"Anita, are you okay?"
I managed to say "Yes," but apparently it wasn't very believable, because he asked what was wrong.
I wasn't sure how to put it into human words, because my head was so full of leopard. I heard Nicky saying something and I realized that as my Bride he was probably getting some of what was in my head. I thought I should understand what he was saying, but it wasn't as important as what I was getting from Nathaniel, or maybe I just didn't have enough brainpower left to concentrate on words when there was so much to smell and feel.
I'd never realized that asphalt smelled so awful, or that car exhaust was bitter, and even the rubber from the tires seemed to coat our tongue and make it hard to smell anything but the heat of the cars and the hot blackness underfoot. It was so hot it hurt; it hurt to walk on it, and in there somewhere was a confused resentment that I was wearing boots that protected my feet, and how could I give up the agility and claws of my back feet. It wasn't that clear a human speech, but that was what my human mind translated it to, because I had to translate it into something human, or I might have gone mad. I wondered if part of the problem when someone first turned into a lycanthrope was that the mind they had couldn't cope with being inside the animal body.
I knew he needed to be off the asphalt; it was too hot in the late afternoon sun, so we started by walking into the grass. To the other cops it probably looked like I walked him to the grass, but in my head it felt more like I was following Nathaniel, so it was him leading me at the end of the leash. He stepped onto the grass at the edge of the parking lot with relief. His feet had been almost burning on the asphalt and would have burned if he'd stayed on it. It's one of the reasons they tell you to test the road surface with your hand to find out if it's too hot for your dogs to walk on, before you try to take them out on it. I'd never thought about it in connection to Nathaniel, because I thought he'd tell me if it was too hot or too uncomfortable. I took a deep breath and then let it out, and another, but I was still almost choking on the asphalt and the car exhaust. This was not a highly polluted area--I mean, it wasn't the Rocky Mountains, but it was still seaside and open. How did wereanimals survive in the inner city?
I put my hand on Nathaniel's thick fur and tried to focus just on him, just me, just us. I pushed away the fear of the smells around us and just trusted in Nathaniel and me. We could do this. We could find Denny. Thinking her name helped me find my quiet center, and from one deep breath to another I could feel the great leopard beside me under my hand, and me standing beside him. I could feel Nathaniel in there, not just the leopard. I could feel my inner leopard happily close to the surface, as if she thought this might be her day to break free and run beside him. I had a moment of regret that I couldn't, and then I was back in my head and still aware of Nathaniel beside me.
He started padding forward. I wasn't able to keep direct eye contact with Nathaniel while we walked, but I didn't need to; I knew he was following the scent, sorting it out from all the other man-made smells that weren't Denny's scent. My human mind couldn't make sense of the process, but I trusted that his leopard and mine would figure it out. I could put my sunglasses back on and answer Edward's questions. "Nathaniel said that the car fumes and asphalt are making it hard to pick up Denny's scent, but he's got it now."
"Did you take him to the grass so he could circle the parking lot and try to pick up her scent on the edges of it?"
"No, his feet were hot; the grass feels better."
Edward touched my shoulder. "Anita, I need you here and now, not lost in the leopard's head."
"I'm fine now, Edward, we're fine." Nicky came up to me and offered me his arm to touch. He didn't touch me but let it be my choice. I touched his bare skin with the hand that didn't have a leash in it. My AR-15 on its sling strap bumped me, because my arm wasn't helping hold it beside and behind me anymore, but the moment I touched Nicky I felt more solid. Nathaniel rubbed up against my leg, and the combination of touching them both at the same time helped more.
"Stay near me, Nicky."
"Whatever you need," he said. He kept one hand on my shoulder and the other hand with his own AR-15 held loose but ready, so it looked like we were trying to clear a room instead of trailing after a giant leopard in SWAT gear in Florida heat. Nathaniel picked the scent back up at the edge of the parking lot. He led us to a parked car, and my stomach fell into my shoes. He rubbed up and down the trunk like he was scent marking. He was happy, I could feel it, but my human mind got in my way. The car looked empty, but I couldn't see inside the trunk and I really didn't want to. It was more than ninety degrees Fahrenheit; in the trunk it would be hotter. Summer heat does really bad things to bodies. I didn't want to see those bad things done to Denny's body. I wasn't sure I'd be able to unsee it and I didn't want Nathaniel to have to see it either. Hell, I didn't want any of us to have to see it, but Nathaniel wasn't a cop; it wasn't his job to see nightmares. I was afraid of what seeing Denny stuffed in a trunk would do to Bernardo, too, just for different reasons.
