Gillian St. Kevern © 2018
All Rights Reserved
The afternoon had all the gloom of a funeral. The pavement and the drab external walls of the surrounding buildings extended to the gray sky above. Nate and Aki stood in silence in the alley beside their apartment building and contemplated the dead.
Nate, at six feet tall, had to bow his head to look down at them. “You’re sure it’s not, I don’t know, some kind of vampire cat?” He winced. The question sounded even worse out in the open.
Aki looked up at Nate, his hazel eyes flat. “You’re kidding me. Have you ever heard of a vampire cat?”
Nate made a helpless gesture toward the bodies. “Look at them.” There were two desiccated rats and, nearby, a shriveled up bird. “Animals don’t eat like this.” He turned the nearest rat over, noticing what looked like a puncture wound. He crouched to get a closer look.
“Maybe they were sick. Rats are riddled with disease, and pigeons are not any better—don’t touch them!” Aki made a disgusted noise. “Ugh. Keep your gross, infected hands away from me.”
Nate set the rat down and turned his head, giving Aki a speculative look.
Aki stepped backward. “Touch me and I promise I will dump you.”
Nate snorted, turning his attention back to the dead animals. “You can’t dump me. We’re not dating.”
“I can friend dump you—and I will.”
“I co-signed the lease. You’re stuck with me.”
“I’m pretty sure Grant can find me a legal loophole involving pestilence.” Aki stuck his hands in the pockets of his plaid trousers. He drummed one foot against the pavement, the movement making his keychain rattle. “Come on. Let’s go.”
Nate stood slowly, still looking down at the animals. “There’s got to be some kind of explanation for this. Maybe we should call Department Seven?”
“They’d laugh in your face. This isn’t even a case for animal control.” Aki heaved a theatrically loud sigh. “If you’re that desperate for excitement, ask George to take you hunting. She’d jump at the chance.”
Nate frowned at Aki. “I’m not desperate for excitement.”
Aki raised an eyebrow. “Aren’t you? This is the longest we’ve gone without any supernatural mishaps since you got mixed up with the necromancer, and for the last month, you’ve been glancing over your shoulder, listening to sounds that aren’t there, and watching the news for anything paranormal. If that’s not desperation, I don’t know what is.”
Nate shivered. How to explain to Aki that for the last month, he’d had the constant suspicion that there was something there, just on the edge of his awareness? “I’m not desperate.”
“Then why are we hanging out in a shadowy alley, acting like revenant bait?”
Nate blanched. Revenants were the most basic form of the undead, recently deceased with a taste for blood and no thought beyond acquiring it. Nate had been closer than he wanted to hungry revenants. “Bait implies I want to find one. I don’t.”
“Then can we please leave before one finds us—”
Something crunched in the shadows beyond the dumpster.
Nate’s breath froze in his throat. He didn’t dare turn his head to see what Aki was doing, concentrating all his attention on the shadows.
He heard a second crunch, as if something shifted on the stones beyond the dumpster. Nate stepped toward it.
“Don’t.” Aki grabbed his arm. “Please, Nate. This is a seriously bad idea.”
“Stay here.” Nate disentangled himself. “Get ready to call Department Seven.”
“And after that, I’ll call the funeral home.” Aki had his phone in hand. “I’m having them put ‘I told him not to do it’ on your gravestone.”
“Quiet.” Nate knew a revenant couldn’t kill him. At least he was pretty sure he was safe. His experience with the necromancer had woken Nate’s own supernatural side. Being part plant could be inconvenient at times, but it did mean that he was impervious to things that were fatal to ordinary humans. But being a card-carrying psychic wouldn’t protect Aki from becoming monster chow. Nate edged his way around the dumpster carefully. If it was a revenant, he’d have to act fast to stop it preying on Aki.
Nate rounded the corner.
Nothing there? The newspaper was spread out as if someone had been sleeping rough—never a good idea in New Camden, the city with the largest monster population in the world—and it crackled under foot. Was the sound just the wind rustling through its pages? Nate turned to leave and caught a dull glow out of the corner of his eyes. He grinned. “Aki, come and look at this.”
“Is it more dead animals? Because I can pass.”
Nate crouched down. “Here, kitty. I’m not going to hurt you.”
“A cat?” Aki snorted, and Nate heard his footsteps on the stone behind him. “All that over nothing.”
Nate clicked his fingers. “Come on.”
