Luna Proxy #1 (Werewolf / Shifter Romance)
Text copyright 2016 by Mac Flynn
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission in writing from the author.
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I’d always heard a guy could change your life, but for me a guy changed my whole outlook on life. He also changed me, but that’s getting a little ahead of my story.
My story starts that day when I moved up in the world. Literally. The announcement came with a knock on my apartment door.
My living quarters were, to be kind, small. There was a combination living room-dining room, and the kitchen was hardly more than the fridge and stove with two cupboards. My bedroom barely fit the bed, and the closet was the width of a skinny hamper and twice as tall. All other necessities, like a washer and dryer, and even a bathroom, were located down the hall in the communal area.
Outside the few, grimy windows was the world in which I lived. Dingy apartment buildings stretched into the distance and were finally finished when the residential sectors collided with the commercial district. Those hulking, lifeless office buildings penetrated the sky with their artificial eyes hewn from countless particles of melted sand. The inhabitants of those buildings scurried to and fro along the gray sidewalks on their way to a boring existence.
Beyond those towering behemoths, guardians of boredom, was the river. The serpentine water flowed through the city like the old Biblical evil. It promised a way out of this dingy place, but when it came to the ocean at the mouth some ten miles away there was nothing but an endless border of water. I was trapped.
The knock on the door was the first sign that my caged existence was about to come to an end. I navigated past my couch and peeked through the peephole. My apartment manager stood outside in the dingy hall. I unlocked the knob and slid the chain off its hook, and opened the door. I leaned against the doorway and folded my arms over my chest.
“I paid the rent last week,” I reminded him.
The apartment manager, Mr. Meyer, was a portly man on the seedy side of fifty. He was generally unshaven and his clothes were stained with the constant plumbing issues that plagued the ancient apartment building.
He frowned and waved off my comment. “I’m not here for that. Old Mort passed away,” he told me.
I raised an eyebrow. “He was pretty old,” I commented.
“Yeah, and a good paying customer like you. That’s why I wanted to offer his room to you,” Meyer explained.
Now got my attention. The deceased Mort had held one of the apartments on the upper floors. Those apartments were coveted for their larger rooms, personal bathrooms, and even a washer and dryer. Mort’s place even had an extra bedroom.
“How much is it?” I asked him.
“Two thousand dollars a month.”
I winced. That was almost my entire monthly salary. Net. “How long do I have to think about it?”
“Mort’s family will be by here later today to pick up his things.” I hadn’t even known Mort had family. Nobody ever came to visit him. “So you can give me an answer by Friday, but no later. You’re not the only one who wants that place, ya know, and I can’t afford leave it empty for long.” I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes. He could afford to leave it empty until the Rapture, but the miser would never admit it.
“I’ll give you an answer by then,” I promised.
He smiled and nodded his head. “Good. I’ll talk to you then.” He walked off, no doubt to make the same offer to every consistent-paying client in the lower floors.
I shut the door and leaned my back against the entrance. “Two thousand. . .” I murmured.
I’d need to get a roommate to fill that empty bedroom, but I could live with one person if it meant not having to share a bathroom with twenty others. A smile slipped across my lips. I knew just the person.
I snatched my keys from the table beside the door, but paused in front of the mirror close to the door. The reflection of a young woman with long black hair tied behind her stared back at me. My long bangs were swept to one side. I was dressed in casual dark jeans and a white t-shirt, my favorite ensemble. My dark eyes frowned back at me. The world had left me jaded.
I shook myself from my reflection and hurried out. The dingy hallway had various layers of wallpaper, and all of them peeled from the walls. The floorboards creaked beneath my feet and here and there were telltale signs of the rats that infested the communal kitchen. Halfway down the hall and to my left were the battered old stairs. The steps once had a fine carpet in their center, but that was worn through to the cheap wood. In case of a fire, that tinder-match assortment of wood would be the first escape route. In such a situation I doubted whether I could make it to the third floor.
Another of the inhabitants shuffled from their room. It was a man nearly as old as Mort, and possibly in worse health. His skeletal frame rattled with a hollow cough, but he managed to give me a wide, toothy smile.
“Good morning, Miss Leila,” he greeted me. Only he greeted me by affixing ‘miss’ to my first name.
“Hey, Ben. How’s it going to day?” I asked him.
He nodded his head like a bobble doll. “Very well, Miss Leila, very well, but I don’t like this new dog at night. It howls too loud.”
I skirted past him and shrugged. “I’m sure the dog catcher will deal with it. Good morning.”
“Good morning, Miss Leila,” he repeated.
I reached the last door on my hall and knocked. There was a pause while I heard someone navigate their way through the limited space of the apartment. The door opened to reveal a tall man with shocking red short hair. His hair was cut short and straight. He wore a plain white shirt with brown slacks, and his feet were bare. The man flashed me a white, crooked smile and leaned against the door frame.
“Good morning, beautiful,” he greeted me.
I looked past him and into the apartment. The place was a mess with chip bags strewn about the area. The coffee table was buried beneath coke cans and old newspapers. A rolled up newspaper was clutched in his hand. I thought about changing my mind, but the chance at my own bathroom, even one shared with a slob, was too tempting.
“Meyer told me Mort passed away,” I revealed.
Red folded his arms across his chest and laughed. “So he offered you the place, too, huh?”
“Yeah, and I wondered if you wanted to go in with me on the bill,” I told him.
He grin broadened. “Sounds like a good plan. We could make a couple of bucks by renting out the spare bedroom.”
“Then you’d have to sleep on the couch, and I don’t have that great of a couch,” I warned him.
He sighed and shrugged. “You can’t blame a guy for trying.”
“Actually, I can.” My eyes traveled down to the paper in his hand. I frowned and nodded at the paper. “What are you doing with that?”
He held up the paper between us. “What? Don’t want me to be a paying customer to your employer?”
“I just work in the mail room. Whatever’s printed on those pages has nothing to do with me,” I defended myself.
“To be honest I didn’t entirely buy it for your benefit,” he admitted.
Red opened the paper so the top headline faced me. In black, tall letters was the headline ‘Massive Fire Damages Legenda Labs.’ Beneath the headline was a picture of one of the facilities across the river in the industrial district. Flames engulfed all three floors, and there was a large hole in the ground floor. I glanced over the lead paragraph.
“So do you think they’re telling the truth? About the gas leak, I mean,” he wondered.
I shrugged and handed back the paper. “I don’t know. I don’t believe anything until I see it for myself.”
“I heard some people saw something escape from there,” he commented.
“Probably some rabid minks,” I guessed.
“The thing was supposed to be huge. Like a bear,” he persisted.
“Then they should catch it pretty soon. Anyway, are you in on the apartment?” I asked him.
He tucked the paper under his arm and grinned. “I wouldn’t miss the chance for the world.”
“Good.” I turned away from him and back down the hall. “I’ll go tell Meyer and buy some stuff for the apartment. You get ready to move tomorrow.”
He stood at attention and saluted me. “Yes, ma’am!”
I rolled my eyes. What had I asked for?
I went downstairs to Meyer’s office just off the dingy lobby. Papers and trash were scattered around the cracked linoleum floor, and the manager sat in a ripped leather chair with his feet on his desk. A slimy smile slid onto his lips and he raised his eyebrows.
“So you want the place?” he guessed.
“We want the place. Red and I,” I told him.
His face fell. “I don’t need two people living in there. One of you can have it, but not both.”
“It’s zoned for two occupants, isn’t it?” I questioned him.
“And we can meet the terms you told me, so what’s the problem?” I wondered.
He slid his feet off the desk and glared at me. “Fine, you can have the apartment, but don’t go taking in any boarders for that second room.”
“There is no second room. We each get our own,” I assured him.
He snorted. “Sure, and I’m Santy Claus.”
