Nicole was not, as a general rule, a gossip. She didn’t like hearsay, and she didn’t like the way people talked about each other when they weren’t present. She found it distasteful, unprofessional, and, well, rude. But when your ears are good enough to pick up dog whistles, you overhear things.
It was part of why she’d wanted out of Calgary. She’d loved the city, before Shae, but now it was just too... much. Too many sounds, too many smells. She couldn’t get anything like restful sleep, not when she could hear a bus rattling over grates a block away or smell someone burning toast two floors up from her apartment. Not when she could smell the territorial mark of every dog that had crossed her block all afternoon and hear someone talking on their cell phone from halfway down the hall. The city was alive, night and day, and where once that had made her happy, to live in such a big, vibrant place, now it was overwhelming to the point of paralysis.
So she’d kept her ears open and looked for smaller towns that were big enough to hide supernaturals but small enough to avoid the clutter that came with densely packed humans.
“Purgatory? Folks say it’s cursed,” Mike had muttered, spinning poker chips through his fingers.
“So am I, now,” Nicole had said with a wolfish smile, as she laid down two pair.
Purgatory was pretty much exactly what she’d been looking for. Small, but not so small that outsiders would never be accepted, and just friendly enough to the supernatural crowd that a lone oddball like her could hide in plain sight, at least a little.
Plus, the Purgatory Sheriff’s Department had a couple job openings. Something about a higher-than-average casualty rate for officers.
But it was still a small town.
And in small towns, people talk. A lot.
So, regardless of her opinions on gossip, overhearing people talking was how Nicole learned that Waverly Earp’s father had been shot dead 15 years ago, the same night the eldest Earp daughter was carried off into the woods and later presumed dead after a prolonged search. It’s how she heard that the middle daughter, Wynonna Earp, had been the one to shoot the drunken bastard, and that presumably the grief and trauma had been what made the girl, who had been 12 when she shot their father, “lose her damn mind.” A couple years later she’d been institutionalized after she claimed the house had been overrun with demons. It’s how she’d learned that after Wynonna was discharged, she and Waverly got shuffled around in the system a few times until they ended up with Curtis and Gus McCready. Every time she heard the story she noted that Gus’ name was spoken with respect and familiarity, Curtis’ with reverence and sympathy for the recent dead, and Waverly’s with affection and warmth.
Wynonna’s name, however, was spoken like a curse, spat out fast and avoided as much as one reasonably could without making conversation too confusing.
The gossip was also how Nicole learned that Wynonna was back in town ever since Curtis’ funeral, that she had somehow, to everyone’s utter bewilderment, been deputized by the visiting Deputy Marshal, and that she was living on the Earp Homestead outside town again. It was how she learned that Wynonna was generally not well-liked, for reasons that sounded sensible but also smacked of small-town small-mindedness, and that most everyone in town was just waiting for the day Wynonna snapped and killed someone else, or got sick of the charade and left town again.
And, last but not least, it was how she’d learned that, to Purgatory’s continued general confusion, Waverly was going to move back to the Homestead with her sister, and had spent the last day or so packing up all her stuff that she kept in the little apartment above Shorty’s. And as a related point, she had learned that Champ Hardy had no end of negative things to say about the move, but not anywhere where Waverly might hear him grousing about it.
This last had Nicole biting down throat-rending growls all morning as she struggled to pay attention to the radio. Waverly was her own woman and could make her own choices, and while her opinion of Champ meant about as much to Waverly as a ruffled bedskirt meant to Nedley, she didn’t like the man. Boy. Whichever. Still, the fact that Nicole thought he was a brute who didn’t deserve Waverly really was a personal problem, and it was not something for her to get worked up over. Certainly not something for her to get so worked up over she almost snarled openly at a new recruit who bumped into her on his way out of the kitchen.
Dispatch finally pulled her attention, a short but gruesome report crackling over the radio. She listened, got on the wire to ask a couple clarifying questions, and then frowned, taking her notes and knocking on Nedley’s door.
“I swear, Lonnie, if this is about the coffee in the kitchen again— oh. Nicole.” He brightened considerably to see her, but then took one look at her face and frowned. “Door. Lemme see it.”
