Excerpt: “The Five Bean Solution”
All cat-shifter Jack Tibbert wanted was
a little quality time with his kitsune
crush. But his were-opossum roommate
had other ideas.
Jack Tibbert opened the door to his dorm room and found an opossum wearing his roommate’s polo shirt. Since a full October moon rode high in the sky, and blood-streaked ichor reeking of fear sweat and opossum funk oozed from the sleeves of the shirt and the bottoms of the pressed and belted jeans splayed across the bed, there could be only one explanation. Eugene Peterson Braen, the most tight-assed, twenty-something, college freshman ever, was a were-opossum.
This didn’t bother Jack as much as it might some people. As a half-breed, biracial cat shifter who’d been adopted by a family of overachieving, shapeshifting foxes, he was used to weird. But why did his roommate have to get were-ed the night before an exam? How was Jack supposed to study, much less sleep, with that thing in the room?
Squealing like a rusty hinge, ‘Possum Gene thrashed inside the thick fabric, trying to claw his way out, but his shoulders were stuck in the collar. As usual, Gene had buttoned his shirt all the way to the top. His polo shirt!
Jack shut the door and dumped his backpack on his bed. “It’s your own fault. Didn’t you ever see The Wolfman? There’s an order to these things. Get naked, then shift. Pillage, then burn. But nooo, you’re too much of a brain to watch horror movies. You’re lucky I’m a nice guy.”
Up close, the stench was eye-watering. Gritting his teeth, Jack yanked the shirt off the bed. Gene tumbled out the bottom, onto the sodden bedcovers, and kept rolling. He landed with a splat on the carpet next to a page of laser-printed photos, righted himself and waddled toward the door.
A flash of silver in one of the pictures caught Jack’s eye. The object curved like the top of a strapless party dress. He snatched the paper off the floor.
Jack had a picture of his adoptive sister Rika Nakamura wearing a silver dress like that. She looked like a star, and she was smiling at him. No, better than smiling—her face glowed like she’d won the lottery and he was the prize. He kept the photo on his phone. How did Gene get it?
He hadn’t. The gray thing wasn’t a dress. It wasn’t even a person. It was a weird silver beehive in a flash-strobed glass case. Jack’s secret crush was safe.
He checked the other photos. The biggest one showed the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the super-sized church overlooking the Catholic University of America. The remaining pictures featured a black metal rose on a wood plaque, and a silver sculpture of a veiled woman’s head.
“What the hell?” he muttered.
Gene growled in response. Jack whirled. The opossum’s head butted the door. His paws tore into the carpet like he planned to dig through the floor.
“Stop it!” Jack lunged across the room and grabbed the opossum by the scruff.
Gene hissed and snapped. Were-spit flew from the corners of his mouth. Jack jerked his hand away. Gene bounced against the door and slid bonelessly to the floor.
“Sorry, man. But were-spit’s contagious.” To humans. Jack wasn’t sure about half-breeds like himself, but he wasn’t taking any chances.
Gene didn’t respond. He lay on the carpet like a giant hairball. He didn’t appear injured, but his jaw hung slack, and his ribs weren’t moving. Green fluid bubbled from under his tail. The fetid odor of overflowing restaurant dumpsters filled the room.
“No!” Jack dropped to his knees. “Don’t be dead. Don’t be dead!”
He prodded Gene’s chest. The Nakamuras insisted all their kits, including Jack, learn first aid. But none of his ABC moves worked, and he wasn’t putting his face anywhere near a were’s teeth—even if they did belong to his roommate. His roommate who wasn’t breathing.
He grabbed his phone. There was only one person who could help. Rika was training to become an exo-med—a doctor to the fae and other sapients not covered in the standard medical texts. In addition to studying Pre-Med across town at Georgetown University, she was enrolled in a number of specialized courses not recognized by the American Medical Association. If she couldn’t save Gene . . .
He couldn’t think about that.
She picked up on the first ring. Her light, musical voice caroled: “This better be good, Cat Boy. I’ve got lab and lecture midterms in Biology tomorrow, and less than ninety minutes of me time before my roommate gets back.”
“Rika, I think I killed my roommate!”
“Oh, Jack,” she gasped. “Are you all right? What happened?”
“It’s not my fault! It was an accident! I picked him up. He spit at me, and I dropped him. Now he’s not moving. He smells dead!”
“Jesus, Jack, I knew you didn’t like him, but murder . . .” She stopped. “Wait, you picked him up? Gene’s six-two and ripped. You’re barely five-eight on a tall day. That doesn’t compute.”
