CHAPTER ELEVEN: NATHAN
"If you aren't in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?"
He called her that night intending to flirt - well, to make sure the girls had given Mase his assignments, but Nathan was pretty sure that even his ninth graders thought up less transparent excuses for doing the things they wanted to do sixty times a day. Surely, he thought while thumbing through his phone for her number, she would tear through the flimsy tissue of his rationale in the space between one breath and the next. She was a siren, after all, wise to the ways of men, and he was only a pencil-pushing werewolf with a fractured, frightened pack and a four-year gap on his girlfriend résumé.
But she said his name into the receiver with every evidence of pleasure. No greeting, no preambles, just "Nathan," with a happy note of uplift in her intonation, and those two familiar syllables in her low liquid voice hit him in the throat and robbed him of speech for a second.
"Hello?" she said. "Nathan? Are you there?"
"I'm here," he managed. "How do you like the place?"
"It's magnificent," Eiko said, "as if you didn't know."
"Actually," Nathan said, "I've never been up to Doc's place. Jess has seen it, but not me."
"Come over, then."
He nearly swallowed his tongue. "Now?"
This didn't sound like her, Nathan thought. He'd expected her guard to be up – hell, the only moment she'd ever let it down as far as he knew was right before she'd sucked his consciousness clean out of him, and that night she'd been raging, despairing, on the verge of physical and emotional collapse.
"Are you all right?" he asked, and felt his claws clamoring for release when she laughed: long, low, lazy. That laugh didn't sound the least bit wary or cautious or self-effacing. It was pure sex-on-fins mermaid, and he was at least as afraid of it as he was attracted.
"Come on," she said. Even her diction was different: her words slower, her vowels more drawn out and languid, a hint of slur from one syllable to the next. "It's got a great view. The whole city at your feet."
"Uh. Have you been … drinking?"
"Worse," Eiko said, and laughed again. "I'm in the tub."
"You don't seem … like yourself," Nathan managed tightly, steeling himself against the barrage of images battering their way into his brain. Smooth salty skin, hair tamed into a sleek dark skein down her naked back, shimmer of peacock just under the surface of the water. Chuck wasn't the only one wondering how that would work exactly – Nathan hadn't been able to think about much else since he'd found out what she was.
What would they feel like? he wondered. Smooth, like the skin above them? Ridged and whorled, like fingerprints, with sharp edges if stroked the wrong way? Something else entirely? Eiko hummed into the phone – only an absent note or two, but he felt his whole body shudder and twang in response, like a ruler struck against a desk.
"I've been miserable for more than a month," she said, her voice low and confiding. "Pardon the expression, but fish out of water, you know? Every pore screaming. It's so damn cold here this time of year, and so dry everywhere that the heat is on. And I wouldn't keep plankton I liked in the tub in that crappy apartment."
Another scrap of melody burrowed through the receiver into his ear, this one more full-voiced and assured. "Do you know how long it's been since I had my whole tailfin underwater? Ages." Her tone darkened. "Poor Mase has been this dry his whole life. I can't imagine how awful it's been for him."
Mase. Thank God, Nathan thought, a neutral topic of conversation. "He must be feeling better now."
"I had to threaten him to get him out of the pool long enough to eat dinner. We had some family business to discuss."
"I assume he's, uh, asleep now?"
"Mm. Two hours ago. He's completely worn out. The good kind, though. I think he's grown an inch in the last three days."
"Making up for lost time."
She paused, considering this. "I suppose so."
"We spent a summer in northern Maine once when I was a kid," Nathan said. "They called it wilderness camp, but really it was just a bunch of teen wolves running wild on a nature preserve. I remember the first time we all Changed together. Full moon so bright you could see for miles. Not a cloud. Millions of stars." He swallowed against the sudden lump in his throat. "Amazing," he said. "I can't even remember what happened that night, but I've never felt more like the thing I really am than I did then. Not before, not since. I imagine that Mase must feel a little bit like that now."
"Like he's not a mistake," she said, low-voiced. "Like he's really supposed to be the way he is. "
Nathan stared at the far wall of his bedroom, unnerved by the empathy in her tone, the note of raw yearning. They had more in common than he'd thought, he and she. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, you've got it. It's a kind of rightness. Like in that moment, the whole world is made just for you."
For a moment, they were quiet, the silence more companionable than sexually charged. Nathan took a deep breath, then blew it out as quietly as he could, little by little, his face turned away from the phone.
