Chapter 1: suspicious smells
“I’M TELLIN’’ you, the woman was a paragon! A saint! An angel come to Earth!” The old bulldog’s cheeks quivered with emotion. The sadness in his big brown eyes was nearly irresistible. “She fed me for ten years, handed me the choicest morsels from her own plate!”
Sheriff Lance Beaufort grounded his feet more firmly on the floor beneath the diner’s table, calling upon his patience. “I’m sure she was a wonderful woman.”
Gus blinked bleary eyes at him. “Oh, she was! I slept at the foot of her bed every night. We were never apart, except a few times a week when her daughter would take her to church, and even then she always brought me home something special to make up for it. A box of fresh peanut butter treats, perhaps. Or a slice of cake from the church potluck.”
“I know it’s a terrible loss,” Lance said.
He did know, intellectually. But he didn’t really understand. He’d never bonded with a human himself, and certainly he’d never had to survive the death of someone he was bonded to. He signaled Daisy for more coffee, ready to move the conversation along. Normally his mother transitioned the new arrivals, but she’d had a birthing to attend this morning.
“Now, Gus, we need to talk about your situation here in Mad Creek.”
“But I don’t know what to do! I never had to work a day in my life. Mother always took care of me. And now there’s… there’s rent. And food! I should hate to starve.”
“It seems overwhelming now, but we’ll help you. You can stay at Mable’s for the time being and take your meals here.”
“Is there a job I can do? I don’t move as fast as when I was a pup, but my ears and bark are still razor sharp, and I make an excellent companion, truly I do.”
Despite Gus’s sincere and eager words, Lance thought he looked more suited to sleeping on the couch than working a job. “We’ll find you something. For now, just get used to the town and the pack. Enjoy yourself.”
Gus smiled. He was a simple soul, Lance deduced, not one to hang on to his troubles.
Inwardly, Lance sighed. Gus wasn’t the first newly quickened dog to show up in town, and he wouldn’t be the last. It was a common story. Gus hadn’t been born with the ability to take human form. But he’d been so beloved by his owner that he’d gotten the spark. His owner, an old woman, had died. Her relatives, clueless that Gus was no longer merely a dog, had taken him to the pound. Only through great fortune had he escaped and made his way to Mad Creek. Now he was….
Looking at Gus, Lance felt the instinctual pull. Now Gus was pack. Which meant he was Lance’s responsibility.
Daisy brought their breakfasts—eggs and toast for Lance and the breakfast special for Gus complete with eggs, sausage, ham, and toast. She winked at Lance as she put the platters down, a conspiratorial acknowledgment of the extras she’d heaped on Gus’s plate, and his expression of pure joy when he saw all the food.
“Oh, heavens! Oh, goodness, that looks yummy,” Gus enthused.
“Can I get you anything else?” Daisy asked as Gus began to attack his meal in a surprisingly delicate way. “Hon, you want some ketchup or hot sauce with that?” Gus shook his head, his mouth full.
“You, Sheriff?” Daisy smiled at Lance warmly.
“No thanks. I’m—”
His words dried up as instinct overwhelmed him. He felt the presence of a stranger two seconds before the bell over the front door jangled. He perked up—intent.
A guy stood holding open the diner’s glass door. He looked around the room, ran into Lance’s focused stare, and looked away again with a self-conscious wince. He let the door close, wandered over to the counter with his head down, and took a seat.
The stranger was young—probably early twenties. He was tall and gangly, had long floppy brown hair with bangs that slanted over his eyes and ends that curled up into an outright flip at his collar. His face was pale and tired, and he appeared… nervous. Add in jeans, a jean jacket, and T-shirt, all of which had seen better decades, and Lance felt a touch of unease stirring in his belly. He wasn’t a fan of strangers in general. It was an instinct he had to actively fight not to be overtly unfriendly. But lately, with all of the trouble in the neighboring counties, he’d been more leery than ever.
He blinked and focused his gaze back on Gus. Gus was intent on his food, cutting off and savoring one little bite at a time, as if it would be his very last meal. Lance left his own food untouched as he strained his ears to hear the conversation at the counter.
“Coffee and….” The boy’s voice was low, and he seemed to be studying the menu. “A grilled cheese from the child’s menu. Is that alright?”
“It’s okay with me, hon.”
“Does it cost extra to put sandwich fixings on that? Tomato? Lettuce?”
“Not at all! What would you like?”
“Everything you’ve got. And lots of it. Thank you.”
This was definitely a person concerned about money, Lance noted as Daisy went to place his order.
Lance had seated himself facing the door, as always, and he didn’t want to turn his head to gawk at the guy at the counter. But he could see a side view of him reflected in the chrome front of the jukebox. His long legs were bent at the knee, and he tapped the heel of his Converses on the linoleum floor nervously. Tap. Tap. In the reflection, the kid turned his head toward Lance. His heels went a little faster. Lance flexed his shoulders to make sure the guy noticed his sheriff’s department jacket.