The cat watched him balefully. She stretched, displaying her claws, before taking a step into the light. She flicked her tail, watching Nate out of her one good eye. Her left eye was milky white, with the lines of an old scar above and below. She was skinny, her fur bare in patches, and her tail was crooked. Part of one ear was missing, looking like a tattered flag on a pirate ship, with her prominent ribs the hull.
“Whoa. That’s the ugliest cat I’ve ever seen.”
“She can’t help that. Poor thing. Who knows how long she’s been living out here?”
Aki smacked Nate’s hand away from the cat. “Stop risking animal diseases! Look at it. Probably crawling with fleas!”
“It’s just an old stray cat.”
Aki scoffed. “I was wrong. That’s definitely some variety of hell beast.”
Nate clicked his fingers, succeeding in drawing the cat closer to him. “You’re so mean. Just because she’s been on the losing end of a few fights…”
“More than a few. It’s probably got every disease in the book.”
Nate extended his hand, and the cat cautiously sniffed it. “I think she likes me.”
Aki leaned against the dumpster to watch. “Haven’t you learned anything from the disaster that was you adopting the last stray?”
Nate looked up. “The last stray turned out to be Grant, who we saved from his evil stepdad, getting you a boyfriend in the process.”
“We’re not dating,” Aki said immediately. “If you’re so stuck on Grant, ask him out yourself. I don’t want him.”
Nate smiled to himself, stretching out his hand to the cat’s tattered ears. She hissed, and before Nate could react, sunk her teeth into his hand. He jerked his hand back. “Ow!”
“Ha! Told you!”
Nate sat back on his heels, nursing his hand. “Are you grinning?”
“It’s called schadenfreude.” Aki nudged Nate with the toe of his sneaker. “And you deserved it.”
Nate looked back down, but at his exclamation, the cat had darted back into the shadows. She squeezed into the narrow gap between the dumpsters. All he could see of her was the gleam of her dead eye. “You’re a bad best friend.”
Aki just shrugged. “You should have checked the fine print. It’s too late now. You’re stuck with me.”
Nate stood, dusting off his hands on his jeans. “Maybe Grant will find me a legal loophole.”
Aki elbowed him. “Not allowed. It’s ‘best friends forever.’ Not best friends until Aki hurts my feelings.”
Nate draped his arm over Aki’s shoulders. “Since when is BFF legally binding?”
“Well it is. So it’s a good thing I plan on keeping you around.” He leaned comfortably against Nate’s side. “That’s your cue to say there’s no one you would rather be stuck with.”
Nate paused, guiltily conscious something wasn’t right. There was something—someone—missing.
Nate realized he’d stopped walking.
Aki was watching him with an expression of concern on his face. “I was only joking.”
Nate grinned. He leaned over, tapping Aki on his shoulder. “Got you.”
“You!” Aki demonstrated his feelings of friendship by trying to kick him.
They were still bickering when they arrived at the apartment.
Nate paused to fish in his pocket for the key. “Grant’s nice and obviously into you.”
Aki jiggled impatiently. “I liked him better as a dog.”
Nate paused, key in hand, to stare at him. “You didn’t like him as a dog. In fact, you complained constantly.”
“Just open the damn door.”
“I’m just saying”—Nate unlocked the door and pushed it open—“that there are a lot of inconsistencies in your story—”
Nate’s mouth dropped open. Grant stood in the center of their apartment, a smug grin on his face. The werewolf looked relaxed and happy, a big change from their first meeting. While he still looked like a shave wouldn’t go amiss, his gaunt face no longer looked starved and his eyes sparkled.
He wasn’t alone. Charlotte and Vazul, Nate’s friends from supernatural counseling, held up a sign. The difference between angular Charlotte’s height and stocky Vazul’s lack made it lopsided. Despite the angle, the message was clear: Thirty-one days since Nate started a supernatural event.
Nate looked from the banner to his friends, taking in the decorations strung across the apartment walls. “What’s all this?”
George grinned at him from the kitchen doorway. The supernatural hunter was dressed for fun, with dangly earrings and a bright-orange shade of lipstick. She’d ditched her usual headscarf, her curls trimmed to uniform length. If Nate hadn’t known where to look, he wouldn’t have noticed the damage done by the demonic attack George had only narrowly survived. “You’ve gone an entire month without a near-death experience. I say you’re slacking, but I was outvoted. These wimps consider that an accomplishment.”
“Wow. I don’t know what to say.” Now that the surprise had worn off, Nate saw a lot of effort had gone into the party. Food was laid out on the coffee table—three pizza boxes, a selection of what looked like cakes, a salad, and cupcakes with delicate icing that looked suspiciously like Mandy’s handiwork. Nate jerked his head up and saw her standing behind Charlotte and Vazul, nervously picking at her sleeve. “Mandy—Bea?”
