Over the din of the video game competition in the media room, I hear Az's cell phone go off. Her voice is little more than a murmur that grows increasingly louder as she moves into the hallway. I hear her promise someone that she'll be there shortly. I glance down at the clock on my laptop screen. Phone calls requesting meetings at two in the morning? No, that's not suspicious at all.
Az's head appears in the office doorway. Her ponytail is askew and the sweatshirt she stole from my closet is wrinkled. She looks sleepy and far too adorable for my peace of mind.
"Hey," she says, "I thought you were going to bed."
"With that madness going on?" I gesture toward the media room. "I'm surprised if anyone could manage to think let alone sleep."
"I'll tell the boys to keep it down. To be fair, though, just about everyone in the house is in there. I think we've started a new monthly tradition."
"What was the call about, Princess?"
She leans against the doorjamb, props one bare foot on top of the other. "Greer was letting me know that dispatch got a disturbing the peace call for the Eraca Coven. Again."
"That's their third one this month, Az."
"Well aware, Ricky. Well aware." She rubs the back of her neck. "Jose's going to run me out there. I'll try and smooth things over with the cops. If Matron Quinn talks to them, she'll wind up arrested. Again."
"Do you want me to come with you?"
"Nope." She grins at me. "But thanks for the offer."
I'm glad she didn't take me up on it. I'll tolerate witches for her sake, but I do not like the Eraca Coven. The coven of about fifteen witches has been a tremendous pain in the ass from the beginning. There are fraternities with more mature members than this coven. The witches have no respect for magic or the poor civilians to have unfortunate enough to live near them. Think immature sorority girls with enough power to literally crush anyone who crosses them.
"Call me if anything goes wonky."
"You bet." Az darts into the room, presses her lips to my cheek, and then races back into the hallway. I hear her thunder up the stairs and slam a door.
Though I tell myself that she's proven capable of taking care of herself, letting go is hard. I'm torn between the need to shadow her and the need to allow her to be independent. I trust her, but the words don't mean shit if I don't back them up with actions. No matter how much doing so goes against my instincts. And makes me question my sanity.
I compromise by standing in the hallway as she skips down the stairs with Jose hot on her heels. She's traded in pajama pants and a sweatshirt for jeans, a fitted green blouse, a leather jacket, and sturdy boots. The elaborate braid is one of Jose's more creative endeavors.
"Check on the chaos every now and then, please," she says as she grabs her purse off the table near the door. "I told the boys that if there was blood, then game time was over."
Good rule. One that applies to most activities that occur in the house. Jose salutes, as he follows Az out. He'll protect her with his life. Knowing that dispels some of my anxiety. No matter how good of a bodyguard she has, though, she can still be hurt. I should know. I was with her when she drained someone to the point that she was in a coma. She could have died while I was standing right next to her. It's going to take a long time for me to get over that.
If it happens at all.
Az isn't gone for five minutes before the noise in the media room makes my ears hurt, I step inside just long enough to give everyone my best glare. The sound dies down to a dull roar. With a satisfied nod, I return to my desk.
Twenty minutes later, my phone chimes to signal an incoming text. It's probably Az. I'm glad she's learned the importance of keeping me updated, though I'm surprised it's taken them so long to get to the coven. Perhaps she and Jose stopped for coffee.
The text is from Az, but it's not a simple check-in. It's not one of her grammatically correct cryptic texts, either. "Big mojo. Hadda pull the plug. Gotta go on vay-kay. Kitty needs backup."
Ah, hell. She had to drain someone, or several someones, and the overload of magic is going to make her loopy. Jose's never had to handle her when she's full goose bozo. We've kept her status as a void, and what too much magic does to her, a secret. Being a void makes her vulnerable. Having to take a break from sanity makes her weak. For too many years, she was kept subjugated by being bombarded by a steady diet of heavy magic. It's my job to keep that from happening again.
I update Greta on the situation, put her in charge of the madhouse, grab my jacket and my keys, and rush to my truck. The Eraca Coven's contemporary monstrosity is on the outskirts of the Montrose area. Most of the covens are located near downtown because they claim the bayous help them channel their power. I don't know if that's true, but I do know that I hate visiting covens. Parking and traffic are always impossible to navigate anywhere inside the 610 loop.
Flashing strobes in a rainbow of colors reflect off the blocky white house. I manage to squeeze my truck between a patrol car and a fire engine. There are far more people than I expected for a simple disturbing the peace call. Why would anyone call for a fire truck for unruly witches? Had Az minimized the seriousness of the call so that I wouldn't insist on going with her?