I gave Nathaniel's leash to Nicky and told them to stand back a little.
"I don't smell anything bad in the trunk," Nicky said.
"You're in human form; you might not smell much more than we do," I said.
"Fine, do you smell a body?"
I had to force myself to think about that, and then finally said, "No; do any of you smell it?"
"We'll have the trunk open in a second, Anita. We don't have to guess," Edward said.
He was right, but still it made me feel a little more hopeful that none of us could smell anything horrible. I looked at Nathaniel where he was standing beside Nicky. Okay, none of us humans had smelled anything horrible. Something had led Nathaniel to the car. Normally I would have just thought the question and gotten an answer, but in that moment my surety of his sense of smell was overwhelmed with my very human fears. It made me head-blind and damaged my ability to sense what Nathaniel was feeling.
Bernardo had moved back to stand on the other side of Nicky. He was thinking the same things I was thinking, and he didn't want to see it either. Please, God, let her be alive.
One of the men in full SWAT gear despite the heat brought up the tool to pop the trunk. Even though none of us could smell that sickly-sweet scent of decay, my gut clenched tight as the trunk slowly opened on its own, now that there was no more lock to hold it shut. I tensed as the lid opened wide like some giant's mouth about to take another bite out of someone. There was something in the trunk, wrapped in a sheet. I didn't want to think body, just something, and I sure as hell didn't want to think Denny wrapped in a sheet.
It was Edward who used a gloved hand to lift the sheet. I saw Denny's short blond hair and then her face. Her eyes were closed, face slack. The sheet pulled back and I got a confused glimpse of her nude body curled up in a fetal position. I prayed about as hard as I've ever prayed that she was alive. Edward yelled, "I've got a pulse!"
And it was as if we'd all been holding our breaths and now we could move, we could run. The ambulance that had been standing by started emptying out a wheeled gurney, the EMTs running this way. Bernardo pushed forward and put a hand on the side of Denny's face. He wanted to ride in back of the ambulance with her, but Tyburn insisted on sending a female officer with her and keeping Bernardo with us. When Bernardo protested, Tyburn said, "We still need to catch the man who took your friend and killed Bettina Gonzales. You want to help us do that?" Bernardo stopped arguing after that. The ambulance took her away too fast to see much, but she'd had ligature marks on her wrists; I hadn't seen her ankles. Would they match the ones on Bettina's body, and if they did, why did the killer untie Denny and put her in a trunk? Why didn't he kill her? Did we have two abductors and only one killer? We'd found Denny alive--that's what I'd prayed for. I hadn't prayed to catch the killer, or solve the crimes, just get Denny back. God moves in mysterious ways when He answers prayers, and sometimes He answers exactly what you pray for, no more, no less. We had Denny back--that was
the important thing. I could still hear the ambulance sirens when Tyburn came up and told us we had two more missing women. Well, damn it.
THE MISSING WOMEN were from the same damn wedding party that Nathaniel and Wyatt had flirted so hard with. Maybe it wasn't about our guys who flirted with everyone; maybe it was the wedding party itself.
I suggested to Captain Tyburn, "You asked if it could be someone that had a vendetta against Bernardo, but maybe it's this wedding party."
"We looked into them and they're just normal kids."
"Did they disappear from the hotel like Denny and Bettina Gonzales?" Edward asked.
"No, they went to a restaurant with the rest of the bridesmaids. They went to the bathroom and never came back to the table."
He told us. "Herbie's."
It was the same bar where Andy the belligerent drunk had been a regular. What were the odds that two more girls would go missing from the same bar? "I may have a clue, but I need to call someone for more information first," I said.
"If you have information to share, Blake, share it."
"One phone call, okay?"
"One phone call, but make it quick, because I want to get you and your super-leopard over to the last place the girls were seen."
I nodded, walking just far enough away to have some privacy, and fished my phone out of one of the pockets on the tac pants. Micah picked up on the first ring. "Is there a reason that the local shapeshifter was in the bar where we found him?"
I took a breath and backed up, telling him we found Denny and we had two more missing women. "They were abducted from Herbie's, where we found Andy."
"The bathrooms are within sight of the tables; how could anyone abduct them without someone seeing something?"