Work in progress, blah-blah-blah. First draft, not final, blah-blah-blah. If you send me fifty million emails pointing out every typo, I might just explode, and that’s a promise.
Emotionally taxing and slightly spoilery. Read at your own risk
Background: Jim asked Andrea to investigate murders of four shapeshifters at the reclamation site owned by Medrano Reclamations. Andrea had visited the site and processed the scene, but she couldn’t interview Raphael at the time, so she left him a nice message, asking him to come to her office and admitting that some things she had done were wrong and she would like a chance to discuss them.
The morning brought light and magic. I took a few extra minutes to decide what to wear. Not that it would make any difference, but I put on my pale blue shirt. It matched my eyes and looked nice. I put on my favorite jeans and looked at myself in the mirror.
Full on makeup would be too much. I brushed some mascara on and styled my blond hair, which was doing its best to grow out of its shorter hairdo.
Like a kid before the prom: gussying up and shaking with nerves. I crossed my arms and glared at myself in the mirror. Sniper, death, kill, tough, hooah. Okay, that was better.
Raphael always brought out a strange side of me. The wild side, the one that was knitted from pure emotions. The wild crazy Andrea loved him completely and did irrational things, like sitting by the phone with her heart beating too fast, waiting for him to call, or running headfirst into danger against overwhelming odds to fight by his side. That wild Andrea once got arrested. We had gone away for a romantic retreat and while I left the hot tub in the courtyard of the hotel to use the bathroom, some floozy had attached herself to Raphael, not taking no for an answer. When I returned, instead of beating retreat she suggested we should all have fun together. I had dunked her a couple of times. Unfortunately I was pointing a gun at the hotel security at the time, and the sheriffs showed up.
Raphael ate it up. I was finally acting like a mated shapeshifter: irrational, possessive, and head over heels in love.
I didn’t know if it was my hyena side or just that uncompromising fifteen year old girl that lives inside every woman, but now wasn’t time to let her out. I had to stay rational, so I could apologize and try to mend things between us.
Cutting Edge occupied a sturdy building on the northern edge of Atlanta, about an hour from the Keep. The Beast Lord, also known as Kate’s sugarwoogams, had chosen the location, and he pretty much picked the closest place to the Keep that was still within city limits. Curran didn’t like to be without Kate and Kate didn’t like to be without Curran.
The door was unlocked. Great. I walked in. Ascanio looked up from his broom.
Despite having very few clients, Cutting Edge had an excess of employees, partially because Kate kept hiring them. According to her Ascanio Ferara was an intern. In reality nobody with a drop of sense would hire him as intern or anything else, except maybe as a traffic jam generator. If you stood him on a street corner, sooner or later some female driver would wreck.
Fifteen going on thirty, with glossy black hair and green eyes, Ascanio was beautiful. Not just pretty, not just attractive, beautiful. He had that whole fallen angel thing going – there was a devious, sly mind behind that innocent face and pretty eyes.
Like most male children of the Bouda Clan, he was treasured and babied, more so because he was lost for most of his life and his mother had just found him a few months ago. In this short period he had gotten into every possible trouble imaginable, culminating with being arrested for having a threesome on the courthouse steps. The boy did not understand how the Pack worked, and finally Aunt B foisted him off on Kate. It was that or kill him. Kate’s solution was to make this raging ball of problems and hormones into our intern. How her mind worked, I would never understand. It was a mystery.
Ascanio snapped to attention and saluted me, holding the broom like a rifle.
I pointed at the broom. “No.”
Because it would’ve made every ex-military instructor I ever had foam at the mouth. “You salute with your weapon as a sign of respect.”
He presented me with expression of puzzled innocence. “I don’t have a rifle or a sword. The broom is my weapon.”
Smartass. “Kid, you make my head explode.”
“Ave Andrea! Ianitori te salutant!”
Hail, Andrea, those who janitor salute you. Kate was forcing Ascanio and Julie, her ward, to learn latin, because a lot of historical magical texts were written in it and apparently it was an essential part of their education. Since the lessons were conducted in the office during our copious spare time, I was learning the language along with them.
