Flight from mayhem fly b.., p.11
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       Flight from Mayhem (Fly by Night #2), p.11

           Yasmine Galenorn
 

  “Don’t worry yourself. I need some time to think and this will give me a breather from Alex’s hovering. He knows how much I cared about Marlene, and while I appreciate his concern, having him check on me every ten minutes isn’t helping.” She paused, grinning at my bathing suit. “I see you came prepared.”

  “Yeah, I did. I have no desire to run around the streets of Seattle naked. All right then, I’ll leave my purse and everything here with you, then. I’ll try to make it short.”

  “Take all the time you need.”

  “Yeah, except I want to be there when Tonya arrives. Okay, I’m off.” Wearing only my bathing suit—a one-piece blue affair—I quietly shut the car door behind me and darted across the short advance to the pier, grateful no one else was around. Benches lined the pier, which was nice and wide with a strip of grass in the center. The guardrail was actually a series of nine thick metal cables that fed through evenly spaced posts surrounding the wooden platform. I peered over the edge. The tide was in, and the water was high, so it was an easy matter of climbing over the cables to jump in. As long as I didn’t take too long, climbing back out shouldn’t be a problem, either.

  As I swung over the cables, holding on to the post for balance, the smell of the brine rose up to encompass my senses and I closed my eyes, every cell in my body aching to be in the water. I took a deep breath, then eased down into it, wary because I knew there were rocks below. The shock of the temperature raced through me, but then, taking a deep breath, I pushed off as my body adjusted to the frigid chill. Humans would have started going into hypothermia within a few minutes, but I wasn’t human. I might look it, but my dragon nature gave me far more resilience than any mortal.

  As I swam with broad, strong strokes, I estimated my distance from shore. I was fast and sturdy. When submerged, even if it wasn’t deep enough to change shape near the shore, I could swim like a fish, and by now I knew the quickest route to take in order to reach deep water. Fifteen minutes later, I was at the proper depth to handle my dragon self, and I dove down, shifting as I did so.

  As my body seamlessly transformed, a surge of power and joy washed through me. There was nothing so wonderful as being back in my normal shape. How I missed the freedom to change form at will. Blue dragons could fly, like all dragons, but I was bound to the water, bound to be in my natural form only when I was fully submerged. I longed to go shooting out of the inlet, to rise into the sky and circle round, stretching my wings, and then nosedive back down. But if I tried, I’d immediately lose control of my shape and fall back to the water in human form.

  Letting go of thought, I gave myself over to the joy of playing. I barrel-rolled, over and over, the weightless sensation of playing with my element making me laugh, which came out in a stream of bubbles. Then, just as swiftly, I headed toward the bottom of the inlet. Here, I was able to touch bottom fairly easily, but a few minutes of strong swimming had me in deeper water. Four hundred feet and counting, and now I could truly let go and dive deep, the waves rocking around me like a welcome cradle.

  A sudden shift in the current surprised me and I swiftly turned as a large shape, about twenty feet long—as large as me—swam past. The waters were dark, but in my dragon form, I could easily see below the surface, and what I saw was what looked like a very large fish. White and black, the creature glided effortlessly near me, and I let out a soft rumble. An orca. Killer whale.

  The orcas of the Salish Sea were a single clan of whales, separated into three pods. Not all whales within a pod were necessarily related, but the bond between podmates was a strong one. I had met whales in the oceans up in the Dragon Reaches, but this was the first time I had encountered anything bigger than a jellyfish or a salmon here. I slowed, cautiously turning to meet the whale. One thing most humans did not realize about fish was that telepathy was a very real factor in undersea communication, but it tended to work more on intent and emotion than thought. Words did not make up the language of ocean dwellers, but emotions? Intentions? They carried just as much energy as the spoken word when directed toward those who were sensitive to picking them up.

  I gathered my thoughts, then projected the sensation of friendliness—of welcoming energy. I was in the orca’s territory and I had no intention on sending out hostile vibes—the whale could do some serious damage to me if it wanted to.

  A moment passed, then another, and then the sense of curiosity flowed toward me.

