Once he scents Holt and Bastian, all bets are off. Not only is he claiming them, he's going to bury the man who dared to cage his mates.More info →
Agent Decker Stauder felt sweat drip down the back of his neck, soaking into the collar of his white button-down shirt. The sweat gathering along his back was making his A-shirt cling to him. Decker pulled at the blue-striped tie that felt like it was strangling him as he waited for The Collector to make his move. Decker’s grizzly pushed against him, a light coating of fur erupting along the backs of his hands as the beast tried to take over. Man and bear fought an internal battle as they waited for the suspect to appear, hopefully having taken the bait. Finding a rare shifter willing to play possum hadn’t been easy, but one of the newer agents of the Bureau of Paranormal Affairs had stepped forward, offering herself as a sacrificial lamb in order to solve the case.
Decker had worked the case for the past six months, always one step behind the asshole responsible for abducting more than twenty shifters of all shapes and sizes. It had taken six disappearances before someone had put the clues together and realized someone was nabbing shifters from all over the country and the abductions were connected. Even after they had realized what was happening, shifters had continued to vanish from their homes and jobs, The Collector striking whether it was day or night. He would take three or four from each area before moving on. The latest abduction had brought Decker back to his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. He’d chased the asshole all the way to Alaska only to end up back here.
Decker hoped like hell they found the shifters safe somewhere, but he didn’t hold out hope they were still alive. More than likely, they had been used for sport, and then stuffed and mounted. It was no secret that there were agencies out there offering a chance to hunt a shifter for an astronomical fee. The B.P.A. had already shut down several places, but more seemed to pop up all the time. They’d even shut down a few shifter zoos. Some people, especially humans, had more money than sense. Why the fuck would anyone think it was okay to cage another person just because they could turn into an animal? It pissed him off. After shifters had come out to the public, laws had been put into place to both protect and govern them.
Movement caught his attention. His hand tightened on his Glock as a human shadow stretched past the building he was watching. A tall, thin woman came into view, her hair in a tight knot on top of her head, her clothes plain but neat. The breeze carried her scent to him. Floral and sweet, and completely human. She looked like a librarian, and Decker felt the tension ease from his shoulders. No way a woman like that could take on some of the larger shifters who had vanished, not without having shifter DNA herself. Besides, the B.P.A. psychologist had claimed The Collector fit the profile of a white male in his early to mid-forties, probably someone who was well-off and used to getting what he wanted. In other words, they were looking for a spoiled brat who had too much time on his hands. But the fact he was taking down shifters was concerning. An everyday human couldn’t do that, not and survive. So were they dealing with a rogue shifter? Or maybe something else?
Decker relaxed against the brick of the building as he watched the woman get into the last car in the parking lot and drive off. Their source had claimed there was only one individual at the location, except for the agent they had planted. It seemed their day was a bust. He holstered his weapon and motioned for his men to fall back. Decker’s gut churned at the thought of more shifters disappearing because he couldn’t do his fucking job, but The Collector never left any clues behind. If the families and co-workers of the missing hadn’t filed reports on them, no one would ever know they were gone. There were usually a handful of each different species, and then he would move on to someone else. Male. Female. Didn’t seem to matter. The only thing they had in common was that they were all young. Well, young-ish, with the oldest reported missing shifter being in his thirties. The crime scenes showed no signs of a disturbance; the only DNA left behind was that of the shifter taken, and none of the neighbors could ever recall hearing or seeing anything out of place.
Agent Bryce Harrison, an older hyena shifter, clapped him on the shoulder. “We’ll get him. Maybe not today, but we’ll catch up to him sooner or later.”
“Yeah, but how many lives will be lost before then?” Decker asked, running a hand through his short, blond hair. “We look downright incompetent every time this asshole snatches someone else. The press has been having a field day with this case and it’s only going to get worse. It seems the more they print about The Collector, the more shifters the man takes. They’re just adding fuel to the fire with those damn articles.”
“He has to stop sooner or later. Imagine the space it would take to house all those shifters!”
Decker frowned. His bear chuffed at him, and he turned the idea over in his mind. Bryce was right. It would take an extraordinary amount of space to house twenty shifters, assuming they were alive and all together. Having been taken from all over the country, it was possible they were scattered. But if they were here, there weren’t many large places like that around town. If shifters were housed inside the Charleston city limits, someone would have made a noise complaint by now. No way a bear, wolf, or lion was going to laze about in a cage without making a fuss. If The Collector was going to house a large number of people, possibly in their animal forms, where would he put them?
