Suspense Urban Fantasy R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author
C arter   McCown   careens   from   starting   and   ending   one   war,   to   facing Armageddon   that   may   require   pulling   another   miracle   out   of   his butt.   Peace   may   hinge   on   secrecy,   in   the   bayous   of   Texas   where Carter     learns     about     the     speed     of     communication—telephone, telegraph,   tell-a-hick.   Intrigue   smacks   him   in   the   face   on   a   trip   he hopes   deals   with   a   single   case   of   a   rogue   wolf,   but   fears   an   entire unsanctioned    pack,    the    most    powerful    lycans    in    the    world.    His redneck   new   hire   has   been   arrested   for   a   murder   he   couldn't   have committed.   The   metasexual   vampire   Lord   Elizabeth   is   back   in   his life.   The   local   bumpkin   drama   pulls   him   in   five   directions.   And   again his mentor may be undermining Carter's agenda for his own ends.
Chapter One ~ T he   doorbell   rang   and   Maggie   screamed,   "I'll   get   it,"   at   the   top   of   her   lungs.   The   decibel was   unnecessary,   considering   my   seventeenth-floor   residence   was   occupied   by   another vampire and a wolf with better than excellent hearing. Of   course   she   streaked   out   of   the   kitchen   in   a   sprint,   as   though   she   was   ten   years   old. I   don't   know   why   that   surprised   me   either.   Her   maturity   was   arrested   at   about   that   age. Her   mentality   barely   pushed   fourteen.   Maybe   fifteen.   Hadn't   improved   in   the   fifteen years I'd been mentoring her. That's another story entirely. Baby   Boy,   my   one   hundred   eighty   pound   Rottweiler,   tromped   off   behind   her.   That would   give   me   a   few   moments   of   guilt-free   breathing,   until   he   returned   to   the   kitchen   to study   my   every   move.   One   day   I   had   to   strap   a   saddle   on   the   Rottweiler's   back   and   break him in. "If   the   pasta   clumps   I'll   beat   her,"   I   whispered.   That   was   the   only   responsibility Maggie ended up with tonight, and she's the one attending culinary school. Elizabeth smirked behind her wine glass. "You sound so mean." I   wasn't   sure   what   her   double-meaning   entailed,   but   maybe   that's   because   this   was   a night   that   had   been   waiting   almost   two   decades,   and   my   mind   still   trilled   with   exactly how to explain what I had to explain to Trudy and Hubs. What   in   the   heck   was   his   given   name?   You'd   think   I   could   remember   the   spouse's name   of   the   only,   well,   one   of   the   few   humans   I   considered   a   friend.   It   would   help   if   she called him something besides Hubs all the time. "Don't worry," Elizabeth whispered. "It will go well. I promise." "Maggie,   my   god!"   Trudy's   screech   from   the   entry   made   me   wince.   "You   are   looking so fine, young woman. What have you done with yourself?" Not aging in fifteen years might have something to do with it. Baby   Boy   vibrated   the   building   with   a   woof.   He   evidently   didn't   get   acknowledged fast enough. "You like the hair?" Maggie screeched back at Trudy. The   two   women   went   on   about   the   wave   and   highlights   for   a   decade   or   so.   Maggie could   encourage   them   across   the   threshold,   couldn't   she?   Trudy   made   a   comment   about Maggie being so pale, needing to get out in the sun. "Like that will ever happen," Maggie answered. I met Elizabeth's hard glance. Heat radiated across my face. I   stirred   the   sauce,   but   my   mind   was   on   Trudy's   introduction,   hoping   she'd   divulge her   number-one-man's   given   name.   But   only,   "The   Hubs,"   came   out.   The   back   patting   of a   hearty   hug   echoed   down   the   corridor.   I   hoped   Maggie   didn't   grab   the   man's   kiester. Though, that might make his day. I   grabbed   the   bottle   of   brandy   from   the   far   corner,   a   gift   from   Antoine,   and   doused my   sauce.   I   made   it   swim   in   the   stuff,   before   turning   up   the   heat   a   tad.   At   least   the liquor   would   be   put   to   a   purpose.   Not   like   I   would   ever   drink   the   swill.   Besides,   the humans   in   attendance   tonight   were   going   to   need   every   bit   of   alcohol   in   their   system they could get. Trudy   began   her   self-introduction   to   Elizabeth   before   the   three   came   in   view.   She repeated her, "My god," screech. The way Elizabeth's eyes opened wide from her counter perch tickled me. "I   finally   meet   The    Elizabeth,"   Trudy   crowed   striding   forward   like   a   defensive   end with her eyes on the quarterback. More   humor   sunk   into   my   being,   watching   Elizabeth's   discomfort.   When   had   she ever    risen    to    meet    a    human    in    the    last    four-hundred    years?    Clearly,    she    knew    the protocol   expected,   but   Trudy's   familiar   approach   took   Elizabeth   out   of   her   comfort   zone, by thousands of years. Trudy   ignored   Elizabeth's   proffered   hand.   Like   she   would   take   it   and   kiss   one   of Elizabeth's   hundred   rings.   I   grinned,   looking   forward   to   the   embrace.   A   proper   lord   just didn't   understand   a   Southern   greeting.   Elizabeth   dipped   backward   in   the   much   taller woman's   grasp,   long,   elegant   fingers   dancing   in   the   air   a   moment,   before   tentatively lighting on Trudy's back. Hilarious. If   Trudy   hadn't   dipped   a   good-bit,   Elizabeth's   extra   height   provided   by   her   four   inch spikes    would    have    embedded    her    face    deeply    into    Trudy's    ample,    grandmotherly breasts.   I   watched   closely   to   see   if   Trudy   raised   Elizabeth   off   her   feet.   I   sighed   to   note Trudy   let   her   off   easy,   but   one   arm   didn't   let   my   beautiful   love   free,   as   Trudy   whooshed Elizabeth for the living room for a private interview. "You have to tell me all about yourself," Trudy gushed. Oh, that would be a delicious telling. "Where did you meet Carter?" started the inquisition. I   poured   the   decanting   white   into   the   glass   I   had   waiting   on   the   counter   for   Trudy, topped   off   Elizabeth's   red,   and   motioned   to   Maggie   to   deliver   them.   The   girl's   eyes gleamed   with   excitement.   It   gave   me   pause.   This   most   positively   was   the   first   social setting   the   trollop   had   ever   experienced.   During   our   previous   mentoring,   I   had   certainly never   entertained   here   with   her   among   humans.   I   didn't   trust   her   not   to   let   fly   some egregious statement. Living on the street since she was fourteen left a lot of rough edges. Still   a   lot   of   rough   edges.   And   in   truth,   I   still   don't   trust   her.   After   fifteen   years   of growling at her. Baby   Boy   must   have   gotten   all   the   loving   he   wanted,   because   he   was   back   at   his station to watch every move I made. "Hey, Carter." Hubs gave me an up thrust chin, plenty of greeting for us. "How ya doin'?" I asked. The   accountant   actually   told   me.   While   he   drumbled   on,   I   grabbed   an   ale   from   the drinks   fridge   and   saluted   him   with   it,   like   he'd   join   me.   He   snorted.   