Mandy smiled tentatively, but Beatrice just raised her glass in an ironic toast. “Aki told us about it. We agreed it was an occasion worth celebrating.”
“I hope that’s okay.” Mandy bit her lip. “I mean, it’s been a while.”
“Of course it’s okay.” Nate closed the distance between them to give her a hug. He breathed in the familiar scent of her jasmine perfume. “It’s great to see you.” How long had it been? Not since… Not since he’d come out as supernatural. Nate paused. Mandy had made her views on the supernatural clear.
But Mandy squeezed him tightly with obvious relief. “I’m glad.”
Nate grinned as he released her. “Wait. If Aki invited you—” He turned his head to stare at his friend.
Aki smirked at him. “Like taking candy from a baby. You’ve got no idea how many times this week you walked in on us planning this and had no idea.”
“Given that we’re talking about Nate, I am not surprised.” Vazul always sounded superior, but now he was infuriatingly pleased with himself. “Going thirty-one days without incident is more of an accomplishment than I thought.”
“Was that what you were doing?” Aki had seemed unusually keen on his coursework, but Nate had put that down to the fact that Grant was brushing up on his studies.
Grant cleared his throat. Immediately the group felt silent, all faces turning toward him. “I think it’s time to come clean. Aki?”
Aki slouched on the arm of one of the apartment’s two armchairs. “As fun as teasing Nate is, his ability to keep himself out of trouble for an unprecedented thirty-one days—”
“Hey!” Nate protested.
“Was only a front.” Aki stuck out his tongue. “The real reason you’re all here is because Grant’s got some news.”
Every head turned back to Grant. He grinned. “My application to live independently of my pack has been approved. I’m a free wolf.”
Charlotte squealed, dropping the sign as she clapped. “Grant, I’m so happy!”
“Took their time,” Vazul grumbled, leaning the sign against the wall. “I suppose your old pack contested it?”
Grant nodded grimly. “Naturally. They argued that if anything, the extreme circumstances around my first Full Moon proved I was a hazard. The judge wasn’t having any of it. He pointed out the extreme events were the result of my stepfather’s machinations, and I had shown considerable self-restraint in the face of overwhelming opposition.” His grin displayed very sharp teeth. “They slunk out of the courtroom with their tails between their legs.”
“You didn’t tell us you had your hearing!” Charlotte stared at him with astonishment. “We would have come to support you.”
“And risk your final exams?” Grant shook his head. “No. You’d already done so much for me. I couldn’t ask any more.”
“Congratulations, Grant.” Nate held out his hand. “No one deserves this more than you do.”
Grant looked at him, light flashing in his tawny eyes. Then it was gone, and he squeezed Nate’s hand. “Thank you. This wouldn’t have been possible without you.”
Nate ducked his head. “At least my tendency for starting supernatural events is good for something.”
“Oh god.” Aki groaned. “Don’t encourage him!”
“We need a toast.” George cracked open the wine bottle and Charlotte hastily grabbed glasses. “Gather round.”
Grant was perfectly at home as the center of attention. He thanked everyone, even Mandy and Bea who gave their congratulations awkwardly, before planting himself in Aki’s chair.
Charlotte immediately sat opposite. “Now that you’ve got your independence, what are you going to do?”
“He’s going to legalize chasing cars.” Aki, still perched on the chair’s arm, looked sleek and satisfied, like a well-fed cat.
Grant shot him a look, before turning back to Charlotte. “I’m going back to law school. Now, more than ever, it’s important for the supernatural community to have a voice in the legal system.” His arm settled around Aki’s waist, and Aki gravitated slightly toward him. “My experiences of the last month have shown me just how open to exploitation the current laws surrounding werewolves are. I’m sure there are more cases like mine right here in New Camden.”
“One step at a time.” Aki nudged him with his elbow. “Before you change the world, you have to pass your bar exam. And while you may be able to take on werewolves, you’ve yet to prove yourself against lawyers.”
And he expects anyone to believe he’s not interested in Grant. Nate shook his head and sipped his drink. From the wine’s quality, it was clearly Beatrice’s contribution to the party. He made his way to where she leaned against the wall. “Thanks for coming,” he said quietly. “How did Aki manage to drag you into this?”
