TUESDAY, JULY 5TH, 8:58 A.M.
Someone had driven a tire iron into my skull. I could tell, because centered in my left temple was a vast throbbing pain that could only come from desperate injury. It felt like there were a thousand vicious gnomes leaping up and down on the iron, trying to increase the size of the hole in my head. I had the idea that once it was split open far enough, they would run down the length of metal and dive into the soft gooey grey matter of my brain and have themselves a little gnomish pool party.
Neither of my eyes would open. I fumbled a hand up to poke at them and encountered sufficient goo that I took a moment to consider the possibility that the gnomes were already in my head, had overfilled it, and were now flowing out my sinuses and tear ducts. It wasn’t a pretty thought. Then again, nothing could be a pretty thought when someone’d smashed a tire iron into my head.
I rolled my fingers across my eyelashes, trying to work some of the ook out of them. My heart was beating like a rabbit on speed, except when it paused with an alarming little arrhythmia that made me start hyperventilating. I hoped I was dying, because anything else seemed anticlimactic with all that going on. Besides, I had some experience with dying. It was kind of old hat, and so far it hadn’t stuck.
Unlike my eyes. I physically pried one open with my fingers. The red numbers on my alarm clock jumped into it and stabbed it with white-hot pokers. I whimpered and let it close again, wondering why the hell I was in my bed, if I was dying. Usually I found myself dying in more exotic locations, like diners or city parks.
A whisper of memory drifted through my brain in search of something to attach itself to. The department’s Fourth of July picnic had been the day before. I’d attended, feeling saucy and cute in a pair of jeans shorts and a tank-top. I’m five foot eleven and a half. Cute and I are not generally on speaking terms, so the feeling had been a novel one and I’d been enjoying it. The outfit had shown off a rare tan and the fact that I’d lost twelve pounds in the last few months, and I’d gotten several compliments. Those were as rare as me rubbing elbows with cute, so it’d been a good day.
Which did nothing to explain how it had ended with a tire iron separating the bones of my cranium. I walked my fingers over the left side of my head, cautiously. My fingers encountered hair too short to be tangled, but no tools of a mechanic’s trade. I pressed my hand against my temple, admiring how nice and cool it felt against the splitting headache, and the memory found something to attach itself to.
Morrison. My boss. Smiling fatuously down at a petite redhead in Daisy-Mae shorts that hugged her va-va-va-voom curves. Right about then somebody’d offered me a beer, and it’d sounded like an awfully good idea. I tried to close my eyes in a pained squint, but I’d never gotten them open, so I only wrinkled them and felt crusty goo crinkle around my lashes.
The only other thing I remember clearly was a bunch of guys from the shop swooping down on me as they bore a fifth–or several–of Johnnie Walker. With my last name being Walker, they figured me and Johnnie must be first cousins and that gave me a leg up on them. I was pretty sure my leg up had turned into a slide down the slow painful descent of hangover hell.
I gave up on rubbing my eyes and prodding my head, and instead flopped my arm out to the side with a heartfelt grunt.
Unfortunately, the grunt wasn’t mine.
It turned out my eyes were willing to come open after all, with sufficient force behind the attempt. I wasn’t sure I had eyelashes left after the agony of ripping through loaded-up sleep, but at least the subsequent tears did something to wash away some of the goop. I was out of bed and halfway across the room with a shoe in hand, ready to fling it like the deadly weapon it wasn’t, when I noticed I wasn’t wearing any clothes.
Neither was the blurry-eyed guy who’d grunted when I smacked him, at least not on his upper half. He pushed up on his elbows while I scrubbed at my eyes with my free hand. I’d gone to sleep with my contacts in, which partly explained why there was such a lot of gunk in my lashes, but I didn’t believe what my twenty-twenty vision was telling me. I was pretty certain the goo had to be impairing it somehow, because–
–because damn, sister!
