Shifting Into High Fear
Ghost/god Wes Cooper and his not-life partner, vampire Hudson Rojas, have settled into cohabitation in an upscale part of Toronto. So what if their hoity-toity new neighbors haven’t exactly rolled out the welcome mat for the paranormal pair? Their PI business is booming, and when a suspect they’ve been tailing winds up in the morgue, it’s alongside a rash of other shifters in apparent drug-related fatalities.
Now Wes and Hudson must connect the dots between the shifter deaths and an uptick in brutal vampire attacks across the city. Throw in a surprise visit from Hudson’s niece—who may or may not be on the run from European paranormal police (who may or may not exist)—and guardianship of a teen shifter who might be the key to solving the whole mystery (if only she could recover her memory), and Wes and Hudson have never been busier…or happier.
But when a nightmare from Hudson’s past comes back to haunt him, their weird, little found family is pushed to the brink. Mucking this up would mean Hudson and Wes missing their second chance at happily-forever-afterlife…
This book is approximately 74,000 words
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It was too damned hot to be sitting in a car on a stakeout. It was Toronto in October, but you’d never know it by the temperature. Mother Nature was enjoying a last hurrah of 30-degree-Celsius weather, which was weird for this late in the fall. Granted, if I was sitting on a patio right now instead of in the black leather interior of a black muscle car, I might have a different opinion. As it was, I was pretty sure I was going to melt and drizzle down into a puddle like some Wicked Witch of the West knockoff. Or was it the Wicked Witch of the East?
“Which witch was which?” I mused.
Hudson, ex-cop turned private investigator, and my boyfriend and favorite vampire, turned away from the house we were watching. “Huh?”
“In The Wizard of Oz.”
“Still not following.”
“The one that melted.”
He thought for a moment. “No idea. My middle name isn’t Google.”
“That would have been very forward-thinking of your parents,” I said with a chuckle as I pulled out my phone. A quick search revealed the information that I sought. “Aha! I was right. The Wicked Witch of the West.”
“Great. Awesome. Can we focus on what we’re supposed to be doing now?”
But watching the house was boring. I mean, it was nice enough—one of those new builds that were popping up across Toronto in old lots that had been divided in two. The lower half of the narrow house was covered in river stone, while the upper half was dark brown siding. It was a daring look, and definitely not one that fit in with the rest of the neighborhood, but I kind of liked it. The fact that our subject shouldn’t have been able to afford it, as a junior accountant in a shipping agency, made it all the more interesting.
Didn’t mean I was keen on continuing this stakeout. “Hud, I’ve been focusing for three freaking hours. The guy isn’t coming back out.”
“Well, yeah. I mean, eventually. Unless he gets groceries delivered or something. But are we seriously going to sit around here until he does?”
Hudson pulled down his sunglasses to look over the top of the frames at me. “Do you really want me to answer that question?”
I slouched in my seat. “Ugh. No. I already know what you’re going to say.”
“—as long as they take.” I groaned. “I’m not pissing in a bottle like last time. I’m telling you that right now.” My phone chirped and I put it on speaker. “Ren, tell Hudson not to make me pee in a bottle.”
“Hudson, don’t make Wes pee in a bottle. And thank you for that titillating peek into your love life, Wes.”
Hudson sputtered. “It’s not— We don’t—”
“You should see the color of his face right now,” I said, chuckling.
“Oh, don’t worry. I can imagine it.” There was no mistaking the smile in Ren’s voice.
Ren Oshiro was something of an enigma. In the past few months, the vampire had gone from maybe-enemy to maybe-friend, and now I considered him an actual friend. His sharp wit and unflappable nature made him a fun challenge to interact with. Hudson didn’t dislike him, but moments like these illustrated that he and Ren were never going to truly gel.
“So why are you bugging us?” Hudson demanded gruffly.
“Just looking for an update,” Ren said. “Since someone was supposed to call me last night.”
I grimaced. “Oh, shit, I was, wasn’t I? Sorry.”
“It’s all right. I assumed your mate distracted you with wild sex, so I blame him, really.”
This time Hudson didn’t sputter, but the skin at the corner of his eye tightened. “We’re parked about a block down the street from Walter Gordon’s house right now, and we’ve been following him for most of the past three days.”
“So? Was I right?” Ren’s inner predator came through loud and clear.
“Not sure yet,” I admitted. “It could be embezzlement, like you suspect.”
“Look like they’ve been messed with, I know. And I don’t doubt it. But I don’t think the money you’re missing adds up to what we’re seeing.”
“Unless he’s been skimming profits for a lot longer than you originally thought,” Hudson inserted.
I scrunched up my nose. “Honestly, I don’t think this guy is that smart. I mean, little changes over time are a lot harder to see. A few new expensive pieces of jewelry, a couple of new designer outfits, maybe eventually a car and, later, a house—but this guy did everything at once. How does he think that won’t raise flags?”
