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What readeres are saying:
Beautifully crafted settings
LIABLE TO BITE
In Los Angeles, every wolf has a story...
NOTHING TO FEAR
She needed a creative haven. She got a house with its own agenda.
Nothing But Cheer
Someone's going to have to deal with the spirit of the season...
Some things are justified...
“The video just came through.” With a few taps and swipes, Nadia, Calvin’s assistant, sent the video file to the eRover’s console screen. His second-in-command and head of security, Beth, leaned forward from the back seat and they waited for it to start playing. Beth smelled eager to hunt.
Nadia smelled nauseated.
“Nadia, you don’t have to watch.” He’d rarely met someone so repulsed by violence—and he’d spent an inordinate amount of time with trust-fund fashion models for whom a wrinkle or blemish was a dystopian nightmare.
She acknowledged him with a non-committal sound.
He let her be. They knew from the hospital reports what was coming. She could decide for herself whether or not to bear witness.
The visitor’s lot of UCLA’s Holdridge Memorial Wing for Lycanthropic Health was mostly empty. Too early for scheduled appointments, and the moon wouldn’t be full for another week, so there probably hadn’t been many accident victims admitted overnight. Three women in scrubs were badging in through a staff entrance, while a cleaning crew set up to wash the windows of outpatient reception.
After a moment, grainy security camera footage came up on the eRover’s screen, timestamped at the bottom: 5:48 a.m.
In the video, a man in a dark suit—middle aged, white, average height, slightly overweight in a way that suggested a happy life—walked out of a Tarzana Starbucks juggling two coffees and two paper pastry bags. He held the door with his foot for a woman talking on her phone, checked his watch, then began jogging along the front of the building.
He was just passing the building’s corner when a figure appeared from behind a hedge and grabbed him by the throat, throwing him to the ground.
The coffees flew out of frame. The pastry bags fell to the sidewalk.
The man—Terrance Finley—skidded a couple feet, curled in on himself, then began a scrambling effort to rise. He almost made it. It was a good effort for a fifty-three year old who practiced contract law and whose preferred leisure-time activity was online D&D campaigns.
But his attacker was younger, faster, and infinitely meaner. He kicked Finley in the head and the father of three went down hard on his back. In the blink of an eye, the assailant swiped grotesque claws across his belly, opening wounds that bled black on the security footage.
Nadia made a tiny noise and looked away.
Stopping the feed, Calvin leaned in and squinted, trying to bring the footage into some kind of usable focus. “Is that a tattoo on the attacker’s arm?”
Beth reached forward and played with the screen’s settings until she’d zoomed in on the area that had caught his attention. “Hard to say, but it looks like it.” She put her phone next to the vehicle’s in-dash screen. “Here’s Randy Wayne’s tattoo from his last arrest report. Could be a match.”
Wayne, the werewolf they suspected of slicing up Terrance Finley and leaving him for dead outside a strip-mall dumpster corral, had a whole mess of ink on his right forearm. The photo’s alt text read: first layer a word in cursive script—possibly “Janice”— later superimposed with image of a sun with wings [?], and subsequently with stylized vines, possibly morning glory but detail lacking/inaccurate.
A real riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, their Randy.
In the luxurious quiet of his electric Range Rover, Calvin studied the two images side-by-side. “The size and shape are consistent. Between this and the scent evidence, I’ve got enough to justify confronting Wayne. And if I find out he did this…”
Well, Randy Wayne’s life would change irrevocably. Today.
And so would Calvin’s.
Nothing to Fear
Out in the yard, a chill breeze bullied its way through the tangle of tree branches and undergrowth that grew right up to the Cottage in some places while hanging well back in others. The tip of a limb tapped window glass on the south side of the house, then dragged slowly across weathered siding in a screech pitched perfectly to be felt in gut and bones. Eliza shivered and tugged the zipper of her hoodie up to her chin. Then she let her head fall back against the door and laughed tiredly. “God, this house…” She shivered again, feeling very tiny all of a sudden compared to the hulking decay of Chaste Tree Cottage.