He   knew   I   knew better, but I just can't get past a grown man passing on a killer lager to drink white wine. I opened the bottle for me and took a hard hit while I filled his waiting glass. Hubs   interrupted   his   monologue   earlier   than   I   expected   and   asked,   "So   what's   the occasion?" "I can't have my favorite people over for dinner?" I asked. He   got   his   spreading   butt   into   a   bar   chair   across   the   counter   from   me.   "These   have always come with some kind of announcement. Always big ones." Southerners are warm, and blunt. "You'll have to wait for dessert," I said. "I   can   handle   that,   but   you   might   give   Trudy   some   hints.   She's   twisted   so   tight   she can't pee." "The business last month was hard." I wasn't sure if I meant that as a question. "You   'spose?"   Hubs   didn't   add   a   smile   to   that.   No   doubt   Trudy   dragged   a   dump   truck load   of   stress   home   with   her   every   night.   "Whatever's   been   taking   you   out   of   town   lately has dumped a lot of work on her." I   nodded.   I   didn't   want   this   conversation   with   Trudy.   Surely   didn't   want   to   live through   it   with   her   husband.   I   watched   the   interrogation   taking   place   sixty   feet   away.   At the   angle   I   had   on   Elizabeth,   leaning   forward   toward   Trudy,   her   silk   blouse   folded opened,    her    waist-long,    flowing    hair    crested    over    her    shoulders.    I    could    never    get enough   of   that   sight.   I   was   happy   she   traded   her   normal   business-black   slacks   for   the shade   of   pearl   she   donned   tonight.   It   softened   her.   Elizabeth   needed   softening.   No Samurai's sword ever glinted sharper. "So what's taken you out of town?" Hubs asked. I   shot   him   a   grin.   "Actually,   that's   part   of   the   occasion.   Mind   if   I   hold   up   so   I   can   tell you and the missus together?" "I can act surprised." Maggie   had   stayed   glued   to   Elizabeth   and   Trudy,   so   I   stepped   over   to   check   on   the pasta.   The   water   was   just   giving   up   a   few   bubbles,   so   I   gave   the   mix   a   whirl   and   turned the flame down as low as I could get it. I like my pasta soft. I strode to the big fridge and pulled the fixin's out for the salad. "Really," Hubs said. "I can keep a secret." "Accept some driving time with the Maserati instead?" I teased. "You think I'm that easy?" "Yeah." He smiled, those chubby cheeks rounding good. "You know me too well." "Well, Trudy cusses you so much, can't help but know you." "That's low," he said. He took a sip of his white. His feelings weren't hurt. I   finished   my   bottle   of   ale   and   grabbed   another   before   starting   to   work   on   the   salad. We   didn't   speak   for   ten   minutes,   until   Hubs   made   a   crack   about   all   the   ingredients   in my "slaw." I finished off my fifth bottle of ale. "It's all about texture," I said. I    checked    the    heat    billowing    out    of    the    pizza    oven.    Felt    perfect.    I    slid    in    the individual   Dutch   ovens   of   veal,   leaving   our   three   on   the   outer   edge.   We   like   our   meat rare.   I   turned   down   the   heat   on   the   sauce   and   stirred   it   a   bit.   The   alcohol   whiffing   off   of it still could put a sot on his butt. Baby   Boy   didn't   miss   a   single   motion.   Slobber   hung   from   the   right   side   of   his   head almost   to   the   floor.   The   marinated   veal   must   have   smelled   ready   to   eat   as   far   as   he   was concerned. "How do you stay so fit?" Hubs said. "I hate you. Getting old sucks." I   couldn't   really   appreciate   that.   But   he'd   understand   in   a   few   minutes.   I   asked Maggie   to   load   the   dining   table   with   salad   and   fresh   bottles   of   wine.   As   Hubs   and   I strolled   for   the   table,   he   repeated   his   routine   jealousy   for   my   seventeenth-floor   view   of Hillsborough   Bay.   I   countered   with   my   regular   answer.   "Make   Trudy   give   up   a   little   of the mass sums of money I pay her, and get a place up here." "Grandkids   like   the   back   yard,"   Trudy   said,   interrupting   her   interrogation   as   the   two ladies   joined   us.   "How   ever   did   you   find   someone   so   elegant,   Carter,   with   that   smart mouth of yours?" Elizabeth   had   been   going   to   painful   lengths   to   give   honest   answers   the   last   hour. Implying   she   danced   in   Versailles   with   Louis   XIV   was   a   subtle   way   to   help   Trudy   believe in the next half-hour. I   warned   Baby   Boy   not   to   beg,   and   pointed   at   his   designated   place   against   the   wall. He snuffled, none too happy. Over   salad   I   saved   Elizabeth   some   inspection   by   entertaining   Trudy   with   the   good news I had decided to broaden our hierarchy with a North American VP. "Of course I have to build the slate," Trudy complained. "Keep   it   up,   and   you'll   be   answering   my   phone   again."   I   had   five   managers   in   mind for the slot already. But I would consider any Harvard grads that pleased Trudy. I   intentionally   didn't   look   back   at   Trudy   for   a   ten-count.   I   had   wandered   into   bad territory.   Her   expression   demonstrated   she   could   kill   me   with   a   look,   and   that's   hard   to do.   The   council   should   hire   her   as   an   enforcer.   Hubs   stared   at   his   plate.   He   wasn't   going to   say   a   thing.   She   must   have   broiled   over   that   one   task,   answering   my   phone,   every night for ten years, before I got another assistant. Thankfully   we   got   back   to   less   painful   things,   for   me,   like   what   exactly   Elizabeth   did in Brazil. Five   minutes   later   I   collected   salad   plates.   Of   course   Maggie   didn't   offer   to   help. Until   I   growled,   inaudible   to   our   guests.   Dutch   ovens   topped   with   sauce,   delivered   with side   pasta   drenched   in   the   same,   I   decided   I   had   to   save   Elizabeth   from   the   new   spate   of inquiry. "Dishes   right   out   of   the   oven,"   I   warned,   in   case   the   thick   mittens   and   hot   plates didn't   clue   them   in.   I   repeated   my   warning   for   Maggie   even   though   she   helped   me   pull them   out   from   the   flames.   You   could   never   be   too   thorough   repeating   instructions   for Maggie. The   current   question   on   the   table   sizzled   too,   even   for   a   proper   Southern   woman. Nope. Couldn't wait until dessert. I lurked, waiting for Trudy to take a breath to jump in. "I've   been   chosen   chair   for   a   secret   society   I   belong   to.   That's   why   I've   been   out   of town so much. Why I've had to drop more on your shoulders." "Secret society?" Trudy's voice grated in her challenging way. "Before   I   tell   you   more,   I   must   get   assurances   from   the   two   of   you   nothing   spoken tonight leaves this room." "I told you he was with the CIA," Hubs said. "Deeper than that." I   used   my   ominous   voice   to   explain   I   needed   their   solemn   oaths.   Hubs   agreed   too flippantly.   I   considered   if   I   should   explain   the   urgency.   I   didn't   want   to   have   to   kill   him one day because he thought he'd impress a client, or some such foolishness. Thankfully,   Trudy   hedged.   She   returned   my   glare   for   a   full   minute.   Or   it   seemed   that long.   I'm   sure   she   relived   the   moment   a   month   ago   she   demanded   I   share   my   secrets   or she'd quit. I didn't have council sanction to tell her then. Tonight I do. Hubs had already dug into his veal. Maggie sat, her silly grin contouring her face. I   had   worn   flowing   clothes   tonight   for   this.   