My eyes lowered to his gut. “Maybe you are, but we’ll move in there tomorrow.”
“You’ll have to put down a damage deposit,” he warned me.
I crossed my arms over his chest and smiled. “Only if you’re going to vouch for all the damage that’s already there.”
Meyer’s face took on a sullen expression and he turned away. “Never mind. . .” he muttered.
I walked out before he could pull any more of his bullshit on me. None of the apartments in his building were worth a damage deposit. Besides, he didn’t want any building inspectors to settle a damage deposit dispute. That would’ve meant an inspection, and he paid off the usual inspector to keep the building from being condemned.
Life in the city was good, but only for those who could afford that life.
I walked outside. The new apartment would let me store more food, and with a guy in residence I would need a larger haul.
I paused on the stoop and looked up and down the long, curved street. The apartment building sat on the crest of a hill, and both directions disappeared over the horizon. On either side of the street were dingy structures. Some had old air conditioners that stuck out of windows. Others had cracked windows repaired with various colors of duct tape. A few homeless sat in the shadows of the narrow alleys that broke the long lines of buildings into small blocks.
I walked down the cracked steps and made my way to the small grocery down the block. It was a miserable city with its smoggy air and dirty buildings. The people wouldn’t look you in the eyes except when they wanted to steal something from you. Gangs protected their block territory with knives when they outnumbered their enemies, and with guns when they didn’t.
I passed the mouth of a rat-infested alley. A few gang members in dark blue coats whistled at me.
“Hey, baby, whatcha doing tonight?” one of them asked me.
“Why don’t you stop for a while?” another wondered.
“Maybe later, boys,” I replied.
In this city rats came in all sizes. You had to throw them some cheese to get them off your back. My cheese were promises to get back to them. I never kept them.
I bought a couple of things at the small five-n-dime and walked out of there with two paper bags filled with food. I paused and looked up at the obscured skyline. One of the buildings stood out from the rest as a behemoth of artifice. The structure was built in the shape of a capital ‘I.’ At the distance top sat a stone castle. The Middle Ages copy cast its shadow over the city and lorded over us like an ancient god from some forgotten past.
The place was called Indigo Towers, and was home to the richest man in the city, William A. Fox.
I shook myself from my reverie and started back home. The boys probably waited for me to keep my promise, so I walked back along a different route. This one took me down the street on the other side of the opposite block. That meant I had an alley to walk down to reach the stoop of my apartment building.
I reached my turn and stepped into the dank, narrow passage that city officials called an alley. The brick walls of the parallel buildings were so close to each other that two men couldn’t walk side-by-side. I skirted the overturned, rusted garbage cans and cardboard boxes people called home. Ragged blankets and empty food wrappers littered the place, but the homeless were gone. It was daytime, and that meant panhandling at the more populated and pitying corners.
A noise came from behind me. I spun around. The bag in my right hand dropped to the ground as I reached behind me for the 9mm pistol hidden inside my coat. I looked for the danger. An empty can of beans stopped rolling ten feet from me. No one was in sight to make it move.
“Hello?” I called out. I pulled out the gun. My eyes swept over the alley. There was only shadows and garbage cans, but anyone except a giant could’ve hidden behind all that trash. “Is anyone there?”
Nothing. The alley was as still as the grave. I re-holstered my gun and picked up the soiled bag. It’d fallen into a puddle. Typical. I turned away from the can.
My eyes widened. My pulse quickened. I whipped my head around. The alley was still empty, but I no longer felt alone. Someone was there, and they knew my last name.
I strode forward, but with my gaze ever over my shoulder. Nothing moved, but that feeling of being followed never left me. I hurried down the long length of the alley and burst onto the street. The weak sunlight above me lessened the fear of the shadows behind me, but I still sprinted across the street to the stoop of my apartment building.
I paused at the door and turned around. A single car passed by. The shadowed mouth of the alley stared back at me, but all was still and quiet. I frowned.
“Just my imagination. . .” I murmured.
I unlocked the door and walked up to my apartment. The dingy place would soon be forgotten, but not before I packed up everything that belonged to me. I put the food away and got to work on my bedroom. The bed belonged to me, but it was so old a move would probably make it fall apart. I’d buy a new one later.
I went to the small closet and pulled out my clothes and shoes. A pile of cardboard boxes sat in one corner. I pulled them out and pulled off the lid of the top one. A silver chain with four beads at the bottom glistened in the dim light from the ancient bulb over my head. The center two beads were larger than the two on either side of them. I lifted the chain and held it in front of my face.
The beads and chain were all made from silver. It was a gift from my mom, but I never liked the thing. The beads were heavy, and the clasp would never stay shut. I glanced at the closet. Now that my clothes didn’t hang inside I could see the walls. The darkest corner had a small nail driven into the wall. I walked over and hung the chain there. It would be a testament to my having been there. A memorial, if you would.
I finished my perusal of the boxes.
“Junk. . .” I muttered.
Most of it would be thrown out. I packed my clothes in the empty boxes and walked into the living room with my arms full.
Something to my left caught my attention. I turned and looked out the window. The window led out onto the rickety old fire escape. I frowned. I swore I saw a shadow out there.
I set the boxes down on the couch and went over to the window. It was shut tight, but a few good pulls got it open. I stuck my head out and looked up and down. Nothing. I pulled myself half inside when my eyes caught on something on the escape and beneath the window. I leaned down and plucked it off the grates.
Hair. Dark brownish-black hair from an animal. Not human, but close to a dog or cat. I shrugged and opened my fingers. The fur floated down and slipped between the grates. Probably a stray cat exploring the area looking for free handouts.
I finished my packing and waited for tomorrow to bring me a fresh beginning to a new life.
The next morning came dull and early. I got up and fetched a key from Meyer to enter the new apartment. He grudgingly acquiesced, and I packed my few boxes into the empty rooms.
The new apartment was three times larger than my old one, and my early arrival meant I had first choice of bedrooms. The two sat down a short hallway on opposite walls, and the bathroom door was situated at the end of the hall. I chose the bedroom on the right. The left one was larger, but there was only one window. The air in the city was dirty, but I liked to see the moon the few times when it made its appearance.
The packing was finished before another, more important duty interrupted the task: work. I climbed into my beat-up old piece of junk of a car and drove to those towers of human achievement. The commercial district was a hub of activity as everyone scurried to their places of work. Buses and taxis sped past my car as other vehicles like my own surrounded me. I was boxed in, trapped like a rat in a maze of mankind’s own creation. My only salvation was also of mankind’s doing: the office job.
I parked in the underground parking of the Fama Front Report office building, the paper for which I worked. My job took me beneath the ground to the basement floor. A pair of steel doors behind the underground parking elevator led me, and the mail carrier, into the cavernous basement.
The walls were unadorned concrete and the few rooms were sealed by plain, heavy wooden doors with knobs so old the paint had long ago worn off to reveal the metallic material. A few of the rooms were offices, but there was a large room situated close to the interior elevators of the building. The room was filled with short, rickety tables that rocked when you put five pounds on them. The mail carrier dumped twice that weight on each of the dozen tables. I followed behind the man as he hefted in bag after bag.
One of the office doors was connected to the large room. A thin man of middle age stepped out and frowned. This was my boss, Elliott Booker.
“You’re almost late,” he scolded me.
“‘Almost’ being the important word,” I returned as I shed my coat near the door.
His eyebrows crashed down. “Don’t think because you’re fast at sorting I wouldn’t fire you in an moment. There’s plenty of unemployed journalism students who would kill to have your position.”
I turned to him and smiled. “But do you really want to work with them?”
“No, and that’s why I’m giving you a warning rather than tossing you out on the street for your lip,” he retorted. He jerked his head over his shoulder in the direction of the tables. “Now get to work before the piles collapse those tables.”
