entrance, his face cast in shadow.

“I must go.”

“To get back to Levi?” I pressed a hand to my stomach, “I get it. I really do, but do you think he might be better off in a more stable home? I mean, after all this is over.” He stood for a moment, as though carved of marble, before simply disappearing between one second and the next. That barrier really was something else.

I turned back to the body shining my phone light over it as I turned the camera on to record. I’d find Haven and tell as soon as I left, but in case Avery was here and moved the body while I was gone I wanted some visual proof. The light hit the toes first which looked scraped as if he’d run some distance. His skin had minor abrasions particularly on the arms and legs but the torso bore them as well. And then there was the neck wound. I thought I could see inside his trachea and my stomach roiled, but it was the face that had me fleeing the grove to find a place to deposit my rebellious bile. He’d been so kind, seemed like someone I might’ve gone to for advice. But if he’d been dead since January, who was impersonating Dr. Batista?

Chapter 19

Haven

His hazel eyes were wide with shock as they moved from face to face finally locking with mine. I froze as if I’d looked into the eyes of a gorgon. This was like a dream and a nightmare rolled into one. This was everything I wanted, but by the look on his face, I was scared Keelan would run. It was too soon, he was still so on edge. I had to calm him down, but words turned into jumbled letters and my limbs had turned to stone.

“Well, fuck-a-duck,” Alex said, his grin showing a little too many teeth as he slammed his open palm into the back of my shoulder. My stone shell cracked. No, Keelan had to be at least entering his heat for this to have happened. I took in a breath. That’s all I had to tell him to make this misunderstanding go away.

“No,” Keelan said, scooching to the edge of the table. “No, no, no. No-no-no-no.” Nita took a step back as he stood and faced Rayen. “I. Am. Not. Pregnant. That’s impossible.”

She glanced between me and him, pursing her lips. “Reeeaaally?”

He met my eyes for a split second with uncertainty triggering the memory of New Year’s Eve. When he said he’d been fine. Unlike women, male omegas only went into heat two to four times a year which left a few months before one missed a period  and by that time… Yeah, you could usually tell by then. I’d hung out with him every night for two months since late January and hadn’t smelled a thing, but that could just be because I grew accustomed to the changing scent. For a second I thought he’d admit the possibility, but he just pressed his lips together as he returned Rayen’s stare.

“Oh? Then what’s this?” Nita leaned her head out from behind Keelan and just then I realized she had her hands up his sweater. I narrowed my eyes at her and growled. She just shot me a wicked smile.

Keelan pushed her arms down and stepped away from her and a little further from the table. “I just need to exercise more. That’s all.” His voice was firm but his chin dipped and his arms crossed over his torso.

“Oh-ho,” Nita continued to tease, “so defensive. Are you sure you’re no-”

“I’M NOT PREGNANT!!” This was shouted into a lull in the music and nearly all eyes in the the building turned in our direction. Keelan’s eyes were wide, his mouth agape, as he took in the looks of the club-goers: from interested to skeevy, amused to derisive. He mumble something about going home as he pulled up his hood and pushed his way through the crowd. The music thumped on but eyes still followed him as he left.

I grabbed his forgotten coat, glaring at Nita, and went after him. I caught up to him in the parking lot where he just stood and stared at Kate’s car, probably realizing he had no way home. I slowed and stopped just out of reach.

“Keelan?” I asked tentatively, not sure how he’d react.

He just sighed and turned toward me. I held out his coat and he stepped forward to take it, but then he just stood there staring at it.

“Are you alright? Nita was just being Nita and-”

“It’s a misunderstanding,” he said still looking at the coat. I held my tongue. Let him talk if he wants to.

“Would you like a ride home? We could hang out and watch a movie with Basil and Sean.” He looked at me then, a wan smile tugging at his lip, and nodded.

“He’s gonna laugh at me. He’s been telling me to see a doctor.” We meandered toward my truck as Keelan slipped the coat on.

“Who, Basil? He thought you were pregnant?” How long had Keelan known? Or at least suspected?

“No,” he scoffed, confusing me. “I probably have lead poisoning from the Moran House.”

“Wait, what?” I said stopping with the driver’s door half open. That would be serious, but- “But that collapsed a month ago.”

“What happened to Lucille?” Keelan asked gaping at my SUV.

“She was just on loan. This is Zoe,” I said patting the top of the car. “Zoe, this is Keelan. He’ll hopefully be sticking around for a long while.” My smile widened as Keelan burst out laughing and climbed into the passenger seat.