It   was   time   to   show,   not   tell.   I   relaxed   to my   beast,   and   the   agony   and   ecstasy   of   the   shift   made   me   shudder.   My   lips   extended with my canines. My paws thickened, nails extending into three-inch claws. Elizabeth   and   Maggie   allowed   their   more   gentle-looking   beasts   to   surface.   Their   eyes dulled   and   fangs   extended,   cheeks   bulged   with   muscle.   Elizabeth's   claws   surrounded   the wine glass she held. Neither   Trudy   nor   Hubs   vomited.   I   didn't   scent   either   bowels   or   bladders   giving way. That was a good sign. Chapter Two ~ "I  don't know how you're doing that, but it isn't funny," Trudy snapped. "Great get ups for Halloween. But's that’s a few weeks away," Hubs said. I   swirled   a   bite   of   veal   around   in   the   thick   sauté   and   tentatively   tasted   it.   Way   too   hot still.   I   shifted   a   bit   more.   The   sharp   taste   of   herbs   and   brandy   almost   crossed   my   eyes. The beast has taste buds out of this world. "You're   supposed   to   be   a   werewolf?"   Hubs   asked.   "That's   much   better   than   being   a spy." I   swallowed,   wondering   what   I'd   have   to   do   to   convince   them.   But   Trudy   rose   from her   chair,   walked   to   me   and   grabbed   my   hand,   drew   her   palm   over   my   thickened   fist, pressed a finger down on an extended claw. "Dang,"   she   mumbled.   "Those   freaks   who've   visited   you   over   the   years—"   Her   face snapped at Elizabeth. "You're different." No one budged. Trudy   gripped   my   hand   hard.   "No   wonder   you   haven't   aged   a   day   in   twenty   years." She   said   it   a   little   angrily,   resentfully.   Not   with   the   sense   of   awe   or   disbelief   I   would   have expected.   She   let   my   hand   go   and   walked   to   Elizabeth.   Trudy   was   no   timid   belle.   She grasped   Elizabeth's   hand   and   studied   the   tight   tendons   stretching   out   the   pale   flesh   of her hand, studied the three dimensions of a deadly claw. "Honey. You're not buying this are you?" Hubs hissed. Trudy   ignored   him.   Though   she   still   held   Elizabeth's   hand,   she   glared   at   Maggie now. "The AIDS should have killed you long ago. So you weren't always a—" Trudy   slowly   released   Elizabeth's   hand   and   took   two   steps   away   from   the   table,   eyes now glaring down on me. "Your society?" "Simply called the Lycan Council," I said. "Lycan?" Trudy and Hubs repeated in stereo. Trudy   exhaled   hard.   For   a   moment   I   worried   she   might   faint,   before   she   rushed around   the   table   to   collect   her   wine   glass,   which   she   tipped   up   and   emptied.   She   filled   it quickly,   losing   a   slosh   onto   the   table.   She   emptied   her   glass   again   and   emptied   the bottle into it. "You better slow down," I said softly. Hubs   blew   out   a   lungful   of   air.   "I   know   you   slipped   me   some   LSD   or   something,   but I'm   kinda   gonna   go   with   the   flow   here,   I   think.   Pretty   cool.   The   spy   thing   was   neat   too. We've been talking CIA or NSA for ages. Gonna be hard to switch to werewolf." "Don't ramble," Trudy hissed. "I have a right," Hubs snarled back. I   almost   snorted.   I'd   never   heard   Hubs   speak   with   any   authority   toward   his   wife.   I didn't blame him. I've always reserved a healthy fear of the woman too. "And what exactly are you, Miss Maggie?" Trudy flopped into her chair. Maggie's   grin   couldn't   get   any   bigger.   "I'm   a   vamp.   Pretty   cool,   huh?   I've   always wanted   to   tell   you.   Really.   It   is   so   hard   having   a   secret   you   can't   share.   What   a   relief. Finally. Someone knows." "A—vampire?" Hubs jolted. Maggie   nodded   deep,   her   head   wobbling   a   little   in   her   way,   like   maybe   her   head wasn't all that well connected. This   seemed   to   be   going   pretty   well.   I   forced   my   beast   down,   cleaved   a   chunk   of   veal, sopped and savored. Perfect, without the extra taste buds. "Your sarcasm," Trudy shot at Elizabeth, "weren't cracks?" Elizabeth   calmly   turned   her   head   a   bit   left,   then   right,   elegantly   took   a   drink   of   wine. She   hadn't   released   her   beast   yet.   I   couldn't   imagine   how   awful   that   red   must   taste   with her   exaggerated   senses.   Probably   gag   me.   Though   I   had   to   admit   an   ale   on   the   wolf   side wasn't too bad. The   security   system   squawked,   and   I   walked   into   the   kitchen   to   answer   the   page.   My Velcro Rottweiler remained in the room where the food was. "Mr. McCown. A Mr. Wright here to—" "Let him up," I said. A   weight   dropped   onto   my   shoulders.   I   could   have   killed   something   that   moment. Why   in   the   heck   would   Ambrose   choose   this   night   of   all   nights   to   drop   by?   He   knew   I was   going   to   spring   our   world   on   Trudy.   Maybe   the   sick   loon   wanted   to   see   the   look   on her face. He loved to tease the woman. He lives to tease. I   rushed   for   the   front   door.   Ambrose   wasn't   one   just   to   drop   by.   There   had   to   be something   else   going   on.   What   else   could   happen?   Hadn't   we   done   enough   the   past month? God, it'd been a doozy six weeks. In   the   hall   I   glared   at   the   elevator,   waiting.   Not   something   we   wolves   do   well.   I   had shifted   back   a   bit   without   realizing   it.   The   beast   had   been   too   active   lately.   He   thought he could pop up his ugly head any time he wanted. The   door   opened,   and   a   casually   dressed   Ambrose   strolled   toward   me.   Had   he   worn one   of   his   black   suits   since   being   elected   to   the   council?   Must   think   every   day   is   casual Friday now. "You tell 'em yet?" he asked. "In the process, actually." "Process?" He smiled. "Yeah. I guess it would be a process." He snorted with a laugh. "What are you doing here?" "Thought this problem worth a private visit," he said. I closed my eyes. All I'd faced the past six weeks was catastrophes and worse. "What now?" "A sanction issue." His expression turned stony. "Sanction?" "You aren't the only trouble maker," he said. Since   Ambrose   came   to   the   council   as   a   Grand   Enforcer,   he   was   chartered   to   oversee that facet of council business. But why would a sanction issue involve me? "There may be an unrecognized pack in Texas," he said. "A pack? A whole  pack?" The   number   of   shifters   allowed   is   strictly   monitored.   My   recent   life   had   been   overly complicated   by   unsanctioned   turns,   who   I   had   nothing   to   do   with   turning.   Too   many shifters   wandering   about   and   it   would   be   hard   to   remain   invisible   to   humans.   And   our respective numbers was part of the détente between wolf and vampire societies. "I wouldn't interrupt your evening for any trivial thing." His face again hung a smile. "Why are you—" I asked slowly, doubting I really wanted to know. "Yahoos    in    some    backwater    town    have    arrested    one    of    your    employees    for    a mauling." "One   of   my    people?"   My   lungs   emptied.   Did   I   have   an   unknown   shifter   on   my payroll?    An    unsanctioned    shifter?    Wolves'    stomachs    are    cast    iron-tough,    but    mine started to twist into a pretzel. Ambrose   passed   by   me.   