The walk to Riva’s Animal Rescue isn’t as long as I thought it’d be. Once I stole the directions from a map tucked under the bar’s counter, it was simple to navigate the roads and which turns I should take.
Puffy white clouds sail the sky, shielding the sun’s scorching rays. I’ve grown use to them roasting any pedestrian who dare risk a few breaths of fresh morning air. The sun holds no prejudice and even with my short memory I’ve been a victim to it once or twice.
Ravens playfully chirp, soaring from tree limbs to ancient street lamps, while smaller, more plump birds peck the newly–poured sidewalk, eager for donut crumbs dropped by the careless. Surprisingly, the traffic has been light, contributing to a pleasant stroll, absent of honking horns and squealing tires.
This part of the city is a tourist trap; an old, yet well preserved downtown area with history surrounding witch lore and superstitions. From what I gather, people come here from all over the country, hoping to catch a glimpse of the supernatural. Perhaps they wish to be part of the legends, if only for a while.
The tourists haven’t made their way over to the attractions, except for those who swarm the corner coffee shop, but at such an early hour, it’s to be expected that those who are here on vacation still slumber.
The brew still coats my nostrils, carried by a gentle breeze which entices all caffeine lovers within a two block radius. I pass a few shops, my gaze drifting inside the large, speck-less windows – clothing and costume shops, old trinkets that promise a customer great fortune, and jewelry that sparkles under the bright morning sun. All of it looks wonderful, and if I wasn’t on a mission – if I had the time – I’d stop in each of these shops to browse.
I slow my steps when I come to a shop called Lunaire, the business name in yellow, bold letters at the top of its window. A half moon with a strike through it complete’s the ‘i’s dot. Spinning shelves hold several books on the left and the right, and in the center is a small window display, draped in silky red cloth. Written in hand-scrawled cursive, a small card is folded and propped like a tent, labeled ‘new item.’ The label refers to an old black book, the matte cover shining dispite its age, calling to me on a level I can’t explain. I inch closer to the window, my nose almost pressed against it, and read the title aloud. “Whispers to Mist.”
I don’t know how long I stood there, but a prickling sensation tingled the joints my shoulders, and I look up inside the shop. A dark skinned, short–haired female stands behind the counter, her hip resting against the glass edge. A questioning look wrinkles her forehead as she watches me with interest. I give a nod, my cheeks heating, and turn to leave, continuing to my destination.
Turning a counter, I make haste in my strides, berating myself for looking such a fool, while catching my sleeve on the edge of the wall’s exposed red brick. I should be trying to blend in and not draw attention to myself. Instead, I gaped like a fool at an ancient book, nose practically pressed to a window, while a woman studied me the entire time.
I chuff and then sigh. This job should help with that. I mean, I’d work with dogs and cats all day. I wouldn’t have to speak to almost anyone. It’s as good of a safe place as any.
In my distracted state, I almost miss my the building, but snap out of my stupor in the middle of the parking lot. It’s the only building around here with an actual place to park, unless you count the side of the streets. This area was built in a time where vehicles didn’t exist yet. The animal shelter must have acquired this space somehow . . .
I fiddle with the hem of my plain blue shirt and stare at the building before me. Red brick seems to be the downtown theme. Perhaps it’s the original design.
The logo is printed in a deep purple, with fat cursive letters, and a cartoon dog with watery wide eyes ogling the parking lot, expecting to be adopted at any moment. It’s not a big building, but I’m sure it’s larger than it appears, possibly spreading at rectangular angle.
There is one visible entrance and that fact alone has me paranoid to my core. There’s limited routes for a quick escape.
As a keeper of an unfortunate lifestyle, no matter how I look at it, I’ve subconsciously studied my hunters. They’ve only attacked by night, using the dark to cover their swift and silence movements while they chase me through the streets. That doesn’t mean they won’t change their game soon. Desperate hunters will go to any length to get to their prey, and prey should remain alert at all costs. Translation: I need exit strategies.
A quick survey later, and I’ve located four more exits on the side of the building. I was right – it stretches farther back, the building much larger than it appears. Satisfied with the number of exits able to me, I head back to stand in front of the doors once more.
The front parking lot is empty, but the side has an orange car and a black SUV parked side-by-side. If I had to guess, those would be employee cars.
Hiking my jeans, I take the first step toward the double glass door – toward earning my own keep, grasp the warm, steel handle, and yank. A ‘whoosh’ sound announces my entrance and I step on to white tile while my skin pricks with gooseflesh due to the chilly temperature change. The employees must like it cold in here.
