"Arizona is hot." Probably the understatement of the year, but as I stood in the half-empty parking lot at seven in the morning all by my lonesome, and I already could not lean on my rental car, I felt the need to say it again. "Arizona is hot."
As if saying it out loud would make it cooler in this little town. City of Sierra Vista? View of the mountains? Wasn't that what Seth told me the name meant? The whole view was mountains. Heck, on the uneventful drive down from Tucson International Airport—officially the smallest international airport I'd ever been to, but I only really had the east coast ones to compare it to—I'd passed some sparse greenery and long stretches of, well, nothing. Speaking of the nagaman....
"Where the hell are you?"
On cue, the double doors to the Safeway parted, and out walked a tall blond man in an all-white movie cowboy outfit. He tipped his giant white hat at me before passing over a venti Starbucks Frappuccino. "Only the best for the little lady."
I took a sip. "You look ridiculous."
The comment didn't deflate his smile. "I'm trying to blend in with the locals."
"Who also think you look ridiculous." I took a long pull off the straw. Ah, iced coffee almost made the heat bearable. Almost.
That smile just kept getting bigger. "Cynical crimefighter much?"
I sighed. "I am here, because you called. I've got no jurisdiction here. So, no crime fighting. Just a trip to the morgue to identify a body you say they say is my long-deceased father. And then I'm getting on a plane and going back to Baltimore."
He leaned against the car. "Where's your sense of adventure?"
I opened my mouth to tell him exactly where he could shove his 'sense of adventure,' but then I closed it. Seth had been there, six months earlier, when my last 'adventure' had ripped the whole world from under my feet. Damn tears, hot and heavy, raced down my cheeks, and I brushed them away with my free hand.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, draping one arm over me for a quick side hug. "Sometimes I forget that you're still human. Being a monster has its perks."
I looked up. "You're not a monster, Seth."
He inhaled slowly and let it out in one long breath. "SVPD would disagree."
Back to the case. I could handle that much better than my emotional mess of a life. "To the morgue then?"
My blond faux cowboy reject nodded. "You should let me drive. Wouldn't want you to get lost in this metropolis."
I handed over the keys, not because he was right—the 'city' held fewer than fifty-thousand people—but because my mind wandered elsewhere. No sense in causing an accident when I had options.
The ride to the morgue passed quickly. There wasn't really much to this town, though my rush of research showed that it had grown significantly in the past decade. It definitely wasn't D.C. or Baltimore, though.
What I'd come to see should've scared me, but it didn't. I'd had two days between Seth's call and my arrival almost all the way across the country to process the information. Thinking about my long-dead father was easier than thinking about two recently dead boyfriends.
Damn, the tears again.
"Zoë." Seth touched my shoulder.
I startled in the passenger seat and wiped away more stupid tears with a quick swipe of one hand. "Hm?"
He didn't say anything about my tears, but sadness shone in his eyes. I ignored it, and he let me. "We're here." He pointed past me to a multi-story building in the middle of, well, nowhere. The stone facade looked pretty enough, and the bustle of folks through the doors gave it life, but despite the big sign announcing "Canyon Vista Medical Center," I saw nothing else 'hospital-ish' about it.
"It looks like a hotel."
Seth shook his head. "You were expecting something more asylum?"
"No, smart ass. Maybe something a little more southwestern?"
He laughed, but it sounded forced. And for the second time since I'd arrived, real concern and dread crossed the naga's face. He hadn't answered my questions last time, so no sense in asking again. But he saw that I'd seen it, and the effect was sobering. Levity gone, he whispered, "Let's get this over with. You get to go home, and I get to find out who I've supposedly murdered."
If the little lady behind the information desk shot Seth one more dirty look while she spoke on the phone, I was going to reach over the counter and throttle her. He gave me a small smile, shook his head just a smidge, and laid one hand over my clenched fist. "We'll be happy to wait for the medical examiner."
She faked a smile that never remotely made it to her eyes, and I snarled a rumbling noise that had a less-than-human note in it. Those peepers popped wide open, and she dropped the receiver to her desk in a loud clatter.
I smiled, but there was nothing nice about it. My magick filled me up, and when she paled, I knew the cruel curl of my lips hadn't reached my eyes either. No doubt the darkness of my pupils had spilled over the deep brown of my irises and into the whites. "You have a great day." Her nose twitched, and she blinked twice in fast succession.
"Zoë." His power rolled over me. I might be a powerhouse, but he was way older and way stronger. That push slapped mine down, and her confusion confirmed that my eyes had returned to their normal, boring brown.
"Fine." I leveled a glare at her. "I'll take this." I plucked a 'How are we doing?' card off the counter. "Maybe next time you'll remember to not be so damn judgmental."
He led me to the chairs in the waiting area with a firm hand on my arm. "I know you're nervous, Zoë, and I appreciate you getting irritated over stupid people, but...."
But? Well, now I felt bad. "Yeah, I know... that was stupid."
"Stupid and dangerous. Did you consider for a second that she might be like us? That her irritation towards me had nothing to do with the case or the body but the fact that I'm a snake and she's a mouse? And I brought another predator with me?"
"I...." I stole a glance at the woman again. She was nervously wringing her hands together. "I scared a were-mouse? How does that even happen?"
Seth sighed and rubbed his temples. "In a world where you're a magickal werewolf and I'm an ancient snake man, you dispute the existence of other werecreatures?"
I answered his question with my own sigh. Okay, sure, if we could exist, then clearly it seemed within reason that other creatures existed as well. In Baltimore, after my monster outing, I'd met a werelion and a werebear for coffee a couple of times, in my attempt to try to do what everyone was telling me to do: get back out there and live.
