Suspense Urban Fantasy R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author
C arter    McCown    protected    a    vampire    turned    without    Red    Court sanction   once   before.   That   ignited   a   war,   created   powerful   enemies, and   strained   an   alliance   with   his   only   supporter,   an   ancient   no   one should   ever   cross.   Carter   won't   escape   with   breaking   the   Changeling Pact    as    he    did    then.    He's    been    drawn    into    a    trap    and    Miranda Hansen's   life   expectancy   can   be   measured   in   hours.   Even   his   wolf wants   him   to   turn   his   back   on   her.   Yet   whether   it's   a   sense   of   guilt   or his    beast's    stubbornness,    he's    committed    to    saving    her.    Failure ensures    he    won't    see    his    two-hundredth    birthday.    Not    an    earth- shattering milestone for a changeling, but one he'd like to reach.
Chapter One ~ T he   surge   of   agony   and   ecstasy,   claws   thickening   my   fists,   chest   expanding,   and   teeth crowding   my   mouth   forced   me   to   suck   in   a   breath.   I   pushed   away   the   stack   of   invoices. Was   I   shifting   because   of   the   inanity   of   me   auditing   the   auditors?   Full   moon   wasn't   for three more days. I shouldn't be— The    bitter    taste    of    blood    as    my    gums    accommodated    my    canines    activated    the salivating. I couldn't swallow fast enough and had to wipe my mouth. The   scent   reached   my   conscious   brain.   Not   my   blood.   Someone   else's.   I   tilted   my   head back.   It   didn't   filter   through   the   office   door   from   the   shop   downstairs.   Idiots   were   always busting    their    knuckles    loosening    bolts,    but    this    wasn't    a    dab.    It    was    rich,    beautiful, streaming    blood,    the    kind    that    made    a    meal    worth    curling    up    and    dreaming    about afterward. I   spun   in   my   chair   and   jogged   to   the   window.   Maggie   hates   my   open   window.   Vamps work   too   hard   to   shut   out   stimuli.   I   wonder   why.   I   should   ask.   One   day.   When   I   have nothing better to do. I   inhaled   deeply.   Clean,   human   blood.   With   it,   a   screeching,   guttural,   human   breath, clamped down beneath a strong hand, rasped staccato. Hell. Not my business. Don't interfere. Go back to work. A muffled, “Help.” Oh,   just   great.   I   closed   my   eyes   and   dropped   my   head   forward.   All   I   need.   Though   life has grown a little too routine the last few years. What am I thinking? I like boring. Still,    I    ran    for    the    rear    exit,    which    I    only    used    to    avoid    race    teams    looking    for sponsorship.   The   door   slammed   hard   against   the   wall.   That   would   bring   Trudy   in   to investigate.   All   I   needed.   I   hit   the   first   landing   before   I   even   considered   it   wouldn't   be good if she followed me. In two decades I've never let her catch me shifted. What   the   hell.   Finding   the   door   wide   open   she'd   probably   cuss   me,   shut   the   door   and lock   it,   hope   I   didn't   have   my   keys   with   me   so   I'd   have   to   return   by   her   desk   and   give   her an   explanation.   Why   did   women   always   need   an   explanation?   Females   stick   their   nose into everything. At   the   first-floor   landing   I   didn't   take   the   time   to   unlock   the   alarm,   which   blared   as   I slammed   the   panel   opening   the   fire   exit.   It   was   dark.   Hell,   Trudy   would   have   already   left for   the   day.   Did   she   tell   me   adios?   There   shouldn't   be   anyone   on   the   shop   floor   either. That was convenient, considering. Pausing   in   the   back   lot   only   long   enough   to   determine   the   smell   came   from   the   left,   I pivoted   and   sprinted.   My   feet,   bulging   in   preparation   for   a   more   serious   shift,   complained in   my   slip-on   Italians.   The   Egyptian   cotton   of   my   dress   shirt   pulled   tight   against   my expanded chest, threatening to pop buttons. I   hurdled   the   three-foot   wall   that   separated   my   property   from   the   neighbor   and   the full   aroma   of   the   blood   hit   me.   A   fraction   of   a   second   later,   the   gasp,   more   a   gurgle   of lungs   expanding   for   air,   unable   to   get   it.   A   familiar   sound,   one   I   heard   through   my   wolf every   time   he   clamped   down   on   a   deer's   throat.   I   ran   past   the   line   of   cars,   already   focused on the point of the kill. A kill if I was too slow. My leather soles slid on the asphalt as I stamped to a stop. The   bastard   lunged   to   face   me,   still   grasping   his   prey   by   the   neck   with   one   hand.   His eyes   flared   that   freaking   weird,   illuminated-opal.   He   hissed.   Was   that   supposed   to   scare me?   He   reached   out   with   his   free   hand.   I   didn't   have   to   see   the   razor   claws   to   know   what he   was.   I'd   already   smelled   the   antiseptic-absence   that   vampires   spewed.   He   continued toward   me,   drawing   back   a   paw   to   give   me   a   swipe.   If   he   succeeded,   he   could   open   up   my throat. But he was a little too confident and I wasn't going to wait for him. They   need   to   learn   how   to   smell   wolf.   Would   I   give   this   piece   a   crap   a   chance   to   learn? I hadn't decided. I   bitch-slapped   him.   His   head   dented   the   quarter-panel   of   the   F150   he   bounced   off.   I felt   badly   for   the   truck.   Its   owner   would   be   pissed.   Pickup   drivers   tend   to   build   a   special bond with, not for, their trucks. The    vamp's    neck    cracked,    skull    squished,    and    he    fell    flat,    face    bouncing    off    the asphalt. Had to hurt something awful. Too bad. I so empathize with my pale cousins. Not. The   human   female   slumped,   the   flesh   of   her   throat   flayed   from   his   claws   being   jerked from   her.   Her   gagging   covered   the   traffic   noise   from   the   boulevard   forty   yards   away.   At least she wasn't dead. Lucky wench. I    counted.    One.    Two.    Three.    Was    on    ten    when    Idiot    Vamp's    limbs    jerked    as    he reanimated.   Maybe   I   should   have   ripped   off   his   head.   He   might   be   ticked   off   when   his senses returned. I   shared   another   quick   glance   at   the   female.   Her   own   senses   seemed   to   be   returning. Her   eyes   were   more   focused   and   her   breathing   no   longer   sounded   like   a   shredder   ripping an   elm   limb.   She   pressed   her   shoulders   against   the   block   wall   that   separated   the   parking lot from the houses across the way. I   could   smell   a   dozen   dinners   being   prepared,   the   chlorine   stench   of   swimming   pools, and   the   crap   of   a   hundred   city   mutts.   Couldn't   humans   clean   up   after   their   animals? Disgusting.   If   my   wolf   crapped   in   the   corner   of   my   office,   I   could   never   leave   the   pile   lying there for weeks. Humans are disgusting. It's   a   wonder   my   kind   manage   to   eat   them.   Badgers   and   muskrats   don't   have   as   much meat   on   them,   but   they're   cleaner.   That   might   be   an   exaggeration.   Never   ate   a   critter   that smelled as though it'd recently showered. “You   son   of   a   bitch,”   the   idiot-vamp   mumbled,   pulling   up   on   all   fours.   “I'm   going   to kill you.” I   relaxed,   allowing   more   of   my   beast   to   surface,   enough   to   let   this   pale   jerk   know   who he dealt with. Action always draws a quicker reaction than talk. His eyes widened, and he fell back on his butt. “Get lost,” I hissed. “And this doesn't have to get around.” He   considered   too   long.   