“You really should learn to do this yourself, Alex.” Mom tsked as she turned the shirt to work on ironing the right sleeve. She was the only one who called him Alex—A. Wolf, some researcher’s idea of a joke.
“I know. I’m sorry.” Wolf leaned against the counter devouring his eggs and bacon. Maybe it was one of those bad son things, but he’d always liked this. Standing in the kitchen with her first thing, with the iron going back and forth, back and forth was soothing. “I’ve watched you lots of times?”
“It’s not the same as doing. You know that.” She gave that sort of definite nod she had when coming to a decision. “When you come home tonight, you have a date with the ironing board.”
“No, before.” With a little flourish, she set the iron aside and whipped his shirt off the board. Then she glanced up and laughed. “Your face! You’re not going to die if we have dinner fifteen minutes late.”
Wolf couldn’t help a disgruntled growl. “I get so hungry at work.”
“All part of the adulting we’re supposed to be working on this week.” Mom draped his uniform shirt over a chair. “Sometimes you have to put the things you want off until you get the things you have to done.”
“Yeah, yeah, impulse control.” He glowered at his work boots. Being human sucked some days. At least there’d been the good kind of bacon for breakfast. He licked his plate clean and set it in the sink.
“Exactly.” She wrapped her arms around him, her silver hair just tickling his chin. Had she always been so small? “You’re doing so well these days and I’m so proud of you. But I worry. I won’t always be here, sweetie.”
“Mom, don’t say things like that.” He held her tight and kept the howl that wanted out to a whimper. He wished he could tell her that she would live forever. She had to. But he knew that wasn’t how things worked. “I miss Dad.”
She bustled to put away the ironing board, swiping at her eyes. “I do too. Every day. We always will and that’s normal. Get yourself presentable, Alex. You’re going to be late. Lunch is in the fridge.”
Well, fuck. Now he’d upset her. It always made his stomach ache. He hurried to get on his uniform shirt and tie, stopping at the mirror in the hall to make sure everything was straight. That had been one of his proudest days, when he’d first managed to make a tie sit straight and neat. Dad had been so pleased.
Wolf snagged his lunch from the fridge and his hat from the hall table, then did a quick about face and hurried back to the kitchen to kiss his human mother’s cheek. “Love you, Mom.”
“Love you, too.” She gave him a quick peck and smiled for him though her eyes were still red-rimmed. “Be careful today. Come back in one piece.”
“Always.” He shot her a grin before going out the front door, their goodbye routine ever since he’d been accepted to the police academy. Except Dad had once been part of that ritual, too.
At twenty-eight, Wolf was already twice as old as the oldest of his kind. His original kind. One of the issues the researchers had never been able to agree on was whether he would have a wolf lifespan or a human one, or something in between. Human was looking more likely but even humans didn’t live forever. His adopted parents had grown old and his heart felt stomped on thinking about it.
It had been almost a year since Dad’s heart had given out. Mom was doing better, so was Wolf, but he had howled for three nights running to the point where the neighbors had called the police. The regular police. That had been embarrassing for everyone involved and one of the officers had finally called Carrington to come talk Wolf down from the roof.
He jogged down the front steps to his waiting Wrangler and turned to wave to Mom as he drove away. The three-story semi-detached shrank in the rearview as he drove down to the bottom of Terrace St. Probably would’ve been better if he’d taken SEPTA to work but then Krisk would have needed to take public transit too. That would’ve just been too strange for everybody.
Both of them had adapted to the human world as best they could but with his huge feet that overshot the pedals and his tail that made sitting in the driver’s seat uncomfortable and awkward, Krisk had never mastered driving. His house in East Falls was on the way to the station, though. Easy enough for Wolf to pick him up on the way in.
A couple jogged by as he pulled up to Krisk’s historic Tudor townhome. Wolf returned their friendly wave, because that’s what you did with humans. Sometimes it hit him how weird it was that a lizard man could afford a house in this neighborhood. Weirder still that the neighbors didn’t seem to think much of it. Wolf had been inside and had been shocked by how upscale everything was when Krisk had invited him in for kale and fried mealworms. The kale he’d had to pass on but the mealworms had been good. Kind of nutty.
