Chapter 1: THE IMMINENT THREAT OF TANGERINES
"Now Roman, remember. You're going to have to stay very conscious about not exhibiting any dog-like behavior during this meeting. We can't afford to raise suspicion."
"Yes, sir. I'll be on my guard."
Roman didn't need to be reminded. He knew humans were unaware that dog-human shifters, called the quickened, existed. But he could tell Lance was anxious, and his chatter was down to nerves. Sweat beaded on Sheriff Lance Beaufort's upper lip as he steered the car and—Roman sniffed as subtly as he could—Lance smelled wary, suspicious. Roman's inner dog wanted to whine at the unease of his pack leader, but Roman swallowed it. No dog behavior.
They were driving to Fresno in Lance's white sheriff's department SUV for a big regional law enforcement meeting. The DEA was giving a presentation, and Lance had asked Roman to go along. He probably just wanted company on the long drive, but Roman had been thrilled. Since he'd become a full-time deputy with the Mad Creek's Sheriff's Office, he had a purpose in life again, and he liked being included in Lance's plans. Besides, he loved to ride in cars! It was even better when you didn't have to drive and could roll down the window and stick your hand out, feel the wind buffet your skin.
With the window rolled down, a scent caught Roman's nose on the warm September air. He turned his head as they zipped past endless pine trees. There was something dead out in the woods—something small, like a groundhog. If he were on foot, he'd go find it just for the fun of it. But not today. Not today.
He smiled and looked at his hand as he tried to catch the wind. Today he was a man, and it was still amazing. Hands were amazing. Lately he'd been finding his own body more fascinating. He'd been quickened for two years now, but sometimes he felt like he was just now wakening from a dream—only to find it wasn't a dream at all.
"I think it’s very different," he said, wiggling his fingers. "Being quickened from birth, like you were, and getting it later in life, like me. Living as a dog first."
"I'm sure it is," Lance agreed. "Incredibly different."
"I'm glad I was who I was. That I had that time in Army K-9. With James."
Lance said nothing, and Roman felt a pang of self-doubt. Maybe he was talking too much in an 'un-human-like’ way. Lance was pack, but he was also Roman's boss. He cleared his throat and rolled up the window. "So. What do you expect to happen at this meeting today?"
"I don't know." Lance frowned at the windshield. "I'm hoping it'll be good news, but—"
"We haven't had any trouble. Not since that night those drug dealers shot up Tim's house."
"I know. But I have a sense something's coming, like… a prickling on my neck. I've had a bad feeling for days."
Roman didn't have any such 'bad feeling', but he didn't say it out loud. As a border collie shifter, Lance worried about his territory obsessively, more than Roman or any other quickened. So if Lance sensed something, he was probably right.
Roman's heart beat a little faster. "Do you want me to carry my weapon, sir?"
Lance laughed. "No, I don't mean I expect trouble at this meeting. Coffee and donuts and a lot of ass-kissing is probably as dangerous as it'll get. But the DEA's presentation… This is the first time they've called us all together for something like this. I'm assuming it's not going to be good news on the war-on-drugs front. I just hope whatever's brewing out there, it has nothing to do with Mad Creek."
"Because that would be bad." Roman knew Lance's philosophy: fly as under-the-radar and away from human things as possible. Mad Creek was in the middle of nowhere for a reason.
"Yes, Roman. Because that would be very bad," Lance said darkly.
* * *
There were at least a hundred sheriffs, deputies, and other law enforcement personnel at the meeting. Roman stayed by Lance's side, said ‘hello’ when he was introduced, and otherwise kept his mouth shut. He also refrained from scratching his ears or visibly sniffing people. He adopted the stoic military stance that was so familiar to him from his time in the Army. There was a lot he didn't know about being human, but he knew how to imitate a soldier.
In fact, it felt like the old days being around so many people in uniform, though most of them were older and not as lively or fun as the soldiers in Afghanistan. Still, there were jokes Roman didn't get, lots of backslapping and, yes, coffee and donuts. The ones with the white icing and raisins were Roman's favorites! He ate six of them before a warning glare from Lance reminded him to slow down.
After the donuts, it was time for the presentations.
The Forest Service went first. An older man with gray hair and a pot belly spoke. "Last year, we found over four hundred illegal marijuana farms in California. Three hundred of those were in the Sierra Nevada Mountains."
