Here’s an excerpt from Long Shadows, the second Lycanthropy Files book. It’s available in all ebook formats from the Samhain Publishing store. You can also buy it from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and anywhere else ebooks are sold.
Spoiler alert: if you haven’t read The Mountain’s Shadow, the content below contains spoilers.
People say I’m beautiful, but they don’t see the monster inside.
It was like a fairy tale: a big, beautiful house, a plucky heroine, an evil wizard… But the best friend never fares well, and I didn’t. The heroine got cursed too, but she found true love in the end. I got a lifestyle change that wasn’t a choice and came with no warning. The worst part? I couldn’t even remember the specifics of my first change— only that it was traumatic, so my mind had even less to make sense of.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I’m a werewolf. Please hold your applause. It will only make me cry. Big girls don’t cry, and when you’re a predator, you don’t show signs of weakness.
My part of the story started one rainy February morning. I’d just gotten into the office, a satellite site for the Arkansas Department of Family and Child Services, and snarled at the pile of cases on my desk when the phone rang.
”Marconi!” my boss Paul barked. “Get in here!”
I nearly jumped out of my skin. Literally. I had a wicked aconite hangover. No, I didn’t use it recreationally. I used it to “spirit-walk,” or create a spiritual doppelganger so I could roam as a spirit-wolf rather than a physical one. I almost kicked my spirit out of my body again when Paul startled me, but I took a few deep breaths to get everything settled in, like spreading batter into the corners of a pan.
Evil cake, that’s me.
It’s hardest for me to control my temper mornings after hunting, and I struggled not to bare my teeth at Paul when I walked into his cluttered office. The piles of files, papers, and dirty Styrofoam cups made me want to gag into the wastebasket. My nose picked up the scent of dried-out, rancid turkey sandwich somewhere under his desk, and I noticed he wore yesterday’s shirt. With his pointy noise, prominent thin ears, and wisps of gray hair clinging to his head, he looked like a sick rodent, and I pushed away the image of shaking him until his neck broke. I had done that to a rat the night before. It had been lurking about, tearing into the garbage bags my neighbors left outside their door, which unleashed an awful mélange of scents into the breezeway and my apartment. I’d complained, but the management hadn’t done anything about either the neighbors or the rat. It was generally frowned upon to hunt down and kill one’s neighbors, so the rat had to go. Paul was my management, and he paid me, so I squashed my impulses.
”Have a seat,” he said.
”Where?” Every surface was covered with paper.
He shrugged and sat. “As you can see, we’re overworked and understaffed, but we can’t afford to keep on dead weight.”
I folded my hands in front of me and pressed my nails into my knuckles. “I’m pulling my weight, Paul.”
”Right, but where were you last night? I got a call this morning that someone saw you at a club ‘shaking your booty’ and ‘getting shitfaced drunk.’” His air quotes almost made it comical.
”Not that what I do on my own time is any of your business, but I can assure you it wasn’t me.”
”Can someone give you an alibi?” he asked and leaned forward, a look of concern on his rodent face. “I don’t want to cut you from my staff, but the higher ups are after me to get rid of whoever I can. You know we have a code of conduct here and strict policies when it comes to dual relationships with clients.”
I nodded. “I’m aware of them. I was at home watching television, and I turned in early.” Into a spirit-werewolf, I added in my head to make it not technically a lie.
”They said they talked to you, and you recognized them.”
My eyebrows shot up my forehead.
”Come on, Marconi,” he said and gestured to my face. “You say you turned in early, but you’ve got dark circles under your eyes, and you keep stifling yawns.”
”I haven’t been feeling well. Look, Paul, I swear to you I wasn’t at any club last night.”
”That will do for now,” he said and wrote my statement of innocence on a piece of paper. “You didn’t happen to talk to anyone on the phone or anything like that while you were at home, did you?”
”Nope. I’m just a boring girl, Paul. Did the mysterious caller say I had mentioned their case or even who they were?”
”No. Fine. Get back to work.” He frowned at me once more. “But be aware I’m watching you.” He dismissed me with a wave of his hand and looked down at the open file on his desk. I took advantage of the moment he looked away to bare my teeth, then turn before he could see me. No man dismisses me.