Krisk did have the best garden on the block in the spring with his herds of azaleas. Maybe that made everything else okay with the neighbors in a swanky part of town.
Not even a minute ticked off on the dashboard clock before Krisk emerged, pressed and polished as always. Wolf reminded himself to ask his partner if he ironed his own shirts.
Krisk shook his head, indicating that either he’d had breakfast or he wasn’t hungry. While he did hiss and snort, Krisk never spoke a word, probably because his mouth and throat weren’t the right shape for it. They got by, communicating in gestures and texts, and after four years, they understood each other damn well.
As Mom had predicted, they were late. Luckily, a quick jog from the parking lot out back and through the squad room—where Larry the ghost whistled while he made his terrible coffee—got them to roll call before the lieutenant came out of her office. Wolf stopped in the doorway to the briefing room, sniffing, and Krisk gave him one of his questioning looks, one brow ridge raised.
“Someone’s nervous. Excited. I dunno.” Wolf shrugged as they made their way to chairs in front of the lectern. “Yeah, yeah, I know. None of my business.”
Lieutenant Dunfee strode in soon after and proceeded in her sharp way through the briefing, all the usual sorts of sightings they knew would be false alarms, admonishments and assignments.
“That’s it for this morning, ladies and gentlemen,” she concluded, though she didn’t move the way she usually did when she was about to leave the lectern. “If you’d be kind enough to remain an extra moment, I understand that Officer Monroe has an announcement for us.”
Kyle rose hesitantly from his seat at the edge of the room and now Wolf could place the origin of the nervous scent. Really nervous.
“So, um, me and Kash…” His face blushed a shade of red that nearly matched his hair as he swallowed hard enough for Wolf to hear across the room. His partner, Vikash Soren, waved a go on gesture at him with an enigmatic smile.
“I kinda proposed and Kash offered a counter-proposal—”
“How do you kinda propose?” Greg Santos called out from across the room. “Asking for a friend.”
Shira shushed him. “So did you kinda accept and counter-accept?”
“I did. He did. We co-accepted.” Kyle waved a hand as if shooing off the words. “We’re getting married. You guys will all get real invitations ‘cause Kash says we should have them, but we wanted you to know first.”
“Don’t your families know?” Jeff Gatling asked from where he leaned against the wall.
“Yeah, of course. You guys first after our families.”
Carrington, their resident vampire, raised his hand and asked in his deliberate, languid tone, “But the lieutenant knew, yes?”
Lieutenant Dunfee cleared her throat in a meaningful way. “All right, people, stop busting Monroe’s balls. Congratulate Officers Soren and Monroe. Then get out of my sight and do your jobs.”
Wolf stood, shuffling uncomfortably from foot to foot. He never knew what to say at moments like these. Krisk had his serious face on, the one where his brow ridges stood out more prominently and his nostrils flared. It wasn’t an angry expression. Just one Wolf had come to associate with Krisk being thinky. He took Wolf by the elbow and propelled him across the floor to where Kyle and Kash were shaking hands and accepting congratulations from the other officers. All except Vance, who had stormed out. He might have been angry that two men were getting married but Wolf had thought Vance was past that. Maybe it was his own failed marriage causing their firestarter’s temper to flare.
An extra little push nearly shoved Wolf into Kash. “Um, congratulations.” He managed to say it then stood there awkwardly, turning his hat in both hands. He hated handshakes. They were just weird. But he’d long ago been dissuaded from sniffing other humans or nudging them with his nose.
Krisk stepped past him and took Kash’s head between his clawed, gray-green hands. Kash stood still as stone where another human might have flinched away. This was something Wolf had never seen before and he cocked his head, puzzled, as he stood back to watch. When Krisk bent his head forward, Kash mimicked his gestures, putting his hands on either side of Krisk’s head and bending until their foreheads touched. Krisk nodded and moved on to Kyle who had been watching, wide-eyed, but at least knew what to expect and accepted Krisk’s odd congratulations with good humor.