The   tweet   of   my   alarm   made   me   jerk.   Maggie's   high-pitched squeal went through me like a jolt of electricity. I hurried to catch up with Ambrose. "Who?" I asked. "Baur Bertrand the third," he said. We reached the dining room and Trudy groaned overly loud. "Not you." "Yours truly," he sang, like he hadn't just gifted me a grave proposition. Unsanctioned   shifters   was   a   sensitive   issue   between   the   council   and   the   Courts.   I'd practically   brought   our   societies   to   war   twice   because   of   unsanctioned   turns,   Maggie being   one   of   the   unsanctioned   trouble   makers.   She   started   out   a   bur   in   my   butt,   and   I'll probably die from one of her thoughtless acts. "How's my favorite admin?" Ambrose teased Trudy. "Executive Vice President," she snapped. I left her title Assistant to the President way too long. "Is he one of you?" Trudy asked. I   couldn't   speak   yet.   My   lungs   were   empty,   and   my   mind   had   flown   a   thousand   miles west   without   me.   I   repeated   the   name   Ambrose   used.   Baur   Bertrand   III?   Didn't   mean anything to me for another ten heartbeats, until it hit me. He    used    Bubba.    Never    heard    of    or    saw    Baur    until    I    signed    off    on    his    initial delegation   of   authority,   giving   him   a   purchase   order   limit   of   a   half-million.   He   was   the new general manager of our regional store we were building outside Dallas. And he'd been arrested for a mauling? I shook the man's hand. He was no wolf. "One of what?" Ambrose was saying. "An alien from the Pegasus constellation?" When   I   looked   up,   Elizabeth's   concern   radiated.   My   face   must   have   shown   dread   I hadn't   meant   to   give   up.   We   wolves   aren't   so   great   hiding   our   emotion.   Makes   us   crappy poker players. "What's   wrong?"   Elizabeth   said   softly,   probably   too   softly   for   Trudy   and   Hubs   to hear. But   Trudy   had   shifted   in   her   seat   and   her   glare   ripped   through   me   like   wobbling shot.   She   wielded   that   look   effectively.   I   think   our   managers   would   rather   see   my   wolf- face than her irritated eye any day of the year. "What?" she snapped in that tone you didn't ignore. "Store business, or, that other." Baby Boy whimpered. "Both," Ambrose answered for me. "He let you in on the secret just in time." I   groaned   inwardly.   Worst   thing   I   could   imagine,   making   Trudy   more   aware   of   my outside business than necessary. "The new hire in Texas," I said. Trudy   scrunched   up   her   face   in   thought   for   a   three-count.   "That   hunk   in   the   cowboy boots? Six foot sixteen, handsome as a young Clark Gable?" "Bubba Bertrand," I said. "Bubba?" Ambrose asked. I waved at him to shut up. "You eat, Wright?" "A light meal," he said. That was wolf code for, "What ya got?" I   retrieved   what   was   left   of   the   salad,   and   a   fork.   He   took   it   gratefully   after   giving Elizabeth   a   kiss   on   the   cheek,   the   flirt.   He   followed   it   up   with   a   peck   for   Maggie   and Trudy, so I couldn't rip off his head. He sat next to Hubs and dug into the rabbit food. Chapter Three ~ E lizabeth   shuddered.   That   meant   she   sensed   the   rising   sun.   It   was   hard   pulling   my   flesh away from hers. I grabbed the phone off the stand and dialed Maggie. "Yeah," she squawked. "You downstairs?" "Been a while. You done having sex? Jeez, you know the sun is coming up." "She'll be down in two," I said, and disconnected. "She your chauffer now?" Elizabeth    sat    on    the    side    of    the    bed    facing    away,    drawing    her    blouse    over    her shoulders.   The   glimpse   of   her   milky   flesh   made   me   shudder   anew,   and   I   forgot   what she'd   asked   me.   If   Antoine   only   knew   what   our   relationship   was   like,   he'd   re-think   that whole anathema stuff, and envy me. My   mind   wandered   to   Melusine   Elinas.   Antoine   denied   it,   but   I   wondered   if   he   had truly   had   something   going   on   with   that   evil   woman   two   millennia   ago.   Could   a   bad breakup explain the hatred each has for the other now? "You aren't walking me down?" Elizabeth asked. I jerked into this world. "Of course. I just got wrapped up watching you dress." I   didn't   move   yet,   until   her   silk   slacks   covered   that   delicious   derriere   of   hers.   That hidden,   I   lunged   out   of   bed   and   pulled   on   my   chinos,   slipped   into   my   Topsiders,   and snagged my polo off the wingback. I   froze   again,   watching   her   draw   a   brush   through   that   cascade   of   auburn.   A   peck   of new   lipstick,   and   she   faced   me.   The   dimples   formed   at   both   corners   of   her   mouth.   I crushed my face into my shirt. Last thing she wanted to see was my scarred body. "You're beautiful too," she said. I   was   shaking   my   head   good   when   I   took   her   hand.   "Either   you're   a   convincing   liar, or in love." "I   am    a   good   liar,"   she   said,   the   dimple   on   her   right   evaporating   as   that   side   of   her face pulled up tighter. I   drew   my   phone   off   the   dresser   as   we   walked   out   together.   I   certainly   didn't   want   to touch   my   phone   this   morning.   All   I   wanted    to   do   was   soak   in   Elizabeth   for   the   next   bit of   time.   We'd   had   three   days   on   this   trip.   If   she   hadn't   scheduled   her   return   to   Rio tonight, I would have felt really badly about having to head for Texas. Baby Boy followed behind us carrying his squeaker Kong ball. "I hope you don't," she said. She   read   my   mind.   Eerie,   how   she   did   that.   "Even   if   we   find   unsanctioned   wolves there, I won't be doing it. I'll leave it up to the enforcers." "But it will be on your order. I know that will be hard for you." I loved that she knew me so well, but hated that she knew me so well. "I know. It's a witch." The   elevator   door   closed   behind   us,   and   I   pulled   her   into   a   tight   embrace,   my   right hand cupping her tush. "What's a witch?" I whispered in her ear. "You only want me to think of you as virile-man, nerves of steel." The   door   opened   too   quickly   and   I   groaned,   before   releasing   her.   She   gave   me   a   peck as   she   pulled   away.   Considering   her   grin,   I   expected   I   had   a   stylish,   red   blur   on   my cheek. I might not wash my face until she returned, or I flew south for Brazil. The   officer   at   the   desk   gave   me   a   grand,   "Good   morning,   Mr.   McCown,   Ms.   Wintour. That's a big ball you have there, Baby Boy." I   gave   the   man   a   wink,   though   I   didn't   want   to   take   my   eyes   off   Elizabeth.   How   could such a beautiful creature care for something as crass and ugly as me? She   snuggled   closely   to   me   and   whispered,   "I   know   you'll   never   not   think   of   your scars,   but   I   love   them   for   being   part   of   you.   They   mean   you've   stood   for   things.   Taken sides." Yet   she   claimed   her   kind   couldn't   read   minds.   Did   she   say   love?   Had   either   of   us   said the word love yet? "I suppose you can't thrall us either?" I asked. "Of course not. But don't forget I love diamonds." Oh   dang,   I   just   wanted   to   be   upstairs   naked   with   her   still.   The   two   halves   of   the   glass door   pulled   back   and   the   humid   Florida   morning   struck   us.   