Business With Pleasure (Empathy in the Preternatural PNW Book 2), Page 1Olivia R. Burton
Business With Pleasure
A Preternatural PNW Novel
Olivia R. Burton
© 2016 Olivia R. Burton. All Rights Reserved
Edited by: Alexis Arendt
Cover Art by Michelle Preast
Table of Contents
Finding a corpse outside a grocery store was a terrible way to start the day, but at least it got me out of exercising. Had I been given the choice between being dragged to the gym and having someone die, I would have absolutely chosen the former. The universe decided for me, however, and that’s how I ended up in the parking lot of the Wallingford QFC with my best friend and a dead man.
Minutes before we knew what was waiting for us two spaces down, Chloe Warren pulled her car into a parking spot and detailed our plans for the grocery store like it was a precision military op.
“I’ll hit the baking aisle and get the sugar, since you always get the wrong bag. You steer clear of all things sugary and pick out a few boxes of tea. We’ll meet at the registers and be out in five. Got it?” I grunted in response and she pretended I’d answered clearly. “Excellent. Also, get a variety of tea this time. Not just the mint chocolate. You’re six months off with that.”
“But it’s good,” I insisted.
Knowing I’d follow her orders despite my argument, she continued as if I hadn’t spoken. “Oh, we also need another bag of candy for the dish. I’ll get that too.”
“I can get that,” I said, bolstered by the idea of visiting the candy aisle.
“I don’t trust you.” She was up and out of the car before I could muster a protest. Truth was, she was right; when it comes to sugar in any form, I am not to be trusted.
I fought off my urge to throw a tantrum and climbed out to find her frowning at something beyond me.
“What’s that guy’s deal?”
“What guy?” I asked, turning to scan the long parking lot. Without hesitation, I extended my power, poking at all the psyches I could find within range. My empathy picked up the emotions of a couple kids, three parents, a dozen or so birds, and one squirrel.
“What guy?” I repeated, seeing nothing out of the ordinary.
“This one.” I glanced back just quick enough to see that Chloe’s eyes were focused on a place I hadn’t inspected. Trying to follow her line of sight, I shifted the sphere of my empathy, focusing on the building in front of the car. I still felt nothing interesting, but I did catch sight of a man hunched over the steering wheel of his car.
“Is he sleeping?” Chloe asked. I blinked at the man, wondering for a moment why I felt nothing from him. I’d come across creatures my supernatural power couldn’t read before, but they hadn’t looked human. This guy looked nothing but. Chloe realized what was wrong a split second before I did. “Shit.”
“Shit!” I squeaked, stumbling back and bumping my butt against the car. Chloe was already on her way past, moving toward the truck. “Don’t go over there! He’s dead!”
“I know,” she agreed calmly, her phone already in her left hand as her right reached toward the door of his truck. “I need to make sure.”
“I’m sure!” I insisted. I had very little experience with dead bodies but I knew what one felt like. Even sleeping people have some emotional signature. This person was a void, like there wasn’t anyone there at all. I’d been able to feel the emotions of others for as long as I could remember, and the absence of emotions in the presence of a human body was nerve-wracking.
It didn’t help that the last time I’d been in the presence of a dead person, a demon and a vampire had been involved.
“I still needed to check,” Chloe said as she shut the door to the truck and turned back toward me. “We can’t tell the police you knew he was dead because you’re magical.”
She had a point. The world at large isn’t aware that people like me even exist. If you were to pick a random person off the street and ask them to tell you about magical powers or vampires, you’d probably get a lecture on poofy-haired, teenaged blood-suckers with boundary issues. Most humans just don’t know there’s a world of werewolves, fairies, and gifted humans within our own. I’d barely known until last year.
I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the body as Chloe made the call to the police. Noticing my discomfort, she gestured vaguely toward the grocery store. I felt the pity inside her expand in a fizzy mess, like dumping vinegar into baking soda.
“Go, shop. I’ll handle everything here.”
“Are you sure?’ I asked, though I was already scooting along the side of the car, aiming to get far away as soon as I could.
Instead of answering me, she turned her attention to the phone, explaining that she had to report a body. I fled.
I felt somehow safer inside the store. I’d seen Chloe in action, and could vouch for her being a badass, but being inside a building with a bustling group of strangers still seemed more secure. Without a thought to the tea Chloe had suggested I buy, I went straight for the snack aisle, visions of chocolate dancing in my head. I’m never particular about what type of chocolate, though I prefer the sweetest of milks to most any dark. Even white chocolate will do. Chocolate milk, chocolate bunnies, orange chocolate, mint chocolate: it’s all good in my book.
I was hoarding a large variety of crinkling candy bags when I felt a familiar sort of emotion waft over from somewhere behind me. It was inhuman, that much I could tell, and the intensity made it feel like it was maybe an aisle away, no more.
