The Fox, The Dog, and The King (The Cassie Tam Files 2) – Excerpt

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Excerpt

The Fox, the Dog, and the King
Matt Doyle © 2018
All Rights Reserved

Chapter One

“Caz! Be careful!” Charlie lets out an exasperated sigh, and adds, “Those are new cushions.”

I stop wiping the freshly spilt coffee on my trouser leg with my hand and give her an only partially serious indignant look.

“What? You can handle a bit of caffeine, the material can’t.”

“Terribly sorry,” I reply, relaxing back into Charlie’s couch. I raise my mug daintily to my mouth and take a sip, complete with a raised pinkie finger, then place the mug gently back onto the coffee table between us. “Better?”

Charlie almost gags on her own coffee as she tries to stifle a laugh and ends up dribbling some of the molten goodness down her chin.

“Oh, do be careful, Charlotte. These are new cushions,” I say, throwing in my best mock posh tone.

And now we both laugh, the sound bringing with it warm memories of times long gone.

The woman opposite me, Charlotte Goldman, is one of the top synth stimulant dealers in the city—an Elite Seller in fact. She’s also my ex-girlfriend. We only dated for a year but our breakup, while not what you’d call nasty, shook me and left me far too snarky to be dateable for a long time afterward. Then, Lori Redwood came knocking. She hired me to investigate her brother Eddie’s death. He was a VR junkie, and I honestly thought that the case would be simple when I took it. It wasn’t. For many reasons.

Somehow, Lori managed to break through my previously impenetrable walls, and one of the positive changes that she’s set about making in my life since we started dating is to make sure I reconnected with Charlie. I’m grateful, but I don’t think her intentions were entirely pure. Our now mutual friend, Jane, once told me that Lori had a habit of dating assholes. Part of me thinks that having me talk her up to my ex, who, if I’m being honest, I was still a little hung up on, is a way of boosting her own confidence in us. I could be wrong, of course. It has, unfortunately, been known to happen from time to time.

No matter what Lori’s reasons were, I am glad she did it. I’ve missed Charlie. Missed the way she makes me feel when I’m around her. Up until recently, I thought that was entirely due to the romance, but looking at it now, I know that I was wrong. I would be lying if I told myself I could look back on it and say we were never suited in that way, but the things I missed the most don’t need romance thrown in. Relaxing over a hot drink, catching up on what we’ve been up to, that sort of thing.

“And what’s that smile for?” Charlie asks, smiling wickedly with the question.

“I was just thinking about how much I’m enjoying being able to kick back around someone and be the person who isn’t an investigator for hire, stuck in the middle of something potentially nasty.”

Charlie lets out a short, gentle laugh and pushes her long auburn hair back behind her ears. “Having trouble opening up around Lori, huh?”

“It takes a while with me. You know that.”

“Yeah. I had, what? Three, three and a half months of grumpy Miss Sleuth until you started relaxing properly around me?”

I nod. “Honestly, I’ve just been so busy since the Locke trial that I haven’t had as much time with her as I’d like.”

“And yet you’re making plenty of time for me,” Charlie replies, shaking her head sadly.

“Lori works, too. We talk a lot, but meeting up is the difficult bit. I’m heading straight there from here, though. We’re gonna make a night of it. You just happened to be on the way,” I add with a cheeky wink.

“Oh, I bet you are.” Charlie laughs, ignoring my jibe. “Does she have something picked out for you already? A nice little PVC one-piece, perhaps?”

I sigh and drop my face in my hands. At some point, Charlie realised that she knew a few people who knew Lori. Then she found out that Lori frequented Tourniquet, the late-night cafe where we had our first date. It’s a nice place: good food, good drink, good prices, all you could want, really. But, as soon as Charlie discovered that its primary patrons are members of the local fetish scene, her mind went straight to PVC and leather, and she decided that would make great material to crack jokes at my expense. Yes, I am glad Lori helped me reconnect with Charlie. At times like this, though, I could kill her for it.

“It’s not like that,” I whine.

