They were halfway through their second round when the noise level suddenly rose and a current of excitement seemed to crackle through the crowded room.
Erikson sat up in his chair. “It’s starting,” he said excitedly, nodding at one of the TVs hanging over the bar.
The women’s volleyball game that had been onscreen when they walked in was replaced by a burly sportcaster standing in front of the distinctive Rock Springs arena where USFC fights were held.
Nick immediately perked up. “The Slater-Cross match!” He couldn’t believe he forgot. “No wonder it’s so packed.”
Erikson nodded eagerly. “They’re livestreaming the fight. Why do you think I suggested we meet here?”
Nick flashed him a grin. He knew he liked Erikson for a reason.
A frown flickered over Tom’s face, then cleared as he glanced around. “No humans here tonight.” He nodded approvingly.
“You know Caleb better than that.” Erikson gestured dismissively, his eyes glued to the intro highlights flashing on the screen. “Billed it as a private event. Bouncers sniff ’em out at the door. Hoo ya!” He hooted at an old shot of Conrad Slater in his glory days pulling a kimura. “I was at that fight! You could hear O’Malley’s bone snap from the second row!”
“It’s Slater’s first fight since he came out of retirement,” Nick informed Tom. The Captain didn’t keep up with the sport but you didn’t have to be a superfan to have heard of Conrad Slater. The man was a legend.
“Ah.” Tom nodded. “Think I heard about that. Who’s the other guy?”
“Dante Cross,” Erikson said. “Five-time USFC champion. Last year he went unbeaten.”
“Last year Slater was still in retirement,” Nick pointed out.
“Exactly.” Erikson smiled gleefully and rubbed his hands together. “It’s going to be a bloodbath.”
The room buzzed with excitement as the first of the two smaller matches before the main event began. Nick sipped his beer as the fighters circled each other warily on the screen.
“Ready for another round, boys?” The waitress materialized beside their table with a flirtatious smile. It widened when they all nodded. “How about some menus?” She looked right at Tom. “Big guys like you must have big appetites.”
The plural was clearly for show because Erikson was not a big guy and it wasn’t Nick she was eye-fucking like a newly mated wolf bitch under a Blood Moon. Tom cleared his throat under her hot, hungry gaze and adjusted himself under the table.
Nick snickered, not quietly enough. Tom didn’t look at him but Nick could read his expression: Challenge accepted. He grinned as Tom leaned back in his chair and swept a lazy look over the waitress, lingering on her long bare legs and the curves of her breasts before returning to her face.
He nodded slowly. “I could eat.”
Erikson’s grin just about split his face when the waitress walked away. “Looks like your Captain’s going to be indulging himself tonight after all,” he told Nick, who was pressing his lips firmly together not to laugh.
Satisfied he’d put Nick in his place, Tom was mellow now, nodding like he actually gave a shit as Erikson launched into a rambling account of Slater’s history and stats.
Nick tuned out. Leaning back with his drink, he indulged himself in a nostalgic inventory of the bar. He didn’t realize he was looking for anyone in particular until he found them. A raucous, laughing group of firefighters near the back of the bar, pitchers of beer littering the table in front of them. Nick wondered if any of his old crew were among them.
“And...here you go.” The waitress reappeared with their drinks and handed them menus. She waited patiently beside Tom’s chair, not-so-subtly rubbing her boob against his arm while they decided what to order. Leaning down slightly, she spoke into his ear. “I’m taking my break in ten minutes.” She dropped her voice, but they all heard.
“So what do you got for me?” Erikson said when she had taken their orders and left. “The condensed version. Seeing as we only have ten minutes,” he deadpanned.
Nick sniggered into his beer. Tom flattened his lips, but didn’t deny it.
“An update on the friend’s description.” Tom gestured to Nick, who pulled a folded piece of paper out of his pocket. “Apparently he’s got quite a few tattoos.”
“Oh yeah?” Erikson took the paper from Nick’s hand and began to unfold it. “None of the witnesses ever mentioned that.”
“Must’ve gotten them after they left Willow Beach,” Tom said. “That one church member we spoke to...the one who used to work in the garden. She and her friends used to watch him train. Described him pre-tty thoroughly.” His lips quirked as he drew out the words. “No mention of any tattoos.”