Which is exactly what it did. Ren might own multiple businesses, but he had his ears to the ground in each one of them. When he’d heard about Walter’s change of address to a house he shouldn’t have been able to afford, he’d gone looking for the why and the how. And then he’d come to us.
“Anyway, none of my research has pointed at any other source of funds—he lives alone, he hasn’t inherited anything, and he doesn’t have any other jobs.”
“So if he didn’t steal the money from me, where is he getting it?”
“That’s the million-dollar question. So to speak.”
Ren sighed. “I need to know. As soon as possible.”
I glanced at Hud. “I get that the idea of him stealing from you sucks, but why the rush?”
“I’ve got an offer on the business. I want to accept it—reduce my portfolio—but I can’t risk selling something that’s going to bring unwanted attention from people wearing blue and shiny badges.”
Fair enough. No one in the paranormal community wanted the authorities to look too closely at them. Ever.
“So my accountants and I will continue reviewing the books, and you two determine Mr. Gordon’s involvement.”
Hudson sat up straighter. “Here we go.”
Our subject emerged from the house and trotted down the stairs to his car, looking for all the world like he didn’t have a single worry weighing him down. He jumped into the car, put the top down, and smiled at the sun.
At least someone was enjoying it.
“Ren, I’ll call you back.”
“Don’t let Hudson distract you again.”
“No promises.” I clicked the phone off.
Hudson pulled out and followed at a discreet distance, using those surveillance skills he’d honed as a detective for the Toronto Police. I snapped a few shots of the car with my phone, zooming in to make sure I captured Walter’s face when he turned a corner in front of us. There was no indication he knew he was being followed. I tried to emulate Hudson’s calm, focused demeanor, but there was a reason I’d never become a cop.
Okay, mostly because I’d died in 1933 and trying to explain my everlasting youth to my colleagues would have been beyond difficult, but still.
Walter led us on surface streets to a not-so-nice area of town. It wasn’t necessarily bad, but it wouldn’t be a place I’d be eager to visit on my own after dark—and I could turn into a ghost, so that was saying something. He stopped in front of a sketchy-looking Chinese restaurant called Danny Fortune’s that looked pretty unused to customers, and Hudson drove on by.
“Keep watching,” he ordered.
I did so as Hudson chose a side street, executed a perfect three-point turn, and popped back out onto the street with the restaurant. He pulled over about a block back, but Walter had disappeared. His Miata still had its top down—daring in this area—which meant he probably wasn’t going to be long.
Hudson shot me a grin. “Tag. You’re it.”
Finally. Something to do.
I slipped into the otherplane, the realm of ghosts. My realm, in a lot of ways. It was the buffer between the living plane and the beyond—which was something like the afterlife, heaven, hell, whatever all blended into one. An analogy I liked was that the living plane was like the jam in a filled donut, the otherplane was the donut, and the beyond was everything out there ready to chew its way through the batter.
Graphic, but it worked.
I walked across the street, ignoring the car that drove through me. The person driving it was a blob of shadows, which was how all living creatures looked to me in this plane. Inanimate objects were the same, though, so it was easy to find Walter’s car and the restaurant. I peeked in through the front window to make sure the coast was relatively clear for me to slip into the place. Despite the midafternoon sunshine, the interior of the restaurant was dark and uninviting. All the better for questionable activities.
I hated the feeling of walking through walls, but man, it made my job damned easy.
Danny Fortune’s had seen better days. Better decades, most likely. The interior was worn, its once elegant and rich fabrics threadbare and faded. The entire place sported dim lighting—not out of any attempt to set a mood, but simply because one out of every two lightbulbs were out. The tables were scarred with slashes carved by knives and notches burned out by cigarettes, a testament to their age.
I picked a dark corner where I could still see everything, and eased partway back into the living plane. The shadows that always obscured living creatures melted away, allowing me to get a good look at the players meeting at a table across the restaurant.
Walter lounged in a booth, smiling, his expression saying he didn’t have a care in the world. His fair skin was kissed with the sun—his nose, cheeks and ears were extra red—and his messy brown hair illustrated that he’d been driving with the top down. He didn’t seem to care that he looked rumpled. A man sat across from him—also white, with thinning dark brown hair and a large enough gut that he barely fit between the seat and the table. I could only see his profile, and it wasn’t a pleasant one. To the side, a woman stood, brown-skinned, her tawny, light-brown hair pulled back into a twist, no makeup. She wore a distinctive sort of collar-like necklace, muted gold with a black stone in the middle. Her eyes roved between the main door and the entrance to the kitchen, and she ignored the appreciative looks Walter was bestowing on her. A bodyguard? She certainly had that protector stance going on.
Go you, lady. Be that Amazon wonderguard. Just don’t see me.