Daisy brought the guy his salad-loaded grilled cheese and a big glass of milk.
“I didn’t order—”
“Do you like milk? We had a gallon about to go bad, so there’s no charge if you want it.”
“Oh… thank you,” the boy mumbled.
“Anything else I can get you, hon?”
“Um… Do you know where’s the closest place to get gardening supplies? Plant stakes. Potting soil. Stuff like that?”
Lance was out of the booth before the guy had finished speaking. He could feel the hair on the back of his neck and arms stand up with the kick of adrenaline that shot through him. But he forced himself to look relaxed as he walked to the counter and took the empty stool next to the stranger.
“Daisy, can you get Gus some more coffee?” he asked. Daisy’s mouth was still hanging open as if to answer the guy, or maybe in surprise.
“Uh… sure.” She took her cue and left them alone.
The guy peeked at Lance from under his bangs. This close up, his eyes were hazel and his face narrow, boyish, and somehow both shy and defiant at the same time. Lance found it strangely… appealing. He watched the boy’s Adam’s apple bob up and down as he swallowed. A faint tang of nervous sweat wafted up. Lance tried to be subtle as he leaned forward a tiny bit and sniffed.
The boy carried the scent of gasoline—he’d filled his car’s tank recently. He hadn’t showered in a day or two either—probably slept in his car. Below that was an interesting loamy smell, like the rich scent of earth, but not the soil from around here, someplace near the sea. And… pot. The sickly sweet smell of marijuana was fresh. Denim held on to smoke like a tight-fisted lawyer, but this wasn’t an old smell.
The guy said nothing, just picked up half his sandwich, head down, and took a bite. Lance continued to stare.
“There’s a Garden Center in Fresno,” he said, still staring.
“Oh…. Thanks,” the guy mumbled, chewing as if the sandwich might have ground glass in it and he had to be careful. His bright eyes darted everywhere but at Lance.
“Passing through?” Lance asked.
“Visiting family? Going camping? Taking a sabbatical?”
“I, um, just moved here.”
Damn it. Lance nodded knowingly, his eyes still fixed on the guy’s face. Sweat visible on the lip. Shoulders hunched. Definitely nervous.
“That so. Well, we could always use some fresh blood,” Lance said, not meaning a word of it. Not that he really minded people moving into the area—as long as they weren’t troublemakers. Or likely to dig into the town’s secrets. “Whatcha plan on growing?”
The guy stiffened, and his head swung around to directly meet Lance’s gaze for the first time. His hazel eyes darkened slightly, his pupils narrowing. His nostrils flared and the corner of his mouth wobbled.
That’s fear. Lance’s hackles raised a little more. He tensed, ready for a fight, or to catch this guy if he tried to bolt.
But what happened was the last thing Lance expected. The guy looked down at Lance’s uniform and suddenly barked out a laugh.
“Oh, right! Cop! I get it! Oh, sorry, I thought…. But you…. Here.”
The guy leaned forward and exhaled a long and heavy breath right into Lance’s face.
What the fuck?
Lance blinked rapidly in surprise.
“See? I’m not drunk or anything. Or stoned. Do I look it? I drove through the night, so I’m kinda rumpled. And probably I stink. I saw you sniffing me. But I’m not….” The guy seemed to catch up with Lance’s shocked expression. He turned an amazing shade of red. “Oh. Shit. Oh, God. I just breathed right in your face, didn’t I? People don’t do that, do they? I mean, it’s not like your nose is a breathalizer or anything. That was probably really rude. Oh, my God, I’m so sorry.”
Lance was still processing. The rich scent of the guy’s breath lingered in his nose—no hint of smoke of any kind but yummy with cheese and butter and bread and, below that, something human and sweet, like the smell of a young child playing in the dirt. That scent was incredibly distracting. Lance’s nose wanted to sniff out more of it, wanted to lean forward and bury itself in the guy’s mouth. He fought off this purely instinctual reaction of his dog while trying to logically process what the guy was doing.
Nobody could be that awkward. Was he playing with Lance? Acting dumb? Trying to derail the conversation? Pull one over on the backwater cop?
Lance narrowed his eyes. “What’s your name?” His voice was harder now.
“T-um… T-Timothy. Traynor. Oh, my gosh. Look at the time.” The guy stuffed the rest of the sandwich in his mouth, used one finger to pull up the sleeve of his jean jacket and look at his bare wrist. A hair past a freckle, then. He stood up, mouth stuffed full, made some frantic waving gestures, dug out a wad of bills from his jacket pocket, tossed a five and a one on the counter, and left.
Lance watched this little charade in utter stillness, his eyes never leaving the guy’s face, and then his car—an old, beat-to-shit pickup truck—as T-Timothy pulled out and drove down Main Street overly fast, then too slow, like he’d realized Lance was watching.
Daisy came over as Lance leaned forward to sniff at the guy’s abandoned airspace.
“Good Lord, Sheriff. What’d you say to that poor kid? He seemed really nice.”