I   had   decided   I'd   have   to   kill   him,   but   he   scrambled   to   his   feet and   fled.   He   was   clumsy.   A   baby.   No   wonder   the   female   was   still   alive.   Twit   couldn't   thrall a squirrel yet. Hadn't acquired the powers of a half-mature vampire. He   disappeared   around   the   corner   of   the   All   Sports,   one   of   my   favorite   places   on earth.   In   my   nightmares.   Running   naked   in   the   woods   for   a   couple   days   every   twenty- eight   days   is   all   the   sport   I   typically   need,   any   more.   Though   I'm   not   against   a   friendly game   of   three-on-three   with   other   wolves   as   long   as   they   keep   their   claws   tucked   in.   Or   a jog to release some sexual tension when I haven't allowed my wolf to run in too-long. I   turned   to   Bleeding   Chick.   She   sobbed   now,   head   bounced   up   and   down   like   a   fishing bob. Did I have to play the pathetic, sympathetic male now? That stuff makes me sick. “You gonna live?” A   rivulet   of   blood   streamed   down   her   well-cleaved   chest.   Not   a   rack   to   write   a   song about,   but   perky.   What   did   that   jerk   do   to   her?   Damn.   I   smelled   his   saliva.   He   probably got his fangs into her. Crap. A   sob   jolted   mid-bob,   and   she   looked   up   at   me,   frozen   for   a   full   second,   and   she laughed.   Maybe   in   pain,   a   little   panic,   but   she   had   a   sense   of   humor.   The   laugh   vibrated into   a   pair   of   sobs,   which   she   tried   to   suffocate.   She   made   a   belching,   passing   gas   kind   of noise   that   forced   a   grin   on   my   face,   despite   the   situation.   Hope   she   didn't   notice.   That might come across less than sympathetic. Here   I   was   staring   down   at   her.   Either   I   had   to   go   all   mushy   and   soothe   her   with pansy-assed   you-poor-thing,   or   perform   some   first   aid.   Her   blood   was   likely   to   induce   me to   finish   her   off,   carry   her   to   a   darker   corner.   Damn.   I   pulled   out   my   cell   and   dialed   911. One   way   to   get   my   mind   off   her   blood.   It   wasn't   right   to   save   her   from   a   vamp   to   eat   her myself. “A    woman    has    been    mauled,    I    mean    beat    up,    badly.    She    needs    an    ambulance. Bleeding a lot.” I answered the questions, trying not to think too much about the blood. “I'll ask her.” She   looked   up   at   me.   Alert.   A   chick   who   didn't   go   acting   the   oh   I'm   a   pitiful   thing   who needs   protecting   routine.   I   could   grow   to   like   her,   if   the   jerk   hasn't   ripped   out   her   jugular. Didn't appear the case. Not that  much blood. I must have hesitated too long, because she executed a what-flinch. “Uh—” “I'm thirty. Five-nine. Hundred twenty pounds.” I   considered   telling   her,   “No,   they   want   to   know   if   you   have   insurance.”   But   I   held   on to   that   tidbit   of   humor   and   passed   the   data   on.   She   scooted   up   and   leaned   against   the   wall a little straighter, closed her eyes. I   finally   got   the   emergency   chick   to   stop   asking   questions   and   slid   my   phone   in   my pocket.   I   sighed.   I   had   to   do   it.   I   pulled   my   arm   up   and   bit   into   my   sleeve,   ripping   the material   off   my   arm.   Two-hundred   dollar   tailored   shirt   shot   to   hell.   She   better   survive   or I'd be pissed. I   tore   it   in   half   and   knelt   in   front   of   her.   Beneath   the   pheromones   of   fear   and   pain whiffed   an   expensive   perfume.   Not   one   I   particularly   care   for,   but   I   wouldn't   kick   a   chick out   of   my   bed   for   wearing   it.   Not   that   many   chicks   ever   get   in   my   bed.   I   tried   to   remember how   long   it   had   been,   as   a   human.   Too   long.   Way,   too   long.   Elizabeth,   maybe?   And   she didn't   even   count.   In   the   back   of   an   armored   truck?   That   couldn't   have   even   counted   as   a tryst.   Damn,   I   hadn't   thought   of   her   in   a   while.   She   had   been   like   a   bad   cold   that   never went away. Not that my wolf lets me catch colds. “Blood make you ill?” she asked. I   actually   jerked.   That   gave   me   a   smile   inside,   which   may   have   made   it   to   the   surface, I'm   not   sure.   But   even   if   it   did,   crammed   between   two   cars   well   past   sundown,   she   wasn't going   to   read   my   face,   as   I   could   hers.   Not   that   I'm   good   at   reading   faces.   My   wolf   is   way better   separating   scents   than   I   am   discerning   body   language.   So   I   usually   leave   him   to make those kinds of situation calls. “I didn't want to startle you, after, you know.” “After some asshole tried to rape me?” You wish. “Yeah. That.” “I'm good.” “Good.”   I   knelt   in   front   of   her   and   pressed   the   wadded   up   halves   of   my   former, tailored   sleeve   to   the   sides   of   her   throat.   Her   pulse   made   it   through   the   material,   and   I shuddered.   Memory   of   the   last   heart   that   dulled   under   my   touch   visited,   before   other thoughts. Damn. It   had   been   a   long   time   since   I'd   been   this   close   to   a   woman.   Maggie   didn't   count.   I hadn't    ever    looked    at    her    as    a    woman,    more    a    project.    No.    A    pain    in    my    ass.    And technically she isn't a woman any longer. I felt a little off. How much pressure was I applying? The   siren   of   an   EMT   from   the   fire   station   two   blocks   away   vibrated   in   the   truck   and sedan we crouched between. Another siren, a police unit, neared from the other direction. A   new   scent   filtered   through   the   blood,   pheromones,   and   perfume.   Healing.   I   had smelled   this   before,   once.   Turned   my   world   upside   down.   The   jerk   did   infect   this   woman. The   scourge   that   allows   changelings   to   shift   and   reanimate   already   performed   its   thing.   In a month she'd be a baby vamp, if they let her live that long. That was unlikely. “You aren't going to throw up on me, are you?” she asked. In   this   light,   could   she—the   moon   neared   full.   I   looked   east.   Of   course   the   sedan   was in   the   way,   but   inside,   my   gut   knew   the   moon   hovered   in   the   sky   like   an   irritated   mother- in-law. Not that I've ever had an irritated mother-in-law. Or any kind of mother-in-law. “You want to take these. I better catch the, you know.” “Yeah.” Her   hands   pressed   against   mine,   and   I   shuddered   again,   like   a   teen   at   a   sock   hop.   The back   wall   was   already   lighting   up   red   and   blue.   Thankfully   the   sirens   were   off   now.   That would   have   catapulted   my   heightened   ears.   My   beast,   still   fighting   to   fully   emerge,   would have   been   pissed.   It   isn't   good   to   piss   off   my   beast.   I   personally   go   to   great   lengths   to avoid   ticking   him   off,   or   any   wolf's   beast,   for   that   matter.   That's   not   actually   true.   I   can   be a   prick   to   anyone   who   gets   in   my   face.   And   it   doesn't   take   much   to   irritate   me.   I   imagine that's true for all lone wolves. Though I'd never met another lone wolf. I   lurched   and   stepped   away   from   the   cars   as   the   panel   truck   came   around   the   corner of   the   All   Sports   the   vamp   had   disappeared   around.   The   headlights,   turned   on   high-beam, blinded   me,   gave   me   a   sense   of   vertigo.   I   held   one   hand   over   my   eyes,   the   other   waved them   over,   as   though   they   couldn't   figure   out   they   looked   for   me.   