It was the dream again. Which wasn’t the most accurate way to put it. More so it was a memory, clouded by her sleeping mind so that a few of the details were hazy and some of the transitions didn’t quite make sense, but otherwise relatively faithful to the truth.
She woke up in a hotel room, which was to be expected on her honeymoon with the vibrant, crazy, brilliant doctor she’d met at a concert in Vegas. What wasn’t to be expected was the sensation of bandages around her mid-section and one of her arms in a cast and a throbbing, cold pain that felt somehow newer, somehow more important than the rest, on her left shoulder.
Nicole, you’re awake, thank god.
She didn’t feel awake, her head foggy with painkillers. She turned a little, bringing resurgent aches to the forefront of her mind when her ribs protested the move.
No, sweetheart, stay still a little longer. You’re not done healing.
There was something about how she said it that seemed strange, noteworthy even.
What happened to me? she asked, mostly, her mouth a little cottony with sleep and morphine.
There was an accident while we were climbing. You’re allergic to thiopental, did you know that?
She shook her head. The words didn’t seem real.
You almost died, sweetheart. I... I panicked. I’m sorry.
For what? she asked.
Her wife’s gaze tracked off her face and slid, guiltily, to her shoulder. She turned a little more to look and found a near perfect semicircle of gouges shaped like teeth, too large, too sharp to have been human and too precise to be animal.
Shae, she whispered, fear fighting through the haze of painkillers, distant but growing more pressing. What did you do...?
I was going to tell you everything, Nicole, I swear I was. It just all happened so fast.
And then pain, silvery and cold in the burning, inevitable way of glacial ice, pulsing and spreading through her blood like fire.
The dream ends the same way it always does. Shae’s eyes, wide and tinted gold in the lamplight and hungry, watching her with a need, a fever, that isn’t real. Isn’t human.
Nicole woke up growling and ravenously hungry. Calamity Jane noticed the disturbance, but the only sign she was paying any attention was an imperious flick of her tail from where she sat in her perch on a carpeted tree that Nicole had shoved into a corner of her bedroom by the window the day she moved in.
She wrestled down the inhuman sound of discontent that was still rumbling in her chest and shook her head to clear off the last bits of dream-memory, like shaking water off her hair. She ran her tongue over her teeth, satisfied that they were the proper shape, and got up, stretching creakily. A quick pat to Calamity Jane’s head earned her a soft purr and a languid blink, and she headed down the hall of her small home to the kitchen to dig through whatever leftovers she still had in the fridge.
The dream was new, since she’d arrived in Purgatory, and felt like some kind of weird punishment to keep her from forgetting the crazy twists her life had gone through in the last five years or so. She’d learned of Ghost River County from some contacts in the... less than human circles Shae had introduced her to, and had been promised up and down that she wouldn’t have any trouble crossing the boundaries of the Triangle. That had mostly been true. She’d crossed physically without trouble, which was a relief, since she’d already had the transfer papers filed for joining the Purgatory police department and it would’ve been hell to explain why she was trying to reverse them. But she wasn’t convinced she’d come across unscathed, exactly, if the repeated nightmare was any indicator.
She pulled leftover Chinese off the bottom shelf and grabbed a fork, leaned against the counter, and started eating. Cold pork lo mein eaten standing in a dark kitchen was hardly the pinnacle of cuisine, but it quieted her grumbling stomach.
Nightmares aside, a little lost sleep wasn’t such a bad trade for a comfortable one-story home out past the limits of downtown where she was just at the edge of the town and the nearest proper suburb, where a soundproofed basement meant that even if her neighbors heard something weird a few nights a month, they chalked it up to wandering suburban foxes or maybe a few of the fabled coyotes that the sheriff kept blaming for some of the weirder deaths outside town.
There her thoughts turned, pivoting back to what she’d been thinking about when she went to bed the night before. Before her shift, she would drop by the bar-and-restaurant a block from the station. She knew she wasn’t the only... weird thing in town—that much had become obvious almost immediately after she got to town. But that raised more questions: what else was here? She hadn’t been here long enough to hit the turn of the month, and she wanted to know what else was local before things got ugly.
