Deadshifted

Y’all this has crazy spoilers for Shapeshifted, book three of the Edie Spence series. So close the screen and back away now if you haven’t read that book yet! Here’s the cover to give you some deciding space.

As Nurse Edie Spence embarks on her latest supernatural adventure from Cassie Alexander, the perils of the deep threaten to pull her under…

Edie Spence is in desperate need of a vacation—some R&R away from the craziness that shadows her as a nurse dealing with paranormal patients. But as she and her shapeshifter boyfriend, Asher, set sail on a cruise for Hawaii, they’ll realize that seasickness isn’t the only thing threatening their romantic getaway….

DEADSHIFTED

 

While on board, Asher comes face-to-face with Nathaniel, an old nemesis from his dark past. Asher is convinced he’s up to no good…especially when passengers start to come down with a mysterious illness unlike anything Edie and Asher have ever encountered. Soon Edie finds herself fighting for the life of the one person who means the most to her—Asher. As chaos explodes, will Edie be able to save their future together…or will this close encounter with the paranormal side be her last?

 

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Chapter One

I wake up with a start, gasping for air. I have to tell Asher something.

Everything’s bright and orange, and I can only see through one eye. The other eye’s swollen shut, it burns when I try to open it. Water slaps rubber, over and over, in endless slow applause. I remember the sound from childhood, floating down a lazy river in an innertube, drunk with beer my older brother had snuck me when I was sixteen.

“Edie? Are you okay?” Asher’s leaning over me. His voice is hoarse.

I have to tell him something.

But I can’t. There’s rope in my mouth. And I can’t pull the rope away because my hands are tied. My feet too. I’m hog-tied, and when I move, my shoulder starts to throb.

“Is it still you?” Asher asks me. I don’t know why he’s asking. I don’t know what he means.

I have to tell you something, I try to say around the rope, even though I can’t remember what it was.

“I’m so sorry, Edie. I’m so, so sorry. It is you, right?” he asks, and his voice cracks.

I want to comfort him. To tell him that I’m okay, even though it’s clear that I am not. He looks so afraid right now. I’ve never seen him this afraid before.

“We’re going to be all right. We’re going to get away from here. I’m going to save you,” he says, more to himself than me. He scuttles backwards and brings up what I realize is a paddle, and leans over the side of the orange thing we’re riding on, paddling for all his might.

Inside my mind, things slid into place. My ties, our lifeboat. What I want to say to him.

He’s paddling so hard that salt water is spraying my face.

And I remember.

Everything.

#

I had a death grip on the balcony railing and was looking down at the ocean with trepidation. Our room on the Maraschino was six floors up, maybe four down to the water line. I couldn’t help but wonder just how deep the sea was after that.

“Edie, it’s not like I booked us on the Titanic.” Asher called from the doorway of our room.

I turned around to give him a nervous grin. “I know,” I said, then returned my gaze to the sea. He’d planned this trip for us. A chance for us to get away from the weather in Port Cavell, to go on our first official vacation together. It was just what we’d needed, especially when winter rolled in with a white-out blizzard that’d lasted two weeks, making it impossible for us to get to the clinic where we both worked, me as a nurse and him as a doctor. We met before I knew he was a doctor, I swear.

Our cruise had sounded fabulous up until my last minute packing extravaganza this morning. That was when I realized my period was a week late. My luggage had felt like I’d been carrying an anchor with me ever since –- and it was why I was staring out at the ocean like it was a Magic 8 Ball now. I was hoping for a sign, a yes or a no, but the only thing the waves seemed to say was “Reply hazy, try again.”     “Don’t help or anything. I’ve totally got it all,” Asher said behind me, bringing in our bags.

“Okay!” I said with feigned gullibility. He rolled his eyes, and tossed the last of our bags onto the bed. I let go of the rail and came over to him. “If you hadn’t booked us such a long trip, I wouldn’t have had to pack so much.”

Asher spread his hands. “Well if you’d just listened to my plan to keep you in here naked the whole time, I feel sure we could have gotten you down to one small carry-on. I kept telling you they have twenty-four hour room service.”

His mystified look at how I could refute such logic made me laugh. He reached for me, and I stepped into his arms. “Think of it, Edie. A two week trip from LA to Hawaii and back. No snow the whole way. “

“Yay, adventure!” I said from the safety of his armpit.

