Clint Barton looked down at the body at his feet and wondered, rather uncharitably, why people chose to die before decent things like letting a man get his coffee or eight hours of sleep. Really, the lack of coffee was a bigger insult of the two. He’d lost plenty of sleep in his life and given that he was one of two officers of the peace for a county that had more cows than people, he’d lose plenty more. But Stewart’s Point wasn’t big enough to afford a twenty-four hour Starbucks and his coffee machine was busted, so really, the deceased could do him a giant favor of waiting until after his deputy arrived with caffeine to die, thanks.
“Got a live one, boss?” Deputy Bishop strode in, and whatever was in the homemade mug in her hand smelled sinful.
“The opposite, actually. Gimme.”
“Make your own.”
“Fine way to treat your mentor and guiding hand in your life,” Clint said. His deputy was fresh out of college, though she still looked about twelve, in his opinion. She wore a battered pair of purple chucks and a long-sleeved thermal shirt. Winter was making its way into Stewart’s Point early that year. “Can I at least get a better whiff?”
“How can you even smell it with that stink around?” Kate wrinkled her nose, though her eyes were sharp on the body.
“Finely tuned olfactory senses.” He gave up the coffee as a temporary loss and stepped carefully over the body. Dr. Morse, who served as coroner for this county and all of its neighbors, always yelled at him if he touched the body before she arrived. Given that Bobbi lived over three hours away, it was more than a little frustrating. “Check it out.”
“Check what o—what the hell?” Kate gawked. The deceased, a man in his forties or fifties dressed in khakis and a checked shirt, with the beginnings of a pot-belly, had been discovered on Joe Keckridge’s front porch. Given that Joe (who’d probably been sneaking out to go poaching, Clint thought) didn’t recognize him and that he was cold as a stone, the hunter had seen fit to contact the sheriff’s department right away to tell Clint that something was wrong. A dead body wasn’t actually terribly uncommon around Stewart’s Point, since there were quite a few hunters and accidents and old age happened, but this body had definitely merited a police investigation.
Three gashes spread from Mr. John Doe’s right hip to just under his armpit, tearing open the flesh beneath so that Clint could see the gore. Blood pooled under the body definitely confirmed those suspicions that this had not been a natural death.
“Yeah,” was all Clint said.
Kate immediately crouched down to get a better angle, not at all grossed out by the viscera on display. “Those look like claw marks,” she said, frowning. “Too big to be a wolf and we don’t get many bear attacks.”
“And there’s no other mauling,” Clint pointed out. “I figure a bear kills you, he’s gonna want to gnaw on you a bit.”
Kate rolled her eyes at him. “Are you going to make stupid comments on purpose until I give you some of my coffee?”
“All signs point to yes.”
“You can have a sip. That’s it.”
Clint took three greedy gulps when Kate held the travel mug out. She called him an unflattering word in the Navajo language, but at least the hit of warmth and caffeine had been enough to wake him up a little so he could focus on the John Doe. “Thanks, kid.”
“Jerk. Any signs of ID?”
Clint pointed to the obvious bulge of a wallet in the man’s jeans pocket. “Oh, for the love of—” Kate sighed and, snapping on a latex glove, fished for the wallet.
“Bobbi’s gonna give you the look,” Clint said.
“She’s your ex, not mine.” Successful, Kate held up the wallet. “Oops, look what we totally found right beside the body in plain sight and not anywhere near his pocket.”
“You’re all right, kid.” Clint took the wallet when she held it out and frowned. Credit cards, a movie theater loyalty card, health insurance cards that would do him absolutely no good in the afterlife. The license, though, that was from New York; the man was a resident of Midtown. “Huh. Tourist?”
“Mr. Declan Miller,” Kate said.
“Oh, I always thought that was pronounced ‘dee-clan.’”
“How you ever got to be sheriff is Stewart Point’s greatest mystery, which tragically will never be solved. Because you’re the sheriff.”
“Quit being mean to me or I won’t buy you a replacement coffee on the way back to the station.” Clint pulled out his phone and opened the app that he’d forced onto the budget the year before. Convincing the county court that they needed updated technology and a living, breathing deputy in the same year hadn’t been easy; other cuts had had to be made, which was why the coffee machine at the office was constantly busted and why Clint lived in a glorified trailer behind the station rather than the apartment he’d kept up for a few years.
It was worth it, to have Kate around, not that he was ever going to admit that to her.
“I already talked to Joe, but if you want to take another pass at him, be my guest,” Clint said as he waited for the app to pull up any information on the unfortunate Declan Miller. “He’s pretty sober, so chances are he won’t hit on you too badly.”
“Pass,” Kate said. She drank the last of the coffee and set the mug down, out of the way. “I’ll do a perimeter check instead.”
“Watch out for bears.”
“I told you, it wasn’t a bear.”
“No,” Clint agreed, once his deputy had stepped off of the porch and into the pre-dawn gloom, flashlight in hand as she began to search for any hint of what might have happened to the victim on the porch. “It wasn’t a bear.”
By the time Bobbi Morse arrived and carted the body away, looking perturbed at such a gory, violent death, Clint had had time to drag out the station’s ancient point and shoot and take a few crime scene photos. Kate had found signs of a scuffle at the edge of the woods, and a blood trail leading toward the cabin, and there weren’t any footprints leading away other than the ones they suspected belonged to Miller. While Bobbi secured the body, Clint and Kate collected samples that would probably take months to get back from the state lab. It was a couple of hours before they were able to leave the cold and head back into town and the station. Kate offered to write up the paperwork if Clint did the daytime patrols, which he gratefully accepted.
A couple hours later, Clint stopped at the Java House and bought a couple of coffees, chatting with the baristas as he did. News of a dead tourist had already spread, thanks to Joe’s big mouth, so he gave them the official line that he couldn’t share anything about an ongoing investigation (which made one of them laugh at him) and took the coffees back to his office.
“Bobbi’s already sent over his effects,” Kate said when he strolled into the office with the coffees in a tray and half a danish sticking out of his mouth.
“Already?” Clint swallowed the danish. “She’s not doing the autopsy in Williamstown?”
“She made Dr. Reeds open his office so she can do the autopsy there.”
“Huh.” Reeds was going to pitch a fit over that, Clint thought, which would eventually be his problem. He’d handle it the way he did every other time: by ignoring Reeds completely. “Well, that’s good. Anybody call in with any tips?”
“Nope.” Kate popped the ‘p’ in the word. “I waited until you got here to go through the effects.”
“This is why you’re my favorite deputy.”
“And if you had any other deputy but me?”
“Still you.” They headed back to the interrogation room, which doubled as pretty much anything they needed it to be, including a drunk tank, evidence lock-up, and where Clint stored some of his extra archery gear. Kate had already spread the plastic bags of Declan Miller’s things on the table. She went through his wallet in greater detail as Clint laid out the clothing, which was already stiff with the dried blood. “Huh,” he said.
“Look at this.” He pulled an old silver chain, thin and delicate, from the bag. A battered medallion no bigger than a nickel hung on the end. “Weird accessory for a guy whose dress code seemed to be set to boring.”
“Wait, why does Mr. Manhattan have a talisman?” Kate took the medallion from him.
“Yeah, you know, ward off evil spirits. If you believe in that kind of crap, which I don’t. But some people do.”
“I don’t know,” said a voice at the door, and both police officers swiveled in surprise. Clint’s first thought was to wonder exactly how the woman had approached so silently, given that she was wearing stiletto boots and those things were not quiet. His second thought was wondering if his jaw was on the floor because wow.
He’d never seen the redhead in the doorway before. That wasn’t so surprising—Stewart’s Point was small, but it was also near the Interstate and people passed through pretty regularly—but it was kind of a damn shame that she’d waited this long to walk into his life. She was, in a word, stunning, somehow compact and yet lithe at the same time. Her hair seemed like a red riot, all curls and loose down to the shoulders of the very professional-looking suit she wore.
“I mean,” she continued as both Clint and Kate gawked at her, “if enough people believe in something, maybe they have a point.”
Clint stepped between the table full of evidence and the door. “Can I help you, miss?” he asked.
She regarded him with a gaze that wasn’t quite piercing, but neither was it demure. “Sheriff Barton?”
“That’d be me. I’m afraid you’re not allowed to be back here—”
“Special Agent Romanoff,” the redhead said. She stuck out a hand, and Clint shook it, feeling a little star-struck. He hoped it didn’t show on his face. She pulled out a wallet and showed him her ID card and badge. “I’m with the FBI.”
“Oh.” Well, that certainly changed things. “Nice to meet you. I’m Barton—though you can call me Clint—and that’s my deputy, Kate Bishop. What brings the FBI around these parts? We’re not usually one for attracting the feds.”
“I’d wager you don’t usually have dead bodies with strange gashes in them show up, either.”
Clint exchanged a look with Kate, who shrugged in a She got you there, boss way. “Maybe not. I haven’t had time to run a search for similar crimes beyond logging it in. You taking over the case?”
“I’m here to assist.” Special Agent Romanoff’s close-mouthed smile didn’t ease his doubts. “My division has seen this kind of thing before.”
“What, bears?” Kate asked, looking pointedly at Clint.
“It wasn’t bears,” Natasha said.
“Oh, I know that. But this goofus suggested bears.”
Clint glared at his deputy. “You’re the worst. Log that in, will you, while I have a chat with the nice professional FBI agent?”
“We can talk in the front room,” Clint told Natasha, “since our conference room is kind of occupied at the moment. After you.” He gestured that he would follow, and the minute Natasha was out of sight, he turned and stuck his tongue out at Kate, who only snickered.
“She seems fun,” Natasha said as Clint hastily cleaned some of his arrowheads off of his desk. She played with some sort of silver chain on her wrist, one that seemed delicate and ethereal and not really something an FBI agent would wear. “You don’t meet many deputies with purple hair like that.”
“City council hates it,” Clint agreed. There had been several pointed emails from Councilman Jamm about the purple streak forelock. “Which is half the reason I let her keep it. Is our dead body connected to another killing? Nothing came up on the search, but then, I haven’t had time to run any extensive ones, like I said.”
“I’m unsure. My division is in charge of investigating any strange deaths and this one...”
“Is definitely strange,” Clint said, nodding. He logged into his computer, hoping that Kate had had time to log everything from the scene into their system. She had, and had even put a shortcut to the file on his desk, insulting his ability to use his computer. With a glower toward the evidence locker, he renamed the file. “You seem confident it wasn’t bears, which tells me that even if you’re unsure it’s connected to other crimes, you’ve seen something similar.”