I stepped up to a table and looked through the piles of mail. This was the slush fund for the newspaper industry. Every day we received hundreds of tips, letters to the editor, and resumes. All that mess had to be sorted and delivered to the appropriate office. That meant browsing the address on the back of the envelope or the contents for clues to which department was indebted to them for more work.
The job wasn’t for everyone. In this day and age there was always the chance a disgruntled reader or ex-employee would have a surprise in store for the first person to open the envelope. Then there was the sheer volume of mail. Day after day and week after week the letters came from the bags of the mail carrier and were deposited into the baskets of the the department heads.
I cut open the envelopes with my fingers and browsed the contents. A letter to the editor. That was tossed into the Editorial basket at my feet. Elliott came up behind me and watched me work.
“You’re going to cut yourself opening those things up by hand,” he scolded me.
“I’ haven’t slipped in five years, I won’t slip today,” I replied.
Elliott half-turned and glanced at the tables. He ran a hand through his short, graying hair. “I’m getting too old for all this bullshit.”
“You could always go back to a beat,” I suggested.
He snorted. “I don’t know which bullshit is worse. The crap we get from our customers or the crap we give to them.” He looked down and tapped his foot against a box. “Better take the Editorials up. It’s already full. I’ll take it from here.”
There were no special elevators to send directly up to each office. Every box had to be carried to their departments and dropped off at the desk of an unfortunate secretary. I hefted the box and stepped into the hall. Down the hall to my right was the general use elevator that led to the other floors. I stepped inside and was whisked to every floor that gave its sacrifice of travelers. Traveling the gamut of the floors brought with it some perks.
“Did you hear the News section was in trouble for that story they ran yesterday?” a woman whispered to her companion.
The guy shook his head. “No, which story was it?”
“The front page story, the one about the lab blast. I guess somebody mentioned the head scientist’s name when the official statement came from some general office,” she explained.
He shrugged. “So what’s the big deal?”
“That’s what News wants to know,” she told him. “One of the reporters used their connections to get the scientist’s name linked to the statement, and now the editor wants to know who was the source.”
“Seriously? That’s bullshit,” the man growled.
“And I guess there’s been more sightings of the shadow that was supposed to be around there, but the higher-ups won’t let anyone look into it,” she added. “Rumor has it even the big boy’s gotten involved.”
The man raised an eyebrow. “Fox?”
She nodded. “The same. I knew it was going to be a bad day when that asshole and his Indigo Industries bought the paper. No wonder this place is going down hill. We don’t get the juicy stories while everyone else gets the scoops.” She sighed and ran a hand through her hair. “But at least we don’t run the tabloid shit.”
“Have you looked at the Life section? They ran a piece on losing weight through breathing in more air,” he retorted.
“Slow life day, I guess,” she replied.
The pair got off and I went on my un-merry way to deliver the mail. The day passed and night arrived at the end of my shift. Another day of my life was gone, and the only thing I had to show for it was a sore back. I climbed back into my old car and headed home.
Crowded streets welcomed me to my block. The nearest open parking spot was a block away. I parked the car and looked out the windows. The few streetlights that worked were a dull, hideous green that barely lit their own posts. The mouths of the alleys were yawning voids of darkness that hid nightmares.
I sank back into my seat and sigh escaped my lips. My eyes fell on the glove compartment. I popped open the lid. My pistol and holster sat atop the registration and insurance papers. I never left home without them, but I did have to leave the things in the car for work.
I slipped on the holster and checked the cartridge before I tucked the pistol into its leather sheath. I stepped out and looked around. Hopefully the boys weren’t expecting me to keep my promise at this hour.
I strode down the street. The chilly fall air cut through me like a knife. I grasped the collar of my coat and wrapped it closer around me. My footsteps clacked atop the lonely sidewalk. I could see the light over my stoop. Just a little further and I’d be home.
I froze. Something inside of me forced me to look to my right. I stood at the opening to an alley. My eyes couldn’t penetrate the deep shadows beyond the sidewalk, but everything was still and quiet. Such serenity couldn’t shake from me the feeling that something watched me.
I took a step back. A chill wind blew over me, reminding me the night was full of worse nightmares than my imagination. I hurried forward and reached the stoop without further incident. I slipped inside and walked up the stairs. The new apartment was on the fifth floor. My old apartment was on the fourth.
I reached the fourth floor hallway and a stooped figure rushed around the corner. We collided. I grabbed the railing and steadied myself before I tumbled down the stairs. My opponent stumbled back. It was a man of twenty-five. His short brown hair was slicked back in a way that aged him another ten years. He wore black pants and a blood-red overcoat that was buttoned so it hid his shirt. His tall collar gave the false impression that his head sunk into his coat. The man’s pale skin and hunched stance reminded me of tormented zoo animals.
He raised his head, but his eyes hardly left the floor. His voice was soft and hesitant. “I-I’m sorry. Are you all right? Did you need help?” He reached out for me.
I slapped his hands away. “I’m fine.”
He cringed and hung his head. “I’m sorry.”
He hurried past me and down the stairs. I took a step forward, but paused. I leaned over the railing and looked down the rectangular gap that was created by the turns of the stairs. The man’s slick head circled the gap until he emerged at the lobby. He disappeared in the direction of the front door, and in a moment I heard the entrance open and shut.
I shook myself and stepped away from the railing. He was an unfamiliar face among the occupants of the fourth floor. That must’ve been what caught my attention.
I proceeded down the hall and stood before my apartment door. My hand reached into my purse a moment before my eyes fell on the number on the door. This was my old apartment. I swore under my breath. Habit and the run-in with the stranger had forced me to take this familiar route.
I returned to the stairs. The last flight of steps awaited me, but I paused. I placed my hands on the railing and leaned over. The stairs and lobby below were empty. There wasn’t a sound.
I shook my head. “Probably some guy visiting his girlfriend. . .”
I hurried up the stairs away from the old memories and to the new ones I would make at the fifth floor apartment.
I reached the correct door and stepped inside. The apartment was blanketed in shadow, but I noticed a candelabra with three candles sat on the dining table to my left. The slab of wood was covered with a clean white tablecloth and the chairs were shined spotless. Two places were set at either end, and a delicious roast chicken lay on a plate between them. Red stood beside the table with a wide smile on his face. He stepped away from the table and gestured with both hands at the setup.
“Surprise!” he called out.
I shed my coat and raised an eyebrow. “You have a date tonight?” I asked him.
He chuckled. “Yep. I thought my new roommate might want her first dinner in our apartment to be memorable, so I fixed up something special.”
I tossed my coat over my old chair and strode over to the table. The scent of the cooked bird sank into my nostrils.
“It looks nice,” I complimented him.
He scooted around me and pulled out the chair closest to the door. “If you would, mademoiselle.”
I took a seat. He flitted around me and dragged the plate of chicken close to me. A large carving knife and two-pronged fork lay beside the fowl. He picked them up and used the knife to point at the parts of the bird.
“Dark or light meat?” he asked me.
“Dark,” blurted out of my mouth.
He raised an eyebrow. “I thought you were a lighter kind of gal, but your wish is my command.”
He stabbed the thick thigh and carved into the meat. Dark-red blood poured from the thin wound. The life essence spilled onto the plate and puddled at the bottom. I leaned forward. My reflection in red stared back at me.
“Damn it!” Red cursed under his breath. He turned to me and gave me a goofy grin. “Looks like it still needs a little more time in the oven, but while we’re waiting we can-”
“I’m going to go for a walk.” I scooted my chair out and stood.
Red’s face fell. “But-”
“I’ll be back in fifteen minutes. It should be done by then,” I promised him as I strode over and snatched my coat. “You can call me if it’s done sooner.”
Red stretched out his hand towards me. “Come on, Leila. I thought maybe we could enjoy each other’s-um, company the whole night,” he persisted.