Her phone buzzed in her pocket with an incoming message and she thought, what now? The sad truth was that she got more calls and texts from the pharmacy regarding her mother’s medications than from anyone else. After checking her fingers for blood, she pulled out her phone, handling it awkwardly with her uninjured left hand. Her face broke into a smile. It wasn’t the pharmacy—it was Joey.
Her very hot but mostly absentee upstairs tenant.
They weren’t friends, exactly, but they were friendly. Joey always texted her when he was coming back to the Cottage for a few days between assignments. Sometimes because he wanted her to check something in his place for him—make sure the fridge was still running, see if rodents had gotten into his cereal. That sort of thing. But sometimes it was just to touch base. Eliza lived for those texts. Her life might be a bleak existence of managing Minnie’s mental illness and performing futile acts of maintenance on a terminally neglected Victorian, but somewhere out there a hot guy was thinking of her.
Before she could click on Joey’s message, Eliza’s phone flashed a notification that she was now connected to the EcoAbode 3 Smart Thermostat. “Lies,” she muttered, thumbing the window away. Yes, there was a smart thermostat installed in the foyer next to the stairs, but there was nothing else in the house modern enough for it to connect with. No alarm system. No central air. Certainly no solar panels.
Her phone lagged (that was becoming an all-too-frequent issue), then finally disgorged Joey’s text: Coming home tomorrow p.m. for extended stay. Can you turn the heat up in my place?
Eliza tried not to be disappointed. Joey usually prefaced his requests with a little chitchat—where he’d been, what the weather was like there, funny (though non-NDA violating) anecdotes about the clients he was protecting.
Maybe he was having a bad day. He probably wasn’t coming home for a long stay by choice. Joey was a nomad to the bone.
Sure, she replied. You ok?
A small text bubble appeared. Yep. A moment later, he added, minor concussion—no biggie.
Eliza’s heart gave a hard thump and adrenaline trickled cold through her veins. She didn’t know exactly what Joey’s work as an executive security specialist entailed. She’d been too shy to ask. But she worried about him while he was away. Which was stupid, because she had more than enough to worry about between Minnie's mental health and her threadbare finances. Plus, Joey was the epitome of competence and good sense.
But she couldn't help it. He was a good guy, and, through no fault of his own, the highlight of her current living situation. So she worried.
Nothing But cheer
A Dos Alamos holiday novella!
“We’re late,” Joey murmured against Eliza’s mouth.
She nipped at his bottom lip. “Weird. We had so much time when we started getting dressed.”
He grinned. “I wonder where it all went?”
“Total mystery.” She slid a hand around to cup his butt
through his jeans.
He groaned. “We don’t have to go to the craft festival.”
She sighed, nuzzling Joey’s neck. “We really do, though. The moms are expecting us. And I paid for a vendor spot.”
Tonight was the potluck dinner kicking off the winter solstice craft festival at the art colony where Eliza’s mother, Minnie, lived. Resident artists, alumni, friends, and family would get a sneak peek at the wares, then the festival would open to the public tomorrow.
Joey inched her sweater up past her waistline, caressing the skin of her belly with his thumbs. “You could set up your stuff in the morning. It’s pouring out there,” one thumb dipped inside her jeans, “and it’s so warm and dry here at home.”
She laughed, squirming as his touch turned ticklish. “Stop teasing. You know you’re not going to stand up your moms when they’re driving all the way up here from the city. Besides,” she stepped back and adjusted her sweater, “setting up tomorrow would mean being there before dawn. Doors open at eight.”
He sighed. “I was hoping to sleep in this weekend.”
“There ya go. No skipping the potluck, mister.”
Resigned, Joey pulled on the “fab-yule-us” sweater Minnie had knitted him for the occasion. It was a very un-Joey shade of purple, but decadently soft, and it fit him perfectly. He spread his arms and turned in a circle. “How do I look?”
“I mean…” She gestured at the words on his chest. “Obviously, you look fabulous.”
He grinned. “You’re looking pretty fab yourself, hot stuff.”
