POISON FRUIT CHAPTER ONE
Pemkowet in November is a study in neutral hues. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a beautiful place, but you have to work a little harder to see the beauty. Except for the dark green pines, the trees are naked and barren. It’s overcast more often than not, a sullen gray sky reflected in the gray waters of the Kalamazoo River.
Still, it makes you appreciate the more subtle charms that it’s easy to overlook on a bright summer day; the tawny expanses of marsh grass waving gracefully along the shallow verges of the river, the elegant yellow-gold traceries of willow branches draping toward the water.
And of course the dunes, the vast sand-dunes, rendered more majestic without the foliage of cottonwood, oak and birch trees that disguise their scope in the growing seasons. Those dunes are what make a little town in southwest Michigan such a popular tourist destination. Well, the dunes, the white sand beaches on the shores of Lake Michigan, and the eldritch community; and last month, the hauntings.
I was glad that was over. It had been a close call, but the gateway between the dead and the living was closed. The annual Halloween parade had been a debacle, but it hadn’t turned into a cataclysmic bloodbath. Talman “Tall Man” Brannigan’s remains had been laid to rest once more, and the local coven had sealed the mausoleum with all kinds of protection spells just in case.
And I was still Hel’s liaison, authorized by the Norse goddess of the dead who presided over the underworld that lay beneath the sweeping dunes, to maintain the balance between her rule of order and the mundane authorities. It helps that I work for the Pemkowet Police Department. Technically, I’m a part-time file clerk, but the chief calls me in to consult any time there’s eldritch involvement in a case.
That’s me; Daisy Johanssen, girl detective.Well, except that at twenty-four, I can’t really call myself a girl. And perhaps more significantly, there’s the fact that I’m only half human.
My mom’s a hundred percent human and one of the nicest people you’d care to meet. No one here holds it against her that at nineteen years of age, she inadvertently summoned my father Belphegor, minor demon and occasional incubus, with a Ouija board.
|Obviously, she wasn’t originally from Pemkowet. Well, obvious to anyone who was, at least. I consider myself a local, and no local would risk fooling around with a Ouija board. When you’re sitting on top of a functioning underworld, there’s just no telling what could happen.
The problem is that the Pemkowet Visitors Bureau promotes paranormal tourism while downplaying the possible risks, and as a result, we get tourists unaware of the very real dangers they might face; like the spectators at the Halloween parade last month, who weren’t expecting to encounter the reanimated corpse of an infamous axe-murderer.
Or like my mom, who was vacationing here on spring break with some college girlfriends.
If you’re wondering what sort of special powers my demonic heritage gives me, the answer is pretty much none, which is because I refuse to claim my birthright. There’s a good reason for it. If I did, it would breach the Inviolate Wall that separates the divine forces of the apex faiths—Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, all the big isms—from the mortal plane. And a breach of the Inviolate Wall could ultimately unleash Armageddon.
At least that’s what I’d always been told. It’s conventional wisdom around these parts.
Oh, and two weeks ago, one of the Norns laid some major soothsaying on me and informed me that someday the fate of the world might hinge on the choices I made.
No pressure, right?
When I asked her for advice, she told me to trust my heart. The problem with that—I mean, aside from the fact that it sounds like a line of dialogue from a Lifetime Movie—was that my heart was in a serious state of confusion, which is why I’d been spending an inordinate amount of time this November mooning over the subtle glimpses of beauty to be found in the bleak, dun-colored landscape instead of confronting the actual issues. And if one of the issues hadn’t decided to man up and acknowledge the fact that we had things to discuss, I’d probably still be mooning.
Mooning, by the way, is a particularly apt term when there’s a werewolf involved.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my heart leaped when my phone rang and Cody Fairfax’s name popped up on the screen. I hadn’t seen him since Halloween night, and I was pretty sure he’d been avoiding me on purpose, not entirely without reason.