Dogs bark in the building, traveling through the halls and echoing throughout the front lobby’s grey walls. A small seating area is to my right with four, blue upholstered chairs, and a thick tree stump as a coffee table. Straight ahead is a door with a small window, labeled ‘Dr. Chloe Bane’ and underneath ‘Emergency Vet, Exam Room One.’
I take too long examining the heavy wood door and nervously pull at my fingers, pinching the tips. I didn’t hear the footsteps as they came down the hall, and jump when a voice calls to me from behind.
“Dude? Can I help you?”
I whip around to the voice. A tall, scrawny man stands in the hallway leading further into the building. He’s a goofy looking man with black dreadlocks reaching his shoulders, a sharply pointed chin, and a thin, hooked nose. The name embroidered on his light blue scrub’s breast reads ‘Norbert Seimans.’
His beady dark eyes travel to my ankles and empty hands, and he frowns when he sees I’ve arrived without a four-legged fur-beast.
“Um-“ I begin in an awkward hum, but snap my jaw shut when another person pokes their head through the front desk’s open window, a piece of paper in hand. It’s a familiar face I would be able to spot a mile away.
Cinder’s questioning expression spreads into a broad smile and he leans his elbows on the small counter, touching the paper to his chin. “Yes, Jinx. Can we help you?”
I drop my hands to my sides, flabbergasted. Why does it feel like this man was everywhere? “Cinder? Wha – what are you doing here? Did you follow me?” He could have slipped in while I was checking for exits.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” He shrugs, dropping the charming facade. “I brought a stray cat in. Why are you here?”
Norbert’s head whips back and forth between us, his black dreadlocks unmoving. “You dudes know each other?”
Cinder doesn’t bat an eyelash. “I’m her hostage. But even as her hostage, I must warn you. My mistress likes to be called Dudette.”
“Should… -erm.” Norbert shifts his weight, ready to bolt. “Should I call the bacon, dude?”
Slowly, I turn my head toward him, the bridge of my nose wrinkling. “Bacon?”
“Cops.” Cinder’s shoulders bob in a silent laugh. “No, Norbie. I got this one handled.”
I quirk a brow and slide my hands up to rest on my hips. “Norbie? Do you two know each other?”
Cinder pushes off the counter and waves the paper in the air. “Norbie and I just met. Chloe and I, however…” He trails off and wiggles his eyebrows.
Erotic images of Cinder and the woman in the commercial float in my mind and I hold back the contents churning my stomach. So much for not having a girlfriend? “There is just some things I don’t need to know.”
Norbert covers his mouth and gags. “Dude,” he complains.
Laughing, Cinder leaves the window, exits the small, front desk office area, and walks to the hallway, slapping Norberts back, hard. “So, Jinx, what brings you to the animal rescue minus an animal?”
I roll my neck. “A job.”
“A job?” Cinder’s lips twist to the side, an attempt to hold back a smile. “You mean you plan to pay me rent?”
“That’s the idea,” I spit out and cross my arms over my chest.
“I’ll be damned.” Cinder whistles. “Nagging really does work. I always thought woman did it out of pure boredom.”
Ignoring him, I look to Norbert who’s dumbfounded and out of place. “Who do I speak to about a job?”
Norbert double blinks and bobbles his head in a nod. Relief reaches his eyes for the change in topic to something he understands. Poor Norbie. “That’d be Chloe, dude . . . erm. . . ette.”
“It’s Jinx,” I mumble, though I’m sure he can’t hear over the constant flow of barks.
He lifts his wrist and checks his large, bright blue watch. “She’s busy now though.”
Cinder slaps him on the back, knocking Norbert off balance. He staggers forward and grabs the corner of the wall to regaining his balance. “I’ll give her the tour, Norbie. Don’t you worry your little locks over it.”
Norbert splutters and straightens his wrinkled scrubs. “But dude, she hasn’t been, like, accepted as an employee yet.”
Raising a large, tanned hand, Cinder attempts to ruffle Norbert’s thick, unmoving hair. “Chloe owes me one, dude. She’ll hire Jinx because she adores me.” He turns, stuffs his hands in his jean pockets, and tilts his head backward. “This way. Your free-loading days have come to an end, my friend.”
Nostrils flared, I mumble curses under my breath, debating about giving him a piece of my mind, while passing a stunned Norbert. We leave him in the lobby to contemplate what just transpired.
