Tough Nut by Jodi Kendrick

1

It was a misty morning in the small British Columbian mountain town where Bryah had set up her little base camp. She sipped her complimentary coffee while staring at the tombstone, wishing it said more than it did.

Name and date. Swallowing her disappointment with more sips of cheap swill, she used her free hand to snap a picture with her phone, then wandered the rows looking for nearby potential relatives.

Bryah had known this roadblock would be a possibility. Despite hours at the library over the last few days, scrolling through miles of microfilm reels for articles and obituaries—the tiny archive hadn’t yet been digitized—she still had to stand in front of the stone itself to accept defeat.

She'd come all this way hoping to reunite her best friend with her unknown father. That would never happen now.

Fuck.

She had pooled what little savings she had for this trip; Bryah had bullied Corra into it, despite her reservations. Bryah had insisted, "It'll be fine!"

Corra was going to kick her ass.

Hard.

University would have to wait another year. With a sigh, she drained her cup, gagging on the grounds catching in her throat. Crushing the paper cup, she shoved it in her pocket and dug out the phone to check the DNA site again. There was still one more angle for her to work.

But he still wasn’t responding.

Bryah had started the search with Caleb Terry. The DNA match to Corra was close enough that they had to be full siblings, but he hadn’t answered her message. She’d have to track him down and talk to him in person. Bryah didn't have much experience searching for the living, and the dead had proved to be, well, a dead end. She rolled her eyes at herself and dropped her spent cup in the trash bin by the cemetery gate.

In the meantime, she'd have to figure out what she was going to tell Corra once she found a WIFI connection to video chat with her. Thankfully, there were still at least a few hours before Corra would finish work and make it back home. A few hours, but not much—not with the three-hour time difference between here and Montreal.

There was a flash of hairy ankle in Caleb's periphery just before his head snapped to the right. Stumbling as his ears rang, "Jesus, Darcy!"

Darcy bounced on the balls of his feet, waiting for Caleb's riposte, "I told you to pay attention, man."

"I wasn't ready."

"I know you weren't ready for that hit, but you were clearly ready for Lydia's tight yoga-pant-covered ass."

"I like yoga pants." He grinned.

Darcy stopped bouncing, allowing himself a long look at Lydia's down-dog position and sighed, "Don't we all?" Then landed back-first on the floor. He groaned as the air tried to wheeze its way back into his lungs. "Cheap."

"Even." Caleb reached out a hand to help his roommate to his feet. "'Nother round?"

"Do you need to ask?"

"Just being a gentleman." He dodged and swung.

Darcy dipped and feinted. "Hitting up the local watering hole tonight?"

"Think they'll let us out?" Caleb rolled and came back hard. "Starting to feel like a kennel in here."

"Oomph! Damn. Good shot. Doubt the Academy would like to be compared to a kennel.” He shrugged. “Even if they wouldn’t, I’m sure a hound like you would find a way to escape."

The Furry United Newbie Academy—FUCN’A for short—expected the best out of their cadets. They were training to be the newest batch of agents, but even agents had fun sometimes, right?

"Hey, who's that?" Caleb tossed his head toward the lanky, bearded guy by the door, observing their sparring.

Darcy shrugged. "Instructor, maybe?"

"Well, he's clearly interested in us. He didn't even glance at the yoga party in the corner. Let's call it and see what he wants."

They moved out of the training area toward the bench against the wall. A moment later, they were joined by the man in question.

"Caleb Terry?"

"Yes," Caleb said, turning toward him, unable to read any kind of expression beneath the thickly bearded face and glasses. "Everyone calls me Staff." He held out a hand.

"I'm Joe Suricatta, Investigations Instructor." He shook his hand and turned to Darcy.

"This ought to be good." Darcy shook the hand proffered to him. “Darcy Karak.”

"What can I do for you?"

"Seems you have an on-line DNA profile?"