I pointed at Ascanio with my finger. “Not another word. Latin is a dead language, but that doesn’t mean you get to molest its corpse. Finish sweeping, ianitor.”
He spun the broom with the dexterity of a Marine on a Silent Drill team, planted the handle into the ground, jumped, spinning around it, his legs straight out, and landed on one knee, his head bowed, his right hand extended, holding the broom in his fist parallel to the floor.
“You had coffee this morning, didn’t you?”
He looked up at me and nodded, a big grin plastered on his face.
Teenage boudas. Enough said.
I sat down and tried my best to concentrate on going through my case. The survey of the evidence only confirmed what I had already realized last night: I didn’t find any smoking guns. Most of what I had picked up looked just like common trash. Now, that didn’t mean it was trash, but its significance wasn’t immediately apparent. I cataloged it anyway. Crimes weren’t always cracked by the super-brilliant. Most of them were solved by the patient and the meticulous.
The roar of a water engine thundered outside of our door and died. Raphael. Had to be. Kate would have parked in the far corner of the parking lot on the side, because she had trouble backing out.
I pretended to be absorbed in my likely worthless evidence. I’d spent the entire drive to the office trying to figure out what to say, how to say it. I wanted to apologize. I wanted to tell him I loved him. I had tried to prepare myself for the possibility that he would tell me off, but most of me hoped with desperate naive hope that he would forgive me and we would go home together.
A knock sounded through our absurdly reinforced door.
“Periculo tuo ingredere!” Ascanio proclaimed.
What the hell did he just say? Ingredere… Enter… Enter at your own risk. “If it’s a client, I will shoot you,” I told him.
The door swung open. A new scent swirled around me, a heavy scent rose, patchouli, and coriander – an expensive perfume. A tall woman stepped inside. She was close to six feet tall and her shimmering golden heels added another four inches to her height. Her hair, the color of luminous white gold, fell down over her shoulders past her butt. She wore a really short black dress or a long T-shirt, I couldn’t quite decide. Whatever it was, it was cinched to her improbably narrow waist by a white belt with golden studs. Her face, pretty and painted with makeup to near perfection, had that slightly vapid expression sometimes seen on models: she was either sleepy, horny, or just badly needed to sneeze.
A dark figure stepped into the office behind her. Six foot three, lean, wearing a black leather jacket and faded jeans… He stepped into the light. Dark blue eyes looked at me and the world fell apart around us. His face, framed by soft black hair, wasn’t perfect in the way Ascanio’s was, but it was masculine and handsome, and his eyes communicated a kind of sexual intensity, a promise and a challenge, that made women lose all of their self-respect and try to proposition him in plain view of their dates. The familiar scent washed over me like a pain-filled perfume.
As if in a dream I saw him put his hand on the woman’s butt, gently pushing her toward the two chairs by my desk.
Oh sweet Jesus.
He’d replaced me.
He replaced me with a better version of me.
And he brought her to the office. To rub it in.
The planet snapped back into place with an agonizing crunch. I stood up, I saw myself extend a hand, and I heard myself say, “Good morning.”
“Rebecca,” The woman shook my hand.
I concentrated so I wouldn’t crush her finger bones into broken shards.
“I got your message.” Raphael said.
And I’ve got yours, loud and clear. Inside me the other me, the one that grew claws and fangs, howled in helpless fury. He replaced me and he brought his new girl to the office to taunt me, after he heard my message asking for a chance to apologize. Moving on was one thing. Moving on I could understand. It would break my heart, but I would understand it. This was a giant “Fuck You” spelled out in glowing letters.
“Please sit down.”
They sat. Behind them Ascanio stared at us, his jaw hanging down.
“Ascanio, would you mind getting our guests some coffee.”
“Black please,” Raphael said, his voice pounding a sharp spike into me. “Cream and sugar separate.”
“I don’t drink coffee,” Rebecca informed us. “It stains your teeth.”
“Did you have any trouble with the cops?” I asked, my control so tight, if I let myself go a hair, I would snap.
He looked directly at me. “Just minor formalities. Did you have any trouble at the dig site?”
“None at all. Stefan helped me.”
“He is a good man, Stefan.”
