Death and relaxation, p.13
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       Death and Relaxation, p.13

           Devon Monk
 

  I couldn’t get those words out. I couldn’t move, talk, or do anything more than stare at him in hyper-stillness. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong.

  “Hey.” His voice dropped low and husky. He was standing in front of me.

  Had he moved? Had I blinked? When had he moved?

  “Hey, gorgeous.” He wrapped his arm around my waist and dragged the other hand down my back, pulling at my shirt.

  I was on fire, buzzing, but I couldn’t feel my heartbeat, didn’t know if I was breathing. Was this a dream? A hallucination?

  “Delaney,” he breathed.

  I watched my hand lift and brush across the back of his neck even though I couldn’t feel it. Creepy. I watched my hand draw his face down to mine.

  Weird, weird, weird, weird.

  His breath hitched. He kissed me. Full, hot.

  That, I felt.

  Everything in me sang—a chorus of emotions avalanched through me. I was lost to it, buried under it, fighting to surface through a tumble of sensations so sharp and clear they blended into pain.

  I think I groaned. Not in pleasure.

  A hand clamped my shoulder and another gripped my arm, squeezed, and jerked.

  The world stuttered. Time snapped and skittered into its normal flow. Things I didn’t realize I’d been missing: color, sound, smells, notched into overdrive, and I stumbled backward, reeling. My knees felt like overstretched rubber bands, and I think I would have crumpled to the floor if Jean hadn’t wrapped her arm around my ribs and held me tight.

  Someone was in front of me. Shorter than me. Dark hair cut in a swing. Police uniform.

  My brain tried to put two and two together. Finally got it on the fourth or fifth try.

  Myra stood in front of me. Between me and Cooper.

  And suddenly, I could think again.

  Holy shit. Cooper had kissed me. In the middle of the police station. In front of my sisters and Roy.

  “Problem?” a male voice asked.

  The prickly hot sweat of fear and embarrassment washed over me. I turned my gaze woodenly to the door.

  Ryder Bailey stood there holding a takeout bag in one hand and a drink carrier with five drinks in the other.

  Cooper had kissed me. In the middle of the police station. In front of my sisters and Roy and Ryder.

  There had been times in my life when I’d wished I was a more religious person. But since gods spend their sand-and-sunburn days in my backyard complaining about things like cell reception and plugged storm drains, I decided at a young age that they were too busy to answer my prayers.

  Still, if I thought there was a chance someone up there could hear me, I’d pray that the ring-of-fire volcanoes might choose this moment to blow so the resulting earthquake would swallow me whole.

  “Uh…” I said, but it came out a little high and panicky.

  Myra waded into the verbal fray. “Cooper, I’d like you to step outside. Ryder, you can put the food next to the coffee there.” She pointed with one hand while she started toward Cooper, ready to corral him toward the door.

  “Delaney?” Cooper didn’t move.

  “She said to move to the door, Clark.” Ryder’s tone of voice rang with the low, quiet authority of a man who was used to holding a gun at someone while insisting they calm down.

  It was that, the change in Ryder’s voice, that brought me back to the situation at hand.

  Fact: Cooper had just kissed me.

  Fact: I’d been frozen in place. Caught by something in him.

  Fact: I should probably double-check our database and make sure he wasn’t a long-lost descendant of some kind of creature with kissing powers.

  Fact: Did I mention he’d kissed me?

  “Let’s all calm down.” I pulled away from Jean’s hold and took a couple steps toward Myra so I could grab her before she decided to swing Cooper around and frog-march him to the street.

  And wonder of wonders, everyone calmly stared at me.

  Well. No pressure or anything.

  “Cooper, I don’t know why that just happened, but it’s not happening again.” Ryder wasn’t the only one who could use a put-the-gun-down tone of voice. “Sorry if you thought that might be something more—”

  “Don’t tell me you didn’t feel that,” Cooper said with a scowl. “There was something there. Something between us. You know it. You felt it.”

  Oh, yeah, I’d felt it. But I hadn’t liked it. One look into his eyes had me frozen, unable to control my own body, and throwing myself into his arms.