To my empathy, human emotions all tend to feel the same. They’ll vary slightly person to person, but I can always tell when a human is sad, happy, annoyed, what have you. Humans aren’t the only creatures that feel emotions, though. I was acquainted with a very attractive werewolf who was wholly dedicated to feeling horny.
I knew the pattern of these emotions, though I hadn’t felt this particular mixture of them before. Instead of the usual spring breeze, this was overly warm, even scalding in places, like campfire embers being flung at my skin. It took a few snaps of pain before my brain resolved what I was feeling into a clearer meaning: frustration.
“Madel—“ I started to call out, aiming to ask what had my favorite café owner so out of sorts, but I barely got half her name out before the bag of peanut butter cups slipped from my hands. “Dammit.”
Unwilling to leave any candy behind, I crouched down, shifting the contents of my arms and wishing I’d been smart enough to grab a basket. Or a cart, come to think of it; the basket might not have been big enough for all the chocolate I’d probably need to get over the shock I’d gotten outside. As I tried to keep my precarious candy balance, I felt the emotions move away.
“Madeline!” I called as I finally managed to get all the bags wrangl
ed. I glanced forlornly at the wall of chocolate again before heading to the end of the aisle and turning the corner. The breezy, burning irritation had moved on, and I saw no sign of the woman I was sure I’d felt just minutes before. My phone dinged once in my pocket, startling me into dropping the peanut butter cups again.
“You slippery assholes,” I grumbled, crouching to grab them. Three more bags plummeted to the floor as Madeline moved far enough away that I could no longer feel her at all.
“Do you need some help, ma’am?”
I glanced up at a young woman approaching and shook my head.
“Just tenderizing my chocolate, thanks.” Turning back to my suicidal sweets, I gathered the bags into a pile in my arms and paused to consider my options. From the feel of it, Madeline had already left and in order to catch up with her I’d have to abandon the candy, something I wasn’t willing to do. Sighing out my guilt, I booked it to the registers. I only remembered once I was there that Chloe had tucked a reusable sack into my pocket and I could have saved myself a lot of trouble.
Just as I’d suspected, Chloe had been the one buzzing my phone while I’d been making small talk with the cashier. The police had already arrived, along with an ambulance and a curious crowd of onlookers. I was only able to get back to Chloe’s car because she’d told them to expect me. I’d torn into the bag of daredevil peanut butter cups within seconds of purchasing them, and I offered one to the officer who let me by. He declined, but I didn’t take it personally. I probably looked like a crazy person, digging into a sack of candy and trying to unwrap several at once without dropping any. You’d think with all the candy unwrapping experience I’d had over my lifetime I would’ve been able to do it blindfolded, but then I probably would have run into the cop instead.
I caught sight of Chloe at the center of the hustle and bustle, despite the fact that she was the shortest person there. Chloe Warren is slim, almost slight in her build, though I promise you she’s stronger than she looks. I’d once watched her garrote a vampire and go toe-to-toe with a demon. Her blond hair is short, her face heart-shaped. She’s got round blue eyes and an infectious smile. She’s the greatest assistant and best friend I could have ever asked for, and not just because she’s saved my life.
The next forty-five minutes passed at a clip, filled with questions, statements, and the words ‘cardiac arrest’ mentioned gravely. In the end, Chloe stood with me watching a pair of EMTs loading the body into the back of the ambulance. Once the path was clear, we climbed into her car and I settled the bag of candy into my lap.
“There’s no tea in that bag, is there?” Chloe asked. Defensively, I shifted the sack so she couldn’t see inside it and shrugged as if I didn’t have a satisfactory answer. “You’re hopeless.”
“I’m hungry,” I argued.
“You’re always hungry.”
“Is that a crime?”
“No,” Chloe pointed out as we headed through the neighborhood toward our office building. “But it is why I make you work out.”
“We can’t make it today!” I realized, feeling a bit of cheer muscle in on the stress that was still making my insides rumbly.
“Nope. We have to go straight to your first appointment.” Chloe’s smile was wicked and, when I realized why, I unwrapped another peanut butter cup as consolation.
“The morning just went from bad to worse,” I sighed as Chloe pulled up against the curb around the corner from our building. Chloe laughed but didn’t speak until we were out on the sidewalk.
“Mrs. Q isn’t worse than a dead body.”
“The dead body doesn’t call me names and make me want to tear my hair out.”
Choosing to ignore my perfectly valid complaints about my least favorite client, Chloe grabbed for the sack of candy. I refused to let it go as she pulled it up to inspect it. She probably wouldn’t chuck it into the path of an oncoming car, but she’s been known to go to greater lengths to keep me healthy.
“You see?” She shook her head, pointing to my bounty. “This is why I didn’t want to let you alone in the candy aisle.”
“I wasn’t really alone,” I said as we approached The Internets, the café that takes up nearly the entire bottom floor of our building. “Madeline was there.”