‘Easy on the eyes’ didn’t cover it. He was so easy on the eyes that they just sort of rolled right off him as precursor to a girl turning into a puddle of–
All right, there was way too much goo going on in my morning. “Who the hell are you?” I demanded, then coughed. I sounded like I’d been on a three-day drunk. In my defense, I knew it wasn’t more than a one-night drunk, but Jesus.
“Mark,” he said in a sleepy, good-natured sort of rumble, and grinned at me. “Who’re you?”
“What’re you doing here?” I asked instead of answering. He arched one eyebrow and looked my naked self over, then lifted the covers a few inches to inspect his own lower half.
“I’d say I’m havin’ a real good night.” He grinned again and flopped back onto my bed, arms folded behind his head. His hair was this amazing color between blond and brown, not dishwater, but glimmering with shadows and streaks of light. His folded-back arms displayed smoothly muscular triceps. Who ever heard of someone having noticeably beautiful triceps, for heaven’s sake? The puff of hair in his armpits was, at least, an ordinary brown and not waxed away. That would’ve been more than I could handle.
“So who’re you?” he asked again, pleasantly. More than pleasantly. More like the cat who’d stolen the cream, eaten the canary, and then knocked the dog out of the sunbeam so he could loll in it undisturbed.
For a moment I was tempted to open the curtains so I could see if he’d stretch out and expose his belly to the morning sunlight. God should be so good as to give every woman such a view once in her life.
The thing was–well, there were many things. Many, many things and all of them led back to me being unable to think of the last time I’d done something so astoundingly stupid.
No, that wasn’t true. I knew exactly the last time I’d done something so astoundingly stupid. I’d been fifteen, and I’d have hoped the intervening thirteen-going-on-fourteen years of experience would be enough to keep me from doing it again. Only I hadn’t been shitface drunk then, and if the God who was kind enough to provide the gorgeous man in my bed was genuinely kind, there wouldn’t be the same consequences there’d been then.
The point was, Mark was so far out of my league it wasn’t even funny. I didn’t think I’d said that out loud until he pushed up on an elbow again and looked me over a second time before saying, “I beg to differ,” in a mildly affronted tone. Then curiosity clearly got the better of him as he sat all the way up, drawing his knees up and looping his arms around them as he squinted at me. He had a tattoo on his right shoulder, a butterfly whose colors were so bright it had to be new. His biceps were magnificent. He had smooth sleek muscle where must people didn’t even have flab. It was like he took up more space than he really ought to.
Which, in my experience, suggested he probably wasn’t human.
I didn’t realize I’d said that out loud either until he threw his head back and laughed, then scooted around on my bed like he belonged there, giving me a curious grin. “What is your name?”
“Joanne,” I finally answered. “Joanne Walker. SPD,” I added faintly, for no evident reason. Maybe I thought announcing I worked for the police department would provide me with some kind of physical shielding.
It struck me that clothes would be a lot more effective in that arena. Still clutching my shoe as a weapon, I scampered for the bathroom and pulled my rarely-used robe off the door.
“I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, Joanne Walker,” he called after me. I stuck my head out the door incredulously.
“Is that what you call it?”
“What should I call it?” He shrugged, a beautiful movement like glass flowing. “I’m gettin’ a kinda freaked-out vibe from you, ma’am. You want I should vacate the premises?”
“I want you should tell me you had rubbers in your wallet and you don’t anymore, and that you’ve got a nice clean blood test in your hip pocket. I’ll think about the rest of it after that.” I retreated into the bathroom again and poked through the garbage nervously. Funny what strikes a girl as relieving in the midst of mental crisis. Having a naked guy whose name I barely knew in my bed would normally be more than enough reason to come apart at the seams, but oh no. Give me a little evidence of safe sex despite drunken revelry and it seemed I could handle the naked guy.
Pity there was no such evidence. Despite that, my hind brain announced it wouldn’t half mind handling the naked guy. More than once. Which, in fact, I could only presume that I had.
“Sorry,” he said. “Still got three in my wallet.”
Three. I stopped poking around in the garbage to stare though the wall at him. “Confident, aren’t you?”