The   truck   pulled   twenty feet past me before stopping. A police car pulled around the store and neared. Did   I   go   to   the   EMTs   first,   or   the   cops.   The   EMTs.   I   walked   to   the   passenger   side   and the   calm,   fortyish-looking   guy   in   his   starched-white   shirt   already   pulled   out   a   second   kit from a side panel. Our conversation lasted ten syllables. For   the   next   fifteen   minutes   I   dealt   with   the   cop's   questions.   No   I   couldn't   identify   the guy,   it   was   too   dark.   I   happened   to   be   fifty   feet   away   and   heard   her   cry   for   help.   Just lucky,   I   agreed.   No,   I'd   never   met   the   lady.   Maybe   a   shopper   at   the   All   Sports.   I   didn't   do anything heroic, other than dial my phone. The EMTs raised the gurney the chick was now strapped down on. She called me over. “Could you do me another favor?” I   nodded.   Why   me?   Saving   your   life   isn't   enough?   The   cop   sat   in   his   car   now   writing up   his   all-important   report.   He   hadn't   even   peered   around   the   corner   of   the   store   for   that freaking   pale.   Not   that   he   would   have   loitered   after   the   fact.   But   still,   shouldn't   the   cop have at least gone through the motions? “My   car   is   in   the   front   of   the   store.   I   was   getting   in   when—   Would   you   lock   it   up   for me?” “Sure.   Be   happy   to.”   Yeah,   sure.   I   walk   the   neighborhood   at   night   looking   for   damsels to    help    every    freaking    night.    Favorite    pastime    of    mine.    Yep.    My    cape    is    just    at    the cleaners. And   in   three   seconds   she   was   inside   the   ambulance,   the   rear   door   closed.   It   didn't move    for    another    three    minutes.    The    fire    department    guys    were    gone.    The    cop    still worked   on   his   report,   which   was   taking   more   time   than   he   spent   talking   to   me   and   the female combined. I   walked   to   the   front   of   the   store,   glancing   at   my   Rolex.   Seven-fifteen.   Not   as   late   as   I expected.   EMTs   were   here   fast.   The   cop   too.   So   he   could   fill   out   his   forms   so   the   city   could get its federal funds. Five   cars.   Wasn't   hard   figuring   out   which   was   hers.   I   followed   her   perfume   directly   to it.   The   driver's   door   hung   ajar.   Her   purse,   along   with   her   keys,   lay   on   the   ground   in   front of   it.   There   were   bags   in   the   backseat   emblazoned   with   the   All   Sports   logo.   This   part   of Tampa   was   full   of   vampires,   but   not   petty   thieves,   and   no   one   willing   to   investigate   an abandoned    vehicle    with    a    woman's    purse    lying    on    the    ground.    The    motto,    don't    get involved, stands. The world we live in. Such as it is. I   got   in   the   BMW   and   closed   the   door.   Nice.   For   pretend   luxury.   Stiff,   leather   seats. My   Audi   was   more   comfortable.   Some   of   the   stuff   in   the   high-end   cars   my   Hyde   Park shop drew in would make this thing look like a ten-dollar hooker. I   sighed.   I'd   grown   into   a   proper   prig.   An   absolute   prick,   considering   my   humble beginnings.   If   I'd   made   it   home   to   Tennessee   after   the   war,   I   would   have   split   Papa's   ten acres   with   my   brother.   Scraped   to   survive.   Wouldn't   have   made   it   past   a   third   wife,   and   a fortieth   birthday.   Instead   come   August,   I   would   greet   one-hundred,   eighty-fucking-seven years.   Life   can   grow   boring.   Maybe   I   should   slink   around   at   night   hunting   damsels   in distress. Be a caped crusader. That would nick the monotony in the butt. Another sigh. I'd   been   in   Tampa   twenty   years   using   the   same   identity.   I'd   have   to   move   on   soon.   If not   a   new   city,   a   new   persona.   Pain   in   the   freaking   butt.   I   shouldn't   take   on   such   a   visible role   as   I   did   here.   But   I   enjoyed   rubbing   shoulders   with   the   NASCAR   dudes,   even   if   they do   try   to   steal   my   best   engineers.   And   skyboxes   were   a   lot   more   fun   when   cameras   turned your way looking for celebrities. Back to the present. I   took   in   a   deep   draw   to   learn   more   about   this   chick.   The   car   still   had   the   new   smell, but   wasn't   just   off   the   lot.   Her   scent   was   heavy.   A   faint   masculine   aroma,   but   not   from   the passenger   seat.   So   he   claimed   her.   Insisted   on   driving   when   they   took   her   car.   That   was   so twentieth century. But   he   didn't   drive   often.   Hadn't   been   in   it   recently.   There   wasn't   a   hint   they'd   ever had   sex   in   the   car.   So   he   didn't   own   her,   even   if   he   claimed   her.   The   Fiskar   in   last   week, the   prick   had   to   have   had   sex   with   ten   different   broads   in   it,   and   the   car   wasn't   six   months old.   What   was   the   deal   about   sex   in   a   car?   I'd   never   get   that.   Not   if   I   lived   another century, which I would. Or three. If I avoided pissing off the Lycan Council again. I   had   pressed   down   my   beast   when   the   excitement   ended,   yet   I   didn't   have   to   move the   seat   forward.   I   usually   did.   Nutrition   in   the   eighteen-thirties   didn't   promote   a   lot   of six-footers in my social class. I   smelled   her   purse.   New.   No   scent   of   anyone   else.   So   was   this   chick   a   loner   too?   The handbag   would   have   picked   up   scent   simply   being   around   other   humans.   This   one   hadn't. Wasn't   that    new.   Females   are   territorial   about   their   purses.   Should   I   open   it?   Of   course. I'm not that big a gentleman. Nothing   special   inside.   Typical   crap   women   couldn't   live   without.   A   stab   of   excitement warmed   my   gut   as   I   unclasped   her   wallet.   No   photos   of   loved   ones.   Weird.   Not   many credit cards, but each the black variety, no limits. She didn't worry about member fees. I   salivated   as   I   read   her   name.   Damn.   It   was   a   driver's   license   not   a   menu.   Miranda Hansen.   Pretty   name.   Hyde   Park   zip   code.   Fit   the   Beemer.   Born   January   28.   That   would make   her   an   even-30.   Green   eyes,   brown   hair,   so   claimed   the   state   of   Florida.   She   seemed a   little   geeky   in   her   photo,   but   not   bad   looking.   Why   was   I   being   so   nosy?   I   should   lock the purse inside and forget about her. Instead   I   started   the   car,   and   backed   up.   Was   really   stupid   having   anything   to   do   with this   chick.   A   rogue   vampire's   illegal   turn.   The   Red   Court   would   sign   her   execution   order as soon as it learned she existed. It wouldn't be good to be associated with her. I'm such an idiot. Fifty   yards   away   I   pulled   up   to   the   shop's   door.   It   would   be   a   reasonable   thing   to   lock her   car   inside   a   bay.   Wouldn't   be   right   to   leave   it   in   a   public   lot   overnight,   a   nice   car   like this. She was in for a lot of pain soon. Maybe not so much. One quick snap of the neck. Poor shit. Not my business. Chapter Two ~ T he   sun   wasn't   smiling   yet   as   I   strolled   up   the   front   walk   of   the   hospital.   The   odors sweeping    out    the    automatic    doors    overwhelmed    me    for    a    moment.    Humans    had    no senses.   Explained   how   people   could   leave   their   dog's   feces   in   the   backyard   forever.   I   got past   the   smell   and   continued   through   the   lobby   examining   all   the   signs.   The   place   could have   been   a   big   box   store   with   all   the   directions   screaming   at   me.   