“No. We’ve had enough of adventure. This,” and he swept his arm grandly over the ocean, like he was Poseidon, “is a vacation.”

I hadn’t had a vacation in a very long time. The road trips my brother and I had been hauled on as a kid where we’d seen Mt. Rushmore hardly counted. I’d had time off before, but I’d never been on a real vacation.

And Asher was right about adventures. I didn’t need any more of those. I’d spent a year of my life knowing too much about the underworld of our hometown, being involved in what could charitably called hijinks or more reasonably called Machiavellian death plans orchestrated by the vampire, werewolf, and shapeshifter communities.

All of that had ended when I’d started dating Asher, seven months ago. In a way, the past seven months with him had already been the best and longest vacation in my whole life.
Asher spun me and I yelped in surprise. We both landed on the bed — all white-linens, with mountainous amounts of white pillows  —  and Asher pulled me closer to him. “ Imagine it. Two weeks, no patients, no MRSA, no vampires — just you, me and the sun.”

I propped myself up and put my chin on his chest and squinted at him. “No norovirus?”

He laughed. “I may be a doctor, but I’m not God. No guarantees.”

His warm smile lit up the whole room and I was so in love with him. I thought about telling him then, blurting out that I was late — but what if it was nothing? Or — what if by saying something, I jinxed it? Would that be a relief? I didn’t even really know yet if I wanted to be pregnant, or even if I was. I was sort of happy, sort of scared, and everything was still sort of imaginary. But we were on board this ship for two weeks — I’d know by the end of our trip. My uterus would have to declare itself one way or the other by then.

He reached out and smoothed my brow with his thumb. “I love you. Everything’s going to be perfect.”

Yeah. It would be. Either way. I had him, and he had me. I tilted my head to kiss the inside of his palm. “I completely believe you.”

The boat, or ship, whatever it was supposed to be properly called, left the dock with a lurch, and began to rock beneath our feet. We gained speed as we left the harbor and I heard the sound of waves slapping against its metal sides. It made noises like an older building in a strong wind.

Asher rolled out of bed and started to industriously unpack.

“Can’t we go look around first?” Our luggage wasn’t going anywhere, and Asher was right, I had packed a lot of stuff. It wasn’t my fault there were two separate formal nights on board. Formal nights required a lot of extra provisioning.

“Hang on,” he said, while pulling out a stack of jeans, shorts, and swimtrunks. “There’s a safety lecture coming up that we have to go to.” He started putting his clothes away into the drawers beneath the desk diagonally across from our bed.

“How do you –” I was asking when a five note chime crackled overhead from an intercom I hadn’t noticed in the ceiling. Captain Ames introduced himself and welcomed us aboard at incredible volume, and then a scratchy recording instructing passengers to report to their designated safety zones began.

“I just know,” Asher said, answering my unfinished question when our instructions were over. “But after this, we can take a tour. I promise.”

I just know was Asher’s polite way of telling me he knew, knew. From before, when he’d been a full fledged shapeshifter.

Despite us dating for seven months, there were all sorts of things I didn’t know know about Asher. Things I might never even have the time to find out. As a shapeshifter, he wasn’t just the summation of his own memories and experiences, he was the combination of the knowledge and form of everyone he’d ever touched. Anyone he’d ever had skin to skin contact with before this past summer was inside of him, and he could make himself look like them, and have access to everything they knew. Up to and including me.

Back in July he’d almost gone insane because of it, like all shapeshifters approaching their mid-thirties. He’d been saved from his fate by Santa Muerte, who we’d been helping at the time, and she’d stopped his descent into madness. Afterwards, Asher could access old forms and memories, but not take on any new ones. Which was nice because it meant he didn’t always know what I was thinking anymore when he touched me. But it was still strange when he just knew things for no good reason.

And it was one of the reasons why I’d sort of assumed we couldn’t have kids, much to my mother’s dismay. I knew enough science to know about interspecies dating. Maybe Asher and I would have a Liger together. I snorted.

“What?” Asher asked, from inside the closet, where he was hanging up his suit jackets.

“Nothing! Hey, can you hang up my dresses for me?”

“Sure.”

I watched him, from my position sprawled across the arctic white bedspread. When he was done he came over to stand beside me on the bed, the red formal gown that I’d bought specifically for this trip hanging down in the open closet behind him.