I lower my truck's tailgate and hop on it so that I have an unobstructed view of the lawn. I don't immediately spot a familiar blonde head, but that doesn't worry me. Much. She could be in the house with her witches. Catching sight of Officer Dave Nichols, a recent transfer to the Paranormal Incident Bureau, I leap off the tailgate and head to the front door.
Nichols pales when I approach. Good. The scent of his fear settles my wolf. "Alpha Haskell," Nichols says, lowering his gaze to the shiny toes of his shoes. Ahh. Submission that doesn't have to be coerced. Someone's trained him well.
"Hello, Officer Nichols. Would you happen to know my lovely partner's whereabouts?" His deference earns him my respect. I don't have to be an unreasonable jackass to get results. My general rule is to treat non-pack members the way they treat me. If Greer had understood that philosophy when he was first assigned to the PIB, our working relationship would have flourished.
Color blossoms on Officer Nichols' cheeks. His thick lips curl up in a dreamy smile. His eyes go a little glassy. Greta and I call it the Az Effect.
I tap his shoulder to drag him out of a Princess-induced fog. "Officer Nichols? Where is my partner?"
"Honestly, darling, you should just tattoo 'Property of Rick Haskell' on my forehead," Az accuses laughingly. She flits out of the open doorway and onto the wide front porch. In the half hour or so since she left the house, her neat braid has been ruined, her blouse lost two buttons, and something left a welt high on her left cheek.
Over her shoulder, I catch Jose's attention and jerk my chin at Officer Nichols. Jose nods and draws the cop off the porch so that I can be alone with Az. I need to assess the situation, and I can't do it with people staring over my shoulder. Protecting Az when she's weak is my privilege.
I cup her unbruised cheek to hold her head still. Blown pupils. Goofy grin. Feverish skin. Giggles. Yeah, she's on the train to Locoville.
She nuzzles my hand and sways towards me. "Oh, Rick. Ricky. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi." She breaks off on a giggle. "Love, love, love that story. Can we get a mongoose?"
"We don't have a snake problem, Princess."
She stops giggling just long enough to glare. And stomp her foot in true spoiled princess fashion. "Don't care about snakes. They're cute. We need one."
"We have Oscar."
"He won't let me cuddle him. Even after I apologized for wanting to wear him like a stole." She manages an epic pout, complete with puffed bottom lip, tilted chin, sad eyes, and crossed arms. "You should make him."
With an arm across her shoulders, I pull her in for a hug. I'm not sure how I feel about a petulant, crazy Az. I'd almost rather have straightforward silliness. "I'm not going to force poor Oscar to cuddle with you. He's self-conscious enough about being a mink. Let's not completely emasculate him."
"Fine," she huffs.
She holds the pout for another minute and then breaks out in giggles again. "Ricardo, you've got some 'splainin' to do." She giggles harder. "No, that's not right, is it? Funny, you don't look like a Lucy. Loosey-goosey. Are you loosey-goosey, darling?"
"What happened here, Princess? Who did you have to drain and why?"
Her shrug dislodges my arm. She shuffles back a step, shoves her hands in her back pockets. "One of the girls got dumped. Wanted to do ritual cleansing. Purge herself of the manwhore."
I'm willing to bet that last bit is a direct quotation from one witches. There are no witches milling about. Not even Matron Quinn. I expected the arrogant, prissy witch to be ordering everyone off her precious lawn.
"Where is the coven?"
"Sleepin'." She yawns widely. "It's late. Everyone is sleepin'. We should be, too. Will you sleep with me, Ricky?"
Gee, now there's a loaded question. And I have no business answering it when she's in this condition. "What about the ritual cleansing led to a call to the police and you having to drain someone?"
"Ritual cleansing after breakup means drinking, cursing, and burning everything related to the cheating jackass." Az rubs the back of her neck. "Problem is, he designed this house."
Ah, hell. "And they weren't going to use gas and matches for the bonfire, were they?"
Az shakes her head, giggles. "Nope." She giggles again. "'cept none of them is strong enough for fire spell. They made a magic train. I had to drain the engine. No more choo-choo."
Well, that's clear as mud. I think it means that she drained the entire coven enough to stop them from setting their house on fire. With an arm around Az's waist, I walk back into the house. Fifteen witches are sprawled out in the living room. I check the vital signs on a few. They're just sleeping.
"How long will they be out?" I ask.
Az shrugs. "Dunno. They'll wake up with a double hangover, though."
It's nothing less than they deserve. "You get everything straight with the police?"
"Jose took care of it while I was pulling the plug." She rests her head on my shoulder and slips a hand under my shirt so that it's flat against my back. Her skin is unnaturally hot. "I need to take the edge off. You good to take a little magic?"
