BEAR WITH A SORE HEAD!
If I hadn’t wanted to follow his lead and explode out of my skin, I might have stopped to admire the sight. Instead, I closed my eyes and prayed for patience. When I popped my lids again, feeling no calmer, I was presented with Dan’s very large, very angry bear form.
In the beginning, having a changeling for a partner might have phased me. Now with all the interagency working, I’m actually grateful for the extra muscle, so to speak.
I’m happy to have Dan at my back, whatever form he takes; as a human, he looks like he’s capable of pulling a twenty-tonne wagon, and as a bear, he could probably flip it with a twitch of his muzzle.
He was certainly angry enough, his protests, somewhere between a hoof and a growl made his thoughts clear, though his uncontrolled transformation was plain enough – talk about an emotional response.
“Quit complaining and head out. I’ll meet you on-site,” I told him, meeting his deep brown eyes, a shade or two darker than his human form.
In response, the foul-tempered oaf tapped the door with his snout so it slammed shut hard enough to shake the car. To be fair, he didn’t put any kind of strength behind it, otherwise, he’d have flipped the Audi, no matter how many modifications I’d fitted.
Perhaps it was childish, but as I shoved the car back into drive, I threw him a one-finger salute and hit the accelerator. The noise he made, which carried over the sound of the roaring engine, sounded suspiciously like a chuckle.
“I take it Danny-boy just went full-on grizzly?”
My gaze shot to the navigation screen, my annoyance overriding my surprise Gibson was still connected.
“You wouldn’t say that to his face because he’d probably eat you for breakfast and I’d pass him a toothpick and a serviette.”
Aside from the fact changeling bears are much larger than their mortal counterparts, the only similarities between Dan’s animal half and a grizzly are the claws, and the slight silver sheen to his coat. Like his hair, Dan’s fur in animal form is a gleaming black.
“Aw, don’t be like that!” Gibson said, doing a valiant job of holding back his laughter.
“Make it up to me and fill me in on what I missed.” Navigating the long drive which took me off the property, I glanced briefly in the rearview mirror. Dan was nowhere to be seen, but that didn’t bother me. My traps wouldn’t do him serious harm.
“Long story short? I was on duty when Miller called so I went out to see what the fuss was about. Lucky for me I had Drake with me so when he saw what Miller had unearthed he hit up the RDU.” He visibly shuddered. I was concentrating on the road and I still caught it. “I’ve seen some things since the world turned to hell but those bodies, that’s some sick shit. They were in pods inside the wall cavity between Miller’s house and next door.”
“Are we talking dead bodies?” I asked, trying to picture the scene and wondering what had possessed Sahara to take an axe to the dividing wall.
“I almost wish they were. But, no, they’re very much alive. From what we can tell, they’re human, and in some sort of suspended animation. Drake almost crapped himself when he saw them. He’s the one who ordered a protection detail for Miller. I only had time to call in a report to Dan and then we were being whisked away.”
“How did they find you so soon?” I asked, easing my way through the electric gate which was programmed to register the car on approach. It closed the second I cleared the sensor.
Dan’s jeep was parked in the lay-by to the left. As I drove past it, I had a vague recollection of disconnecting the buzzer on the front gate. Not that it discouraged him. He’d scaled the gate and bypassed my security measures. It wasn’t the first time.
“I have no clue. I swear, Kate, nobody could have predicted any of this. I mean, we all thought Miller was bored or lonely, or something at first, reporting unusual aromas as she did. Even when you and Dan looked into it, we thought you were just humouring her. But this. This is some crazy assed shit. I mean, we hit a wall of nothing, that’s how they got us. The car just stopped as though we’d collided with an invisible barrier. I’m surprised we didn’t implode on impact or something. As it is, we were flipped in the air like a Tonka toy and when we came to a stop to check we were still in one piece, Miller was gone. How the hell is that even possible, I-”
“Take a breath, Gibson, and reel it in,” I said because I could hear the delirium in his voice. He was in shock.
Hitting a button on the navigation console, the map appeared. “I’ll be there in fifteen minutes. Hang tight, okay?”
Given what he’d just been through, I let that go, though the nickname grated along my already frayed nerve endings.
Definitely going to let Dan eat him.
I actually made it to him in ten, my headlights illuminating the wreck still blocking most of the road.
A response unit had beaten me to the punch. They were in the process of redirecting traffic, not that there was much of it. People still tended to avoid travelling at night, you never knew what lurked in the shadows.
As I parked, I spotted Dan standing beside Gibson and Drake. It didn’t surprise me he’d beaten me to the scene. I was more shocked his animal half had conceded to letting his human take the helm again.
Approaching the small group, I schooled my features so I didn’t set his bear off. Dressed in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt which barely contained his broad chest, he stood out like a, well, a bear in a china shop. Not quite the right idiom, but you get the drift.
It should have been a natural sight. I’ve been around plenty of changelings – unforms are optional when there’s a need to change your threads on the fly. It’s the reason clothes shacks are now a thing, pop-up stores providing an array of attire to protect modesty. But, clearly, provisions were running low.
“Don’t say a word,” he said, by way of a greeting. That’s the trouble with partners, they always know what you’re thinking. I really need to work on my game face. “Those were my favourite jeans. It sucks I have to replace them.”
Clothes burn up during a shift which, admittedly, has to suck. “You bought it for ruining my evening. I need coffee before I can even attempt civilised.” My gaze swept the others. “Do we have any leads?”
“What? Since we spoke ten minutes ago?” Gibson asked, shock gone to be replaced by his usual winning personality.
Apparently, my emotional leakage was showing its ugly head because Drake read my face and stepped in.
“How much do you know about Club Fractured?” he asked, snagging my attention.
“Enough.” In the beginning, the demons who invaded our world, known to most as the Fractured, had established a series of clubs. These weren’t clubs in the traditional sense. Basically, they were training grounds for the sick and twisted. A sort of incentive programme where soldiers of the cause could feast, experiment, and torture to their heart’s content. Some joker had termed them Club Fractured, but from what I understood, these had mostly been disbanded.
“The Fractured learned from their mistakes, so instead of advertising their depravity-”
“Sir, we need to check your vitals,” a medic said, looking directly at Gibson. That was another new addition. Each station has its own medical team. They are highly trained and hold enough authority that Gibson followed without any resistance. He’d probably been dodging the medic for a while.
“So…depravity,” I prompted, reclaiming Drake’s attention.
His smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Yes, members are finding new ways to hide their activities.”
“So, what you’re saying is, they’re still conducting experiments but now they’re being more sneaky about it.” At Drake’s nod, I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. “Is that what’s happening next door to Sahara?”
“Yes, and we’re talking someone powerful enough to swoop in and take Miss Miller without leaving any trace of themselves behind. To find her, we have to find them, and we have to hope we’re not too late.”
“Are the bodies secured?” Dan asked.
Drake nodded again, though he looked grim. “Yes, their removal is likely what tripped the alarm. We found several triggers in the house, as well as evidence they are running the operation remotely. They knew the instant we moved in and targeted Miller to learn what she knows.”
“Then we go to the source and work from there,” I said, turning to Dan. “We need to get to the house.”
Dan inclined his head, then turned to Drake. “Keep us updated on progress at your end, and make sure you get checked out too.”
As we turned to head back to the Audi, I glanced at my partner, trying to gauge whether it was safe enough to poke the bear. The instant I met his gaze I caught the vulnerability so kept my mouth zipped. That was something else about partners, you knew when to push it, and when to give each other a break.