“Let’s get back to the office,” Decker said. “We need to pull up reports on all vacant buildings in the surrounding areas that would be large enough to hold that many shifters. There can’t be that many of them around. It would likely be an isolated area with a low population.”
“And if that doesn’t work?” Bryce asked.
“Then we search the smaller vacant buildings. And if all else fails, we start investigating all buildings purchased around the time the kidnappings started. If we have to, we’ll research every area the shifters were abducted from, both East coast and West coast. This asshole had to leave a trail of some sort, and I’ll be damned if we don’t find it. No one can pull off something like this without leaving a trace.”
Bryce nodded. “I’ll phone it in on the way back to the office, get the youngsters moving on it.”
Decker smiled. “It wasn’t too long ago that we were those youngsters, scrambling for the approval of the senior agents and higher-ups.”
“Yeah, only a few decades,” Bryce laughed. “Did you forget you turned forty-three this year?”
“Eh, it’s just a number. You’re only as old as you feel.”
Decker couldn’t keep the smile from his face as he slid into his SUV. Forty-three might seem a little old to some, but as a grizzly, Decker still had at least another forty or fifty years of service left in him. Forty in grizzly years was like twenty in human years. Even some smaller shifters had shorter lifespans, only living to be around a hundred or so. His dad, a grizzly who had been nearly the size of Decker, had been nearly one hundred and twenty when he’d died. Hell, Decker’s grandfather had been over two hundred and still causing trouble when he’d died suddenly, along with Decker’s grandmother.
Taking a detour, he stopped by his favorite bakery and picked up a half dozen bear claws, for him, and two dozen donuts for his team. He ordered the largest cup of coffee they had, knowing it would taste way better than the sludge they kept on hand at the office. Whoever brewed the coffee in the mornings either liked it really strong or just didn’t know what the hell they were doing. It oozed out of the pot like slime and looked more like black tar than coffee.
Decker pulled into the underground garage at the Bureau of Paranormal Affairs building, grabbed his yummy sweets, and made his way over to the elevator. When it opened onto his floor, he stepped out into utter chaos. Agents were running around like they’d had a bomb scare, hair standing on end, shirts untucked, harried expressions. He stuck out a leg, stopping their newest recruit in his tracks.
“Whoa there, Travis. What’s the rush?”
“Another shifter’s been taken.”
Decker cursed under his breath. “Who? When?”
“We got Intel from Shifter Forces about ten minutes ago that one of their agents went in undercover and was snatched. There was a hot tip that came in, anonymous of course, from an untraceable number. I’m thinking someone on the inside wants to change sides, but I could be wrong. Shifter Forces apparently knew where the next pickup was supposed to take place and swapped out the shifter working construction at the corner of Vine and Ivy for…” He glanced at the paper in his hands. “Agent Holt Rainmaker.”
“So either The Collector is selecting targets sight unseen, or they made the agent and took him anyway. Tell me Shifter Forces at least had a tracker on the man. And for fuck’s sake, if they knew what was going down, why didn’t they tell us? This is our damn investigation!”
Travis nodded. “They did have a tracker on him, but they said it went dark within two minutes of their agent being snatched. They headed west on Vine, turned north on Mulberry, then the tracker was disabled somehow. Shifter Forces sent someone to investigate. The tracker was smashed in the middle of the street, and as always, no one saw anything.”
No way someone snatched a shifter and located a tracker that fast. A feeling of unease crept down Decker’s spine. Maybe they’d been looking at this all wrong. What if The Collector wasn’t working alone? What if there were two of them? Or more? Hell, it could be a whole group. Did they have someone on the inside? Is that how they stayed one step ahead? Or was something bigger going on? Hell, now he had even more questions and still no fucking answers. This case was seriously starting to piss him off. They were so screwed.
“Wouldn’t their agent have put up some sort of fight?” Decker asked.
“According to Shifter Forces, the guy is a badass. They said he would have gone down swinging, and from I’ve heard, he isn’t a small man. Something really big had to take him.”