The   hair   on   my   nape lifted before I found the elevator that would take me to the patient's rooms. The   ding   warning   me   the   third   floor   neared   made   me   ask   why   the   hell   I   was   here, carrying   a   woman's   purse,   and   a   plant.   Got   the   same   answer   when   I   called   an   hour   earlier and learned Miranda had indeed been checked in. I am a freaking fool. My   phone   kept   ringing.   I   had   so   many,   better   things   to   do.   Tweak   the   capital   budget. Intimidate   a   store   manager.   Tick   off   Trudy.   She   is   so   easy   to   rile.   Twenty   years,   still   hasn't adjusted   to   my   caustic   personality.   I   should   do   her   a   favor   and   cut   her   pay,   give   her   a reason   to   look   elsewhere.   But   her   hubby   particularly   enjoys   one   benefit   of   her   job.   When she   finds   some   excuse   to   go   all   raggedy   on   me,   I   appease   her   with   the   keys   to   the   Ferrari. That softens the glares. He probably gets sex. She does like to drive the Ferrari. I need to focus. Need not to be here. Anywhere else would be better. Would   be   much   smarter   to   be   on   a   flight   to   Rio.   A   week   in   the   jungle   gorging   myself before   a   week   on   a   nude   beach   would   serve   me   better.   But   alas.   I've   never   made   wise choices,   starting   with   saying,   “Sure,”   to   the   recruiter   for   the   4 th    Regiment   Tennessee Volunteer   Infantry.   What   an   absolutely   stupid   thing   to   do.   As   though   I   needed   to   protect my   right   to   own   a   slave.   I   didn't   know   north   from   south.   Certainly   didn't   know   the   differences   between   North   and   South.   Hadn't   a   clue   what   aggression   meant,   as   in   War   of Northern Aggression. The   way   my   stomach   flittered   I   could   be   heading   for   a   Lycan   Council   judgment,   as   I stepped   gingerly   into   the   room.   A   private   one.   Big-assed   flat   screen   hung   on   the   wall   on the   left.   The   sound   was   off,   but   the   Fox   News   ticker   slid   across   the   bottom   of   the   screen. I'd   found   in   the   past   that   Beemer   drivers   leaned   MSNBC.   Conservatives   drive   big-assed GMs.   Could   she   be   a   realist?   That   why   she   didn't   fall   apart   last   night?   Might   help   her accept her pending doom. I had to stop worrying about that. I came to a stop, shaking my head. Why and the hell am I even here? The   privacy   screen   hung   three-quarters   closed.   All   I   could   see   of   the   room's   resident was the bulge of feet under the rough cotton of her blanket. Flee, you fool. My phone rang. I slapped my leg in my rush to mute it through my slacks. “Oh,   heck,”   a   Buffy   or   Cindi-sounding   voice   complained.   “I   just   gave   you   a   gallon   of blood.” Her   voice   was   stressed   last   night.   Not   exactly   sultry.   But   I   hoped   for   something   other than a valley girl today. Hell, she was thirty, after all. I realized I was salivating again. She had to mention blood. I hurried to swallow. “Come   in.   Come   in.   I'm   sure   I   have   more   I   can   spare.”   She   busied   herself   ending   a phone   conversation   with   someone,   which   by   the   harmonics   of   her   voice,   she   didn't   sound excited to be talking to. I was an excuse to end the call. I   trekked   the   four   steps   to   place   me   at   the   foot   of   her   bed.   Her   eyes   widened,   eyes   still marked   with   yesterday's   mascara.   Her   hair   was   as   big   a   mess   as   you'd   expect,   but   her overall   scraggily   appearance   still   rocked   me.   Had   I   let   my   imagination   run   wild   the   last twelve   hours?   This   was   no   babe   who   would   have   caught   the   eye   of   a   discerning   vampire. But   then   again,   how   discerning   can   a   rogue   be   to   snatch   a   meal   in   the   parking   lot   of   a sporting goods store? She   wore   a   purpling   bruise   at   her   hairline,   a   fat   lip,   large   bandages   on   both   sides   of her   throat   over   the   slices   they   probably   closed   with   stitches.   Scratches   peeked   out   from under   the   white   cloth.   I   could   have   told   them   to   forget   the   stitches.   In   a   week   she   wouldn't even have a scar to remind her of the incident. “And?”   She   cocked   her   head   and   her   eyes   shifted   from   my   face   to   the   pot   I   held.   “A Crinum Lily. Not a plant typically found in a hospital gift shop.” She   knew   what   kind   of   lily   it   was?   But   another   emotion   ran   down   my   throat   and   into my   stomach.   I   should   either   take   a   breath,   run,   or   pass   out.   I   decided   to   breathe.   A   sense of vertigo still ran through me. My cell rang again. I muted it with a little more flair this time. She said, “Someone must need you.” I cleared my throat and swallowed. “They can wait. You're Miranda?” “No   one   I   like   calls   me   Miranda.   I   prefer   Randi.”   In   a   mutter,   she   added,   “My   mother calls me Miranda.” A   drama.   Go   figure   a   female   would   be   preoccupied   with   family   drama.   Randi.   Almost as bad as Buffy. My mind kind of stuck on that thread of thought. I needed a brain tow. “The lily?” “Uh. A client grows them. Brings me one every time she—uh.” “So not from the gift shop.” “Nope.” “Do I know you?” Oh crap. Did I have to explain? It was full night, but not that dark. Moon. Flashlights. “What has you so frightened?” she asked. “Do I look that bad? I promise I don't bite.” Yet. “No.” “But bad, huh?” “Yes.” “At least you're honest. So you hate hospitals, or what?” “Hate how they smell.” A hint of a grin twisted a corner of her lip. “Sensitive sinuses?” “Something like that.” “So, is the lily for me?” I   lurched   so   suddenly   the   single   bloom   flopped   hard   enough   I   feared   it   might   soar across the room. “Re-gifting, huh?” Crap.   I   pulled   it   back.   Of   course   she'd   think   I   was   re-gifting.   I   was.   Stupid   to   hand   it   to her, too. After a year trying to reset, I managed the pot down on the rolling table-thingie. “And your purse.” Set the purse next to the lily. “I    doubted    you    carried    the    same    style    I    do.    And    even    with    the    re-gifting,    very thoughtful.   You   haven't   told   me   who   you   are.   A   lawyer?   Not   that   I'm   implying   you're cheap.” “Lawyer?” Cheap? “You said the lily came from a client.” “I service her Rolls.” Her   eyes   travelled   down   my   shirt,   silk-wool   slacks,   to   my   Italians.   I   thought   of   her black    credit    cards.    She    probably    recognized    tailored    duds.    So    I    didn't    look    like    a mechanic. A smile crossed her face. “Service her Rolls?” I imagined her mind forming the same joke. No. I'm not a car gigolo. “Yeah, in a way I am,” I mumbled. “Am what?” “A car gigolo.” She   lunged   forward   with   a   raucous   laugh.   Not   prim   at   all.   I   enjoyed   the   rattle,   but worried   she'd   pull   out   her   IV.   A   five-count   later   she   composed   herself   after   a   last,   tiny snort, though her top lip remained a little tight. “So I have to guess?” she asked. “What?” “Your name. Why you're here.” “Uh.” “Short name.” “Carter.” “Now we're getting somewhere. Like the peanut farmer?” What?   Oh.   President   Carter.   Figured.   Watches   Fox   News,   knows   the   presidents   who presided before she was born. “We share the name, but I've never grown a peanut.” “Can you grow a single peanut?” I    think    this    chick,    lady,    could    grow    on    me.    “I    think    they    grow    in    multiples    like potatoes.” “You know your farming.” “Runs in the family, way back.” She nodded slowly, studying me, as my temperature rose. “So, Carter, why are you here?” I   jerked   again   like   a   teen   goosed   in   the   groin.   