  What are you? Not two-legged . . . The orcas knew what humans were, all right. Not food . . .

  No, not food. Friend. Visitor.

  Another beat, then, very hesitant—Play?

  Not wanting to be rude, and actually curious about how this would work out, I agreed. Play!

  The orca circled me, then headed out toward still-deeper water. I followed. Within minutes, we were playing chase. There was a dangerous edge to the game—we were both predators—but it was as if the orca sensed that I could do as much damage to it as it could to me, and the knowledge produced a mutual détente, leaving us free to explore the possibility of friendship. We dove deep, then shot up toward the surface, chased each other in circles, and then dove again. A few minutes later, the orca rose to the surface and breached the water, then leaped out to glide into the air and then back beneath the waves.

  You, too?

  It was waiting for me to follow suit, but I couldn’t. Cannot leave the water.

  Curiosity played strong. Why?

  How could I explain? It didn’t know exactly what I was, and I had the feeling it would be wise not to give it the knowledge that I could take shape as a human. There was something about the thought that held me back—some inner guidance that whispered, You might not want to tell it that.

  Must be in the water. Cannot leave the water.

  The orca shrugged—or rather, attitude-wise it shrugged—and we went back to chasing each other. After a time, I sensed it was getting bored, so I backed away.

  Fun. Friend. Go find food.

  Eat. Play again soon?

  Soon. Yes.

  And we went our separate ways, the orca heading out toward open water as I began to swim back toward the shore. I wasn’t sure how long it had been, but the play with the whale had drained away some of my restless energy. I let the water cradle me for a little bit, rocking in the currents below the surface, and then began to swim toward shore. At the point where the water would soon be too shallow, I shifted form and—with long strokes—returned to the dock and tiredly pulled myself out. The water was still high enough around the posts for me to haul ass on the dock and climb over the guard wires.

  As I landed barefoot on the wood, I stopped short. A man was sitting there, staring out into the water. He looked at me, and in the dim glow of the streetlamps I could see that he was stoned, a joint in one hand, a water bottle in the other.

  “Are you a mermaid?” He cocked his head to one side, his voice lazy and dream-laden.

  “Yes, I’m a mermaid. You go back to watching and, who knows, maybe you’ll see a dragon next.” I gave him a soft smile. Sometimes, humans could be so wonder-filled that it warmed me.

  “No dragons in these waters, but maybe a cousin of Nessie.” And then he focused on the water again and seemed to forget I was standing there.

  I padded along the wooden dock, back to the street. Bette was reading on her e-reader, and as I opened the car, she waved to a towel that was on my seat.

  “Dry off before you climb in.”

  I did so, suddenly shivering. The wind picked up and fat raindrops began to splatter along the street. I spread the towel on the seat, then slid in and fastened my seat belt as Bette put away her tablet.

  “Feel better?” She smiled, catching my eye.

  I nodded, brushing my hair back from where it was plastering itself against my face. “I do, actually. A lot better.”

  “Now and then I need to get myself into the water, too. Melusines are water spirits, you know—we bond as deeply with it as you do. That’s why I live on
a houseboat. I can take a quick dip over the side whenever I like without being noticed, though I’m cautious about who sees me when I’m in my snake form. Humans don’t like snakes, especially poisonous ones, and I’m always leery that somebody is going to try to finish me off.”

  I laughed. “We have a lot in common, when you think about it. I need to visit you more often. I’ve only been on your boat a couple of times. I could keep watch on you while you’re in snake form so you don’t get hit by some well-meaning mortal. Return the favor, so to speak.”

  “It’s a deal. And yes, I really need to invite people over more often. There’s so much to do, though . . . time seems to fly.” She started up the car and turned on the heater. “Let’s get back to the office. It’s one forty-five and if Tonya’s ferry arrives on time, she may be there already.”

  “She said her ferry docks at one forty, so chances are she’s on her way. She was going to go to a hotel but I told her forget it, she can stay with Chai and me.” I paused. “Bette, how are you, really?”