The politely amused look on Agent Romanoff’s face faltered for the tiniest of instants. “You’re sharp,” she said. “I expected a portly guy with a beer gut for a sheriff.”
“That was the last guy. I hunt too much to get a proper beer gut. Not for lack of trying, though.”
Romanoff’s left eyebrow went up. “Pity. I do enjoy a good beer gut. Perhaps you could walk me through the crime scene and I can tell you if I’ve ever come across anything like that before.”
“Deal.” He tilted the monitor so that she could get a look, unsurprised when she pulled out a small, flashy little phone that could probably do ten million things at once. She nodded occasionally, asking questions about the placement of the body, the location of the blood trail, as he walked her through it. “I stopped by the local inns and B&Bs on my patrol today,” he said, finishing up. “Declan Miller wasn’t registered at any of the usual haunts, so either he was staying with somebody or he drove in from somewhere else. We haven’t gotten any reports of abandoned rental cars and Kate’s working on digging up next of kin and his records.”
“The FBI can handle that, if you prefer. We can expedite the process.”
“He died on my turf. I’ll contact next of kin myself,” Clint said, though he would have happily passed that chore on. “But getting his records would be a big help.”
“Done.” Agent Romanoff smiled and it was a bit like getting struck in the face by a sledge hammer. The FBI really, really did not make them the way they used to, Clint decided. “Have you interviewed anybody else?”
“Just Joe, and I spoke with some of the shop owners on Main Street, to see if he’s been poking around or doing any sightseeing. Not that there’s much to do in the Point. No dice.” Clint clicked ‛export’ on the program. “Want a copy?”
“Most locals aren’t inclined to share like that.”
“If using the FBI keeps my town safer, I don’t see the problem with it. What’s your email?”
She listed off an address and watched him hunt and peck at the keyboard to type it in. Once he’d sent it off, her phone chirped. He folded his hands together on the desk. “All right. I showed you mine. Show me yours?”
“May I?” she gestured at the computer.
“What? Oh, sure.” He pushed the keyboard and mouse across the desk, wincing at the state of both of them. Kate had always yelled at him for eating by his workstation, and now every crumb stuck between the keys seemed to stand out like a neon sign. “What are you going to—wow, okay.”
In the space it usually took him to find the Internet Explorer icon, she’d managed to log into the FBI mainframe. “This was nine months ago, outside of Sioux Falls,” she said, clicking the mouse so that four or five images—rather grisly ones—filled his screen. “A couple of hikers went missing and turned up three days later, mauled.”
“Ouch,” Clint said.
“The locals originally thought it was wolves, though attacks like that aren’t common in the area. And later, when we connected it to some kayakers in Sun Valley with similar tissue damage, our technicians said that the claw marks didn’t match any animal known to the northern hemisphere.”
“What do they match?”
“We’re still working to answer that question, Sheriff. There have been nine incidents that my office believes it can connect, eight of them resulting in deaths, in the last nine months.”
“And the ninth?”
“A lone hiker was mauled. He wasn’t able to describe too much about whatever attacked him, except that it stood on two legs and had claws like a bear’s or a wolverine’s, he said. But he said it was definitely humanoid.”
“So, some psycho made himself a pair of claws and is attacking tourists to get his jollies?”
“The victim was severely dehydrated and incoherent when we got a chance to talk to him, so I don’t know how much of his story is credible.” Agent Romanoff shrugged. “But so far, the MO has been similar. Sparsely populated areas, hikers or kayakers in ones or twos, animal-style maulings. There haven’t been too many attacks in the same state, so we believe it’s somebody mobile, nobody local.”
“Declan Miller didn’t look too much like a hiker,” Clint said, frowning. “And apart from the gashes, there wasn’t much mauling.”
“Did he have any defensive wounds?”
“A cut on his wrist,” Clint said. He took the keyboard back to root through his original file until he found the image Bobbi had sent over, which he hadn’t had time to sort yet. The FBI certainly had arrived quickly. “Underside of the wrist, looks like he could have been holding his wrist up to block a downward strike.”
“Hm, I’d say that’s likely. Did you have your coroner check his hands for gunpowder residue?”
“We didn’t find any trace of a gun at the crime scene.” Clint frowned.
“Something had to scare off your attacker,” Romanoff said, gesturing with her phone stylus at the screen. “It could be that he or she absconded with the gun.”
“That’s all we need, a crazed wolverine-man with a gun.” Clint held up a finger while he dialed Bobbi’s number into the station phone. She kept the conversation brief, like she always did. They’d ended things more or less amicably, but that didn’t mean she wanted to spend much time in his company. “She’s checking on your theory,” he said when he hung up. “So what else do you have on this man?”
“Frankly, Sheriff Barton, we’re not even sure it’s a man. Or a woman.”
Something in her expression had him squinting at her. “Wait, you think this is something occult? Just because Declan Miller had the talisman or whatever it was on his wrist?”
“I notice you yourself wear one,” Agent Romanoff said, nodding at his chest.
Clint looked down at the stamped Cooper’s Hawk on his old medallion. Wearing it was just a habit at this point. “This is just something an old man left for me when I was a kid. It’s a circus trinket.”
“Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.” His buddies at the police academy had given him guff for the fact that he’d grown up working for Carson’s Circus, but as he grew older, Clint found he minded less and less. It had given him a different approach to studying things in life than most people, and that made him a good police officer. “There’s quite a native population in this area that puts stock in that sort of the thing, but I’m an equal opportunity atheist and non-believer in all things.”
“You’d be surprised by what’s out there. Always best to keep an open mind.”
“I guess. Hey, do you think—”
Kate stuck her head into the main room. “Hey, boss, I just got in—oh, sorry. Didn’t mean to interrupt your little tête-à-tête, but since I have, just wanted to let you know that I finally tracked down Declan Miller. He goes by Monroe Miller, apparently, which isn’t much better, and he’s a Professor of the Occult at NYU.”
“He’s a what?” Clint asked, blinking.
Natasha raised a See? eyebrow at him.
“Yeah, he left his rental car at his hotel over in Sawyer, too. Must’ve hiked all the way to Joe’s.”
“Long way to hike,” Clint said as Kate disappeared into the back room once more.
“Or to be hunted,” Romanoff said. “You mind if I poke around the town some this afternoon?”
“Have at it. If you need a sidekick, I’ve got a very annoying deputy to get rid of.”
“I heard that,” Kate called. “You love me and you know it.”
Clint sighed. “Trouble is, she’s right. Where are you staying?”
“Ah, um, Palmer’s?”
“Patty’s?” Clint guessed.
“Yes, that. Why?”
“Just curious. You staying in town for a couple of days, I’m guessing? If you want to grab some dinner, I can swing by and pick you up. We can compare case notes.”
Agent Romanoff rocked back in her seat a little, tilting her chin up as she regarded him. “Yeah,” she said slowly. “Yes, I think I’d like that.”
“May not be back in time,” Clint said. “But if I am, six?”
“Sounds good. I’ll call you if I find anything.”
Before Romanoff got to the door, though, she stopped and turned to look back at him. She seemed to debate with herself before she said, “Hey, you should, um, you should put some salt across your threshold. And at home, too.”
“Salt,” Clint said, blinking.
“Yeah. In case it is something occult. Can’t hurt, right?”
“I guess not.” Though Clint didn’t much see how using a condiment outside was going to ward off the thing that had gashed the lifeblood out of Monroe Miller. Still, he managed a smile. “See you later.”
The minute the door closed behind the FBI agent, Kate strolled back into the room with a couple of files in hand. “You have a really stupid smile on your face right now.”
“That is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”
“I’d normally tease you for thinking with your dick, but in this case, I’d have to agree, and I don’t even go for other women much. Want me to do the notification?”
“No, I’ll handle that. You stay in the station and hold down the fort. Oh, huh, she left the files open on here,” Clint said, blinking at his monitor.
Kate elbowed him out of the way. “A chance to play around in the FBI database? Gimme.”
“Fine, fine.” He moved to the other desk as he dialed the number she’d handed him for Mr. Declan Miller’s next of kin. In this case, it was a sister that the man hadn’t apparently been too close to, but every time hit like a shockwave. Ten minutes later, he hung up with his stomach in knots that had nothing to do with Agent Romanoff’s captivating beauty. “I hate doing that.”
Kate made a sympathetic moue as he shrugged out of his khaki shirt and pulled his quiver out of the locker. His service piece stayed strapped to his waist, but he hunted better with his archery gear. “Where are you going?”
“To get a better look at the crime scene. If the drop dead gorgeous FBI lady’s right and our dead fellow was being hunted, there might be more evidence in the woods.”
And he was determined to find it.
Two hours later, he frowned at the ground two miles from Joe Keckridge’s house. Two sets of tracks had briefly crossed out of the pine needle floor covering and through a patch of mud, painting him a clear picture of some kind of chase. The first set belonged to size twelve loafers, which Clint expected. It was the second set that he found disturbing. It looked like some kind of wolf or bear print, but it wasn’t the right size for either. And bears didn’t have five claws on their footpads. They had four. Even more disturbingly, there had been only two distinct paw prints. A bear or a wolf would have left four.
A shiver ran from his hairline to the base of his spine. Maybe, a tiny voice that he would have preferred to ignore whispered, there had been something occult in these woods, tracking and eventually killing Monroe Miller. But that didn’t tell Clint why this—creature didn’t feel right, not when there was solid evidence it could be a person, but he couldn’t really see any way to get around it—creature had been hunting Miller or why Miller had been out here in the first place.
But standing around wondering wasn’t going to lead him to Miller’s killer any faster, so Clint took a few pictures and moved on, searching for any more evidence.
When he got back to the station house, he made sure Kate was busy filing reports before he carefully laid a line of salt across the threshold of the police station. If anybody asked him about it, well, the station suddenly had an imaginary slug problem.
He was ten minutes later than he’d said he would be, but given that he’d also said he might not come over at all, he didn’t figure Special Agent Romanoff would mind too much. Or so he thought until she didn’t answer her motel room door.
“You poking at the pretty new guest, Clinton?” Patty—of Patty’s Hotel—asked as he stood on the sidewalk on the second floor, outside Natasha’s hotel room. It seemed she never realized he’d grown out of the rebellious foster kid teenager phase, for she always squinted at him menacingly. “Am I gonna need to chase you off with my shotgun if you get too frisky?”