Rather than push ahead with her assault like she has the last couple of times, Charlie goes quiet for a moment. “Caz, were you into stuff like that when you and I dated?”

“No. I never even thought about stuff like that when we were together.”

“I thought not.” She smirks. “You’re a relationship chameleon.”

I look up, sure that my face is a picture of confusion. “A what?”

“A relationship chameleon. It means that you change when you’re dating someone and become more like them. Like how you were into retro rock when we met, and then suddenly took a major interest in jazz when you found out that I like it.”

“I just never gave jazz a chance before,” I groan. “And I still like retro rock. Besides, everyone changes a little when they’re in a relationship.”

“True.” Charlie nods. “We all adapt or pick up little things here and there. I, for one, learned how to comfort a big, scary detective who’s a massive wuss when it comes to jump scares. You change a lot, though. Do you remember how you told me about changing your drinking habits when you were dating what’s her name…uhm…” Charlie clicks her fingers, trying to remember the name.

“Dani,” I fill in the blank. “Dani Cole.”

“Dani,” Charlie repeats, pointing a finger at me in triumph. “You barely touched alcohol until you met her, but by the time you’d started seeing me you were drinking at least one beer a night. I bet you still do. It’s not just habits, though; your personality alters too. You were really shy when we first met, then while you were with me, you started adopting some of my snark. From what you told me about how you were in your youth, I reckon you got the shyness from someone else.”

“Or maybe your snark is catching?”

“I prefer so lovable that people can’t help but imitate it, but I’ll take it. And when we split, you reverted to a mix of moody and shy. It was like you didn’t know where to focus yourself anymore. And now you’re suddenly a bit more confident and…I dunno, jokey.”

“Maybe I was just miserable alone, and now I’m happy again?” I try.

“Or maybe you’re adopting some of Lori into yourself. Caz, I can tell when what you’re saying is you and when it’s something else you’re trying to take on. I always could.”

“Charlie, I’m happy. Is that really that bad?”

“No, it’s not. And I am glad that Lori’s convinced you to reconnect, I just don’t want you to get yourself hurt. We didn’t work out, but I do care for you. Promise me that if she tries getting you to do anything you don’t feel comfortable with you’ll say no, OK?”

I frown. “She’s not like that. She won’t try to force me to do anything. What’s brought all this chameleon stuff on, anyway? You’ve never mentioned it before.”

“I kinda wondered about it before, but…I just realised something, that’s all.”

“What?”

“Well, when I mentioned the PVC thing, you…”

“I, what?” I prompt, and immediately start to regret it.

“I could see it on your face. You weren’t entirely opposed to the idea.”

My cheeks start to flush, and my mouth drops open in shock, unable to form a smart-ass retort. Hell, I can’t even manage a stupid-ass retort at this point.

Charlie laughs, and it’s a long, whooping laugh that spills into her words. “It’s a good job that she thinks you’re cute when you’re embarrassed because you are so going to be blushing a lot when you two get out of first gear.”

“Gee, thanks,” I groan. With all the amusement I’m giving people lately, I’m beginning to wonder if I should consider switching careers and becoming a stand-up. I glance over at the clock on the wall. It’s a hybrid model that works with modern digital tech but built to resemble an old pendulum piece. They’re all the rage right now, or so I’m told. From the way the video display just jumped, I think Charlie’s might be broken. A quick check of my phone confirms that the time is right, at least.

“I better head out,” I say, getting to my feet. “And your pendulum just jumped, by the way. You may want to get that checked out.”

“Oh, it does that.” Charlie smiles, rising to walk me to the door. “I’ve had it checked over three times now and there’s no faults. It keeps the right time, so I’ll forgive it a few little visual blips.”

“Thanks, Charlie. It’s been a fun afternoon.”

“It really has. And don’t worry too much about the chameleon thing, I am half joking. I don’t expect you to be having the Tech Shift op any time soon, at least. Although…they do say that everyone starts to resemble their pets, right?”

Diu,” I groan.

