I WAS STANDING in the air-conditioned hush of Forever Bridal in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but since all I could see was a rack of plastic-wrapped wedding dresses taller than my head, I could have been in any bridal shop in any part of the country. The dresses were ones that had needed tailoring to fit their brides. I stared at the different shades of white, from dazzling white like fresh snow in sunlight to a cream so dark it was almost a pale brown, or maybe taupe. I was always confused by taupe. Who wouldn't be confused by a color that couldn't decide if it was gray or tan? The dress they'd finally let me try on was black, because the pale teal that matched the maid of honor's dress had looked so bad on me that even Donna Parnell, the bride-to-be, had conceded that we could try the dress in black for me. Since I was the best man, or best person, on the groom's side of the aisle and the men were in black tuxes with teal ties and cummerbunds, putting me in black would make the wedding party look more balanced, or that's what the store manager had finally said.
I stood clutching the overly long black skirt in one hand, so I didn't trip, as I talked to Micah Callahan on my new smartphone, which was actually so smart I felt uncomfortable using it, as if the technology were silently judging my lack of tech savvy.
"So, your clients have finally given you permission to share more info with your police girlfriend?" I said.
I could feel/hear the smile in his voice as he said, "They're not clients, Anita. I don't take money for helping people who are desperate." Micah was the head of the Coalition for Better Understanding Between Human and Lycanthrope Communities, colloquially known as the Furry Coalition. They traveled the country, some internationally, to help keep the lycanthropes and the humans safe from each other. Sometimes it was just to give lectures to the local police to help them deal better with this v
ery special minority in their cities; sometimes it was to settle disputes between different wereanimal groups before they became violent. The Coalition never went into another city without an invitation from someone among either the local lycanthropes, the police, or even medical professionals. One of the most frequent things the Coalition did was help victims of wereanimal attacks recover and come to terms with turning into their attackers come the next full moon. Micah had been a survivor of an attack, just like the people he tried to help. He'd been hunting with his uncle and cousin the year between college and high school when they were attacked by a wereleopard. He had been the only survivor, so he had serious street cred when he spoke to victims.
"You take donations," I said.
"If they can afford it, yes, and if it's a city government, we'll take a fee, but for individuals in need we waive fees, so they are not clients."
"Sorry, I didn't mean to step on an issue here."
"It's okay, Anita. I'm sorry--this . . . case is getting to me. When you see the pictures, you'll understand."
"Okay, if they aren't clients, what word do you want me to use in conversation?"
"Shapeshifters," he said.
I glanced around the store to see if there was anyone within earshot, but all I could see were wedding dresses on one side and another rack of dresses on the other, this time in a myriad of colors for other hapless bridesmaids. Turning just that much made my breasts slide out of the halter top of the dress, which had been designed for someone with a very different figure. I transferred my hand to clutch the top instead of the hem of the dress. As long as I didn't try to walk, the yards of extra fabric wouldn't trip me. My dignity was in more danger from the dress than my body was. Solution: I would stand still and do my best not to flash anyone. "I came out of the changing room because I could hear everything in the next stall. I've got as much privacy as I can find here, but there are certain words that make civilians perk up their ears and listen harder." I lowered my voice even more and said, "Shapeshifter would be one of those words."
"That's fair," he said, and sighed, not like he was happy. "You can use the word client for now, but I see myself more as their advocate. But that's beside the point. Use whatever vocabulary you think will keep this between us, Anita. They're finally letting me send you pictures, and those absolutely must be for your eyes only."
"I'm a U.S. Marshal, Micah. I know how to keep details to myself." I realized that it sounded a little crankier than I'd meant it to.
"Are you okay?" he asked, taking my crankiness for my feeling bad, and not taking it personally. There were so many reasons we were engaged to each other.
"Yeah. I mean, I can't believe that Donna decided at, like, the eleventh hour that I couldn't wear a tux like the rest of the men, but I'll live, once they figure out a way for the halter top not to make the wedding an accidental PG-thirteen."
He laughed, then said, "Ask Nathaniel to take pictures of the dress before they fix it."
"You can see my breasts without a dress next time we're in the same state," I said, but I was smiling, which is probably why he'd said it the way he had. Micah knew when I needed cheering up, or coaxing out of a cranky mood.
"We haven't been in the same state much lately," he said, and sounded sad again.
"You and I both travel for our jobs."
"I know, but I miss you."
I stood there in the ill-fitting dress with our shared boyfriend only yards away from me and was suddenly so lonely for the touch of Micah's arms around me that it was almost a physical pain. I could remember the last time we'd slept in the same bed, but I couldn't remember the last time we'd made love. It had been weeks. Had we gone a month, it was a first in the five years we'd been together. "I miss you, too. I want to do more than just sleep in the same bed in between business trips for our jobs."
"Nathaniel is staying in town with you, so I know you're getting sex."
I'd never heard Micah sound even a little bit jealous of Nathaniel before. "He's our shared boyfriend, shared fiance, and you're planning to marry him legally, like I'm marrying Jean-Claude," I said.
"I know, and if we could marry more than one person at a time, the four of us would marry each other, though I admit the idea of me marrying any man but Nathaniel, even Jean-Claude, would be weird."
