Blurb: John Tilney--praeternatural pyrokinetic and mystery author--has noticed the bottom dropping out of the market for his usual gothic fare, so he goes to Lowell Kanaan, PI, for a crash course in noir. Lowell, the cranky wolf-shifter detective, isn't sure why he agrees to let John shadow him--though it might have something to do with John's weirdly endearing honesty... and pretty lips. John thinks he's found the perfect detective novel hero in Lowell, but it isn't long before he realizes he doesn't want Lowell for his book, but for himself.
As they become entangled in a supernatural whodunnit involving the Zombie Mafia, black market body parts, and shady insurance deals, their partnership grows closer--and hotter. But when it comes down to the wire, Lowell's wolfy protective side threatens to drive John around the bend, or at least out of the office. Good thing John's as much sunshine as he is fire; hopefully it's enough to help them catch a murderer before they end up in literal pieces, too.
John finished ordering a couple of coffees when Lowell appeared at the door of the diner. Looking dead cool, as usual: battered leather jacket, jeans (showed off his assets nicely, John had occasion to notice now and then, but far from his own preferred skinny cut), black shitkickers. Plus that serious expression of his, which might’ve ruined the sculpted prettiness of his face somewhat if it didn’t suit him so well.
Oh, that was good stuff. John pulled out his notebook and was already scribbling the description when Lowell got to the table. He did manage to say, “Hello, there.”
“Hey.” Lowell slid into the booth across from him.
“I’m glad you didn’t try to talk your way out of it,” John said, all cheerful. He punctuated his last sentence with a flourish, then cocked an eyebrow in a mockery of suspicion. “No, wait. You haven’t come to tell me we’re not going to see Ms. Quintus, have you? Or that you expect me to go it alone?”
“You’ve got me pegged, don’t you?” Lowell pulled a menu over. “We’re going.” There was another one of those tugs at the corner of his mouth. “Surprised?”
“Only very slightly.” John made a note, saying out loud as he wrote, “Susceptible to guilt and begging. Good to know.”
And then, before Lowell could do more than frown, John said, “I ordered coffee. So what’s our plan with Ms. Quintus?”
“Thanks,” Lowell said. Then without looking up from the menu, added, “Besides question her?”
John shoved his notebook back into his weathered leather messenger bag—a souvenir of a research trip to El Paso when he was sixteen—and didn’t bother to close it up again. It seemed far more important to purse his lips at Lowell. At least, as long as he could before he broke it with a chuckle. The grouchiness worked too; John could definitely use that in the book. “You know what I mean! What’s the order of operations? You talked to her. You said she seemed surprised no one had heard from or seen him. So do we start by asking her when the last time she saw him was? The police will have been all over her about it already. Will she be annoyed with us for asking again? And what then? Ask her about friends, other people to talk to? What’s your method?”
“I’ll—” Lowell stopped, then made John smile when he corrected himself to, “We’ll ask her if there’s anything she can tell us and then just let her talk. I like to let people talk first. It helps them get their thoughts in order. Then we ask questions. Cover anything she might have missed or that we want clarified or anything we find suspicious. A lie can be unraveled pretty quickly if you ask the right questions.”
Normally John liked to take notes about this kind of thing, but since he was about to see it in action, he’d just let it all congeal. Try living in the moment, getting the full Lowell Kanaan picture rather than trying to keep track of pieces. It was his first opportunity, maybe his last if this was the wild-goose chase Lowell expected. John had no intention of wasting it. “Start it out; then play it by ear, is what you’re saying. Keenly developed detective senses and all that.”
Lowell huffed a laugh, which made John rather proud. Lowell said, “Yeah, I guess that is what I’m saying.”
“Then I will take the opportunity to observe them at long last.” John looked up as the server brought the coffees, and gave her a smiling thank-you. After both men placed lunch orders, she disappeared. As in, literally. “Nice,” John said. “Not every day you get to see apportation in action either.”
“Full day for you,” Lowell said with a dryness John was starting to realize was humor.
John pointed at him, grinning. “And we’re just getting started.
“So, okay, we can’t plot and plan for this little meeting. Tell me something else. Tell me if there’s anything I absolutely should not do. Because you may not have noticed, but things tend to just sort of fly from my brain out of my mouth.”