Decker cracked his neck. “Or someone really smart. If they drugged him somehow, it wouldn’t be all that hard to take him. It would just be a matter of lifting the body into whatever vehicle they were using for transport. But I don’t think that’s it. Every time a shifter is taken, even if it’s in broad daylight, no one ever sees anything. Don’t you find that a little strange? Heavily populated areas and not one single witness.”
“So what are you thinking?” Travis asked.
“I don’t think we’re dealing with a human. Or if we are, he has some help of the supernatural variety. It would take a pretty heavy dose of magick to ensure that many people wouldn’t hear or see anything, or if they did, that they wouldn’t remember it.”
Travis’ eyes went wide. “You think a fae is involved?”
“Either that or a witch. I just can’t figure out what’s in it for them.” Decker slowly grinned. “But the best way to catch a witch is to use a witch.”
Travis took a step backward. “You aren’t bringing Glenna here, are you?”
“I think I just may.”
Travis shivered. “That woman scares me.”
Decker tried to keep his derision to himself. What self-respecting shifter was scared of one tiny witch? If she stepped out of line, he’d hold her down and let his bear play with her for a while. Glenna wouldn’t raise a finger in his direction, not if she knew what was good for her. It was no secret that she had a crush on his baby cousin, Reece, not that she’d ever given Glenna a second glance. But Reece would do whatever he asked, so if Glenna needed a little persuading, he’d just dangle a date with Reece in front of her nose and see what happened.
Maybe they were finally getting somewhere.
* * *
Holt groaned and slowly opened his eyes, wondering why he felt like he’d been buried under a mountain of boulders. His muscles twitched and ached, and a sour taste filled his mouth. As his surroundings came into focus, memories of the mission-gone-wrong slammed into his head. He growled as he stared at the bars encircling his cage. Reaching forward, he was about to grip the iron when a voice stopped him.
“Don’t,” said a soft male voice. “They’re spelled.”
Holt retracted his hand and turned, seeing a form huddled in the corner. He approached, then halted when the man seemed to shrink even farther. Whoever he was, it was apparent he’d been treated badly during his captivity. The last thing he wanted to do was scare the man even more.
“I won’t hurt you,” Holt said.
“You won’t be given a choice, if you want to survive.”
“Who are you?”
“Bastian Bowers. And don’t ask how long I’ve been here because I don’t know. The days blur together. I lost count a long time ago.”
Was this one of the first shifters taken? Holt didn’t remember a Bastian Bowers being on the list. Was it possible more were taken than they’d realized, and their list was incomplete? Considering how many shifters they knew had been taken, the thought was staggering. He wanted to get closer, scent the male and figure out what was going on, but from the huddled form in the corner, he knew that getting any nearer wouldn’t be a good idea. Not yet anyway.
“I’m with Shifter Forces,” Holt said. “My name is Agent Holt Rainmaker.”
“It’s not like them to be sloppy enough to take an agent,” Bastian said. “Were you in the wrong place at the wrong time?”
“Something like that. I was bait, but it didn’t turn out the way I expected. None of us realized they were using magick to abduct people.”
“How exactly did you think they could kidnap an almost seven-foot-tall bear, not to mention all the other predators they’ve picked up?” Bastian asked, a bit of bite to his tone. “It’s not like they meekly went along.”
Holt ground his teeth together. He didn’t like hearing that he and his team had been incredibly stupid or knowing that more shifters might suffer because of it. The man wasn’t wrong, though. They should have considered the fact someone was helping them, or that it was in fact a magick wielder who was kidnapping the shifters. They’d been so focused on the big picture of saving all those who were missing that they’d overlooked a few details. Really big ones it seemed. A rookie mistake that he was now paying for. His people wouldn’t stop until he was returned, though, so there was that. He reached for the underside of his polo collar, feeling for the thin disc that had been pressed there before his mission, and realized his tracker had been removed. How the hell had The Collector even known about the tracker, much less where it was located?
“Have you seen the person who took us?” Holt asked.
“There are several people involved, of varying races,” Bastian said. “They have fae, witches, some humans. I’ve seen a variety of people since I was taken. Some come back more frequently than others. They like to torture us so don’t show any signs of weakness, or they’ll use it against you.”