"And do you have another woman in mind that you'd like to add to the group?" I asked, making sure my tone of voice was teasing.
He laughed. "No. The other women in our poly group are lovely, but it's not about the sex; it's about the emotion and being a couple together. I'm a couple with you and Nathaniel, but not really with anyone else, not the way the two of you are with some of the others." His voice had already lost that edge of laughter and was back to sounding tired.
"What's wrong, Micah? Besides this case, I mean."
"I told you what's wrong, Anita. I'm feeling crowded. It's not marrying Nathaniel; I love him. I understand that if you marry anyone legally, it's got to be Jean-Claude. He's the king of all the vampires, and he's close to being the king of all the supernatural citizens in this country. He has to be the one that marries the princess."
"I'm not the princess in this story," I said.
"You're not the damsel in distress, but as far as everyone in the media is concerned, you are the princess to be married off to the prince, or king."
"Nathaniel is enjoying the idea of all the weddings more than I am."
"He's enjoying it more than I am, too, but I think what's throwing me is the two-groom wedding. I always pictured a white-dressed bride coming down the aisle toward me."
"Nathaniel would probably wear a white dress if you really wanted him to," I said.
Micah laughed. "I know he would, but I think I'd prefer him in a white tux with tails."
"He's so happy you accepted his proposal."
"I'm sorry I hesitated even for a little bit. I just had to work through my issues."
"Nathaniel is your first-ever boyfriend. I know you never thought you'd be marrying another man."
"I hope he doesn't think I've been ignoring him since I said yes. There have just been so many out-of-town issues that needed attention."
"You spend time with us when you can, just like I do. Nathaniel got to travel out of town with you to Florida the time before last."
"And you couldn't go because you had bad guys to catch," he said.
"When we all go down for Ted and Donna's wedding we'll have some time to enjoy ourselves, because I won't be crime-busting and you won't be saving other shapeshifters."
"Did Nathaniel tell you that the shapeshifters down here wouldn't let me bring him to the meetings, so he had to go sight-seeing by himself with only a bodyguard for company?"
"He mentioned it, but we'll have time to sight-see before and after the wedding. Besides, if Nathaniel hadn't got to sight-see, he would never have found the hotel where Donna and Ted are getting married. She's getting her beach destination wedding and he's getting to be somewhere we can all stay armed and our badges are still legal."
"I know it worked out," Micah said, "but I feel like I'm not getting any time with either of you lately."
"It does seem like either you're out of town or I am the last few months."
"It does, and it's moments like this when I think that I need to start cutting back on all of it."
"Why don't you? I mean, that would be great if you could, but you know I would never ask you to compromise your job."
"Because you would never compromise yours," he said, but not like he was exactly happy about it. It wasn't like Micah to be this unhappy about things, about us and our complicated personal lives, or our complicated professional lives. My chest felt tight, my stomach started to knot, and those negative voices in my head tried to be louder, saying, See, see? This is the moment that Micah stops being perfect and drops the other shoe right on our heads.
"I don't know what to say to that. I'm a marshal. It's who I am, not just what I am."
"I know tha
t. I knew the kind of person you were when we met. I don't want you to change, Anita."
"Good. You had me scared for a minute there."
"I'm sending you the first picture; let me know when it comes through."
The change of topic back to the business he'd called about was so abrupt it caught me off guard, but I didn't protest. I was happy for a change of topic. My phone dinged to let me know the picture had arrived, but I had to take the phone away from my ear to look.
"Do you want me to put you on speaker while I look at the picture?"
"No, just look at it. I'll wait."
I did what he asked, going to his texts and seeing the image of a man I'd never met. He was bare to the waist, lean upper body, but not like he worked out--more like he was just young and naturally thin. He looked ordinary, except there was something wrong with his right arm. I thought at first it was a tattoo, then a tentacle, which would have been weird enough. I used my fingertips to expand the picture and found that the "tentacle" had a head where the hand should have been. It looked like the man's arm turned into a snake, complete with a triangular venomous head. I widened the image further. It was blurry now, but I could see the yellow eyes on the snake head, with slits for pupils, like it was some kind of viper.
I got back on the phone and said, "It's a camera trick, Micah. No one changes shape like this. You have weresnakes, you have beings like lamias and nagas that are part snake and part human, but the head wouldn't be at the end of an arm."
"It's not a trick."
"You saw it, in person?" I asked.
"I've never seen anything like that, ever."
"I'm trying to get their permission for you to show it to Edward. If anyone else might have seen something like this before, it would be him."
"Agreed. I could show him--"
"No, it would be a betrayal of their trust, Anita. Don't act like a cop on this one, okay?"
"I am a cop, but okay. There's no crime involved, right?"
"Right. I've sent you a second picture."
The phone dinged, and he said he'd hold again while I looked at it. It wasn't the same man; this one looked older, heavier, not in bad shape, just not with the slenderness of the first. It was his left arm this time, and it wasn't just one snake head. It looked like his arm had sprouted a bouquet of snakes, all the way up into his shoulder. It was very Medusa, but in movies there was something vaguely erotic as well as horrific about the Gorgon; here there was only the horror.
I took a deep breath or two before I got back on the phone with him. "Did you see this one in person, too?"