I opened the front door and paused to look over my shoulder at him. “I just need some fresh air, that’s all. I’ll be back.”
I stepped into the hall and shut the door behind me. The hallway and stairs were eerily quiet as I made my way outside. The street was deserted. A few streetlights flickered in greeting to me.
I felt the weight of my gun on the back of my hip as I walked down the concrete steps of the stoop. Going for a walk at this hour wasn’t my brightest idea, but I needed air. That stuffy apartment suffocated me. The cool, smoggy air of the city offered more release.
I paused half a block down and looked up at the sky. A few clouds lazily floated above the rooftops. The waxing half-moon glistened among the stars it overshadowed. I sighed and hung my head. I felt like one of those stars, and the whole world was the moon. The bright lights and loud noises of this life drowned out the frustration I felt at my job, my car, my apartment, even my roommate.
“Get over yourself, Leila. . .” I murmured.
I stuck my hands in the pocket of my coat and strode onward. The clack of my feet against the sidewalk was the only noise I heard. I felt like I was the last person on earth.
Then the ugliest of humanity intruded on me. I was five yards from the mouth of an alley when my ears caught the sound of voices.
“Is that all you got?” a rough voice twanged.
“He’s gotta have more. Maybe it’s in that coat of his,” another rejoined.
“I-I don’t have anything else, honest,” a third, softer voice insisted.
I stepped into the mouth and looked down the alley. The weak light from the streetlights meant my eyes weren’t completely useless in the darkness. Two of the thugs from yesterday surrounded a stooped figure who’s back was against the brick wall of one of the buildings. The dark red coat looked black in the darkness, but recognized his pale skin and subjugated demeanor. It was the man from my apartment building.
The thugs stood on either side of him and a foot off. The blade of a knife glistened in the weak light behind me. My shadow cast itself over them, and they looked up from their easy prey. The one farthest from me frowned and squinted his eyes before a grin slipped onto his slimy lips.
“Well, well, if it ain’t the chick from before. Come to keep your promise to have some fun with us?”
I reached behind me and wrapped my hand around the handle of my gun. “I think you two boys need to run along home. It’s past your bedtime.”
The man’s grin only widened. His companion and he glanced at each other. They tilted their heads back and laughed. The young man between them cringed.
The thug returned his attention to me. “Don’t you know it’s the one night of the year we get to stay up? And it looks like Santy Claus has brought us a present for being such good little boys.”
The coated stranger pressed his palms against the wall and raised himself to his full, short height. “Please leave her alone! She doesn’t have-ugh!” The lead thug had slammed his fist into the man’s gut. The stranger crumpled to his knees and wrapped his arms around his stomach. The thug sneered down at him.
“Stay out of this, faggot,” he growled. He pulled his foot back and gave the man a vicious kick in the side. The stranger cried out and rolled onto his undamaged side. He curled into a fetal position, and I heard his gasps as he tried to breathe through his bruised ribs.
I whipped out my gun and pointed it at the men. “Now, now, boys. That’s no way to play.”
The thugs froze. The man closest to me turned to the other one.
“What now?” he asked him.
The lead thug loosened and grinned. “She ain’t got the guts to-” The bullet flew within an inch of his head and embedded itself into the wall to my right and behind him.
A little bit of smoke floated from the hot barrel of my gun. I shifted the barrel a little more to the left. “I won’t miss the second time,” I promised.
The closest thug stumbled back until he stood behind his companion. “C-come on, boss, this guy ain’t worth it.” He turned around and bolted into the deep darkness of the alley.
His boss took a step backwards and glared at me. “You’ll regret that, bitch.” He turned and fled into the shadows.
I lowered my gun and strode over to the stranger. He breathed heavily and his body was tense. I knelt beside him and looked at his face. I had to give him credit. The guy could take a beating. Both eyes were black and he had a cut lip that bled down the side of his chin.
I put my hand on his shoulder. “You okay?” I asked him.
He raised his head. His slitted eyes fell on me and a blush came to his cheeks. “I-I’m fine.”
“Then prove it by standing. I don’t know how long those guys will take before they bring reinforcements,” I warned him.
The stranger crawled up to a prostrate position and set his palm on the brick wall. He climbed to his feet, but one step forward and he cried out. The man collapsed to his knees and clutched his stomach.
“It feels like my insides are burning,” he hissed.
I holstered my gun and grasped his shoulders.“We should get you to a hospital so a doctor-”
“No!” I started back. He turned his face away from me. “No doctors. I don’t like doctors.”
I frowned. “Then what do you suggest we do?”
“I-I live close by. I just need to get there and-” He tried to stand, and again his legs failed him.
“How close?” I asked him.
“The Meyer Apartments,” he revealed.
My eyes widened. That was my apartment building. “Which room?”
I started back. My old room. He looked up at me and tilted his head to one side. “Is something wrong?”
I shook myself. “N-no, I was just thinking how to get you there.”
“I can walk. It isn’t far,” he insisted.
“Hold still for a sec.” I hefted one of his arms across my shoulders and sighed. He was heavy, but my shoulders could bear the burden for a short distance. “Come on. Let’s get you home.”
I helped him out of the alley and down the sidewalk. We were half a block away from the stoop. His weight made it feel like a thousand miles.
“It was yours, wasn’t it?” he asked me.
I stopped and frowned at him. “What was mine?”
“My room. It was yours, right?” he rephrased. “I saw you at the apartment, and-” His voice trailed off.
“And what?” I wondered. He turned away. The light from a nearby streetlight reflected off a chain around his neck.
My necklace. Or rather, the one I left behind. So much for the lasting memento of my time there. My attempt at immortality failed within twenty-four hours.
“Is something wrong?” he asked me. He followed my gaze to the necklace. “This?” He pinched the chain between his fingers. “I just found it in the room.”
I shook myself and continued us on our way. “It used to be mine.”
He winced. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think it was-”
“Don’t worry, you can keep it. I left it there on purpose,” I told him.
“Oh. . .”
We reached the stoop and climbed the short flight of steps. I paused at the front door to retrieve my key to the apartment building. The stop gave me a chance to glance at the last names attached to the rooms on the buzzer board. His apartment, my old apartment, had the name of Mortale scribbled on a fresh piece of paper. So that was his last name.
I unlocked the door and we stumbled inside. The lobby was dark and quiet. Everyone was in their rooms. The door clicked shut behind us. Our shadows spread across the floor ahead of us as we headed for the stairs. The long climb was interrupted by the ring of a phone.
“Damn it,” I swore as my phone rang again.
“Shouldn’t you answer that?” Mortale asked me.
“I know who it is, and he can wait,” I replied. It was Red with his cooked chicken.
My phone rang until we hit the third floor. The silence was deafening, but welcomed. We rounded the last flight of steps to the fourth floor when I heard hurried footsteps from above. A shadow leapt down the flight of stairs above and to our right and landed in the fourth floor hallway. The person spun around and I saw it was Red. His eyes fell on me and his tense face relaxed.
“There you are. I thought you got into some trouble,” he commented.
“I did, or rather someone else did,” I returned as I nodded at my load. Mortale turned his face away from me, but I noticed he grit his teeth. His body shook and his legs stumbled over the steps. “Are you okay?” I asked him.
His voice was hoarse and strained. “I-I don’t know. I don’t feel well.”
I looked to Red. “Help me get this guy to my old room.”
Red turned to the man and scowled at him. I felt the man in my hold shudder and shrink. His face scrunched up in pain and he clutched his stomach with his free hand.
“He can help himself,” Red told me.
I glared at my roommate. “You can see that he can’t, so stop being such a baby and help me,” I insisted.
Red sneered at the man and half-turned away from us. “He’s just fine, now leave him on the stairs and let’s go.”