He patted her dashboard, as I slipped into the driver’s seat and pulled onto the road. “Nice to meet you, Zoe. Please take good care of me.”

“Oh, I will.” I caught Keelan staring at me as I pulled onto the road.

He cleared his throat and changed the subject. “Symptoms of lead poisoning can show up anytime. I suppose I’ll have to see a doctor now to be safe.”

I nodded. “To be safe.” I watched the road as he stared out the window and we remained silent the rest of the way to his brother’s.

*****

“Somebody crack open a can of tuna?” Alex entered the building in front of me, a hand up to cover his mouth and nose.

While I was being shocked by the announcement of my boyfriend’s maybe pregnancy at my sister’s bachelorette party the night before, a fight had occurred in the kitchen at The Daily Grind and we had yet another dead body.

“Aren’t you a bear?” Meagan called out from the kitchen.

“And you eat sushi,” I added. “Specialty sushi, at that.” We moved into the wider kitchen in the back. One wall was lined with sinks and an industrial dishwasher that was just a giant metal box. A small row of stoves lined another wall while a multilayered oven took up a section between what were likely the pantry and walk-in cold storage. An island stood in the center with a small rack of cookware hanging over it.

“Screw you both. I do like sushi which canned tuna is not.” He pulled out a tin of mint scented wax to put on his lip just under his nose to try and block the scent. It definitely didn’t smell like flowers in here; I held out my hand and he set the tin in it as I copied his actions.

The center island was perpendicular to the rear exit we’d entered and we stepped carefully as a layer of water coated the linoleum floor. We rounded the counter opposite and came face to tail with a shark, the tail fin curling around the side of the counter.

“What the hell?” Alex exclaimed as I turned and headed around the other side and stood behind Meagan where she examined the head of the shark.

“Same as before,” she said. “This is definitely a shifter.”

“You’re sure?” I asked, knowing the answer yet not wanting it to be true. She looked over her shoulder at me, an incredulous eyebrow raised. I sighed. Right. How else could someone fit a great white shark into a space this small without a larger doorway or being sliced into pieces. The thing was twenty feet if it was an inch.

First Karen, now this. This was the second death where a shifter had been found in their animal form post-mortem. It had been easier with Karen as a coywolf isn’t too much worse than a human to move around. We’d managed to keep the animal form part of her death out of the media. This one, though, would require the assistance of a tanuki to get it back into human shape before transportation. This meant that Meagan had to do the shifted examination now since she wouldn’t have a chance later. Though our animal side is bound to us, is an essential part of us, the human body is our core. It’s unnatural for a shifter to stay in animal shape after death. The media was already all over it.

“I think he was given a paralytic,” she continued. “There’s a puncture mark just behind the gills. I’m thinking he was tranqued mid-shift.” That made sense. Once a shift is started it has to finish. Partial shifts are a myth after all, like unicorns and pots of gold sitting at the ends of rainbows. Also, if he’d been able to move the kitchen wouldn’t have just a couple pans, plates and a chair lying around. And what was with all the water?

“Looks like someone might’ve waterboarded him.” Alex had moved to examine the knocked over chair. There were cut ropes fallen around it.

“You think they were looking for information?” I asked.

“Maybe they just wanted him to turn. A serial killer with a penchant for killing shifted shifters?”

“You thinking Murrell?”

“No, this is only the second.” Meagan broke in.

“That we know of,” Alex grumbled.

“But if I had to guess I’d say something about this makes it feel more ritualistic.”

“Well, lets not give him a third,” I said.

“Did you want to call him or shall I?” Alex stretched as he stood and turned to face me. Him was AJ Belmont, our resident criminal advocate, delinquent counselor, and royal pain-in-the-department’s-ass. He wasn’t a lawyer but he did what he could to help ex-cons find jobs and have happy homes. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a wonderful idea that people can change, that they can become upstanding citizens. It usually doesn’t happen like that, though. However, since he was our resident trash panda, he was brought in to help return Karen to her human form.

To be fair, he wasn’t really a raccoon, but a Japanese raccoon dog or tanuki. Tanukis looked a little like raccoons but had rounder faces and bodies, no tail, and, where raccoons at least had opposable thumbs, tanukis had regular paws. Tanukis were, for reasons unknown to the greater population, blessed by the Selene, goddess of the moon, to work with subtle earth magics. They were herbalists, especially good at infusing magic into their work. Although the scope was fairly narrow, it was steadier and more reliable the chaotic human witch magics.