She closed the door and handed over her notes. He looked them over for barely more than 30 seconds while she shifted from foot to foot, itching to do... something. She wasn’t sure what. His mustache quivered as his frown intensified, the lines around his mouth and his eyes deepening until he seemed to have aged about 10 years in a single minute.
“Get Dolls on this,” Nedley said, his voice low.
“You sure, Sheriff?” she asked, matching his tone.
“I don’t like it, but I don’t have to.” He grunted. “This is definitely bigger than us.”
“Consider it done, sir,” she said, and nodded, heading back out of his office.
She hesitated outside the Black Badge office door. It wasn’t her intent to eavesdrop, but there was a new voice inside that made her pause.
“These will be great resources,” she heard Dolls say, his voice actually showing a trace of real gratitude, not just robotic disinterest.
“Sorry, uh,” said a lighter, familiar voice. Nicole’s heartrate skipped, then doubled. Waverly. “I spent years on that research, so...”
“Welcome to Team Shut-Up-and-Do-What-He-Says,” Wynonna countered, and there was a pause so long and mocking Nicole could practically see the wry smile on her face. “Sometimes we get donuts.”
Nicole knocked and paused, remembering Dolls’ hissy fit from the last time she’d been at this door. Beyond there was a moment of shuffling paper and creaking hinges, as of things being shoved out of sight, and then Dolls’ shoes clicked once.
“Enter,” he called, and she opened the door, staying near the doorway.
Wynonna was lounging against the table, one knee propped up on a chair and a powdered donut, of all things, in one hand. Dolls stood near her, at parade rest, his attention turned toward the doorway to watch her.
Waverly sat on the edge of the table in an awkward half-lean, as if she were trying to block some of the stacks of files from view. She didn’t smell like seltzer water this time, but sun and clean mountain air and a hint of coffee.
Nicole blinked and pushed it aside, locking her eyes on Dolls. “Hey,” she said, her tone low to keep anyone in the hall from hearing. “You asked to be alerted whenever things come over the wire that seem...” She paused, as if looking for the word she wanted. “Unusual?”
“Yeah, we’re coming,” he said lightly, then turned back to the table. “Waverly, you’re dismissed.”
Waverly made a faint sound that might’ve been acknowledgement and looked away from him, her gaze flicking to the floor, then to Nicole.
She smiled. She couldn’t help it—who wouldn’t smile under the attention of Waverly Earp? Out of the corner of her eye she saw Dolls’ gaze track between the two of them, but she couldn’t make herself care about that. She ducked out of his way when he left the room, and shut the door behind him with one last grin at Waverly. Behind her she heard the two Earps start talking, but she kept pace with Dolls and led him back to her desk, scooping up the file and leading him to another small office. This was not something the entire department needed to know. She shut the door behind them.
“So what are we looking at,” he asked, his tone just as dry and professional as ever.
“Deputy Mayor,” she said, handing him the file and pulling up photos from the scene on a projector. “He was killed at the time capsule ceremony in the city earlier today. Fileted like a salmon.” She flicked through the photos for him. She half-expected him to level her with that flat, uninterested expression of his and question why she was telling him about it, but he just nodded slowly, taking in the photos. “Shirley Dixon’s journal was removed from the time capsule, but witnesses indicate nothing else was taken.
“And there’s another thing,” she added, opening a different folder on the computer to pull up a bit of security footage. “Bus stop in the city. Came in a few days ago. We were working on it, but Nedley and I think it’s connected. How’s your stomach?”
“It’s fine,” he said drily. “Go ahead.”
She nodded and hit play on the video, letting him watch the dismemberment twice through.
“Send me these files,” he said.
It wasn’t a request, it was a demand, but she bit down a surge of frustration and nodded. “I sent them before I knocked on your door.”
He looked at her, his expression difficult to identify.
“That’s all I’ve got,” she said, shrugging one shoulder. “But if anything else comes in seems like it could be even remotely related I’ll forward it to you. We’ve been running the database to see if our knife-wielding friend from the bus stop pulls any matches, but it’s slow-going. I’ll give you whatever we find on his priors.”
Dolls nodded, evidently satisfied, and crossed his arms over his chest with the folder tucked beneath one elbow.
“So tell me, Officer Haught. What’s your game here.”