“Hey,” he said quietly. “What’s wrong? Are you sick or something?”

His question was maybe a little too close to the truth. I stood up quickly. “Just jet-lagged. Sorry.” I smiled at him like I was carefree. “I’m ready now. Let’s go.”

And my heart melted when he smiled back at me.

#

He led us down the hallways without stopping to look at any signs, and I wondered if he or one of his other personalities had been on this same ship before. I held his hand but trailed behind him, as the hallways weren’t very wide.

I concentrated on the warmth of his hand as he held mine. He had a normal body temperature, which I liked. I’d dated zombies before, and they were cool, and werewolves could be too hot. If I were Goldilocks, Asher-the-shapeshifter was just right. Apparently my uterus agreed.

We reached the entrance to a grand banquet room together, and there were multiple hand sanitizer stations right outside its doors.

“Look, it’s like we never left home!” I let go of his hand to cup mine beneath the automatic foam. Asher snorted, but followed my lead. It was easy for him to blow things off, he never seemed to get sick. But he grinned at me, and I found myself grinning back.

The cruise employees inside the banquet room’s entrance checked our name off their list, and Asher led us to the table that corresponded to our room number.

The room itself was huge. Strange to think that such a big space was confined inside a ship, itself another big space. And that together, we, with those spaces, were hurtling over the ocean. I hadn’t really gotten a sense of our movement yet, and looked around for cues. The chandeliers overhead were brightly colored ornate glass affairs, like the tops of tropical trees, complete with glass flowers and glass birds, all fixed so as not to swing, and the chair Asher pulled out for me to sit down on felt stable against the low carpet underneath. So far the only indication I was even on a ship was the waves I could see out the window, three tables down.

A crowd of people pushed in and slowly filled every chair. Kids too young to be back in school just yet, a few lucky though sullen teenagers whose families were letting them escape school for enforced family bonding,  a lot of older adults who could afford to take two weeks off of work, and lastly, us. I felt very sympathetic towards the teenagers just then. An older man with short gray hair and wearing a suit jacket pushed a woman up in a wheelchair to join us. She had a blanket tucked around her legs covered in entwined pink and purple paisleys. He was barrel chested, one of those old men who’d managed to hold onto his bulk as he aged, betrayed only by  the pull-tabs of his hearing aides just barely poking out of his ears. But she had aged even better than him, with bright eyes darting behind her librarian-style half-lenses, and  short hair smartly styled. Everyone ages, and as a nurse I was forced to be more aware of my mortality than most, but I also knew that some few are lucky enough to age well, and it was clear she fell into this happy category.

He positioned her at the table, put on the wheelchair’s brakes, and then sat down beside her. I inhaled to ask her why she was in a wheelchair and then stopped myself, and gave her a big camouflaging smile. At my job, being nosy was practically mandatory. But in real life, asking random people rude questions about their health doesn’t make you many friends — and makes you seem a little creepy.

Despite my attempts not to stare awkwardly at her wheelchair, she smiled. “Car accident.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.” I backpedaled – this was a vacation, afterall. “Is this your first cruise?”

“No. Yours?”

“Yes. I’m kind of nervous about it.” That’d be a good excuse for my rude behavior, and it wasn’t that far from the truth. “I don’t really like the sea.”

The cant of her left eyebrow rising over her glasses’ frame said that she thought that this was an odd vacation choice for me then, but age had also given her more tact than I possessed. “We’ve been going on one a year for the past forty-five years. On our anniversary.”

“How nice,” I said and gave Asher a side-eye look, hoping he could rescue me from myself, only to find he was looking at something over his shoulder and not currently paying attention.

He’d seemed so pleased with himself when he’d planned this trip for us. I couldn’t help but wonder just what traditions we’d create together or where we’d be in the next forty-five years.
Asher stood suddenly and gave me a tight hold-that-thought smile. “I’ll be right back,” he said, and walked quickly across the room without another word.

“Are you all newlyweds?” the wheelchair woman’s husband asked. I flushed bright red.

“Um, no…” Even though I might be pregnant by him. Way to stay classy, Edie. But people made mistakes, and besides, if everything worked out, it wasn’t a mistake now, was it? Just a happy accident. That was okay, right? This wasn’t 1887 anymore. Or even 2007.