“Yes, he is. Who is your lovely associate?” I unleashed my best smile in Rebecca’s direction. Raphael leaned forward, sliding left arm along the back of Rebecca’s chair, his body half turned to shield her. He recognized the smile – it was the kind that meant someone was about to get shot.
“I’m his fiance,” Rebecca said.
Raphael’s eyes widened a fraction.
“How lovely,” I said, sweetness dripping from my voice. “I haven’t heard the announcement.”
“We’re engaged to be engaged,” Rebecca said. “We’re waiting until the end of the physical year to officially announce.”
“You mean fiscal year?” Dear God, she was a moron.
“Yes, that’s what I meant.”
Raphael slid his hand over Rebecca’s fingers tipped with hot pink acrylic nails.
I closed my eyes for a long second.
“Congratulations to the happy couple.”
“Thank you,” Rebecca said.
Raphael toyed with the lock of her hair.
That does it.
“I see you’ve upgraded to the deluxe model,” I said. “Must’ve set you back quite a bit.”
“Worth every penny,” he said.
“You always had expensive tastes.”
“Oh I don’t know.” He shrugged his muscular shoulders. “I’ve been known to slum on occasion.”
Aaargh. I will kill you where you sit, you wretched bastard.
“Be careful with that. Sometimes slumming can be dangerous.”
“I can take care of myself,” he said and winked at me.
“What are you talking about?” Rebecca asked.
“My car, doll.” Raphael picked up her hand.
No. No, he wouldn’t.
He kissed her fingers.
Every nerve in my body burst on fire.
“You seem like such a well-matched couple.” I smiled at them. “Physically and intellectually. Rebecca is so stunning.”
“Don’t forget loyal,” Raphael said. “And loving.”
So is a dog. “I’m sure your mother is delighted with you both.”
A muscle in Raphael’s face jerked. My goodness gracious, I hit a sore spot.
“My mother’s approval isn’t necessary.”
Ascanio approached, carrying a platter of coffee, with a small jar of sugar and a cup of cream.
“She is a terrible woman,” Rebecca said.
I stared at Raphael. Are you going to let it slide? Honestly? Aunt B was his mother, but she was also his alpha and Ascanio was a member of the clan.
Raphael leaned toward Rebecca, his voice intimate but firm like steel wrapped in velvet. “Sweetheart, never insult my mother in public.”
“She insults me. And you don’t do anything about it.”
Ascanio focused on Raphael, waiting for a clue. Aunt B ruled the clan, but Raphael was the male alpha.
Raphael leveled a warning star on Rebecca, but it had no effect.
“She’s rude and spiteful—“
Ascanio picked up the jar of sugar and emptied it over Rebecca’s head. The white powder spilled over her hair and dress.
She gasped and jumped off the chair.
“Oh no!” I opened my eyes wide. “I am so sorry. Teenage boys are such a clumsy lot.”
Raph? What was he, her poodle?
“Why don’t you go outside and wait for me in the car,” Raphael said.
“Go outside, Rebecca.”
She marched out of the office. Raphael’s eyes sparked with deep ruby glow. He looked at Ascanio, as if deciding what he should do about him. The boy ducked his head and stared at the floor.
Ascanio was a talented shapeshifter, but I had fought beside Raphael. He could go through a room full of Ascanios in seconds and leave none of them alive.
“Ascanio,” I’d sunk so much quiet menace into the word, the boy froze, as if petrified.
“Did your alpha look like he needed help?”
Ascanio’s voice was clipped. “No, ma’am.”
“Go outside and wait until I come to get you.”
Ascanio opened his mouth.
He clamped his jaw shut and took off. A moment later the back door shut closed.
I forced myself to look back at Raphael. He had shattered my heart into tiny little shards and they were hurting me. Never in all of our time together he so much as mentioned engagement. And now he found a pretty empty headed idiot and he was going to marry her. Why her? What was she giving him that I didn’t?
The answer came to me in a painful burst. She was there for him. I was not. I shut him out. My own damn fault.
“Your sex-kitten is beautiful,” I told him. “Very nice.”
“Yes, she is,” Raphael said, his voice quiet.
I leaned forward. “Are you high?”