I heard a grin come into his drawl: “Looks like I got cause, ma’am. I had five to begin with,” he added cheerfully. I lurched to the door so I could stare at him more effectively. I’d developed some unusual skills lately, but X-Ray vision hadn’t been one of them.
“Are you serious?”
“No,” he said, still cheerfully. “Sorry, ma’am.”
Jesus. I didn’t remember the last time I got laid, or more accurately, I remembered in exquisite precise detail, and now it appeared I’d missed an all-nighter of action thanks to way, way too much whiskey in the jar. That was wrong on so many levels I didn’t even know where to begin.
“Stop calling me ma’am.” For some reason I found the ma’aming kind of charming, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be charmed. I wasn’t sure what I wanted at all. All my base impulses were to throw the guy out and hide under the bed until it all went away. It’d been an approach to life that had worked pretty well until recently, but a couple of weeks ago it’d become violently clear that the Chicken Little strategy wasn’t going to cut it anymore. Violently was the key word: there were two people dead because I’d refused to step up to the plate when I should have. So much as I wanted to take my shoe and drive Mike out of my apartment with it, I kind of thought maybe I should do something adult and sensible, like own up to my great huge flaming mistake and try to cope.
The tire iron reasserted its presence in my skull. I groaned and grabbed my head, now knowing where to begin, at least: with aspirin. I dared peek at myself in the mirror while I got a glass of water. Aside from the sleepy eyes, I didn’t look nearly as awful as I thought I should. In fact, between the tan, the mussy hair and what could reasonably be called a rosy satisfied glow settled on my cheeks, I actually looked sort of hot. As in sexy, not overheated, the latter of which being how I’d normally use the word. The robe was even this nice soft mossy green that played up the hazel in my eyes.
Mike or Matt or Mark or whatever the hell his name was, appeared in the reflection behind me. He’d put his jeans on and left the top couple buttons undone, which was possibly more distracting than him being naked. My eyes just sort of slid right down his torso and fixated right there at that little flat bit of belly before more interesting things get started.
“Don’t suppose you’ve got any more of those?” he asked in a woeful little-boy voice. I flinched, slammed the aspirin with a gulp of water, and handed him the mug without rinsing it or refilling it. Ordinarily I’d think that was gross, but under the circumstances, being squeamish about swapping a few bodily fluids seemed hypocritical. Matt seemed to feel the same way, because he took the cup without comment and put out his other hand for some aspirin. I dropped two in his palm and he popped them, then sagged against the bathroom wall with a groan and extended the mug again. “More,” he pleaded, putting enough pathos into the croaked word that I erupted a startled giggle. He gave me an adorable wan grin in return and I got him some more water, then took the cup back and drank another fourteen ounces myself. When I was done I felt like my equilibrium had been restored, which I knew perfectly well was a big fat lie, but I planned to run with it anyway.
“So.” I leaned on the counter and looked at his reflection behind me. He was taller than I was by at least three inches. I couldn’t remember having ever slept with somebody who was taller than me before.
For that matter, I still couldn’t.
My brain went augh again and I squinched my face up. Mike’s reflection made concerned eyebrows at me. “So,” he echoed, as if it might smooth my features out again. It worked, because I forced my own eyebrows up to make myself stop squinting.
“What was your name again?”
“Mark. Right.” I pressed my lips together, staring at our reflections. He looked sort of woeful and cute and headachy, and throwing him out seemed kind of like kicking a puppy. “I don’t suppose you can cook, Mark.”
He gave me a big bright grin in the mirror. “Just tell me where the kitchen is.”
The problem with my kitchen was it didn’t have anything to cook in it. Mark slapped around the linoleum floor barefoot and cast me looks of unmitigated dismay as he opened cupboards that would do Old Mother Hubbard proud. His butterfly shifted subtly with the play of muscle in his shoulder, like it might wing away from his skin. I watched it, and mumbled, “There are toaster waffles in the freezer.”