Lori must have been keeping an eye out for me. I know this because she opened the door to her bungalow a few seconds after I stepped out of the cab and onto Forster Street, New Hopeland’s little slice of white-picket-fence America. I’m not complaining, though. I may not be through my new relationship jitters yet, but it’s nice to know that my company is something someone looks forward to. The majority of the people I spend any real time with are strictly on a work basis, and if you’re coming to investigate, then it’s safe to say that things are already a long way from being skookum. Show me someone who gets excited about that sort of meeting and I’ll show you a masochist.

As I reach the door, Lori leans in to meet me with a quick peck on the cheek. “I’ve got something to show you,” she says and glides back into the hallway, her loose-fit T-shirt swishing quietly as it follows the movement.

“I’m great, thanks for asking,” I tease, pulling the door shut behind me. “And how have you been? Good? Good.”

Lori laughs from somewhere in the living room and replies, “I hope you’re in the mood for coffee.”

“Always.” I lean casually against the door frame. “How’d you manage to get that ready so quickly?”

“I got one of those new temperature-maintaining boxes from the adverts.” She hands me a hot mug of caffeinated liquid joy. “This is about half an hour old.”

I take a tentative sip and let out a surprised huh. “This is pretty good.”

“Isn’t it? The thing works kinda like a microwave. As long as what you put in is around the right temperature to begin with, the power consumption is low too. You just tell it what you’re putting in and how hot you want it, and it keeps checking the temperature and maintains a constant with intermittent blasts.”

“So, what happens if you put something in that isn’t at the right temperature yet?”

Lori shrugs. “According to the instructions, it gets confused and overheats.”

I laugh, take another sip of coffee, and lower myself onto the two-seater couch next to the door. “Sounds like a serious design flaw to me.”

“That’s actually the second cup that I made too,” Lori replies, nodding towards my drink as she sits down next to me. “The mug itself ended up boiled on the first one. The troubleshooters said it was something to do with polar molecules or air bubbles in the ceramic. These ones seem fine. Still, it’s pretty cool as a novelty item.”

“Useful too.” I frown, noticing the slightly screwed-up piece of paper that Lori has wedged between her hand and the mug handle. “What’s that?”

“Ooh, that’s what I wanted to show you.” She grabs the paper with her free hand and places her mug on the floor. She smooths the paper out, revealing an A5 sized flyer, and holds it out to me. I follow suit with my mug and take the printout, focusing instinctively on the bold lettering near the bottom of the page.

“Kitsune?” I ask, raising a quizzical eyebrow. “As in fox?”

Lori smiles and nods. “Exactly. They do interpretive dance and spoken word performances based on Japanese folklore.”

That sounds about right. The flyer is for a run of live shows starting tomorrow night and is almost entirely taken up by a single photo of a figure wearing a traditional Japanese kimono and a white fox mask with red detailing. It isn’t a million miles away from something that you’d see during a “festival” episode of an anime. If my memory is right, the thickness of the obi keeping the garment closed, and the length of the sleeve extension, is feminine in style, as is the space between the collar and the person’s neck. The way the kimono hides the person’s natural build makes it hard to tell if they’re actually female or a male taking on the role as they would in a traditional kabuki show.

The composition of the photo is good at drawing attention to the subtler details. First, the kimono looks beautifully made. I don’t know whether it’s a photo from an actual performance, or whether it was set up specifically for the advertising, but the lighting has been set to catch the shine of the intricately stitched patterning on the outfit. In this case, it depicts a cherry blossom tree in full bloom with a kitsune spirit sitting against the base of the tree. The second thing I notice is that the lone figure has twisted their body to splay nine white tails with red tips out behind them, making the still image far more dynamic and mobile. The tails are pouring out from a gap just under the obi sash, meaning that the kimono must have been either modified or purpose-built to accommodate the appendages. Finally, in a break from the otherwise traditional feel of the performer, the mask’s mouth is wide open with a full row of teeth and a vaguely realistic looking tongue lolling out. The slight shine to both the mask and the artfully positioned clawed hands peeking out from the kimono sleeves give away that they’re made of the same metal as Lori’s panther suit, Ink, which means that this particular kitsune is a Tech Shifter.