Eliza glanced down at the long-eared equine decorating her own purple sweater. Happy Mule Tide!
“Are you sure I don’t look like an ass?”
Joey snorted. “Never.”
Monday, October 13th
For the fourth night in a row, Lisa was prowling the house before dawn, searching for the source of an elusive scent that was getting on her last nerve.
This time, though, she got caught.
“Mom.” Grace’s bleary-eyed gaze swept over her—bare feet, ratty purple unicorn sleep shirt, a huge snarl in her hair—then pinned on the sleeve of peanut butter Grrrl Scout cookies she’d been demolishing under the stark glare of their pantry’s single light bulb. “We have to leave for school in, like, three hours. And you said you’d save me some of those cookies!”
Swallowing an overlarge glob of peanut butter, Lisa said, “Sorry. It was an emergency.”
Grace tucked a strand of her white-blonde hair behind her ear. “What kind of emergency?”
“I was hungry. And I couldn’t sleep.”
Cue the teenage eye roll. “That’s not an emergency—that’s normal for you, ever since you got bitten.”
Lisa leaned back against the shelf of canned goods with a sigh. “Sad, but true, kiddo.”
Her daughter pulled a box of cereal off another shelf and dug out a handful.
I need to set a better example one of these days.
“So, that’s it?” Grace asked around a mouthful of sugar-laden, brightly colored O’s. “Just another late-night tryst with the junk food?”
Ouch. Lisa shook another cookie out of the sleeve. “Where did you even learn the word ‘tryst’? You’re fourteen. Who raised you?” She nibbled a couple peanut butter extrusions off the cookie’s edges. “And no, not entirely. Something smells wrong.”
Her daughter snorted. “Probably your shirt.”
She started to object, then sniffed the collar. “It’s a little ripe, but… nope. That’s not it. Why are you up, anyway?”
Grace bit her lip. “I heard a noise.”
Her blood ran cold. The peanut butter stuck in her throat. She coughed. “What sort of noise?” Maybe she wasn’t paranoid.“
It sounded like somebody stepped on that broken paver outside my room. The one that cracked when you dropped it.”
Something deep inside Lisa’s belly churned—rage. Or maybe the cookies.
No, definitely rage.
“When did you hear it? Just now?”
Her daughter wrapped her arms around her body, shrinking into the oversized red hoodie she’d pulled over her pajamas. “Like, five minutes ago? Then I heard you out here and thought maybe it was you…”
“I moved the basket of laundry you folded to check for stinky socks between the washer and dryer. Is that what you heard?”
Grace winced. “Um, I actually forgot to fold the laundry. I’m sorry. But the noise didn’t come from the laundry room.”
Who the hell folded the laundry? Maybe she’d done it herself and forgotten—she was under a lot of pressure these days.
“Hold these.” She handed her daughter the last three cookies. “I’d better check the side yard.”
“Mom, wait!” Grace grabbed at her nightshirt. “Don’t go outside. What if it’s a lab victim?”
Faking calm, Lisa pulled her into a one-armed hug. Grace smelled like her new mango conditioner and cookies. “I doubt it’s a lab victim. Would you walk all the way here from Culver City?”
It was only three miles from their Palms neighborhood to the warehouse from which a bunch of medical experimentation victims had escaped a week earlier, and Los Angeles was highly walkable nowadays, but three miles across town would be a lot for someone who’d been in captivity for months.
Plus, there were much better places for those poor people to hide: urban greenspaces, intentional shelter-free communities, the Fox Hills mall.
“Probably not.” Grace tucked the cookies into her hoodie pocket.
“Anyway, I’m not going outside. It’s freezing. I’ll look out your window.”
They knelt on Grace’s bed and Lisa pulled aside one of the purple velour curtains. Her internal voices were screaming at each other. It’s nothing! It’s something!
A voice she refused to acknowledge chimed in. :let’s hunt it down and kill it:
She mentally locked that voice in a box. Shut up. I don’t have time for you right now.
The neighbor’s bougainvillea overhung their flagstone path, casting gently undulating shadows on the ground. Otherwise, nothing moved. “I don’t see anything.”