The   eastern   sky   was   purple. I   cursed   silently.   Maggie   was   standing   by   the   open   passenger   door   of   the   limo   shifting her weight back and forth like she had to pee. "I'm   glad   you   can   drive   directly   into   Antoine's   garage,"   I   said   as   we   pulled   apart   for the last time. Her   fingertips   drew   across   the   stubble   of   my   cheek   as   she   floated   into   the   backseat. Maggie   closed   the   door   with   an   annoying   finality   and   hopped   behind   the   wheel   without a   courtesy   to   me.   Like   I'd   expect   that   from   her.   The   car   pulled   away,   tires   squealing down   the   concrete   semicircle   leading   to   Bayshore.   The   engine   pinged   a   bit   as   it   sped south. I needed to get on Antoine about getting his fleet into one of our shops. I   sighed.   The   black   Lincoln   disappeared,   and   the   loneliness   struck   me   in   the   chest. I'm   a   confirmed   lone   wolf.   What   was   I   feeling   lonely   for?   I   had   gone   forty   years   without a   relationship,   and   this,   whatever   it   is   between   Elizabeth   and   me,   had   my   emotions soaring one minute, destroying me in agony another. Love may not be worth the pain. Though   the   good   stuff   was   good.   Vampires   love   their   love   making.   The   tough   part was   for   neither   of   us   to   ever   draw   blood.   A   good   way   to   ruin   a   tromp   between   the   sheets, or   across   the   carpet,   or   against   the   wall.   Our   love   wasn't   anathema,   but   her   blood   to   me and vice versa, is. The   pelicans   were   already   active   on   the   water.   The   lights   across   the   bay   dimmed with   the   growing   light.   Elizabeth   had   stretched   our   time   together   dangerously   tight.   If   I had any doubts, that should prove she at least, kind of liked me, to take such a risk. There   better   be   no   closed   streets   between   here   and   Antoine's.   Next   time,   maybe   we should   stay   together   at   his   estate.   Like   he'd   allow   our   anathema   to   take   place   under   his roof.   I   needed   to   move   somewhere   I   could   have   a   basement.   Not   many   of   those   in Florida. My   phone   vibrated   for   the   third   time.   I   sighed,   and   slid   it   from   my   pocket.   As   I expected. Ambrose. "What?" "Elizabeth gone?" he asked. I   considered   what   sleazy   remark   I   could   make,   but   my   patience   ran   out.   I'm   just   not that quick-witted. "She is." "The   council   jet   should   be   landing   at   the   regional   side   of   Tampa   International   in   a few minutes." "The council has a jet?" I asked. "You're such a turnip. How soon can you be there?" There   was   so   much   sitting   on   my   desk.   I   should   push   this   off   on   someone   else.   I've never   been   very   good   at   delegating.   Too   dang   hands   on.   "Twenty   minutes   after   I   hear Elizabeth made it to Antoine's estate safely." "Holy cow," Ambrose crowed. "You lovers—" "Shut up, Ambrose." "Sure. Yeah. You're the boss. I'll swing by and pick you up in a few." I   disconnected   and   stared   toward   the   Gulf.   Not   that   I   could   see   gulf   waters   from   here without   a   telephoto.   I   don't   know   why   I   even   thought   about   the   Gulf.   Maybe   just   to   find anything   to   think   about   for   the   next   five   minutes,   until   my   phone   rang,   and   Elizabeth said, "I'm safe." I held my breath. Waited. My   phone   vibrated   in   my   hand.   The   display   displayed   EW,   and   I   filled   my   lungs   in   a rush. "You good?" I asked. "I'm good. You worry too much." "I kind of like you," I said. "Would hate to see you all withered up on the sidewalk." "Would you? That's the sweetest thing you've ever said to me." "You've caught me at an emotional period," I said. "The moon-thing, you know." "Oh, is that it?" "Yep." "You already on your way to Texas?" she asked. "Ambrose is picking me up in a bit." I   sensed   her   smile   over   the   phone.   "I   figured   you   couldn't   wait   to   get   rid   of   me   to head out." "You do slow me down some." "You poor dear." We were quiet a moment. My   throat   tightened,   but   I   got   my   question   out.   "This   thing   isn't   just   a   fling,   is   it? Tell me it isn't." "I'm willing to follow it along a ways." "That's promising." She   made   a   sound   in   the   back   of   her   throat.   "I   never   made   any   promises."   The   sun peaked over the horizon as she said that, and I heard the energy drop in her voice. "See you soon?" I asked. "Not too. You tire me out." I laughed. But she had disconnected. That pain struck me in the chest again. Chapter Four ~ B aby   Boy   was   the   first   off   the   jet.   He   ignored   the   two   creepy   steps   and   just   launched   out of   the   thing.   I   expected   the   loud   noises   to   intimidate   him,   but   his   head   only   rolled   side to   side   as   though   eager   to   experience   every   iota   of   the   world   as   quickly   as   possible.   He appeared    to    know    exactly    where    he    was    supposed    to    go,    heading    directly    for    the terminal   door.   A   few   workers   on   the   tarmac   hurried   away   from   him   in   tangents.   An irritated voice shouted to get him on a leash. Like that was going to happen. What a putz. I   hurried   along   with   Baby   Boy,   eager   to   get   away   from   my   flying   companions.   I certainly   had   not   expected   Ambrose   to   show   up   with   his   missus.   From   the   dribs   of conversation, it was evident she expected this to be more vacation than business. Lying to a woman is never bright. Lying to a female wolf is detrimental to your life expectancy. Misleading   anyone    who   is   likely   to   be   around   when   you're   asleep   and   vulnerable   is not something I would ever do. Not   that   I   have   anything   against   Lisa.   She   may   have   even   smoothed   some   sharp edges   with   folks   I   irritated   with   my   own   recent   sanction   issues.   I   appreciated   her   efforts, but   since   she   acted   as   though   I   owed   her   an   unidentified   future   consideration,   I   didn't want    to    be    anywhere    near    the    two    of    them    when    this    little    vacation    blew    up    in Ambrose's face. The   pair   of   stocky   gents   in   the   black   suits   inside   didn't   have   to   introduce   themselves as   local   council.   Who   else   wore   a   black   suit   in   Texas   in   September?   At   least   they   wore slacks cut for the cowboy boots they wore. Boots.   I   can't   imagine   enforcers   wearing   cowboy   boots.   Picture   a   situation   where they   have   to   pacify   a   drunken   wolf   shifted   three-quarters   beast.   They   going   to   apologize, sit back and remove that bulky footwear first so they can shift? I wouldn't expect that would be wise. In Texas, enforcers must not have to shift often. I hate shifting out of my Italian loafers. The   elder   of   the   two   gave   me   the   hint   of   a   nod   behind   his   dark   glasses.   The   young man's   face   split   into   a   smile   when   I   shook   his   hand.   By   the   way   his   expression   turned,   I expected   him   to   gush   something   like,   "Never   thought   I   would   ever   shake   the   hand   of   the most powerful wolf in the Americas." Not   that   I   am.   