I   pulled   her   ignition   fob   out   of   my pocket and held it out for her. “My   car?”   She   turned   the   fob   in   her   hand   as   though   she   might   find   her   name   stenciled on it, or doubted it truly belonged to her. “It's   locked   in   one   of   my   bays.   Thought   it   would   be   safer   there.”   What   a   crock.   Had   I really   gone   to   all   of   this   just   to   manufacture   a   meeting?   “If   the   shop   isn't   open—”   I   pulled a   business   card   from   my   shirt   pocket,   and   a   pen,   wrote   my   private   cell   number   on   the card before handing it to her. “You can call me any time. I can open up for you.” Her   eyes   narrowed.   Her   expression   implied   she   didn't   trust   the   conclusion   she'd   come to. “You called the ambulance for me?” I think sweat beaded on my forehead. Took her a long time to figure it out. “You seemed much bigger last night. Imposing.” Why not call me scrawny? She opened her mouth in an oh. “I remember the streak of silver in your hair.” People remember the streak. Had it since I was twelve. The   conversation   paused   for   about   a   decade   as   my   shirt   soaked   up   my   sweat.   What was she thinking? “I should thank you,” she blurted in a rush. “I   didn't   do   anything—”   My   cell   interrupted   me.   I   pulled   it   from   my   pocket   and   set   it to vibrate. “This early in the morning, it might be important.” I shrugged. “In a bay. A shop. What shop?” “Next door to the All Sports.” She   closed   her   eyes   a   moment.   “The   luxury   car   place.   I   thought   it   was   a   dealership   of some kind.” “We don't sell anything but luxury service.” “I   hope   to   be   released   this   afternoon.   Last   night   they   asked   me   to   stay   the   night   so they   could   observe   me.   I   haven't   died   yet,   so   I   think   I'll   be   able   to   meet   you   there   before quitting time.” She   hadn't   died,   yet .   A   raw   pain   gripped   my   chest.   I   wished   I   could   tell   her.   With   luck, whoever   tracked   her   down   would   take   her   out   fast.   Usually   a   bullet   in   the   heart,   then   an axe   to   the   neck   to   ensure   she   didn't   bounce   up   and   say,   “Surprise,”   five   minutes   later.   I suddenly   wanted   to   turn   and   run.   That   would   be   a   good   move.   Maybe   if   she   got   on   a plane, went far away. “I'm   going   in   the   field   as   soon   as   I'm   up   to   it,”   she   continued.   “That's   why   I   was   at   the All Sports, buying supplies. Originally, I was heading north tomorrow morning.” “The field?” “I'm   a   botanist.   I'm   doing   a   survey   outside   the   Piedmont   National   Wildlife   Refuge, north of Macon, where developers are planning some fancy community.” “Survey?” “The   EPA   forces   developers   to   contract   firms   like   the   one   I   work   for,   to   prove   their playing in the dirt doesn't interfere with any endangered flora or fauna.” “Flora?” She grinned broadly. “Do you ever use full sentences?” “Avoided at all costs.” “Your phone is vibrating.” “Botanist. Explains the—” I wiggled my hand at the plant. “Recognizing the lily.” “Yeah, that. How long you going to be out there?” “In   the   field?   Could   be   a   couple   weeks.   I'm   the   only   botanist   on   the   project   team,   so   I have a lot of acres of watershed to walk over.” “Happens   I'm   heading   for   a   camping   trip   out   that   way.”   I   hadn't   been.   Now   it   seemed a certainty. “I might see you out there.” What the hell are you doing, Carter? “Ha. That would be funny, wouldn't it? In all the gin joints.” Huh?   A   line   in   a   movie   probably.   As   long   as   I've   been   around,   pop   culture,   and   even not-so-pop, tended to fly over my head. “If you're going on the road, I'll have someone look over your car.” “That—” “Never   hurts   to   be   careful.   I've   always   got   a   wrench   monkey   standing   around   looking for    something    to    do.”    Not    if    the    shop    manager    wants    a    bonus.    “I'll    have    it    detailed afterward.   So   see   you   tonight?”   I   back   stepped   for   the   door.   I   hated   the   flutter   in   my   solar plexus. What the hell was that? “There's no need—” “There's a Chinese proverb about being responsible forever—” “When you save someone's life,” she finished for me. “Yeah, that. So, see ya.” She   might   have   said   something   else,   but   my   ears   rang   too   loudly,   my   head   throbbed,   I couldn't    hear    a    bomb    go    off    up    my    pompous    posterior    with    the    din.    The    hallway    I wobbled down flicked blurry. And I wasn't even shifting. Chapter Three ~ T he   two-note,   pause,   final-note   at   my   office   door   made   me   cringe.   I   had   enough   vamp problems,   I   didn't   need   another.   Maggie's   signature   knock   this   near   after   dark   could   only mean   bad   things.   Panic   of   some   kind.   I   studied   her   face   as   she   entered.   Yep.   Concern painted her sick. Her stomach would be a mess. Now what has she done? After   caring   for   the   trollop   for   fifteen   years,   the   endearment   I   held   for   Maggie   has worn   very   thin.   She   would   never   grow   up.   You   can   lead   a   slut   to   church,   but   you   can't teach them to keep their legs closed. Never make a halfwit brilliant. “What?” I asked. She   screeched   that   throaty   thing   the   kids   do.   Maggie   watches   too   much   television. “Can't a girl visit her best friend?” “How many times have you told me you hate my guts?” She   was   silent   too   long.   Three   seconds,   maybe,   and   that's   an   eternity   for   Maggie   to keep   her   trap   shut.   So   she   was   working   hard   to   be   diplomatic.   Added   to   the   early   evening hour, she had to be in deep do. To her chin. Maybe she needed a snorkel. “How bad is it?” I asked. Her   eyes   welled.   I   hadn't   seen   that   since   she   insulted   her   queen,   and   was   left   in   limbo for   a   week,   waiting   to   see   how   the   high   and   mighty   lord   vampire   would   have   her   killed. That cost me big. In the bank account and pride. I do not care to grovel. The   timing   sucked,   too.   I   already   had   a   pretty   good   idea   what   her   latest   predicament had to be. I thought Randi would have a couple months. My stomach twisted. “The Court gave you a cleanup job.” It wasn't a question. The babies got the shit work. She nodded. “In the city?” She nodded. “A new one?” “No   one   knows   exactly   how   mature.   A   thraller   who   works   the   blood   bank   at   Tampa General got a sniff as she left work this afternoon.” Thraller.   Vampire's   derogatory   name   for   the   weak-assed   of   their   kind.   In   literature they're   called   succubae.   They   have   the   sexual   drive   and   mind   control   of   their   brethren, without    the    nasty    blood-whore    addiction,    nor    the    powers    that    make    vampires    an inconvenient foe of my kind. Maggie's   as   incompetent   as   they   come.   But   even   she   could   manage   the   process   of elimination.   They   would   have   someone   in   the   hospital   with   access   to   records.   Maggie   only had to sniff around the home of everyone treated today, until she found Randi. Hospital-scent    was    the    proverbial    garlic    to    mature    vampires.    That    left    only    the presence   of   a   thraller   at   the   hospital   to   smell   a   newly   turned.   No   reason   for   any   of   the talented   variety   to   be   at   the   hospital.   Not   as   though   they   can   catch   the   flu.   Talk   about luck.   Wild   coincidence,   a   half-talented   minion   happened   to   be   at   the   hospital   the   few hours Randi was there. Idiots believe in coincidence. I deny I'm an idiot, despite my recent actions. Maggie   could   believe   in   coincidence.   