I guess to properly tell this story I have to backtrack a little bit.
On the day of the pyre, while we were carrying logs, Lodge Kelliher asked if we’d seen Alec’s group.
“Have they not turned up?” Neal asked.
“I haven’t seen them.”
When I asked who Alec’s group was Julian explained that they’re old friend’s of Nolan’s. He got his start hunting with them when Neal and Julian were too young to go.
“They should really be here,” Neal said later, before the ceremony started. He gave them a call, but no one answered any of the numbers he tried.
Cut to today. We were driving, as usual, sort of vaguely heading out in no particular direction, waiting for a job to materialize, when Neal got a phone call.
“Alec?” he said.
I was sitting in the back seat staring out the window, watching the cows pass, but when Neal turned down the music I perked up to listen.
“Where are you?” Neal asked, and as Alec answered over the phone, Neal waved Julian towards to the off ramp. “We’re a few hundred miles from there.” He was unfolding their ratty, marked up road map. “Yeah that diner in [redacted town ha]? Mk we’ll meet you there.” He hung up.
“Is it a case?” I asked.
“Sounds like they just need some help with cleanup,” Neal replied.
“Cleanup?” Julian asked.
“I don’t know, they weren’t specific, but they wanted us.”
There was a moment of quiet in the car, before Julian said, “what could they possibly need us for?”
Neal just shrugged.
Alec and his group were already at the diner when we got there. It was a grungy, fluorescent-lit, roadside diner, and I pegged who we were meeting right off. They were huddled at the back table, and one of them was wearing a camo baseball hat, flipped backwards.
They twisted round when we came in and stood up, all smiles, to greet us.
The Hawthornes put on a good show of being happy to see them, thumping their backs and mussing their hair, but I could see they were cautious.
“And who’s this?” said the one in the baseball cap.
“This is Shiloh,” Julian said, as everyone shuffled back into the booth. “Shi, meet Alec, Dennis and Rosie.”
Dennis literally had a crossbow next to him in the booth and Rosie had a chip in her front tooth and a black eye. All of them were wearing at least one article of camo.
“Hi,” I said.
“So this is the new girl. She’s a bit young for either of you, don’t you think?” Rosie said.
“It’s not like that,” Julian said, totally unruffled.
Rosie wrinkled her nose. “Bet it is, huh Shiloh? We all have a thing for a Hawthorne eventually, don’t we?”
I started to deny it obviously, but Neal interrupted me.
“Don’t answer that, Shiloh.” Ice cold. If I were Rosie I’d have run for it.
Rosie just cackled. If that girl were an animal she’d be a coyote.
“Okay so it’s not like that. Must’ve been like something though, huh? Was it a case?” she asked.
“Leave it, Rosie,” Dennis said. He’s sort of a twitchy one. He’s skinny and wiry.
“Listen,” Alec said. In contrast to Dennis, Alec’s got an All-American kind of face, at odds with his rough clothes. Put him in a suit and he could have been halfway through his career as a high school quarterback turned a local politician. “I’m sorry we weren’t at White Pyre.”
“Nothing to be sorry for,” Neal said.
“We should have been there,” Alec replied. “Would have been, if it weren’t for this case. Nolan was —”
“Yeah, I know,” Neal interrupted.
Alec surveyed the three of us. “It’s good to see you,” he said. “We missed you boys. And we miss your brother. Best friend I ever had, I think.”
I had no idea what was going on, but it was like a stand-off in a Clint Eastwood movie in there.
“Why’d you call us, Alec?” Julian said. His tone was totally friendly and unruffled, which I’ve learned to read as Danger Voice.
“Yes, down to business,” Alec said and pulled a bag up onto the table, flipped back the top to reveal amorphous animal fur, the most beautiful fur I’ve ever seen. It was pale, but sort of opalescent so it wasn’t quite any one color depending on the light.
I reached to touch, but Neal stopped me. “Don’t,” he said. “That’ll kill you.”
I should probably be at the point in my monster hunting apprenticeship where I know better than to, say, touch the mysterious magical fur, but I am the girl who made out with a vampire so idk what you were expecting.
“Where did you find this?” Neal asked.
“We think they’re fresh,” Alec said. “We found them in [nearby city which I’m not gonna name fuck the fbi] and tracked them here. They’ve left a trail of bodies across the county.”
Meanwhile, my dumb ass was still piecing together that these beautiful furs once belonged to some creature and was trying to imagine the creature that would produce something this beautiful.
“Do you have any idea who’s doing it?”
“Our investigation is all set up at the motel room,” Alec said. “You should come on back and take a look at it.” He smiled easily. “After you eat, of course.”
Neal shook his head. “No,” he said. “We already ate. Let’s do this now.”
We hadn’t already eaten, Neal’s a liar who wants to starve us, but there was a lot of tension in the air so I just followed without comment.
“You don’t trust them?” Julian said.
“They’re not lying,” Neal replied. “But no, I don’t particularly trust them. I don’t think Nolan did, either, if you want the truth of it.”
Julian squinted through the windshield at their pickup truck as they pulled out of the parking lot and back onto the highway. “Should we leave her out of it?”
By her he meant me. “Um, no,” I said. “What are you gonna do leave me in the motel room?”
The completely ignored me.
“Nah,” Neal said. “Better we keep an eye on her.”
At the motel, Neal and Julian tucked guns into the back of their waistbands before getting out of the car.
“We won’t need them,” Julian assured me when he saw me looking.
“Can I have one?” I asked.
“Absolutely not,” Neal replied and we crunched across the driveway to the motel door.