They had both forgotten about Kyle’s strange talent, though, or maybe Krisk hadn’t forgotten. As they walked away, Wolf had to suppress a snicker when Kyle turned to his fiancé and asked, “Have you ever had mealworms? I want fried mealworms all of a sudden.”
There was a long pause before Kash answered, “Ah. Wait a couple of hours and see if you change your mind.”
Krisk was letting out short, rhythmic hisses as they walked to their squad car to start patrols. It might’ve been his version of laughing or even whistling. Wolf had never been sure.
Most of the day zipped by in the usual way—keeping an eye out for anything weird, coordinating with the normal police when they could assist, and answering the rare possible paranormal call that dispatch shunted their way. They only received one of those toward the end of the day when a concerned citizen reported that an alien was lurking around trashcans in the alley.
“Just once I wish it was an alien,” Wolf said as he parked at the curb in front of the apartment building.
Krisk gave him an odd sideways glance.
“What? Every time we talk about it, you won’t say if you are or not.”
A shrug was the only answer he received so Wolf let it go. He didn’t care if the lizard man had come from space or the center of the Earth or some isolated mountain valley or whatever. Krisk was a good partner. Anything after that wasn’t important.
An elderly man thumped down the building’s steps to meet them, squinting at the pair of officers in front of him. He shook his head, muttering, “They’ll just let anyone in the country, won’t they. Damn Illuminati.”
“Sir?” Wolf kept as much growl out of his voice as he could. “Did you call in a possible sighting?”
“Yes, I did! Officer…” The little old man, whose head only reached Wolf’s shoulder, peered closely at Wolf’s name over his right shirt pocket. “Wolf. And you took your damn time, too. It’s right back there! You can hear it half a block away.”
Wolf cocked his head toward the alley the man had indicated. There was an unusual meep meep meep coming from just beyond where the sunlight reached but he’d put money on it not being from off world. He nodded for Krisk to go around the far side of the row of four trashcans. They would surround whatever it was to try to prevent an escape.
“Aren’t you even going to unholster your gun?” Mr. Concerned Citizen Crackpot called after them.
A tail thump and a glare from Krisk had the man retreating to the steps. The closer Wolf got to the sound, the more certain he was that it was an Earth species and probably canine. He crouched down near the wall so he could peer behind the cans and discovered a shivering, terrified hairless Chinese crested. He held a hand out to her, knuckles first so it didn’t look like he was being grabby. She whimpered and wriggled around, tail tucked in tight to her body, and approached him in little fits and starts.
“It’s all right, little one. You’re all right,” Wolf spoke to her softly, taking in her scent as she sampled his. “Come on out, sweetheart. That’s no place for a nice dog like you.”
Other canines reacted to Wolf in one of two ways. The aggressive ones saw him as a threat and the better-socialized ones saw him as a big friendly dog. Luckily for his uniform, she came to him instead of making him crawl back behind the trashcans. She climbed right into his arms and hid her face against him. The crest of hair atop her head was sadly matted and she shivered against him but her whimpering stopped.
Irritated, though not with the dog, Wolf stomped around to the front of the building. “Sir, is this dog your alien?”
“That’s a dog?” Mr. Crackpot clicked his tongue in disbelief. “Yeah, that’s it. Ugliest fucking dog I’ve ever seen.”
Wolf cut off a growl before it got away from him. “Does anyone in the building own a crested?”
“Not that I’ve ever seen.”
By now, passing pedestrians were giving them curious looks. A woman in a broad-brimmed hat walking her Pembroke corgi stopped to peer at the dog in Wolf’s arms. “What a sweetie! Is she yours, Officer?”
“No, ma’am. Do you live around here?” Wolf shifted his passenger more comfortably in his arms so she could peer down at the corgi.
“I do. Right over there.” The woman pointed to a building two doors down.