Randi's   chance   for   time   evaporated   with   that   one whiff. “That all you have to go on?” I asked. She cocked her head. Eyes narrowed. I could smell the treadmill bearings burning up. “Imagine   how   many   thousands   of   people   enter   and   leave   that   hospital   every   day,”   I said.   “You'll   have   quite   the   job.   Contractors.   Doctors.   Specialists.   Delivery   people.   Folk visiting patients. Hell I visited a friend there today.” “Who?” “A friend.” “I didn't think you had any of those.” She wasn't trying to be a bitch. Just voicing an honest observation. “Salesmen.    Cleaning    people.    Maintenance.    Geez.    You    could    be    looking    for    your bootleg blood sucker for years.” Maggie   looked   close   to   throwing   up.   “I   was   told   to   have   it   cleaned   up   by   the   end   of   the week.” “And you didn't balk?” “What's that mean?” “They'll   get   over   it,”   I   muttered   as   nonchalantly   as   I   could,   which   wasn't   very,   because a new thought came to me. Crud. Randi   could   be   downstairs   this   very   moment   to   pick   up   her   car.   Infected   only   fifteen years,   Maggie   was   a   baby   vamp,   but   had   enough   of   the   juice   maturing   in   her   system   to smell Randi from ten feet away. I had to get Maggie the hell out of here. “I gotta do this paperwork. I wish you luck.” “Will you help me?” “Look.   You've   got   all   the   tools   you   need.   You   have   the   nine   millimeter   they   gave   you, and the axe to take its head. Right?” “Be a nice meal.” “You   know   your   kind   taste   like   burned   tire-rubber   to   us.   Only   reason   we   let   you   hang around.” She   laughed.   She   always   enjoyed   that   joke.   A   little   of   the   stress   seeped   from   her   face. “I forget.” “Besides, I'm going north for full moon.” Her   face   brightened   more.   “The   woods?   You   haven't   done   that   in   ages.   Can   I   go   with you?” “You'd   smell   like   me   for   a   month.   Your   vamp   buddies   turn   up   their   nose   when   you show up as it is.” She grimaced. “Besides, you have your little task to take care of.” She   broiled   her   face   together.   Thinking   tended   to   tire   her   out.   “They   say   tomato   juice takes away the smell of skunks. Maybe—” “You saying I smell like a skunk?” “Well, a little. But I got used to your wolf a long time ago, so don't notice that much.” Yeah. She'd admitted that more than once. Only when she was working to be nice. “Think of all the bear shit out there. You hate the smells.” “But it's so quiet. The city's so loud.” “Be glad you don't live in New York.” “You promised once you'd take me to New York one day. Big liar.” “The   city   vamps   would   chew   you   up   and   spit   you   out,   after   they   ground   me   into   the pavement.” “You always brag about you mutts being superior to us. Do I hear fear?” I held my cackle. “Mutts? You bitch.” “Asshole.” “New   York   City   is   slut-deep   with   vamps.”   Besides,   the   Changeling   Pact   excluded   us from   the   place.   Hell.   I   never   promised   to   take   her   there.   She   stalled.   Hoped   I'd   give   in   and help her. “As a visitor I'd be a little outnumbered.” “Coward.” “You   bet.   When   you   can't   win,   good   to   avoid   conflict.”   Did   I   have   to   throw   my   adopted granddaughter   out   the   damn   window?   I   don't   care   for   her,   and   she   would   heal,   but   I   have limits    to    my    rude    behavior.    Granted,    they    are    very    low.    “Go.    I've    got    things    to    do. Important people to talk to.” “I have important people to talk to, too.” “Then you should go bother them .” “Someday I won't be around, and you'll miss me.” “Like the plague. I'll never be rid of you.” “We turn up dead all the time. The hunters. You know. They're brutal.” “The   hunters   are   after   those   who   do   harm.   The   one   compliment   I   can   pay   you,   dear,   is you're harmless.” “I   don't   wanna   have   to   kill   this   new   one.”   She   puckered   her   lips,   but   the   eyes   were sincere. “We do—” “What   we   have   to,”   she   finished   for   me.   “Asshole.   I   hope   you   get   a   bear   rib   caught   in your throat and die, up there in the woods alone.” “I love you too.” She flipped me off as she slunk out of my office. She gave the expression, special people, new meaning, God bless her. © R. Mac Wheeler 2017
SCI FI Fantasy Dystopian
R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author
Changeling Pact Chapter One ~ T he    surge    of    agony    and    ecstasy,    claws thickening   my   fists,   chest   expanding,   and teeth    crowding    my    mouth    forced    me    to suck   in   a   breath.   I   pushed   away   the   stack of   invoices.   Was   I   shifting   because   of   the inanity   of   me   auditing   the   auditors?   Full moon     wasn't     for     three     more     days.     I shouldn't be— The   bitter   taste   of   blood   as   my   gums accommodated   my   canines   activated   the salivating.   I   couldn't   swallow   fast   enough and had to wipe my mouth. The   scent   reached   my   conscious   brain. Not   my   blood.   Someone   else's.   I   tilted   my head    back.    It    didn't    filter    through    the office    door    from    the    shop    downstairs. Idiots   were   always   busting   their   knuckles loosening   bolts,   but   this   wasn't   a   dab.   It was   rich,   beautiful,   streaming   blood,   the kind   that   made   a   meal   worth   curling   up and dreaming about afterward. I   spun   in   my   chair   and   jogged   to   the window.   Maggie   hates   my   open   window. Vamps   work   too   hard   to   shut   out   stimuli. I    wonder    why.    I    should    ask.    One    day. When I have nothing better to do. I   inhaled   deeply.   Clean,   human   blood. With    it,    a    screeching,    guttural,    human breath,   clamped   down   beneath   a   strong hand, rasped staccato. Hell. Not    my    business.    Don't    interfere.    Go back to work. A muffled, “Help.” Oh,    just    great.    I    closed    my    eyes    and dropped    my    head    forward.    All    I    need. Though   life   has   grown   a   little   too   routine the   last   few   years.   What   am   I   thinking?   I like boring. Still,    I    ran    for    the    rear    exit,    which    I only   used   to   avoid   race   teams   looking   for sponsorship.     The     door     slammed     hard against   the   wall.   That   would   bring   Trudy in   to   investigate.   All   I   needed.   I   hit   the first   landing   before   I   even   considered   it wouldn't   be   good   if   she   followed   me.   In two   decades   I've   never   let   her   catch   me shifted. What   the   hell.   Finding   the   door   wide open    she'd    probably    cuss    me,    shut    the door   and   lock   it,   hope   I   didn't   have   my keys   with   me   so   I'd   have   to   return   by   her desk    and    give    her    an    explanation.    Why did   women   always   need   an   explanation? Females stick their nose into everything. At   the   first-floor   landing   I   didn't   take the     time     to     unlock     the     alarm,     which blared    as    I    slammed    the    panel    opening the    fire    exit.    It    was    dark.    Hell,    Trudy would   have   already   left   for   the   day.   Did she    tell    me    adios?    There    shouldn't    be anyone   on   the   shop   floor   either.   That   was convenient, considering. Pausing     in     the     back     lot     only     long enough   to   determine   the   smell   came   from the   left,   I   pivoted   and   sprinted.   My   feet, bulging   in   preparation   for   a   more   serious shift,   complained   in   my   slip-on   Italians. The    Egyptian    cotton    of    my    dress    shirt pulled   tight   against   my   expanded   chest, threatening to pop buttons. I     hurdled     the     three-foot     wall     that separated   my   property   from   the   neighbor and   the   full   aroma   of   the   blood   hit   me.   