“And she didn’t stop you from slowly rotting your insides?”
“I didn’t actually talk to her,” I sniffed, offended that Chloe assumed our favorite latte pusher might object to my eating habits. Sugar as all four food groups is a very valid life choice, I think, and Madeline’s never objected before. “But I will.” Letting Chloe take the weight of the candy bag, I made a beeline for the café.
“You don’t have time for—“
“I can’t hear you!” I said, shoving open the door. “I’m going through a tunnel!”
I felt Chloe’s frustration spike, like having a handful of tacks dropped on my spine, but I knew I could count on her to get upstairs and open the office before Ellen Quottrich arrived for her nine o’clock therapy session.
I paused in the doorway, swinging my head around to see who had called me and finding an attractive blond in all beige standing just out of arm’s reach. His eyes were wide behind his rimless glasses, his pale brows high. I could feel his shock and it was, all things considered, pretty mild. I knew who I was looking at—I’d recognize my ex-husband anywhere—but my brain went dead the instant I saw him.
We stared in silence at each other for much longer than was polite and, when it got too much for Stanley to bear, I felt his shock shift toward worry.
“Oh shit,” I breathed as a decade of guilty thoughts lit up my mind and made my knees go weak with shame. Stan flinched at my oath, but I was still paralyzed in terror and didn’t have the mental faculties to apologize.
I turned at the sound of another voice, blinking against the hot, prickly feeling of anger, and found a man in a nice suit standing to my right.
“Excuse me,” he repeated, yanking the door out of my grip and pushing past, determined to exit the building even if he had to knock me over to do it.
“Gwen,” Stan said gently, grabbing my wrist to pull me out of the way. I twisted to watch the man go, not realizing his frustration and irritation had leaked inside me and taken over. Seeing Stan had short-circuited my self-control just enough that I’d lost all control over my psychic shielding and left myself open to sponge up whatever my empathy might rub up against.
“Jackass!” I called after the suit. He didn’t turn back, already distracted by his Bluetooth headset and unaware that Stan was the only thing keeping me from running after him. His anger twisted inside me, writhing and thrashing like a cat fighting its own tail.
I whirled on Stan, a snarl fixed on my face, rational thought beaten briefly back. At his worried expression, though, my mood shifted drastically. My own emotions took over, chasing out the stranger’s frustration and swamping me in guilt. We stared at each other again for a few more moments before the sloshing remorse splashed up through my chest and out my lips.
“I am so sorry,” I babbled, intently meeting his blue eyes as I reached out to grip his arm. “You—I—it—I am so sorry.”
Discomfort fluttered through Stan, making him glance around at the people nearby, before he patted my hand. “We should sit down.”
I stayed silent as he gestured with the handle of the cup-holder in his right hand and let him pull me to a table against the back wall. Stan set the holder and its two cups down before moving to pull a chair out.
“Please, can we sit?” His request sparked something in my brain and I shook my head.
“I can’t,” I said. Stan frowned, disappointment threading through him. It made my regret harden into jagged balls of shame and lodge in my throat.
“No!” I argued. “It’s not—“
“Gwen, it’s o
“I found a corpse!”
The tables around us went quiet in an instant and I flinched as a dozen shards of interested shock jammed into my rib cage like shrapnel. I absolutely had not meant to say that so loud. My phone rang.
“Son of a bitch,” I snapped, resentment at the day screaming up my spine and tightening every muscle I had. “Mother fucking Friday morning.”
By the time I dug my phone out of my many jacket pockets, our audience had gone back to their own discussions, though I could still feel the creeping grip of curiosity from at least three of them. Crestfallen, Stan continued to watch me as I answered my phone.
“I’ll be late.” I didn’t wait for Chloe’s response before hanging up and stuffing my phone back in my pocket. I returned my attention to Stan, reaching forward as if I might touch him but unable to force myself to make contact. “I want to talk to you but I have an appointment that I’m late for. My office is right upstairs and I’ll have time free in about an hour, okay?”
Still looking unsure, discomfort fluttering gently through him, Stan nodded, and reached for the to-go cups he’d set on the table.
“Here,” he said, handing me one.
“I can’t take your—“
“It’s yours. Why do you think I’m here?” He smiled softly and it squeezed my heart tight in my chest. Unable to speak, I nodded as I took the cup. We stared at each other for a few seconds before my phone started to ring again and I realized Chloe wasn’t going to leave me alone until I explained what was going on. Although there were a few dozen people in my office building, I was willing to bet I could pick her emotions out of the din, even from two floors down. It got me moving again.
I waved once awkwardly and then dashed toward the back door of the restaurant.
My eyes strayed to the clock on the wall and I felt a jolt of giddiness rocket through my limbs. I had three minutes left until I could politely inform Mrs. Ellen Quottrich that our time was up. Despite the fact that I hadn’t looked away from her for longer than an instant, she’d caught me.