“Yeah. If you don’t take into account that every word out of his mouth was a lie.” That, and the smell of pot.
Daisy looked torn between her loyalty to Lance and her natural friendliness. She was a second genner, and had come from retrievers anyway—not a breed prone to disliking strangers. She loved everybody. Which is why she was a waitress at the diner and Lance was the sheriff.
“That guy comes in again, you give me a call, you hear?” Lance said.
Daisy nodded reluctantly. “I was gonna give him some cake on the house. I don’t think he was lying about being broke. Not that he said that, but you could tell.”
No, Lance didn’t think he was lying about that either. But broke people sometimes did desperate things.
* * *
Tim pulled into the long driveway that led to Linda’s house, wove through the trees, and pulled to a stop in front of the small cabin. He patted the cracked red dashboard of his truck gratefully.
“You are the best truck in the whole wide world, Bessy. I needed you and you came through.”
He hadn’t expected her to make it all the way from Santa Barbara to Mad Creek—up mountains, no less. She had 120,000 miles logged on her odometer, and that was optimistic. For all Tim knew, it had rolled over at 999,999 and kept going. She was overdue for a tune-up and oil change—a task he’d put off because of a) money and b) time. So then of course when he’d needed to leave town urgently, and with no warning, she hadn’t been ready for the trip.
Neither had he. But here they were.
He’d been so worried about getting stranded in the middle of nowhere, he’d even picked up a young hitchhiker for company. The boy had been harmless but also a stoner. He’d reeked of pot and said ‘dude’ every third word. Big help he would have been if the truck had broken down. Tim hadn’t been sad to drop him off in Fresno.
He sighed, listening to Bessy’s engine tick in relief as it cooled, then got out and started hauling bags from the back. Everything he owned was in six large plastic trash bags. Plus he had one box of old gardening supplies. Those supplies were his personally, from when he’d owned his own gardening service.
You take one clipping, one seed, one plant tab, I will make sure you regret it!
He’d started that service when he was only twelve, and though he’d sold off his mower and leaf blower and some of the larger tools when he’d gone to work for Roots of Life at eighteen, he’d kept the smaller things in case he ever wanted to garden at home. In case he ever had a home.
He put the plastic bags and the box on the porch and looked around to take it all in, sniffed the crisp piney air.
Linda hadn’t been kidding when she’d said her cabin was a bit rough. She claimed a local guy looked after the place—did some basic yard work and maintenance once a month. But it didn’t look like Mr. Handyman had been there in a while. The grass needed cutting—it was probably the first real spring flush of March. There were small dead branches and twigs all over the place from a passing storm. The gravel driveway was holey and furred with clumps of weeds. The cabin….
Tim reached out his hand and ran his palm lightly over the old split logs that made up the wall next to the front door.
The cabin was home. At least for six months. The thought made Tim smile, and at the same time his heart pinged in anxiety. Only six months. He had six months rent-free from Linda in exchange for inventing her a hybrid rose that no one had ever succeeded in producing, six months to set up a profitable business selling what he grew so that once that grace period was up he could pay rent. And he had to do all of that from scratch, with nothing but one old box containing a few pairs of work gloves, trowels, small weeders, and other odds and ends. He had fifteen hundred dollars in the bank. Period.
I hear of you trying to grow and sell anything, and I will sue you so fast your head will spin! You think you can be somebody on your own? You have the social aptitude of a gnat, and you couldn’t run a business if Donald Trump himself was sitting on your shoulder.
Grief and anger blossomed in Tim’s chest, and he blinked his eyes hard. After all he’d done for Marshall… he’d thought they were business partners. Then he’d found out that their partnership consisted of him doing all the work and Marshall keeping all the profits and filing copyrights under his own name besides. Tim took a deep breath and looked around again at the tall pine trees and the big blue peak he could see over them. The Sierra Mountains were stunning.
He was here, in Mad Creek, in this beautiful place. He had a place to stay and work for the time being. He was going to be fine. More than that, he was going to enjoy this place. This was the first place he’d lived in that was his very own. He was going to make the most of it.
Tim felt a frisson of fear, and his thoughts went to the diner. Everything was going to be fine as long as he didn’t run into that cop again. What was with that? That… that gorgeous black-haired, blue-eyed man’s man in a uniform who’d sat down in Tim’s space, smelled him, and stared at him with these weird intent eyes. Tim had never seen a look like that before. It wasn’t a come-on. It was more like: Leave my town, leave now. Bwah-ha-ha. What the fuck? For one paranoid second, Tim had thought the cop must have been sicced on him by Marshall. But that made no sense. Marshall had no idea where Tim was, did he? He couldn’t. Hell, he’d just gotten there. No one knew he was in Mad Creek except Linda.
And then, of course, Tim had spazzed out, like he always did around people. Made an idiot of himself.
He sighed. Oh, well. He was never going to see that cop again, right?
He found the key just where Linda had said it would be hidden, dumped his bags inside, and went off to find the greenhouse.