A fraction   of   a   second   later,   the   gasp,   more a   gurgle   of   lungs   expanding   for   air,   unable to   get   it.   A   familiar   sound,   one   I   heard through   my   wolf   every   time   he   clamped down   on   a   deer's   throat.   I   ran   past   the line   of   cars,   already   focused   on   the   point of the kill. A kill if I was too slow. My   leather   soles   slid   on   the   asphalt   as   I stamped to a stop. The    bastard    lunged    to    face    me,    still grasping    his    prey    by    the    neck    with    one hand.   His   eyes   flared   that   freaking   weird, illuminated-opal.     He     hissed.     Was     that supposed    to    scare    me?    He    reached    out with   his   free   hand.   I   didn't   have   to   see   the razor    claws    to    know    what    he    was.    I'd already     smelled     the     antiseptic-absence that     vampires     spewed.     He     continued toward   me,   drawing   back   a   paw   to   give me    a    swipe.    If    he    succeeded,    he    could open   up   my   throat.   But   he   was   a   little   too confident   and   I   wasn't   going   to   wait   for him. They   need   to   learn   how   to   smell   wolf. Would   I   give   this   piece   a   crap   a   chance   to learn? I hadn't decided. I   bitch-slapped   him.   His   head   dented the   quarter-panel   of   the   F150   he   bounced off.   I   felt   badly   for   the   truck.   Its   owner would   be   pissed.   Pickup   drivers   tend   to build   a   special   bond   with,   not   for,   their trucks. The      vamp's      neck      cracked,      skull squished,   and   he   fell   flat,   face   bouncing off    the    asphalt.    Had    to    hurt    something awful.   Too   bad.   I   so   empathize   with   my pale cousins. Not. The   human   female   slumped,   the   flesh of   her   throat   flayed   from   his   claws   being jerked   from   her.   Her   gagging   covered   the traffic    noise    from    the    boulevard    forty yards away. At least she wasn't dead. Lucky wench. I    counted.    One.    Two.    Three.    Was    on ten   when   Idiot   Vamp's   limbs   jerked   as   he reanimated.   Maybe   I   should   have   ripped off   his   head.   He   might   be   ticked   off   when his senses returned. I    shared    another    quick    glance    at    the female.    Her    own    senses    seemed    to    be returning.    Her    eyes    were    more    focused and   her   breathing   no   longer   sounded   like a    shredder    ripping    an    elm    limb.    She pressed    her    shoulders    against    the    block wall   that   separated   the   parking   lot   from the houses across the way. I    could    smell    a    dozen    dinners    being prepared,       the       chlorine       stench       of swimming     pools,     and     the     crap     of     a hundred     city     mutts.     Couldn't     humans clean   up   after   their   animals?   Disgusting. If   my   wolf   crapped   in   the   corner   of   my office,   I   could   never   leave   the   pile   lying there for weeks. Humans are disgusting. It's   a   wonder   my   kind   manage   to   eat them.   Badgers   and   muskrats   don't   have as     much     meat     on     them,     but     they're cleaner.   That   might   be   an   exaggeration. Never   ate   a   critter   that   smelled   as   though it'd recently showered. “You    son    of    a    bitch,”    the    idiot-vamp mumbled,    pulling    up    on    all    fours.    “I'm going to kill you.” I   relaxed,   allowing   more   of   my   beast   to surface,   enough   to   let   this   pale   jerk   know who   he   dealt   with.   Action   always   draws   a quicker reaction than talk. His   eyes   widened,   and   he   fell   back   on his butt. “Get   lost,”   I   hissed.   “And   this   doesn't have to get around.” He   considered   too   long.   I   had   decided I'd   have   to   kill   him,   but   he   scrambled   to his   feet   and   fled.   He   was   clumsy.   A   baby. No   wonder   the   female   was   still   alive.   Twit couldn't     thrall     a     squirrel     yet.     Hadn't acquired    the    powers    of    a    half-mature vampire. He   disappeared   around   the   corner   of the   All   Sports,   one   of   my   favorite   places on    earth.    In    my    nightmares.    Running naked    in    the    woods    for    a    couple    days every   twenty-eight   days   is   all   the   sport   I typically   need,   any   more.   Though   I'm   not against   a   friendly   game   of   three-on-three with    other    wolves    as    long    as    they    keep their   claws   tucked   in.   Or   a   jog   to   release some     sexual     tension     when     I     haven't allowed my wolf to run in too-long. I   turned   to   Bleeding   Chick.   She   sobbed now,   head   bounced   up   and   down   like   a fishing     bob.     Did     I     have     to     play     the pathetic,    sympathetic    male    now?    That stuff makes me sick. “You gonna live?” A   rivulet   of   blood   streamed   down   her well-cleaved   chest.   Not   a   rack   to   write   a song   about,   but   perky.   What   did   that   jerk do   to   her?   Damn.   I   smelled   his   saliva.   He probably got his fangs into her. Crap. A   sob   jolted   mid-bob,   and   she   looked up   at   me,   frozen   for   a   full   second,   and   she laughed.   Maybe   in   pain,   a   little   panic,   but she    had    a    sense    of    humor.    The    laugh vibrated    into    a    pair    of    sobs,    which    she tried   to   suffocate.   She   made   a   belching, passing    gas    kind    of    noise    that    forced    a grin    on    my    face,    despite    the    situation. Hope   she   didn't   notice.   That   might   come across less than sympathetic. Here   I   was   staring   down   at   her.   Either I   had   to   go   all   mushy   and   soothe   her   with pansy-assed    you-poor-thing,    or    perform some    first    aid.    Her    blood    was    likely    to induce   me   to   finish   her   off,   carry   her   to   a darker   corner.   Damn.   I   pulled   out   my   cell and   dialed   911.   One   way   to   get   my   mind off   her   blood.   It   wasn't   right   to   save   her from a vamp to eat her myself. “A    woman    has    been    mauled,    I    mean beat   up,   badly.   She   needs   an   ambulance. Bleeding   a   lot.”   I   answered   the   questions, trying    not    to    think    too    much    about    the blood. “I'll ask her.” She    looked    up    at    me.    Alert.    A    chick who   didn't   go   acting   the   oh   I'm   a   pitiful thing    who    needs    protecting    routine.    I could   grow   to   like   her,   if   the   jerk   hasn't ripped   out   her   jugular.   Didn't   appear   the case. Not that  much blood. I   must   have   hesitated   too   long,   because she executed a what-flinch. “Uh—” “I'm   thirty.   Five-nine.   Hundred   twenty pounds.” I   considered   telling   her,   “No,   they   want to   know   if   you   have   insurance.”   But   I   held on   to   that   tidbit   of   humor   and   passed   the data     on.     She     scooted     up     and     leaned against   the   wall   a   little   straighter,   closed her eyes. I    finally    got    the    emergency    chick    to stop   asking   questions   and   slid   my   phone in   my   pocket.   I   sighed.   I   had   to   do   it.   I pulled   my   arm   up   and   bit   into   my   sleeve, ripping    the    material    off    my    arm.    Two- hundred   dollar   tailored   shirt   shot   to   hell. She better survive or I'd be pissed. I   tore   it   in   half   and   knelt   in   front   of her.   Beneath   the   pheromones   of   fear   and pain   whiffed   an   expensive   perfume.   Not one   I   particularly   care   for,   but   I   wouldn't kick   a   chick   out   of   my   bed   for   wearing   it. Not   that   many   chicks   ever   get   in   my   bed.   