I let the phone ring a few times before I answered. “Hey.” I kept my tone casual in case Cody was calling on a police matter. “What’s up?”
“Nothing,” he said. “I’m off-duty today. And I just thought…” There was a long pause. “We need to talk, Daisy.”
No kidding. It had been well over a month since we’d had what I’d categorize as earth-shattering sex. I hadn’t made a secret of the fact that I’d had a crush on Cody since we were kids riding the school bus together. Cody hadn’t made a secret of the fact there was no possibility of a real relationship between us because I was an unsuitable mate for a werewolf. Kind of ironic, since he was in the eldritch closet, so to speak, but there you have it.
My temper stirred and my tail twitched. Um, yeah. I don’t have any demonic powers, but I do have super-sized emotions that occasionally cause bad things to happen, especially when I lose my temper… and I have a modestly-sized tail. “Are we really going to have this conversation on thephone, Cody?”
“No, no,” he said hastily. “I just wanted to see if you were free. Are you at your apartment? I’ll come over.”
“Yeah, that’s fine.”
“I’ll see you in ten.” He hung up.
I spent the next ten minutes tidying my apartment and, okay, checking my makeup. For the record, I mostly resemble my mom; fair skin, white-blonde Scandinavian hair, a pert nose. The only trait I inherited from dear old Dad’s side of the family—well, aside from the tail—is jet-black eyes, the kind you don’t find in ordinary mortal humans.
Ten minutes later, I heard Cody’s footsteps on the stairs leading to my apartment, which was located above Mrs. Browne’s Olde World bakery.
“I brought cinnamon rolls,” he offered when I opened the door, holding out a bag. Mrs. Browne’s cinnamon rolls were legendary. All her baked goods were. No one, human or eldritch, can out-bake a brownie.
“Thanks.” I took the bag. “Come on in.” I put the cinnamon rolls on a plate while Cody hovered in the living room of my apartment, which seemed smaller with him in it. “Have a seat.” I set the plate with the cinnamon rolls on the coffee table in front of my futon couch.
“Daise…” Cody stayed on his feet. His hands opened and closed in a gesture of frustration. “I’m sorry. This is awkward.”
“Yeah.” I blew out my breath. “Sit. Let’s talk.”
He sat on the futon, and I took a seat on the adjacent armchair. The cinnamon rolls sat untouched. Mogwai, the big calico tomcat who more or less adopted me, peered warily around the door to my bedroom.
“How have you been?” Cody asked. “Since…?” He let the sentence die.
“Okay,” I said. “You?”
See, here’s the thing. I’ll spare the details, but the gist of the matter is that if Cody and I hadn’t hooked up that first time—which was, by the way, completely spontaneous and unexpected—it’s possible that we would have found the Tall Man’s stolen remains; or at least Cody, with his werewolf-keen olfactory sense, would have. There’s absolutely, positively no way we could have known it at the time, but the fact is that while we were lolling in the afterglow of earth-shattering sex, a thunderstorm washed away a scent trail we would have stumbled across in the course of duty, which would have meant no Halloween debacle, no axe-wielding zombie skeleton. All in all, a much better outcome.
I know Cody didn’t blame me, but I knew he blamed himself for it, which made a situation that was already awkward even worse. And it frustrated me, because it gave him an excuse to avoid me. Which is why I’d put a lot of thought into the matter while I was mooning over life’s subtle beauties.
“It probably wouldn’t have mattered, you know,” I said to Cody. He looked blankly at me. “You and me? Delaying the investigation?” I shook my head. “It wouldn’t have mattered, Cody. We spent a couple of hours canvassing the neighborhood around the cemetery that morning. Either way, the thunderstorm would have passed through long before we went to Brannigan’s house. That scent trail would have been gone.”
“Yeah.” Cody ran a hand through his bronze-colored hair. “I figured that out after I had a chance to cool down. We still should have started investigating right away and I’m not letting myself off the hook for it, but…” He shrugged. “That’s not why I’m here.”
