I have yet to meet a human who can stay still in a sheriff’s office. Restless energy gripped me too, but it didn’t come from the symbols of authority displayed at every opportunity. I avoided scrutiny almost as much as I avoided humans, and there was nothing but scrutiny at the San Juan Island sheriff’s office. Deputies sneaking glances after they read my sign-in credentials. Two lawyers estimating whether I could afford them. A few others waiting, like me, with wandering eyes.
A few nosy humans shouldn’t have rattled me. I’d been around cops, sheriffs, detectives, and even FBI before. Delivered a formal report? Check. Brought in human accomplices? All the time. Filed for special firepower permissions? Every month.
But I had never worked a level-five mission of my own. I’d completed the security training, gone through the background checks, and earned the rarest visa the human world offered my kind. None of it made me feel as confident as working alongside my brother.
We made a great team. I had followed in Lu’s footsteps on plenty of level fives, both on the ground and digitally. He’d had my back on my first two.
Waiting for my first solo five, the paperwork heavy on my lap, all the furtive looks sent my way, I felt like I strained against an anchor dragging me underwater. Memories of Lu’s easygoing humor and constant teasing offered comfort. I pictured shoving his hulking legs over so we would split the three-seater. His exaggerated sigh filled my thoughts. My imagination conjured the bump of his elbow against my ribs in gentle protest. The jut of his knee into my space. His amused grin.
Those memories painted over the unfamiliar silence and stillness at my side and kept me breathing.
I glanced at my watch’s dark screen for the umpteenth time, hoping my brother would text me back before the appointment. It was dumb. I knew Lu wasn’t free. His firstborn was on the way, which was why I sat in the public waiting room alone. So I scanned my texts, tapped my heel on the linoleum, and exuded grumpiness instead of the stoic professionalism my Bear Claw Inc. logo suggested.
“Ma’am?” The deputy at the front desk waved at me.
He nodded and started pointing. “Straight down the hall, then right. The room at the end splits into two offices. Agent Bjerke’s is the farther one. You’ll pass the coffee station on the way. Help yourself.”
I thanked him and followed his instructions, sans beverage. Drinks invited extra chitchat.
A floor-to-ceiling partition bisected the small space I found down the hall. I walked to Bjerke’s door, rapped twice, and waited. A moment of silence. Then, a no-nonsense voice asked me in.
A desk and stacked filing cabinets took up most of the room, although a cheap tapestry picturing a beach, a yacht, and the sunset drew my eye to the windowless wall. Three evenly spaced ridges under the sheet implied the beach scene covered up something else. The computer’s whirring cooling fan could have almost passed for tropical bugs in the breeze. The glare on the half window reflected the screen. Boring red tape cluttered multiple open windows. Everything looked like what I had expected, except the man.
Shifters tended to be larger than humans, so meeting anyone close to my size left an impression. Bjerke’s build rivaled even Lu’s: broad shoulders, big biceps, and huge hands.
He smelled crisp. Lavender permeated his clothes, and I could smell the latte on his exhale. I took a deeper breath. No traces of pets, smoke, or other people in his scent, but fresh mud stuck to his boots.
A wide jaw framed lips a shade of pink that would inspire any model’s envy. With skin that tan, he had to travel somewhere further south. Blue eyes gleamed under thick brows. His nose was pointed, but it fit his roguish smile, which belied the curt voice that had called me in.
The problem was, I couldn’t stand blonds. The blue eyes made it twice as bad.
“I hope I didn’t keep you waiting too long.” His voice echoed Northern California.
“Not long at all.” I unlatched my sealed case and pulled out a thick folder. “Everything you requested—files, IDs, copies of my licenses.”
The agent held my gaze as he reached for it. Instead of taking the documents, though, his hand stretched past the folder.
“Is that traditional?”
His fingers hovered over my silver bracelet. I’d struggled my first time backing Lu on a level five, but I’d made it through with help. My aunt had commissioned the bracelet, so I’d remember not to doubt my strength again. The small etching of a bear paw reflected my minimalist style, though I loved the bracelet most because it concealed a garrote. I’d yet to use it, but just knowing it was there made me feel warm and snuggly, like wearing my own weighted death blanket in public.
“No. A personal gift.” I dropped the folder on his keyboard.
He retracted his hand, still grinning, and started scanning the paperwork.