“Hal –” she chastised him.

“If we’re at the same table here our cabins are probably next door. I just want to know if I should take my hearing aides out at night is all,” Hal went on, giving me a knowing look.

I caught his gist, with horror, and felt myself turning a Technicolor shade of red.

“Hal, shush!” she said with a laugh at my rising discomfort. She leaned over to pat my hand. “You’ll have to ignore him. Lord knows I do.”

And to think I’d thought I had the lock on awkward questions. “Ha ha,” I forced a laugh.

She leaned forward and gave me a confessional look. “Don’t let anyone ever tell you not to have a good time when you can, dear. Married or not.”

“Thanks. I’ll remember that.” Anything to not discuss my sex life with the elderly. “I’m Edie. My erstwhile boyfriend is Asher.” I resisted craning my head around to look for him, so he could help get me out of this mess.

“I’m Claire and he’s Hal,” the woman introduced them. Hal gave me a nod, and a jowly smile.

“Nice to meet you all,” Asher said, returning to the table. About time.

An Indian family of four sat down in a rush at the far side of our table before I could ask him where he’d been. The couple was a little older than Asher and I, but they had their acts more together, as evidenced by their two children, a boy, ten, and a girl, maybe eight. The girl was wearing coke-bottle glasses over wide-set eyes that the glasses didn’t quite explain, and her face was a cherubicly round.. Both the girl and the woman had long black hair – the mother’s was up, expertly coiffed, showing off large diamond earrings, while the girl’s trailed down her back in one thick jealousy-inducing braid.

“I hope we didn’t miss anything – “ the man asked as they sat down.

“No, they haven’t started talking yet,” Claire informed them.

A life-jacket wearing cruise employee did a silly dance to attract our attention. He was joined by two other staff, and they mimed rowing across the stage. Oddly, their levity didn’t make me feel any safer.

“Have you ever had do any emergency procedures?” I asked Claire with a whisper.

She smiled indulgently and I noticed that for an elderly woman, she had very good teeth. “Only once, dear, a long time ago. But everything worked out.”

Hal leaned in, overhearing. “Don’t worry. This cruise line has a stellar reputation.”

Asher elbowed me gently. “See? What’d I tell you?”

I gave him a look. He wasn’t the one dealing with being scared of the ocean and pregnancy and old people listening to us having sex. But – he was dealing with something. Asher could camouflage his emotions more than most people, but I’d learned he had certain tells. The small crease between his eyebrows was one of them. Had he seen someone else he knew here? If so, I didn’t want to think about how he knew them. I leaned over to ask him what had happened, when a person with a megaphone started the safety lecture up front. Asher gave me a pensive look, but shrugged. His problems must not have anything to do with the integrity of the ship, seeing as he wasn’t herding us towards the liferafts. I figured I should listen first and ask questions later.

In the “unlikely” event of any problems, we’d meet in this room again, and get lifejackets handed out to us and then guided to the lifeboats in an orderly fashion. The demonstrated lifejackets were low rent affairs that you had to breathe into to inflate. I wondered if the adjustable straps on them would be able to accommodate some of the larger people in the room.

Our table shook and startled me, but it was just the kids at the far end, playing some sort of handtapping tag with one another. As their parents tried to stop them I realized I was the only one at the table even trying to pay attention. Asher’s attention was still divided, the parents were pointing and giving their children stern looks, and Hal and Claire were absorbed in thumbing through a tour book for Hawaii, murmuring suggestions and dogearing pages. Occasionally Claire would glance up and over at the children, giving them a wide grandmotherly grin.

In a way, our little table here was the complete circle of human experience. Asher and I, together, maybe having a kid, that other couple with their handsome if fidgety children, and finally Hal and Claire, with matching short grey hair and wrinkles, aging gracefully. If I was pregnant, it would be weird…but we’d be doing what thousands, no, millions, of people did every day. Plunking our little car token around the gameboard of Life.

I should probably just relax. About everything. No matter what happened, baby, no baby, everything would be fine. There was no reason for it not to be.

The safety lecture was wrapping up. Our vacation had begun, and we were going to have a good time. I reached underneath the table to take Asher’s hand, feeling serene – and found his hand balled into a tight fist.

