San Myshuno Botanical Gardens
Her day was shitty, and tracking Salim Benali down in the pouring rain was doing nothing to improve it.
“If you make me chase you through this botanical garden, I’m going to have a nice chat with vice about replacing their favorite informant!”
Salim skidded to a halt and turned on his heel, an easy smile spreading over his face. “Apologies, detective. I didn’t realize you were one of my friends.”
Deacon snorted, which was not the response she expected. “Well,” Bella began, “Since we’re friends, you won’t mind if we ask you a few questions.”
“My going rate for answers is 100 simoleons.”
“No way, dude,” Deacon crossed his arms. “We are not paying you for answers.”
Salim’s expression darkened. “And here I thought we were friends.”
“We are,” Bella assured him while shooting Deacon a glare. What was his problem? She was supposed to be bad cop.
“And would a friend begrudge me a method of employment? I got bills, child support, a family to take care of.”
Bella sighed. “I’m sorry about my partner; he’s having a tough day. Let’s chat, and if it turns out these answers are really helpful, I’ll see about getting you some reimbursement for your, uh, services.”
Salim’s expression warmed. It was shocking how quickly he moved from one end of the spectrum to another—threatening to charming. Or at least an approximation of charming. Bella couldn’t see anyone in their right mind being drawn in by him.
“Let’s talk about passionfruit,” she suggested. “Any super-strong flavors recently come on the market?”
“I know a few strains being manufactured that are pretty powerful. Get you all nice and hot, if you know what I mean.” He winked, and Bella had the sudden urge to shower.
But she played along because he was no one to her, and she wanted answers. Affecting a pout, she gave him a once over. “Hot enough to cause someone to go up in flames?”
Granite Falls National Park
The problem with dating was that it required him to go out into the world and resist the urge to lay waste to everything that displeased him. Case in point: Ranger Jill and her“new park policy.”
It displeased him to see Alice embarrassed over a piece of plastic that was one of modernity’s stupidest obsessions. And rules? Please. Nothing so small as a rule had ever stopped him from doing what he wanted.
Flexing his hand to ensure it didn’t lock up, he strolled to the gate and tore the chain clear off.
Vlad whirled around. “I swear it was already broken.”
Alice continued to stare, and he scrambled to clarify. “What I mean is—”
“Why are you just standing there?” she demanded. “That was loud as hell! Move!”
Just as she bustled him through the gate, they heard a whistle.
When they reached the clearing, Vlad knelt and listened for trailing footsteps. “I think we’ve lost them.”
Alice finished catching her breath and then threw back her head and laughed. “Holy hell, I forgot I could run like that!”
That sound. Vlad was drawn to it. “Why, Miss Martin, do you enjoy running from the authorities?” he smirked. “Or are you just trying to seduce me?”
And he was seduced. The nature of the woods required him to navigate by sound more than eyesight, but he didn’t miss the way she ducked under tree branches and vaulted over logs.
Her laughter died, and a strange look crossed her face. “What? No. I…I don’t…this was a bad idea.”
Bad idea? “I didn’t mean—”
“I just think we should be casual,” she continued, “You know. Bone out, keep it chill, and then you don’t have to get so stressed about this relationship stuff.”
“Yeah, I mean, who needs a stressful relationship? I don’t!”
As she spoke, her voice grew higher in pitch and Vlad found himself more and more confused. “We’re in a relationship?” he asked.
“No! Not now!”
Vlad gulped. “So we’ve already broken up?” This was a record. Even for him.
“I’m doing you a favor.” She waved a hand and tried to look nonchalant, but her eyes flickered with sadness.
“Alice,” Vlad took a step towards her, “What is this about? I don’t need this favor.”
“You do,” her voice cracked. “You do need this favor because I’m a hot mess. More hot mess than you even know, and you have to get out of it before I force you into sharing an apartment, having a kid, and saying you love me!”
She clamped a hand over her mouth like she’d uttered an oath. Before Vlad could respond, she looked heavenward as the skies erupted in a thunderstorm.