That   would   have   to   be   Antoine,   but   chairing   the   Lycan   Council   was kind of cool too, which gave me administrative power I'm not used to yet. Jessie   and   Eli   escorted   me   directly   to   the   Lincoln   Navigator   they'd   driven   down   from Shreveport   for   us.   Before   I   got   in,   they   both   handed   me   business   cards,   suggested   I   put their numbers in my contacts now in case an emergency arose. It   occurred   to   me,   they   had   flown   from   Dallas,   rented   cars   in   Shreveport,   drove   an hour   to   get   here   to   speed   our   way   to   Carthage.   If   an   emergency   occurred,   calling   them   in Dallas wasn't going to serve much purpose. I cleared my throat. Eli said, "Anything wrong, sir?'" I   didn't   answer   right   away,   as   I   considered   the   likelihood   of   two   mature   wolves   like Ambrose   and   me   getting   into   trouble   and   requiring   enforcer   backup.   I   had   no   intention of   putting   a   wolf   down.   Any   wolf,   unsanctioned   or   not.   And   intelligence   implied   there might   be   a   whole   pack   down   here?   Even   in   necessity,   I   wasn't   going   to   approach   that task. And it wasn't Ambrose's job any longer either. "You know why we're here?" I asked. Eli's face hued a pleasant rose, and wolves aren't much for getting embarrassed. "Our commander—" He cleared his throat. He   had   expectations.   Just   because   the   Dallas   Grand   Enforcer   didn't   spell   it   out,   Eli was no fool. I was actually a little miffed the Grand himself didn't meet us. "Just    said    this    was    council    business,"    Eli    continued.    "To    set    you    up.    Assist    as necessary." "Uh huh," I said. "But you plan on flying back to Dallas?" "I wasn't instructed to pack a bag." "Uh   huh."   I   caught   Ambrose   and   Lisa   heading   our   way.   Needed   to   wrap   this   up before   Lisa   caught   wind   of   anything.   "Pack   those   bags.   Get   a   team   organized   to   get   down here within four hours." "How big a team, sir?" I   sighed.   Why   hadn't   Ambrose   taken   care   of   this?   "I   imagine   twenty   juiced   officers will do." Jesse's    eyes    about    doubled    in    circumference.    Eli's    jaw    dropped    a    fraction    for    a moment.   Clearly   Texas   hadn't   experienced   any   hiccups   within   the   local   packs   in   a   while. I   gave   them   a   nod   of   finality,   turned,   and   opened   the   truck   door.   A   wave   of   East   Texas heat   billowed   into   my   face,   and   Baby   Boy   whimpered.   I   leaned   in   to   turn   over   the   engine and get the AC going. Baby   Boy   walked   in   a   circle.   Evidently   the   asphalt   was   a   little   hot.   I   gave   him   a whistle   and   gave   his   heavy   side   a   lift   up.   He   plopped   down   in   the   passenger   seat,   flat face   pushed   against   the   flush   of   air   whirring   out   of   the   dash.   His   ears   pasted   back   in   his not-happy demeanor. "It'll cool off in a sec," I told him, crawling into the driver's seat. Ambrose   strode   up   looking   a   tad-more   irritated   than   usual.   When   Lisa   learned   more about   this   trip   he'd   be   sensing   irritation.   But   I   figured   he   was   less   happy   about   Baby   Boy riding shotgun than what he should have been worrying about. I   didn't   get   out   to   help   Ambrose   with   Lisa's   five   bags.   Five   bags.   Ambrose   and   I carried   over-the-shoulder   duffels   the   size   of   fanny   packs.   How   many   days   had   Ambrose told her we'd be lazing around East Texas? This   isn't   the   Riviera.   Deadwood,   Carthage,   Lufkin.   Did   those   sound   like   vacation hotspots?   As   though   he   had   the   luxury   of   kicking   back   now,   weeks   after   being   elected   to the   council.   Ambrose   didn't   have   another   business   he   had   to   worry   about   cratering   for lack   of   his   attention.   Lord,   I   hoped   Trudy   was   up   to   the   next   two   years.   She   had   never   let me down yet. But she always had my full attention. When   Antoine   discussed   the   council   slate,   he'd   always   given   me   a   wave   of   the   hand, as though it wouldn't even be a part-time effort. The fat liar. I hated that wolf. The   body   had   been   found   outside   the   metropolis   of   Deadwood,   Texas.   The   local constable    was    based    out    of    Carthage,    a    rock-throw    away,    so    I    keyed    that    into    the navigation   system.   Made   sense   that   should   be   our   first   stop.   Straight   shot   down   US-59. Only take us a few minutes. Ack. What about Lisa? "Uh, Ambrose?" Under a grunt he mumbled a, "Yeah." "Where we dropping Lisa off?" The quiet simmered ominous-like. "Where's the resort?" Lisa asked. I   almost   gagged   up   a   lung.   Resort?   I   twisted   hard   to   get   a   look   at   Ambrose   at   the back   of   the   SUV   hefting   the   last   of   Lisa's   bags   in.   He   worked   hard   not   to   look   up.   The man   was   so   deep   in   it.   I   might   as   well   call   the   mortician.   Wasn't   my   problem.   I   hurried to turn around. Lisa   got   in   and   rushed   to   adjust   the   vents.   Evidently   she   didn't   mind   Baby   Boy   got dibs   on   the   front   seat.   When   he   was   ready   for   his   next   nap   in   two   minutes   and   crawled over her lap to stretch out, she'd mind. I waited for the last door to shut. "You even get us reservations?" I asked softly. That was the worst pause. Lisa's   screech   made   my   beast   want   to   take   over   my   persona.   That   decibel   inside   a closed vehicle hurt something awful. "We don't have reservations?" I   sucked   in   a   deep   breath   and   told   myself   to   stay   the   heck   out   of   it.   I   put   the   Lincoln in   reverse   and   tried   to   focus   on   the   directions   from   the   navigation   system   to   get   us   out of   the   little   airport.   We   were   on   US-59   in   two   minutes,   and   Lisa   was   still   giving   Ambrose the business. Baby Boy, ears pasted back, looked at me. I appreciated his displeasure. My   mind   ventured   on   to   my   own   lodging.   Maybe   the   stress   the   previous   month   had me   needing   to   fantasize,   because   I   was   wolfing   out   and   exploring   the   night   away   with Baby   Boy.   But   realistically,   that   wasn't   going   to   work.   Baby   Boy   slept   twenty-hours   every night.   The   sun   goes   down,   his   chin   never   rises.   He'd   be   a   lousy   hunting   partner.   But   the daydream was fun while it lasted. © R. Mac Wheeler 2017
SCI FI Fantasy Dystopian