I was happy to find out that he’d already been called for before Alex and I had arrived. We didn’t have to wait too long before he walked in. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I took a small bit of satisfaction from the look of distaste on his face when he took his first breath of stale air. Unfortunately for my enjoyment but fortunately for my nasal passages, he pulled out a bundle of herbs from a brown leather satchel and lit it. Turned out it was sage and, while strong, wouldn’t normally be able to cleanse the air of the putrid stench. There was an undertone of some kind of song, seemingly wordless, that gave the sage more potency, freshening the air.

“Hey, AJ,” Meagan greeted as she stood and gave the man a hug. “Sorry about this, I know you’re busy.” She gathered her gear that she’d spread on the center island and stepped back around the island to make space for AJ at the head of the shark. When he knelt down (yep, right in the water), I followed Meagan’s example. Alex, however, decided to lean against the counter behind the tanuki.

“Come on, you gotta see this,” Meagan whispered and tugged my arm. Can’t say I wasn’t curious. It was rare to see a forced change, you generally had to get a warrant to do so and judges in general were leery about it with shifter’s rights activists pushing to make it illegal.. I let her pull me down by the shark’s tail.

“You probably shouldn’t stand there.” AJ’s voice was flat as if he didn’t really care. Well, then neither did I. I wanted to see this and wasn’t going to crouch like Meagan was to see between the shelves of the center island. With my height I could see AJ’s head and torso over the counter as he waved a feather toward the body, pushing the rising smoke before it. It wasn’t sage this time. It smelled a little of burned hair, coal and the lavender did it’s best to disguise a skunk-like scent..

I wondered if he’d set up base speakers when a low thrum vibrated through the floor. Not just the floor, it hummed in the air like electricity and danced through my bones. It was a song that called for change, but a change I couldn’t give it since I was already in my human form. It was glimpsing Selene as she ghosted through by during a new moon, but never being sure it wasn’t your imagination. It was making love under a full moon, looking into a face I’d never forgotten. It was the slowing beat of a heart as sleep overcame my weary body. It took me a second to remember to breathe and I hadn’t even realized I’d closed my eyes. I opened them as the music ended and I looked around confused. It felt like I’d lost a part of myself, but that was wrong. I still felt my otherself, but where he was usually hyper vigilant, always just under my skin, he was dozing. I mentally poked him. Any other time, he would have jumped at the chance to shift and I was lucky that he didn’t take the bait this time or more of the kitchen would be wrecked. But.

“What the fuck did you do, Belmont?” I stalked over the now human body to loom over AJ. He ignored me as he stood, replacing a brass bowl in his satchel on the counter after dumping the ashes in a ziplock baggy. I slammed my hand on his bag as he grabbed the strap, and snatched a fistfull of his shirt. “He’s not responding, what the hell did you do?”

Alex jumped forward, his hand gripping the wrist above AJ’s shirt, the other at my elbow. “Haven, dude, what are you doing? Let him go!”

AJ met my eyes, his slanted ones flat with annoyance. “I did warn you, did I not? It’s not my fault you got high.”

“That was not a warning. A warning is ‘hey, I put weed in this magic potion and you’ll lose the ability to shift’,” I growled, my fist tightening in his shirt. A sharp pain at the curve of my neck and shoulder made my hand open and AJ stepped out of reach with a cold glare. I shook my hand out as I turned a glare on my partner. I hadn’t noticed when he’d let go of me.

“What?” he shrugged, not moving to put his baton away. “It was your brachial plexus or your head. At least this way you can tell me what the fuck just happened.”

I took a deep breath, letting it out in a slow half growl. He was right. Things might’ve gotten worse if I’d continued. I poked my bison again, but he just continued sunbathing. I resisted looking over at the tanuki, but kept my left hand on his bag to keep him from leaving.

“This trash panda,” I couldn’t hold back a downward slanted lip curl, “just did something so I can’t shift.”

“Like at all?” Meagan asked from the other side of the counter. I just glanced at her and heard scratching on paper as I finally looked at AJ. “Interesting.”

“So.” I emphasized each word slowly. “What. Did. You. Do.”

AJ sighed. “I did exactly as I was asked to do. I forced your victim to change back to his natural state.”

“What were you burning?”

