Sneak Peek: Lunacy, Chapter 1

(please remember, this scene is unedited and unpolished)

* * * * * *

“He peed on someone?”

Peasblossom’s high-pitched voice pierced the noise of the morning rush at Goodfellows like a needle through cheap cotton. The group of witches three tables over stopped with their teacups hovering in front of their mouths, their eyes sliding over to the booth where my pixie familiar and I sat with Detective Sergeant Liam Osbourne. Scath was with us too, but my—Friend? Bodyguard?—was in her feline form lounging under the table with her black-furred body pressed against my legs, so she escaped the embarrassment of association.

Across from me, Liam blinked down at the file he’d laid on the table beside his mug of coffee, seeming uncertain of how to handle the pixie who’d wedged herself inside said folder and apparently started reading its contents. His dark brown hair lacked its usual grooming, falling over his forehead with a hint of curl as if he’d gone longer than usual between haircuts. Liam and I had been working together for almost a year—and we’d been dating for a few months. Still, he hadn’t quite gotten used to Peasblossom. Deep blue eyes met mine with an expression all too familiar in those who found themselves with a pixie in their personal space.

A plea for help.

I mouthed an apology at my fellow witches, then scowled as I reached into the gap between the pages of Liam’s file. My fingertips brushed the Peasblossom’s skirt and I seized it in a firm grip before pulling the squirming pixie across the table. A page from the file came with her—stuck to her hand with a glob of the honey she’d been enjoying before her impromptu reading session. I sighed.

“Hey!” Peasblossom tried to swing at me, but the page weighed her arm down too much, so it ended up as a twitch more than anything. “I wasn’t finished!”

I tugged the paper loose from her sticky grip and put it on top of the file folder. “We haven’t gotten to that part. We’ll review the file after Liam tells us what’s going on.”

Peasblossom crossed her arms, multi-faceted pink eyes narrowing. “He’s taking too long to get to it. I’m bored.”

“Eat your honey.”

“I finished the honey,” Peasblossom snapped. Then she paused. “You could get me more…”

“You’ve had enough.” 

“But you just said—”

“I’m sorry,” I said to Liam, raising my voice so Peasblossom would get the hint. “You were saying?”

In addition to being a detective sergeant with the Cleveland Metroparks Police, Liam was also the alpha of the local werewolf pack. He was a large man, but unfortunately for him, size didn’t intimidate pixies. They were smaller than the majority of their enemies, and they’d evolved to compensate. 

And then some. 

Liam kept one cautious eye on the sulking fey as he finished his coffee and set his mug on the table with a deliberate thump. “Peasblossom isn’t wrong. I’m dragging my feet here, and I shouldn’t be.” He dropped one large hand onto the file and slid it across the table toward me. “I need your help.”

“You have a case with a magical aspect?” I guessed, opening the folder.

“Not that I’m aware of. There was a murder last night behind the New Moon property line. The man’s name was Dustin Walters.”

“He was a werewolf,” I said, reading the notes on the first page. “A client?”

“No. And he wasn’t pack, either.”

I kept my eyebrows down with some effort. Liam was asking for my help investigating a murder. A murder with no magical aspect. Liam was a cop and an alpha—and he was good at both. If there was one person in Cleveland I didn’t expect to need the help of a private investigator, it was him. Witch or no witch. 

“A lone wolf?” Peasblossom crawled up my arm, craning her neck to get a look at the page in front of me. “What was he doing that close to New Moon property? I thought lone wolves avoided pack territory like the plague?”

“They do, normally. And even though the forest behind New Moon isn’t legally part of the New Moon property, it’s still pack territory. But Dustin held a grudge, and he liked to express that grudge by coming into the forest and marking territory.” Liam’s blue eyes darkened. “Drove some of our clients nuts.”

“Marking territory means peeing, right?” Peasblossom clarified. “Is that how he ended up peeing on someone?”

Liam held up a hand. “Wait, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let me start from the beginning.”

I closed the folder and lifted my cup of tea, giving Liam my full attention. Under the table, Scath shifted her weight, leaning more heavily against my legs. The steady rise and fall of her chest gave the impression she was sleeping, but I knew better. The sidhe woman was listening. 

“Dustin worked at one of the local substance abuse clinics. Two months ago, he applied for a counseling position at New Moon.”

“Why would shifters need a substance abuse counselor?” Peasblossom interrupted. “I thought drugs didn’t affect you?”

“Most shifters with substance abuse issues became addicts before they were turned,” Liam explained. “And any drug can affect us if you mix it with the right amount of wolfsbane. But getting that mixture right without making it poisonous requires a lot of skill. Shifters that try it end up dead more often than not. It’s what makes addiction in a shifter so dangerous.”