The man slowly stood, and Holt was surprised that the male was about his size. Maybe not as bulky, but they were the same height. The way he’d been huddled in the corner, Holt was expecting someone smaller. When the shifter stepped into the light, Holt’s breath froze in his lungs. A beard covered his jaw, a bit unruly thanks to captivity, but it did nothing to disguise the shifter’s full lips. Gray eyes studied him, assessing. He was probably trying to figure out if Holt was a threat in some way, and he couldn’t blame the man. The shifter pushed his dirty blond hair back from his face, or maybe the color was more of a light brown. It looked like he hadn’t showered in at least a few days, so it was hard to say for sure what color it was.
Bastian moved in closer, sniffing the air. “Wolf?”
Holt nodded, holding still and letting the man come to him. If the shifter needed to check him out in order to feel safe, then Holt would let him. His top priority was ensuring the safety and well-being of all those captured. If he died in the line of duty, so be it, but he wasn’t going down easy.
“They probably picked you up for fighting, then. Others like me were collected for breeding purposes,” Bastian said. “There are a handful of endangered species here, like me. I’m a pine marten.”
“Breeding?” Holt’s lip curled in disgust.
“Yeah, well, they aren’t having much luck with me,” Bastian said.
“Why is that?”
He smiled faintly. “I’m gay. They found two girl pine marten shifters and have paraded them around in front of me, even made them strip naked, but my cock didn’t so much as twitch. They tortured me when I wouldn’t comply, so I admitted that I’m gay. I have a feeling I won’t be here much longer.”
“What are they going to do with you?” Holt asked.
“They don’t want me for fighting, and since they can’t breed me, I’ll be deemed useless. I imagine I have a matter of days, maybe hours, before they came take me away to be executed. They can’t exactly let me roam free.” He frowned. “Unless they have other plans for me.”
Holt growled. “I won’t let them take you.”
Bastian sighed and shook his head, coming even closer. When he was within arm’s reach, Holt’s wolf took notice, a rumble starting deep in his chest and escaping his lips as his canines descended. The beast pushed along his skin, fur sprouting along his arms and hands, as he viewed the male through his beast’s eyes. It took hold of him so fast, he had trouble controlling his shift. The last thing he wanted to do was shred his clothes and let his beast run free.
“Mate,” Holt said, his voice more growl than anything.
Bastian’s eyes widened and his nose flared. He inched closer to Holt, taking in his scent. The sound that came from the shifter made Holt’s eyes narrow. He’d never heard anything like it before, part-growl and part-scream. Definitely sounded like a weasel of some sort. Maybe that’s what a pine marten was. Holt honestly had no idea. Bastian ceased the noise and moved even closer, his nose twitching in a way that should have looked ridiculous but instead seemed a little cute.
Light flared in Bastian’s eyes, a look of pure bliss crossing his face, only to be extinguished a moment later. Sadness rolled through the other shifter, the scent almost pungent to Holt. His beast didn’t like that their mate was upset and urged him to do something. Holt reached for Bastian, his fingers sliding down the man’s ragged shirt until he was able to grasp the shifter’s hand.
“We’ll figure this out,” Holt promised.
“Isn’t that cute?” a grating voice said outside the cage. “Looks like the gay weasel has made a friend.”
Bastian seemed to shrink, and Holt bristled, turning to face the intruder. A man, clearly human, who reeked of bad hygiene and a hint of magick was standing too close for comfort. There was something in his hands, a long baton of some sort, but blue sparks shot out of the tip. Had they been using that on Bastian? It was enough to make Holt want to rip the human to shreds.
“I was told it was time for his bath,” the human said, a pair of cuffs hanging from one hand. “Since it seems the two of you are growing so close, maybe you can help him bathe. I bet he’d like your touch better than mine.”
Bastian paled, and Holt wondered what the hell was going on. Why would the human have to bathe Bastian? He seemed more than capable of taking care of himself. The human held up the baton, sparks shooting out. A whimper escaped Bastian, and Holt moved to hide his mate from the human’s view. It didn’t take a genius to figure out this foolish man had harmed Bastian in some way.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” the human said. “You can’t harm me, but I can light you up like a Christmas tree.”
He waved the baton again, then moved forward to unlock the cage. The man stepped inside and dangled the cuffs in the air.
Bastian trembled from head to toe, and Holt narrowed his eyes on the human. “He doesn’t need cuffs.”
“Fine. But one step out of line, for either of you, and you won’t like what happens.” The man motioned for them to exit the cell.