“Don’t worry, Miz Patty,” Clint said. “If this one doesn’t like me, she’s got her own gun to chase me off. Though I don’t think she’s here right—oh, spoke too soon.”
The door to the hotel room behind him swung open, so he waved at Patty without missing a beat and spun on his heel. “Evening, Agent Romanoff,” he said.
“Evening, Sheriff Barton.” Clad in jeans and a form-hugging tank-top, Natasha idly toweled at the ends of her damp hair. Clint tried not to gawk, but there was a drop of shower water sliding from behind her ear down toward her collarbone, and the tank-top didn’t leave much to the imagination, so he wasn’t entirely sure how successful he was. Natasha just smiled. “I’m afraid I’m not exactly ready yet. Give me a minute?”
“Sure. I’ll hang out here with Patty.”
Once the door had closed, Clint leaned against the railing, puzzling it over in his head. The off-duty Natasha didn’t look anything like an FBI agent, not with those jeans and definitely not with the tattoo he’d noticed on her arm. It had been some Cyrillic design, starting two inches above her left elbow and rising all the way across her upper arm like some Russian phoenix that disappeared under the strap of her tank top—and maybe even went farther than that to places his brain quite happily wandered while the rest of him told him to quit it. It seemed almost fanciful in origin, which was not personally something he would have imagined on her, but then, he definitely wouldn’t have imagined her in the first place.
His imagination simply wasn’t that good.
It only took her a couple of minutes to emerge, shrugging into a leather jacket. “Thanks for waiting. I know it’s a pain.”
“My fault. I was late, anyway, so we’re even.” By mutual and silent agreement, they headed for the steps down to the parking lot. “Where do you want to get dinner? Not too many options in the Point, though, I gotta warn you.”
“Any place to get a steak?”
“Don’t want salad or some rabbit food?”
“Don’t be sexist. I thought you flyover states were known for quality beef.”
“We do all right.” Clint unlocked his jeep, which he’d parked next to an SUV that was obviously a rental. “I know a place to get a great steak. Did any more come through from your office about Monroe Miller?”
“I sent it to your deputy.” Natasha climbed into the passenger seat and fiddled with that silver chain on her wrist once more. Amusement had the corners of her mouth curving up. “She says to tell you that she’s staying late to log it in and that you owe her one for letting you make time with the drop dead gorgeous FBI lady.”
“She said that? She’s obnoxious because she’s twenty-two,” Clint said. “We think she’ll grow out of it. Maybe. We hope.”
“Really?” Natasha’s smile only broadened. “Because she said those were your words, not hers.”
Clint fought back two strong urges, one to run his hand over his face and the other to assign Deputy Kate Bishop speeding duty for life. “Did I ever tell you about what a crying shame it is to have a deputy who’s a compulsive liar?” he asked, mildly. “It’s such a tragic tale.”
“I’m sure you get by.” Natasha patted his arm. “Now how about this steak?”
He took her to Bixby’s Steakhouse, which was Clint’s favorite because they used a much better rub than the place most locals preferred (Kate had told him multiple times how wrong he was). Natasha declined the house wine, choosing seltzer water instead, so he skipped his usual beer for a glass of Coke that would have made Kate side-eye him.
“So how’d you become sheriff?” Natasha asked after they’d both placed their orders.
Clint moved a shoulder. “I did my training down in Missoula,” he said. “Served on that force for a couple of years, but I wasn’t much fond of the area, so I packed up and my feet led me here, I’d say about ten years ago. I met Kate about two years in.”
“Kate’s been your deputy that long?” Natasha raised an eyebrow as she bit into the salad. “I thought you said she was twenty-two.”
“Not my deputy exactly, but...” Clint fiddled with the Coke glass, balancing it on the very edge with only one finger. The story of Kate Bishop’s delinquency wasn’t one he shared much, even though most of Stewart’s Point was used to seeing the dark-haired young woman at the sheriff’s office. But for outsiders, it was a different story. And if Natasha ran a background check, she’d see most of it anyway, so he shrugged off his uneasy feelings. “I busted her when she was fifteen, trying to break into the general store. She’s one of the Beaumonts.”
“I’m sorry, the whats?”
“The Beaumont Hills subdivision, just north of town. Where all of the rich folks live.” Clint moved a shoulder. “They’ve got their own fancy security force, and that’s where the municipalities get a lot of the money. Kate’s father’s a lawyer, her mother’s native. Either way, neither paid much attention to her, as far as I can tell, so she reacted by acting out.”
“As you do. I’m guessing she took a shining to you and spent all of her time around the station?”
“Oh, hell no. We fought like cats and dogs all the way to her hearing. Judge Maximoff’s not my biggest fan, so when Wanda saw Kate and me mouthing off to each other, well. Let’s say Kate got a different type of probation and I got myself a working intern.”
“Wanda Maximoff is another ex-girlfriend, isn’t she?” Natasha looked amused.
Clint shifted in his seat. “We may have had a thing, once upon a time. She might also be a robot. Whatever. Anyway, Kate started hanging out around the station and after a while, it wasn’t so bad. Kind of like having a very bratty kid sister with a vocabulary five times as big as mine.”
“And now she’s your deputy.” Natasha nodded to herself.
“Wait, what did you mean when you said another ex-girl—aw, man, you talked to Bobbi, too?”
“Dr. Morse had a lot to say about Stewart’s Point.” Natasha’s smile beamed out. Her teeth had a strange glint to them, but Clint couldn’t figure out why. “Especially about its sheriff.”
“In my defense, I am an idiot with women. And I haven’t dated every woman in the county, before you go off thinking that.” Clint glowered a little as their steaks were brought to the table. He’d ordered his well-done to the point of burnt, the way he liked it, but Natasha’s practically oozed blood, it was so rare. “So, I seem to be airing all of my dirty laundry. You should tell me about you, Agent Romanoff.”
“Natasha,” she said. “Agent Romanoff’s for on duty hours.”
Natasha cut into her steak and then eyed him from beneath her lashes. “I’m afraid I don’t have any kid sister deputies or anything interesting like that.”
“Aw, too bad. Where are you from, originally?”
Clint blinked. “Russia?”
“You know of another Moscow?”
“There’s one in Nebraska, I think. You don’t sound Russian.”
“I moved away a few years ago.” Natasha’s smile this time didn’t show any teeth. “I joined the Bureau when I was twenty-four.”
“So last year?” Clint asked, giving her a pointed look.
“Nearly ten years ago, actually.”
“Get out. You are not older than twenty-six.”
“I have one of those faces.” Natasha grinned while he shook his head. “They had me on a task force based out of Chicago for some time, but my talents were deemed more appropriate for my current office, so I transferred in and now I keep my ear out for suspicious deaths.”
“Well, as much as I regret the circumstances of how you came to be here, may I say that I’m glad you found your way to Stewart’s Point?” Clint raised his glass for a toast.
She blinked a couple of times, but with a tiny bounce of her shoulders, clinked her water glass against his cup. The smile she gave him felt like one of the most real looks he’d seen on her face all day. “Me too,” she said.
By the time Clint drove her back to her hotel, the sun had fully set, blanketing the area with inky darkness. “You forget how dark it can get out here, when you live in the city,” Natasha said as they drove along the main stretch to Patty’s Hotel. “Lots of hunters out there?”
“Maybe not, if word of the dead body got spread around to the other counties.” One of the local news stations had shown up to cover the death, which the media was calling an animal mauling, so Clint supposed most everybody in the area knew about the dead tourist by now. “Or maybe more. Weather’s not too cold right now. Look, if the person that killed Miller is your hiker-mauler, shouldn’t he or she be moving on to a new area?”
“Not necessarily,” Natasha said.
“What do you mean?”
“Could be the killer didn’t get what he or she needed from Miller.”
Clint pushed that around in his mind some. “I have no idea what sort of thing our killer would want from a guy that wears Dockers to go hiking in the woods.”
“He was a professor of the occult, and this killing spree is pretty damned spooky.” Natasha frowned as her fancy phone beeped. “Oh, huh. HQ just sent over some files. Does Patty’s have a business center?”
“Patty’s barely has a printer for the front office. I’ll take you to the station.”
“Actually, could you drop me off? I could follow you in. I’d be more comfortable with my own car and that way you don’t have to drive me back.”
“You sure? It’s not a problem.”
He was surprised to find the office empty, given that Kate liked working later in the evening (he did, too, but he figured a respectable sheriff should probably put in regular hours). There was a note on his desk about the processed evidence and a command not to touch her pastrami sandwich. He crumpled it up as he logged into the computer for Natasha.
“Any new leads?” he asked once she’d accessed the server and had downloaded the files.
“Hm, not sure yet. I’ll let you know in a second.” Natasha kept typing away without having to look at her fingers or hunt for the keys, and Clint had to admit that he was a little jealous of people with that ability. She nodded at the bow he’d rested beside his desk from his earlier hiking expedition. “You any good with that thing?”
“So-so.” He was tempted to pick it up and show off, but Kate yelled at him when random arrows showed up in things in the office. So instead he wandered to the front door to peer outside, feeling a little restless thanks to the Coke he’d had at dinner.
“I notice you took my advice on the salt,” Natasha said after a moment.
“Was I not supposed to?”
“What? Oh. You were.” Natasha bit off the sentence, as though there had been more she had intended to say. Clint eyed her for a moment, wondering why she suddenly seemed a little more tense than before. “I thought you were a non-believer.”
“Slugs,” Clint said, giving her a winning smile.
“Uh-huh.” Though she shook her head, he couldn’t help but do a fist-pump inside that he’d made her smile like that.
At least, until he heard something.
His hearing had never been perfect—as a boy, he’d been temporarily deafened by the human cannonball’s cannon, but he’d recovered enough of his hearing to apply for the Academy—but it was still good enough that he swiveled toward the door at the sound of the scratching noise outside. Or it sounded like scratching; he couldn’t tell.
Natasha rose to her feet immediately. Since she wasn’t bothering to confirm that he’d heard the noise as well, Clint grabbed one of the rifles from the rack and headed for the door. Natasha’s own Glock handgun had appeared in her hand, almost like magic, though Clint figured she’d probably worn the leather jacket specifically to hide it.
“You expecting company?” he asked.
“Would you be mad if I said yes?” Natasha said, but her voice was grim.