The man showed pictures of razed dirt areas among trees and big water ponds sheeted in plastic. "The worst part of all this is the extensive destruction of public lands and animal habitat. These illegal farms use heavy pesticides. They cut down trees. They set out poison for animals. They create irrigation ponds, siphoning off hundreds of gallons of water that starve the area of moisture, and rob water from the cities downstream."
Lance had been right. It wasn't good news. Roman felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up as he looked at the slide show. He loved the woods around his cabin, loved to run there, both as human and dog. It was beautiful and it was full of life. He'd be so angry if someone did that to his woods.
"Besides the environmental impact, it's a danger for hikers and campers who might stumble across these things. There were twelve murders last year for exactly that reason. And it's a danger for our Forest Service officers, who aren't trained, and don't have the bandwidth, to do this extensive policing. So we've asked the governor, and the governor has asked the president, for resources from the DEA."
The man from the DEA—the Drug Enforcement Agency—talked next. His name was Dixon. He had silver in his brown hair, but he was trim and tough-looking. He wore blue jeans and a black T-shirt that said "DEA" on it in gold letters.
"I guess I don't have to tell you that this is a huge problem," Dixon said. "It's mostly marijuana farms in California, but in Arizona and Texas we're seeing an increase of meth and opium labs in wooded parks like these too. Fortunately, we've gotten the funding we need to make a concerted effort here in the California mountains."
Dixon put up a list of town names. Mariposa, Oakhurst, Briceburg, and Coulterville were on the list, among others. And there, in black and white, was the name Mad Creek. Lance started vibrating with tension in the seat next to Roman's.
"The new operation is called Operation Green Ghost. We're funding a full-time agent in each of these towns for at least the next twelve months. These DEA investigators will be based out of your offices and will form a coordinated web under the control of the DEA. We've got—"
Lance shot to his feet. "Excuse me!"
Dixon looked at Lance warily. "Yes?"
"As the sheriff of one of the towns on your list, I think we should have a say about this. We don't need any extra manpower. We're overstaffed as it is, and I can promise you, we haven't had any trouble with the drug trade anywhere around Mad Creek."
Lance was in his most intense mode. His voice made Roman shift in his chair uncomfortably, even though it wasn't directed at him. But Dixon just narrowed his eyes. "Mad Creek? Are you Sheriff Beaufort?"
"I certainly am."
Dixon nodded. "Well, Sheriff, I'm afraid you don't have any say over this. This is a federal operation, and we've chosen the locations for this task force strategically." He brought up another slide showing the Sierra Nevadas with circles over every town he'd listed and lines interconnecting them. Mad Creek was one of the towns most distant from all the others, so it was clear to Roman they held a key position. Maybe it was clear to Lance too. He sat back down, his blue eyes bright with worry. Roman's instinct was to rub his arm and shoulder up against Lance, to soothe him. But that was dog behavior. He remained still.
Dixon went on. "I'll be running the operation from here and coordinating with the Forest Service. The DEA task force members located in these towns will report to me. They'll work fairly independently day to day, but there may be times when they'll need your assistance. For example if they need to investigate a suspicious site. We hope you'll—"
Lance popped up again. "Excuse me! If we have to have an additional staff member in our office to coordinate with this 'Green Ghost' task force, can we be allowed to hire them ourselves? I have several candidates—"
"Sheriff Beaufort, these will be specially trained DEA agents, on our payroll. No, you will not be hiring them or interviewing them or picking out their clothes. They're our agents and they will be assigned to your town. They will sit in your office, if you would be so accommodating, but they will not report to you. Is that clear?"
Dixon was losing patience, and so were the other people in the room. Some turned in their seats to give Lance begrudging glances. Maybe, Roman thought, they also wanted more of those donuts with the white frosting and raisins, so they wanted the presentation to hurry up and end.
But Lance didn't care. He was a good-looking and charismatic man with his thick black hair, tight compact build, and turquoise blue eyes. For a long moment, Lance stared at the DEA man, his shoulders high and tight in a warning. Dixon stared back. No human being on this earth could out-stare Lance Beaufort, so the man gave up first. He went back to his slide show and continued to talk, ignoring Lance. Lance sat down.