And everything she’d heard pointed to two things. First, in the broader sense, was the Earp family, which she’d heard whispers of even before she’d crossed provincial lines. Second, in the specific, was one Waverly Earp, waitress at Shorty’s and, by all accounts, a dang genius at her job and in general. If anyone was likely to have seen some weird things around Purgatory, she was betting it would be Waverly.
She looked at the clock on her kitchen wall, frowning. It was barely five in the morning. She had hours yet before her shift would start.
“Well, Calamity,” she said, if only to hear something in her home other than the creak of pipes and the central heating unit, “Guess I have more than enough time for a run.”
Her cat said nothing, but that wasn’t a surprise.
Nicole tipped the front of her hat down as a few civilians walked by on the sidewalk and muttered polite hellos to her. She hesitated in front of the saloon doors until they’d walked further on down the way, looked over the façade of the building, and then tested the door. It opened, and she slid cautiously inside, looking around at the warm, homey interior. The place was utterly deserted, except for a young woman standing behind the bar to clean. Just as Nicole pulled her Stetson off her head and opened her mouth to say something, one of the taps blasted open, drenching the poor woman in what looked from a distance like seltzer water.
“Gah—geez!” the woman sighed, as she finally got the tap off and slapped her hands down on the bar. “Perfect.”
“I didn’t know Shorty’s had wet t-shirt competitions,” Nicole called out, grinning as warmly as she knew how, running her fingers over the brim of her hat. What had she come in for again? She knew enough to know it was Waverly Earp behind the bar, and she remembered deciding to come talk to her, but for the life of her, looking at that face, she couldn’t remember why. Did she even need a reason beyond saying hello? “You okay?”
“Yeah.” Waverly sighed, grabbing a bar towel and mopping at her shirt. Nicole approached, a little wary, but grinning like the sun. “Just uh, a bit jumpy. Had a crazy night.”
“Sorry I wasn’t here to see it,” she said with a laugh, and offered her hand across the bar. “I’ve been uh, I’ve been meaning to introduce myself. Nicole,” she explained, as Waverly took her hand. Her fingers were a bit sticky, but gripped gently. Deep in Nicole’s chest there was a pull, for just a moment, and she wanted... something. Maybe everything. She imagined pulling Waverly’s hand to her mouth, kissing her knuckles, licking her fingers clean after the accident with the tap. “Nicole Haught.”
“Hi,” Waverly said, the words more a breath than anything else.
“And you,” Nicole continued, finally releasing Waverly’s hand as an afterthought, “Are Waverly Earp. Quite a popular girl around here.”
“Oh you know,” she said, grinning shyly, “It’s all in the smile and wave.”
This close, Nicole could smell her clothes, her shampoo, under a layer of seltzer water. She smelled incredible. It was distracting as hell, put frankly, and after a moment she realized she was staring.
“Could I get a cappuccino to go?” she asked, scrambling for something to say that wasn’t god you’re gorgeous.
“Oh,” Waverly said, and was it just her, or did she sound almost a little sad about it? Probably it was just her. “I’m really sorry, but uh, we’re not actually open yet, so...”
Nicole blinked. She could tell by sound and smell the bar was empty, but she looked around, pretending she’d only just noticed. “Right!” she said, and laughed at herself, spreading her hands. “Okay, my bad. Well, when I see something I like, I don’t wanna wait.”
Waverly watched her, her expression impossible to read, and Nicole froze.
Don’t scare the straight waitress, she thought furiously, and fought the urge to kick herself in the shin.
“And uh, your door was open,” she added hastily. “So...”
“Right,” Waverly said, looking toward the door as if she expected someone new to come barging in. She flipped the bar towel in her hand and dabbed it against her shirt, then sighed. “God, I’m sopping wet,” she said, filling the silence with a self-deprecating good humor that had Nicole laughing way too easily. Down girl. “You know, I keep telling Shorty to fix the darn taps...” She grinned, the expression somehow clumsy, but endearingly so. “I’m sorry, do you mind just, uh,” she raised her hands, shielding her eyes for a moment in a moment of charades.
“Oh! Sure, of course,” Nicole said, and turned to face the door. She waited patiently, her back to the bar. For a moment she tried not to listen, but in the otherwise silent room, it was hard not to. She heard Waverly turn, heard the shuffling of fabric on skin as she shimmied out of her shirt.