I ground my teeth together and trudged up the last few steps to the fourth floor. My shoulder brushed into Red and shoved him out of our way as I turned down the hall. “If you’re not going to help me then stay out of my way,” I growled.
He stumbled back and his eyes widened. His mouth dropped open like a floundering fish. “But Leila-”
“Don’t ‘but Leila’ me,” I snapped as I turned my back on him and down the hall to my old room. It seemed like I was always returning there. “I’ll be up in a bit. This guy needs my help.”
Red reached out to me, but he pursed his lips and retracted his hand. His face scrunched up in anger. He grabbed the railing and swung himself up the stairs.
I started and looked down at the man beside me. His slitted eyes faced the floor and the corners of his mouth were curved down in frown. “Sorry for what?” I asked him.
“For being such a bother,” he replied.
I snorted and readjusted his weight across my shoulders. “If you want to be sorry for something then apologize for your weight. You’re hiding anvils under that coat, aren’t you?”
He managed a smile. It suited his face. “I don’t think so.”
“Well, no thanks to Red this is going to be a long hallway,” I commented.
“You say that a lot.”
“Sorry. I know. But how about you be less sorry and start moving those feet of yours?” I requested.
We shuffled our way down the hall to my old room. Mortale used his key on the room and we stepped inside. The spartan condition in which I left the room hadn’t changed. There was no furniture in the living room, and only a few personal belongings on a rickety table beside the door.
“Don’t you have any place to sit?” I asked him.
He nodded at the bedroom door. “In there.”
I helped him into the bedroom where the bare, stained mattress I’d abandoned awaited us. A few blankets were bunched up in a pile with a worn pillow at the head. He lowered himself onto the edge of the bed, and I stood before him. The weak moonlight from the window behind me cast my shadow over his slumped form. His shoulders drooped and his hands hung between his spread legs. He stared at the floor with his head bowed in a servile attitude.
“Can I get you any food?” I asked him.
He shook his head without raising it. “There isn’t any.”
I frowned. “Why not?”
“I. . .I eat out,” he replied.
“Is there anything else you need? Did you want me to look at those bruises?” I offered.
“No, but-” He tensed. There was a pause before he shook his head. “No. Never mind.”
And that was that. I turned to leave. “I guess I’ll-” I jerked to a stop.
My hand was grabbed and arrested my movement. I turned to find his hand wrapped around mine. The moon reflected off his dark coat and cast him in a mixture of shadow and light that emboldened the lines of his face. His eyes were wide open, and for the first time I saw they were a brilliant shade of green. They were almost emerald in color, and so bright I could see my reflection in them.
Gone were the apologies and the hesitant words. He stared at me without shyness or embarrassment, and his words were clear and firm.
“Don’t go,” he told me.
A mesmerizing heat flared up inside me. I fought against the urge to clasp his cheek in one hand. To caress his skin and dive into the depths of those beautiful eyes. I wanted to know him, and yet I was afraid. No. It wasn’t fear. It was something else. Something I couldn’t quite understand. The not-understanding is what frightened me.
“I-I have to,” I stuttered.
I tugged on my hand. He held onto me for a moment before his face changed. His eyes drooped so the light was extinguished. His gaze returned to the floor. He released his grip on me and my fingers slipped from his.
“I’m sorry. . .” he mumbled.
Not half as sorry as I was. I pulled my hand against my chest and stared fascinated at this strange creature of a man. “I should go. I guess I’ll see you around.”
“Yeah, I guess. . .” he replied.
I studied him for a moment longer before I pulled myself away from the pitiable sight. The last I saw of him he sat as still as a statue on the bed and stared at the ground. The weak light of the moon passed away and darkened the room in shadow and depression.
I slipped into the hall and leaned my back against the apartment door. A sigh escaped my lips. I raised my hand and brushed it against my bangs. My eyes widened and I lowered my hand so it hovered in front of me. My hand shook. I bit my lip and clasped my hand in a fist.
“What the hell is wrong with me?” I muttered. I dropped my hand to my side and leaned the back of my head against the door to stare at the ceiling. The yellow ceiling with its myriad of water stains glared back. “One stupid look from a cute guy and you suddenly lose it? Come on.”
My pep talk did the trick. Mostly. I couldn’t erase the memory of those beautiful eyes, or the feelings they stirred inside of me, but I could forget them for a while.
That forgetting came in the form of one temperamental roommate.
I reached my new apartment and rummaged for my key, but the door opened. Red stood on the other side and glared at me. I glared back.
“What the hell was that about?” I questioned him.
“Where’d you leave him?” he returned.
I pushed past Red and dropped my key onto the small table. “In his apartment. Where else?” I plopped myself onto the couch and stretched my arms over the back. “And why the hell wouldn’t you help me? It wasn’t like he was going to bite you or-”
“Bite you?” Red interrupted. He leapt onto the couch cushion beside me and searched my eyes. “He didn’t bite you, did he?”
I leaned away from him and frowned. “No. Why the hell would he do that?”
Red relaxed and a smile graced his lips. He closed his eyes and shook his head. “No reason. I just thought maybe he hurt you.”
“I can take care of myself,” I assured him.
Red pursed his lips and shook his head. “You don’t understand. That guy’s a rough customer.”
I snorted. “If you mean roughed up, yeah. The thugs in the alley only had to stare at him to whip him, but they did a-”
“Could we just talk about something else?” Red interrupted.
I studied my roommate and raised an eyebrow. “What’s your problem? You act like that guy’s dangerous or something.”
“‘Or something’ would be about right,” he replied.
“Care to tell me what that something is?” I persisted.
Red stood and shrugged. “I just get a bad vibe off of him, that’s all. He’s trouble.”
“He certainly attracts it,” I agreed.
Red studied my face and his eyes narrowed. “I’m serious, Leila. You should stay away from-”
“I know, I know, stay far away from him because he’s trouble,” I finished. I stood and glared at my roommate. “But since you’re not going to tell me what you’re hiding then I think I’ll just go to bed.”
Red frowned. “I’m not hiding anything.”
“You’re also terrible at hiding lies,” I scolded him.
I turned away from him and moved towards the opposite end of the couch. Red’s hand shot out and he roughly grabbed my arm. He spun me around and pressed me against his chest. His burning eyes searched mine as his lips curled back in a snarl.
“Don’t go near him again,” he growled.
I narrowed my eyes and tried to jerk out of his hold, but he held onto me. “Let go of me,” I ordered him.
He shook me. His strength was prodigious. I flailed about like a rag doll. “Promise me.”
I winced beneath the pressure of his fingers. My free hand itched to grab my gun in its holster, but this wasn’t some hoodlum threatening me. This was Red. My roommate. My friend.
“You’re hurting me,” I told him.
He stuck his face in mine. I had a good view of his eyes. Their depths were dark, but the outside shone with a strange light. “Promise me,” he hissed.
I turned away from those horrible eyes and closed mine. “I promise. . .” I whispered.
His stance relaxed. He smiled and opened his hand. My arm dropped from his grasp. I took a step back and rubbed the bruises that were just forming.
“Good. So how about we get something to eat? My treat,” Red offered.
I dropped my arms to my side and glared at him. “No thanks. I’m not hungry.”
His eyes narrowed and he took a step towards me. “Don’t be like that.”
I stepped back and whipped out my gun. The barrel pointed at it forehead. “Not another step, or you’ll regret it,” I warned him.
Red paused and frowned. Those dark eyes of his studied me for a second before a goofy grin slipped onto his lips. He held up his palms and stepped back towards the door. “All right, all right, take it easy. It’s just me, remember?”
“My pulsing arm makes it hard to forget,” I quipped.
He sighed. “Listen, I’m sorry, okay? I just don’t want anything bad to happen to you, and that guy will definitely make something bad happen to you.”
I lowered the gun, but only just a little. “I can take care of myself.”