  “Cooper…” I said.

  “You think you can ignore me? Think you can jerk me around?” He took a step forward. Two things happened in quick succession:

  One, Myra reached out and smacked a hard palm into his shoulder.

  Two, Ryder crossed the room so quickly, it didn’t register he’d done it until he’d grabbed Cooper’s other arm and twisted it up behind his back and shoved his palm flat against the back of his neck. Ryder’s stance was squared with a foot inside Cooper’s stance. One twist, and Cooper would be kissing linoleum.

  Jean tugged me back and slid around in front of me, her hand on her sidearm holstered at her hip.

  Okay, that was three things, but it all happened so fast, a couple of them together.

  “Steady,” I said in a voice that was exactly that. “Cooper, we’ll talk later. Myra, please make sure he gets to his car. Ryder, you need to release him.”

  Ryder was watching me over Cooper’s shoulder. A flash of hot anger clouded Ryder’s hammered-gold eyes. Then he smiled, all the anger stowed as if it had never been there.

  “Sure,” Ryder said with an easy chuckle. He released Cooper’s arm and stepped back, sliding his hands into his back pockets. “Sorry about that, Cooper. Didn’t mean to go all self-defense on you. When I first moved to the big city, I took a couple classes, and I guess they kicked in.”

  Cooper shifted to the side so he could glare at Ryder. “Keep your hands off me.”

  Ryder held both hands, palms out. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to jump in the middle of this…whatever this is.”

  “Let’s go, Mr. Clark.” Myra pointed Cooper toward the door. She wasn’t holding on to him yet, but her body language said if he tried anything, she’d have him in cuffs.

  Ryder just stepped to one side so they’d have a clear path to the door. I noticed that he’d also left the takeout and drinks on the floor, neither bag nor drinks disturbed.

  “Let me get that.” Ryder scooped lunch back into his hands.

  Did his eyes linger a moment over Cooper as if he were looking for a weapon? Did his gaze flicker to the door, to Myra’s Glock, to the distance, her reach, Cooper’s height and level of animosity?

  Did Ryder just do cop things?

  Before I could settle on an answer to that, Myra had Cooper out the door, and Ryder was standing there with the lunch bag in one hand, drinks in the other. “By the coffee pot?”

  “Right over there,” Roy, who had been quiet this whole time, said. The sheer normalness of his voice did a lot to settle the tension in the room. Or maybe just the tension in me.

  Ryder walked around the front counter and back to where the coffee was set up.

  I put my hands over my face for a moment.

  Breathe in. Breathe out.

  Even behind my hands, I could feel Jean lean toward my ear. “So Cooper’s back in town. Are you okay?” Her breath still smelled like fake fruit.

  I dropped my hands. Ryder was at the coffee table, his back toward us as he pulled Chinese food boxes out of the bag.

  “I am now,” I whispered, even though I still felt a little feverish. “That was weird.”

  “How weird?”

  “Ordinary weird. Track Cooper’s blood heritage. Make sure we’re not missing something.”

  That was all the whispering we had time for. She patted my shoulder, letting me know she would.

  Roy shifted in his chair and it made a crunchy metal-on-metal noise.
You get me my salt and pepper squid?”

  Ryder still hadn’t turned around from sorting containers. He held up a little white box and jiggled it.

  I swallowed down my revulsion to all things tentacled and tried not to imagine Roy chewing through the deep-fried wriggly things.

  “They threw in an order of pork fried rice.” Ryder turned.

  “Well, don’t hold out on me, rookie.” Roy held up a hand and Ryder tossed the box, which Roy easily caught.

  “No throwing food in the station.” Wow. Could I sound any more like a mother? Boss. I sounded like a boss.

  Ryder gave me an apologetic new-guy-at-the-job shrug along with a small smile that about melted me into my boots. “Do you have time for lunch, Delaney?”

  It was almost exactly what Cooper had asked me.

  I eyed the boxes he’d opened in neat rows. “The last guy who asked me out for lunch almost left in handcuffs.”