Grace heaved a sigh and sat back in the middle of her bed, shaking a cookie out of the bio-plastic sleeve. “It must have been you I heard.”
She let the curtain fall shut again. “Sorry, kiddo. I didn’t mean to wake you up.”
Grace shrugged and nibbled at her cookie.
Anxiety fading, Lisa flopped down next to her daughter. They hardly spent any quality time together anymore. Not with three extra commute hours added to their daily schedule since Grace enrolled in a public health ecology high school across town.
Public transit had improved a lot in Los Angeles, but there still wasn’t a fast way to get a high school freshman from Palms to Westchester in time for her first class.
Instead of shooing Grace back to bed, she said, “Let’s have some chocolate milk.”
“How about hot chocolate?”
“Sure, why not?” The night was pretty well shot. It wasn’t like taking a few extra minutes to heat the milk would make a difference.
Grace selected mugs while Lisa got a new half-gallon of milk from the fridge. She was unwinding the plastic ring from around the lid when an enormous crash came from the side yard.
Grace screamed. Lisa dropped the milk on the floor. Reflexively, she rescued the jug, plunking it upright in the sink as she listened, trying to pinpoint the source of the noise.
There was a thump, some scrambling, then the clatter of wood falling to the ground.
Was someone demolishing their side gate?
“Stay here.” She grabbed Grace’s field hockey stick from near the front door and dashed outside.
On her front path, she paused, listening. The cold concrete stung her bare feet. A humid offshore breeze lifted her nightshirt away from her legs. From the corner of her eye, she saw Grace’s pale face at the living room window. She had her phone cradled in her hands and was talking rapidly. Had she called 911?
That could be a problem. The statistics on encounters between wers and law enforcement weren’t reassuring.
Shouldn’t have tossed that United Wer Alliance fridge magnet with the tips for dealing with cops.
Stepping onto their tiny lawn, Lisa studied the shadows near her side-yard gate. Was somebody there? The neighborhood was quiet, traffic on Venice Boulevard a distant hum. She took a deep breath and wiped her sweaty palms on her nightshirt.
It’s probably a cat.
A really huge cat. Or maybe a raccoon?
People sometimes saw mountain lions in the city now, but usually closer to the mountains…
A siren broke the relative quiet of the night and she flinched, heart pounding. Even if there was no intruder, this could end badly. Please don’t let me get tased in front of Grace.
Or, like, at all.
A board clattered to the ground in the side yard and she inched forward, brandishing the hockey stick in front of her. Raccoon. It’s a raccoon.
Suddenly, a male figure dressed in black barreled out of the shadows.
She screamed, raising the stick as he plowed into her. Somehow, she kept her footing, though her left knee twinged.
Both hands on the stick, she shoved him backwards, more pain zipping through her knee.
He fell back into her camellia bush, gangly limbs flailing as he tried to extract himself. He’s just a kid.
The unwelcome voice in her head snarled, :doesn’t matter, he invaded our territory:
Beat it, she thought. You’ll get us arrested with that attitude.
Stepping back, she eased her grip on the stick, ready to let her intruder go.
The kid regained his footing and launched himself at her again, lips curled in an ugly sneer.
Lisa swung the stick at his head in blatant violation of all those field hockey behavior agreements she’d signed over the years. “Get the hell out of my yard!”
He half-deflected the blow with his forearm, nevertheless grunting in pain.
“I mean it! Scram!”
“Bitch.” The kid turned and ran, hauling ass up the block. A moment later, a vehicle with an old-school combustion engine roared away.
He had a partner? A chill ran down her spine.
“It’s fine. It’s over,” she told herself.
Limping, she paced the width of her front yard, trying to catch her breath, until two Los Angeles Metro PD eCruisers pulled up a minute later.
The officers scanned her landscaping, then consulted their onboard laptops before exiting their vehicles.
Her neighborhood was modest enough that not everybody could afford to maintain a yard, now that greening legislation had jacked up the cost of water. Thriving plants often meant the resident was a werewolf, eligible for special rates.