Beatrice cast him an amused sideways glance. “We invited ourselves. We’ve been listening to Aki complain about the freeloading werewolf in the apartment above for the last month, and well, it’s a rare man, werewolf or otherwise, who can hold his attention an entire month.”
Nate suppressed his snort of laughter with difficulty. “Now that you’ve seen him, what do you think?”
Beatrice studied Grant as if she was appraising him for a photo shoot. “Interesting. Very handsome—but with Aki, that goes without saying.”
Nate bit his lip. Aki’s taste in men was not always so discerning.
Beatrice continued. “He’s got something else. I don’t know how to put my finger on it… But it’s there. I’m not interested at all in men, but I can’t deny it. Whatever it is.”
Nate studied Grant afresh. Was that Grant’s natural charisma, or the latent power of an alpha werewolf?
“He’s very good-looking,” Mandy agreed. “But he’s not the only reason we’re here.” She looked at Nate. Her copious eyeshadow highlighted the bright blue of her eyes, while her dark lashes made her naturally blonde hair seem even lighter. “You’re a very hard man to track down recently.”
Nate squirmed. That hadn’t been entirely accidental. His memory of exactly what Mandy had done to get him into trouble with Department Seven was fuzzy, but her tearful apology had not been enough. Now that time had passed, he was pleased to see an old friend. “Yeah, well… I’ve been putting in daytime shifts.”
Beatrice took her eyes off Grant to consider Nate. “There’s a rumor going round you’re looking to leave Century.”
Century was the nightclub where Nate and Aki worked—not that nightclub came anywhere close to describing the club. Yes, it had a bar and music and events. The dance floor was nearly always busy, and when it wasn’t, it was only because it was too packed for people to dance. But people didn’t come to Century to dance.
They came for Century’s reputation and for its staff. The club was notorious as New Camden’s most well-known brothel, but it was its respectability, not its vice that attracted. Century dressed its staff in designer clothes, gave them protection and a hefty price tag, and encouraged them to employ their charm and their power of veto in equal amounts. The result was a club with an atmosphere unique in New Camden. Mandy and Beatrice were among those attracted by the club’s promise of spice and safety, and they’d quickly gravitated to Nate.
Nate was skilled at putting people at ease, and it hadn’t taken long for him and Mandy to discover they were both small-town graduates trying to find their feet in the big city. They had enjoyed a low-key flirtation that had continued over months of drink orders and endured Beatrice’s pointed remarks. Now?
I’ve missed Mandy. But the same way as I’ve missed Bea. Nate frowned. Mandy was lovely, generous, and sweet. More importantly, she got things that only someone who grew up in the country got. It’s great to see her again, but that’s as far as it goes. Nate realized with a guilty start that Beatrice waited for his answer. “Yeah. It’s going to be weird not working at Century, but I think it’s time.”
Mandy tilted her head. “How come?”
Nate shrugged. In many ways, Century was the best thing to have happened to him. How to put into words the nebulous feeling that was behind him giving it up? “I’m not feeling the job anymore.”
Beatrice and Mandy exchanged a glance. It was only a second, but it was layered with so much feminine significance that Nate, shameless to a fault, had to fight a blush.
“Did you meet someone special?” Beatrice asked.
It was strange. The answer was no. You didn’t meet someone special enough to quit Century over and forget them—but Nate almost thought that there was. “Nah. I think I just reached the point where I want something more from my relationships, and I’m not going to find that while working at Century.”
He expected one or both of them to pounce on that, but Beatrice simply nodded, sipping her drink. “Aki’s not happy about it.”
Nate winced. “No.” Not happy was an understatement, and probably behind Aki’s recent insistence on emphasizing the importance of their friendship at any given opportunity. “I was hoping Grant living so close to us would be a distraction, but it hasn’t worked like that.”
“Give Grant time.” Mandy looked around. “Who are your other friends?”
“That’s George with the pizza.” Nate nodded toward her. “She’s a supernatural hunter. We met when—” Shit. Nate couldn’t tell Mandy that George had been investigating his brother as a suspect in her hunting partner’s murder. “She was on a hiking vacation.”
Beatrice raised an eyebrow. “Hiking?”
“I met Vazul and Charlotte at my counseling sessions.” Nate didn’t want to get into this any more than he wanted to get into George investigating him, but at least no one had died during their counseling sessions. “As a newly awoken supernatural, I have to do them.”
“Makes sense.” Mandy looked curiously at the others. “Are they…newly awoken, too?”
She was taking this way better than Nate expected. “Uh, no, actually. Charlotte’s a witch and—” Nate paused. Vazul refused to say what he was.