“Why?” I asked softly, regarding him. He wore a worn flannel shirt and faded jeans, and it looked good on him. Unlike a lot of men, Cody Fairfax could pull off backwoods-chic. “Are you here to give me the unsuitable mate speech, Cody? Because I’ve already heard it.”
A corner of his mouth twitched wryly, but there was regret in his topaz eyes. “Not the long version.”
I said nothing.
Cody glanced around the living room, his gaze lighting on the small steel buckler leaning against my bookcase. “What the hell do you have a shield for, Daisy? Are you going to a Renaissance fair?”
“No,” I said. “It’s for practicing. It helps me visualize a mental shield.”
While I don’t have any special powers per se, it turns out that thanks to my outsized emotions, I do have an abundance of what Stefan Ludovic—hot ghoul, six hundred year old immortal Bohemian knight, and the issue I was actively avoiding—informed me the ancient Greeks called pneuma, or the breath of life, and George Lucas called the Force, or midi-chlorians. Just kidding on that last part. I don’t think Stefan’s seen Star Wars, although he has surprised me before. At any rate, under his tutelage, I’ve learned to channel that energy into a mental shield, which is handy for warding off things like the emotion-draining ability of ghouls—more politely known as the Outcast—and vampiric hypnosis.
It can also be used as a weapon, which Stefan warned me was very, very dangerous, and that I should not attempt it before he gauged me ready. Given that I nearly got myself killed doing that very thing, I’d say he was right.
“Did Ludovic give that to you?” Cody asked me, an edge to his tone. His nostrils flared slightly, and there was a glint of phosphorescent green in his eyes. In the bedroom doorway, Mogwai hissed and bristled.
“Yeah,” I said. “He did.” My heart ached a little. “Goddammit, Cody! We’ve been over this before, too. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t tell me I’m an unsuitable mate, then act jealous. It’s not fair.”
“I know, I know!” Cody took a deep breath and wrestled himself under control. “That’s why I’m here.”
I swallowed. “Is this the long version of the speech?”
“Yeah,” he said quietly. “It is. You know I haven’t been in a relationship since Caroline died—“
“You dated a ton of women!” Not exactly a considerate response under the circumstances since he’d just referenced his Canadian werewolf girlfriend who was tragically killed five years ago, but it was true.
“Human women,” he said. “They don’t count.”
Being half human myself, I couldn’t help feeling a surge of indignation. My tail lashed, and a few knick-knacks on my bookshelves rattled in protest. “I’m sure it would warm their hearts to hear it.”
Cody sighed. “I didn’t mean it like that. But it’s not the same, and you know it.”
Unfortunately, I did. The intensity of what I’d experienced with Cody was unlike anything else I’d ever known.
He shifted on the futon. “That’s why I never dated anyone for longer than a month. I never let it get serious. I never, ever misled anyone.”
“I never said you misled me,” I pointed out. “And you also never dated anyone longer than a month because they might start noticing a conspicuous pattern of absence around the full moon.”
“True.” Cody gave me the ghost of a smile. “But you…”
I waited. “What?”
His smile was gone. “You’re getting under my skin, Daise,” he said simply. “I wasn’t expecting it, but you surprised me.”
Oh, crap. My heart gave another painful hitch. “But.”
“But I have a duty to my clan.” Cody leaned forward and clasped his hands together loosely between his spread knees. “I know it doesn’t seem fair, but it’s not just one of those arbitrary eldritch protocols. The entire survival of our species depends on us mating and breeding with our own kind.”
“I know,” I whispered. “But…” I didn’t have a “but.” There really wasn’t anything to say.
“My family’s given me a lot of leeway since Caroline’s death,” Cody said. “But at twenty-six, it’s time I started thinking about settling down with a suitable mate.”
“Are you sure?” I was just stalling now. “Twenty-six is still young.”