Rosie let us in. It was a mess inside — clothes everywhere, weapons on every available surface, but the good stuff was pinned on the wall. It was like a proper investigation wall, like you see in the movies. Newspaper clippings, grisly crime scene photos, slightly grainy candids of people pumping gas or getting into their car, everything connected by push pins and yarn. It was awesome.
“This is the story we’ve put together,” Alec said as we made our way to the wall. “An idiot poacher came across some poison mink and thinking she’d found the best pelts of her life, killed them all and brought them home. Within the next few weeks people all over the county start turning up dead, looking like they’ve either had a severe allergic reaction or were poisoned.”
He pointed out a number of photos. “People from all over the socioeconomic spectrum. Here we’ve got some seamstresses. Here we’ve got some rich bitches.”
“This looks… fairly exhaustive,” Julian said, looking closer.
Alec laughed. “This fucking case. We’ve been chasing pelts for weeks.”
“The info we have here suggests this guy was the distributor.” Dennis pointed at one of the candids of a guy getting into a big ass truck. “Rick. He sells illegal fur for poachers, but nothing supernatural. It looks like an accident.”
“This is a lot of leads for an accident,” Neal said, leaning closer to squint at an article.
“We were looking for the hunter,” Dennis said. “Turns out it was this character.” He pointed at another picture. “She died a few weeks back, the third to die.”
“The third?” Neal said. “If she skinned them she’d have died a bit faster, wouldn’t she? When did people start dying?”
“First victim was five weeks ago,” Rosie said. “Our guess is the hunter didn’t skin them. Our guess is she sent them to this guy.” She pointed at a crime scene photo of a guy who was definitely dead. He was covered in blisters and from the looks of things had died vomiting. “It would take much longer to die only touching the fur. Its not until you get to the skin that you’re really fucked.”
“That looks about right,” Neal said grimly. “Looks like this is solved. What do you need us for?”
“Rick insists he never saw these pelts. And they’re not exactly forgettable. Now that might just be because he sees a lot of pelts, or maybe he really never saw those pelts. We just want to be sure this was an accident, that it’s cleaned up, and that there won’t be any more deaths.”
“That seems reasonable,” Julian said, neutral as a calm lake. “What do you need from us?”
There was a long moment of uncomfortable quiet. “Rick admitted he’s selling poached furs. So if Rick saw those pelts and is saying he hasn’t, it would suggest he knows they’re poisonous, and sold them anyways. And he’s sheltering the real poacher. Who probably also knew they were poison.”
There was a long moment of tense silence. I’m starting to get used to long, tense silences that I don’t understand, but still, this one seemed especially pregnant.
And then we took a turn.
“So,” Neal said. “How long have you known?”
I had no idea what he was talking about, but his voice was so rigid with fury I literally winced.
There was a long pause before Alec finally said, “Nolan told me.”
“And you told these two?”
“Just this week,” Alec said. “It was necessary.”
There was another long quiet. Then Neal said, “what else did he tell you?”
Neal pushed him hard into the wall. “What the fuck else did he tell you?” he shouted. Dennis and Rosie both lurched forward, but Julian, who was a solid fifty pounds heavier than Dennis, moved just a step, just enough to put his presence between them and Neal and Alec.
“Jesus, nothing,” Alec yelped. “There something else for me to know?”
Neal recoiled just a little. He gave Alec another shove for good measure then scrubbed his hands through his hair. “Okay,” he said. “I will ask your fucking questions.” Then he stalked out of the motel room and slammed the door.
“I told you he’d be pissed,” Rosie sing-songed.
I glanced at Julian in time to see just the briefest flutter of fury on his face, before he said, “Come on, Shi.”
I followed him wide-eyed.
When we were in the parking lot Julian said in a low, urgent voice, “there are a few things we haven’t told you.”
“No shit,” I hissed.
“Yeah, well,” Julian muttered. “This one’s a doozy.”
“We’ll just be seeing you tomorrow then?” Rosie shouted after us. “So good to see you boys, it’s always a joy.”
“Bitch,” Julian sighed. I heard her cackling as she slammed the door.
Neal was already in the car and revved the engine as we approached it. “Okay, I’m just gonna tell you, I recommend bracing yourself,” Julian said, hushed and hurried. “Neal can tell when you’re lying.”
“Yeah, I noticed, it’s annoying as fuck,” I said.
“No, Shiloh,” Julian said with waning patience. “Not like your mom can always tell when you’re lying. He can tell if anyone is lying. Always. He doesn’t need context, or instincts. He always knows.”
You know that cold prickling feeling you get when you’re just starting to realize you made a terrible mistake?
I stopped. “What?”
“I recommend not thinking too hard about it,” Julian said.
“WHAT,” I said.
I’m about to have a fucking mental breakdown in the parking lot because NEAL HAWTHORNE KNOWS EVERY LIE I’VE EVER TOLD HIM and Julian’s telling me not to think too hard about it?
“Like… like a magic thing?” I managed.
Julian made a face. “Yeah, kinda.”
I must have looked as freaked out as I felt because Julian sighed.
“Look, I know, okay? You think I don’t know? But I need you to hold it together for just a little bit, okay? You can have the temper tantrum of your dreams soon, just not right now.”
I’ve never seen Julian so impatient and so I just got into the car like he said.
“You tell her?” Neal asked. Julian nodded and Neal looked at me in the rear view. “You okay?”
Well, I was in shock, mentally running backwards trying to remember all the lies I ever told him, even the stupid little white lies, feeling — I mean I don’t know. It felt like someone had read my journal. Maybe worse because I didn’t know it was fucking possible. I felt violated.
“I’m fine,” I said. Neal winced and I realized he could tell I wasn’t being entirely honest. My instinct was to cover my head and keep the thoughts in.
We were all real quiet after that.