“I did a little research on you when Mrs. Davenwood filed the paperwork for your job.” Bjerke didn’t look at me, but I had a sick feeling about his suspiciously casual tone. “This is your first level five, right, Ms. T… Tack—”
“Lucky is fine,” I interrupted before he butchered my name further.
“Lucky?” He squinted at the paperwork. “Oh, from Sialuk? Right?” He had kept the ‘u’ short. I got that a lot.
“No, Lucky’s a nickname I got as a kid, and it stuck.”
“That’s cute. How’d that happen?”
He’d leaned forward across the desk, scrutinizing my face. It irritated me. Shifters communicated through body language more than words. Humans did too, they just didn’t know it. Most of the time.
I smiled through my annoyance. “Sorry, I don’t have the time now. I’d like to be on my way as soon as possible.”
“Of course, of course.” Bjerke leaned back in his chair, but his eyes never left mine.
The constant eye contact with someone so oblivious tickled my dominance. Letting part of my hidden magic slip was an egregious breach of conduct.
My bear skin preferred to hibernate when we walked on two legs, but she would rouse if my human half was bothered.
We blinked open one baleful eye at the mere human who’d teased one of our secrets open, and whined at our fragile human ego to be more careful, even in the oblivious human world.
My bear skin promptly curled up, either asleep or ignoring the rest. Good thing. Sharing my consciousness with both halves of my spirit at once took all my focus, and Bjerke was still looking at me like I’d brought him a present.
“The paperwork?” I prompted.
Without a word, Bjerke began reading, but I could still see his grin. It’d gone wide and sated. I didn’t like it, but whatever it meant, he was reviewing the paperwork holding me back from getting out of the station. It also meant no further eye contact.
He read the papers with odd vigor, pausing over all the signatures and initials I’d tagged with sticky tabs. To distract myself from his oddness, I turned to the natural outlet in the room. The beach tapestry was cheap, and the color peeled from the acrid smelling vinyl in the corners where the thumbtacks pinned it to the wall. I stared at the three frames under the tapestry. Curious. Very curious.
“What’s under the sheet?” I asked, despite my desire to limit Bjerke’s attention.
“Hm?” Bjerke didn’t even lift his head.
Huh. I would have sworn his tone dropped three octaves. I asked instead, “I love the beach. Is that where you got the tan?”
His head lifted, presenting a beatific expression and sparkling eyes. “Yeah. I grew up on the ocean, fishing every weekend. Can’t get enough of it. Do you fish?”
I loved fishing, like almost every bear in the sleuth. “I’ll tell you about my first salmon if you show me what’s under the beach sheet.”
My nose sensed the spike in cortisol, my ears the nervous gulp. Bjerke’s head tilted just to the left, and his shoulders went tight.
Interpretation was more important than identification when reading hormones; context meant everything, and I knew little about the agent. All I was sure of was that Bjerke didn’t want me to see what was under the sheet.
Then he surprised me. He let out a burst of breath and scratched his pale blond head.
“Ah damn. Go on.” He waved me toward the sheet.
“What can I say? I’m assuming a bear has some legendary fishing stories.”
I stood and only needed to sidestep to reach the tacks. I spread the sheet over one stack of filing cabinets and gaped at three framed paintings of women, the left half human, the right half wolfish, but bipedal like in human mythology. Symbolic headdresses, skimpy leathers, and bony accessories from jewelry to daggers fetishized the women’s Native American rather than shifter appearance. I disliked the offensive stereotyping, but I did enjoy the violence and predatory instinct in the wolves. I could see the call of the hunt in their eyes, the wild instinct that drew all shifters across the veil and back in their spirit’s other skin.
Though the artistry of the paintings was beautiful—and I begrudgingly admired the technical skill used to portray the werewolf nonsense—they turned my stomach.
Bjerke’s chair rolled back, the desk groaning as he leaned his weight onto it. Then silence. Not even breath. The quiet combined with the intense focus I sensed pinned on my behind unnerved me one notch past polite.
I whirled on the man. “Are you a barker?”
“I prefer enthusiast.”
I glared at him, and his cheeks reddened, but he didn’t look away.
Barkers were a niche subculture of shifter supporters that idolized shifters and their lifestyles. Most barkers I’d had the misfortune of meeting had left me feeling disgusted.
Most barkers also knew about eye contact’s role in kinsense, the body language common to all shifters, and this one still wouldn’t drop his stupid, blue eyes.
I couldn’t look at him without seeing betrayal in that blue.
“I’m sorry if my hobbies offend you, but I at least tried to cover it up just in case,” he said.