“The human females who picked them up in Camp Verde didn’t see any either. Your dream of the accident—” Erikson turned to Nick. “—You saw him.”
Nick nodded. “He was wearing a Phoenix Suns t-shirt. No tatts that I could see. Then.” He pointed to the drawing in Erikson’s hand. They’d commissioned it from a local sketch artist this morning. “Saw him with his shirt off this time. Couldn’t make out the ones on his back and lower abs. But this one was on his left pec.”
“Huh.” Erikson exhaled a thoughtful breath as he stared down at the sweeping lines of the golden tree silhouetted against a full white moon. “Nicest one of these I’ve ever seen.”
Tom and Nick nodded their agreement. The sketch artist had said the same thing. The tree-and-full moon design wasn’t unusual but there was something...elevated about the drawing. Like the others were just knock offs of this one. The original.
Erikson looked up at Nick. “Did she draw this?” He meant the girl. “The tatt design, not this drawing.”
Nick shrugged. “Not as far as I know, but it wouldn’t surprise me.” The girl was constantly drawing.
Erikson looked back down at the design paper, bobbing his head thoughtfully. “Okay, okay. This is good. We know he’s been picking up jobs on the road, outdoor labour, so there’s a good chance someone, somewhere, has or will be seeing him with his shirt off. What was he doing in your dream?”
“Mowing the lawn outside one of those little tin houses,” Nick said.
“Mobile homes,” Tom supplied. He’d heard all this.
“She was sitting on a bench swing, drawing,” Nick went on. “There was an older man in the yard tinkering with a barbecue.”
“Same older man your witness saw them with in Flagstaff?” Tom mused.
Erikson made a thoughtful sound. Both pairs of eyes turned to Nick.
“No clue.” Nick shrugged over his beer. “Never seen him before.”
“What else happened in your dream?” Erikson asked after a quick glance at the TV. The first match had ended and the bloody winner was strutting a circle around his unconscious opponent. “When was it? Any location markers?”
“Between eight a.m. and one p.m. yesterday.” Nick had pulled a night shift on Friday and didn’t get to bed until seven-thirty Saturday morning. “No specific location markers, but there were evergreens and oak trees and mountains in the background. Some kind of rural, what do you call them.”
“Trailer parks,” Tom said.
“Right.” Nick nodded. “It was done up nice, like, all homey. There was someone, a woman, inside the house singing. It was happy there. Peaceful.” He slowed his words unconsciously, remembering the feelings from that dream. They’d been as new to him as they had been to the girl. “Like a real...family kind of scene.”
Erikson nodded slowly. “Huh.”
The three men fell into a thoughtful silence. Nick wondered if he was the only one secretly hoping the investigation would fail. Let the kids have their happy trailer park life. The girl was only dangerous when threatened: she’d yet to kill anyone worth shit.That we know of, Tom would say, but despite the trail of bodies she’d left in her wake, the girl was not violent. Of that much Nick was sure.
The second match went quickly and the noise level in the bar ratcheted up as the fanfare began for the main event. Erikson bounced in his seat like a kid as Slater climbed into the ocatagon. He barely noticed as Tom got up and slipped away.
Nick followed his Captain’s progress approvingly to the waitress at the bar. No one needed to get laid more than Tom did, especially after the last month of deep woods training. The troops might fuck like rabbits among themselves but Tom didn’t shit where he lived. That was Tom’s line, anyway. Nick suspected there was more to it than that, but if Tom wanted him to know whatever it was, he would tell him.
Onscreen, the camera panned across the screaming crowd, complete with homemade signs. Lucky bastards. There was nothing like a live event. The next best thing to a real fight in the wild, something Nick didn’t get to see much anymore. That was peacetime for you in the Guards.
Cross got his fair share of support from the crowd when he came out as well. He had almost as much money riding on him as Slater did. The volume in the bar had dropped to a dull roar and the excitement in the room was almost tangible as the fight began. The combatants would stay in human form until the referee randomly called for them to shift, then equally randomly called for them to shift back. It made the matches incredibly exciting and incredibly violent. And impossible to share with human viewers.
One of Slater’s greatest strengths in the octagon was how quickly he shifted in and out of wolf form. It made Nick think about the girl’s friend and marvel again how he’d shifted mid-leap, seamlessly, with Nick—well, the girl—clinging to his back. For that achievement alone Nick would have liked to meet the lightening shifter someday. Though it seemed increasingly unlikely the longer the search went on.