She frowned at him, wary, and kept part of her attention on the set of his shoulders and the positions of his feet. The door to the room was still shut and she couldn’t see anyone beyond it through the frosted glass, but that was both good and bad.
“Beg your pardon?”
“Your game,” he repeated, sounding almost bored. “What is it, you’re in here so you can stay one step ahead? Hide your tracks?”
Fear trickled down her spine. “I don’t know what you’re—”
“Skip it,” he said, his tone turning just a bit more sharp. “Save us both some time.”
She felt her lip pull back from her teeth for a moment in a sneer, stifled it, and stepped closer to him. She didn’t get in his face, but she came close enough that even with her voice very, very low he could hear her clearly. “Let’s get one thing straight, Dolls.”
His tone was icy. “Deputy Marshal Dolls.”
She ignored him. “I didn’t ask for this,” she said, watching his eyes. “I didn’t exactly have a chance to work it into my career choice.”
He was watching her in return, and she wondered if he thought he could sense when people lied to him. “Late bloomer,” he said.
“Sure, if that’s the BBD slang for it. But I took up my badge to protect and serve. And until a day comes when I can no longer do my job, I’m doing it. I would prefer to do so without watching over my shoulder for foreign feds, but if I have to, I’ll disappear before you can radio your bosses.”
For a long, long moment he said nothing. He just stood there, watching her face. She tried to think nonviolent things, but she could smell her own fear, cloying and trembling, just as easily as she could hear the beat of his heart. It was a bit too fast, but she’d give him credit—other than that, he seemed utterly calm.
“I see,” he mused. “And I guess it doesn’t hurt that you won’t need a bulletproof vest until someone brings silver-jacketed rounds on you.”
She stepped backward slightly, her weight shifting to give her more time to run if he pulled something.
He didn’t. He just gave her a very cold smile. “I’ve been reading up on all these ‘coyote’ murders. If any of them match—”
“They won’t,” she said coolly. “Seeing as I only got here a couple weeks ago. Check the lunar charts if you like.”
“And next week?”
“Day shifts. At night I’ll be in my basement. Like I said. Protect and serve. Including from myself.”
He watched her closely. “Wolf pelts are valuable to my superiors,” he said, his tone light, almost casual.
She stuck out her jaw and raised her chin in open defiance. “I’ve been looking through the fire marshal’s filings. Been a couple bizarre, secluded arson cases since you got to town. I can make your time here very difficult before I ghost.”
That, she thought, gave him pause. “Arson.”
“You smell like sulfur and butane, Deputy Marshal. And I’ve learned to trust my nose.”
There was another long, tense silence as they eyed each other. She thought maybe he was sizing her up. Not knowing exactly what he was put her at a disadvantage. She was no Black Badge agent trained to fight supernaturals, but at least knowing would’ve given her an edge—the same edge he had on her, by knowing what she was.
“Let’s talk truce, then.”
She narrowed her eyes, not bothering to hide her wariness.
“Extra suspicion on me by the locals just means that BBD nukes this town from orbit to keep the supernatural stuff quiet. All of it. I’m a footnote to them.” He said it mildly, but she frowned. He was giving her a lot of information, and she didn’t think for a second he was doing so unintentionally. “So here’s the deal. I make sure your containment measures are up to code, and as long as I’m satisfied, no one up my chain finds out about your... furry little problem,” he said, his expression neutral, neither friendly nor hostile. “And in exchange, you keep your mouth shut and your ears to the ground. You hear anything that sounds like our side of the street, you make sure I hear about it before Nedley does.”
She growled, the sound low, quiet, but unmistakable.
“Haught,” he said, and though his voice didn’t have the quiet lingering weight of a threat, it had the absolute severity of a warning. “I’m here to contain and control, before my superiors decide the only good Purgatory is a dead Purgatory. And when they get involved, it won’t matter if it’s not silvered. You read me?”
She eyed him. “I read you. Not sure I trust you, but I read you.”
He grinned, and for a moment, he looked so human and ordinary it took her aback. “You don’t have to. But, since we’ve each got boots at our throats, might as well embrace the nihilism of mutually assured destruction.”
She frowned at him. “Deal.”