Cinder lumbers ahead, a cocky strut to his stride. I take in my surroundings, passing rooms lined with crates along the wall, ceiling to floor. Some crates are filled with cats, while others remain empty with their door’s open.
We pass by another room, viewable by a one-way looking glass. Inside there is a couch and carpeted feline playgrounds. Feather’s dangle along the wall, held by strings, and toy rats and bell-balls liter the floor. It looks like a crazy cat lady threw up in there.
“Don’t worry about the kitty-cats.” Cinder slows his pace to draw back my attention. “Norbert takes care of them, and prefers nobody touches his pussies.”
I bite my bottom lip. In no way am I going to encourage is boisterous personality. “So what does that leave me with?”
He looks over his shoulder. “Part-time, right?” I nod. He turns forward and rounds a corner. “My bet is you’ll be caring for the horses.”
I stop in my tracks. “Horses?” I know nothing of horses, besides they’re large, intimidating, and have hooves the size of my face. I stop so fast my cheap tennis shoes squeak against the tile. “That’s not such a good idea. I’m small. I squish easy.”
Cinder, who never misses a beat, twirls on the balls of his left foot and walks back to me. He wraps his arm around my shoulder, smelling of pine and a hint of sharp, yet silky cologne, and pushes me forward. The dog barking draws nearer and he raises his voice. “Dr. Chloe cares for the canines. It’s her thing, but that leaves her little time for the people-squashing species. She needs help with the rescue horses. There isn’t many here, but they can be a bit of a chore.”
We pass two more entrances: one to a massive room full of dog kennels, and another to a small room that leads to an exit. The dog’s barks are so loud here, spilling out into the hall, and I fight the urge to cover my ears. I turn my head from it and observe the small room. Dried muddy paw prints track in from the exit to a stand-up washing bay. The unpleasant stench of wet dog reaches my nose and I force myself to endure it. This must be where they wash the dog’s paws after they dip themselves in fresh, wet dirt.
Windows line the wall next to it, showing a large fenced in yard outside. Two yellow puppies roll in a patch of dark green grass. I watch them, wistfully, as Cinder leads me on. Even confined, they’re free.
Rounding another corner, the smell of dust, stale grass, and wood shavings reach my nose. It’s a short hall we enter with two double doors at the end.
“And here we are.” Cinder reaches forward, swings one door open, and all but shoves me through before I can bolt the opposite direction.
The smell is stronger here, and the potent aroma of urine causes me to sneeze. Upon my entrance, a horse whinnies and sticks his head over a stall door, the others following suit. There’s eight wood-planked stalls, but only three are occupied. Every stall leads to an outdoor area – each horse having their own, small pasture to roam. Immediately to my right, square bales of hay are stacked to the tall ceiling, while on my left, tall trash cans line the wall, flies buzzing overtop.
“I don’t think-” I begin, skepticism dripping in my uncertain tone.
Cinder grabs my elbow and tugs me forward. “Let’s meet your demise, shall we?”
The morning turned out to be a cool and breezy one, but the forecast calls for a humid afternoon. At breakfast, while engulfing glazed donuts and bitter orange juice, the pack had decided to get in a run before the weather turned unfavorable.
My wolf pants, contently seated at the top of the hill while he watches his pack tumble through the forest. The hill is short, and though I’m situated in the back of my wolf’s mind, I can see everything he does. It’s like I’m watching through a looking glass.
Our territory is large piece of land, acres–worth, filled with a variety of trees and large ponds that call to the predator within. The breeze smells of fresh pine and wet earth, and my wolf shivers with delight as the sound of rustling leaves reach his ears. It’s our home, but we aren’t the only ones who call it so. Deer, by the herds, quietly slip through the trees, and grey rabbits burrow in the soil. The forest is alive, no matter the time of day or night, and beckons our wolves for freedom each time we get a whiff.
Blurs of speed, the pack chases each other, tackling with fierce growls. Pride swells within my wolf’s chest – together, we’ve built a strong, formidable pack. We have yet to go against another who could defeat us.
The older wolf mate couple, Daniel and Edith, lay in the grass and sunbathe. Their playful days long since gone and they’re getting to the age where shifting into their wolf form is becoming difficult. Painful, even. Once wolf shifters stop shifting, their wolf withers away into a depressed state, and not long after, they die. One cannot live without the other, and when one mate dies, the other quickly follows.