“I take it he wasn’t hired?” I said, gently guiding the conversation back on track.

“He was not. Emma’s been running background checks on new clients and prospective employees. Dustin was a police officer for three years before leaving to get a counseling degree. When Ruth interviewed him and asked him what had made him quit the force to become a counselor, Dustin told her he wanted to make a real difference. He gave her a speech about how prison doesn’t fix any problems, it just makes them worse, and if society is going to improve, then we need to start addressing the underlying issues that feed crime instead of just locking up the people driven to crime.”

I actually agreed with that philosophy, but that wasn’t what this conversation was about, so I didn’t say anything.

“Ruth checked his references at the clinic, and his boss had nothing but nice things to say about him,” Liam continued. “But Ruth knows enough cops to know that anytime someone leaves the force early, it’s best to find out the circumstances. Especially if the person in question immediately moves to a different area after they quit, like Dustin did. She asked Emma to look into it, because in situations like these, if you want the real story from the cops that worked with the person you’re looking into, you need to be a cop yourself.”

“The blue line,” I said.

Liam wrinkled his nose, but didn’t comment. “Long story short, Emma found out that Dustin was ‘encouraged’ to leave. One too many excessive force complaints.”

“I’m guessing nothing turned up in his background check about those excessive force complaints?”

“No,” Liam admitted. 

“So Dustin didn’t get hired,” I prompted. 

“No. But it’s not unusual for shifters to struggle with controlling violent urges, and if he wasn’t taught how to do it at a young age, it can be harder to learn when you’re older. That’s what New Moon is for, Dustin is exactly the type of loner we’re trying to help. So Ruth offered him a place at New Moon as a client. She told him if he completed a program here to deal with his aggression, then she’d be willing to reconsider his application at a later date.” Liam shoved a hand through his hair, letting out a bone-deep sigh. 

“Dustin didn’t take it well,” I guessed.

“He did not. The rejection of employment combined with the suggestion that he needed help was more than his pride could take.”

“Hence going around the forest near New Moon and—”

“Peeing on everything,” Peasblossom supplied.

“Please stop saying that,” I said tiredly. “We aren’t twelve-year-old boys, let’s avoid mentioning bodily functions as much as possible?”

An amused snort under the table confirmed that Scath was, in fact, listening.

“It gets worse,” Liam said grimly. “A few days after Ruth talked to him, Dustin attacked one of his coworkers—a guy named Howard. He did it after work hours, in wolf form, so his employer doesn’t know it was him.”

There was something in the set of his jaw that made my stomach tighten. “How bad was the attack?”

“Bad, but not in the way you might think. Apparently, even before the attack, Howard was…suspicious.”

“Suspicious how?” I asked.

“Suspicious in that he wears a large silver cross around his neck and an iron nail in each shoe.”

This time I let my eyebrows rise. “He knows about the Otherworld.”

“I think Dustin’s attack moved Howard from paranoid to fervent convert,” Liam said, picking up his coffee mug and frowning when he found it empty. “And I think Dustin knew Howard suspected monsters are real. When he attacked him, he didn’t just leap out like a wild animal. He hunted the guy. Scared him. Then he bit him.”

“Did he…?”

Liam raised his coffee mug to get the attention of Alexandra, our waitress. “I think that was Dustin’s intent, but Howard didn’t turn. I checked in on Howard in my role as part of the Wild Animal Task Force. He’d treated the wound with colloidal silver.” He grimaced. “It would have burned like acid. Not many people can tolerate that particular treatment after a bite. If he managed to do it to himself, he’s either a masochist, or his hatred for shifters borders on fanatical.”

The tension in Liam’s shoulders looked painful, and it didn’t ease when he finished telling me about Dustin’s attack on Howard. 

“There’s more.” I didn’t make it a question.

“I think Dustin found out that Emma is the one who dug up the excessive force complaints. The night he was murdered, he texted Emma and asked her to meet him in the forest outside New Moon.”

I sat up straighter. “She didn’t.”

“She did. What’s worse, she broke protocol and met him alone. Security regulations at New Moon state that no one is allowed out into the woods alone—not clients, not employees, not pack. It’s to everyone’s benefit.”

“Not just someone to keep you calm and make sure you don’t do something stupid, but a witness to verify that you didn’t do anything stupid.” My voice came out weaker than I’d have liked. “This is starting to sound unpleasantly familiar.”

“It gets worse.” Liam stopped when Alexandra approached the table with a pot of coffee, letting the pointy-eared waitress refill his mug—and Peasblossom’s honey dish, to my horror—before continuing. “Emma met Dustin and—”

“He peed on her.” Peasblossom made a face. “This isn’t appropriate breakfast conversation.”