“In case of what?”
“Well, frankly, this. You’re freaking out.”
“I am not.”
He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter, but the thing is, I think I get it. Or, at least I’m trying to.” He came around the small desk, eyes entreating understanding.
Neither of us were small. Pressing together on one side of the desk in the cramped room with a barker triggered me. Bears weren’t territorial like wolves, but a lifetime avoiding most people, let alone humans and barkers, made his bulky proximity turn from uncomfortable to challenging. The dominance he’d teased earlier responded on instinct.
My magic hit him through our eye contact. He staggered back two steps, then sank in his chair. He gasped, his eyes blown wide with panic.
A bead of water dripped down my forehead along my hairline. I dropped my eyes, ashamed. I’d worked for years at controlling my dominance. Years. To be so undone by a human, barker or not, was pitiful. My bear snorted in her sleep, judging my human skin for bungling the simplest of tasks.
“Did you dominate me?” Fanatical obsession had replaced the spike of tension in his tone.
And any hint of guilt was gone.
“I didn’t mean for that to happen,” I said. It was close enough to the truth that I didn’t feel like I’d lied.
“So you can’t just… do that?” he asked, still a little breathless.
“What?” I asked, testing how much I’d slipped.
“Mind control.” His speech had a feverish pace that made me roll my eyes.
I laughed. “No. Shifters don’t have mind control.” I chanced eye contact again and put on a gentle smile. Humor was the safest deflection.
“But don’t Alphas—”
“Alphas earn sleuth magic when they are chosen, but none are born with it. And not all Alphas can use it the same way. Some have combat advantages but can’t speak mind to mind. Some can heal, some can intimidate… It always varies.”
“But some Alphas can compel their kin, right?”
“Yeah. It happens. But I’m far from Alpha, and you’re not kin.”
Bjerke grinned. “Bet you could be though if you can do that without sleuth magic.”
“I think you’re fishing because you’re desperate for a unique shifter experience,” I said.
He flinched. “Ouch.”
There was an awkward silence that raised the hair on the back of my neck until an odd expression overcame him. The zeal which had made me uncomfortable vanished from his eyes like he’d flipped a switch. He pushed back from his desk, staying seated, so he maximized the space between us.
“I’m sorry. I know the physical space thing can be more of a problem for some and I wasn’t thinking.”
He, barker and blondie, was apologizing?
“There’s another deputy who’s got preliminary stats with the NSD. She can take point.”
I stared at him, dumbstruck. No barker I’d ever met or heard of had ever let go when confronted, let alone shown any kind of remorse or learning. I’d had to knock out two idiots for the opposite outcome.
“You’d do that?” I asked.
Bjerke stuttered. “Well, uh, yeah.” His eyes narrowed. “I blew it, right?”
“Oh, you blew it,” I said. “This other detective, can she process any procedural requests without getting your authorization?”
“Well, no. I’m the only one who can sign off on it, but she’s a buddy. She’d be the go-between if I asked.”
My first impression of Bjerke had been less than favorable, but my work ethic liked how he’d examined each page of my documentation and not just the stickies. I could acknowledge he’d been honest with me after I’d sniffed out his fetish.
“I’d rather not increase delays in the chain of command,” I said. “Thank you for trying to make this better, but I’m stuck with you whether or not I like it.”
Bjerke, trying to contain his enthusiasm, looked like he was holding in a fart, but I appreciated a pained expression over an outburst any day.
“I promise I won’t mess up like that again. Thank you, Lucky.”
I dropped my voice to a more serious tone. “Wipe that weird look off your face and try that again.”
His face lost color, his mouth going slack.
He was too easy. “I’m kidding, but seriously, if you act weird again, I’ll just go over your head to the state operative, even if it means a little more paperwork.”
Bjerke paused for a fraction, then relief brought his sunny side back out. “That’s not really fair, but I’ll take it.”
I wanted to make a snide remark about how fair life proved to be, but all I managed was, “Good.”
Wow. What bold sarcasm. What scathing verbal banter.
Even Bjerke looked a little let down.
“Well… there was nothing wrong with the paperwork, right?” I asked.
“No, but… well, I wanted to tell you something about your employer.”
Curiosity banished any embarrassment I felt. “Why didn’t you say something earlier?”
“It’s not like there was a great time.” He sounded annoyed for the first time.
“Between me arriving and you trying to learn my life story?”