“Did you smoke something before you decided it was a good idea to flaunt her in front of me? Maybe you ate some weird-looking mushrooms?”
He smiled at me. It was a brilliant Raphael grin, sharp like the edge of his knives.
“Did you forget the dunking episode? What if I snap? You know I could kill her before you could stop me.”
“No danger of that,” he said. “That would mean you’d act like a shapeshifter and we all know that’s not going to happen.”
Ouch. “My memory must be malfunctioning. I don’t remember you being that cruel.”
“People change,” he said. “Did you expect everyone to pause their lives while you were having your little pity party? Was I supposed to sit there and wait like a good boy, until you were ‘in a good place?’”
It hurt so much, I was beginning to go numb. “I didn’t bar my door. My phone still worked. If you wanted to get in touch, you could have.”
“Please! You think I have no pride? I loved you, I cared for you, I offered you a place in the Pack beside me and you betrayed everything that was important to me. How did that turn out for you, Andrea? Was it worth it?”
I winced. “No. It wasn’t.”
“My door wasn’t barred either.”
He had saved it all up since the that night we fought. Now it was all coming out.
“You betrayed me, you let the Order treat you like shit, and then you hid in your apartment. That wasn’t Andrea I knew. I thought I could count on you. I thought you had my back.” His face was a furious mask. “I would’ve done anything for you.”
I would have done anything for him, too. If it had been him in that house, I would’ve ran there so fast, the entire Order wouldn’t have been able to stop me. Inside me my other self was howling, loud, so, so loud…
“You spat on everything I am. You picked the knights over my people, which means you picked your precious Order over me.”
I was shaking, straining to contain myself. My body struggled to counteract the stress, betraying me.
“Anything to say?”
“Too little, too late. I’m tired of waiting for you to stop running away from who you are. You want to know what the best thing about Rebecca is?”
His eyes were pure ruby and they burned. I was hanging on by a thread.
“She isn’t you.”
My humanity tore and the other me spilled out.
Raphael stared at me, suddenly silent.
The shreds of my clothes fluttered around me. I had this curious feeling that I was watching it all from some point above my head. My arms still rested on the table, but now soft sandy fur with a scattering of brown spots covered the hard muscle. I knew what my face looked like: a meld of human and hyena, with a dark muzzle and my blue, human eyes above it.
Most shapeshifters had two shapes, human and animal. The more talented of us could maintain a warrior form, half-way between animal and beast. I didn’t have an animal form. There were only two choices: my human self and my other me, neither human, nor hyena, but an odd creature in between.
I examined myself sitting there. I’ve held back for so long. I’ve been good for so long. I always did as expected. I followed rules and regulations. Look where it got me. Being good hurt.
“I didn’t mean that,” Raphael said.
Why did I waste all my time pretending to be someone I wasn’t? I was tired, so very, very tired of standing on my own brakes. I haven’t felt this good since I lost control and slapped Aunt B. She had backhanded me right down two flights of stairs, but it was worth it. It was so worth it.
What did I have to lose anyway?
I took a deep breath and let the old good Andrea go. Magic coursed through me, making me stronger, sharper. Scents filled my nose, stole through my mouth, and expanded my lungs.
I tilted my head and looked at him. He brought another woman into my office. Whatever made him think I would stand for that?
I opened my mouth and showed him my sharp teeth. Most shapeshfiters couldn’t speak in a half-form, but then I wasn’t most shapeshifters.
“You meant every word. I told you I was sorry. I took responsibility for my actions. It is over now.”
My voice was deeper, permeated with rough notes of a growl.
“This office is my territory. If you bring your woman here again, I will consider it a challenge.”
He leaned forward, inhaling my scent. His upper lip trembled, betraying a flash of his teeth. “Been studying Pack’s laws?”
I laughed and heard an eerie hyena cackle in my voice. “I don’t have to study. I know all the laws.”
“Then you know you can’t attack a human.”
“Who said anything about attacking a human? If you bring her here again, it will be your fault. I will beat your ass and not even your mommy will be able to stop me.”
Raphael leaned closer, his eyes glowing. “Promises, promises, little girl.”
I snapped my teeth at him. “Be polite.”