  “You mean, because of Marlene? Alex told you to ask, didn’t he?” At my silence, she added, “Never mind. I appreciate the concern. How am I? Sad, child. Sad. But in the time I’ve lived, I’ve lost many friends—most of them human. Each time, I swear I’ll stick to my own kind. To Supes, you know. And each time, I meet someone new who has a heart of gold, or who is smart as a switch. And I forget my resolve. It’s like loving a dog or a cat, in some ways. They leave far too soon, but you go ahead and take another in, because you can’t not share your life with them. They’re too wonderful, too sweet, too loving, to turn away from. And some people are like that. But I didn’t expect Marlene to . . . she still had several hundred years to go, even if her clock was winding down.”

  I thought about what she said, then thought back to the cat in my apartment. Marlene’s cat. Which meant . . . I made a decision right there. “Marlene’s cat—Snookums. He’s homeless now unless . . .”

  “We can’t give him to a shelter—I don’t trust them and he’d be too confused.” Bette kept her eyes on the road, but I could tell the wheels were turning. “Either you or I take him. I just worry about living on a houseboat. And there’s my smoking, you know . . .”

  I knew when I was being played. But I also couldn’t stomach the thought of the poor creature being stuck in a cage. I knew what that was like, and Snookums wouldn’t understand. “Right, which didn’t bother you earlier. But never mind. All right, I guess I have a cat. But if he eats my fish, I’m going to be awfully pissed.”

  “He won’t eat your fish. Not if you don’t let him get to them. That aquarium of yours has bulletproof glass, doesn’t it?” She let out a snort.

  “Don’t push it. It’s strong, but . . . you never know. Snookums should be fine, except for the fact that I’ve never had a cat and I have no idea what to do for him. You’re going to have to clue me in on how to take care of him. And you get to buy the cat toys. You’re his godmother, like it or not.”

  Despite the fact that she had reeled me in, hook, line, and sinker, I was actually a little excited. Getting a cat seemed a very human thing to do, and I was trying to assimilate as much as I could. Plus, I had to admit, since Chai had moved in, I was a lot happier. I hadn’t realized just how lonely I had been, and while I liked my space, having somebody around to talk to could be a good thing. And unlike Chai, Snookums wouldn’t talk my ear off and I could tell him all my secrets without the danger of him betraying me.

  “You’re gonna love the little guy. He’s a sweetheart. Make a list of what we picked up for him and I’ll get whatever else he needs and bring it over later.”

  “No, you don’t—not without me. If I’m going to have a cat, I want to pick out some of the stuff. But you can go with me and show me what I need.”

  And so we play-argued all the way back to the office.

  * * *

  By the time we arrived back at headquarters, Tonya was there. She was talking to Ralph and Alex, both of whom appeared to have fully recovered from Glenda’s surprise attack.

  Tonya jumped up as soon as she saw me and gave me a long hug. “Shimmer! I missed you!”

  “Oh, it’s good to see you!” I spun her around. “How was your trip?”

  “You’re wet.” She stood back, eyeing me up and down. “And in a bathing suit. Were you out in the sound swimming? In this weather?”

  “Remember . . . dragon. Cold? Not such a problem. I needed to work off some stress.” I grabbed my clothes. “And now, I’m going to go change clothes and warm up.”

  “Grab a shower while you’re at it to wash off the brine.” Alex motioned toward the back. We had a full bath at work, because—as Alex put it—you never knew when you might want to clean off the blood. “Ralph has some info on Chase’s serial killer case, so when you get back, we’ll have an honest-to-God meeting.”

  I stuck out my tongue at him, then hit the shower.

  * * *

  When I returned, clean, warm, and dressed, they had moved everything into the conference room. Tonya was leaning back in a chair, and the look on her face when I entered the room told me that whatever the conversation had been about, it wasn’t all that pleasant.

  “Is everything all right?” I slid into a chair and accepted a cup of hot coffee, heavily laden with cream.

  Tonya shrugged. “I’ll tell you later. I don’t want to interrupt your office hours with my problems. Besides, what you’re working on sounds like a serious case.”