“That’s proprietary information and you don’t have a warrant,” he replied stiffly.

“I smelled weed.”

“Yes, I use cannibis in this tincture. It’s my own blend. Helps people relax. Which is necessary when you want them in human form.”

“Wait-wait-wait.” Alex stepped forward, grinning like a fool. “You mean my partner here was dosed with pot? Oh, that’s too much.” His machine-gun bursts of laughter grated on my nerves. “So, wait, if he’s high, how come he’s so ornary?” Alex asked wiping away tears. I flung AJ’s bag at his head, it had more weight than expected and Alex fumbled it. AJ dove for it at the same time but it still landed in the water. I grinned inwardly as AJ stood, half soaked, his bag dripping.

“I think ornary is his natural state.” AJ glared at me while uselessly swiping at the water on his bag. At the door he stopped, looking at Meagan to say, “If you need me again, my fee just doubled.”

“There you go, again, making friends,” Alex thumped my shoulder.

“Do you know when I can get my- Oh, my god.” We turned toward the lobby door to see Peter standing in the open doorway, staring down at our feet.

I glanced between the body and Peter. “Do you know him?” I asked slowly.

“You could say that.”

Chapter 18

Keelan

Apparently, the sanding I’d started working on at the Moran’s house had lead in it. Oh, joy. After I’d been sanding for a few days, lead had been discovered in the paint on the baseboards, and this had been after finding and dealing with a termite infestation, a heavy coating of black mold under the tiles in the rear bathroom and leaky water pipes. Work had halted while the Morans discussed whether they wanted to keep the current structure or not. Ultimately, they had no choice. It collapsed in on itself one night toward the middle of February.

As my job was mudding and painting, I was temporarily out of a job. I mean, there wasn’t much work during the winter, mainly small additions or interior work, but there was barely enough of that kind of work for his full time employees. Due to expense and weather restrictions, starting a building from scratch is not common practice. The Morans were getting antsy living out of a motel and wanted it done so they’d decided to pay the extra expenses, but it was still going to take time to just clear the site and build the framework. In the meantime, Peter offered me a part-time job at the café. Now, I worked there a couple days a week.  

“You should go to the hospital,” Basil interrupted my thoughts.

“I don’t need to,” I retorted. He’d been trying to get me to go all week. I’d been feeling ill since they’d discovered Karen Ellory’s body at the Moran’s house a week ago after having cleared the rubble. Broken pipes and had created quite a pool before the water had been turned off. It was so cold that it had partially frozen and they’d had to set up a heated tent to melt it and remove the water. That’s when they found her. She’d been dead for nearly a month since her body had to have been in the house when it collapsed from the fire. I swallowed and held my breath to keep the threatening bile down. My doctor ends up murdered in the house I’d been working on. It couldn’t be a coincidence, could it?

“Yes, you do.” It took me a bewildered second to remember what we were talking about. Basil crossed his arms over his chest. I was the one who’d taken self defense but he was the one with all the muscle. No fair.

“When did you become the Big Bad Alpha?” I groused. I know you are supposed to be nice to customers but he wasn’t ordering. That meant he wasn’t a customer, right? I didn’t have to look up more than a couple inches, but it annoyed me that I had to do so at all while looking at my twin. My identical twin. Secondary genders really did make a difference. They could use a picture of us side by side to show biology students what puberty would do to an individual who went alpha or omega. It wasn’t common for twins to differentiate secondary genders like us, particularly when both parents also had the same secondary gender. I ground my teeth. “I wore a mask and glasses and that was a weeks ago. Besides, they were there too.” I waved my hand around to indicate those of his crew who’d joined him for lunch 

“And they got tested,” he shot a look at the two men standing at his back who were studying the menu behind me while pretending to not be listening. “Right?” he asked them.

They started and the younger one, Beet, blushed the color of his namesake. “Yessir.”

Markham, a middle-aged Nordic looking alpha probably in his 70s, just shook his head. “I wasn’t in the same room as him most of the time. But Manny was in there a lot without a mask and went into the clinic last week when he started feeling nauseous, just in case.”

Basil just looked at me as if that were an answer.

I rolled my eyes. “I feel fine. Either order or take a hike.”

He grabbed my wrist to stop me and it was an ordeal to not bend one of his fingers back to break his hold. “What?” I snapped.

His eyes just narrowed. “Get checked out.”