A beginning of a snarl reverberated in his throat, but his eyes were puzzled. He wasn’t sure what to make of me.
I picked up the pen with my clawed hand. “Your scent is bugging me. Let’s finish this up so I can air the place out and get you and your girl candy out of my life. The Blue Heron building. How did you buy it?”
He stared at me.
“We have four dead people. Your people. Do try to answer my questions.”
Raphael leaned back, studying me. “Sealed bid auction.”
“Were there any other potential buyers?”
“Yes. It was a very valuable building.”
“Do you know who they were?” Sealed bid auction meant that each of the participants submitted a confidential bid for the building, but Raphael would’ve done his homework to know how much he would bid against other buyers.
“I can give you top three,” he said.
“I am all ears.”
“Bell Recovery. Kyle Bell has been in the business for a long time. He does decent work, but he’s expensive and slow. I can usually outbid him.”
I wrote it down. “What’s your relationship with him?”
Raphael shrugged. “We don’t like each other.”
“Was he bitter that you outbid him?”
“Kyle exists in a state of bitter.”
“In your opinion, would he stoop to murder?”
Raphael shook his head. “No. Kyle makes a lot of noise and stomps around. He might get his people to rough someone up, but he wouldn’t get into anything that required outside help, like magic snakes. He doesn’t trust anyone.”
So Stefan already told him about my visit. “Got it. Next.”
“Then there is Jack Anapa of Input Enterprises.” Raphael leaned forward, resting his forearm on the table. His scent was scraping against me like fine-grain sandpaper. “Anapa is an ass. He has mountains of money and he plays with it.”
I squinted at him. “Don’t like him much?”
Raphael grimaced. “He dabbles. He dabbled in construction, he dabbled in shipping, now he’s dabbling in reclamation. He will get bored and move on; for him it’s a game. For us it’s business.”
“Was he upset at losing the bid?”
“Initially he won it, but his permits weren’t filed properly, so they went to me as the second highest bidder. A skyscraper has a lot of mercury. It’s in the thermostats. When a building crashes, mercury drips to the bottom. Before you can reclaim a building, you have to prove to the city—“
“That you’re qualified to safely remove it,” I finished. “I remember.” I was with Raphael when he filed for the permit. “Would you say Anapa is capable of murderer?”
“Yes. I don’t think he’d would murder my people. He doesn’t seem to have the motivation. I was there when he lost the bid. He was looking over some papers his assistant shoved under his nose. He waved his hand and said, ‘Yes, yes. C’est la vie.’ Oh and he invited me to his birthday bash before he left.”
Interesting. “The third bidder?”
“Garcia Construction. I’ve known Garcias for a long time. They were in business for about ten years before I started. It’s a family operated business. They mostly took medium-sized reclamation jobs and didn’t get very ambitious until about two years ago, when Ellis took over the company from his father. They went real big real fast, too fast, and bought rights to a huge apartment complex.” Raphael grimaced again. “It was a monster of a building. I wouldn’t have taken it.”
“Not too expensive to buy, but too expensive to reclaim. The way it felt, you’d have to shift a shit ton of rubble before you got to anything decent. Too many man-hours. Ellis started it that May and last February the Garcias were still digging in it, when a section of it collapsed. Killed seven workers. Apparently Ellis had sunk all his resources into the building and let the insurance lapse. The insurance companies hate us. The premiums are through the roof. The Garcias did the right thing and paid out the death benefits anyway, out of their own pocket. The company was finished after that.”
“So how can they afford to bid on Blue Heron?” I asked.
“Word is, they got a substantial investment. This was their comeback attempt. They are decent, hardworking people, Andrea. They wouldn’t kill my people.”
“Somebody did, Raphael. What about the seller?”
“City of Atlanta.”
That was a dead end for sure. “Did you know about the vault?”
“No.” He scowled. “Rianna, one of the guards, just had her baby three month ago,” he said. “It was her second day back on the job. Nick is her husband.”
“Nick the carpenter? The one that redid our, no, I’m sorry, your kitchen?”
Raphael nodded. “Yes.”
I liked Nick. He was nice and funny and he worked hard. He was owed some vengeance and I would make sure he got it. “I will inform you when I have a lead.”