"Ohhh—! ” Erikson chortled as Slater sent a brutal, lightening-fast blow to Cross’s head, sending a tooth flying in a spray of bloody spit.
Cross was no slouch, sending a powerful side kick into Slater’s chest. Slater staggered back but didn’t lose his balance. He circled Cross, his arm shooting out in another blow to the head. Slater always went for the head. He was fucking brutal.
The beautiful, violent choreography was mesmerizing. Cross held his own, but ultimately he was no match for the greatest shifter MMA of his generation. Twenty minutes later the match was over and Tom was sliding back into his chair, his cheeks flushed with aggravation above his bristled beard.
“That was fast,” Erikson told Tom distractedly, one eye still on the screen where Slater was offering a hand to his defeated opponent. Cross was beaten and bloody—and missing an ear—but still able to stand, which was frankly impressive. Most of Slater’s opponents were carried out on a stretcher.
Tom gestured dismissively. “She had to get back to work. So why did Slater retire, anyway?” He turned to Erikson in a clear and very effective change of subject.
“Good fucking question!” And...Erikson was off. “There was no word or evidence of injury. He was at the height of his career. Announced it at the New Year’s Eve event. He’d just won his sixth straight title, tenth overall. Rumour was that Lucifer King forced him out. He was killing their margins.”
The Rogue King’s human not-so-alter ego controlled a quarter of both legal and illegal sports betting in the United States.
Tom frowned at King’s name. “This was how long ago?”
“Ten years?” Nick shrugged, glancing at Erikson for confirmation.
“Twelve. It was crazy. Out of nowhere. Slater even dropped his endorsements. Leased out his house in Cheyenne and moved to—” Erikson broke off and stared at them.
“What?” Tom prompted. “Moved to where?”
Erikson’s eyes flickered like a hard drive, but his voice was slow. “He moved to a little coastal town in California no one ever heard of before, over a hundred miles from the nearest shifter pack.” He paused, nodding slowly as he saw comprehension dawn. “Willow Beach.”
The men stared at each other, silently weighing the odds.
“So...legendary shfter MMA champion leaves pro fighting, at the height of his career, the same year the Rogue King’s future bride was born,” Erikson said slowly. “Not such a big coincidence, except...”
Nick’s frown was thoughtful. “He moves from his pack territory to the same small town where she and her shifter friend live, surrounded by humans.”
Tom nodded. “A friend who’s been trained as a lightening shifter at seventeen.”
“Obviously by someone very advanced in that skill.” Erikson completed their thoughts. Someone like Conrad Slater.
“When did Slater come out of retirement?” Tom asked.
Erikson blinked as he realized where Tom was going. “About six months ago.”
“Around the time of The Incident.” Tom said what they were all thinking.
Six months ago, when the girl and her shifter friend had escaped. When the church where they’d lived was destroyed by fire and the surviving members scattered. When their search for the Rogue King’s missing bride began.
“Whew.” Tom took a long drink from his glass. “One hell of a coincidence.”
“Sure is,” Erikson agreed. Too much of a coincidence, as they were all aware.
“Shit.” Nick exhaled a disbelieving breath. “Looks like you got your lead,” he said jealously. Fucking guy was going to get to meet Conrad Slater.
Erikson was obviously thinking the same thing, minus the personal disappointment. His medium-brown eyes sparkled and a creepy smile of happiness slowly spread across his face.
“Where are you going?” Tom asked as Erikson shot to his feet.
Erikson grinned and tossed his chin towards the doors. “Just stepping outside.” He took his Blackberry out and waved it. “I got a red-eye to book for tonight to Wyoming.”
Tom watched Erikson disappear into the crowd with a frown. “Do you think...?”
Nick took a swallow of his beer, waiting for him to continue.
“Lucifer King—if Slater trained the lightening shifter, that would mean...” Tom trailed off again.
“King coerced or bribed Slater into retiring his pro career and move to Human Bumfuck, California to teach some kid in a cult how to fight?” Nick supplied.
Tom nodded. “They could be relatives,” he said after a moment.