I frowned all the way back to my office and sat to review cases, but my mind wouldn’t focus. Who was the woman at the club? Who looked that much like me? And who called Paul? Probably an unhappy parent. That part didn’t concern me as much—when you work for the Department of Family and Child Services, you make enemies, especially if you take kids out of abusive homes. That a parent was at a club didn’t shock me. That someone pretended to be me did.
But who hates me enough to try to get me fired? I wanted to know who she was and how she knew who I worked with.
I kept my Private Investigator license current to pick up some extra work on the side. Sometimes it came in handy for the job, so they didn’t say anything. It looked like I was going to be doing some extra work on my own time.
Oh, I had my suspicions. Apparently the events of the previous summer hadn’t resolved yet, and there was only one person I could think of who resembled me enough to impersonate me. I needed to know why Kyra Ellison, former alpha female of the Crystal Pines pack and fellow tall brunette, had come out of the mountains and into Little Rock, and even more, why she was posing as me. I also wondered if it was even her. We shared certain characteristics, but no one thought we were similar once they’d interacted with us.
“You two don’t look anything alike,” Joanie, former best friend of a certain social worker werewolf, had told me. “One glance is all you need to see how she’s mean and spiteful, and you’re not.”
Yet my spite had ended our friendship.
At the end of the day, Paul caught up to me in the parking deck.
“Going out tonight?” he asked and curled his thin lips into a shape between a sneer and a leer. “I can’t imagine a girl like you spends too many nights in.”
“No,” I told him. “At least not to a club. Again, not that it’s any of your business.”
“Budget cuts,” he said in an ominous tone and tapped his nose. He walked to his ancient hatchback, which had rust spots starting to show through the beige paint. I chose to ignore the pheromones he exuded and the insinuation he was doing me a favor. Men had that response to me now that I had a true animal side, and I hoped he wouldn’t cross the line into sexual harassment. Yes, the thought of his attentions repulsed me, but I also liked him as a supervisor because he mostly left me alone, and I would hate for him to get fired over it.
Or for me to. His warning about our department’s financial situation played back in my mind.
I shook my head, not blaming him for nibbling at the drama like a rat gnawing on chicken bones for a pitiful bit of marrow. It was amazing how these government jobs, especially the ones where we supposedly take care of others, sucked the life and soul out of people. On his desk, Paul kept a picture taken during fishing trip he’d been on just after starting here. It showed he had been straight-shouldered and with a full head of wavy brown hair. Now he was stooped and graying, and the rest of his life seemed to have stopped on that day. Even more reason for him to want to create a little drama with the social worker who seemed to be falling down on her job. And who doesn’t seem to be withering in it. It’s not my fault my family ages well.
I drove my similarly ancient but in much better shape green Jeep Cherokee back to my apartment off Chenal Parkway, but when I got home, I sensed something was not right. At first glance, the building looked the same—a two-story, four-unit brick building with lit stairwell between the units on each floor. Dusk was falling, and the lights had just started flickering on, but there was something wrong with the shadows. I squinted and flared my nostrils. An unfamiliar tropical scent rode the top of the breeze. It threaded through the layers of stale cigarette and the bruise-like decay of takeout containers in the bag of trash by my neighbors’ door. Lazy asses. The new scent, if it had a color, would be fuchsia over the grays and browns of ordinary life, and a shiver tiptoed down my spine. Whether it was of fear or excitement, I didn’t know.
One by one, the lights in the stairwells buzzed, popped, and flickered out. That could only mean one thing—a wizard—and my previous encounter with one had left me with this little werewolf problem.
Okay, fear it is. Whatever you do, don’t show it. Just get into the apartment.
Sure they had seen me, I played nonchalant and grabbed my purse off the passenger seat. I left the files I’d been planning to work on once Giancarlo passed out after his second bottle of wine. He was due over in half an hour and I needed to make sure he wasn’t in danger. Sure, he was an alcoholic, but he was a cute one, and his problems worked for me on a practical level, although my constantly wondering if I was enabling him didn’t work for me on an ethical one. I was going to get help for him eventually, but he didn’t want it at the moment, so there was no point. At least that’s what I kept telling myself.
The internal twisting and folding inward sensations told me the aconite hadn’t quite worked out of my system from the night before, although the swill that passed for office coffee had kept my frontal lobes jazzed enough during the day to fight the effects.