Chapter Two

Asher’s hand relaxed and fit easily into mine, but it was too late, the tension I’d felt there relit the fears I’d been trying to smother. I found myself holding my breath as people started filtering out of the room.

Hal stood and took the brakes off of Claire’s wheelchair. “Don’t worry. This is the safest way to travel. See you all at dinner,” she said with a smile, waving as he wheeled her away.

Voices rose as people chattered about their plans. There were a few high pitched kid-squeals, coughing, conversations, laughter — normal life. I looked over to Asher as our table cleared.

“We’re still on vacation, right?”

“Of course,” he said – but I knew he was lying. We stayed seated as the room cleared, his eyes scanning the crowd. When the room was nearly empty, he rose at some cue I couldn’t read, and I followed his lead.

This time I paid attention how to get back to our room. The ship had picked up enough speed for me to feel it beneath my feet, engines straining somewhere deep within the hull.

I waited until the cabin door closed behind me before asking, “What happened out there?”

He sat down on the bed, and I took a spot across from him, at the desk chair. “I thought I saw an old friend was all.”

I waited for him to go on, and when he didn’t, I did. “Which part of that is the lie?” I held up my hands to make air-quotes as I spoke. “The ‘friend’, the ‘old’, or the ‘thought’ part?”

He made a face. “I used to be a better liar.”

“No, I just used to let you get away with it more,” I said. He snorted, then looked away. I did my best not to look pained while I waited for him to share. I knew that the man I loved, the father of my potential child, had not always been a good man – but he was now, and that’s what counted, right? And everything I was imagining while he waited was probably worse than the truth would be. “So come on. Fess up.”

“I’m not entirely sure and I don’t want to worry you over nothing.”

I’m surprisingly sympathetic to that right now, is what I wanted to blurt out, but I managed to smile and shrugged one shoulder in an encouraging way. “Well, tell me who you thought you saw, and we’ll be prepared for the worst together.”

Asher’s lips twisted and he gave me a bittersweet smile. “It’d been awhile since I’d seen him. I wasn’t sure at first.”

“But now you are?” I prompted after another pause.

Asher nodded, slowly at first, and then certain. “Yes. Unfortunately.”

Which answered the good-past/bad-past question. I didn’t want to give up yet though. “Even bad guys take vacations,” I said, trying to make light of things.

“Yeah, they do.” He snorted with irony, and then fell silent again.

“Hey now.” I moved over to sit beside him on the bed, and shouldered him. “I don’t mean you.”

Asher sighed and held out both his hands. “Are you sure?”

“Of course.”

I could see the muscles in his jaw working as he grit his teeth in thought. “You don’t ask many questions about my past Edie, and I appreciate that.”

“I don’t need to. I know who you are.” I caught one of his hands in my own, nervous that he wasn’t looking over at me. It wasn’t that I was scared of what he’d say – Asher could take a thousand different forms but I knew I knew his heart – it was just that hated to see anything cause him pain.

“The thing is, there was a time, when I was young – when I did stupid things. When I didn’t care about the consquences, or who I hurt.”

“You mean like every kid, ever.” I knew his prior shapeshifting abilities lent themselves to spying and corporate espionage. And when he’d been working under the assumption that he’d soon be dead or insane – the fate of all shapeshifters eventually – what was the point in having a conscience?

He shook his head, unwilling to let himself off the hook. “Older than that. Old enough to know better. It’s complicated –“ he said, and then there was another long pause.

“There’s nothing you can say that’s going to scare me away from you.” I nudged him again with my shoulder. “So spit it out.”

“He hired me to acquire some data for him,” Asher said, still looking at the ground.

“You mean steal?” I didn’t want him to lie to me – or to feel like he had to anymore.

Asher sighed. “Technically, yes.”

“About?” I prompted.

“Synthetic blood.”

I almost rolled my eyes. “What’s so bad about that? There’s a huge market for it. Whoever figures it out is going to make a jillion dollars.”

“But not many research groups are being underwritten by vampires. Or doing drug trials on unwitting human subjects in countries with no patient protection laws.”

That shut me up. “Oh.”

“Yeah,” Asher agreed, then sighed again.

“And he’s here? Like just on board?”

“Apparently.”

My brows furrowed in thought. “Did his research succeed? It can’t have, otherwise we’d be knee deep in vampires and living in caves.”