"I do feel a little drunk," Eiko said finally. "Your levels have to readjust after you've been out of the water. It bowls you over a bit. Makes you woozy until you recalibrate." Nathan heard the nearby slosh of water as she moved, and imagined it lapping around her, reshaping itself to the new contour and curve of her body. "Most Ningyo can't stay out of the ocean this long, you know. Not once they've Deepened."
"Even a salt bath is only a stopgap. If I can keep Philip and Serena from finding us for another week or so, they'll have to find warmer waters."
"But you and Mase are okay?"
"Song," she said, "can hold you and yours together for a while. If you know the right one to Sing."
"Song, huh? Like the one you sang to me?"
"The other night? Outside the club?"
Eiko hesitated. "No, not that one," she said. "That one was wrong."
"Seemed to me it worked okay."
"I wouldn't Sing you that one again. Not now that I know who you are."
"Not that one," she repeated. "This one, maybe."
She breathed a long sweet tone into the receiver, and Nathan felt the tight muscles in his shoulders soften. Another breath flowed out of her straight into his inner ear, another spill of liquid melody, pulsing with vibrato in time with his heartbeat, rising once and again and descending. His fingers loosened on the cell phone.
"Eiko," he said, fighting the syrupy lassitude stealing over him, robbing him of strength one golden note at a time. "What do you think you're doing?"
"This one won't hurt you," she said. "It makes you sleep, that's all. And dream, sometimes." Her voice dropped. "I don't know why I want you to dream about me. I shouldn't. But I do."
Nathan couldn't feel his feet. Or his legs. Or any of the muscles below his waist. "I still don't think -"
"Shh," she breathed into his ear. "No more tonight. Tell me tomorrow."
By the time he opened his mouth to argue, he was gone.
"Well, don't you look bright-eyed and bushy-tailed this morning, Counselor," Ivy said as he pushed through the office doors. "I suppose you're going to tell me it's clean living."
Nathan, whose eyes had narrowed at the phrase 'bushy-tailed', forced himself to smile. "I suppose I am," he said, as mildly as he could manage. "Any new fires to put out today?"
"Not officially," Ivy said, continuing to file her nails. "Off the record, I suppose I should tell you that the man who says he's the Satou kid's older brother was sitting in a Lincoln Town Car across from the front doors this morning, pretending to talk on his cell phone."
"Did you tell anyone?"
"I'm telling you. Since you seem to be the only one who gives a good goddamn, pardon my French." She held one heavily beringed hand flat out in front of her, studied the nails for a moment, frowned, and went back to filing. "Plus I might have called my cousin Myrna at the DMV and had her run the plates."
Nathan suppressed a grin. "And?"
"Corporate rental from the Avis at the airport to Satou Enterprises, contact name Serena Addison."
"Serena," Nathan repeated with a sinking feeling. Ivy raised a pencilled eyebrow.
"You know that name?"
Nathan shook his head. "It's unusual, is all."
"You should Google her for a thrill," Ivy said. "She'd fix that clean-living problem of yours in a hot minute. Red hair, cleavage down to her belly button, thousand-yard stare. Birkin bags and leather boots. Looks like a cross between La Femme Nikita and the Little Mermaid."
Nathan flinched at the word 'mermaid'. "Ivy," he said, "do you ever tell anyone everything you know?"
"I'm a high school secretary," Ivy said. "Who the hell would listen?"
Nathan looked at her for a second, opened his mouth, closed it again, and nodded. "Right," he said. "Well, thank you anyway."
"Any time, Counselor. Go get 'em."
He collected his mail from its cubbyhole in the mail room, waved hello to Les Adams from behind the back of Caden's head –really, Caden, again? – went into his office, and closed his door behind him. Then he called Chuck.
"Red alert," he said. "Literally."
"Yeah? What am I looking for?"
"A dangerous redhead. Heck, any pretty woman who we don't know and who looks like trouble."
"Ruin all my fun."
"I'm going to tell Donna you said that."
"Do that and see how far it gets you," Chuck said. "In the meantime, I'll tell you that a young lady fitting that very description approached me about the empty dancer position last night, and that she's coming in for an interview this afternoon."
"You tell me. Seems unlikely."
"I assume. Don't know what kind."
"She didn't say."
"Get it today," Nathan said. "And make her give you an address and a phone number."