Texas Sanction Chapter One ~ T he   doorbell   rang   and   Maggie   screamed, "I'll    get    it,"    at    the    top    of    her    lungs.    The decibel    was    unnecessary,    considering    my seventeenth-floor    residence    was    occupied by   another   vampire   and   a   wolf   with   better than excellent hearing. Of     course     she     streaked     out     of     the kitchen   in   a   sprint,   as   though   she   was   ten years   old.   I   don't   know   why   that   surprised me    either.    Her    maturity    was    arrested    at about     that     age.     Her     mentality     barely pushed    fourteen.    Maybe    fifteen.    Hadn't improved    in    the    fifteen    years    I'd    been mentoring her. That's another story entirely. Baby     Boy,     my     one     hundred     eighty pound   Rottweiler,   tromped   off   behind   her. That    would    give    me    a    few    moments    of guilt-free    breathing,    until    he    returned    to the   kitchen   to   study   my   every   move.   One day     I     had     to     strap     a     saddle     on     the Rottweiler's back and break him in. "If    the    pasta    clumps    I'll    beat    her,"    I whispered.   That   was   the   only   responsibility Maggie   ended   up   with   tonight,   and   she's the one attending culinary school. Elizabeth     smirked     behind     her     wine glass. "You sound so mean." I   wasn't   sure   what   her   double-meaning entailed,   but   maybe   that's   because   this   was a   night   that   had   been   waiting   almost   two decades,    and    my    mind    still    trilled    with exactly    how    to    explain    what    I    had    to explain to Trudy and Hubs. What   in   the   heck   was   his   given   name? You'd   think   I   could   remember   the   spouse's name    of    the    only,    well,    one    of    the    few humans    I    considered    a    friend.    It    would help    if    she    called    him    something    besides Hubs all the time. "Don't   worry,"   Elizabeth   whispered.   "It will go well. I promise." "Maggie,   my   god!"   Trudy's   screech   from the   entry   made   me   wince.   "You   are   looking so   fine,   young   woman.   What   have   you   done with yourself?" Not    aging    in    fifteen    years    might    have something to do with it. Baby   Boy   vibrated   the   building   with   a woof.   He   evidently   didn't   get   acknowledged fast enough. "You    like    the    hair?"    Maggie    screeched back at Trudy. The   two   women   went   on   about   the   wave and   highlights   for   a   decade   or   so.   Maggie could   encourage   them   across   the   threshold, couldn't     she?     Trudy     made     a     comment about   Maggie   being   so   pale,   needing   to   get out in the sun. "Like    that    will    ever    happen,"    Maggie answered. I     met     Elizabeth's     hard     glance.     Heat radiated across my face. I   stirred   the   sauce,   but   my   mind   was   on Trudy's   introduction,   hoping   she'd   divulge her    number-one-man's    given    name.    But only,    "The    Hubs,"    came    out.    The    back patting   of   a   hearty   hug   echoed   down   the corridor.    I    hoped    Maggie    didn't    grab    the man's   kiester.   Though,   that   might   make   his day. I   grabbed   the   bottle   of   brandy   from   the far   corner,   a   gift   from   Antoine,   and   doused my    sauce.    I    made    it    swim    in    the    stuff, before   turning   up   the   heat   a   tad.   At   least the   liquor   would   be   put   to   a   purpose.   Not like   I   would   ever   drink   the   swill.   Besides, the    humans    in    attendance    tonight    were going   to   need   every   bit   of   alcohol   in   their system they could get. Trudy    began    her    self-introduction    to Elizabeth    before    the    three    came    in    view. She repeated her, "My god," screech. The    way    Elizabeth's    eyes    opened    wide from her counter perch tickled me. "I    finally    meet    The     Elizabeth,"    Trudy crowed    striding    forward    like    a    defensive end with her eyes on the quarterback. More     humor     sunk     into     my     being, watching   Elizabeth's   discomfort.   When   had she   ever   risen   to   meet   a   human   in   the   last four-hundred   years?   Clearly,   she   knew   the protocol     expected,     but     Trudy's     familiar approach   took   Elizabeth   out   of   her   comfort zone, by thousands of years. Trudy      ignored      Elizabeth's      proffered hand.   Like   she   would   take   it   and   kiss   one   of Elizabeth's      hundred      rings.      I      grinned, looking   forward   to   the   embrace.   A   proper lord    just    didn't    understand    a    Southern greeting.   Elizabeth   dipped   backward   in   the much   taller   woman's   grasp,   long,   elegant fingers   dancing   in   the   air   a   moment,   before tentatively lighting on Trudy's back. Hilarious. If     Trudy     hadn't     dipped     a     good-bit, Elizabeth's    extra    height    provided    by    her four   inch   spikes   would   have   embedded   her face        deeply        into        Trudy's        ample, grandmotherly   breasts.   I   watched   closely   to see   if   Trudy   raised   Elizabeth   off   her   feet.   I sighed   to   note   Trudy   let   her   off   easy,   but one   arm   didn't   let   my   beautiful   love   free,   as Trudy    whooshed    Elizabeth    for    the    living room for a private interview. "You   have   to   tell   me   all   about   yourself," Trudy gushed. Oh, that would be a delicious telling. "Where    did    you    meet    Carter?"    started the inquisition. I    poured    the    decanting    white    into    the glass    I    had    waiting    on    the    counter    for Trudy,     topped     off     Elizabeth's     red,     and motioned   to   Maggie   to   deliver   them.   The girl's   eyes   gleamed   with   excitement.   It   gave me   pause.   This   most   positively   was   the   first social      setting      the      trollop      had      ever experienced.         During         our         previous mentoring,        I        had        certainly        never entertained   here   with   her   among   humans.   I didn't     trust     her     not     to     let     fly     some egregious    statement.    Living    on    the    street since   she   was   fourteen   left   a   lot   of   rough edges. Still   a   lot   of   rough   edges.   And   in   truth,   I still   don't   trust   her.   After   fifteen   years   of growling at her. Baby     Boy     must     have     gotten     all     the loving   he   wanted,   because   he   was   back   at his station to watch every move I made. "Hey,    Carter."    Hubs    gave    me    an    up thrust chin, plenty of greeting for us. "How ya doin'?" I asked. The   accountant   actually   told   me.   While he   drumbled   on,   I   grabbed   an   ale   from   the drinks   fridge   and   saluted   him   with   it,   like he'd   join   me.   He   snorted.   He   knew   I   knew better,   but   I   just   can't   get   past   a   grown   man passing    on    a    killer    lager    to    drink    white wine. I   opened   the   bottle   for   me   and   took   a hard hit while I filled his waiting glass. Hubs   interrupted   his   monologue   earlier than   I   expected   and   asked,   "So   what's   the occasion?" "I   can't   have   my   favorite   people   over   for dinner?" I asked. He    got    his    spreading    butt    into    a    bar chair   across   the   counter   from   me.   "These have     always     come     with     some     kind     of announcement. Always big ones." Southerners are warm, and blunt. "You'll have to wait for dessert," I said. "I   can   handle   that,   but   you   might   give Trudy    some    hints.    She's    twisted    so    tight she can't pee." "The   business   last   month   was   hard."   I wasn't sure if I meant that as a question. "You   'spose?"   Hubs   didn't   add   a   smile   to that.    No    doubt    Trudy    dragged    a    dump truck   load   of   stress   home   with   her   every night.   "Whatever's   been   taking   you   out   of town   lately   has   dumped   a   lot   of   work   on her." I       nodded.       I       didn't       want       this conversation     with     Trudy.     Surely     didn't want   to   live   through   it   with   her   husband.   I watched     the     interrogation     taking     place sixty    feet    away.    At    the    angle    I    had    on Elizabeth,    leaning    forward    toward    Trudy, her   silk   blouse   folded   opened,   her   waist- long,      flowing      hair      crested      over      her shoulders.   