“No — I reported him. To the Consortium.” Asher twisted his lips sideways, still looking at the floor. “I reported him after his money cashed. I knew he was evil – I touched him Edie, I knew who he was, and what he was doing – and I waited a week to make sure his money was good. Plus –“ and here Asher’s voice drifted and he shook his head again. “I didn’t want him to know it was me. It’s not like I had any protection, or an private army.”

“What happened next?”

“I don’t know. I checked up on him after that – at first, all the time. I was waiting to see an obituary. When that didn’t happen, I checked less. Honestly, I thought they’d wiped him off the map. But eventually he resurfaced, his name on a few medical patents that were genetically based, back when that was really starting to break out. He must have made millions on some of them.”

“So the Consortium didn’t do anything to stop him?”

“I don’t know. You don’t get to ask the Consortium about things like that. You don’t even want to know what I had to do to get in touch with them. They want you to think they’re always paying attention, but they’re not.”

The Consortium was some sort of loose governing group for paranormal creatures. I’d only met one of their members ever, when it’d briefly taken up home in my old charge nurse to reprimand us after a war.

Now I was staring at the carpet too. There were a hundred different questions I wanted to ask him, but only one that really mattered now. “Does he know this version of you?”

This Asher was the one that Santa Muerte had given me when she’d saved his life. Sandy-blonde hair, blue eyes, and lips that quirked up at the corners half a second before he smiled.
Asher finally turned towards me and gave me a bemused look. “No. No one else knows this me but you, our neighbors back home, and your silly Siamese cat.” I gave him a hopeful grin. “She’s cross-eyed. She has no idea what you really look like.” He forced a smile back.

This wasn’t the first time this had happened. His prior abilities – what I called the strange, in my mind — limited as they now were, still affected us, usually at intervals just long enough apart for me to forget that he had them. He’d change into looking like Hector the Doctor for work, and we’d take separate trains in, and then at work we’d pretend to be coworkers. After the first few illicit-seeming months, it hadn’t really been that hard. The shapeshifting itself wasn’t the strange part – it was all the other things. Instances when he’d made us leave diners when he’d recognized someone back in the kitchen, or him changing banks after a merger. Once he’d gotten out of a speeding ticket by reminding a cop about taking a bribe.  As much as, like any girlfriend, I’d wanted to pry into Asher’s past – pasts, even, heavy emphasis on the plural – I hadn’t. Things like this were why.

Everything seemed too much, and I wished I could open the doors to our room’s balcony, let in the sea air, and let it chase out the strange. Every time I thought I’d gotten used to it, I realized I hadn’t really — I’d just gotten used to hoping the bulk of it was behind us. Sitting beside him though I realized there was no way we’d ever completely outrun it. It was who he was, who he’d been. It followed him wherever he went, like a tail. And right now he looked so alone. I squeezed his hand harder.

“Well, everything’s okay now,” I said, with the same comforting tone I used on patients all the time.

“You can’t just let me off the hook, Edie.”

“Why not? It sounds like you’ve been carrying this around long enough.”

“He’s not the only person I worked for. None of the rest were as bad as he was – but there’s a four way tie for second place.” He carefully took my hand off of his and released it back to me. “As evil as I know he was, what he was working on – with data I gave him – I can’t help but wonder what working with him once makes me.”

I took his hand back fiercely. “It makes you someone who changed. That’s not a bad thing. I love you.” Suddenly I didn’t want him to tell me anything else about his past. It was behind us, it could stay there, forever, where it couldn’t hurt us ever again.

He swallowed, and stared down at my hand, covering his. “I know you love me. But sometimes I think back on all the things I’ve done, and I can’t see why.”

This wasn’t the brash devil-may-care Asher I usually knew. I leaned up and kissed his forehead, where wrinkles were starting to show. “I can’t speak to all those other Ashers. But the one I love saved my life a few times, and he takes care of people who need him. I love him quite a lot.”

A soft smile took the edge off his serious face. “I love you, Edie.”

“Not to mention, he brought me on this excellent vacation,” I went on.

He gave me a wry look. “I thought you weren’t completely sold on the ocean?”

I elbowed him. “I’m trying to make you feel better. Stop making it hard.”

He laughed, turning towards me and taking me in his arms.