Red smiled and dropped his arms as he nodded at the gun. “Yeah. I forgot about that little toy of yours. Anyway, let me make it up to you by taking you out so you don’t get poisoned by my food. Or I could go out and bring you back something.”
I holstered the gun and shook my head. “I’m fine, really. That guy wasn’t light, so I think I’ll go to bed.”
“Suit yourself, but dust don’t get so much beauty sleep that you leave me to become Miss Universe,” Red teased as he stepped closer to the front door.
I smiled and shrugged. “I can’t make any promises.”
Red paused at the door and his smile faltered a little. “And don’t forget that promise you made me. About staying away from that guy.”
I folded my arms and winked at him. “You know me. I always keep my promises.”
The corners of his lips curled up and he chuckled. “You’re the only person I know who hasn’t failed me yet. Anyway, see you later.”
“Later,” I returned.
Red slipped from the apartment. I waited a few seconds before I grabbed a box of snack crackers from the kitchen and took them to my room. The door had a deadbolt on it. I used it.
I munched on the crackers as I got ready for bed. Red was right. I always kept my promises.
But not when they were made under duress.
My sleep was fitful. I dreamed of green eyes and tall shadows.
When I awoke I found the world was enveloped in a gray wall of fog. The sky was invisible, hidden behind a mass of clouds.
I unlocked my door and stepped out. The apartment was quiet. I opened the fridge. There was the uneaten chicken and a folded note. I opened it and read the message:
I folded the note and sighed. “What would you say if you knew I wouldn’t keep my promise?” I murmured.
I forsook the chicken and went for a bowl of cereal. My hazy dreams must have made me sluggish. I left the apartment at ten minutes till nine with a fifteen-minute drive ahead of me. My footsteps pounded down the first flight of stairs, but I slowed to a stop on the fourth floor. I glanced to my right and down the hall. The door to room Twenty-two was shut.
I walked down the hall and stood before the entrance. The silence was deafening. I raised my hand. My knuckles hovered over the door.
I sighed and shook my head. “What am I doing here?” I whispered.
I dropped my hand to my side and turned away. I was going to be late for work.
“Look what the cat dragged in,” Elliott commented as I slipped into the mail room five minutes past nine.
“Sorry about that. I lost track of time,” I told him.
“Lose track of time a few more times and you’ll lose your job,” he warned me.
I pursed my lips, but nodded. “Yes, sir.”
Elliott grabbed a large cardboard box of envelopes and handed it to me. “Good. Now take this bundle of hate-mail to Reggie before he starts thinking people like him. I’d do it myself, but the damn mail carrier forgot half his shipment at the post office and he’s supposed to be coming back any time now.”
I trudged to the elevator and stepped inside. A few more people climbed in at the lobby floor and rode up with me for a few levels. One of them was a pair of guys who I recognized worked in the entertainment department.
“So you hear? There’s been another sighting of that thing from the lab explosion,” one of the guys commented.
“With that large dog?” his companion guessed.
The first man nodded. “Yep. It was seen around 132nd street.”
My pulsed quickened. That was only a few blocks from my apartment.
“Why hasn’t the dog catcher caught it?” the second man asked the first.
The first man snorted. “You try catching a six-foot tall dog.”
The second man whistled. “Is it that big?”
His friend grinned. “Would I lie?”
“Well, I’m not lying now.”
“So why don’t you write a story about it? It could sell a lot.”
The first man frowned. “Because his Royal Highness won’t let me. I tried to get one in the paper two days ago and he nixed it.”
“What an idiot. Doesn’t he want to keep this paper going?” the second man wondered.
His friend shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess he’d rather please the Emperor.”
“So there’s a Fox angle?” the guy guessed.
“I’m not saying there isn’t, but I’m not saying there is, either, if you know what I mean,” his friend replied.
The elevator stopped. The men got off and other people replaced them. I continued on my journey, but with troubled thoughts. I couldn’t shake the conversation between those two men.
A creature near my apartment the day after I had a strange feeling of being watched. Most people would’ve brushed off the two as a coincidence, but I didn’t believe in those. Not when it came to my doldrum life. My normal life didn’t allow for more than one strange occurrence at a time. When two oddities happen within a day of each other, that means they’re related.
The elevator reached the top floor. My stop. I stepped out into the lobby of the managers’ floor. Here was where the brain factory played God and decided what would be published and what ended up on the cutting room floor. Headlines were buried and gossip was spouted as fact. This was the worst and best of mankind, an information conglomerate of lies and truths.
I just wish I knew which were the lies and which were the truths.
A semi-circular desk stood at the wall opposite the elevators. To my left and right, and in front of me, were long hallways that led to the offices of the managers of each section of the paper. The man I wanted to see, the editor, lay beyond the desk down the central hallway.
But first I had to get past the last line of defense against annoyances: the secretary of the floor, Miss Bao. She was a middle-aged woman of Asian descent who ruled the desk and wielded her power with all the grace and majesty of an angry hippo. Her beady, bespectacled eyes glared at me as I approached her domain.
“Can I help you?” she asked me.
I set the box of hate mail on her desk and jerked my head towards the hall behind her. “Mr. Regis’ mail.” Reggie was a nicknamed none dare utter in his presence.
Miss Bao stood and pushed her glasses against the bridge of her nose. “Very well. You may leave the mail with-”
“It has to be delivered in person by me. Mr. Booker’s orders,” I reminded her.
Her twenty years of service to the company had taught her the rules of the company, but never how to follow them. Elliott demanded all mail be delivered in person to avoid blame on the mail department for missing correspondence. It was a cover-your-ass policy that worked for everyone. Everyone, that is, except Miss Bao.
She frowned. “I can-” I pulled the box off the desk and moved around her towards the hall.
“You can tell Mr. Regis I have his mail and I’m coming to deliver it,” I called to her.
Reggie’s office lay at the end of the hall behind a pair of massive doors. People joked that he was compensating for a pair of something else, but those were people who evidently never met the man. I stopped at the doors and knocked.
“Come in,” came a gruff voice.
I pushed open a door with my shoulder and stepped inside the lair of a man obsessed with his job. Cups of coffee littered the tops of the half-dozen file cabinets scattered around the room. A couch to my right sported a thick pillow and blanket. In front of me was a desk covered in papers. Folded newspapers, inked and printed paper, the shiny gloss of magazine paper. The stacks were as high as the stakes in these days of cutthroat competition and falling ad revenue.
The man himself, Regis, sat behind the desk. He was a man of sixty with a balding head and a clean-shaven face. His constantly-narrow eyes watched everyone like a hawk prepared to strike its prey at a moment’s notice. His eyes flickered up from a stack of papers for a moment before they returned to his work.
“Miss Bao sounded perturbed,” he commented.
“I’m sorry, sir. She insisted on-”
“I don’t know nor care why you two were squabbling. I just don’t want it to happen again, got it?” he commanded.
I bit my tongue. The answer I wanted to speak didn’t come out. “Yes, sir.
“Good, now put the box on the edge of the desk,” he instructed. I did as was told and turned to leave. He wasn’t finished with me. “You live on 126th street, right?”
I paused and half-turned to him. His head was raised and his eyes bore into mine. “That’s right.”
“There’s been rumors about a large dog in those neighborhoods. Have you heard anything about it?” he wondered.
I shrugged. “Just rumors.”
He studied me for a moment longer before he returned to his work. “All right. You can leave.”
I exited the office and walked down the hall. Miss Bao tried to sear a hole in my head with her eyes, but I ignored her until I turned around in the elevators. The doors were shutting. I raised my hand and waved at her. Her face lit up like a Christmas tree that caught fire. She opened her mouth, but the doors closed on her words.