  “Then it’s a good thing I brought lunch in.” He looked relaxed, though his eyes still flickered with low-burning anger. Cooper Clark had made no friends today.

  “I need to talk to Dan Perkin. So I’ll just take one to go.”

  “I’ll go with you,” Jean said.

  “You have other leads to check into,” I reminded her.

  “I can come along,” Ryder said.

  Jean and I exchanged a look. We couldn’t ditch Ryder. There wasn’t enough pre-rally stuff to throw at him yet today, and if we left him here, he’d probably end up listening to some god complaining about their cell phone roaming bill. Seriously. Get a data plan, Momus.

  Temperamental gods were something I’d rather leave to Roy.

  “Or,” he said casually, “I could do some filing. Familiarize myself with the records room, that sort of thing.”

  I didn’t know why he willingly volunteered for the scut work, but it seemed mean to make him file all day.

  “You brought me on to help,” he said. “Let me help. I can go talk to Dan if you want. But I’m just as happy to stay here and categorize the evidence room. Familiarize myself with things.”

  It was tempting to send him out to get a statement from Dan. So tempting. Jean’s eyes lit up, practically begging me to say yes.

  But no matter how observant Ryder was, or how quickly he could put someone in a headlock, he wasn’t a cop. We needed to find out if Dan saw anything at Jump Off Jack’s that might help us find out who murdered Heim.

  Evidence that would be admissible in court. Which meant an officer of the law had to be there.

  “You might as well come along and see how we do this,” I said. “Leave the filing for later.”

  I thought I saw a flash of disappointment in his eyes that he quickly covered up. Wondered if he had a filing fetish. A sexy Mr. Librarian fantasy, staring Ryder Bailey, a tweed sweater, and a thick pair of glasses rolled through my mind.

  I turned to the door so he couldn’t see me blush. “We’ll eat in the car.”

  Chapter 13

  IT TOOK one full order of orange chicken and a side of fried noodles to find Dan Perkin. He wasn’t at his house, though his laundry—a heavy flannel shirt, waterproof jacket, knee-high rubber boots, and a pair of waterproof pants— were draped over the railing of his front porch to dry. They had that starched look of material that had seen salt water and sunlight.

  We checked in with Pearl, who told us she thought he was down at the community center talking to Bertie about the Rhubarb Rally.

  Jean and I were in her old, crappy truck, Jean driving, and Ryder was following behind in his newer, less-crappy truck. The two-vehicle split had been Jean’s idea. I wasn’t sure if she wanted privacy to talk or to give me a breather from the craziness of the morning.

  Either way, I appreciated it. Even though the morning wasn’t the weirdest thing that had ever happened in Ordinary, it was up there. I spent the drive time with my hands in my pockets, thumbs tucked between my middle and ring finger, which was an old, comforting habit I hated anyone else to see, sorting through my feelings and reactions to the whole thing. I finally gave up and just stuck the event in a corner of my mind marked: Supernatural Crap To Check Into Later.

  Thumbs out. Thumbs all the way out.

  “Ready?” Jean asked as she parked outside the community center—a two-story brick elementary school that had been abandoned when the new middle school and high schools were built fifteen years ago.

  There had been some wrangling over what to do with the old building, and while it had served as an art center for a couple months, and a storage room for a few more, Bertie had finally convinced all the people necessary that it should become a community center—the heart of our town.

  And she’d officially set herself up there like a bird in a big brick nest.

  I pulled my hair back into a loose braid and finished tying it. “It’s just Dan.”

  “Right. But if you feel the need to slip him the tongue, give me a signal, okay?”

  “Like this?” I flipped up my middle finger and she laughed. “I promise I won’t make a habit of randomly kissing men.”

  She chewed her gum into little snaps. “I don’t know. There’s a few boys in town I wouldn’t mind kissing, randomly or not.”

  “I thought you had your eye on Hogan.”

  “I’d like to have more than my eye on him.”

  “Yeah, you talk big. When was the last time you went on a date?”

  “Two weeks ago.”

  I looked over at her. She was staring at Ryder’s truck, which was coming up behind us.

  “Who?” I asked.

  “None of your business.”

