Excerpt: The Case of the Man-Eater
Arms folded across his chest, Lowell scowled at his computer screen. The words on the neatly designed website stood out like a tacky neon roadside billboard: Lowell’s door is always open if you need help—don’t let the gruff exterior fool you. His scowl deepened. He picked up his cell and hit the speed dial. After a few rings, Mina picked up.
Lowell asked, “What do you know about web design?”
“Nice try, Lowell,” Mina replied. Despite his frustrated growl, she continued, “John already told me, and it’s staying. I like it. I think it’s cute.”
“I hate you both,” Lowell said without any venom.
“Mmm, but you love it.” Mina’s cheeky smile was audible in her voice.
The bathroom door creaked, and John piped up from the other side, “Are you trying to convince Mina to fuck up my website?”
Lowell was quiet for a long moment. “No.”
“Yeees,” Mina drawled.
“A man can’t even take a piss without his boyfriend trying to ruin everything,” John complained cheerfully. He closed the door after him and strolled up behind Lowell’s desk.
“My thoughts exactly.” It wasn’t like Lowell hated the website. It looked amazing, actually. John had done a great job. It was just Lowell’s fucking bio. It made him sound like a pretentious dick with its don’t let the gruff exterior fool you! and cozy building.
John patted Lowell’s shoulder, then leaned in low over him. That smell, like matches and fire and smoke. That hideous puce-colored shirt. Lowell hadn’t even known what puce was a year ago; he’d thought it sounded like another word for throw-up.
John said, “Don’t be grouchy. You’ll see: it’ll yield results. I mean, you want to help people, but there are loads of people who need help who either can’t find you or will be scared off by your, uh, particular charm if they do. I’m helping.”
“I’ll talk to you later, Mina.” Lowell hung up and dropped his cell on his desk. “I know you’re helping. I appreciate it. I just want people to know what they’re hiring.”
“So do I.” John dropped a kiss on Lowell’s cheek, then did an awkward slo-mo spin to settle his backside on Lowell’s desk. “But between your self-perception being slightly off and my being a writer, I think I’m better qualified.”
That pleased, embarrassed sort of feeling John was so good at ferreting out of him washed over Lowell. He ducked his head, trying not to smile and failing. “Guess I’ll just have to trust you.”
“What an idea!”
“A dangerous one,” Lowell joked.
“We’ve established my love of danger.” John gave a little giggle. “Speaking of! Krav Maga instructor says I’m looking slightly less awkward.”
Lowell turned his chair to better face John. “Less with the flailing limbs?”
“On occasion.” John had that combination of sincerity and amusement on his face—the wide eyes, the slightly crooked smile. “More than for the first two months, anyhow. Good pick, though. Very useful stuff for self-defense.”
Lowell made a sound of agreement and said, “I hope it never comes into use.”
“Let’s face it, darling, it will,” John practically chirped. “Ah well, at least I’ll be ready to do more than flail and offer to set their hair on fire.”
Which reassured Lowell, even if it did nothing for the knot of concern in his stomach. “Yeah—” he started to agree when a knock at the door interrupted him.
“Come iiiiiiiin,” John singsonged.
The door opened. A man slipped in and hovered in the entryway, hand still on the doorknob. “Uh, hello.” He was young, not much older than twenty-three, if that, with messy hair and nervous brown eyes. Tattoo sleeves crawled up both his arms, colorful images of trees and flowers and creeping veins inked into his dark skin. His clothing was pseudo-indie/punk and had the look of something well cared for and worn often.
The man—boy, really—closed the door and came farther into the room. “Are you open? I, um, found you guys online.”
“Ha!” John shot Lowell a triumphant look.
Lowell shot John what he was sure was a less effective look right back. “Yeah, we’re open. Have a seat.”
Seeming confused by the exchange, the boy took a seat in front of Lowell’s desk. He sat on the edge of the chair, like someone ready to run, and chewed his bottom lip. He was anxious—Lowell could smell it coming off him in waves—but there was something in his eyes too, a steeliness that refused to waver. “Is it true you’re packless?”
John’s brow furrowed deeply, a rare look of irritation flashing in his eyes. “Hence the lack of pack name. Who are you, anyhow?”
Lowell just folded his arms across his chest, waiting.
The boy’s shoulders stiffened. He looked ready for a fight, like he was expecting one. But then some of that steel gave away, as if he’d realized how his question had sounded. “Fergus King. My boyfriend was packless.” He stopped, and when he started again, his voice caught. “He’s dead. The police say they’re looking into it, but they’re not. Not really.” He shook his head in disgust. “Because he was packless. I’m not going to waste time with another shithead pretending to care.”
Lowell’s jaw unclenched, and he sat forward, arms now resting on the desk. “I can promise we’re not pretending.”
John looked abashed. “Sorry about that. Prickly subject. Since…” He nodded at Lowell.
“For me too,” Fergus replied, apologetic.
Lowell felt a kind of kinship with the kid. Fergus might not be a Beast, but he got it in a way. And not many did. “What can you tell us?” he asked as he pulled a pad of paper over.
“His name was Mateo Morales,” Fergus answered, his voice catching on the name. “He was a Beast. A lion. The last time I saw him was Tuesday afternoon before he left for work. He never came home. I called the police, but they said he had to be missing twenty-four hours before they’d file an official report. They found his body Wednesday morning.” He shook his head, tears pricking at his eyes. “They didn’t even call me. I found out about it on the news.”