“Emma went back inside, showered, and threw her clothes in the wash. She told Stephen what happened and he went outside to confront Dustin.”

“Alone?” I asked, dreading the answer.

“Actually, no.” Liam’s voice lilted upward with surprise. “Stephen went straight to Sam, our head of security, and told them what had happened. Sam went into the woods with Stephen right away, and that’s when they found the body. Dustin was shot in the chest, twice. One of the bullets took out his cell phone in his shirt pocket. We’ve got people trying to recover the data, but so far it’s looking like a lost cause.”

I looked down at the folder and turned the page. “Shot with hollow point bullets. Gun was a .45, but it wasn’t recovered. Evidence of silver dust in the wound.”

“Sam came to me immediately. I talked to Stephen and Emma, and Emma swears she didn’t shoot him.” Liam tightened his grip on his coffee mug. “But she’s got that same look. That same guilty look she had after we found Oliver Dale’s body.”

My mind immediately returned to the murder case that had introduced me to Liam. Oliver Dale had been a horrible man, and a former classmate of Emma’s. He’d managed to bully her into fixing minor traffic tickets and occasionally making harassment complaints go away, using her over and over to escape the legal consequences of his actions. Then one night she’d found him trying to hang someone’s dog in the woods and she’d snapped. She’d shot him, and Stephen had covered up the murder by eating the body. The whole case had been a nightmare, leaving Emma a lost and terrified new shifter, and Stephen a seething mess of bitterness and hatred for his alpha. 

“She blames herself for Dustin,” I said quietly.

“She thinks it was her fault he was rejected as a counselor, and it was that rejection that drove him to attack Howard. Deep down she knows that he’d have been a horrible fit for a position at New Moon—he can’t counsel others if he’s so unwilling to look inward at his own problems. But it’s going to take her some time to be okay with that. And now he’s been murdered—on pack territory, and by all accounts less than an hour after asking to meet with her.”

“Just to be clear…” I put a hand on the file. “You don’t think Emma did this.”

Liam shook his head. “Emma has been working really hard to earn back my trust and to move up in the pack. She still struggles with the idea of a pack hierarchy, but I don’t think it’s malicious.”

“And Stephen?” I asked. “How about him?”

“I don’t know,” Liam said honestly. “He seems to be making a legitimate effort. After his attempt to leave following the debacle with Kristine, he seemed to have some sort of epiphany. He asked to be broken down to the bottom of the hierarchy—treated as if he’d just joined the pack. He said he wanted to experience what it was like for a new wolf—to remember what it was like to start from the bottom.”

“You think he’s trying to put himself in Emma’s shoes?” I asked.

Liam considered the question, staring down at his coffee mug as if the answer would materialize on the surface of the dark brown liquid. “I think he might have finally heard me about what it takes to be an alpha. I think he’s asking himself what a pack needs, and he’s figuring it out by putting himself in every position there is.”

“That sounds like a really good thing,” I said. “But you don’t sound happy.”

Liam rubbed a hand over his face. “I want to believe it’s sincere, but Stephen has cried wolf one too many times, if you’ll forgive the expression. I just… I can’t trust him yet.”

I pulled the file closer, flipping through a few of the pages. There were photographs of Dustin lying on the ground. He’d been shot in human form, so he was still fully clothed. He’d been a medium-sized man, with enough bulk to suggest he might have been a fervent gym-goer at one time. A layer of fat covered his muscles now, and I wondered if that was a decrease in physical activity, or depression. Possibly both. 

I glanced up at Liam. “Can I ask you a question?”

Liam sighed. “You want to know why I’m bringing you in on the case.”

“I’m happy to help,” I assured him. “Goddess knows you’ve helped me enough times. But this is a murder right in New Moon’s backyard. This investigation is going to involve not just your pack, but your clients. I can’t help but think that having me involved might—”

“Ruffle someone’s fur?” Peasblossom suggested around a mouthful of honey.

I shot her a look, but let the question stand.

“I need your help for two reasons,” Liam said. “First, this case is going to involve not just my pack, but also a few lone wolves. Lone wolves are notoriously loath to speak to pack wolves, let alone provide information about one of their own. The fact that Dustin was a lone wolf and killed so close to pack territory is going to make everything…tricky. They’re more likely to talk to you.” He glanced down, toward where Scath lay under the table. “Or Scath.”

“And second?” I asked.

This time, Liam took a long minute to answer. 

When he did, each word sounded as if it had taken a supreme effort to pull it from his mouth. “Apparently, part of Stephen’s quest to understand what it takes to be an alpha led him to ask my sister about our father. Specifically, our father’s relationship to me, and how he handled it when I left his pack to start my own.”