It was the best I could do. I had no raw ingredients in my apartment; the only reason there were eggs was my weakness for fried-egg sandwiches. That was as close to cooking as I got. The rest of it was frozen dinners and canned soup. Even the frozen dinners were a real step up for me. A year ago it’d been all about the macaroni and cheese. Since then I’d met a seventy-three year old man whose physique put mine to shame, so I’d started making an effort to eat meals that at least came supplied with a serving of vegetables. The seventy-three year old looked pleased, then started nagging me about my sodium intake. I couldn’t win.
“How can you have that body and nothing but junk food in your cupboards?” Mark asked when he’d finished looking behind every door in the kitchen. I looked down at my terry-cloth-clad self and wrinkled my forehead.
“That body?” I knew I’d lost some weight, but the way he said it you’d think I was a cover model. “I walk a lot at work,” I added lamely. “Beat cop.”
“It’s not nice to beat cops,” he said, mock-severely. I blinked, and a smile swam into place. At least if I was picking guys up in fits of drunken idiocy, they were not only handsome, but also even mildly clever.
Speaking of which. “How, um. I mean, who, um. I mean, um.” Okay, only one of us got the Mildly Clever Badge for the morning, and it sure wasn’t me.
“Barb Bragg is my sister,” he volunteered, somehow managing to translate my garbled question into something coherent. “Redhead? Yea tall?” He made a gesture around five and a half feet from the floor, and took a frying pan out of my cupboard. “She’s got some buddies in the North Precinct and got invited along to the barbeque. I tagged along. Never could resist a woman in uniform.”
I stared at his shoulders. Nice wide world-supporting shoulders that tapered into a narrow waist and hips that–“I wasn’t in uniform,” I muttered. He flashed a grin over his shoulder at me. His teeth were very slightly crooked. It was the only thing that saved him from sheer perfection. He couldn’t possibly be real, although my dreams weren’t usually this good. “Are you actually real?”
“Guess I can’t resist a woman out of uniform, either. Leastways not when she can out-armwrestle me.” He did a double-take at me. “Am I real? I donno. Did you want an after-party drunken philosophy answer, or just my driver’s license?”
“The license would be great.” I was pretty sure the average godling or demon or monster under the bed didn’t carry one, although I hadn’t thought to ask any of the ones I’d met. I’d try to remember, next time. Mark arched an eyebrow, then took his wallet out of his back pocket and tossed it to me.
I opened it and pulled out an Arizona state driver’s license that had a relievingly bad picture of Mark, along with his birth date–he was two years younger than me–and an organ donor’s stamp. A knot I didn’t know was there untied beneath my heart. I could look up his license number at the precinct, but the fact that he even had ID was an awfully good start. I put it away and let out a fwoosh of air. “Did I really beat you armwrestling? You must’ve been really shitfaced.” My biceps weren’t sore and I was sure I didn’t have the upper body strength to match his smooth muscles in a fair fight.
Not sore seemed rather important there for a moment, but Mark laughed, which was surprisingly distracting. He looked even brighter and prettier when he laughed, just all-around sparkling with geniality. I kind of liked it.
“Either that or I know what hill to die on.” In the time it’d taken me to peruse his ID, he’d taken over my kitchen, and now appeared to be making omelettes. I hadn’t known I had omlette fixings, but he was managing. Omelettes with chili and cheese, no less. And toast. He’d even taken a can of orange juice out of the freezer. Maybe I needed to get drunk and pick guys up more often. I’d never managed to get such a babe to sluff around my kitchen half-naked when I’d tried sober dating. Not that I’d done that for a while, either.
“Your sister,” I said. “She wouldn’t be the one in the Daisy-Mae shorts, would she?”
“That’s her, yep. A million pounds of punch packed into a teeny weeny body. Cute, isn’t she?”
I knew there was some kind of enormous cosmic irony going on here, but I put my head down on the table, held my breath and hoped, just for a moment, that it would all go away.
Instead, the doorbell rang.
From COYOTE DREAMS