"Uhm…" Really not what he was expecting, but okay. A DNA profile? Through the haze of forgotten events, the memory climbed to the surface. "Yeah…. Why?”

“Tell me about it.”

Caleb hesitated, considering what and how much to say. He shrugged. “A while back I cross-border dated a woman; a human. She’d recently been to a family reunion and was researching how long her family had lived in her area. One night we were out bar hopping and stopped at a late-night pharmacy for some snacks and extra condoms. She saw the kits and thought we should try it together before we got naked later."

Caleb grinned, remembering bits of that night. She'd been pretty wild in the sack. "She took them with her when she left for work the next morning, set up the accounts, emailed me the details, and then I forgot about it."

"Just like that," Darcy said.

"Yup." Caleb guzzled some water.

"That's kinda cool," Darcy said. "So, are you fifty-percent Viking, fifty-percent beastie?"

"Who knows," he laughed. "I never looked at it."

Joe cleared his throat. "You may want to."

Caleb brought his attention back to the man's serious tone. "Is it a problem?"

"Your girlfriend—"

"Ex-girlfriend."

"She used your real name, she didn't give you an alias or obscure username to shield your identity, which makes you traceable."

"Man, that's not good if you've been leaving a trail of pups in your wake,” Darcy said.

“I haven’t. I’m careful. Besides, I’ve got nothing to hide.”

Joe’s thick brow rose over the rim of his glasses. "Don't you?"

"Come on, something likethat's not going to show up in some cheap DNA test."

"Do you know that for sure?"

"Doyou?"

"No," Joe conceded. "But that's the problem, we don't know that it would or wouldn't. We don’t know if a test like this could expose us to the humans, or that it would work at all."

Caleb blew out a breath, "Okay, I guess I'll have to dig up that email to find the login details and see what it says." He looked up at Joe. "You want access to the results?"

Inclining his head, he said, "if you would, yes, we'd like to analyze the data and see if we can understand their specific algorithms."

"I don't know what that means, but yeah, sure, I can do that."

"That all?" Darcy asked, hauling his gym bag up onto his shoulder.

"No."

Caleb stopped packing up his stuff and waited for Joe to continue.

"The other part of this conversation is that we got a flag that someone has been researching you." He adjusted the set of his glasses on his nose. “This led us to find the DNA profile in question—among your other online activities.”

A deep, wide pit opened in Caleb's gut. This couldn't be good.

"Damn! I wasn't off the mark with the pups snap." Darcy said, his eyes owlish as he looked at Caleb.

"I seriously doubt that, Darcy. I told you, I'm careful." He had plans. Plans that involved a solid career under his belt before he would even think about bringing offspring into the world.

"Caleb, accidents happen."

Caleb scowled at his roommate. He asked Joe, "any idea what for?"

"We think whoever is looking into you is interested in something to do with your family."

"How can you know that?" Darcy asked.

"It's a long story, involving crazies that kidnap shifters for genetic purposes, so in a nutshell, we try to keep track of our own. And when there seems to be an unauthorized investigation going on, we get flags, and we look into it."

"I'm not sure how I feel about that, man," Darcy cut in. "What kind of information are you keeping on us?"

Caleb didn't like this bit of news either. Maybe he shouldn’t be so quick to hand over the DNA results.

Joe shifted as he glanced around the populated training area. "Come on, let’s grab a coffee in the cafeteria, and I'll explain it a little more.

Caleb nodded, grabbed his gym bag, and followed Joe, Darcy trailing along with him.

"This can't be good."

Caleb didn't respond. His mind was racing a hundred miles an hour, darting in different directions, trying to think who would want to track him. Was this something to do with his father? His mother? His running thoughts paused a second—maybe that test could tell him something about his mother.

Darcy walked next to him, casting him sidelong glances, curiosity emanating from him in waves, but his eyes were glued to the back of Joe's head as they made their way to the cafeteria.

This day had just gotten a whole lot more interesting.