I leaned back against the rear of the elevator and furrowed my brow. My mind went over the facts: a large dog spotted in the neighborhood. Ben mentioned hearing something howling in the night. The rumors about the paper suppressing this juicy story. Why then did Reggie want to know if I knew anything? It didn’t make sense.
I tilted my head back and sighed. “People don’t make sense. . .”
The day ended like every other day, and I drove home. The gray skies stood out against the darkness of night. My headlights reflected the scattered clouds of fog that floated across the road. A soft rain drizzled on my windshield and pattered the top of my car.
I arrived at my block and found the parking situation was worse than usual. Everybody had wanted to park as close to their apartment as possible. There wasn’t an empty spot for two blocks. I parked my car and pulled out my gun and holster from the glove compartment.
“At least I can rely on you,” I whispered as I tucked the weapon into its holster.
I stepped out of the car and into fate.
I walked quickly down the street wishing my steps could dodge the droplets of water that rained down on me. The rain fell down my long black hair and plastered the strands against my face. All was quiet and calm. Not a soul was out in such dreary weather.
At least not an uncorrupted soul.
I passed by one of the half dozen alleys that lay along my path. A hand shot out and grabbed my arm.
“Hey!” I yelled as I was dragged into the shadows.
My captor swung me to my left and my back slammed against the wall of one of the buildings. I looked up. My heart stopped. In front of me stood the two thugs from yesterday, and three more of their friends. Their leader stood in front of the group and leered at me.
“Look what the cat dragged in. A drowned rat,” he joked. His minions laughed. I narrowed my eyes. My arm reached behind me. “Oh no you don’t.”
The minion thug from yesterday lunged forward and grabbed my arm. He twisted my arm behind my back and fumbled for my gun. I felt it torn from my holster. He shoved me back against the wall and stepped back to stand beside his leader. The man handed my gun to his boss.
The leader admired my pistol. “A cute little toy.” He aimed the barrel at my head and grinned. “How about I try some target practice on you today?”
“That’d teach her to do it on us,” his minion spoke up.
The man chuckled and lowered the gun. “Yeah, it would, but that’d be too good for her.” His eyes roamed over my body. He drew his tongue across his lips. “But I think I’ve got a better idea.” He stepped forward and used the barrel to lift my chin. His face hovered a few inches from mine. I could smell the stench of his breath. “How about you treat us all to a fun night?”
“And if I refuse?” I questioned him.
He tapped the barrel twice against my chin. “I don’t think you’re gonna refuse. Not when-” I didn’t hear the rest of his words. My eyes caught sight of something above us.
A large shadow.
The shadow dropped from the gray sky and landed between the two rear thugs. They leapt in opposite directions and tried to draw their guns on the intruder. The shadow, clothed in a blood-red overcoat, grabbed one of them by the throat and hurled him out of the alley and onto the street. The other thug fired off a few rounds at the shadow. The shadow spun around and grabbed the top half of his face. It threw him into the opposite building. The man smashed his face into brick and slumped to ground. A blood smear was left on the brick.
The other two thugs pulled their guns and fired at will. Their fearless leader slipped behind me and wrapped one of his arms around my throat. He pressed my gun against my temple and stepped backwards deeper into the alley. The creature looked over its shoulder. Its eyes were as white as fresh snow moon. Only a shadow of its pupil was visible. The face was deformed by a long snout, and long gray fur trailed down its back like a mane. The little skin that was visible was grayish-black and covered in shorter fur of the same color. The hands that hung by its sides were long and ended in white, sharp nails that more closely resembled claws.
The creature narrowed those bright eyes and lunged at the two men in front of us. It swung two punches. Each connected with the gut of one of the men. The force of the punches threw the men off their feet and into the wall I’d just leaned against. My captor pulled faster and tugged me farther away from the creature.
That is, until the creature turned those illuminated eyes on us. The thug froze and pressed the gun harder against my temple.
“D-don’t come any closer! I-I swear I’ll shoot her!” he warned the thing.
The creature straightened to his full six-foot height. Its shadow fell over us. Those white eyes glared down at the thug. The claws at its sides twitched and balled into fists. The thug who held me quivered. The finger on the trigger shook.
“Stay back!” he screamed. We stumbled backwards deeper into the darkness. The barrel trembled against my temple. “Stay back or-”
His threat remained forever unfinished. The creature stood ten feet away, and the next moment it was beside us. One of its clawed hands grasped the gun and tore it out of the man’s hand.
Correction: he tore the gun the thug’s hand away from my temple. The thug screamed in pain and terror. He stumbled back and clutched at the bloody stump where his hand was just moments before. Blood poured onto the ground and mingled with the falling rain. The creature lunged at him. I couldn’t see past the thing’s overcoat, but I could hear the thug’s garbled scream.
The scream died away. The monster straightened. I watched with wide eyes as the thug dropped backwards to the ground. He lay there with his arms spread out on either side of him. The deep imprints of fingers lay around his throat. His lifeless eyes stared up at the falling rain.
The creature glanced over its shoulder at me. My pulse quickened. I stumbled backwards until my back hit the building behind me. The creature turned and strode over to me. It set its palms against the wall on either side of my head and leaned down. Its white eyes studied my face.
My reflection in those beautiful eyes stared back at me. I could see my eyes were wide and wondering. The rain ran down my cheeks like crystal-clear teardrops.
The creature reached out and cupped my cheek in one hand. It tilted its head to one side and a soft purr-like growl rumbled deep from its throat.
A terrible howl echoed down the alley. The creature swung to its right and we both looked into the darkness. A shadow flew from the depths of the alley and crashed into the creature. They tumbled nearer to the mouth and flew apart. The shadow faced the creature, and for the first time I saw that it, too, was some sort of dog creature. Its red eyes glared at the first creature and it drew back its long fangs in a snarl.
The first creature roared and lunged at its opponents. The shadow met the challenge with a leap of its own, and they collided in midair. Their punches and kicks were blurs. They dodged and momentarily fell back high up the walls of the opposing buildings. The creatures pushed off the walls and left deep, round impressions in their wake.
The first creature outmaneuvered the second one and threw him deep into the alley. Predator followed prey, and I lost sight of them in the shadows. My ears followed the sounds of their battle as they crashed into each other and the sides of the alley. I pushed off the wall and stumbled towards the noises.
A new noise came to my ears. Police sirens. The fight in the shadows broke off. The noise ceased. I stooped and scooped up my gun from beside the torn arm. The cold metal clasped between my hands told me this was no nightmare.
I heard a man cry out in pain. The voice sounded familiar. I stepped deeper into the darkness and aimed my gun at the shadows.
I swiveled around and pointed my gun to my left and the ground. Behind an overturned trash can sat Red. He clutched his gut. A long gash of blood beneath his hand coated his shirt. My eyes widened. I lowered my gun and knelt in front of him. I couldn’t take my eyes off the blood. He gave me a weak smile.
“Funny meeting you here,” he choked out.
“What happened?” I whispered.
He coughed. “When you didn’t come home I came out to look for you. I walked into this alley and I guess I got caught in the middle of a nasty fight. Some in an overcoat sliced my stomach.”
“We need to get you to the hospital,” I told him.
He leaned forward and grimaced, but shook his head. “I’ll be fine. It’s just a flesh wound.”
I frowned. “It’s not just a flesh wound. You’re bleeding all over yourself.”
“Some of the blood came from that thing’s claws,” he assured me. He struggled to his feet. I ducked under one of his arms and hefted his arm over my shoulder. His left hand hung close to my face. I noticed there was a slim burn across his palm. “You seem to be doing this a lot,” he commented.
“Tell me about it later. We need to get out of here before I make the headlines of my own paper,” I warned him.
The sound of the sirens was getting closer. I glanced down the alley. The bodies of the thugs littered the ground. Blood pooled in the puddles.
“This wouldn’t be easy to explain to the cops, would it?” he wondered.