"Not part of my general MO to ask the dancers a lot of questions," Chuck said. "Might scare her off. If she wanted to answer questions, she'd be filling out an application at New Boston Temps instead of coming to swing a pole at my place."
"If this woman is who I think she is," Nathan said, "she's here in town with that suit who was asking questions at the club last week."
"Seriously? Rich guy with the stick up his ass, wanted to know if I'd seen your Eiko? She's with him?"
Your Eiko. Nathan liked the sound of that. "One and the same."
"Sounds like drama. Maybe I shouldn't hire her."
"No, I think you absolutely should," Nathan said. "How can we keep tabs on her if you don't?"
Chuck made a noise in his throat that could have been a growl but was muted enough to provide plausible deniability. "For someone who won't call himself our alpha wolf," he said, "you're damn pushy sometimes, you know that?"
This was an old argument; they'd had it more times than Nathan could count. "You know as well as I do that the old hierarchy doesn't work any more," he said. "These days, claiming alpha just means your head's first on the chopping block. Who's going to protect the community if its leaders get into a pissing contest with the bounty hunters?"
"Speaking of which," Chuck said. "You talk to Sophie since her shift last night?"
"I was asleep before she got home."
"She's sort of freaked out. I'm surprised she didn't try to wake you up."
"I was out pretty hard," Nathan said, instantly awash in guilt. Eiko hadn't lied – they had been very, very good dreams. Sophie could have done a tap dance on his chest and he would probably have gone on smiling in his sleep. "Why? What happened?"
"Somebody left her a big tip," Chuck said. "Fifty bucks for a single beer."
"Yeah? Doesn't sound so bad."
"Fifty bucks," Chuck continued, "wrapped around a business card with the Oboroten logo on it."
Nathan, feeling his legs wobble, sank into his chair. "Are you kidding me? Jesus."
"You think he's going to help you, you're howling up the wrong tree, my friend."
"Any message on the card?"
"What do you think it means?"
"Couldn't say. Lucky it was pretty quiet last night. No trouble."
"Does she know who left it?"
"I couldn't get much out of her," Chuck said. "She was too shook up. You might want to have a word with her tonight, now that she's had time to calm down some."
"Okay. I'll do that."
"And then," his best friend said, "you can let me know whether you think it's worth the skins we're still sort of wearing to get more mixed up in this mermaid mess than we already are. As the non-hierarchical wolf who isn't in any way our alpha."
"If they need help, we have to give it to them, Chuck. You know that."
"Yeah," Chuck said. "I know that. But who's going to help us, when we need it? That's what I want to know."
Nathan didn't have an answer for him.
When he tracked Sophie down at home later that afternoon, she was pale but calm, drinking chamomile tea at the kitchen table with the side of her body pressed up against Jess's big scrubs-covered shoulder. Nathan sat down on her other side and scooted his chair in a little.
That's the thing about us, he thought. You push us, you're just pushing us together.
"Chuck told me," he said, and Sophie nodded.
"Normally I get a good look at everybody," she said. "But there was a big crowd around the bar last night, and whoever it was didn't start a tab. Just ordered the one drink – you know how it is when it's busy; people just shout things and slap down money. When I saw how big the bill was, I started to go over to make change. I didn't see what was on the card until I was at the register. And by the time I turned back around, whoever it was was gone."
"I honestly couldn't tell you."
Her hand was trembling very slightly against the table. Nathan covered it with his and bumped her gently with his elbow.
"Relax," he said. "Whatever they want from us, their focus isn't on you. You were just the way they could deliver the message without being identified."
"Message," Sophie repeated. "What message?"
"That they're here," Jess said under his breath. "They're here, and they're watching. And if we screw up they'll take us out."
Nathan glared at his brother over the top of Sophie's head. "Nice bedside manner, Doc."
"Just calling it like I see it."
Sophie closed her eyes. "I don't know any other place that does what we do," she said, her voice plaintive. "You and Chuck and Donna and Ruby and Marie and Doc Finestra and Selma and all the others. If what we're doing isn't good enough or safe enough, who and what is?"
"I don't know," Nathan said. "But it can't last forever. If we can get through the next week or two without anything suspicious happening, they're bound to get bored and go away."
Sophie nodded and cuddled up closer to him. He wrapped his arms around her, rocking her absently and trying to pretend that he'd really meant even one word of what he'd said.