  I wanted to ask her why she didn’t want me to know things about her personal life. A small part of me wondered if she and I were drifting apart. How long had it been since we’d watched crappy monster movies together?

  Since Dad died? Before that?

  Becoming the eldest Reed had taken over my life. This town, these people and creatures and deities, consumed my free time. I didn’t want to lose what I had with Jean because I was working all the time.

  “What?” she asked as Ryder got out of his truck and stood next to it, waiting for us. “Seriously. What?”

  “Have I been a terrible sister over the last year?”

  “Just the last year?”

  I made a face at her. “We need to go see a movie.”

  “Right now?”

  “No. Soon. Yes?”

  “Sure.”

  We both spoke at the same time: “I pick the movie.”

  “Eldest picks,” I said.

  She opened her door and I followed. “You picked last time. That sob-fest teen romance.” She stuck her finger in her mouth and flicked her thumb down like firing a gun.

  “Movie?” Ryder asked as we walked to the front of the community center together, Ryder falling into step behind Jean and me.

  “It was pretty terrible.” I pushed open the door and stepped in. We walked down the empty main hallway, our feet and voices echoing off the painted ceiling and wooden walls. “You’ll make me watch a space movie, won’t you?”

  “Maybe,” she said. “With one hundred percent more explosions than the last thing you made me watch.”

  The door to the main office was ajar. Dan Perkin was behind that door, his voice raised in mid-tirade.

  Speaking of explosions. I took a deep breath, then strolled into the room. “Afternoon, everyone.”

  Dan Perkin had his back to us, one hand raised, finger pointing at the sky, his other hand on the bill of his baseball hat. He was right in the middle of his patented God-is-my-witness move.

  Bertie sat behind a desk with two vases of flowers on the corners and a laptop to one side. She had placed a tea towel in front of her and was slicing an apple in her palm over it. The knife in her deceptively frail hands slid through the meat of the apple with a razor’s ease.

  Bertie was a sparrow of a woman who appeared to be in her eighties: petite, short shock-white hair with a jag
of bangs over her sharp green eyes. Her skin was pale as the moon, the golden polish on her nails sparking with each stab of the knife.

  Great. Dan Perkin had pissed off the valkyrie.

  I didn’t know how this man wasn’t dead yet.

  “Good afternoon, Delaney, Jean, Mr. Bailey.” Bertie gave the kind of look that said she was glad we’d stopped in because she was just about to stab Dan in the jugular with that little apple knife.

  Dan Perkin turned so he could glare at us. His eyes narrowed at Ryder then ticked back to me.

  “Maybe you can make something decent come out of this mess,” he said. “I’ve been trying to make her listen to me for an hour.”

  “Is there a problem?” I asked. Those four words were like Perkin’s own catnip. He loved hearing them.

  Next lecture in three…two…one: “There has been a death in this town, Officer Reed. I demand to know who is going to replace Heim on the judging panel immediately.”

  Dan Perkin. A lover of his fellow man.

  “That decision falls to Bertie,” I said. “I assume she needs time to choose who would be most suited for the job. Is that correct?”

  “Yes.” She placed her apple on the towel. She hesitated, then placed the knife next to it, staring at it with longing in her eyes. “As I told Mr. Perkin, the list of candidates is narrow and vetted. Whomever I choose will be unbiased.”

  “It better be someone who won’t favor big business in this town.” He stabbed a finger into the top of her desk, hard enough to make the flowers tremble. “It better be someone who judges entries on their merits, not on marketing razzle-dazzle. Someone who won’t cave in when some rich guy slips them a few dollars.”

  Bertie was not amused. “Are you accusing me of taking bribes, Mr. Perkin? If so, I will see to it that the rhubarb contest is cancelled. Today.”

  “No,” he said. “Wait! No. Don’t do that.”

  “I wouldn’t want to tarnish the good name of our town,” she went on. “If you and other contestants doubt that our contest judges are anything but impartial, it throws the entire event into question, doesn’t it, Officer Reed?”

  It took everything I had to keep the smile off my face. When Bertie wanted to draw blood, she didn’t need a knife.

 
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