The creaking of seams as fabric threatened to tear was almost cacophonous to her ears, and she frowned. She was still trying to work out what was going on behind her when Waverly spoke again, stammering through a soft, “Oh- oh crap, uh—uh, Officer? I’m stuck. So...?”
Nicole turned to look over her shoulder, catching sight of a tangle of cloth, hair, and ensnared arms above an elegant cream bra and miles of soft tan skin.
“Oh!” she said, and hurried around the bar, reaching for the shirt wrapped up around Waverly’s elbows. “Lemme help you. I got you.” She pulled the shirt up and over Waverly’s head, then offered it back to her, trying not to look down at the poor girl’s chest for more than a second.
“Oh god,” Waverly was saying, with a smile that was equal parts uncomfortable and deeply embarrassed, “Good job you’re not some guy, right, or this would be really... really awkward.”
She ducked her head, grinning. This close, with this much exposed skin, Waverly’s scent was overpowering, and for a moment Nicole couldn’t think. Her shampoo was something strawberry, with just a hint of that chemical undertone that came with commercial hair products—her soap was something subtle, enough so that Nicole couldn’t quite pick it out of the mix, especially not with the sticky-sweet scent of the seltzer water still covering most of her skin. But she smelled soft, and clean, and warm, and the animal in her wanted to curl up in that scent and nuzzle against the hollow of Waverly’s throat, to lap at her collarbones and cover her in her own scent to warn off anyone else.
God, Haught, get yourself together, she thought, clawing through the haze of desire and interest and hunger. She’s right in front of you!
“Um,” Waverly added, a moment later. “I, I owe you one.”
“Alright,” Nicole said, and smiled. If Waverly hadn’t noticed her long pause, she sure wasn’t going to say anything about it. “Well, how ‘bout you buy me that cup of coffee?” Good, coffee is safe. “How ‘bout tonight?”
“Oh I can’t, no,” Waverly said, a little too fast. Nicole raised her eyebrows but listened patiently. “I mean, I’d love to. Like. Like to. Uh. But I have plans.” Waverly grinned, and Nicole could smell her anxiety, prickling its way across her skin, as well as something... else. Interest? “Yeah, I’m a planner! I like to know what I’m doing at least two, or, three, days in advance, and...” She shook her head, as if she’d just suddenly realized she was babbling. “I’m in a relationship,” she blurted next. “With a boy. Man.”
She didn’t smell like hatred or anger, and Nicole decided that was good enough for her. Enough, at least, to fight down the jealousy that threatened to sharpen her teeth. “A boy-man,” she mused, and grinned a downright wolfish smile as she started back around the bar. “Yup! I’ve been there. It’s the worst. Okay, well.” She picked up her hat and pulled a slightly dog-eared business card from her pocket. “Some other time,” she offered, tapping the card down on the bar before starting toward the door. “I mean it.”
She didn’t stop until she was outside in the fresh, clean Purgatory air, and she took a few deep breaths, trying to clear out her nose. Instead, all she could think about was Waverly. Waverly with the long, beautiful hair and olive skin. Waverly’s scent and shy, sunny smile lingered on her like a tangible thing, and she found herself grinning to herself, nodding at passersby more openly and more warmly than she usually did. The people in Purgatory tended to be a little closed off, a little wary, and she had decided to take the more careful approach, mimicking their caution rather than trying to overwhelm them with friendly kindness. Especially until she knew what other supernatural creatures called Purgatory home, it wasn’t wise to assume anything.
Other Purgatory supernaturals. That’s why she’d gone into Shorty’s.
“Damn,” she muttered, pulling her hat lower down over her forehead and heading back to the station. “Not my best police work.”
When she got to work the place was at a dull roar of idle activity. Not many civilians around, which she was glad for, without quite being able to say why.
The station was, as it always was, a haze of familiar sounds and smells. The low rumble of voices, the whir of computer fans, and the occasional jangling of cuffs and utility belts as officers wandered from room to room. The bullpen and locker room smelled like gun oil, ink, and the warm, plasticky smell of hot ribbon in an active printer. The other officers tended to smell like fabric softener, boot polish, and their packed lunches (pastrami sandwich, leftover Italian, and a microwave burrito, today); the holding cells like unwashed human and stale beer. The sheriff’s office smelled like cologne, hunting trophies, and the very faint smell of enclosed, burning dust in his computer. Nedley was a great man and an even better sheriff but he wouldn’t know a can of compressed air if one fell on his head.