He paused for a moment. “Can you blame me?”
“Borderline weird,” I said.
“Well, yeah but… Wait, I brought up Davenwood, and you turned it back on me.” His bottom lip stuck out.
Oops. I held my hands up. “I did. You’re right.”
Bjerke looked at me.
I shrugged my shoulders. “What?”
Bjerke sighed. “I get that I’m intense, and I crossed lines. I’m sorry. And I mean it. You sure you don’t want to work with Mary? If every time I say something you’re only going to think about my personal preferences instead of my professional expertise…”
He was right, again. But adding another human into the mix was the opposite of efficiency. I could be the better person for a couple of weeks.
Though I concealed my dominance, it still guided me. I couldn’t stop being someone who looked out for others. And I’d just been rude to him for trying to help me. That he was human, or that I didn’t like him, didn’t matter.
I exhaled, releasing tension in my jaw and shoulders, listening to my instincts rather than the sarcasm that kept my comfortable boundaries.
“You’re right, again. I’m sorry. Can we go outside?”
Bjerke blinked. “Like out on the porch?”
“No.” I pointed through the half window to the unkempt land beyond the mowed property line. “There.”
For once, it helped that he was a barker. I didn’t have to explain.
“I would love to,” he said, and I believed the genuine smile he wore.
I let him walk at my back to convey I trusted him enough to show vulnerability. I ignored what my senses told me about the other people we passed as we exited the sheriff’s office.
As soon as we exited the building, the hum of Earth song filled my ears and my chest, warm and mellow. I only lost my connection with it when I went inside human buildings. Human lands—and cities the worst of all—sucked up the Earth’s mana, polluted it, and spat it back out, muted, disjointed, and tainted. Rotten mana could poison shifters, but as long as I could hear Earth song, no matter how soft, I was immune.
Basking in the tiniest connection with my roots, I marched Bjerke to the fence and hopped over. He followed, but my ears told me with far less grace. I sat under an evergreen nearby.
“No rune?” Bjerke asked, crestfallen.
I didn’t bother sketching any runes into the ground because I didn’t intend to consume mana to replenish the magical stores I needed to shift. I was already full.
“Not now, but maybe some other time.”
Bjerke nodded and sat across from me, far enough that we could both stretch our legs out without touching.
I nodded. “Thank you. This space, so near your office but in nature, is a bit of each of us.”
“Better balance,” Bjerke said.
I hesitated, but nodded. Barker forums were homing in on actual shifter culture. Better late than never, I guessed.
“So Davenwood,” I prompted.
“Davenwood…” Bjerke scrubbed his hands through his frost-colored hair. “You’ve seen the two calls for drunk and disorderly behavior. That’s all public. The second time Mrs. Davenwood got a ride home with a good friend, small and petite like her. They got to talking, and the friend got scared to take her home. Tried to get her to come down here instead. But Mrs. Davenwood insisted she needed to go home. The friend ended up calling the office later. My colleague did a little poking and investigating, but nothing turned up.”
“Anything else?” I asked.
“Depends. About a month after, a very nosy neighbor complained about a nasty fight and maybe more after a loud night at the clubhouse. Deputies responded, and Mr. Davenwood was drunk and aggressive. There were signs of violence, but Mrs. Davenwood was prim, proper, and wearing a very short dress—my colleague’s words. They saw no sign that he’d hit her.”
Domestic abuse wasn’t something the family firm dealt with often. Over ninety percent of our bodyguarding contracts stemmed from the rival business interests common in shifter and human trade. The few personal security contracts we’d taken had all been low risk and high pay, and by then, my digital support had often been remote.
The information stoked my determination, and a slimy weight settled in the pit of my stomach.
“Thank you,” I said.
“If there’s something there, I know you’ll find it. May your lands be ever green,” Bjerke said.
I smiled back at him, all teeth and no warmth. “I’m not calling you ‘my liege.’”
Color drained from his cheeks. “Wait, I didn’t mean to—”
I cut him off. “That’s a formal greeting for hierarchy and higher, not me.”
“I thought it was just a formal saying. I’m sorry. Thank you for correcting me.” Bjerke looked like he wanted to say more, but he only handed me his card. “Here. If you need anything.”
I took the card and held out my other hand. “Till next time.”
His hands were big and warm, callused from work. Just like mine.
“I hope it will be sooner than later,” he said.
I smiled, stood, and hopped back over the fence before mumbling to myself, “Not if I can help it.”