I know what is killing the Shifters.
You have to come to California.
Lt. Nikki Hill folded the printed e-mail along well-creased folds and shoved it into her pants pocket. She closed her eyes and tilted her head back against the brick wall of the San Laura Police Station behind the bench. The sun shone on her face. Leafy branches overhead shifted in the wind, sending sunlight and shadow across her closed eyelids. The breeze carried the salty, cool scent of thePacific Ocean. The wind held a chill from the ocean. Definitely notMissouriin the summer.
Her best friend’s e-mail arrived two days ago. When Nikki tried to contact her, she’d received no reply. No return e-mails and her cell phone went straight to voice-mail. Yesterday, Bella’s mother came to see Nikki at the police station inColumbia. Bella was dead. Dead from whatever had killed Shapeshifters up and down theCaliforniacoast and elsewhere.
A sob built in her throat. Nikki swallowed it down. She couldn’t bring her best friend back, but she would find out who killed Bella and the others and make them pay.
Even in the Midwest they’d learned about the death of Shapeshifters in mostly the coastal areas of theUnited States. When her captain asked for a volunteer to go to San Laura, a small city up the coast fromSan Francisco, to add to their depleted forces there, she jumped at the chance. She would have demanded to go if he hadn’t requested volunteers. Bella had been her little sister’s best friend their entire lives. Her own second little sister.
“Lt. Nikki Hill?”
A voice as rich and sinful as dark chocolate invaded her thoughts. She opened her eyes to drink in tall, dark, and handsome who stood in front of her. The only thing wrong with the view was his aura of red-hot anger. The color shimmered around him, only viewable by another shifter. Thank goodness, because if norms could see shifter auras, this guy’s would make them take a wide detour–maybe to the other side of the street.
He stood there in front of her. His aura wafting into a grayish black. Arms crossed a broad chest, and tension showed along his cheek.
Nikki nodded, stood up, and held out her hand. “Lieutenant Nikki Hill, Columbia Police Department, special task force.”
His arms remained crossed and tight. Nikki dropped her hand and glared back at him. Her cheeks blossomed hot with anger. Short breaths came in hard pants between her narrowed lips.
He moved closer and matched her glare. “Why aren’t you inside yet? Do you think we have time to catch some rays?”
Her mouth fell open. What a jerk. “When I got here, I went inside. But, I didn’t see any task force members.” Her voice lowered as she glanced around. “No Shifters,” she whispered. A cold breeze blew down the street. Nikki grabbed her arms and tried to rub some warmth into them. Her slacks and short sleeve top was no match for the unpredictable weather.
He settled back out of her personal space, his cheeks a slight red. She allowed herself a small, tentative smile at his discomfort.
He coughed slightly. “Our task force is on the second floor. The city cops are on the ground floor. I’m sorry you weren’t given better details for your arrival.”
She shivered, and tried to hide how cold she really was.
“Don’t you have a jacket? It can be cold here in June.”
Nikki laughed. “No kidding. At home it’s ninety with eighty percent humidity. Do you know the median temperature for San Laura in June is fifth-nine? It’s one thing to read that, quite another to experience it. Why, it’s downright chilly.”
“Ahem,” he coughed. “If you’re done with the weather report, we can go inside.” His fingers tunneled through his thick, black hair. “We’re all a little on edge here. It doesn’t seem to take much these days to set us off. Sorry if I bit off your head.”
Nikki reached down and grasped the handle of her suitcase. “Ready when you are, Lieutenant . . . ?”
He reached out and grasped her free hand. “Lieutenant Sean Evans.”
Electricity rushed up her arm from their clasped hands. A tingle she felt in her chest and shot heat straight to her limbs. It no longer felt cold outside. His fingers were smooth, but firm against her skin, his flesh hot. She glanced up to note Sean’s deep blue aura. Thank goodness she wasn’t the only one feeling something.
He dropped her hand as if she was contagious. His arms again crossed in front of him. “After you,” he muttered, with a nod toward the station’s front door.
Nikki shrugged, pushed open the door, and dragged her luggage behind her. So, tall, dark, and handsome had a crappy attitude. No skin off her nose, as her mom would say. The average Shapeshifter task force contained twelve or more members. Odds were pretty good she’d be partnered with someone else while she was here. She crossed her fingers. Please, anyone but Mister Snippy.
Her mind elsewhere, her ears still registered the sound of the friendly hellos from the cops in the room to the man behind her. Apparently, he showed others a different side of himself than the one he’d greeted her with.
Picking up her suitcase, Nikki climbed the stairs to the second floor. Her boot heels tapped on the linoleum-covered treads. Evans’ shoes clicked in echo beside her. Tap. Tap. Tap. Until they reached the second floor, and Evans pushed open the door to the shifter task force quarters.