“Could be a dog,” Clint felt the need to point out when she thumbed her safety off.
“Don’t worry, Sheriff, I won’t shoot any innocent dogs on your homestead.”
“Good enough for me,” Clint said, and pushed open the door. He took point since it was his office, looking out into the darkness of the cracked parking lot beyond. The light at the far corner was out again, but he didn’t think the noise was coming from that far away. “Hello? Anybody out here?”
No answer, but there wasn’t any more scratching, either.
“Huh,” Clint said. Natasha touched his elbow and jerked her head to the right. The office was on the edge of town—not there was really much town to begin with—and that path led back to the sagging trailer that Clint called home for now. Between the trailer and the station were about fifty feet of scrubby grass and some bushes. The treeline sat beyond the trail. Apart from a few coyotes, a couple of owls, and one very annoying falcon, though, he’d never encountered trouble from that direction. “If you’re out there, speak up,” he said, approaching the corner. “This is the sheriff—”
A hiss, like a wild animal in the darkness, was the only hint he had. Clint had been approaching the side of the building, but something streaked around the corner and barreled into him, so fast that he didn’t even get a shot off. Five bright points of pain exploded over his right shoulder, like somebody had dug five individual knives into his flesh. He cried out, lashing out with the rifle like it was a baseball bat instead of a deadly weapon. The thud of it hitting skin and muscle was unmistakable.
He stumbled back to fire and froze instead. It was just damned impossible. He’d been attacked by something. It was taller than him by a few inches, but it was covered in thick fur like a wolf’s. Vivid green eyes had widened in shock and rage from beyond a snarling, bear-like snout. Clint counted nasty, yellow teeth. A lot of them. A lot of them snapping right for his neck.
Something grabbed his jacket and yanked, and he flew back, landing solidly on his rump. He dropped his gun, his shoulder on fire. In a blur, Natasha was between him and the creature. She stood with her feet spread, squared off against the beast.
What was she doing? Clint scrambled for his gun. “Natasha—look out—”
He wasn’t fast enough: the beast-man lunged for Natasha. It swept one of those giant claws toward her, but Natasha dodged nimbly. She also seemed impossibly fast, but maybe it was the pain altering his viewpoint. Natasha jumped out of the way and fired twice, putting two slugs directly into the beast-man’s chest.
It did nothing but piss the beast-man off.
“Oh, shit,” Clint said and finally scooped up the rifle. He jumped to his feet, teeth clenched as agony sang from his shoulder to his tail-bone. “Stand back so I can get a shot.”
“Not gonna do a damned bit of good, Barton!”
The beast-man swung again and again, letting out a roar of fury that made Clint’s bones want to turn to water. Somehow, Natasha was faster, darting in for an uppercut.
“What the hell is it!”
“Dangerous!” She shouted in pain as the beast-man’s claws raked against her midsection with a sickening ripping noise. She collapsed to the ground in a heap.
“Natasha!” Clint shot the beast-man right where its heart should be if it had one of those. The beast-man just turned to Clint with a snarl and advanced on him. Clint fired again.
“Well, crap,” Clint said, and used the rifle like a baseball again to bludgeon the creature in the ribs. It earned him a backhand that felt like being hit by a pickup truck. He flew a good six feet, landing in a cloud of dust and dirt and coughing.
The beast-man let out another roar and stalked toward him. Clint didn’t bother to let the misery that was his childhood flash before his eyes; he rolled out of the dust and bounced off of the building, dodging out of the way as best he could. His shoulder felt like somebody had soaked it in kerosene and tossed a match.
He was probably about to die. Natasha was probably already dead.
What the hell was this thing, even?
Green light exploded at the edges of his vision, making the beast-man draw back. The scream that filled the air was unearthly, eerie, and chilling to the bone. Clint immediately swiveled and got his second shock of the night: Natasha wasn’t dead. Natasha was standing, Natasha looked pissed, and even stranger than that, Natasha was wreathed in green light, her red hair like a beacon in the night.
She didn’t look quite human. The lines on her face were carved too sharply, and her eyes, they glowed a bright, furious yellow. Darker green light seemed to shine on her skin like demented, magical veins.
Without missing a beat, she leapt forward onto the beast-man. If Clint had thought she’d been fast before, though, it had nothing on her now. She moved so fast that she became a streak of pale light, a streak that was still graceful and lethal like a ballerina trained to kill. She pummeled the beast-man with her fists, occasionally grunting or gasping if a hit landed. A silver knife large enough to be a small sword appeared in her right fist, and it glinted as Natasha tried to bury it in the beast-man.
Neither Natasha nor Clint saw it coming: the beast-man feinted, the unearthly Natasha didn’t call his bluff, and said beast-man finally broke through, delivering a haymaker that sent Natasha into the wall.
“No!” Clint shouted, scrambling to his feet.
She landed with a grunt and fell into a pile on the ground again.
“You son of a bitch!” Clint raised the rifle and fired again. The bullet caught the beast-man in the side of the ribcage. It didn’t even seem to acknowledge the shot as it raced for the front door of the office. Clint scrambled to give chase, but when it reached the door, something even weirder than the light around Natasha happened: it couldn’t touch the door. It was as though some sort of invisible barrier had arisen, preventing the beast-man from touching the building. It swiped its claws and roared in frustration and Clint outright gaped.
Then it looked down at the smudged line of salt across the doorway and roared again. It rounded on Clint. Its previous anger had nothing on the sheer outrage and fury on its beastly face. Once again, Clint realized that he was about to die. He swung, trying to hit the beast-man first, but it struck out, even faster. The center of his chest seemed to ignite all over again with pain—
But it was the beast-man that let out the truly anguished cry of pain. Before Clint understood what had happened, it backed away, cowering from him as though he’d taken a chainsaw to it or something. An arrow with lavender fletching sprouted out of its shoulder.
It roared again and to Clint’s shock, turned tail and fled, racing away into the night with inhuman speed. He heard a curse and saw Kate flinging herself out of the creature’s way, but the beast didn’t even seem to notice. It ran right by and disappeared into the tree line.
Clint didn’t bother to see if his deputy was okay or to chase after the creature. He raced for Natasha, praying. She was moving, sluggishly, but the attacks looked grim: shreds of skin were hanging off of her stomach where the creature had ripped at her. And of course there was that glowing thing, too.
She looked up at him with eyes that were bright yellow and it took everything he had in him not to back away in terror. “I’ve got you,” he said instead, though his own chest was burning and he probably didn’t look much better. “It’s gone. I’ve got you.”
He heard footsteps approaching, but it was only Kate, her quiver and bow strapped across her back. She looked wary, and he realized that she must have been in his trailer, watching TV or just taking a break. “What are you?” Kate asked, kneeling next to the FBI agent.
Beads of sweat dripped down Natasha’s forehead as she struggled to sit up. The light seemed to be pulsing now, and the Cyrillic tattoo Clint had noticed earlier had apparently expanded, as he could see it covering the back of her hand. “Long story. I need water.”
“You need an ambulance, is what you need,” Clint said. How she could possibly be conscious after that swipe she’d taken from the beast-man, Clint didn’t know. But she was pushing herself up slowly, jaw clenched and her breath coming quickly. “No, stay put—”
“No hospitals,” Natasha said. He flinched when she grabbed his arm, but her skin didn’t feel strange or supernatural. “I’ll be fine. I just need water.”
“And a blood transfusion and to avoid any nuclear power plants, too,” Kate said, but Clint saw his deputy take a deep breath and lever her shoulder under Natasha’s arm, supporting the redhead as she stood. “Though you’re not the only one that needs an ambulance. Stay put, Barton.”
“I’m fine,” Clint said, though he could feel blood dripping from the wounds on his upper chest. “It’s a scratch.”
“‘A scratch,’ he says,” Kate said to Natasha, as though Clint weren’t even there. He rolled his eyes and decided to ignore her, choosing instead to raise his rifle and cover their retreat into the station. His head was still spinning and if it weren’t for the very real pain across his front, he’d have a hard time believing that he hadn’t just ended up in some dream. “I bet you thought Marie Antoinette was just getting a little off the top.”
Natasha let out a pained breath. “I like you,” she told the deputy.
“That’s good. I’m incredibly likeable.”
They stumbled into the station, stepping carefully over the line of salt. “Sit,” Kate told Clint as she dragged Natasha back to the holding cell, where they kept a cot. “Stay.”
Since he wasn’t actually a dog, he ignored her and followed them back. Natasha seemed to be dimming...going out like a fading light bulb. Her eyes still had a yellow glint to them, but she no longer seemed larger than life. Given that she was panting and gasping, her throat working convulsively, that made sense.
“Water,” she said. “Need water.”
“Deep breaths, as deep as you can get them,” Kate said.
Natasha grabbed her arm. “Water,” she said in a guttural voice, and the light in her eyes changed from yellow to red.
Kate stumbled back; Clint didn’t blame her, as he’d reared back in surprise himself. “What the hell!” Kate said.
“I’d get her some water, if I were you,” Clint said. Because dizziness set in, he ignored the fact that the woman was glowing like a radioactive popsicle and dropped to the ground, putting his head down.
“Clint!” Kate reached for him.
“Get her the water first. I’m fine.”
“You are leaking out of several holes, you are not fine,” Kate said, but he heard her boots stomping away and then back. She dropped the entire thing of twenty bottles of water he’d picked up on a run to Sam’s Club on the floor, but at least she didn’t grumble when she uncapped a bottle.
Though it was hard to concentrate, he saw Natasha all but pounce on the bottle, sucking the water down in less than three seconds. He and Kate gaped. Natasha, on the other hand, gestured for another bottle and downed that one greedily, too.
The glow dimmed with each bottle drunk until it was just FBI Agent Natasha Romanoff sitting on the cot with hair that was damp from sweat. She gritted her teeth, reached down, and put a hand over her midsection. The ripped skin on her abdomen seemed to glow for a moment longer before—and Clint wasn’t sure if blood loss was making him hallucinate now—it knitted itself back together, forming smooth, unbroken skin once more.
“Holy shit,” Kate breathed, speaking for both of them. “What are you?”
“Later.” Natasha crumpled the last water bottle and surprised Clint by dropping to her knees next to him. “We need to get him on the cot. And get his shirt off.”
“Not on the first date,” Clint said, and his words were slurred. Why wasn’t he reacting to the fact that the deadly gorgeous woman he’d tried to charm over steaks had turned into some kind of supernatural Lite-Brite who could literally put herself back together? Surely he should find this stranger than he did.