She appreciated having greenery around her home—it mitigated some of the anxiety that had plagued her since she was bitten. But she didn’t love that the cops were currently getting deep background on her instead of pursuing her trespasser.
Finally, the officers—two big, bulky guys who made her feel incredibly vulnerable in her thin unicorn nightshirt—approached, hands hovering over their Tasers. “Are you the homeowner?”
“Please drop the weapon, ma’am.”
She let Grace’s hockey stick fall to the grass. She’d been using it as a crutch, but if the cops considered it a weapon… Not worth it.
“Are you fully in control of yourself?”
Her gut was cramping. Her skin felt red hot. She was shaky and perspiring freely. “I’m fine.”
Really need to retrain my daughter regarding calling 911.
The officers studied her for a long moment, then the one on the left asked, “Is anyone still in your yard?”
“I don’t think so. The one guy ran away.”
He nodded. “Why don’t you get dressed, ma’am, and we’ll check the property.”
Holding down the hem of her nightshirt, she limp-jogged into the house. After hugging Grace for a long moment, she added yoga pants, a thick sweatshirt, and shoes to her ensemble, and went back outside to get an update.
Now that the intruder was gone and the cops had apparently decided she wasn’t a threat, her stress level was down and she felt almost normal.
One cop was standing near his vehicle, ready to leave. The other showed her the wreckage of her side gate. “Looks like somebody climbed over and it broke.”
She stared at the mess. The gate was half open, two-thirds of the boards splintered and falling out like bad teeth. “This gate wasn’t even that old.”
Not for the first time recently, she wondered if they shouldn’t sell the house instead of dealing with yet another repair issue. Maybe relocate closer to Grace’s school.
Westchester isn’t so bad. Not a lot of character, but who needs character?
Of course, she would need a raise to make that happen.
The cop shrugged. “There’s no sign he tried to force your doors or windows, but you should check everything again in the morning.” He took a description of the kid, then warned her against confronting intruders. “You need to let us handle these kinds of things. Especially being a wer. Confrontations can get out of control.”
Heat burned her cheeks. “Sorry. It was my first intruder—I panicked. Do you think it was a lab victim?”
“Nah. Probably not. They’re concentrating the search for them in Culver City and Inglewood.”
That’s what they’d said on the news. And this kid had looked healthy—not like he’d recently escaped an experimentation situation. “You’re right. Probably not.”
The cop said goodnight, waiting out front in his eCruiser until she was back inside with the front door locked.
Grace was huddled on the couch under one of their fuzzy, TV-watching blankets. Lisa made sure the rest of the house was locked tight, cleaned up the spilled milk in the kitchen, got a cold pack for her knee, and joined her. “You okay?”
Grace snuggled in close. “Yeah. Can I sleep with you, though?”
“Sure, baby.” Not that Lisa herself was going to be doing any sleeping.
What the hell had that guy wanted? Was it a random break-in attempt?
Normally she would assume so, but she’d been uneasy for days. It felt like someone had been in their house, although nothing was missing or out of place.
Just that strange scent, faint enough to be a figment of her imagination. A little like Grace, but stronger. Like Grace after a lost weekend of binging Netflix shows and eating nothing but junk food.
Their orange tabby, Mr. Fuzz, crept out from beneath the couch and jumped onto her lap, kneading her thighs before curling up next to her.
Grace had dozed off against her shoulder.
Still jittery, Lisa pulled out her phone, looking for a distraction. She scrolled through Instagrowl for a while, then found herself automatically loading the staff page from work so she could gaze at Phil from Investigations, object of the most potent and enduring crush she had ever experienced.
Stop it. Have some self-respect.
Coming later in 2021...
August: Cornered (Wolves of the Furpocalypse #2)
October: Dos Alamos #3
When Kindle Vella goes live: Urban Forest Blues (Wolves of the Furpocalypse young adult serial novel)
Coralie lives in Northern California with her spouse, two teens, two dogs, a cat, and a lot of plants. (Poor plants—always an afterthought.) She loves books, hiking, native flora, stunning vistas, chocolate, and naps.
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