The big guy held out a hand and the Amazon slapped a well-wrapped rectangular package into it, which he placed on the table. Three more followed it. Oh…shit. I’d seen enough reality TV cop shows to know what that was. Drugs. Of some sort. Marijuana was legal in Canada now, so probably not that. But it could be any number of other products.
Huh. This might disprove Ren’s embezzlement theory. Or maybe Walter was a greedy little shit who was embezzling and dealing drugs.
“Four kilos. As agreed.” The man leaned forward as much as he was able, pushing the packages across the table. His long, stringy brown hair cascaded down his back like an anemic waterfall. “You did good with the other batch. Do the same with this one.”
“Got it. You’ve got a great product here—my clients fucking love this shit.” Walter’s eyes lit up as he pulled the packages to him. “You got a timeframe for this one?”
“No more than two weeks.”
“Dude, that’s so easy. I’ve got it covered.” Walter tapped his fingers to his forehead in a mock salute and rose.
That was my cue.
I stepped back into the otherplane all the way and raced across the street. When I popped back into the living plane in the passenger seat of Hudson’s car, he didn’t even flinch. He knew where I was at all times—that was one of the many benefits of being mates. Or vampire-married, as I liked to say to bug him.
“Drug deal. Walter’s a dealer.”
I pulled out my phone and made notes about the big man and his female bodyguard as I told Hudson what I saw. When I looked up, Walter’s car still hadn’t moved.
Strange. “I thought he was heading out the door as I left.”
“Maybe he had to make a trip to the little boys’ room. Yeah, see? There he is.”
Walter opened the passenger door and did something—we couldn’t see exactly what, since the body of the car was blocking us, but I assumed he was hiding the product. Wouldn’t do to have it sitting on the seat if he got pulled over. After a few seconds, he stood up, looked around surreptitiously, and hopped over the driver’s-side door to land behind the wheel.
“Now that’s talent,” I said. “You should practice something like that.”
“I don’t drive a convertible,” Hudson pointed out.
“The Dukes of Hazzard didn’t either.”
He didn’t say anything to that, but his lips twitched.
Walter passed us and Hudson waited until he was a few car lengths ahead before doing a U-turn to follow. We trailed him northeast on Queen Street. We were both quiet—Hudson was concentrating on not losing Walter in traffic, and I was pondering what the truth was. Embezzler? Dealer? Both? Something else?
I was still silently debating when Walter’s car suddenly picked up speed and crossed the yellow line. He barely missed an oncoming streetcar and instead plowed through a black metal fence and into the trunk of a giant maple tree. The tree’s remaining leaves showered down into the interior of the little crumpled car.
“Holy shit,” I gasped.
Hudson wove around a few cars between us and Walter’s wrecked Miata, parked in the middle of the street, and jumped out. “Call nine-one-one,” he shouted over his shoulder.
Nine-one-one. Sure. I could do that. Once my hands stopped shaking. I fumbled with my phone but finally brought up the dial pad and reported the accident. When I emerged from the car, still unsteady from the dump of adrenaline into my system, Hudson stood next to Walter’s wrecked car.
He was draping a blanket someone had handed him over our subject’s motionless body.
I had made my living as a recovery specialist—a thief-for-hire—for seventy years, but I swear I’d spent more time talking to cops and in cop stations since giving up that life than I ever had over the span of my career. The cops became very interested in Hudson and me once they learned we’d been following Walter. I kind of hated to burst their bubble, but there’d been no indication that our presence had any influence on what happened.
It had been completely random. We were at least two car lengths behind at all times, nowhere even close enough to make his car go out of control. He was driving normally one minute and bam! Plowing into a tree the next. It made no sense. Hudson had suggested the cops might want to check out the passenger door, but left it up to them to determine if there was a connection between Walter’s sudden death and the drugs.
I leaned my head against the headrest in Hudson’s car as he navigated through the city to our area of town—the upscale neighborhood of Bridle Path, if you could believe it. Between selling my apartment building, the funds I’d put aside, and the insurance money Hudson had received for his burned-down house, plus the hefty price he’d gotten from a developer for the land—we’d bought a house I never dreamed I’d be able to own. It was made of gray stone, with a sprawling footprint and a turret breaking up its curving roofline, with five bedrooms and a living room, a dining room, an enormous kitchen and family room, a study, a breakfast nook—so much space. Oh, and a separate garage with an apartment over it. Plus a three-acre lot. Hudson had wanted space for his band—his family—and we’d certainly achieved that.
Hudson pulled into the cobblestone driveway and headed for the garage and its rising door—only to guide the car to a gentle stop before he reached it. “Shit.”