He didn’t believe in aliens or any of that junk.
The woman wrestled him onto the cot. He swore because that only made his chest hurt more, especially when Natasha calmly began to unbutton his shirt. “We shot that thing like five times,” he said, his fists clenched at his sides. “Didn’t even matter. It was like we were shooting pea guns. What the hell!”
“Shh,” Kate told him.
“And it wasn’t human. I know that, but I keep thinking this isn’t possible. This all isn’t possible.”
“What? What is it? Am I going to die?”
“Hardly,” Natasha said.
“Good. I don’t want to be killed by a bear.”
“It wasn’t a bear.”
“Excuse me, this is my death, I get to decide how it goes,” Clint said. He expected a scolding, but Natasha and Kate just rolled their eyes, eerily in sync. Kate flicked out her hunting knife and he realized a second too late what she planned to do. “Aw, no, I like this shirt.”
“The shirt’s toast, boss,” Kate said, focusing on cutting it away from him.
Clint finally risked a glance down at his exposed torso. He wanted to groan at the sight: the beast-man had gashed him pretty good on the shoulder from that first blow. Blood had dripped down to the waistband of his jeans and he could see the jagged edges of the wound which meant he was definitely going to scar.
Dammit. First his favorite shirt, and now he was going to have some gnarly-looking scars. In addition, the second swipe cut four shallow scrapes across his collarbone, stopping where the circus pendant he wore lay. He was going to have to clean blood off of that, which was easier said than done.
“We need to call an ambulance,” Kate said, looking pale.
“He will be fine.” With all of the calmness in the world, Natasha picked up one of the few bottles left and uncapped it. “This will hurt some, Sheriff.”
“Can’t hurt any more than—oh, god! Ugh!” Clint’s entire body arced up as she turned the bottle over, upending it on his chest. The water felt like fire ants had been released all over his body, biting into every inch of skin and causing individual pinpricks of agony. “What are you doing? Russian water torture?”
“Not far off, actually,” Natasha said, and she put her hand right below the pendant he wore. Clint’s stupidly slow brain informed him that said hand was glowing, and he wondered why that was for a moment.
And then the agony truly started.
Thankfully, the darkness followed closely behind.
Awareness was something that trickled in slowly, like molasses dripping from the jar, one sticky droplet at a time. He had some feeling—he knew he existed, which was usually a good sign—but the rest, reminders that he had hands and feet and a nose and...other things, came more slowly. After some time, he realized that his alarm wasn’t going off. And even more time passed before he figured out this was because he wasn’t in his own bed. He was in the station. He wasn’t wearing a shirt. There was a gorgeous woman sitting on the floor, her legs pulled up to her chest and her arms hugging her knees.
That last fact made the world settle into place faster. Clint moved to sit up, but Natasha put a hand on his shoulder. “Easy there, Sheriff.”
“What the—where am I? I mean, wait, I know where I am, but what’s going on? Why don’t I...” Clint looked down and realized something: his chest had had several gaping holes in it the last time he’d seen it. Now there were several faint lines across his flesh, like long-faded scars. The full force of the encounter hit him: they had faced some sort of beast-man, Natasha had lit up like Three Mile Island, and he’d gotten some pretty big scratches for his trouble. “Huh.”
“You’re okay. No lasting damage,” Natasha said, and he couldn’t detect any sign of emotion in her voice. She’d been warming up to him during their dinner. He could hear it in the amusement her voice carried, and her eyes had twinkled—not glowed, just twinkled. But now, she was completely impassive, her eyes and her expression giving nothing away. “How do you feel?”
“This isn’t purgatory or heaven or anything, right?” At least, he was fairly sure heaven wouldn’t involve the conference room in his office.
From the brief glint of amusement in her eyes, she seemed to be thinking along the same lines. She’d lost the leather jacket and the giant knife and seemed to be wearing one of his spare undershirts that he kept stashed in his desk. He could see that the tattoo he’d notice earlier did indeed extend all the way down the arm. “No, this is Stewart’s Point.”
“You’re no longer glowing. And I’m no longer leaking. I’m guessing the two are related.”
“Is that your subtle way of asking what I am?” Natasha asked.
Clint looked around. He could see streaks of blood on the floor, dried now, and the empty water bottles, but no Kate. “That and where my deputy is.”
“She’s asleep in the other room. It’s five in the morning, for the record. I finally convinced her that I wasn’t going to mutilate you in your sleep or make off with your soul.” Natasha’s eyes betrayed no amusement. The soberness was remarkably clear, so that he could make out the dark circles under her eyes, which were once again back to a shade of hazel-green that seemed remarkably human.
He had a feeling that part was a lie.
“I’m a rusalka, for the record,” she said.
“A what now?”
“Rusalka. Do—do you think I could sit up there?” She looked at the bed and he realized that she’d probably been sitting on the floor for a while. So, gingerly, he sat up (he was a little sore, but it sure beat bleeding to death) and scooted over. She gratefully sat down next to him, close but not touching. She smelled like sweat and the perfume he’d noted earlier.
For a moment, she was quiet, just staring forward. Clint looked at her hard, trying to see if there was any catch, any sign that she wasn’t human.
He saw nothing but a tired woman.
“Rusalki are...well, they’re not commonly known in your American mythology.”
“Come now, do you really believe anything is a myth anymore?” Her lips twisted, wryly.
She had a point, but he was still playing catch-up with all of this. And part of him wondered if he was just hallucinating. “Sasquatch better be a myth—or wait, was that what that thing was? Did we fight Sasquatch?”
“Sasquatch lives in Ontario, so no.”
“I can’t tell if you’re joking.”
Natasha’s lips curved even more.
“So rusalka...does that just mean a woman who turns green, drinks a lot of water, and can, you know, heal people at the drop of a hat? Like a witch?”
“Think more of a demon.” Natasha no longer smiled. “My kind, we were notorious in Russia. Women that were killed too young or by violence or by themselves. We lived by water. It gave us our power as the scorned women. We’re known for luring men into the water and drowning them.”
It took every inch of Clint’s willpower not to lean away. Granted, the only source of water in the room was in a bunch of Great Value water bottles on the floor, but after seeing the woman next to him light up like a torch, taking precautions suddenly seemed very, very prudent.
She caught his unease, as much as he tried to mask it. “Don’t worry. I’m reformed. And I really am an FBI agent. I work for the Suspicious Happenings Investigations and Extranatural Lore Department.”
Clint blinked. “Like aliens and stuff?”
“Yes.” She seemed to brace.
“So you’re a literal Agent Scully?”
Her sigh told him that she’d heard that one before a million times. “Scully was the skeptic.”
“But you’re a redheaded FBI agent who investigates weird stuff.”
“As I’ve been reminded.”
Clint frowned. The fact that she knew X-Files actually served to reassure him somewhat, though his brain kept getting caught up in the idea that she’d been something that lured men to their deaths. And he couldn’t forget that he was a man, even though it was five in the morning and they were in various states of dishabille, sitting together on a cot in the back of a sheriff’s office.
“Except,” he said slowly, “Scully wasn’t a Russian mermaid.”
Her eyes lit up with annoyance, and thankfully that was only a metaphor. “I am not a Russian mermaid! God.”
“You just said you live in water and lure people to their deaths. I know not all mermaids are like the Disney kind,” Clint said before he realized that maybe taunting the woman who could literally lure him to his death was a bad idea. “Okay, never mind, you’re not a Russian mermaid. You’re a Russian Lite-Brite.”
“How does a rusalka go from, um, killing men to working for the FBI? I thought Quantico was hard but I didn’t realize it was...” Clint trailed off as he realized he couldn’t exactly think of a term. Given that he’d had the crap clawed out of him and had discovered that the myths weren’t exactly mythical, he figured it was okay. But he still needed a word, so he settled on, “Supernatural.”
“I was recruited by a man named Nick Fury.” Natasha face closed up a little. “He came to Russia looking for a rusalka to join his team. He bested me in battle. He was the first one to do so in centuries, though at great personal cost to himself.”
“A couple of centuries. So...thirty-four is...”
“I age like a human now,” Natasha said, “if that makes you feel better. But maybe I added a couple of years to my physiological age.”
Clint goggled. “You think a couple of years makes up for centuries?”
The smoldering look she shot him made his tongue wither in his mouth a little. “Okay, okay,” he said, holding up his hands. “So you’re human now?”
“Mostly. SHIELD—my department, in case you’re not good with acronyms—has ways of keeping the supernatural population under control. And helping them blend in, or break their bonds. I retain the rusalka abilities through a way I’m not going to tell you about.”
“The tattoo,” Clint said, nodding.
Natasha gave him an annoyed look.
“Look, don’t blame me for pointing out the obvious. It got bigger, so it’s not just some regular ink. And I saw it when you were...glowing.” God, that felt weird to say. It felt weird to experience, too, but honestly, growing up in the circus had taught him that there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot of black and white to the world. Everything came in shades of gray. Or, in Natasha’s case, green. And he’d always had amazing eyesight, so it wasn’t as though he’d just start disbelieving what had happened before his very eyes. “So the abilities. I’m guessing speed, probably strength, stamina, healing. Connected to water?”
“You really are taking this well. Your deputy...”
“Not so well?”
“There was yelling.” Natasha shrugged. “A lot of yelling.”
“Sounds like Kate.” He didn’t bother to keep the pride out of his voice. “So if you’re a Russian—not a Russian mermaid. That answers that. What I want to know is what was that thing that clawed the shit out of us?”
“My guess? Skin-walker.”
“A who-what now?”
“Think werewolf, but not quite. They’re people with the ability to transform into animals, but it’s not constrained to the full moon.” Natasha frowned. “And usually they’re peaceful. They don’t kill, which was why I was so hesitant to link all of the crimes to one. But this one was...”
“A skin-walker,” Clint said, repeating the word blankly. “What the hell?”
“They’re people who put on animal pelts to become the animal in question. There’s a long tradition of them, going back to the Navajo people.”
Clint froze. Kate was half-Navajo.
“But this one’s odd. Usually they take the form of a single animal, and this one was multiple animals—bear, wolf, I think cougar—at once like some kind of abomination.” Natasha wrinkled her nose again, and Clint thought she just might hate that word. He didn’t blame her. If he’d been a reformed water demon, he’d probably hate it, too. “And like I said, they don’t usually kill. Sometimes they do, if they’re created out of what the Navajo consider perversions, but mostly you get teenagers joy-riding.”