“No, we’re not going to change now.” Sometimes sternly addressing my animal side worked, like I had to constantly reinforce I was the alpha of my own mind, especially with the aconite hangover. That was a different kind of fear—it seemed the aconite was taking longer and longer to wear off each time. The animal part of my brain scrabbled in my skull, wanting me to change and hunt down whatever the threat was.
“Down,” I told it. “Maybe the rat I killed last night has a vengeful family?”
“No, whatever it is, it’s bigger than a rat and is watching you.”
I shivered and cursed under my breath. “Thanks, really. No showing weakness, remember?”
Sometimes these conversations I had with myself were useful. Most often, not, and I was left wondering whether I was insane, and maybe all the werewolf stuff was a wicked psychosis.
I held my keys in my right hand and my pepper spray in my left. My inner wolf scoffed at my puny defenses, inferior to fangs and claws. Each light I walked under flickered back to life, and a warm breeze followed me. Again, the scent of fuchsia, both the color and the flower, came to me.
Someone’s toying with me. They know I’m aware of them. Why don’t they show themselves?
I reached my apartment and looked around before I stuck my key in my lock. Again, nothing visible, but something was out there watching me. I ducked into the apartment and closed the door behind me, breathing a sigh of relief when my lights switched on without flickering or flashing. I put my purse on the counter next to the postcard reminding me that it was time for my physical and I was scheduled for blood work the next morning. My phone buzzed with a voicemail. The call hadn’t rung, although it should have. I touched the little icon and listened to Giancarlo’s lilting tones. His cheerful voice sounded odd in the context of my strange experiences.
“Lonna, Bellissima, I am so sorry, but something’s come up at the restaurant, and I cannot make it. Know you will be in my heart tonight.”
“Along with your Chianti.” I simultaneously exhaled with relief and disappointment at Giancarlo’s cancellation. I certainly didn’t want to put him in any danger, but I also needed to blow off some steam. The day after the full moon was the worst for wanting to explore other animal impulses once the desire to hunt was satisfied.
Yet another thing they didn’t tell me.
I went to bed after an uneventful evening with no more electrical strangeness. By the time I ventured out to the Jeep to get the files I needed to catch up on, the odd odor had disappeared. That night I dreamed of a tropical beach with a turquoise ocean at my feet and large-leafed flora all around. Huge fuchsia plants dripped the scent of their purple and pink flowers on the breeze. I leaned back in my beach chair, cold drink in hand, and soaked up the sun, happy I wouldn’t have to renew my membership to the tanning salon. Yes, I knew it was bad for me, but it was my one indulgence. Never mind that I had on the skimpiest bikini I’d ever worn and had to keep sipping my drink so I wouldn’t open my mouth and spill all my secrets to the strange man who sat beside me, but whose face I couldn’t quite make out.
Wait a second, whose dream is this?
A buzz startled me awake, and the radio hissed on. I fiddled with the knob. It settled into its regular morning show alarm just as the DJ announced the rain and current temperature with unwarranted perkiness. Something about it reminded me of the flickering lights the night before and how my phone hadn’t rung when Giancarlo called. I shivered again, but I attributed it to the damp and current temperature near forty.
My inner wolf laughed at my dismay. “Those conditions would be nothing for fur… or spirit fur. Change! We’re being stalked.”
“Tonight. I can’t take the aconite too much. It’s poison in a normal human body.”
A snort, then, “Change for real.”
“Can’t. Too hard to manage doors, and I can’t escape tight situations in an instant by returning to my body.”
No response, but I sensed her sulking. I knew “she” or “spirit wolf-Lonna” was a manifestation of the animal part of my brain, or maybe even some sort of spiritual part of me, but sometimes she seemed oddly separate, like when we had these conversations. Whatever she was, it put me in a bad mood for my blood work that morning. I would have canceled, but if I did, I’d have to move my physical, which had been scheduled for a year, and I needed to make sure my new weird lifestyle wasn’t having any strange effects on my body. Somehow I suspected being an apex predator wouldn’t grant me an exception for having to wait forever for a new doctor’s appointment.