“Good. I’ll check your place over lunch, after I catch my deputy up to speed on this time capsule thing.”
She watched Wynonna leave first, wandering out through the hall with a pensive frown on her face and muttering something to herself about tequila. Dolls followed, jacket in hand, and Nicole got up from her desk with a slight frown.
“Uh, she all right?” she asked, bobbing her head to indicate Wynonna.
“No,” Dolls said and rolled his shoulder in a half-shrug. He said it so flatly that Nicole blinked and stared at him, trying to decide if he was joking. “Ready?”
“Uh,” she said again, the picture of eloquence. “Yeah, sure. We’ll take my cruiser.”
He looked like he wanted to argue, and she decided that it really didn’t surprise her that he was the type of person who didn’t like entrusting himself to someone else’s driving.
“I’m on shift still,” she told him flatly. “We’re taking my cruiser.”
He narrowed his eyes, but raised his hands in a gesture of surrender, or at least of grudging acquiescence. She led the way out to her car.
Dolls said nothing for the entire drive out to her home, which was neither surprising nor particularly uncomfortable. Fear was still draped around her shoulders like a stole, but it was down to a manageable level. It was still possible he was planning an ambush, but she didn’t think so. She didn’t smell the tension or hear the rapid heartbeat of someone preparing treachery. He’d gotten into her car and agreed to go to her house—her home turf—and while he could have ordered a squad to be ready around her place, there hadn’t been enough time for them to get into position before they’d arrive.
Plus, Dolls didn’t seem quite so full of leashed rage today as he did the first time they’d spoken. She wondered if he really was being straight with her, and just liked having a job in front of him. Maybe he was easily bored. There was something that seemed right about that, and also somehow amusing.
“Here,” she said simply. She pulled into the driveway and he looked over the front of the house, eyes narrowing. “Chill,” she added as she got out. “Like I said. It’s in the basement.”
He grunted, satisfied, and got out of the car, watching the corners of the house, the door, the windows.
“Mind my cat,” she said as she walked up the front steps and dug her keys out of her pocket. “She doesn’t like men.”
He said nothing, but as he walked inside she could smell his rising anxiety and hostility. She stepped aside and gestured for him to enter, waiting patiently in the entryway as he scanned the main level of the house. He moved with military efficiency, clearing each room, his pistol drawn.
“You done?” she called after him, when he’d made a circuit and returned to the living room. He frowned at her, but holstered his gun. “I live alone, other than Calamity Jane.”
He blinked, then looked to the side where she pointed, noting the ginger ball of fluff perched on the highest bookshelf in the room. Calamity Jane was watching him with wary, subdued hostility.
“Figured you were being sarcastic. How do you keep a cat?” he asked. “Thought they didn’t like shifters.”
“I had her long before I was bitten,” she said with a shrug, pocketing her keys and heading to the far wall. “So she puts up with me well enough, at least as long as I’m, oh, 80% human or so?”
He was quiet for a moment, watching her move an armchair aside. “An early warning system,” he said.
“Basically,” she said, and with a last grunt of effort shoved the armchair far enough over that a wooden trapdoor was visible and accessible. “When she starts hiding from me, I figure it’s time to hunker down.”
“Not a bad system,” he said, and she looked up at him.
“Careful Dolls, that almost sounded like praise,” she said. His expression immediately soured.
“It’s Deputy Marshal—”
“Yeah I know,” she said. “But you’ve been calling me Haught all day and I refuse to be on a titles-only basis with a guy who’s seen my secret dungeon of a basement, all right?”
He pressed his lips together into a thin line and said nothing for a moment. “Fine.”
She grinned. “Maybe hanging out with the Earp is good for you.”
He ignored her and crouched down beside the door, testing the hinges. He slid a short wooden beam back and forth, examining the old crossbar-style lock. He pulled it open, then let go and watched it spring back into place.
“Solid construction. This lock on the trapdoor is a good detail.”
She shrugged. “It’s easy enough to open with a crowbar or a screwdriver from below, but not so much with brute force. My...” She frowned, searching for an appropriate word. “The one who bit me didn’t believe in chains. I had to put a lot of thought into it, and quick.”