Mates are made that way. I’m told we were created by Mother Nature herself, instead of predatory evolution. Evo calls her Erline and swore he knows someone who has insider information when it comes to our creator, but even I have my doubts. Though it outright pisses me off that we each have a destined mate, and it’s next to zero that we actually find them, I could care less who made us, and who’s responsible for this world going round. But I’m also told this is just a realm, and not a world at all. It’s neither here nor there. It’s not my problem that there may be other creatures roaming different realms. My only duty is to protect those under my care.
My wolf snorts in agreement, spraying the grass with snot. Inside my wolf, I cringe at the nasty display of dripping goo on the blades of grass. I tend to be on the higher end of hygiene compared to my wolf’s. It’s odd, that though we are one, we are very much different.
Head snapping to the two balls of fur tumbling out of the brush, my wolf narrows his eyes at Reese and Aaron’s wolf. Their playful antics in the grass looks to be getting out of hand.
Before my wolf can bark his displeasure, Rex’s voice filters in my head. I got it. Close by, is red wolf rolls onto his stomach and lifts himself to all fours. He trots to them and growls, ears perked in a non-threatening way, warning them to cool their heels. Although they’re playing now, it can quickly turn heated and ugly.
Much appreciated, I send back. Having a beta has its perks. It’s his job for the pack to come to him for problems, to lend an ear, and it’s also his job to dish advice.
Wolves can communicate with their Alpha telepathically, but only to their Alpha. They cannot communicate with any member inside the pack, unless they’re a mated couple. It would be handy if every wolf could communicate with everyone inside the pack, but alas, every species has a flaw – a damn weakness. This is ours.
My wolf closes his eyes and reaches inside him, checking on the pack link for two wolves that aren’t below, playing in the trees: Chloe and Cinder. Their hearts beat a steady pace and their emotions filter into our mind like the gentle breeze which ruffles my wolf’s fur.
Chloe is agitated, but that’s normal for a vet who works with scared and confused dogs, and Cinder is relaxed. Neither emotions raise any alarm bells. Satisfied, my wolf huffs relief and opens his eyes.
I chuckle as Reese’s wolf tackles a growling Rex. Rex’s wolf is almost double the size of Reese’s, yet he allows the small female to take him to the ground, Aaron pouncing soon after.
A tinge of worry and anxiety plagues my thoughts, and it distracts my wolf from joining the balls of tumbling fur. He stomps his paw, impatient with me for spoiling his mood, but I can’t help but worry over the trouble plaguing the town.
A woman on the loose, one who we know nothing about, is running amuck, exploding people’s heads. What worries me more is the motive. Why would she do it? Was it protection, or was it a sadistic act to please an evil mind? It wouldn’t be the first time. If Erline, Mother Nature, is real, it makes me question what she’s playing at, creating a supernatural being like that. You can’t defeat someone who has that kind of power.
My wolf conjures a picture of a witch, the one who conducted Evan and Faith’s mating ceremony last year. I catch on quick to his train of thought, and answer his unvoiced question. It’s a possibility, but it’d have to a be a powerful witch. And if it’s a witch, she’s still in the area. Witches don’t leave their covens unless they’re exiled. I’ll have to contact the Demi-Lune coven and see what they know.
A gentle breeze drifts up the small hill and waves the grass around my wolf’s paws. It’s a gentle caress, one which causes a rumble to spread from rib cage to spine. He takes a moment to bask in it, in the freedom of which it provides, and stands on all fours once he has his fill. He trots back to the house, missing the notorious pothole Evan has yet to fill, and reaches the back door to the main area of the compound.
Slowly, I feel him retreat inside and push me to the forefront of my mind. His fur quivers, the muscles rippling and bones reshaping until I breathe my own breath of fresh air. I’m crouched in what was once my wolf’s position, naked. Goosebumps riddle my skin and I grab my clothes from the cement porch.
As soon as I slip my shorts on, my phone in the right pocket vibrates. I fish it out and scowl at the screen.
Touching the green button on the flat surface, I lift it to my ear. “Evo?”
“Nope,” a familiar voice says, popping the ‘p’ like she always does. “It’s Brenna.”
A smile spreads across my face. That blonde hair, blue-eyed beauty has always caught my eye. It’s a shame she’s mated. “Bre. It’s been a while.”
“It has.” She giggles. “You should come around more often instead of stealing my brother to run your errands.” The smile quickly fades from my lips. “I’m just pulling your leg. Look, Evo’s talking to a buddy of his and gave me his phone. I have an update for you.”
I open the door to the compound and step into the cafeteria, closing the door behind me. My toes curl against the cold floor. “The corpse?”
“Yep.” Papers rustle on her end, prolonging her next words. “He’s not human, Jacob.”