The stress in the room hit Nikki like a brick wall. Her gaze darted from person to person, and she recoiled at the red auras. Even worse were the inky black ones. The ultra sweet tropical scent of Shifters under stress saturated the room. A usually, pleasant scent of pineapple and cocoanut, like suntan lotion.
Thankfully, only Shifters could smell that scent on each other. Nikki grasped to take in all the overwhelming stimuli at once. The smells, the auras, her heart beating a million miles a minute–her mind ricocheted in overload.
Lt. Evans pushed past her. She stood frozen, stock still in the doorway. “Are you coming in or going back toMissouri?”
An angry retort sat on the edge of her tongue. Nikki bit down on it, as she stared at Evans’s now dark as midnight aura. Her mother would tell her these people were beyond their limits and everything hitting her right now was their daily life. Think before you speak, as she’d been told often enough.
She set her suitcase down and grasped the handle to roll it along with her. The lieutenant’s broad shoulders shrugged as he moved away, and the door shut behind them.
Nikki followed behind him, watching Evans walk toward a glass-enclosed room in the far corner of the room. The sun’s reflection gleamed on the glass, making it the only brightness in the gray room. Gray furniture, gray floor, and gray suits. Columbiaor San Laura; all police stations were the same. She stopped at a door with the name Captain Carl Connors etched on the glass.
Captain Connors was a “norm.” A human. She could tell before she stepped into the room. She stumbled, tripping across the threshold. Every Shapeshifter task force she knew of was headed by a shifter. Only select humans in the upper echelons of the military, law enforcement, or selected scientific fields were even aware of the Shapeshifters existence. It seemed a big risk to let someone at the captain’s low level know of them.
She stood at attention, her eyes narrowed, as she studied the norm while he talked to Evans. Connors leaned back in his chair, his hands locked on the arms in a death grip. A sneer twisted his face as his gaze swept over her from head to toe. His nostrils pinched like a bad smell filled the room. She inhaled sharply. Could he be a recruiter? Perhaps he was one of a few humans who could actually detect the super-sweet smell of Shapeshifters? That might explain his position of captain of the task force.
“So, this is Lt. Nikki Hill?” Captain Connors turned his glare on her. “Or is it Nick?”
His apparent hatred of Shifters spewed out of him like a visible fountain of refuse. From his narrowed eyes to the curled lip, and the red flush on his angry face, his body language screamed bigotry.
Nikki smiled back at him. “Let’s see, shall we?”
She grasped her breasts in two hands, and cupped them suggestively. Inhaling deeply, she shapeshifted just enough to add two cup sizes to her chest. Anymore, and she’d bust her favorite bra. “I believe I’m Nikki today.”
Her smile widened as the captain had a coughing fit and Sean turned away, but not before she caught his smile.
Her hands traveled down her sides, past her hips, to her crouch. She grasped it tightly. “No Nick today.”
Captain Connors’s fist slammed on the desk. “Enough. Any more of that shit in my office, and I’ll have you on meter maid duty for a week.”
“I volunteered to come here, Captain. I could just go back toMissouri,” Nikki bit out as Sean grabbed her arm lightly and excused them out of the Captain’s office into the main room.
“Enough games, Hill,” Sean said, and pointed her to an empty desk under the window. He handed her a stack of files he’d scooped up on the way across the room.
“Captain Connors makes no bones about not liking Shapeshifters, but he’s a good man and a good leader. He doesn’t talk about it, but something in his past affected him. So, just do your work and just give him the respect his title calls for.” He indicated the folders on the desk. “Familiarize yourself with the situation. I’ll be at my desk.” He pointed halfway across the room.
Sean walked over to his desk, back ramrod straight and his shoulders tight. He propped his elbows on the desk, his hands cradled the back of his neck. His gaze glued on the papers in front of him.
Nikki bit the inside of her cheek. She needed to be calm. Antagonizing the captain of the Shifter Task Force would have her shipped back home. Sean Evans seemed honest. She would take him at his word and try not to push the captain’s buttons. She wasn’t leavingCaliforniauntil she figured out what and who killed Bella.
Nikki dug into the pile of papers and the hours passed as she read report after report on the deadly disease infestation. It was as if a tennis ball filled her throat, making it hard to breathe. She could all too easily picture her best friend suffering every detail of the virus’s tragic effects.
Her fingers dug into her hair, she rubbed at a pain in her neck. She knew a headache was coming. No connection between the victims existed except for being Shifters. The people came from different backgrounds, different jobs, and different towns. Young and old, in male form or female form, it didn’t seem to matter to the disease.
Nowhere in the reports could she find a way for the illness to be spread. The rate of death was 100% once the victim had the disease, but no one in the families caught it from their sick family member.
She was going around in circles. Scary circles. Shapeshifters were biologically tough. They could catch the diseases humans caught, but they got them less severely and almost always recovered. Even cancer didn’t take hold in their bodies.