I just growled non-commitally, pulling my arm from his grip. He nodded his head once as if I’d conceded, prick, and ordered a black tea and a ham and cheese croissant sandwich before sitting at a table by the window overlooking the river.

Behind them was a man poking at his laptop who’d been nursing a black coffee since before I’d started my shift an hour ago. Haven hadn’t really taken away my babysitters that night, but I could appreciate that he at least had them be more inconsipicuous. I hadn’t been on the run for a decade for nothing, after all. I guessed with Karen Ellory’s death he’d been allowed to extend the length of time he could have someone watch me.

My first instict that night had been to run. I’d been taking the trash out when Avery had visited me a week shy of Febuary’s new moon. Nights were getting darker and shadows deeper as the moon waned. The bin was full and the bag I was adding would keep the lid from closing, but tomorrow was trash day so it wasn’t too big a deal.

I don’t know why I turned away from the house. Maybe it was a noise. Maybe it was the flash of a silvered outline in my periphery. Or maybe I was just running on paranoia. Whatever the reason, I did turn. In the tree, maybe twenty feet up, sat a long crested eagle. It stared at me, it’s reddish-brown feathers seemingly black in the dark. I watched as the bird stretched out its wings, feathers folding and shrinking, bones cracking, joints popping and he sat naked on a limb that didn’t look like it could hold his weight.

“Hello, Robert.” I forced blitheness into my voice even as I white-knuckled the trash bag. “What brings you here this fine evening?” It wasn’t like I could run, he was faster than me and if I shifted his eagle would snag me just like he had in the forest. Though, if he made a move that would be my safest option. If I called for help, he might think I’d spilled his secret and take revenge as he’d told me he would the night my parents died. More than all that, though, I wanted answers. What I didn’t expect was the one he gave me.

“I need your help. Avery Lange is here.”

My veins clogged with ice and my lungs shivered. I spun, eyes trying to penetrate every shadow, scrutinizing every odd shape and sudden movement. “What? When? Why?” In my frantic movements I bumped into something solid and dove away from the loud crash that followed only to disover the top-heavy trash can had fallen. Fear coiled like a thorned-vine around my spine and I looked back at Robert. Or rather the empty space where he had been moments before.

I remembered the broken golf club I’d found in Basil’s front closet and moved to retrieve it from the fallen garbage. Then Haven’s voice sounded behind me and I remembered where I was and, more importantly, who I was with. I may not be safe, per se, but there was safety in numbers and Haven counted for more than one. I’d told him I was okay but couldn’t keep my eyes from searching for enemies in the shadows as I reset the trashcan and headed back inside.

My flight reflex was on high alert for the next few days, and I would have run except I hadn’t a moment to myself. Basil had moved his computer to the living room and was constantly checking on me when I left the room, Haven was there in the evenings for dinner and a movie or game, and even Kate had dropped by with the now healthy and engergetic Ryan and Liam for a playdate which turned into a multi-night slumber party. Schools had shut down due to ‘weather’ but that was code for ‘manhunt’. Ryan was the real babysitter, but it seemed he was watching me more than the kids. We even ended up making a blanket fort and the kids insisted I sleep in it with them.

It was annoying at first. I felt a driving need to leave, to get away so that everyone I loved would be safe. As the days passed and fear loosened its grip on my heart a little I was able to think more clearly. Running wasn’t a real option. I’d tried to run before and my parents paid the price. If it hadn’t been for Robert, I would’ve joined them. If Avery was coming for me again, I couldn’t run. I needed to find Robert.

As an eagle, though, he had more range and was harder to find by scent. Not to mention I still had my tail to deal with. I looked back at the man with the tablet. He was putting it in a case and tucking it into a backpack. I sighed. He’d stayed for my whole shift and my next chaperone was already waiting for me, I was sure. After hanging up my apron with ‘The Daily Grind’ arcing over the mortar and pestle logo and grabbing my coat and bag, I was surprised to see Kate waiting for me outside.

“Hey, cuz. We need to talk.”

Turns out ‘talking’ was code for kidnapping. We’d stopped at home (I seemed to have become entrenched at Basil’s) so I could get a proper change of clothes. Kate wasn’t a fashion critic but she still vetoed the baggy black sweater that had two men riding a zombie t-rex. I wound up wearing a plain black t-shirt with a pair of blue jeans. I’d put on a little weight living this sedentary lifestyle. Well, sedentary compared to before. Anything but dark colors would highlight my lack of proper exercise. I really did need to hit the gym again. On second thought, I grabbed the sweater anyway, just in case wherever we were going was too warm to wear my winter coat inside.