Charlie was right earlier when she said I wouldn’t be going through that particular op any time soon. The process basically involves a row of rubber-tipped plugs being inserted into your head and spine, allowing you to wear and control what are essentially overly complicated animal costumes. The problem is, I was there when the first Tech Shifters emerged into New Hopeland, and I lived through the initial turmoil that it caused. At the start, three groups of people took up the role. They became known as the Three F’s: Furries, Fetishists, and Freaks. The first two groups were just out for some fun which, given the nature of the operation, still seems a bit excessive to me, but hey, to each their own. The problem was the third group. That’s where the infamous TS Murder Files came from. Yup, giving the city’s unhinged their own custom-built werewolf suits was just plain stupid. Things are more robust now, though. Full psych tests are carried out before a surgeon will even consider you for the operation, which prevents more Freaks from getting through. It also means that the law enforcement agencies are comfortable enough to run their own TS units.

Lori is a second F, though she doesn’t like the term. For her, Tech Shifting is a way to blow off steam, and while petplay like that is technically associated with the BDSM community, there’s nothing sexual in it for her, so she isn’t fond of being viewed as a Fetishist. Since I started dating Lori, I’ve learned a lot more about Tech Shifting in general, though the memories of the early days still freak me out a little. The ones that caused the trouble were mostly anthropomorphic hybrids like the one on the flyer too, which kinda sets me on edge. But this is the first time I’ve seen Tech Shift gear with a human haircut; the person in the photo has flowing, silver hair swaying in synch with the tails. The way the ears peek out from under it is actually kinda cute.

Lori laughs, drawing me out of my internal monologue. “What?” I ask.

“I knew it. This is why you need this. You’re never off the clock.”

I glare at her, not because I’m upset at all, but because…well, glaring is as natural to me as smiling is to most people. A shrink would probably tell me that it’s a defence mechanism thrown up when I think I’m about to get verbally attacked, but there’s no truth in that. Or that’s what I tell myself anyway. Usually with a scowl.

“Never off the clock? What are you talking about? I’m not working right now.”

“Of course you are. C’mon, Cassie, I can read you like an open book. Your face gives it away. The subtle way your eyes flick across the page, the slight on-off tightening at the corners of your mouth. You’re studying the picture for clues. What for, I don’t know, but you’re definitely doing it.”

I’d protest but, much to my chagrin, she’s right. I guess it’s because all I’ve had up until recently was work. Even when I didn’t have a case on, I was still trawling through the local news sites to see if I could get a head start on anything that may have been about to come my way. The problem is, PI work in New Hopeland has peaks and troughs, and it’s near impossible to predict when each will happen. As it is, the press I received when I solved Lori’s case the month before last has led to a near-constant influx of work. The same thing happened when I found Jonah Burrell’s daughter, and before that when I helped recover the arms that an upstart street gang had lifted from a visiting military team. Since there’s no real way to tell when it’s all gonna bottom out again, I’ve been taking on everything that comes my way, just in case I’m about to hit another dry spell. All of the focus on work has meant that, recently at least, my mind hasn’t been entirely here when I’ve been with Lori.

“Remind me never to play poker with you,” I groan. “So, how many are there in the troupe?”

“Just the one.”

“One? Didn’t you say they?”

“Yup. In folklore, kitsune were shapeshifters and could take on any gender, so this kitsune does the same. They use voice changers and alter their body language depending on what they’re depicting, and they use neutral pronouns. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if, under all the gear, they identified outside the binary.”

“Huh. So what F do you think they are?”

“I couldn’t tell you. Is that what you were trying to figure out?”

I nod. “Given that it’s at the biggest show venue in the city, I figured they weren’t a secret third F. I remember you saying that pretty much all second Fs are petplayers too, so setting up a job linked to Tech Shifting would be counterproductive for that. You also said that most second Fs used a full animal suit and that it was the first Fs who went for the hybrid style, so I was thinking they’re probably a Furry.”