I tried   to   remember   how   long   it   had   been, as    a    human.    Too    long.    Way,    too    long. Elizabeth,    maybe?    And    she    didn't    even count.   In   the   back   of   an   armored   truck? That    couldn't    have    even    counted    as    a tryst.   Damn,   I   hadn't   thought   of   her   in   a while.   She   had   been   like   a   bad   cold   that never   went   away.   Not   that   my   wolf   lets me catch colds. “Blood make you ill?” she asked. I   actually   jerked.   That   gave   me   a   smile inside,    which    may    have    made    it    to    the surface,   I'm   not   sure.   But   even   if   it   did, crammed     between     two     cars     well     past sundown,    she    wasn't    going    to    read    my face,   as   I   could   hers.   Not   that   I'm   good   at reading     faces.     My     wolf     is     way     better separating    scents    than    I    am    discerning body   language.   So   I   usually   leave   him   to make those kinds of situation calls. “I   didn't   want   to   startle   you,   after,   you know.” “After some asshole tried to rape me?” You wish. “Yeah. That.” “I'm good.” “Good.”    I    knelt    in    front    of    her    and pressed    the    wadded    up    halves    of    my former,   tailored   sleeve   to   the   sides   of   her throat.    Her    pulse    made    it    through    the material,   and   I   shuddered.   Memory   of   the last    heart    that    dulled    under    my    touch visited, before other thoughts. Damn. It   had   been   a   long   time   since   I'd   been this    close    to    a    woman.    Maggie    didn't count.    I    hadn't    ever    looked    at    her    as    a woman,   more   a   project.   No.   A   pain   in   my ass.    And    technically    she    isn't    a    woman any longer. I   felt   a   little   off.   How   much   pressure was I applying? The    siren    of    an    EMT    from    the    fire station    two    blocks    away    vibrated    in    the truck    and    sedan    we    crouched    between. Another   siren,   a   police   unit,   neared   from the other direction. A   new   scent   filtered   through   the   blood, pheromones,   and   perfume.   Healing.   I   had smelled    this    before,    once.    Turned    my world    upside    down.    The    jerk    did    infect this     woman.     The     scourge     that     allows changelings      to      shift      and      reanimate already   performed   its   thing.   In   a   month she'd   be   a   baby   vamp,   if   they   let   her   live that long. That was unlikely. “You   aren't   going   to   throw   up   on   me, are you?” she asked. In     this     light,     could     she—the     moon neared   full.   I   looked   east.   Of   course   the sedan   was   in   the   way,   but   inside,   my   gut knew   the   moon   hovered   in   the   sky   like   an irritated   mother-in-law.   Not   that   I've   ever had    an    irritated    mother-in-law.    Or    any kind of mother-in-law. “You   want   to   take   these.   I   better   catch the, you know.” “Yeah.” Her   hands   pressed   against   mine,   and   I shuddered   again,   like   a   teen   at   a   sock   hop. The   back   wall   was   already   lighting   up   red and   blue.   Thankfully   the   sirens   were   off now.     That     would     have     catapulted     my heightened   ears.   My   beast,   still   fighting   to fully   emerge,   would   have   been   pissed.   It isn't     good     to     piss     off     my     beast.     I personally    go    to    great    lengths    to    avoid ticking    him    off,    or    any    wolf's    beast,    for that   matter.   That's   not   actually   true.   I   can be   a   prick   to   anyone   who   gets   in   my   face. And   it   doesn't   take   much   to   irritate   me.   I imagine    that's    true    for    all    lone    wolves. Though I'd never met another lone wolf. I   lurched   and   stepped   away   from   the cars   as   the   panel   truck   came   around   the corner    of    the    All    Sports    the    vamp    had disappeared      around.      The      headlights, turned    on    high-beam,    blinded    me,    gave me    a    sense    of    vertigo.    I    held    one    hand over   my   eyes,   the   other   waved   them   over, as    though    they    couldn't    figure    out    they looked    for    me.    The    truck    pulled    twenty feet   past   me   before   stopping.   A   police   car pulled around the store and neared. Did   I   go   to   the   EMTs   first,   or   the   cops. The   EMTs.   I   walked   to   the   passenger   side and   the   calm,   fortyish-looking   guy   in   his starched-white   shirt   already   pulled   out   a second     kit     from     a     side     panel.     Our conversation lasted ten syllables. For    the    next    fifteen    minutes    I    dealt with    the    cop's    questions.    No    I    couldn't identify     the     guy,     it     was     too     dark.     I happened   to   be   fifty   feet   away   and   heard her   cry   for   help.   Just   lucky,   I   agreed.   No, I'd   never   met   the   lady.   Maybe   a   shopper at    the    All    Sports.    I    didn't    do    anything heroic, other than dial my phone. The   EMTs   raised   the   gurney   the   chick was   now   strapped   down   on.   She   called   me over. “Could you do me another favor?” I    nodded.    Why    me?    Saving    your    life isn't   enough?   The   cop   sat   in   his   car   now writing    up    his    all-important    report.    He hadn't   even   peered   around   the   corner   of the   store   for   that   freaking   pale.   Not   that he   would   have   loitered   after   the   fact.   But still,   shouldn't   the   cop   have   at   least   gone through the motions? “My   car   is   in   the   front   of   the   store.   I was   getting   in   when—   Would   you   lock   it up for me?” “Sure.   Be   happy   to.”   Yeah,   sure.   I   walk the    neighborhood    at    night    looking    for damsels    to    help    every    freaking    night. Favorite   pastime   of   mine.   Yep.   My   cape   is just at the cleaners. And    in    three    seconds    she    was    inside the    ambulance,    the    rear    door    closed.    It didn't    move    for    another    three    minutes. The   fire   department   guys   were   gone.   The cop   still   worked   on   his   report,   which   was taking   more   time   than   he   spent   talking   to me and the female combined. I    walked    to    the    front    of    the    store, glancing   at   my   Rolex.   Seven-fifteen.   Not as   late   as   I   expected.   EMTs   were   here   fast. The   cop   too.   So   he   could   fill   out   his   forms so the city could get its federal funds. Five    cars.    Wasn't    hard    figuring    out which   was   hers.   I   followed   her   perfume directly   to   it.   The   driver's   door   hung   ajar. Her   purse,   along   with   her   keys,   lay   on   the ground   in   front   of   it.   There   were   bags   in the    backseat    emblazoned    with    the    All Sports   logo.   This   part   of   Tampa   was   full of   vampires,   but   not   petty   thieves,   and   no one   willing   to   investigate   an   abandoned vehicle   with   a   woman's   purse   lying   on   the ground.    The    motto,    don't    get    involved, stands. The world we live in. Such as it is. I   got   in   the   BMW   and   closed   the   door. Nice.    For    pretend    luxury.    Stiff,    leather seats.    My    Audi    was    more    comfortable. Some   of   the   stuff   in   the   high-end   cars   my Hyde   Park   shop   drew   in   would   make   this thing look like a ten-dollar hooker. I   sighed.   I'd   grown   into   a   proper   prig. An      absolute      prick,      considering      my humble   beginnings.   If   I'd   made   it   home   to Tennessee    after    the    war,    I    would    have split    Papa's    ten    acres    with    my