Nikki stood up and stretched. She made her way to Evans’s desk. “Lieutenant, can I ask you a few questions?”
He nodded his gray eyes dull and tired. How would they appear if he wasn’t so stressed? Now, they looked like a storm cloud-filled day on the water, like her first view of the ocean this morning. “The reports are all Shifters. Have there been any human causalities at all?”
He shook his head, sadness etched in his rugged face. “Just Shifters, almost as if we are being targeted.”
Nikki nodded and made notes on a pad of paper. “The reports just have details. Have you seen an actual victim? What does this disease do to them?”
She stared at his Adam’s apple bobbing as he tried to swallow. “I wouldn’t wish their deaths on the worse criminal, lowlife, and scum inSan Francisco. They shift. Repeatedly. Without stopping.”
The blood left her face. She grew lightheaded. That was impossible. “But, they wouldn’t have the time or ability to hydrate or refuel.” Her voice caught. “They would waste away to nothing.”
Lt. Evans didn’t say a word, just leaned his head down and covered his eyes with a shaky hand. Nikki swallowed, remembering why she was here inCaliforniain the first place. The task force was severely depleted, the disease, the illness, whatever it was had viciously hit the department and taken some members.
She doodled deep, dark circles on the pad. Her mind traveled in a hundred directions at once. No reports had been filed of a deadly virus or illness among humans. Something this catastrophic would be front page news across the country. But . . . nothing.
Sean looked up to find the new Task Force Member staring into space. Certain her mind was sifting through all the new info he’d thrown at her, he left her alone with her thoughts. No matter what he told her, nothing could prepare Nikki for what a perpetually shifting shifter looked like. Her loved ones were probably all safe out inMissouri, safer than here, at least. A shudder ripped through his body. Soon enough she’d join the tragedy the rest of them shared.
He still had nightmares of the day at the hospital with Colin as they waited for Paulette to die. A horror he would see every time he closed his eyes until his dying day. His hands trembled. He grasped them tight to stop the movement.
The phone rang. It brought a welcomed reprieve from his thoughts. He rubbed his forehead as he took the call. “Lt. Evans, task force.”
“General Roberts. We have a new casualty arriving at the base. Will someone from the task force be coming in?”
“Yes, thank you, sir. I’ll be there ASAP.”
He looked over at Lt. Hill as he hung up. Her clear blue eyes gazed into his. “That was the general at the San Laura Military Base. They have a new arrival. We’ll leave as soon as I inform Captain Connors.”
In her eyes, he recognized gratitude over not having to face the captain again so soon and to leave the office for a while. Sean smiled. He realized he had grown used to the gruff old man. Conners made no excuses for his very un-PC dislike of his Shifter task force. Sean respected him for that.
Sean walked over and leaned into the office. “Captain, Hill and I are headed to the army base. Another shifter has been flown in.”
Sean turned to find Hill putting her suitcase under the desk, grabbing a jacket, and heading for the door they came in earlier.
“No. This way.” He pointed to the door on the other side of the office. “It leads to the roof and the helipad. We’ll be going to the military base by helicopter.”
Her face bleached bone-white.
“You aren’t afraid of flying, are you? You just flew halfway across the country to get here.”
She grimaced. “And gripped the armrests the whole way. It was my first flight. I’ve never leftMissouribefore today. I hate airplanes.”
Sean put his hand on her back and guided her out onto the rooftop. His other hand grabbed the door as the wind tried to fling it against the wall.
Nikki’s long blonde hair flew around her head while they ran to the helicopter. He laughed, seeing her grab and twist the long strands.
He hopped into the helicopter and smiled. Nikki was all ready in her seat, her seatbelt snug and tight, and her hand held the strap with the grip of death, each knuckle white as china. As the helicopter took off, Nikki’s hold tightened, and her eyes slammed shut. Sean talked to give her mind something else to think about.
“Did you notice in the reports that no family members of the victims contracted the disease? Means it probably isn’t airborne or saliva transfer.”
Nikki replied, her eyes opening slowly. “I read that. It’s almost as if it were purposely given to just the victims. Like a designer drug—the ones that target specific DNA or blood types?”
Her idea had merit. He hadn’t contemplated that angle yet. He’d be sure to mention it at the base, in case it wasn’t one of the current hypothesizes.
He looked up as Nikki spoke again. Her eyes were wide and focused on him. Open and bright blue, like a winter sky. Her fingers tangled in her long blonde hair as she concentrated on their conversation. His fingers itched to see if it were as silky as it looked. Then, with a mental slap, he pulled himself back to business.
Nikki’s sexy voice filled his ears, like low volume pillow talk. “So, if no humans are getting sick, it must be just us they want to hurt. As if, they don’t like us personally.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “As if, they want to wipe us out.”
Sean looked away and out the window. Yep, that was it exactly.
**** end of chapter