“Aren’t we supposed to kidnap the bride-to-be for a bachelorette party? Not one of the groomsmen?” She’d shoved me in her car and told me she was stealing me from under her brother’s nose for Nita’s bachelorette party. She hadn’t been fooled either.

“Oh, we are, but, well, this is a last minute thing. Haven’s kinda had other things to worry about lately.” Boy was that an understatement what with Murrel’s ex-wife being found dead in town when she was thought to have left and her son missing. I grimaced. “And Rayen…” She trailed off and I looked away from the buildings rolling by to see her worrying her lip.

“What’s wrong with Rayen?” She was making me nervous. Rayen was a sweetheart and I couldn’t bear to think anything was wrong with her.

Kate glanced aside at me and blushed. Kate blushed. 

“She’s expecting.”

“A hotdog?” I was deliberately being obtuse. “A bamboo shower mat?” Where Haven kept his straight black hair in a long braid down to his waist, Kate had her blonde curls cropped short. This made it easy to see her pale skin redden. She blushed in blotches like me. So I poked some more. “No, I got it,” I said snapping my fingers, “she’s expecting you to sing ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ at karaoke tonight.”

She swung to smack the back of my head but I ducked, laughing, pressing against the door. She settled for a good jab to my shoulder. “Ow,” I groaned through bursts of giggles, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Congratulations.”

She just nodded, back to watching the road ahead. “We’re here.”

I sat up straight, wiping my eyes as I unbuckled my seatbelt. Then I looked out the window and my smile got wiped off my face as well. “No. No-no-no-no-no.” Pinkerton’s. Why were we back at Pinkerton’s?

“What’s wrong? It’s the best place in town. Hell, it’s the only place in town.”

I sighed as I stepped out of the car, resigning myself. It wasn’t like it was the locations fault I’d had a bad experience last time I was here. Actually, now that I thought about it, it hadn’t ended up so badly after all. But when I followed Kate throught the front entrance, several bleary eyed alphas grinned lasciviously at me. Nope. Nevermind. I still wasn’t a fan. They must’ve rented the whole place for the wedding shower last time.

I kept close to Kate as we wound our way through the throng.

As we neared a booth on the other side of the dance floor I heard a high-pitched squeel. “Katyyyyyy!” Nita shrieked. She didn’t need to be quite so loud to be heard over the dance music. The booth was situated in a nice corner with high cushioned backs that diminished the music several decibels. “Did you get him?” Katy nodded and stepped aside,  having easily been able to block line of sight between Nita and I. Nita glomped me, feet going around my waist and I had to take a step back to maintain my balance. She may be small but she was sturdy and her wolf would scare a bear.

I patted her back awkwardly waiting for her to let go. “Okay, yeah. Missed you, too.”

She took a deep breath before dropping back to the ground. “You smell good. Did you put on something special for a special someone?” She wiggled her eyebrows and poked me in the stomach as I unzipped my coat. I was glad I’d put the sweater on outside or she’d know it wasn’t muscle she was poking, but pudge. “Wow, been working out too huh?” She smiled at me as if she were sharing a secret. “Come on, let me introduce you to everyone. This is Laura, Brandy, James, Michael-not-Michelle, she didn’t choose it-”

“I was supposed to be a boy when my parents picked the name and when I came out a girl they decided to keep it.” The speaker was a blonde woman with an aquiline nose and eyes like the night sky, the lights in the club reflecting off them like stars. It was a little unnerving. “I actually kinda like it.”

“And that is Caleb,” Nita finished. “Everyone, this is Haven’s boyfriend and my best friend from high school, Keelan.”

I nod to the table in general, glad the lighting wasn’t likely to give my blush away. “Nice to meet you.”

Everyone went back to their conversations after a wave and smile, a couple going so far as to add ‘Hello’ and ‘Welcome’. While not rude I got the feeling that they weren’t thrilled with my presence. Michael, however, never took her eyes off me as I scooted in next to Caleb leaving space for Nita on the outside.

I tried to ignore her, turning back to Nita. “So, where’s Lavinia? She take over a hotel or something?”