Roman could feel the anger coming off Lance in waves. He understood why Lance wasn't happy. He didn't want a stranger in Mad Creek, not a stranger like this, an investigator who'd be looking down every dirt road, who’d be sitting in their office. Roman pushed down a growl. He didn't want that either. He loved the sheriff's office in Mad Creek, where he had his very own desk in a room he shared with Charlie. There was even a little sign with his name on it and everything! Everyone who worked in the office was quickened. They'd have to be so careful with a stranger around.
Dixon went on to discuss the details of Operation Green Ghost. Roman did his best to listen. But he was too aware of Lance's anger, too aware of the fact that all this spying would be over the homes of people he knew and land he loved. It made him feel edgy and threatened.
Mad Creek was a safe haven for so many souls—good souls, trusting souls, sometimes lost souls. He should know. He'd been lost himself.
After the meeting broke up, Lance pulled Roman aside in the hall. "Stay here. I'm going to go talk to the district supervisor, see if I can't do something about this." His blue eyes burned so bright it almost hurt to look at them. He kept his voice low so only Roman could hear. "I can't push too hard, though, or I’ll just draw more attention to Mad Creek. Goddamn it. Just don't talk to anyone. And don't do anything… weird. Okay? I'll be back."
* * *
Roman waited in the hall.
The Fresno County Sheriff's Office was a low stone building. There were wooden planks on the walls and they were covered with pictures, certificates, and maps. Roman kept his back to a wall, standing in parade rest. In his deputy’s uniform—green pants, green tie, khaki shirt, and badge—people passed him with barely a glance, like he was security, like he belonged there.
They didn't guard their tongues either. He heard a few men complain about Lance, wondering what his issue was, if he was just a control freak or had something going on 'up there'. Lance was right. If they protested too much, people would get suspicious. An older woman in uniform was telling stories about drug crimes in her area and others talked about their budgets or bad knees. The people all smelled of too much coffee and fast food—a slightly rancid oily smell. Roman stood still, waiting.
The hall emptied as people made their way outside. Lance still hadn't returned. Roman's gaze darted down the hall where there was the door of a men's room. He sure would like to use the bathroom before the long drive back to Mad Creek. Should he wait for Lance to ask permission?
Would a real man wait to ask permission? Probably not. Lance was his boss, not his master. And it wasn't as though Roman was guarding anything. He was just waiting.
He sharply turned on his heel and headed for the bathroom door.
He pushed it open and turned the corner. There were three urinals on the white tiled wall, two stalls, and some sinks. There was also a man already in the room. He was in the process of peeing into a urinal.
Roman's eyes snapped away, but not before he registered the black DEA T-shirt stretched across broad shoulders and the slender waist. The man was young, fit, had a soldier's build, and dark brown hair that was short in the back but longer on top. The scent of the man's urine was ripe in the air as Roman moved to the urinal closest to the door—and farthest from the man. He knew to keep his distance even though everything inside him itched to get closer, smell deeper.
Human ways were just plain baffling sometimes. A dog's instinct was to size up a stranger by sniffing their scent. That made so much sense! His brain stored smells very precisely. He could remember if he'd smelled that creature before, if he’d found its urine on a tree or in the grass. He could even tell if it was sick and what it had been eating recently.
But humans hated it when you sniffed their crotch as a dog. In human form, well, it was so far out of line, it would land you in a fight. Roman should know. He'd gotten in a few fights for that very reason when he was still young enough not to understand.
Roman stared down as he took out his penis and held himself over the basin. He hesitated another moment, though, unable to resist testing the pure urine smell in the air one more time, reading what it had to tell him… male, excellent health, at reproductive peak, hasn't eaten sugar lately, faint traces of beer. He could also smell the man himself—warm and faintly sweaty, a frustrated sweat, like he'd done something unpleasant recently.
Satisfied he knew the score, Roman let himself go. He didn't look up. When he finished and zipped his pants, he was surprised to see that the guy was still standing at his urinal. He was trying, with his right hand, to get the button at the top of his pants through the hole. His left arm was in a sling. Immediately images of dogs and men, broken and limping, came to mind along with a wave of pity. Afghanistan.
The man glanced at Roman, his eyes bright with frustration. "I'm left-handed, of course. Son-of-a-bitch pants."
Without a second thought, Roman crossed the space between them in one stride and dropped to his knees. "I can do it."