Holt stepped through first, scanning the interior of the building looking for any signs of weakness. The only windows were way up high and too small for him to fit through, and while the doors appeared to be unguarded, they were likely spelled. If it were easy to escape, someone would have made it out by now. Holt might have more skills than the others, but even he couldn’t break through warded doorways.
Bastian cowered behind him, looking fearful of exiting the cell. The human sneered at him, then licked his lips. The way the man eyed his mate, his gaze focusing on Bastian’s cock, Holt had a feeling he wouldn’t want to hear what Bastian had been through since being taken captive. He growled softly as protectiveness surged through him, and he held out a hand for his mate. Anger welled inside Holt as he thought of all his mate had suffered. Bastian eased around the human, and he gripped Holt’s hand. They followed the human through the warehouse to a closed-off area with three showerheads, two toilets, and a urinal. There were no walls separating any of it. Holt felt exposed, and almost vulnerable, and he wasn’t even the one showering. He wondered if this was how prisoners felt when he locked them up.
The human leaned against the wall, and Holt didn’t miss the bulge in his pants. If he thought Bastian was going to strip in front of him, he’d better think again. Holt faced the human and let his wolf peek through his eyes. Fear flashed in the human’s eyes, and he straightened.
“You can’t attack me. I’m spelled,” the human said, but there was a hint of uncertainty in his voice.
“There aren’t any windows in here, and no doors except the one we came through. There’s no chance of escape from this area. You will wait outside, and if I see you so much as take a peek, I will rip out your fucking throat and damn the consequences,” Holt said.
The human licked his lips, looked at Bastian, his gaze hungry, then back at Holt. It didn’t take him long to realize that Holt wasn’t kidding, and he scurried out of the room. It was obvious the human had intended to abuse his mate in a horrible way, but Holt wasn’t going to let it happen anymore. Bastian hadn’t confirmed it with words; his actions spoke loudly. Something bad happened to his mate during his showers, that much was obvious.
Holt turned to Bastian, realizing they hadn’t given his mate clean clothing, and the ones he had on looked like they hadn’t been changed in months. His gut clenched as he thought about the implications.
“They let you shower, but make you put back on your dirty clothes?”
Bastian’s gaze fell to the floor, and his face paled. Holt knew his suspicions were likely correct and moved closer, nudging Bastian’s chin up.
“Talk to me,” Holt said.
“I don’t think they care if we’re clean,” Bastian said softly. “I was never offered a shower until they found out I’m not turned on by women. A few of the guards are gay. The human who led us here makes me shower the most often.”
Holt growled, his canines flashing. “I’m going to tear them apart.”
He stroked Bastian’s jaw with his thumb, then lightly pressed his lips to his mate’s. It was a brief, tender kiss, and not nearly enough. His mate needed comfort, and Holt’s wolf was about to go insane at the thought of that man molesting their mate. Holt wanted to replace all Bastian’s nightmares with good memories, but now wasn’t the time. The stupid human could walk in at any time, or others could come. But one day, when they were free, he would give his mate all the affection he could.
“Do they give you anything to wash or dry with?” Holt asked.
Bastian looked into the corner of the shower, and Holt followed his gaze, spotting the bar of soap in the dish screwed into the wall. There wasn’t a towel, and Holt assumed one wouldn’t be provided. Slowly, he helped Bastian out of his clothes, the material practically falling apart, then Holt removed his own. The scent of his mate’s fear kept him from getting hard, and he considered it a blessing. That was the last thing his mate needed right now. Bastian trembled, and Holt held him close for a moment, trying to comfort him as much as possible. Holt nuzzled him and murmured soft words in his mate’s ear. When Bastian calmed a bit, Holt helped him wash, trying not to rush, and gave his mate the attention he needed.
Holt used the soap to lather Bastian’s hair and beard, then helped him rinse. When they were finished, Bastian pulled his clothes back on. Holt stopped him from pulling on the tattered shirt and offered his own as a replacement. It wouldn’t bother him to be shirtless for the remainder of their stay if it made his mate feel better. Bastian no longer looked as pale or scared as he had previously. Even when the human returned, Bastian didn’t cower like he had before. The human escorted them back to the cage, then locked them up. As he wandered off, Holt vowed that when he broke free, the man would pay for any harm he’d caused Bastian.