I caught sight of what Hudson had, and groaned. Four people loitered at our front door. Three of them—a young woman and an older couple—I didn’t recognize, but the fourth was our neighbor Marcus Kenworth, who stuck his nose in everyone’s business. He was a pompous, controlling asshole who thought his neighborhood should be one thing and one thing only—upscale and classy. We apparently didn’t fit into this mold. He didn’t like us, the hours we kept, or the fact that we were gay. I suspected he wasn’t a fan of Hudson’s tan skin, either.
Hudson pulled the car into the open garage and by the time we got out, Marcus was standing on the other side of the door. He was a short, lithe guy, smaller than me, even, and personally, I thought that was where a lot of his animosity came from. I considered having a short-guy-to-short-guy talk on how being short was a state of mind, but somehow I didn’t think he’d appreciate it.
“Mr. Cooper, Mr. Rojas,” Marcus greeted us, his voice icy. “I thought I told you we don’t appreciate random people wandering the neighborhood.” He glanced pointedly over his shoulder at the guests waiting on the front step, who were watching us with cautious interest.
“Did they damage any property?” Hudson asked, all business. “Did they disturb the peace? Are they undertaking any suspicious activity?”
“Well…no,” Marcus sputtered. “But they’re clearly not the sort of people who have any business here.” And neither do you, his pained expression shouted.
“Why, because they didn’t pull up in a BMW?” I challenged. “Or because they’re brown?”
Marcus’s pale skin reddened at my not-so-subtle insinuation. “I am not racist,” he hissed. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be talking to Mr. Rojas, would I?”
He pronounced Hudson’s name “Roe-Ass,” not even attempting to put a Spanish spin on it. I gritted my teeth, and the ever-present magic in my head crackled. Over the past eight months, I’d gained significantly more control over it, so there was no danger it would burst out, but man, I wanted it to.
“You’re trespassing, Mr. Kenworth,” Hudson said in a flat tone. “I’d thank you to mind your own business in the future.”
“One day, one of these random visitors of yours are going to be responsible for something terrible happening to you,” Marcus said. “And then you’ll wish you listened to me.”
“Not bloody likely,” I muttered as he stalked down the driveway and across the street.
I expected Hudson to start toward the house, but he was motionless, looking at me. “You know, he’s not entirely wrong,” he said after a moment.
“What, Kenworth?” I scoffed. “He’s so totally wrong. The people who come here looking for me—”
“Want something from you. Some of them are desperate.”
“Yeah, and I’m a god.” I didn’t stutter over that word anymore, which I counted as a significant victory. But my stomach still wobbled when I said it. “None of them are going to be able to hurt me.”
“That’s what you think.”
I tilted my head, because yeah, I knew what he was saying. I was technically dead and had been for almost ninety years. I could become a ghost and slip into another realm of existence. On top of that, a magical artifact had turned me into a god more than a year ago. Add it all together, and I was pretty sure there was very little out there that could hurt me—but there was still a tiny bit of doubt that I could survive everything.
Nobody had tried to cut my head off yet, for instance.
Oh, bad thought, Wes.
I stepped up to Hudson’s side and pressed a kiss to his cheek. “It’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. Let’s go see what they need.”
As we approached, I could see what I hadn’t earlier—the girl and the couple weren’t together. They stood out of reach of each other. The girl—young woman was more accurate, actually—had sepia skin and long, glossy, wavy black hair with an undercut on one side that made her look younger and edgier than her jeans and sweatshirt suggested. Her eyes were a rich chestnut brown that reminded me of Hudson’s from before he’d become a vampire. A hiking-style backpack rested on the cobblestones beside her, and she twisted her hands together as we walked up.
But she wasn’t the one who spoke first.
“Mr. Cooper?” The female half of the couple stepped toward me. She wore a simple dress without a jacket, despite the fact that the day’s heat was falling off rapidly now that the sun was heading toward the horizon. Her dark brown hair was gathered up into a bun at the crown of her head, with fuzzies emanating from the hairline like a halo. Her skin was tan, like Hudson’s, but a shade lighter. She looked tired, as did the man beside her. He had darker skin, and wore a plain but clean T-shirt and well-worn jeans that had no holes in them. They looked to be in their late thirties or early forties, but their age could be much higher, given that they were almost certainly paranormals of some kind.
If Marcus only knew the type of people these random visitors were, he’d piss himself.
“That’s me,” I said gently. “And you are?”
“Juanita Garcia, and this is my husband, Victor.” She reached out blindly for her husband’s hand and gripped it hard. “Can—may we speak with you, please?”
“Of course.” I turned to Hudson to make sure he was handling the other girl okay, and froze when I saw him staring at her, his bronze skin tinged gray.
Like he’d seen a ghost.
He blinked and shook his head. “Yeah. Um. Priya, this is Wes Cooper, my, uh…my friend.”
Wait, what? Friend?
“Wes,” Hudson continued, oblivious to the death stare I was giving him, “this is Priya Rojas. My niece.”