Today, though, there was something new. Two somethings, in fact. One was a woman—hair product and leather conditioner, gunpowder and whiskey. The other was... something. Something that looked, walked, and talked like a man but had something else under his skin. Something hidden, something trapped, something itching to rampage.
And damn if it didn’t have Nicole’s attention immediately. She’d heard grumblings around the bullpen about the snazzy new cross-border force using up some of the old offices on the western side of the station, but it was the first time she’d smelled them so clearly and it had definitely caught her eye. Or, her nose, at least.
“Mind if I deliver this?” Nicole had asked, picking up a box just as Nedley read the addressee and frowned.
“Be my guest,” he groused. “That Deputy Marshal is a thorn in my side as it is.”
Nicole nodded and took the box, eyeing the label. The plot thickens, she thought, and sauntered down the hall, humming to herself as if this were an utterly normal day.
She knocked on the door for the new “Black Badge Division” offices and let herself in, greeting the Deputy Marshal and the new woman with a falsely bright grin.
“Hey!” she called as she sauntered inside. “Check it out, another piping hot delivery from...” She examined the label as if she were not already familiar with it. “Wow, CSIS.” The Deputy Marshal stepped up close to her, leaning into her space, and the animal in her chafed at the display. “Oh,” she continued, as if she were blind to his leashed aggression. “I’m Nicole, uh, Officer Haught. Y’all getting settled in all right? What is all this stuff?”
It was way too easy to rile up the thing under the Deputy Marshal’s skin, when it came down to it. He had the coiled, tight look of someone who was used to keeping it under control, but her flippant invasion of his private sanctum had him on edge and he was radiating it in waves. She didn’t think his leather-clad deputy could tell, but the growling beast that lived under her skin could smell chemicals and fire and anger and could feel tension vibrating in the air between them.
“Nice to meet you, Officer Haught,” the Marshal said stiffly, and she pretended to smile when he did. “If you ever enter my offices again without knocking, I’ll have you arrested for treason.”
It was the same everywhere you went, really. There’s a reason the popular prefix for the weird and the alien is super-natural, and in Nicole’s personal opinion it was that all the core themes and behaviors you found in normal people were amplified tenfold in the non-normal ones. Wariness and seclusion tactics designed to keep communities enclosed so that no one left and no one entered? Amplified. Fear of the unknown that too readily changes to anger and hostility? Amplified. Posturing and aggression when faced with an unknown threat? Amplified so far it didn’t matter what you had below your belt—male or female or anything else, when you had something to fear from normies and from other supernatural types, you got aggressive, you claimed your space, and you let anything infringing on it know they were unwanted, right off.
Add to that the fact that he smelled like he used eau de sand and death as his cologne—at least one tour in the Middle East, probably Afghanistan, she’d stake her badge on it—and really she couldn’t even blame the guy. He was being hostile, he was marking out his territory, and he was playing it off as something based on security clearance, which was perfect for stealth. Not unreasonable. Hell, she was doing the same damn thing, if a bit more subtly. She just didn’t have a cross-border government task force to hold up her side of the threat. All she had was tooth and nail and a little less than six feet of raw physical presence.
She met his eyes, scanning, looking for any hint of what the hell it was that lurked inside him. Something in her was disappointed he hadn’t lashed out. That would’ve been more fun. More paperwork, but way more fun.
“Okay?” he asked, and she gave him a tense, uncomfortable smile that was in character for the bubbly, friendly neighborhood officer she’d come in as. He hadn’t grabbed her and leashed her, so she was willing to bet he didn’t know what she was either. Not yet.
“Nice to meet you too,” she said, rolling her eyes and spinning on her heel to head for the door.
She let it bang shut behind her and started forward, but she listened, ears pricked for what came through the door. A half second’s pause, and then the woman spoke, sounding utterly unimpressed by his display of alpha male posturing bullshit.
“She did knock, Dolls.” The woman scoffed. “You sure you don’t want to threaten her with death?”
“Penalty for treason is death,” he reminded her. “It was implied.”
Nicole snorted and headed back to her desk. Well, at least she had part of her answer. She definitely wasn’t the only supernatural thing in town.