He grabbed both sides of the man's waistband, tugging them together and slipping the button through the hole. Above him, the man tensed and slowly moved his right hand out of the way. Roman grabbed the zipper and put his fingers inside the waistband to hold it still as he moved the zipper up.
"There." As he released the pants, his fingers brushed across a soft-hard bulge that was growing under the canvas fabric. At the same moment, a musky scent rose up, perplexing Roman. He frowned, still on his knees. He couldn't resist—his nostrils flared as he tried for another whiff, staring at the bulge in the canvas. It smelled like… musky tangerines, like when a tangerine is past ripe and is just starting to go moldy. Roman liked the smell. A lot.
The man took a step back. "Thanks, I… wow. That's an, uh… interesting technique."
Roman got to his feet and looked at the man's face. He was very good at reading faces and the expression he saw there confused him—mouth slightly open, eyes evaluating him in a warm and curious way that he'd never seen before. Then the man's expression changed to one of surprise.
"Oh my God! You're that guy!"
Roman saw it too and everything clicked. He knew this man. This was the DEA SWAT soldier that he'd gone after during that drug bust several months ago. In all the tension and confusion of the drug raid—the one he and Lance were supposed to be merely watching—Roman had seen this man get shot in the distance and had snapped. Something about the way his square jaw and the shape of his nose had looked in the dim light…. Roman had been convinced in that instant that the man was James. He’d run right into the firefight, endangering Lance, endangering himself, and the mission.
No one had been hurt, and Roman had managed to drag this man to safety, but that was mere luck. The mistake had been one of the most humiliating moments of Roman's career—either as a man or a dog.
Unsure how to respond, Roman ducked his head and went to the sink. He turned on the water to wash off the scent of the man, and his own scent, from his hands.
"You're the guy who pulled me out of that fire fight in Coarsegold." The man was at his side by then, only a few feet away. Roman met his gaze in the mirror. The man had large, brown eyes with long lashes, and his square jaw did make him look a little like James. His expression was excited. "That's where I—my arm. It was shot up pretty bad."
"Sorry." Roman's gaze dropped to the man's arm where it was bent and flush against his chest in a black sling.
"Eh, modern medicine, you know? PT and all that shit. It's coming back. Anyway, I'd probably be dead if you hadn't pulled me out. But man, that was some crazy-ass stunt. You could have been killed!"
"I know." Humiliation burned in Roman's chest. He shut off the water and grabbed a few paper towels. He hadn't thought about that night in many weeks now. It was not a good memory. He tossed the paper towels and turned, not having much choice. The man stood there watching him. His gaze was too sharp and observant. Roman felt nervous.
"Hang on a sec." The guy reached around Roman to wash his right hand and dry it. "There." With a sheepish smile, he stuck out his hand. "I've been wanting to shake your hand, but I figured I should wash first. Not that you weren't just practically touching my junk, but it's only polite."
There was a sharp lilting bite to his words that Roman recognized as humor, even if he didn't quite get why it was funny. He shook the man's hand.
"I'm Matt, Matt Barclay. I thought about you, you know. Sort of wanted to try to find you and thank you, but I thought you were a civie. You're a sheriff's deputy?" He looked at Roman's badge, his hand still clasping Roman's. Roman didn't pull away. He liked Matt's strong-gentle grip. He missed being touched.
"I am now. Deputy Roman Charsguard. Mad Creek."
A complicated series of expressions moved over Matt's face, and he dropped Roman's hand. "You're… Mad Creek, huh?"
Matt looked away. "Of course you are," he muttered to himself. With his good right hand, he ruffled his own hair and huffed out a bemused laugh, though Roman didn't have the first idea why. "Well, Roman… Are you as unwelcoming as your sheriff?"
Roman wasn't sure how to respond to that. He didn't always understand the subtleties of human communication, but he got the feeling the man didn't like Lance. Roman didn't want to say or do anything against Lance, so he said nothing.
Matt shook his head and started for the door. "Right. Well. Anyway. What I said before—thank you."
Roman knew he'd disappointed the man and was sorry. He didn't dislike Matt. In fact, he thought Matt’s military bearing and short hair were very nice. He reminded Roman of the old days. And he had a pleasant face too.
"Good-bye, Matt Barclay," he said. "Maybe we'll meet again."
Matt gave him a funny smile. "Oh, you can count on it."