“Joy-riding as wolves?” Clint scratched his head.
“Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it, I guess.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“I think this one may be trapped permanently as a skin-walker. I’ve met a few, but something about this one feels different,” Natasha said.
Clint rested his head against the cinderblock wall and thought about it, replaying the fight in his mind. “Bullets and arrows didn’t seem to bother it much, but somehow it got hurt when it clawed me. Why?”
“This.” Natasha dug in the pocket of her jeans and held something up: his medal. It was blood-stained, which would make it a pain in the ass to clean, but the Cooper’s Hawk stamped on the pendant sneered at him, ever the same. She handed it back to him. “Touching it was worse than trying to get through the line of salt. I don’t know why. As far as I can tell, it’s not charmed.”
“You can see magic?”
“Russian water demon,” Natasha said.
“And here I am, still just trying to accept that magic exists. So...salt kept it from getting in here.”
“Yes, which is why I’m surprised you listened to me,” Natasha said. “Most men don’t. Sometimes, if I know they’re going to die without protection, I can compel them. But you listened to me.”
Clint scratched the back of his neck, wishing abruptly that he had a shirt on. It was an odd thing to think in that moment, as he’d been fine without the shirt up until now. But rusalka and possibly-able-to-drown-him-with-magic or not, he couldn’t deny that from the very first minute, there’d been attraction, the sort that would make him ask where to land if Natasha said jump. Discovering she was an ex-demon, that magic was real, that the monsters were real, that didn’t seem to have changed much about that feeling.
“Maybe I’m not as much of a non-believer as I say,” he said. “What was it trying to get, anyway? It wanted in here pretty badly.”
“If I had to guess? Something about that talisman Dr. Monroe had.”
“Is it going to attack anybody else? Should I call for reinforcements?”
“The sun will be up soon, and skin-walkers hate sunlight, so as long as it’s only after the talisman and nobody stumbles across it in the woods, your people should be safe.” Natasha’s cell phone buzzed, making both of them look over at the interrogation table, where it was sitting next to an unopened file. “That’ll be Fury. You should get more sleep. I’ll brief you more on the case when you wake up.”
But before she could hurry out of the room, Clint reached out and grabbed her wrist. She went still, her eyes cutting to his hand and to his face. He realized that not many must reach out and touch her willingly, but he didn’t care. “What?” she asked.
“Whatever let you become human again...did it take away your desire to kill?”
He saw actual emotion flicker across her eyes: surprise, distrust, confusion. “Don’t worry, Sheriff. I’m not any danger to your citizens. The only one I’m after is our rogue skin-walker.”
Firmly, she pulled her arm free and strode out. “That wasn’t what I asked,” Clint said, but she was already gone.
Now that he was alone, he reached out and ran his hands over the very faint scars where the skin-walker had gashed him. He still wasn’t sure he entirely believed what exactly had happened, but there was undeniable evidence right there. A closer inspection made him frown: just under the largest of the scars, there was some kind of faint symbol on his skin, as though the rest of him had tanned and this area had been missed by the sun. It looked fluid and a little like a bow and arrow.
Had he been marked by a rusalka? What did that mean, anyway?
The gashes ended abruptly just above his sternum, where his pendant had hung. Clint lifted it to the light and studied it, scratching at the dried blood with his thumbnail to get some of it off. Natasha had said it wasn’t charmed, and it didn’t seem like old Mr. Sliney, who’d left it to Clint in his will, would have been the type to use actual magic. But then, a day ago, Clint hadn’t even believed in magic. So what the hell did he know? So what made this pendant so special that it hurt the skin-walker when bullets and arrows had done nothing?
Exhausted, Clint drifted off to sleep again, the mystery still in his thoughts.
“Magic,” Kate said to him later that morning when she stormed into the interrogation room with a tray of coffees.
Clint lunged for the tray. “Gimme.”
“Magic. Magic is real.”
“Coffee,” Clint said, as that was as high as his cognitive function went.
“The FBI employs Russian mermaids and has a whole department to deal with supernatural shit.”
“Coffee,” Clint said again, slurping. “Glorious coffee.”
Kate rolled her eyes at him. “We just had our entire worlds rocked last night, and all you can focus on is caffeine. Aren’t you at least a little bit shocked?”
Clint took another long drink, feeling the coffee warm him to his bones. He could have gone out to his trailer to get a shirt, but instead he’d fallen asleep in just his battered and still bloody jeans. He ran a hand over his hair and winced. Of course it was a mess. “She doesn’t like being called a Russian mermaid. Just saying.”
“You’re no help,” Kate said, and stomped back into the other room.
When he strolled out a few minutes later, some brain function restored, he found Kate and Natasha perched together on one of the desks, going over files. His deputy looked up when he came in. “Hey, Sheriff Shirtless.”
“Cute,” Clint said, and Natasha looked up and met his eye. He had a flashback of the ferocity on her face, the way she’d faced down the skin-walker with those glowing veins on her hands and neck, but now, she looked tidy and neat and like an FBI agent once more. The little silver chain was back on her wrist. “What’cha up to?”
“I’m educating Kate about what we know about skin-walkers. There’s nothing in our files about why your pendant would hurt it.”
“Great. I’m gonna...” Clint gestured vaguely toward the back of the office, in the direction of his trailer. “Shower. Change. Do regular stuff. Did you get breakfast?”
“It’s after noon,” Kate said, giving him an amused look. It only deepened when he panicked. “And no, there weren’t any calls. I don’t think our skin-walker struck again. There was a car accident down on Main Street, but it was just Allen Landry again. I handled it.”
“Oh. Good, then. That’s good.”
He took his time showering and changing into a shirt he was less fond of than the one that the skin-walker and Kate had destroyed the night before since this problem didn’t look like it was going away any time soon. After that, he dug out some old silver polish Kate had probably nagged him into buying, and cleaned off the pendant. He felt a sense of relief when he finally put it back on.
When he came back to the station, feeling almost new, he found Kate and Natasha in deep discussion again. They had sandwiches from JJ’s Diner half-finished in front of them, and they’d picked him up his typical ham on rye.
He dug in with gusto. “Find anything?”
“Just that everything I’ve ever believed in is wrong,” Kate said, frowning.
To his surprise, Natasha laughed and patted her on the shoulder, and his deputy didn’t flinch. Whatever Natasha had told her while he’d been out seemed to have cured a lot of the problems between them. “For most, beliefs are fluid. You’re young. You’ll recover.”
Kate scowled. “Great, another person who tells me that.”
“To be fair,” Clint said around a mouthful of sandwich, “she’s got a couple of centuries on me, so she probably has more authority to say that.”
Natasha shook her head at him, but he noticed her lips were curved upwards a little bit. It felt like a victory.
“Anything about the pendant?” Clint asked.
“Do you know if it’s pure silver?”
“Yeah,” Clint said. When both women gave him questioning looks, he shrugged. “Look, life wasn’t easy when I left the circus, so I may have gotten it appraised at a pawn shop to see what it was worth. Are you thinking it can’t touch silver?”
“Were-creatures can’t,” Natasha said, and Clint had a moment where he readjusted his reality to realize that those things were probably real. “But skin-walkers are a different sort of creature entirely. There aren’t any files of them reacting to silver, pure or not. And my kindjal is only a silver alloy.”
“Your what?” Clint and Kate asked.
“Oh, right, your skin-walker skewer,” Clint said, frowning. He’d seen her holding it during the fight, but afterward, he couldn’t remember seeing it anywhere. “Where did that go, anyway?”
Natasha held up her hand. It took him a moment to realize that she was indicating the silver chain on her wrist. “Whoa, are you kidding?” Kate asked. “Is that more magic?”
“Just one of the perks of being a special agent for SHIELD.”
“How does it work?”
“Of course it would be the weaponry that gets the both of you interested,” Natasha said, but she rose to her feet, brushing crumbs off of her fingers. She moved around the desk so that both Clint and Kate could get a clear view of her arm and wrist. “Pay close attention. I will not be doing this again.”
When she flicked her wrist, the silver on her wrist seemed to flow down her hand like mercury, dripping toward the ground. No, it wasn’t dripping. It merely gathered below her hand to form a fourteen-inch blade, the black and green studded hilt gripped in Natasha’s right hand. Clint blinked and the silver hardened into a darker blade, etched with wavy patterns.
“Whoa,” Kate said. “Can I see?”
Natasha held out the blade, hilt first. “It’s Russian,” she said, unnecessarily. “I carry a sidearm, but the blade is better for fighting unfriendlies, the skin-walker aside.”
“And bullets didn’t work,” Kate said, frowning at the blade. She gripped it in one hand and swung it about (cutting it very close to the office plant Clint was struggling to keep alive, which he certainly did not appreciate). “And neither did the blade?”
“No, just Barton’s pendant.”
“I know that look,” Clint said, and it was his turn to frown. He’d known Kate Bishop for the better part of a decade. She’d picked up some of his better qualities—a good eye with a bow, a love of the law—but more importantly, she’d picked up his lesser qualities, too. Like impulsiveness. “What are you thinking, Katie-Kate?”
“I’m not sure.” She handed the kindjal back to Natasha. The redhead flicked her wrist and the blade vanished. “I think I’ve got an idea about how we can hurt this thing if it comes back.”
Kate left without explaining her plan. Clint could tell that Natasha didn’t like that, but he didn’t mind so much. He was used to Kate. She usually had good ideas that she didn’t always want to share until she was absolutely certain. So he handled a couple of tasks that the office needed to see to, which felt strange and mundane in the face of magic being real. He let Natasha use the office as her base and headed into town, where he had to endure Miss Patty’s admonishing look for keeping the pretty FBI agent out all night.
Clint was almost tempted to tell her that the FBI agent was not what she seemed.
When he returned to the station, Kate still hadn’t returned. Natasha looked even more frustrated. “I’m missing something,” she said. “Every creature has a weakness, and we’ve discovered what this one’s is, but I don’t know how to replicate it.”
“We could throw this at it?” Clint said, using his thumb to hold the chain to his pendant up.
“Not big enough. That would only injure it rather than incapacitate it, I think. And trapping it won’t work. It would eventually break out of any cage.”
“What about that salt thing? Seemed to stop it last night.”
“Salt can only do so much. It’s there to guard buildings and homesteads, not imprison unfriendlies.” Natasha sighed and sank back into her chair. “And I have no idea what your deputy is doing.”