“Could be,” Nick agreed. “But then wouldn’t he have brought the kid up to Cheyenne?” Slater’s mansion was famous for its private training facilities. “Why pull up roots and move to Bumfuck?”
“There’s only one common denominator,” Tom said.
“That we know of,” Nick felt obligated to point out.
“Of course.” Tom dipped his head, but the gears in his head were already turning. “But what it looks like now is King, going to a lot of trouble to make sure a five year-old in the same cult as his infant future bride got trained by the greatest fighter alive.”
“And with the kid on the run, Slater’s job ends,” Nick said slowly, intrigued in spite himself. What was the Rogue King’s game here?
They exchanged a long look. “What the actual fuck, Nick?” Tom said. “Who are these kids?”
“I don’t know.” Nick shook his head. “You think he already knows about this?”
“Erikson? No. Minister Rael? Possibly. Probably. I don’t know.” Tom pulled a face. “The way he’s treating this case, it wouldn’t surprise me if he was holding back. As far as the Minister’s concerned, everyone in the Empire but old Hirate himself is on a need-to-know basis.”
It was a long speech for Tom and he fell silent abruptly and directed a brooding stare at his glass. He barely glanced up when the waitress returned with their food, all smiles and knowing looks. “Interested in another round?”
Her question was loaded but Tom ducked her gaze as he nodded. Nick smirked as Tom peered up from under his brows, making sure the waitress was gone before raising his head.
“What was that all about?” Nick asked, unsuccessfully supressing a laugh.
Tom sent him a grim look. “Erikson was right.” He stuffed a handful of french fries in his mouth. “She’s not my type.”
Nick narrowed his eyes. Tom was being evasive but before he could find out why, a deep, familiar voice boomed beside him.
“Nick fucking Durban! No fucking way.”
Nick turned and sprang to his feet with a grin. “Jericho Letourneau.”
The grizzled, aging shifter was Caleb’s cousin and the local fire and rescue chief for some fifty-odd years.
“None of that shit,” he scoffed when Nick held out his hand. Jericho pulled him in for a brief, rib-crushing hug. “You remember Henry.” Jericho tossed his thumb at the burly shifter beside him, then pointed to a young shifter on his other side. “And this here’s Lou. Just passed his exam a couple months ago.”
“My man.” Henry slapped his hand into Nick’s and clasped it warmly. They’d bumped into each other here at Breakers a few times over the years.
“Good to see you, bro. Lou.” Nick shook the younger man hand and indicated Tom. “This is my Captain, Thomas Burke.”
“Good to meet you.” Tom gestured to the empty chairs. “Have a seat.”
Nick seconded the invitation with a nod. Erikson wouldn’t mind. He’d probably take off when he got back from his phone call anyway. Go pack for his trip to Cheyenne to interrogate Conrad Slater. Nick’s smile momentarily slipped with a fresh stab of envy.
Jericho nodded. “We got a table in back but yeah, thanks, we’ll set for a minute.” He and Henry sat down, leaving Lou to grab a chair from the table behind them.
“Sorry, that took a while” Erikson reappeared, looking revved up and raring to go. “No, you’re good,” he told Lou when Jericho gestured for him to get up. “I’m heading out. Flight leaves at eleven and I still have to pack and check out of the hotel. Oh, good,” Eriskon went on when the waitress chose that moment to reappear. “Can you wrap that up for me?”
Erikson gestured to the club sandwich he’d ordered and threw a twenty down on the table.
“I sure can. Looks like you enjoyed your meal,” the waitress said to Tom, reaching for his empty plate. “You done, too?” she asked Nick.
He nodded, eyes glued to her boobs along with everyone else as she leaned over to stack his plate on Tom’s and Erikson’s club sandwich on top. “What about you boys, can I get you anything?” the waitress asked as she straightened, sweeping the firefighters a practiced smile.
“Thanks honey, we’re good,” Jericho said in his cordial way. “We got a couple of pitchers waiting for us back at our table. Unless you want something extra tonight, Henry?” He pitched a bushy grey brow.
Lou dissolved into laughter. “No,” Henry mumbled, turning a dull red.
“What’s the joke?” Nick asked when the waitress had left.
“Nothing.” Henry clenched his jaw. Meeting Nick’s skeptical gaze, he rolled his eyes. “It’s just the waitress. I hooked up with her last month.”