“A witch?” Mandy brightened, sharing an eager glance with Beatrice.
“Not like a bad witch,” Nate said hastily. “She’s—” He paused. Mandy seemed interested, not alarmed.
“Would she mind if we asked her about it?” Beatrice asked.
“I don’t think so.” Nate looked across the room, where Charlotte stood, holding a vegan brownie and looking as though she wasn’t quite sure what to do with herself. He caught her eye and beckoned her to join them. “Charlotte, these are my friends Bea and Mandy. They’re interested in witchcraft.”
“It’s not what you think it is,” Charlotte said immediately. “Most harmful spells are outlawed. Witchcraft today mostly concentrates on self-improvement. Like yoga, except without the yoga.”
“Without the yoga?” Beatrice put her drink down and turned, giving Charlotte her full attention. “Tell me more.”
Charlotte looked from Mandy to Beatrice. “Are you interested in practicing?”
Mandy nodded. “We might be. From what I’ve read, it sounds fascinating.”
“Wait.” Nate couldn’t keep the incredulous note out of his voice. “You’ve read about witchcraft?”
“An example you could follow.” Charlotte frowned at Nate. “You have the makings of a natural witch, if you would only apply yourself.”
Nate ignored her, speaking to Mandy. “I didn’t think this was something you would want to learn about.”
Mandy looked at her feet. “Since learning about you, I had to rethink a lot of my assumptions about the supernatural. I want to learn more. Beatrice and I took a basic spellcraft course at night school.”
“Yeah?” Nate grinned. “That’s really cool.”
Mandy smiled, tucking her hair out of her face. “Well…”
“I was actually thinking of forming a coven,” Charlotte said hesitantly, “if you were interested.”
The feeling bypassed Nate’s nerves and went straight to his fight or flight reflex. Danger, it said. Close and drawing closer. Inescapable.
Nate’s head jerked up. He scanned the room, looking for the source of the threat. In New Camden, danger was never far away. Even daylight was no promise of safety. Vampires were the most well-known of New Camden’s population of monsters, but there were many more who hunted during the day.
Instead, he saw Grant laughing at one of Aki’s jokes, Vazul busily explaining that whatever Aki had just said was an impossibility and George rolling her eyes as she grabbed another slice of meat lovers. Nate stared. Am I dreaming? The feeling was vivid, clinging to him with the same clammy grip as a nightmare. His heart still raced. But not a single one of his friends reacted.
Nate swallowed. Charlotte was an experienced witch. As a werewolf, Grant’s reflexes extended beyond the natural world. If anything sinister lurked in the apartment, he would know. Vazul… Nate couldn’t speak for his senses, but he was a good ally to have in a fight. And Aki… Nate watched him closely. Aki had the ability to see the future. Foresight was hard to tie down, but it gave him a sixth sense for threats. If there was any danger around, Aki would be the first to know.
Aki leaned forward, helping himself to a slice of pizza. “I’m just saying the sign could have been thirty days since Grant did laundry and have had just the same impact.”
Aki couldn’t talk. He had only once done the laundry since he and Nate moved in together. But it wasn’t his chronic untidiness that troubled Nate.
If there was anything to sense, Aki should have sensed it. Nate looked around the room, from Charlotte, deep in conversation with Beatrice and Mandy, to Grant, trying to steal Aki’s pizza, to George, picking up the argument with Vazul. His friends’ lack of reaction said it all.
Nate felt sick. I’m the only one who feels this?
Nate leaned against his bedroom door with a sigh. Excusing himself from the party without seeming suspicious had been a challenge, but finally he was alone. He took a deep breath. The sense of menace was muted but still there.
I know it’s nothing. Ruthlessly, Nate faced the feeling with the knowledge that it was only his imagination. You’ve got to be a proper Fortune Teller to have precognitions! Someone—people are always telling me that! He took another breath, this time letting it out slowly. You’re over this.
By the third slow exhale, some of the feeling of imminent menace had gone. Nate dropped backward onto his bed with a sigh. Why now? I’m not allergic to parties. I like everyone here. There’s no reason for me to be anxious. He stretched out his hands, absently stroking the quilt Ma had sent in her last care package.
He encountered something cold and smooth. Nate knew what it was even before his fingers closed around the acorn. It hadn’t been there when he’d made his bed that morning. Another one. He turned it over in his hand, admiring its warm grain. Just when I needed it… Is that deliberate?
It had to be deliberate. Acorns didn’t appear out of thin air. Aki had insisted that Nate start locking his w