He nodded and gestured with a hand. She slid the crossbar aside, opened the trapdoor, and stepped down into the mostly finished basement beneath her home. The space was already a modest size, but the floor space was limited further by thick soundproofing foam and a steel cage that dominated half the space, on the opposite side from the trapdoor.
“Talk me through this,” Dolls said, running his fingers speculatively over the foam and pacing a circuit of the room.
She shrugged uncomfortably. The sound of his voice was deadened slightly by the soundproofing, and the air felt too close, a little stale.
“Cage has two locks. The primary is electronic, and set on a timer. Won’t release until the sun’s up. The mechanical lock is a failsafe for if there’s a loss of power and the backup generator fails. The mechanical lock and the bars are a steel/tungsten alloy.”
“Keys for the mechanical lock?” he asked, circling the bars and tapping his fingers on them experimentally.
She pointed to a nail in the unfinished ceiling. “Hang up there.”
He frowned, following her finger. “Seriously?”
“The bar spacing in the ceiling is tighter so I can’t get my paws through,” she explained. “But it’s possible, barely, to get up and through when I’m me. Worst case scenario, I can stretch through and get them down to unlock myself that way.”
Dolls did another circuit of the room and kicked at the bars, examining the joints.
“It’s good work,” he said finally, dispassionate.
She sighed, more relieved than she’d really expected to be. “Yeah?”
“It’s acceptable,” he said, nodding absently. “Do you change outside the full moon?”
She blew out a breath. “I try not to make a habit of it.”
He looked at her, his expression neutral again. “Why’s that?” There was something about how he said it that made her think it wasn’t part of the checklist. Like it wasn’t something he needed to know, but maybe that he actually wanted to know. It didn’t tell him anything about her kill count or her cage, but it told him how she thought about it. What she believed.
So, she thought about her answer with a little more care. She thought about how it would feel to run as fast as the wind, to leap so high and so far it felt like flight. To feel the wind in her fur and snow crunching beneath her paws as she let herself be free in that feeling, in that moment. To live that, just for a little while. To feel that alive, that vibrant, that powerful.
She shuddered, but not from fear or revulsion. God, she wanted it with a desperation and passion that terrified her.
“Mostly because up until now I was in cities, and it’s really hard to explain that one on the evening news,” she said, a little slow, a little careful. “And I knew that if I did it more, got used to it, got comfortable, it would be easier and easier to do it again, even if it was risky. If I got hooked on it...” She shook her head. “That was an unacceptable risk. If it got like that, it’d only be a matter of time before I slipped up.”
“And what about now that you’re out here?” Dolls watched her, his eyes intent with an emotion she couldn’t name. Something personal, something that was too important to answer flippantly. Something that had nothing to do with Black Badge and everything to do with whatever this deal, this... connection, was between them. “You’re not in a city anymore, Haught.”
“I don’t know. Maybe.” She let out a slow, measured breath. The animal of her wanted it. Wanted it so badly that just giving voice to the possibility, the option, felt like surrendering to it. She could feel it itching to act, to run, to change. She shook her head, pushing it down. Not now. “There’s enough secluded forest out here, that... maybe.”
Dolls was quiet for a bit longer, watching her. His hands were loose, hanging at his sides, like it would be as easy to pull his gun as breathing, but he wasn’t radiating hostility anymore. Just a calm focus that she remembered having once, before Shae, before the bite. A total evenness of intention and emotion. There was part of her that loved the animal, but there was part of her that missed that quiet, all too human calm.
“My goal here is to keep Black Badge from turning Purgatory into a crater. Ordinarily, I would hand you over to BBD and call it a day.” Her nerves jangled like struck wind chimes and she let out a warning growl before she could stop herself. “But,” he said sharply, raising an eyebrow at her until she dropped her gaze and shut her mouth, “I’m a man of my word. I can’t deputize you without drawing a lot more attention, not with them already watching me like hawks about Earp. So while you are technically not under my protection, what you do safely isn’t really my concern. As long as you’re locked up under the moon, we have ourselves a deal.”
He held out a hand and she stared at it for a moment as if she had never seen a handshake before. This was not remotely what she had expected when she’d come to Purgatory. Hell, it wasn’t what she’d expected when she woke up this morning.
“All right,” she said, and stepped forward, clasping his hand in hers and shaking.