“There’s a strong chance she’s goofing off. No, wait, that’s me. The kid’s smart. If she has an idea, you can bet your ass it’s a good one.” Clint sat down at his desk. When he looked over, he was surprised to see Natasha frowning at him, like she couldn’t figure him out. “What?”
“I wasn’t kidding earlier when I said you’re taking this well. And you’ve barely had any questions. It’s like you’ve been associated with magic-users and unfriendlies for a long time. Or you’re the most pragmatic person on the face of the planet.”
“I had myself a good cry in the shower,” Clint said.
Natasha scowled. “And of course it’s a joke.”
“It’s not a joke. Something out there killed a tourist on my turf and it beat the shit out of both of us. I can waste time having a freak-out or I can go find the son of a bitch and figure out some way to lock him up.”
“And you don’t find working with an ex-demon disgusting.”
“You glow in the dark, but you saved my life.” Plus, Clint added in his mind, you’re really hot. “So as far as I see it, we’re square. Did you contact, uh, SHIELD and see if anybody in the area was willing to help us out?”
“Director Fury didn’t see the point in sending out more ‛cannon fodder,’” Natasha said. “This is one of the most powerful unfriendlies I’ve ever seen. Your rifle didn’t even slow it down, and it nearly defeated a full-blood rusalka.”
“So we’re screwed?”
“Not yet. Our benefit is that whatever that talisman is, the skin-walker wants it, and badly. So maybe it will keep its attention away from killing like it did with the other cases. Hopefully we can come up with a solution before then.”
“And if we can’t?”
“Burn the forest down? I don’t know yet. But we’ve got to do something.”
In the meantime, Clint read about skin-walkers and Natasha studied first Monroe Miller’s talisman and then Clint’s. She refused to call it anything but a talisman, and once she fully explained what that meant, Clint could kind of see that that was what the pendant had become to him. It signified his lean days, his hungry days, the long days of studying at the Academy, the long nights on patrol. His time in Stewart’s Point. For every piece of his life save the earliest days, that pendant and that Cooper’s Hawk had come along with him, guiding him.
And now magic and demons were real, real enough that there was an entire FBI task force dedicated to hunting them.
In between files, he asked about various things, and Natasha gave him vague answers that made him wonder if she was bullshitting him or not. Vampires didn’t sparkle and usually didn’t bother with killing, Sasquatch really did live in Canada, the Loch Ness Monster was pretty friendly, and Natasha’s best friends were a naiad and a fury that had been dating seriously for quite some time. He wasn’t sure if he was more surprised that the Greek furies existed or that his joke about Sasquatch had been so on the nose.
Finally, dusk settled over the town. Clint watched Main Street with a growing sense of unease. He knew exactly how many people there were in town, and how many lived on the outskirts. His jurisdiction wasn’t a large one, but he had a duty to protect these people, and there was a creature that could kill all of them at large.
When the idea hit, he knew it was a bad one.
Silently, he crossed to the back of the office and opened the gear cabinet. He donned his hunting camouflage jacket, not bothering with the bright orange vest he usually wore with it, and toed out of his sneakers so he could pull his boots on.
“What are you doing?”
“I need to keep the skin-walker away from the citizens of this town.” He slung his hunting quiver onto his back. “So all I do is take the talisman and go deep into the woods.”
“That’s suicide, just so you know.”
“I figured as much. Nobody knows these woods the way I do, though.” Clint knelt next to the giant bag of rock salt and scooped some into a plastic baggie, which he slipped into one of his many pockets. Maybe he could wet down one of his arrowheads and coat it in salt. Might cause some pain. “And who knows? Maybe it’s injured and I can just lead it on a merry chase all night. Gonna try and talk me out of it?”
“Actually, I was going to see if you had extra gear.”
Kate was half a foot taller than the diminutive rusalka, but they were both slimly-built, so her back-up hunting jacket sufficed. In addition to her kindjal, Natasha carried her sidearm and another baggie of rock salt, as well as her rings—whose purpose she wouldn’t share with Clint. She shook her head when he offered her Kate’s back-up bow.
They were packing away some granola bars and water to take with them when the door opened and Kate strolled in with a bundle under her arm. “It worked!” she said.
“What did? You didn’t try to go after this thing yourself, did you?”
“Of course not. I’m not an idi—oh, you’re planning to do just that, aren’t you? Well, these will help.” Kate set the bundle on the desk and unwrapped it. The bright purple fletching in the arrows he recognized as those belonging to her, but the arrowheads were crude and homemade, composed of what looked like silver. “Just in case pure silver does harm this thing. My aunt left me some supremely ugly candlesticks when she died. Hideous. They’re much better this way.”
“When did you become a silversmith?” Clint asked.
“There was a YouTube video. I figured it out. Where are we going?”
Clint added Monroe Miller’s talisman to the chain on his neck. “If it wants this as bad as I think it does, it shouldn’t take long to start chasing us. We’d better be ready.”
Six hours later, he was seriously rethinking that statement.
“Maybe it’s moved on?” Kate, who’d taken a perch on a low branch, asked.
“Also, you’re really bad at plans.”
Natasha, crouched by a creek a few feet away, looked up to give him a slightly crooked grin. “So far I can’t disagree with her, Sheriff.”
“Everyone’s a critic,” Clint said. They’d hiked, walking steadily through the area for a few hours. Clint hadn’t heard any sign that they were being followed, but he also usually didn’t wander around with the express purpose of getting tracked by not-so-mythical animal-men. So tonight was a bundle of firsts, really.
Natasha’s grin only intensified. She held her hands out over the water, fingers spread like she was holding her hands over a campfire. Clint knew from Wikipedia that rusalki haunted streams and lakes and ponds, so he had to figure this was probably some way of recharging her batteries or something. Either way, he wasn’t going to comment.
“I’m not ready to throw in the towel just yet,” he said. “Maybe it’s taking a nap.”
“It’s a nocturnal creature.”
“That’s why I said a nap, not ‛sleeping,’ duh.” But he was starting to doubt. What if the beast didn’t want the talisman at all, but something else? Would the salt still work while they were away? Natasha hadn’t said anything about it, but Clint realized he had a whole bunch to learn about this new world he’d been exposed to. “Either way, we should keep mov—do you hear that?”
“Showtime,” Kate said, standing. She moved to jump down, but Clint motioned for her to stay put. He wasn’t sure which direction the growling had come from, and if the skin-walker attacked, Kate had a better vantage point.
“Where’s it coming from?” Clint asked Natasha in an undertone, since she was only a few feet away. He pulled an arrow from his quiver and nocked it.
Instead of rising, she stuck her hand in the water. “That way,” she said, and her eyes took on a distinctly yellow tint. “It’s getting nearer.”
“Time to run,” Clint decided, and was about to jerk his head at Kate, to tell her to get the hell out of there when something streaked through the darkness, straight for him. He lifted the bow and fired, cursing when the skin-walker dodged at the last second. Kate’s silver-smithing needed some work, apparently.
In startlingly clear detail, he saw the snarl on the skin-walker’s face as it leapt toward him, claws extended.
Figures, Clint thought, and the skin-walker slammed into a wall.
“What the—” There was a wall in the middle of the clearing where there hadn’t been one an instant before, and even stranger than that, it was made of water. It was slightly opaque, but Clint could see the water streaming along the edges like a living, breathing entity. He gaped for a second.
“Run, idiot,” Natasha said, sounding strained. She was still crouched by the creek, one hand in the water and the other hand extended, directing her—oh, god, she’d built that wall using water and magic. On the other side, he could see the skin-walker, blurry from the water, shake off the hit in a daze. “Run! Now! I’ll catch up, I’m faster.”
“Weirdest day of my life,” Clint said, and took off. He heard Kate drop to the forest floor and streak after him, hot on his heels. He’d taken her hunting so many times that she knew these woods as well as he did, so he wasn’t worried about her getting lost, but he was grateful that she stayed with him. None of them needed to die by skin-walker tonight.
A minute later, he heard Natasha’s footsteps right behind him. “For the record,” she said, “skin-walkers appear not to be too fond of water.”
“That would explain the smell!” Kate called back.
“Giving it a shower would only piss it off more, so I can’t do anything about that,” Natasha said. “Maybe next time.”
“More running, less talking,” Clint said.
Apparently, his plan needed work, as the skin-walker was faster than he anticipated. But if the skin-walker was tracking them, there were two options: either they’d really pissed it off the night before or it did want the talisman. Or both. Clint figured it was both.
He led the way, cutting east. There was an area with bluffs overseeing a small gorge. It was dangerous at night, but Kate was as sure-footed as he was, and Natasha seemed even more so. With those bear-like claws, the skin-walker wasn’t going to have as easy of a time over the rocky bluffs. Or so he hoped. Plus, maybe they could trick it into falling off of a cliff. It might not kill the thing, but it would at least get them a chance to slip away and elude it for a couple more hours.
He heard Kate’s muttered curse when she figured out his plan.
“What?” Natasha asked.
“Hawkeye here is trying to get us to the high ground because he’s nuts,” Kate said.
“Hawkeye?” Natasha asked.
“I’m from Iowa. She thinks she’s being cute.” He cut left behind a copse of trees and heard the others follow. The enraged roar behind them told him that the skin-walker had missed the turn and had had to double-back. Under his feet, the terrain changed from the carpet of fallen leaves to a rocky, barren type of soil. He saw another turn up ahead. “Kate.”
Immediately, she understood what he wanted to do. “On it,” she said, and sped up, reaching behind her to grab Natasha by the arm to haul her along. Clint broke off and ran straight at the boulder, making a leap that made his thighs burn. He wobbled a little when he reached the top. As he swiveled, he snatched one of Kate’s silver arrows from his quiver and nocked it in one smooth motion.
He counted his breaths, thumb on his neck pulse, as he heard the skin-walker racing toward him. For a creature infused with the spirit of animals, it certainly didn’t have that animalistic grace he’d seen in wolves and coyotes and even in Natasha.
And then it crashed into sight. Clint waited for the pause between heartbeats and, praying Kate was right, loosed the bowstring. This time, the arrow flew true. It cut through the air and hit the skin-walker straight in the chest. Clint waited for a scream of pain, a burst of light, any sign that it had worked.
Instead, the skin-walker ripped the arrow out of its chest.