“Not when you run a higher than average risk of being shot by a hunter or a game warden,” he murmured.
That was how his Canadian werewolf girlfriend had died. “But…”
Cody’s gaze was candid and human. “But it’s not going to happen if we go any further with this, Pixy Stix.”
Despite everything, I made a face at the nickname. “Oh, gah!”
“See?” His lips curved into a rueful smile. “That’s one of the ways I know I’m getting in too deep. I find myself making up excuses to tease you.”
“Yeah, if we were six and eight again, you’d be pulling my pigtails on the playground at recess,” I muttered.
“Not at the risk of setting off your temper,” he said. “That old boiler at East Pemkowet Elementary was awfully touchy.”
“Don’t make me laugh,” I pleaded.
“Sorry.” Cody rubbed his hands over his face. “I really am, Daise. But I have to try to do the right thing.”
“So… what?” I asked him. “Does the Fairfax clan have someone in mind? Are you going to settle down with your second cousin?”
“No.” He dropped his hands to his knees. “We’re careful about bloodlines. With a relatively small gene-pool, we have to be. Even wolves in the wild do their best to avoid intrafamilial breeding.” He hesitated. “Sometime in the next couple of months, the Fairfax clan will host a mixer.”
“A mixer?” I echoed.
“Yeah.” To his credit, Cody didn’t look happy about it. In fact, he looked fairly miserable.
“Okay.” I stood up. “Well, thanks for telling me.”
Cody stood, too. “Daisy…”
“What?” I spread my arms. “It is what it is, Cody. Like I said, you never misled me. I knew what you are.”
“I wish I could share it with you, Daisy,” he said to me. “All of it.” A distant, slightly dreamy expression crossed his face. “The call of the full moon rising, all silvery and bright in the night sky, tugging at muscle and sinew and bone. The incredible release of shifting, the incredible freedom of casting off your humanity and hunting with your packmates; howling to each other, howling back at the moon, howling for the sake of knowing you’re alive. The thrill of the chase and the glory of the kill, the scent of your prey’s fear in your nostrils and the taste of blood in your mouth. I wish I could. Because you’d love it, Daise. You’d fucking love it. But I can’t.”
“I know.” Well, I didn’t know about the whole taste-of-blood-in-your-mouth thing, but I knew what Cody meant. I’d love it if I were a werewolf, but I wasn’t and I never would be, which meant there was an intrinsic part of his life that I could never, ever share with him.
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence.
“So I guess…” Cody cleared his throat. “That’s all I had to say. I’m sorry, Daisy. I really am.”
I nodded. “Are you going to be okay if we have to work together again?”
“Sure,” I said. “It’s my job. I’ve been doing it all along.”
He nodded, too, and held out his hand. “Anytime, partner.”
I gave him a look. “Jesus, Cody! A handshake? Really?”
Cody grabbed my hand and yanked me in for a hug, hard and fast enough that I stumbled into the embrace. I wrapped my arms around him, feeling his lean, muscled strength, my fingertips digging into his shoulder blades. I inhaled his scent of pine needles, musk, and a trace of Ralph Lauren’sPolo mixed with laundry detergent from his shirt. He pressed his cheek against my hair, then let me go.
“Take care, Daise,” he murmured.
I blinked back tears. “You, too.”
On that note, Cody made his exit. I waited until the sound of his footsteps had receded to let my tears fall. If he’d just stuck with the unsuitable mate speech, it would have been easier. Somehow, the fact that he’d admitted to developing feelings for me made it worse. Mogwai wound around my ankles and purred, trying to console me.
“Dammit, Mog,” I whispered. “It’s not fair.”
He purred louder in agreement.
I got up and put Billie Holliday on the stereo to sing about heartache, then ate one of the cinnamon rolls. Neither did a whole lot to make me feel better, so I grabbed my phone and called my friend Jen.
“Hey,” I said when she answered. “Any chance you’re available to come over and get epically drunk with me?”