“Was hoping someone knows her human. Have you ever seen anyone in this neighborhood with a crested?”
She shook her head sadly. “No, I’m sorry. And I know all the dogs.”
Wolf threw a distressed look his partner’s way, but Krisk already had his phone out and a contact up. He turned the screen so Wolf could see.
“Got it.” With the tiny dog shifted into the crook of his left arm, Wolf made the call. “Afternoon. This is Officer Wolf, Seventy-Seventh. No. No emergency. Just a little lost dog.” He rattled off the address, thanked the dispatcher and gave Krisk back his phone.
In the fifteen minutes before the Animal Care and Control Team truck pulled up, no less than seven dog walkers had stopped to coo and exclaim over the little crested. Wolf wasn’t comfortable with all the attention but the positive interaction had helped her calm down. Two Animal Control officers got out of the cab and Wolf was relieved to see he knew them both. To be fair, so many paranormal calls ended up being animal issues that the officers of the Seventy-Seventh knew most of the AC officers by name.
“Officer Wolf!” Jason Shen, the male half of the team, raised a hand in greeting. He was one of those men who was almost as broad as they were tall. Of course, that wasn’t literally true, even if he was blocky and square-ish with hands that looked like they could crush stones. “What vicious creature do you have for us today?”
“This little girl seems to be lost.” Wolf tried to clear his throat so he didn’t sound so gruff. Jason Shen was a nice man but he always made Wolf uncomfortable because he smelled so good, not spicy or chemical sharp like so many human men. Just…good. “None of the neighbors recognize her.”
“Aww, hey there, sweetheart!” Shen’s partner, Julie Lopez, carefully extracted the crested from Wolf’s arms.
For a moment, he stood there like an idiot with his arms unmoving because they suddenly felt so empty. When he realized what he was doing, he shook them out as if he’d been holding the position too long and glanced around for Krisk. His partner was back at the alley, staring into the shadows.
Jason set a cloth carrier down on the sidewalk. “No tags. No collar. Crested purebreds can get pricey, though. Ten to one she’s chipped, Officer Wolf. We’ll find her humans.”
Face heating, Wolf turned away using the excuse of watching Krisk. He’d let slip the humans instead of people or owners comment once and now the AC officers all used it when they saw him. “Thanks. I…can I check later?”
“We’ll call you with an update, big guy.” Jason clapped a hand on his shoulder. Wolf struggled not to lick it. So many years with humans and some things refused to fade. “We appreciate that you’re always concerned.”
Wolf thought he mumbled something more or less coherent before Animal Control bundled the carrier into the front seat of the truck and Wolf stalked away to check on his partner.
He stopped next to the lizard man who was sniffing the air. Now that the smell of canine was receding, Wolf caught the scent of something odd, too. Something wrong. He gestured for Krisk to stay where he was. Of the two of them, Wolf’s nose was better and he could use one less sensory input to confuse him in the stench-swarmed alley. While not a rotten smell—not garbage or a dead mouse, or anything sharp like cat pee—it was disturbing. Almost burned in its undertones with hints of lightning-strike ozone.
The out-of-place scent led him to a far corner where rags lay in a pile too ordered to be chance. Someone’s nest, perhaps? Unwilling to stick his fingers in where someone might bite him, Wolf picked up a discarded paper towel roll and carefully lifted the top layer of rags and frowned at what he found there.
Wolf waited as his partner’s oversized boots stomped down the alleyway and Krisk crouched next to him. Shoulder to shoulder they stared at the contents of the nest, two dead rats lying side by side. Two rats together wasn’t strange, of course. It was the condition of the bodies. They were desiccated, nearly flattened as if they’d been sucked dry. Or—
“They’re like little mummies,” Wolf murmured. “That’s weird.”
Krisk rumbled deep in his chest but didn’t offer any reassurances. Without a word, he rose, went to their squad car and came back with a camera. Judging from the amount of pictures he took, Wolf got an uneasy sense that Krisk was more disturbed than he was.