It's a little disappointing that she's going to transfer magic this way and not through her preferred method. Then again, it's not the ideal time or place for a kiss. I nod. Heat spreads from her hand into my back. It feels a little like a sunburn. When the magic hits my system, I have to fight the urge to Shift.
"Thanks." She pops up on her toes to brush her lips across my jaw. "Home now?"
"Yeah, Princess, we'll go home now."
I instruct Jose to stop at the twenty-four hour Fiesta Fare on his way home and pick up five party boxes of tacos. I can't have Az incapacitated during an investigation. She'll discharge the magic into everyone who doesn't have to go to work, and we'll make an all-nighter of it.
The drive home is a test of my patience. Az fiddles with the radio until I slap her hands. She then pouts like a champion until I apologize for slapping her hands. She takes that as permission to mess with the radio again. Growling at her just makes her giggle.
At home, Az bestows magic on each member of the pack through a hug. As soon as Greta receives her dose, she grabs Ike's arm and hauls him upstairs. Thankfully, the bedrooms are soundproofed. Everyone else piles into the media room. Az curls up on the couch between Uriah and Mark, which isn't the ideal place for anyone to sit. Both are highly competitive and tend to get violent when they lose. I'm afraid she'll wind up in the crossfire and take an elbow to the nose.
Dispersing the magic amongst the pack drains away most of the madness in Az's eyes, but her laughter is still a shade too manic. She doesn't protest when I move her off the couch and onto my lap in one of the leather recliners. This way, I can monitor her sanity and keep her from winding up a walking bruise. Her hands weasel under my shirt to press against my back. Magic flows between us with every beat of her heart.
"You have to do something about the coven, Princess." I know it's not the ideal time for a serious discussion, but if I put it off we run the risk of getting distracted.
"Yep." She kisses my jaw. "Gonna have a reckoning soon. Either they get their act together or I'm sending them to the Motherhood of Matrons in Albany."
"Motherhood of Matrons? Isn't that redundant?"
"Possibly. But the last person who told them that lost his tongue to a withering spell." She grins at me, settles back against my chest. "MoM is like boot camp for wayward witches. Their magic gets bound as soon as they step onto the compound. They have to earn back every ounce of power."
I want to know more about this MoM and how long Az spent there, but my phone rings. Az laughs as she digs it out of my pocket. Her quick, hot fingers make several unexpected stops along the way. By the time she manages to answer the call, my blood pressure is through the roof and we're both panting like greyhounds.
"Hello, Detective Greer," she chirps. "Again."
It's clear that this isn't a social call when Greer bypasses the opportunity to flirt with Az and demands to talk to me. He keeps the conversation brief. There's a dead vampire in Clear Lake. No signs of torture, but no one can say for sure it wasn't done by the same killer. I agree to meet him at the scene.
Az hops off my lap. She glances down at her wrinkled, ruined blouse. "Gimme five to change shirts. Can we stop for coffee? I don't wanna crash when the magic wears off."
"You're staying here."
She tries to look indignant but can't quite pull it off. Her smile is wide and her eyes are twinkling. At least she's stopped pouting. "I'm your partner, Tricky Ricky."
"You're a nutcase."
"Well, yes, but I can be a helpful nutcase."
She grabs my hand when I start to walk around her. It's too noisy in the media room for an actual conversation, so I lead her back into my office. She doesn't release my hand.
"There's no detectable magic at these scenes, right?" she asks.
"But maybe that's because I'm chicken."
"I don't take everything in at a scene because I'm afraid it's too much or too dark. I use you as a filter of sorts. I open myself up, but I make sure that most of the magic I take is from you because I know your magic." Her smile softens into something that hits me right in the heart. "I love your magic."
"You're already overloaded, Az. I can't risk taking you out there and exposing you to more magic."
"I've discharged most of it. I can handle this. And with my magical inhibitions down, maybe I'll pick up something I've missed."
"Yeah." She waggles her eyebrows. "Too bad 'bout the call. I'd be glad to show you what other inhibitions I've temporarily misplaced."
Ah, hell. We've gone from pouty to silly to mischievous. Not a bad progression if we were staying home. Pretty damn awful if we have to be around other people. If she gets too out of hand, I can blame her behavior on the late hour and a couple of cocktails.
I know, I just know, I'm going to regret this. "Go change shirts. Wear something warm. Be down here in five."
"Aye, aye cap'n." She snaps off a sloppy salute. Nearly gouges her eye out with her thumb.
Yeah, I already regret this.