Lowell swallowed a mouthful of black coffee and then said, “Be selective of how much you let on you know. It’s important to know when to withhold information and when not to. The same goes for any suspicions you might have. Know when to say something to them; know when not to.”
“Like writing a mystery.” John gestured with his spoon. “I always think that mystery and horror are the art of knowing what not to say, fantasy is the art of knowing how to say everything without sounding like an infomercial, and romance is the art of putting it all on the line.”
Lowell stared at John a moment. Not in a bad way, precisely, more what John would’ve called inscrutable. “Something like that,” Lowell said finally. “So maybe you know more about not letting things fly from your brain to your mouth than you think.”
John nodded. “I’ll put on my Man of Mystery persona. Never really had to do it in person before, but writing’s a lot like acting.” Much more exhausting in real life than on the page, probably because John had never been a very good liar on the few occasions he’d tried. Rather, the few occasions his mother had put him up to it, because he’d much rather expend his efforts elsewhere, given the option. But this, this was for the author in him. He could do it and get inside his hero’s head in the process.
Method writing. Excellent.
But now Lowell was arching an eyebrow at him, so John decided to move on with, “Right. So that covered, I was thinking the other day, and there’s one potential flaw in this case.”
John pursed his lips. “Yes. One. I’m not entirely sure why Jones— What was his name again, really?”
“Right, him. Well, I’m not sure why he’d pay us to find his missing neighbor. Which leads me to wonder if we’re getting paid at all.”
Lowell folded his arms across his chest. “Why would you wonder that?”
“Well.” Not much liking the physical barriers going up—a sure sign Lowell was trying to get out of talking—John leaned forward. “Going through your files, I couldn’t help but notice that you don’t always get paid. Or if you do, you’re getting it under the table. Which is totally not your style.” Not that John was against tax dodging, obviously, but Lowell didn’t seem the type.
Sitting back, Lowell replied, “I don’t do it for me. Some people who come to me need help but can’t afford it.” A single shoulder lifted in a shrug. “So I do it pro bono or at half the cost.”
John settled his elbows on the table, attention rapt. “It’s not that I didn’t expect that answer, truth be told, but hearing you say it is somehow…” It was rare that John was at a loss for words, but this one was giving him trouble.
It was exciting, but that word seemed wrong somehow. He’d been excited about stories or characters before. And that’s what Lowell was—the perfect hero. The more John squeezed out of him, the more it became obvious. Grouchy on the surface, sharp-witted, clever, and careful at his job, and now more concerned about helping people than he was about paying the rent on his crappy office. Throw in the dark good looks against the bright grayish-blue eyes, and Lowell Kanaan was his biggest find in, well, forever.
Maybe that was it, then. Maybe that was why the excited sensation of fluttering had turned up in his stomach this time, as opposed to just his hands tingling to write and his brain revving hard, as usual.
Lowell’s brow knit. “Somehow…?” he offered, sounding like he wasn’t sure where John was going with this.
Which was fine, really, since John wasn’t either. He squeezed his shoulders forward in a kind of happy shrug. “Exciting. Exciting enough that the author can’t come up with a better word.”
Lowell looked away, then picked up his coffee and took a swig. “Yeah, well, don’t get used to it.”
John grinned. He had Lowell’s pattern now, though: say something sort of nice, but make sure to downplay it; say something bordering on rude when that was disallowed. All that remained was for Lowell to change the subject entirely. The man was absurdly charming, wasn’t he? If nothing else, this method of his explained how he’d managed to keep his life such a solitary one in spite of said charm. “Your clients have. I found a few records of payment plans too—”
“You know, if you want the people we question to take you serious as a PI, you probably don’t want to be flashing that around,” Lowell said, indicating the bright yellow Private Investigation for Dummies sticking out of his bag.
John cackled. “There it is!” Which probably didn’t make much sense to Lowell, who had no way of knowing John had predicted this tactic only seconds ago. John saw no reason to let him in on the joke; he’d got what he needed and was still remarkably excited, even for him, in the best possible way. “I’ll keep it in the car, then.”
The server reappeared with a magical pop and set their plates down in front of them. Lowell pulled his plate closer to himself, said, “That’d be a smart idea,” and tucked in.