But for three alphas, we were all resigned to our loneliness. Coffee had gone cold early in our forced conversations, and eventually we gave lame excuses to miss out, which turned into unanswered texts and phone calls. I didn't miss them—we'd no real time to bond—but I missed what they represented: a community where I was just another monster.
I'm not a monster. I shook the thought from my head. "I guess all the weres I've met are all predators."
He smiled. "Of course. Because you're a predator. The rest are better at blending in with the humans and give off little scent or sense of who they are on the full moon. We, on the other hand...."
I hung my head. "Yeah, I get it. I'll reign it in."
"Because it's about to get worse before it gets better, Zoë. He's here."
I looked up at the cutest man in a lab coat I'd ever seen. More awwww than oh!, but this guy was Clark Kent cute versus Bruce Wayne suave with a healthy Mexican lean, if that makes any sense. Tall with fantasy blue-black hair and bright green eyes, he even had the courtesy to pop his dark, round glasses down his nose to look at us over his clipboard.
Now, everyone has power, but humans—er, normal humans—their power clung to them in concentric circles, what people referred to as auras. Some hold it close, drawing thin lines of color around their edges. Some people don't have any restraint and glow like mini-stars until you can't differentiate the circles within the light. They can share power to a small degree, and they can take it from each other. Human energy vampires are a good example of that, people who make others feel exhausted just being around them. It's a pretty amazing concept, and if you see or feel them, it's almost magical, the super brightness of their existence.
Until you meet a super. It's the difference between crayon doodles and Van Gogh's Starry Night. Depth, story, shades of color that aren't even considered—that is a super. Oh, and texture and temperature. Seeing/feeling a super is like a whole movie wrapped in a person.
The good doctor smiled, and a wash of otherworldly power slipped over me like a bolt of silk fresh out of the dryer. I took a step forward, caught myself, and blinked. "Oh, damn. He's a super."
Seth chuckled. "Emilio."
"Mr. Northman." A slight accent colored his words. He nodded. "My name is Doctor Emilio Gomez, and you would be the Ms. Delante?" He held out one hand, and I wanted to do more than just shake it. Damn if I didn't want to cuddle it against my cheek, soft fur, warm fur against my skin. I caught the happy growl before it left my throat and shook my head. What the hell?
I glanced at Seth, who nodded and gestured to Emilio's outstretched hand. Fine, two can play at this. I slid my hand in his, and the part of me that wasn't wolf breathed an arctic breeze along the connection. Dead always felt like ice, slivers shoved like splinters into the skin, and I had been doing that a lot longer than I'd been furry. "Indeed, I am."
He exhaled from that still beautiful but slightly less-glamoured mouth, and a puff of cold escaped. "You're amazing." He pulled away from my grasp.
I shook my head again. "No, I'm just done playing 'who has a bigger dick.' Don't you have a body to show me?"
"You weren't kidding," Emilio spoke around me. Before I could ask, he turned around and started down the hallway.
Seth scooped me up in the curve of his arm, and in a breath, we'd caught up and passed the debonair Emilio and stood waiting at the elevators. The naga pressed the down button, and the M.E. walked up to us, whistling and flipping through his clipboard.
"Cameras." He pointed without looking upwards.
Seth shrugged. "Kudos to them if they can see me move that fast."
The elevator doors opened, and we filed in with me in the middle of the super men sandwich.
"There had better be a body," I muttered.
They both looked at me, but Seth answered. "There's a body. I wouldn't lie to you about that."
What have you lied to me about? The doors opened before I could ask. This avoidance grew more and more tiresome. We stepped out, and the temperature had dropped a good ten degrees. "Morgue."
"Morgue," Emilio confirmed as he ushered us forward. "I convinced them to turn this entire sublevel into my Fortress of Solitude, er, work space. Not that we get many visitors. For being a border town, Sierra Vista is kind of low on the death count. Which is fine by me. I get a nice paying job with security, and no one really digs too deep into my history."
A deep, unsettling feeling rose in my gut, and I stopped in my tracks. "Should we be concerned?"
Seth patted me on the shoulder. "More 'I-look-a-lot-younger-than-I-am' and less 'I-am-Frankenstein,' I promise."
His reassurance did nothing for the lump twisting inside me, but what options did I have right now? "The cops aren't super?"
"Nope, just human. Good, well-intentioned humans, but humans nonetheless."
"The viewing room is over here," Emilio interrupted. He stood by a nondescript door that lead into a nondescript hallway. A solitary window and a second door broke the blandness. "Have you seen a dead body before?" he asked as I stared at the closed blinds.
"Yep." My brain counted the slats—forty-two—framed behind the glass.
"Have you seen the body of a loved one?"
"Yeah, this one, remember?"
He cleared his throat. "I'm sorry. It's just... for most people the sight is unsettling."
Oh, I was unsettled. "I'm not 'most people,' sir. I'm here because I need to identify a body as my long-dead father, so that the good naga can be properly accused of killing him. Am I right?" Their awkward silence answered my question. "Then let's get this over with already."
Emilio went inside the room, and Seth moved beside me. "For the record, I hope it's not him."
As the blinds went up, I wasn't sure how I wanted it to go. That body beneath the spread of white sheet... if it was my father, well, damn. If it wasn't, well, still damn. No one was going to win here.
"Ready?" the M.E. called out.
Ready as I'll ever be. I nodded.
He pulled back the cloth, and my world stopped.
"No fucking way."
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