I   could   never   get   enough   of   that sight.   I   was   happy   she   traded   her   normal business-black   slacks   for   the   shade   of   pearl she     donned     tonight.     It     softened     her. Elizabeth   needed   softening.   No   Samurai's sword ever glinted sharper. "So    what's    taken    you    out    of    town?" Hubs asked. I   shot   him   a   grin.   "Actually,   that's   part of   the   occasion.   Mind   if   I   hold   up   so   I   can tell you and the missus together?" "I can act surprised." Maggie    had    stayed    glued    to    Elizabeth and   Trudy,   so   I   stepped   over   to   check   on the   pasta.   The   water   was   just   giving   up   a few   bubbles,   so   I   gave   the   mix   a   whirl   and turned   the   flame   down   as   low   as   I   could   get it. I like my pasta soft. I   strode   to   the   big   fridge   and   pulled   the fixin's out for the salad. "Really,"     Hubs     said.     "I     can     keep     a secret." "Accept     some     driving     time     with     the Maserati instead?" I teased. "You think I'm that easy?" "Yeah." He      smiled,      those      chubby      cheeks rounding good. "You know me too well." "Well,   Trudy   cusses   you   so   much,   can't help but know you." "That's   low,"   he   said.   He   took   a   sip   of his white. His feelings weren't hurt. I   finished   my   bottle   of   ale   and   grabbed another    before    starting    to    work    on    the salad.    We    didn't    speak    for    ten    minutes, until    Hubs    made    a    crack    about    all    the ingredients in my "slaw." I   finished   off   my   fifth   bottle   of   ale.   "It's all about texture," I said. I   checked   the   heat   billowing   out   of   the pizza     oven.     Felt     perfect.     I     slid     in     the individual   Dutch   ovens   of   veal,   leaving   our three   on   the   outer   edge.   We   like   our   meat rare.   I   turned   down   the   heat   on   the   sauce and   stirred   it   a   bit.   The   alcohol   whiffing   off of it still could put a sot on his butt. Baby   Boy   didn't   miss   a   single   motion. Slobber    hung    from    the    right    side    of    his head    almost    to    the    floor.    The    marinated veal   must   have   smelled   ready   to   eat   as   far as he was concerned. "How   do   you   stay   so   fit?"   Hubs   said.   "I hate you. Getting old sucks." I    couldn't    really    appreciate    that.    But he'd   understand   in   a   few   minutes.   I   asked Maggie   to   load   the   dining   table   with   salad and   fresh   bottles   of   wine.   As   Hubs   and   I strolled     for     the     table,     he     repeated     his routine   jealousy   for   my   seventeenth-floor view   of   Hillsborough   Bay.   I   countered   with my   regular   answer.   "Make   Trudy   give   up   a little   of   the   mass   sums   of   money   I   pay   her, and get a place up here." "Grandkids    like    the    back    yard,"    Trudy said,   interrupting   her   interrogation   as   the two    ladies    joined    us.    "How    ever    did    you find   someone   so   elegant,   Carter,   with   that smart mouth of yours?" Elizabeth    had    been    going    to    painful lengths    to    give    honest    answers    the    last hour.    Implying    she    danced    in    Versailles with   Louis   XIV   was   a   subtle   way   to   help Trudy believe in the next half-hour. I    warned    Baby    Boy    not    to    beg,    and pointed   at   his   designated   place   against   the wall. He snuffled, none too happy. Over     salad     I     saved     Elizabeth     some inspection   by   entertaining   Trudy   with   the good   news   I   had   decided   to   broaden   our hierarchy with a North American VP. "Of    course    I    have    to    build    the    slate," Trudy complained. "Keep   it   up,   and   you'll   be   answering   my phone   again."   I   had   five   managers   in   mind for   the   slot   already.   But   I   would   consider any Harvard grads that pleased Trudy. I   intentionally   didn't   look   back   at   Trudy for   a   ten-count.   I   had   wandered   into   bad territory.   Her   expression   demonstrated   she could   kill   me   with   a   look,   and   that's   hard   to do.    The    council    should    hire    her    as    an enforcer.    Hubs    stared    at    his    plate.    He wasn't   going   to   say   a   thing.   She   must   have broiled   over   that   one   task,   answering   my phone,   every   night   for   ten   years,   before   I got another assistant. Thankfully   we   got   back   to   less   painful things,   for   me,   like   what   exactly   Elizabeth did in Brazil. Five     minutes     later     I     collected     salad plates.    Of    course    Maggie    didn't    offer    to help.    Until    I    growled,    inaudible    to    our guests.    Dutch    ovens    topped    with    sauce, delivered   with   side   pasta   drenched   in   the same,    I    decided    I    had    to    save    Elizabeth from the new spate of inquiry. "Dishes   right   out   of   the   oven,"   I   warned, in    case    the    thick    mittens    and    hot    plates didn't   clue   them   in.   I   repeated   my   warning for   Maggie   even   though   she   helped   me   pull them   out   from   the   flames.   You   could   never be   too   thorough   repeating   instructions   for Maggie. The     current     question     on     the     table sizzled    too,    even    for    a    proper    Southern woman.   Nope.   Couldn't   wait   until   dessert.   I lurked,   waiting   for   Trudy   to   take   a   breath to jump in. "I've    been    chosen    chair    for    a    secret society   I   belong   to.   That's   why   I've   been   out of    town    so    much.    Why    I've    had    to    drop more on your shoulders." "Secret   society?"   Trudy's   voice   grated   in her challenging way. "Before    I    tell    you    more,    I    must    get assurances    from    the    two    of    you    nothing spoken tonight leaves this room." "I   told   you   he   was   with   the   CIA,"   Hubs said. "Deeper than that." I    used    my    ominous    voice    to    explain    I needed    their    solemn    oaths.    Hubs    agreed too    flippantly.    I    considered    if    I    should explain   the   urgency.   I   didn't   want   to   have to   kill   him   one   day   because   he   thought   he'd impress a client, or some such foolishness. Thankfully,   Trudy   hedged.   She   returned my   glare   for   a   full   minute.   Or   it   seemed that   long.   I'm   sure   she   relived   the   moment a    month    ago    she    demanded    I    share    my secrets   or   she'd   quit.   I   didn't   have   council sanction to tell her then. Tonight I do. Hubs    had    already    dug    into    his    veal. Maggie    sat,    her    silly    grin    contouring    her face. I   had   worn   flowing   clothes   tonight   for this.   It   was   time   to   show,   not   tell.   I   relaxed to   my   beast,   and   the   agony   and   ecstasy   of the     shift     made     me     shudder.     My     lips extended     with     my     canines.     My     paws thickened,   nails   extending   into   three-inch claws. Elizabeth     and     Maggie     allowed     their more     gentle-looking     beasts     to     surface. Their     eyes     dulled     and     fangs     extended, cheeks     bulged     with     muscle.     Elizabeth's claws surrounded the wine glass she held. Neither     Trudy     nor     Hubs     vomited.     I didn't     scent     either     bowels     or     bladders giving way. That was a good sign. © R. Mac Wheeler 2017
R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author