I shot Peasblossom a warning look not to interrupt. Liam rarely talked about his father, and it didn’t take a witch to know there was a lot of pain there. If Liam was in the mood to share, I didn’t want any interruptions.

“His questions prompted Brenna—in all her counselor-fueled goodwill—to attempt to…repair our connections with our father. She started calling him, trying to build bridges.” He leaned back in his seat, dragging his coffee mug across the table. “He’s coming to visit today.”

It sounded to me like a visit from his dad would be a tick in the “don’t involve Shade” column, but I held my tongue. 

“My dad wasn’t happy when the Vanguard awarded the New Moon contract to me,” Liam said. “He… Well, let’s just say he and I differ a great deal on what constitutes a strong pack. In his eyes, giving me the New Moon contract has essentially created a warehouse where I produce weak wolves and send them out into the world where ‘strong’ packs like my father’s have to ‘reeducate’ them.”

“I don’t like anything about that last sentence,” I said before I could stop myself. 

“You shouldn’t.” Liam leaned forward again. “Look, I’m sure my father is going to do everything he possibly can to cause trouble for me. And this case,” he gestured at the file, “is too important to risk letting something slip by me because I’m busy putting out my father’s fires. You worked the last case with Emma, you know her and Stephen’s history. The lone wolves will talk to you. And more than that…I trust you.”

I couldn’t help the smile that spread over my face. Liam and I hadn’t met under the most ideal circumstances, and our professional relationship got off to a rocky start. Rocky enough that the mutual attraction and romantic feelings that had grown between us had caught me off guard. As pleased as I was with how things were going, him asking for my help with this case felt like a huge step forward. He trusted me. Not just with his feelings. With his pack. His family. I reached out a hand to him, and he laid his larger hand over mine and squeezed. 

“If this is such a bad time for your father to visit, then why not reschedule?” I asked.

“My father is a control freak. When he announced he was coming to visit, he did so after telling me that a member of his pack needed to check in to New Moon. Her name is Danielle, and apparently she’s developed an addiction to pain medication—an addiction serious enough that she’s almost killed herself twice with too much wolfsbane. I can’t turn her away, or I’d risk losing the Vanguard’s contract.”

“So he’s using her as an excuse to get in the door.” I frowned. “The way you talk about your father… He doesn’t sound like the sort to build bridges. If he’s that bad, then I’m not sure why Brenna would risk bringing him here?”

Liam shifted in his seat. “My father was softer toward Brenna than anyone else. Partly because she’s a woman, which makes her automatically less of a threat in his eyes. And Bren was always a good, obedient daughter, which pleased him. He looks at us as extensions of himself, and when Brenna showed an interest in counseling—caretaking, if you will—my father considered it a perfectly acceptable route for his daughter. Between you and me, I think he viewed psychology as another means to control people, but that’s not how Brenna interpreted his support. I know for a fact the reason he let her leave with me without making a fuss was because he saw her as loyal to him. A sort of wolf in the hen house, so to speak.” He lifted his coffee mug. “I’ll admit, I did my best to protect her from the worst of him. Maybe that was a mistake. Maybe I should have let her see who he really was.”

“It can be hard for children to see their parents’ shortcomings,” I said gently. 

“Well, she’s older now,” Liam said, straightening his spine. “I’m not going to protect her from the truth of him anymore. It won’t take long for her to see his true colors. Even without her training. It’s just unfortunate that the path to that enlightenment gave Dad the opening he needed to shove his nose into my business.”

I kept my thoughts from my face. I hoped Liam was right. I hoped Brenna would see their father for who he really was. But part of me knew better. Denial could be a much more powerful force than most people realized. And there were few truths harder to face than admitting someone you love is a monster. 

“Does your father know about the murder?” I asked, steering the conversation in a new direction.

“As an alpha, he has access to police reports involving shifters. If he doesn’t already know, he will soon.” He leaned forward. “Shade, I need this murder solved quickly. My father isn’t someone who misses an opportunity. Emma killed once before, and she got away with it on a technicality. If he can pin this on Emma, prove she killed again, this time while under my watch, he could file an official complaint with the Vanguard to have my contract revoked.”

“And that would be the end of New Moon,” I said quietly.

Liam gritted his teeth. “That’s the best case scenario if I lose the contract. The worst case is my father manages to make an argument for taking over New Moon himself. He could turn my rehab center into a factory for turning out more wolves just like him.”

Peasblossom’s wings twitched. “You make that sound like a very bad thing.”

“Wait till you meet him,” Liam said, his voice going cold. “Then you tell me.”