“Short jokes, now? Really? He’s a were-opossum. Of course I picked him up. He was wrecking the carpet”
“Opossum—you know, pointy face, beady eyes, gray fur, naked tail, looks like Jurassic rat. And not breathing. What do I do?”
“Um, wait for him to wake up.”
Jack opened his mouth. Nothing came out.
“Look, you said he’s a were-opossum. He shifted at moonrise, right?”
“I guess. He was human this afternoon.”
“What does he look like now?” Rika asked patiently.
“Like a dead opossum.”
“Uh huh. Say it with me. What do weres do when they die? They . . .”
“Change back to human. Oh.” And he’d watched all The Wolfman movies a dozen times.
“It’s called playing opossum,” Rika continued.
This was why he kept his crush secret.
“Geez, Jack, you lived in Holcomb Park for months. You never saw an opossum faint?”
“Not close up. Have you seen the teeth on those things?”
“Well, he’s not using them now. Dump him in the shower and close the door. I’ll see what I can find for the smell.” The patter of rapid keystrokes echoed in his ear. “Nothing for opossum, but for skunk you mix a quart of peroxide, a quarter cup of baking soda and a teaspoon of liquid soap. It’s worth a shot.”
This was why he couldn’t let it go. Where would he find a woman who understood how much a part-time cat hated bad smells and immediately help? But before he had a chance to thank her, the opossum’s ribs heaved. He sneezed, blinked, rolled over and resumed digging.
“He’s up?” Rika yelped. “Already? Then again, he’s a were-opossum. He could be super hungry from the change. Try distracting him with food. Opossums’ll eat anything.”
Not this opossum. Jack tried Gene’s protein bars and his veggies. He tried potato chips. He even tried the slice of pizza he’d been saving for breakfast. Nothing worked.
“Maybe he wants to go somewhere!” She made it sound better than chocolate.
“Ya think,” Jack snarled.
The ghost of his cat tail twitched irritably at the base of his spine. Tonight was everything he hated about college—test stress on top of dick roommate stress compounded by the prospect of extra work and more stress. It wouldn’t be so bad if he could figure out Gene’s problem and save at least part of their security deposit. Then it hit him.
“Crap. The stench is rotting my brain. The Shrine! There was a paper with photos of the Shrine and a bunch of other stuff on the floor by the bed.”
“What kind of photos? Were there any notes? Never mind. I’ll see for myself. See you and Gene at Visitors Parking in thirty. Bring the papers. It’s a clue,” she warbled. “This is going to be fun!”
Fun? Fun! Phantom cat ears pricked. Fun with him?! Jack’s inner tomcat roused and stretched. Suddenly the evening glittered with possibilities. The Shrine and the lecture halls facing it were closed for the night. Between exams and the raw evening breeze, the university mall would be deserted. But he and Rika wouldn’t feel the cold. They’d be snug inside in her clean, warm car—her clean, warm car with the backseat that folded down—all alone.
Grunting in marsupial frustration, Gene tore through another chunk of carpet. Yeah, all alone with a crazy were-opossum. Hell no.
“I’ll lock Gene in the bathroom and meet you there.”
“No, I need to examine him. Weres aren’t supposed to act like this. We have to figure out why the Shrine’s important and how he kept his focus through the change. It could rewrite everything we know about were behavior. That’s what makes this so exciting.”
That’s what made their meet-up so exciting—not him? Jack glared at the phone.
“Sorry, Rika,” he lied, “the exam’ll have to wait. Gene’s too big for my book bag, and I’m not carrying him. He bites. Maybe next month we can borrow a pet carrier.”
“Who said anything about carrying him? Use the leash in your sock drawer. The halter’s adjustable.”
He started to deny it, then stopped. This was Rika. She wasn’t just a foxy chick with a four-point-oh in everything, including the courses that didn’t officially exist. She was a full-blooded shape-shifting fox, what the Japanese called a kitsune, with a black belt in a form of mixed martial arts supposedly developed for ninjas. She once took out a crazed cat sidhe with nothing but a metal tray. Compared to that, what was a little b-and-e in a boys-only dorm at a college she didn’t attend?
A neatly coiled red leash and halter set lay on the bottom of the drawer underneath a package of new dress socks. The socks shouldn’t have been there, either.
“Damn it, Rika, you’re worse than the NSA! A man’s got a right to privacy, especially in his sock drawer. That’s sacred space! How’d you like it if I went groping in your . . .”
Drawers. Do not go there. By some miracle, his mouth stopped in time. By an even bigger one, Rika didn’t notice the slip.
“I don’t see why you’re getting so upset,” she shot back. “I did you a favor. You should be grateful. Shift happens, Jack, and you need to be prepared. Now are the two of you meeting me at the Shrine, or do I have to come to your room?”