  Ralph set up his laptop while Alex, Bette, and I got out our tablets. Before we could get started, Chai shimmered into the room. He was carrying Snookums in his arms.

  “He was lonely.” The look on his face told me that Snookums was going to end up his cat, not mine, and the look on Snookums’s face said the same thing. The cat was snuggled in Chai’s arms, purring so loudly we could hear it all through the room. Chai cooed to the cat as he stroked him under the chin. “Isn’t that right, little guy? You need a buddy to play with. I think we should get you a pal.”

  I smiled at Bette, who was staring at the pair, a tear in the corner of her eye. “I think we should start the meeting. Chai, you take Snookums home right now and get back here.”

  Bette let out a soft snicker, and then the mood shifted as Chai, grumbling, vanished and reappeared a moment later, sans cat.

  “Don’t blame me when he complains about needing attention while you’re trying to get to sleep.” But he flashed us a grin. “He’s comfortably perched on the sofa, watching Cat TV, otherwise known as your aquarium.”

  Ralph cleared his throat. “I pulled up everything I could find about the victims, and dug into a few places that . . . well . . . put it this way. The website devs think they’ve got their security down, but for someone like me? Not so much. One: I verified that all of our victims have had—at one time or another—dealings with the Supe Community Action Council. They’ve all taken classes there, participated in meetings, and—perhaps most importantly—they all participated in the once-a-month potluck dances. Not the council meetings, but an actual social event the agency holds every month.”

  “Why would that be an important factor?” Tonya asked.

  Ralph glanced at her. “Think about it this way: You have a group of people in a social situation. Add in food and booze, and things can get chummy. If a person is lonely, they may talk more freely than usual. The alcohol would potentially lower their guards. We’re not talking human beer and wine, either. These events are rife with Fae brandy and Elfin wine, and those are strong spirits. Also, members tend to dress up for the dances, so out comes the jewelry and the finery. It would be pretty easy for someone picking targets to separate those who are rich from those who are not.”

  That made perfect sense. “Right. And if we are dealing with a doppelgänger, then the creature can change shape every dinner. But if these events are held once a month, and all the victims come from within a six-week period . . . is that right? Six weeks?” All of a sudden, I stopp
ed. “Oh hell. I forgot to tell you. Chase called.”

  Alex frowned. “What did he want? When was this?”

  “When Ralph’s parents were here—right before Glenda showed up. Things got so chaotic, I forgot to say anything. Chase said that he thinks they have another victim. Someone went missing and he said there was some tie-in to Marlene. They took the same classes or something.” I rubbed my forehead. That I could have forgotten the most important part of his phone call . . . I let out a long, slow breath. “He asked if Bette could call him—he is looking for any scrap of information. I’m sorry. I really am.”

  “Did you tell him we think we’re on the trail of a doppelgänger?” Alex merely raised his eyebrows, but he looked ticked.

  “I told him we had a theory, but . . .” Knowing I had screwed up, I lowered my head. “No. I’m sorry.”

  Alex motioned to Bette. “Get Johnson on the phone now, would you?”

  As she put in a call to Chase, I turned to Alex. “I’m still not used to the details on this job. I screwed up. I’m sorry.”

  He held my gaze, and I could feel the conflicting emotions emanating from him.

  “Be more careful next time. Make certain you don’t forget anything like this again. This time? It might not matter. But someday it’s going to be a life-or-death situation, and a lapse like this? It will stay with you, Shimmer. I guarantee it, because I’ve had it happen to me. Once, because I forgot to pass along a warning, two people lost their lives. Two men who had families, both of whom should have lived long, happy lives. I still live with that memory, and they—they didn’t get to live at all. I don’t want you to have to ever go through that.”

  Embarrassed, feeling miserable, I stared at the table. Alex was right—and he wasn’t even being mean about it. But what he said made a hell of a lot of sense. I had been so focused on going swimming that I had let business slide. Important business.

  “Come now, just pay attention next time.” His voice was soft. I raised my gaze to meet his and saw—not irritation, but compassion lurking behind those frosty eyes. “We all know how different this life is for you. You’re adjusting, love.”

 
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