“Yeah? She’s hot,” Nick said lightly, sliding a look at Tom.
“She stuck a finger up his ass,” Lou blurted.
Nick covered his mouth, careful not to look at Erikson as Lou guffawed and Jericho’s deep laughter rose over the table. Don’t laugh, Nick told himself. Do not fucking laugh.
Henry’s face was red and Tom’s face—well, Nick didn’t know what Tom’s face was because he was doing everything he could not to look at him. Not his type, Nick’s ass. Or Tom’s, rather.
A bark of laughter escaped Nick’s hand. He felt Tom’s glare but kept his eyes on Jericho, who was sighing contendly with the after-effects of a good, hearty laugh.
The fire chief clapped a mortified Henry on the shoulder good-naturedly. Nick shook his head as Henry’s long-suffering gaze met his. It was his own fault. Henry always did get TMI when he was drunk.
“Here you go.” The waitress returned with Erikson’s sandwich in a bag. “And I don’t know if anyone needs it, but I grabbed this with the plates by accident.” She put the drawing on the table, slightly worse for wear with a grease stain near the corner and what looked like a smear of ketchup.
“Oh, shit. Thank you,” Erikson said. “I do need that, actually.”
“Sorry about the stains. You getting a tatt?” she asked, the most interest in Erikson she’d shown all night.
“Thinking about it,” he hedged, holding his hand out for the drawing.
Lou picked it up to pass it to him. “Nice,” he said, looking it over, approvingly. “So fucking weird though.”
Someone from the next table called the waitress over. Nick waited for her to step away before he asked. “What is?”
“I just saw this exact tattoo on someone today,” Lou said. “What are the odds?”
Tom, Nick, and Erikson exchanged a look.
“It’s a popular design,” Erikson said cautiously.
“Yeah, but this one’s different. I specifically remember this part here.” Lou ran a finger around the main cluster of branches, each one perfectly delineated like graceful arms embracing the moon. “She must have just gotten it...the white and the gold ink were still really vivid.”
“She?” Nick shot a quick look at Tom, then Erikson.
“Yeah. She looked really young, too. I was surprised, but hey.” Lou shrugged. “Maybe she was just really short. I dunno.”
Tom leaned forward, the waitress’s finger up his ass and the personal humiliation of the past few minutes forgotten. “Where was this?”
Erikson put his takeout bag on the table and began furiously searching his pockets.
“At the football game,” Lou said. “What was the place called?”
“Mountain View,” Henry supplied, happy to fuel this new direction of conversation. “Mobile park a couple hours east of Boulder. Owner’s a former NFLer, runs a game every Sunday.”
“Mobile park?” Nick repeated. The runaways had been in a trailer park in his dream.
“Is this the girl you saw with the tattoo?” Erikson thrust a picture of the girl in front of Lou. The only photo they had of her, but at least it was current. One of the witnesses in Willow Beach had snapped a picture of her at a festival the church had held the day of The Incident.
Lou frowned down at the picture, tilting his head. “Looks like her. But her hair wasn’t blonde.”
Nick’s heart began to thump. “What colour was it?”
“More pink, but not bright. Like a strawberry colour. What do they call it,” Lou said.
“Strawberry blonde,” Henry supplied.
“Faded red,” Tom murmured.
“I didn’t really see her for that long,” Lou said apologetically, handing the photo and the drawing to Erikson. “Clem and me were sitting in the truck when she walked by with her friend.”
“Was this the friend?” Erikson whipped out another picture.
“Nah, this dude’s like one of their players,” Lou said, squinting at the image of the lightening shifter. “A shifter, if you can believe it. Dude’s a fucking beast on the field.”
Holy fucking Goddess. Was it possible? Could they be that close? Nick’s heart pounded at the thought, half dreading finding them and half itching to jump up right now and drive their rented SUV to this Mountain View place. By Tom and Erikson’s expressions, they were feeling the latter at least as well.
It was too late now, of course. They’d have to wait to drive up there tomorrow. They might not be a part of the investigation officially but there was no way Tom was backing off now. And where Tom went, Nick followed. Nothing to do with any blooming excitement inside him to meet the girl from his dreams.
“Where you going now?” Tom asked when Erikson turned to leave.
Erikson riffled through his pocket for his Blackberry. “Got a flight to reschedule, don’t I?”
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