I shook my head. “No, so let’s get going.”
We turned away from the carnage and shuffled down the alley. Our route took us behind the apartment building, but there was a back door. We slipped through there and struggled up the stairs.
“Damn. I wish this place had an elevator,” Red murmured.
“You and me both,” I agreed as I readjusted his arm. He was heavier than that Mortale guy.
We reached the fourth floor and were met by Ben. He grinned at us until his eyes fell on Red’s shirt. The man gaped and pointed at the stain.
“What happened there?” he asked us.
“A little accident,” I replied as we pushed past him to the last flight.
“That looks bad,” he commented.
“Just some fun with ketchup that got out of hand,” Red assured him.
The fifth floor was empty. We slipped into our apartment and I set Red down on the couch. He leaned back and sighed.
“Damn, what a night. . .” he muttered.
The night was far from over. I knelt in front of him and grasped his coat. He whipped his head up and grabbed my hands. I looked up and frowned. He grinned back at me.
“Could you wait for me to recover before you get frisky with me?” he teased.
“I need to check your wound,” I told him.
“I’m just as fine as that one guy you were playing with earlier,” he insisted.
“He wasn’t bleeding all over himself,” I argued.
A shadowed expression fell over Red’s face. “No, but I was right when I told you he was just fine.”
I frowned. “What do you mean?”
He nodded at his coat pocket. “In there.”
I reached into his pocket. My fingers touched something smooth, thin and cold. I pulled out a long chain. A long, silver chain. My eyes widened. Four silver beads glistened back at me. The clasp was broken.
I looked up into Red’s face. “Where did you find this?” I asked him.
“That thing that got me had this around his neck,” he told me. He tilted his head to one side and his dark eyes studied my face. “I knew it was yours, so I grabbed it just before he got me. Maybe that’s why he got me.”
I furrowed my brow. My eyes flickered up to his face. “How did you know it was mine?”
His eyes flickered away from my face and he shrugged. “I saw it one time when I helped you look for your lost car keys,” he explained. He returned his attention to me and leaned close to me. His voice was soft and tense. “I saw that guy wearing it earlier. Why?”
I leaned back and studied the chain. “I left it in my old room and he found it.”
“And wore it,” Red finished for me. He shook his head. “That guy, or whatever he is, isn’t too smart to be wearing something that recognizable when he changes into that thing.”
I frowned. The silver reflected the light above us. “It couldn’t have been him. . .” I whispered.
Red’s eyebrows crashed down. “Why couldn’t it have been? You don’t even know the guy.” I stood. Red leaned forward and grabbed my hand that hung near him. His narrowed eyes looked up into my face. “Where are you going?”
“I’m going to go pay Mortale a visit,” I told him.
His expression darkened. “Are you nuts? That’d be suicide.”
I tore my hand from his and pulled my gun from its holster. “Not with this.”
“Then let me go with you,” he insisted. He tried to stand, but when he bent his stomach a cry came from his lips. Red fell back against the couch. “Damn it. . .” he muttered.
I walked to the door and lay my hand on the knob before I turned back to him. “I just can’t believe he’s that thing we both saw, but I can believe he knows something about it, and I’m going to find out what.”
I knew Red would argue with me, and maybe he had a point, but I couldn’t tamp down the curiosity me. Something inside me pulled me towards this mystery. I had to know the truth.
I slipped out of the apartment and down to the fourth floor. The hall was empty. I hurried down the passage to my old apartment. My gun was concealed behind my back. I kept a finger close to the trigger.
I reached the door. It was shut. I knocked.
“Mortale? Mortale?” I called.
No answer. I knocked again, harder this time. The unlocked door gave way beneath the force and swung open. I raised my gun and clasped the grip in both hands. The door revealed the bare room. I stepped inside.
“Mortale?” I repeated.
Movement to my left caught my attention. Someone was in the bedroom. I stepped into the open doorway and pointed my gun into the room.
The thin, stained curtains flapped in the breeze blown in through the open window. I lowered my gun. The room was empty.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out the broken necklace. The chain glistened in the weak light from the window. My mind went back to when I last saw the necklace. Red was right. Mortale had been the last one in possession of the jewelry. I tucked the necklace back into my pocket and holstered my gun.
“Damn it. . .” I murmured.
I returned to my new apartment. The couch was empty. I swept my eyes over the area.
“Red?” I called. No answer. My pulse quickened. I strode over to the couch and spun in a circle. “Red? Where the hell are you?”
“I’m glad to see you really were worried about me,” a voice teased me. Red stepped from his bedroom. His clothes were changed, though he still clutched his stomach. He shuffled down the hall like Methuselah and eased himself onto the couch. “I thought I’d slip into something more comfortable.”
I raised an eyebrow. “I’m surprised you didn’t follow me.”
He smiled and shrugged. “Sometimes you have to let a girl figure things out for herself. So what’d you find?”
I sat down on the coffee table and shook my head. “Nothing. He wasn’t there.”
“And probably won’t be if he’s that monster we saw,” Red added.
I raised my head and studied Red’s face. “You’re taking this pretty well for believing a monster who’s a guy attacked you.”
“There are more things in heaven and earth, my dear Leila, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” he quoted.
I snorted. “Now you’re quoting Hamlet? Are you sure that gut wound didn’t damage your head?”
“Are you sure that scare in the alley didn’t damage yours?” he returned. He jerked his head towards the door. “You just faced death and then went back for seconds.”
I frowned. “What makes you so sure this guy’s a monster? And if he is, what the hell is he?”
Red leaned forward and dropped his voice to a whisper. “You ever hear of werewolves?”
I rolled my eyes. “You honestly believe he’s a werewolf?”
“You have a better explanation?” he countered.
“No, but a werewolf? It isn’t even a full moon,” I pointed out.
Red frowned and fell back against the couch. “Maybe some of the rules don’t apply, but you don’t have to take my word for it that that guy was there. That necklace I gave you should be enough proof that he was involved, and that he’s trouble.”
“It doesn’t mean much to me,” I argued.
His frown deepened. “You also have your promise to keep. You said you’d stay away from him.”
I stood and looked down at him. “I guess my promise doesn’t really matter now that he’s gone.”
“It matters to me,” Red insisted.
My eyes fell on his gut. “You sure you don’t need a doctor to look at that?”
He shook his head. “Nope, and you’re terrible at trying to change the subject.”
I strolled around the couch and towards the hall. “I’ve kept my promise so far, and if you don’t need me any more tonight I think I’ll go to bed. It’s been a long night of facing death.”
“We’ll talk about this tomorrow,” he warned me.
“Yes, Mother,” I retorted as I slipped into my room.
I shut the door and leaned my back against the entrance. The light from the city spilled into my room. I ran my hand through my hair and a sigh escaped my lips.
“What the hell happened in that alley?” I whispered.
Unbidden, my fingers dug into my pocket. I pulled out the necklace and studied the break. The clasp could be mended. I could wear it and-
I pursed my lips. “What the hell are you thinking?” I asked myself.
I pushed off from the door and stepped over to the window. The sky still shed its tears of rain. I looked down at the chain in my hand.
“Who are you, Morale?” I whispered.
I would find out, even if it brought me face-to-face with that creature again.
For all books by Mac Flynn visit her author’s page or visit Mac Flynn’s website.
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A grimy world surrounds Leila Ulric. Gangs roam the streets, her dead-end job has no end, and her apartment isn’t much larger than a walk-in closet. Her life looks to be turning around when a death leads her to a new apartment with a new roommate. The improvement in possessions, however, doesn’t lead to the satisfaction she hoped. A walk in the fresh night air leads her to stumble on a mystery that refuses to be solved, and a young man who holds truths she never realized existed. The Luna Proxy series is an episodic serial where each book contains a conclusive story within an over-arching tale.