Lori lets out an exasperated sigh and throws her arms out in defeat. “Okay, okay, I’ll bite. You’re not gonna let yourself shut down otherwise. First, I definitely agree about them not being a secret Freak. They’ve been around for a few years and Freaks tend to be a little too unstable to not get caught, even if they manage to control themselves long enough to make it through testing. As far as the Fetishist thing goes, most go full animal but not all. Also, you’re basing your thinking on the idea that the world they’re trying to escape is itself a job. My reasons are my own, and not everyone has the same stressors that I do. For all we know, they could have, I dunno, disabled relatives to care for, and this gives them a way to fund said responsibilities while removing themselves from it for a time. Or they could have been bullied as a kid. This could be a way for them to take a step back and be someone else, or, more importantly, someone that other people love rather than ridicule.

“Yes, the gear makes it more likely that they’re a Fur, but it doesn’t guarantee it. You haven’t actually met any TS Furs, have you?” I shake my head, and she continues, “The majority go for cute designs. That means straight up cartoony or quirky horror. This is traditional in style, which doesn’t really fit in with that. Of course, whether the design was made to fit in with the job, or the job evolved from the style, is anybody’s guess. Now, Miss Detective, can you guess what all that means?”

I roll my eyes. “That I’m overthinking something unimportant and that I’ll never know the answers anyway.”

“Exactly.”

“It’s an interesting concept,” I say, and Lori pounces on the opening.

I thought so. The thing is, my boss got a couple of freebie tickets for tomorrow and the next day. It isn’t really his sort of thing, and they only need reporters to cover one of the nights. He thought that night two would be better as it’ll give Kitsune a chance to sort out any technical faults that pop up, so that left opening night going free and…well…I agreed to take them off his hands. So, what do you say? I could give you one ticket and pretend I got it because I can’t tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese folklore, and you can give me the other ticket and pretend that you think I’ll enjoy it because I’m a Tech Shifter and must, therefore, love all things Tech Shift related.”

“Seriously? You want us to pretend to be bigots for a night out?”

Lori laughs, and it’s one of her full-bodied laughs that makes her whole body shake in mirth. She grabs me into a hug and presses her face to my shoulder, tears rolling down her cheeks as she says, “Of course not. It makes more sense than questioning every little thing about a photo of someone dressed as an anthropomorphic fox spirit, though.”

“Okay, okay,” I reply, joining the laughter. “Point taken. It is pretty hard to switch off as of late.”

Lori steps back and looks up at me, wiping the tears away from her pale blue eyes. “Honestly, the whole thing sounds kinda hammy to me, but you never know. At worst, we’ll either get a surprisingly good show or something we can laugh about later.”

I tilt my head and let my eyes relax into a warm curiosity. “This is really important to you, isn’t it?”

Lori blinks and turns her face away, her cheeks reddening a little. “You are an incredible person, but you really don’t look after yourself sometimes. I have Ink, but you don’t really have many ways to wind down and get out of that work headspace.” She lifts her head back to mine, and her eyes are a beautiful mix of pleading and something else hidden just beneath the surface. For someone who spends part of her time as a large cat, she sure does puppy-dog eyes well. “Please, Cassie, let me take care of you with this.”

“Okay,” I sigh. “Okay, I’ll go. But for the record, there are nine-tailed fox stories in Chinese folklore too. We called them jiuweihu.”

“Good to know,” she says, and pulls me into another hug. “Thank you.”

Confidence. It was confidence lurking beneath the cuteness. She knew I couldn’t resist that look. I’d cry foul by way of manipulation, but I’m pretty sure she also knew that, deep down, I know she’s right. At the very least when I’m around her. I don’t know if I’m focusing on work because the relationship jitters make me so uncomfortable, or if there’s still part of me that doesn’t feel ready to be with someone, but something has to change. This could be just what I need.

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