Raphael rose and left.
Work is the only thing I had left. Everything else was gone now. I would find the murderers. I would find them if it was the last thing I did. I had to do it to prevent them from killing anyone else, to offer their victims vengeance and solace, and most of all I had to do it to prove to myself that I was still worth something.
I pulled out a phone book and tracked down the three addresses of the bidders.
His scent was still here, but he was gone out of my office and out of my life. Hurt and frustration bubbled in me. I was keyed up too high, my skin was on too tight, and I wanted to shoot something just to let out the frustration.
So Raphael replaced me with a seven foot tall dimwit, so what? Good riddance. I was better off on my own.
The back door opened with a faint creak. Ascanio walked into the office and froze.
“What?” I asked.
He opened his mouth, his eyes wide.
“Breasts,” he said.
Female shapeshifters didn’t have breasts in warrior form. There was no need for them. They were either flat-chested or sported rows of tits. I had breasts. They were covered with fur, but they were recognizable female boobs.
“It’s not your first time seeing a pair, is it?”
“Then do act like you’ve been around the block before.”
Ascanio closed his mouth with a click.
“Don’t test Raphael,” I told him. “If you do, he will cut you into itsy bitsy pieces and leave them in a pretty pile on the floor.” I decided I liked my beastkin voice. It was deeper, more powerful, and sounded better. In an attractive female monster kind of way.
“Oh I don’t know.” He gave me a look suffused with teenage arrogance. “I think he might find it difficult.”
“No, he won’t. We once fought a dog the size of two-story house. Raphael ripped one of its heads off.”
Ascanio blinked. “One?”
“It had three.” I got up and pulled a change of clothes from my bag. My other me was about twenty five percent larger, but my long-sleeved shirt had a lot of stretch in it. I pulled it on and put on my pants. They were more like capris now and they were tight on my calves. “I’m going out.”
I pulled out my knife and sliced the hems of my pants. Much better. “Who’s going to stop me?”
“But you’re… not in human shape.”
Yes, and I was sick of being ashamed of who I was. I looked at him for a long moment. “If I change back into a human, I’ll need a nap. I don’t have time for naps. If someone has a problem with the way I look, fuck them.”
“And stop looking so scandalized. I covered my boobs, didn’t I?”
“But I still know they are there. I saw them.”
“Treasure the memory.” I grabbed my bag off the table.
Ascanio jumped in front of the door. “Can I come with you?”
He fluttered his eyelashes at me. “I’ll be very quiet.”
“Andrea, I’m sick of being stuck here by myself. Please, please, please can I come with you? I’ll be good.”
He’d been cooped up in the office for the last few weeks, at first because he was injured, then because he wasn’t and we wanted to keep him that way.
“I’m going to look for a murderer. If you come with me, you’ll get hurt when we run into trouble on the way. And then I will have to have a very unpleasant conversation with Aunt B, which will go like this, ‘You won’t join Clan Bouda, you broke up with my son, and you let that sweet precious boy get hurt.’”
Ascanio picked my desk up with one hand and held it four feet off the ground.
“It’s not your muscle I’m concerned about. It’s your brains. Or lack of them.”
He sat the desk down. “Please, Andrea.”
He was going stir-crazy and doing broom drills. I could relate. I’d been there.
“Can you drive?” If I put my seat all the way back, I’d fit into the Jeep but driving with my size twelve feet and three inch claws would be a challenge.
“Do the People navigate vampires? Of course I can drive.”
He jumped three feet in the air.
“Now, while you’re with me, you will be acting a representative of our firm. That means you will be respectful and polite. If some jerk calls you an asshole, you’ll call him sir. Even if you have to throw him on the ground and break his arms off, you will still call him sir while doing it. You follow my lead and you follow my orders. That means not taking the initiative and starting fights without my express command. Do you get me?”
“Excellent. Go get your knife.”
He ran into the supply room and came out with a tactical Bowie knife in a sheath on his belt. The Bowie, a “Mercenary Guild” model, boasted a sixteen inch black blade and weighed almost two pounds. You could chop small trees down with it.
We loaded the Jeep, Ascanio chanted at the water engine for about ten minutes until it decided to start, and we were off.