“Shit!” Clint dove off of the boulder and rolled, landing hard so that his quiver bruised his back. Cursing further took too much energy, so he shoved himself to his feet and ran for it, sprinting in the direction he’d seen Kate and Natasha disappear.
They’d apparently stopped running, though, for Natasha had found some kind of stream and had her hand buried in the water, skin glowing faintly. Kate had an arrow nocked but not drawn back. “It doesn’t work!” Clint said, waving at them to keep running. “I’m going to see if I can lure it over the edge.”
“Won’t work,” Natasha said.
Kate pointed. “Stand there.”
“And do what?”
“Be bait,” she said. She’d taken up another perch on a tree branch, crouching with her eyes sharply focused on the trees behind Clint. He’d lost the skin-walker for a moment, but he had no doubt that the creature would soon catch his trail. “Natasha’s got an idea. I think I can do it.”
“You sure about this, kid?”
“Nope, but we’re gonna do it anyway.”
“Okay,” Clint said, standing where bid and drawing one of his regular arrows. “But if this gets me killed, remember you have to be the one to escort Allen Landry to court over those unpaid parking tickets. Because you’ll be the new sheriff.”
“Ugh, don’t remind me. It’s coming, hold still.”
Both of the archers drew back and aimed. Natasha plunged her arm deeper into the stream. Clint didn’t know if she was planning to throw another wall between him and the skin-walker, but he sincerely hoped so. He’d already been clawed to pieces once during this ridiculous juncture. He didn’t relish repeating the experience.
Clint sent a short prayer up to some gods he wasn’t sure he believed in, even though magic and monsters were real, and waited.
The skin-walker burst through the trees, stumbled over itself as it studied the area. When it spotted Clint, it leapt at him a third time. Time began to stumble. Clint was able to study each of the seriously gnarly yellow teeth in perfect detail for one terrifying second. And then he heard the twang of Kate’s bowstring, distorted because everything was happening so slowly.
Like him, she aimed for the heart, and like him, she hit the creature. But instead of simply ripping the arrow out and storming forward in a rage, the skin-walker let out an unreal scream that made the hair on Clint’s arms stand at attention. He watched, dumbfounded, as it collapsed to the ground in a fetal position, curled around the arrow. The horrifying wail continued to fill the air, making Kate clap her hands over her ears. Clint just grimaced.
“Please don’t be playing possum,” he said under his breath, and wandered closer as the wail turned to whimpers. If he’d found the noise disturbing, though, what he saw as he crept up to the beast was even worse: it was melting. Full Wicked Witch of the West melting, its flesh and bones turning to liquid in front of him.
“Don’t touch it,” Natasha said.
“What the hell is it doing?”
“Leaving this realm.” She wiped her hand dry on her jeans as she rose, heading for the body. Her eyes as she studied it were grim. “Sometimes they explode. Sometimes they melt. I prefer the melters.”
“Less likely to get on your clothes.”
“Gross.” Kate hopped down from the branch.
For a moment, all three of them stood over the melting skin-walker, breathing hard from the chase. When the whimpers silenced, Clint knelt and grabbed the arrow shaft that had been embedded in the creature. He held up the bloody silver tip. “How come it worked for you and not me?”
“Natasha figured out the key.” Kate took the arrow back and wiped most of the blood off on the grass. “It’s not silver. It’s inherited silver, like your talisman. The arrows wouldn’t have worked for you because you weren’t the one who got Aunt Clarice’s ass-ugly candlesticks during the Great Bishop War of 2012.”
“Thank god,” Clint said. He stared at the sizzling, mostly melted pile of skin-walker on the ground. “Now what?”
“Now I call SHIELD,” Natasha said. “And they send a clean-up crew.”
The clean-up crew consisted of a genial man in a suit that introduced himself as Coulson, and a couple of geeks. Or at least Clint assumed they were geeks. They’d introduced themselves as Fitz-Elementals-and-Simmons-Blood-Magic, and that seemed pretty geeky to him, like they’d normally be biology or chemistry nerds or something. They wore hipster clothing that you didn’t see out of the city much and he still wasn’t sure which one was Fitz and which one was Simmons. But it didn’t seem to matter, for they were happy to babble at each other without pause—the lady geek really liked his arms, the boy geek didn’t like this so much—until Coulson sent them to go collect the skin-walker remains and then stepped outside to take a call himself.
Clint turned to his deputy. “I would not have expected magic-users to include bureaucrats.”
“Do you think they use parchment for their paperwork?” She looked intrigued by the idea, and Clint again felt guilty that he hadn’t read those Harry Potter books she’d been obsessed with years before. Either way, he’d seen a couple of the movies, so he spent the next couple of minutes speculating with Kate. It made things seem a little less weird.
“I’m afraid,” Coulson said, stepping back into the office, “most of our files are digital.”
Clint and Kate exchanged guilty looks at being caught gossiping.
“But we have quite a few scrolls and other parchment-related items. Deputy Bishop, might I have a word in private?”
“Am I in trouble?” Kate asked, glancing from Coulson to Clint.
The bureaucrat smiled. “Quite the opposite. Is there someplace we can talk in private?”
Kate shot Clint a baffled look as she led Coulson to the interrogation room. Because he had a feeling Coulson would instinctually know if Clint turned on the intercom, he chose to focus instead on finishing out the paperwork on Declan “Monroe” Miller, though he had to leave quite a bit of it blank. Bobbi wouldn’t release the body until she had paperwork and after everything he’d seen, he didn’t really want to cause any trouble for the SHIELD division of the FBI.
Something about the whole thing turned his stomach, but he wasn’t entirely sure what, yet. After melting the skin-walker, they had returned to the office. Natasha had gone back to her hotel room to sleep it off. Coulson and the geeks had pulled up not too long after Clint had arrived at work that morning, exhausted from their late night activities. Though he’d given Natasha completely blasé responses to the existence of mythical creatures, in the open light of day, he wasn’t entirely sure what to believe anymore.
And the regular sheriff duties seemed even duller than they ever had.
Natasha pushed open the door to the office, holding two coffees. One, she set down in front of Clint.
“I thought you went with the nerds to go pick up the remains.”
“No, Sam did that. I needed coffee.”
He blinked. He’d only met Coulson and the nerds. “There are more SHIELD agents here?”
“The entire town is crawling with them, Sheriff. Standard protocol. We have to see if any normals were affected—besides you and your deputy, that is. Luckily, we weren’t dealing with a creature capable of infecting others, but somebody might have seen something they weren’t supposed to.”
“And what happens to them if they did?” Clint asked, wariness rising up in his gut.
“Then our techs will very carefully remove those memories. They’ll just think they drank something or ate bad seafood. It’s perfectly safe.” She obviously caught his skeptical look, for she leaned forward and put her hand on his wrist. She didn’t feel like anything other than human. Her hand was a little warm from holding the coffee cup, but her skin felt smooth. “SHIELD interferes as little as it can. Those people will be fine. We just need to make sure it’s not known to the greater part of the world that magic is real.”
“And what about Kate and me?” Clint asked. He realized that was what had been bothering him; he might not read too much science-fiction, not like Kate did with her vampire novels or whatever, but he knew that when you stumbled across a conspiracy or a monster, you were basically SOL. “What happens to us? Do our memories get erased?”
He really hoped not. He might not entirely understand what she was yet, but he really, really wanted to keep his memories of the woman sitting next to him.
“Well, you had a little too much exposure to erase comfortably, so don’t worry about that.” Natasha took another long sip. “As far as I can tell, SHIELD has two choices. They can buy you off into signing an NDA, or they can hire you.”
“You and Baby Hawkeye, you do good work.” Natasha’s shrug was light and bouncy. “Especially together. She put you straight in harm’s way last night and you trusted her. If I’m not mistaken, Coulson’s in there offering her a job.”
“What? She’s my deputy, she doesn’t belong to the FBI.”
“Oh, c’mon, Clint,” Natasha said, and since she actually used his name, Clint paid attention. “Don’t be boorish. You know working for the FBI is a great opportunity for her.”
It really was. She’d talked a time or two about getting on a bigger force, working her way up to detective. Hell, he’d pushed for that, but Kate had wanted to come back to Stewart’s Point and back to him, working as his deputy. And he’d fought tooth and nail to get her into the budget. The county would certainly be relieved if she accepted a transfer.
“Yeah,” he said, finally. “It’s a great opportunity. Still, it’s a bit weird, knowing that instead of terrorists or white collar criminals, she’ll be facing zombies and undead creatures.”
“You get used to it surprisingly fast.”
“Just like you get used to being an ex-water demon?”
Natasha paused, tilting her head as she considered her words. “That took a little more time.”
“So what’s that like?”
“Being human again after years of drowning guys in a pond.”
“A stream,” Natasha said. “And it...I’ve done a lot of things. I don’t foresee myself ever paying off those blood debts, but working for SHIELD, I can at least make a small dent in the red in my ledger. I have more clarity around water, and my hearing is enhanced, but I am like any other human.”
“Give or take a couple of centuries,” Clint said.
“You’ll be bored,” Natasha said abruptly, evidently growing tired of the subject.
He blinked. “What?”
“If you don’t take Coulson up on the offer he’ll make you when he’s done talking to Kate. You’ll be bored if you stay in Stewart’s Point, and even more, you’ll always wonder.”
Natasha’s lips curved up. “Well, for one, what sort of creatures are out there. If they’re out there now, what they’re doing. If you could help. You’ve seen the supernatural, and it’s not the type of thing that will leave you alone after you’ve been exposed to it. But most importantly of all, you’ll always wonder about one thing, Sheriff Barton.”
He caught himself looking at her lips and very pointedly met her eyes. “And what’s that, Agent Romanoff?”
“If I look as good naked as I do glowing. Oh, look, there’s Coulson. It looks like he’s done talking to Kate. And now it’s your turn.”
Clint made a strangled noise, especially when Natasha gave him that slow, smirky smile as she walked away toward the back to talk to Kate. He couldn’t be sure, but it seemed like she might have put a tiny bit more sway in her hips as she strolled away.
Coulson crossed the room and surveyed him from the other side of the desk. The grin he shot at Clint was knowing and too polite to be lewd. “Need a moment?”
Clint never took his eyes off of Natasha’s back. “If you’re here to offer me a job, Agent Coulson, I’ll save you some time. I accept.”
“I thought you might.” Coulson held out a hand and Clint shook it. “Welcome to SHIELD, Agent Barton.”