“Oh, no. My love is right over there.” She pointed at the mass of bodies on the dance floor and as the sea of flesh parted here and there I caught glimpses of a table across the way where Livinia sat with Jaci and several people I didn’t know. As I watched, Alex approached their table with some fanfare and a tray of shots. I lost sight of them as an R&B line dance started up. A waitress walked up to our table and Nita immediately called for shots for the table.

“Why don’t we have something to eat first, sis, I’m starving.” I looked around to see Rayen slipping into the booth next to Kate, practically melting into her side with a short kiss. I felt a pang of jealousy. Not because I wanted with either of them, Kate was my cousin, but because I wanted to be able to do that to. Except when Haven replaced Nita next to me just a few seconds later, I didn’t have the gall to emulate them. I hadn’t even realized he’d been there and I wasn’t huge on PDA. Well, not anymore.

“Pizza! I vote for pizza,” he said, slipping an arm possessively around my waist and sliding me over until we touched from knee to shoulder. I may not have been able to make a move, but Haven had no compunction. I sat stiffly, face flushed, but I didn’t hate it. Not at all. It was just that it offered private information to anyone watching and I’d become a very private person.

“I want anchovies,” Caleb said from my other side. Everyone around the table made a face. Well, everyone except Rayen. There were calls of garlic bread, extra cheese, pineapple, pepperoni, all meat, and veggie supreme.

“Ooooh, anchovies,” Rayen said with an exaggerated look of bliss on her face. Of her siblings she looked the most traditionally Native American and there was a glow to her bronzed skin that could make the Moon Goddess jealous. But, ugh, her choice of foods made me grimace.

“Would you like a few minutes?” The waitress asked, impatiently trying to keep her host smile keyed in.

“No, we’ll order now,” Nita broke in with a contagious grin that caused the waitress’s smile to settle more genuinely. “We’ll have one veggie, one cheese, and two supreme, all large. And this expectant mother here,” she indicated Rayen, “will have a personal sized anchovie.”

“What about me?” Caleb asked.

“Make that a medium,” Nita grinned, her fingers lightly brushing the woman’s wrist.

“With pickles,” Rayen chimed in.

“With pickles,” Nita repeated to the waitress.

“If there’s anything else, let me know,” the woman winked, winked, at Nita and headed back to the kitchens.

While we waited, the party broke off to go dancing or visit Lavinia’s side. Haven asked if I wanted to go, but I just said I’d wait for the food. I didn’t want to tell him Lavinia would likely be happier if I didn’t go visit her. It wound up being just me and Michael, who’d eyed the press dancing with a grimace, sitting in the booth.

“I suppose I should say congratulations,” Michael said.

I looked away from the glass of water I was rolling between my hands to see if there was anyone else the might’ve walked over that she could be talking to.

“I’m sorry?” I asked when I saw no one.

“I said congratulations.”

“For what? Nita’s the one getting married.” They way she tilted her head slightly and stared at me as if she were watching a particularly fascinating science experiment was a little unsettling.

Her eyes narrowed. “Right.”

Nita popped up right then with two shot glasses and set them in front of me and Michael, and I was ready to do anything to avoid Michael’s gaze. Unfortunately, before I could grab the shot glass, Michael had whisked it away, the liquid sliding down her own throat. A glance down told me she’d already drunk the one set before her.

“Hey,” I squawked, “that was mine.”

“Not anymore,” she responded amiably. “Besides you really shouldn’t be drinking.”

“I can hold my liquor,” I grumbled.

“I’ll get you another one,” Nita said concilliatingly while shooting a glare at an unfazed Michael.

“Oh, look, food’s here.” On the heels of Michael’s words, the waitress appeared with a helper and set up the pizza’s on stands and Nita clapped in delight. My mouth watered at the sight of it, but my stomach churned at the smell of anchovies, sizzling meat and garlic. I had no time to climb out from the table and make it to the restroom. I reached for something, anything, that would keep me from ruining everyone’s dinner. Michael handed me something and I threw those godforaken cookies back out the entrance. When I was done, I wiped my mouth with a napkin feeling remarkably better. Until I looked at the chosen vomit catcher and realized it was her purse. Well, fuck.

I set it down, snapped it shut and pushed it back towards her. “Thanks. And, uh, I’m sorry.”

“Morning sickness is a bitch, isn’t it.” My head whipped around to see Rayen grinning evilly at me. I was stunned. This couldn’t be happening. She was wrong. She had to be. Then I took in the small half-circle of people around her which included Kate, Alex and one very tall, very shocked, Haven.

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.