I arrived at the doctor’s office and took a seat just before my appointment time. It was crowded with people with the ends of that winter’s illnesses, and although they had been given masks to cover up their coughs and sneezes, I touched as few surfaces as possible. It had been a rough year, and I groaned inwardly—stressful job plus powerful viruses equaled lots of people out at the office, which meant more work for me. That was another mixed side benefit of my lycanthropy: a heightened immune system.
A nurse brought me back to the phlebotomy station, and I caught a glimpse of a new doctor. He ran his hand through wavy reddish-gold hair as he talked to a young mother holding a baby, and his green-blue eyes the color of the ocean in my dream sparkled. He had a tan, too dark to have been hanging around Little Rock recently, and in his words, I heard hints of the islands. The faint smell of fuchsia made my heartbeat accelerate.
“Your blood pressure’s up, Miss Marconi,” the young nurse said with concern in her tone.
“Rough morning,” I said. “It’s what happens when I don’t get my coffee.”
She smiled, her teeth bright white against her dark skin. “I understand that. We’ll get this done quickly so you can get you some.” She tied the rubber strap around my arm and poked around for a vein. I looked away so I’d only feel what she was doing, not see it.
“Thank you. New doctor?”
She followed my gaze. “That’s Doctor Fortuna,” she said with a dreamy little sigh. “He’s filling in for Doctor Kasdon while she’s on temporary bed rest. They went to school together.”
“Where is he from?”
“Somewhere in the Caribbean.” She wrinkled her nose. “I know he’s told me, but I can’t remember exactly where. He did his schooling here in the States, though, so don’t worry, when you see him next week, he’ll know what he’s doing. Now,” she said, and gave me a stern look, “your chart says you haven’t had the flu shot. It’s still going around, so it’s not too late.”
“I’ll pass,” I told her, a little shot of adrenaline making my heart skip. Although the current vaccines wouldn’t be contaminated, I’d never trust them again. Not that they could do anything to me that hadn’t already been done by other means, but it was an instinctive response.
“Are you sure?” She put a cotton ball over the hole in my arm and taped it in place. “Keep that there for a little while.”
“Positive. I’ll talk to Doctor Fortuna about it next week.”
That dreamy expression returned. “He’s a good doctor,” she said and packed up her kit.
Her spacey confidence didn’t make me feel any better, and my inner wolf wanted to run around him and sniff him and figure him out. I was relieved to get back to my car and then to my windowless office, where the files I had taken home to catch up on had been replaced by a whole new set. I looked through them and was listing phone calls I’d have to make when Paul walked by and gave me a wave, a grin on his rat face. When he had just passed my door, he turned around and poked his head in.
“Are you free for lunch today?”
I arched an eyebrow. “I believe the correct greeting in our culture is ‘good morning.’”
“Good morning, then.” He stood, hands in his pockets. “Now aren’t you supposed to reply?”
“Touché, and good morning. What’s got you in such a good mood?”
He shrugged. “There’s just something in the air these days. Haven’t you felt it? Spring is my favorite season.”
He had something between his teeth, but I elected not to point it out to him. Honestly, his cheerfulness freaked me out. “It’s not spring yet. And no, I’m not free for lunch.” I gestured to the pile of files and list of phone calls I needed to make.
“I hope you’re not saying that because of our conversation yesterday.” His false concern made me want to strangle him.
“No, I always put my work first, whether you believe it or not. Guess what I was doing last night?”
The look on his face made me immediately regret the question. “Clubbing?” Dear gods, he sounded hopeful.
“No, my boyfriend canceled out on me, so I stayed home and caught up on some reports.”
He sniffed. “Keeping everything secure, I hope?”
“Yes, Paul.” Mostly. “Unless they changed the rules on us again.”
He laughed, and it came out with a wheeze. “You never know, do you?” He continued chuckling as he walked around the corner. “You really never know.”
“Okay…” I shook my head. Maybe he finally lost it.
A file that should have gone somewhere else caught my attention, and I jumped up to catch up with Paul. He had disappeared, so I went to his office. I paused just outside the door, hearing his voice. His words chilled me.
“Are you sure?” He spoke with the phone cradled to his ear. “She seems so normal. No, I couldn’t get her to come out for lunch. Yes, she leaves at around five o’clock, and she’s always parked near me. Uh huh, a green Jeep Cherokee, license plate…”
So, what would your ideal birthday present be?