So, how is everyone doing? I'm driving myself crazy. Or rather, technology is driving me crazy. "Witch's Moon" is done! I go to upload it to Amazon... and the formatting gets rejected. Why? I do almost all of my writing in Google Docs, so it defaulted to that format. OK, change the format to the correct one. Still rejected. Why? Because the process of conversion screwed with my document formatting. Everything was underlined and had bullet points.
WHY? Why did it add bullet points to every single paragraph?
I still don't know why it did that. As soon as I get it all figured out, I'll let you know. In the mean time, I have a wonderful recipe to share. A little background about me: I am one of those people who sees a recipe on Face Book and simply must give it a try.
I found this on Face Book last week. The story is two sentences long and is loaded with more laughs than some full length novels. And of course, I had to try making them. They are totally awesome, by the way. I had to ask my mother to decode it from "Grandma" because it implies the baker has a basic understanding of how recipes were recorded 50+ years ago. The modern translation of it is thus:
Mom's Christmas Cookies
1 C sugar
1/2 C butter (one full stick)
2 eggs, well beaten
1 tsp vanilla
3 cups flour, plus lots for dusting the rolling pin and counter (very sticky dough)
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt (I skipped this since I used salted butter)
1 C cream (I used eggnog because I had some and never have cream in my fridge)
Cream: sugar, butter, 2 eggs, and vanilla in a large-ish mixing bowl.
Blend: flour, baking powder, and salt in a second bowl.
Add a little of the dry mixture and mix well. Then add a little cream and mix well. Once everything is combined, cover it and put it in the fridge to chill at least one hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Roll the dough out to 1/8" -1/4" thick and cut out circles. This dough is way too soft for anything fancier than round cookies. Space at least 1/2" apart on ungreased COLD cookie sheets. (The dough also doesn't like hot cookie sheets.) Let chill in the fridge for 10 more minutes before baking. They brown too fast if you don't chill them. Bake for 9-11 minutes depending on how thick they are, just until the bottoms brown. Remove from cookie sheet immediately. Let cool, then frost if desired. None of mine survived long enough to cool and be frosted. These cookies are soft, cake-like, and very good.
On that note, I'll bid you adu for now. Have a great day!
Ok, I know I was planning to release "Witch's Moon" last week but I ran into a snag. My beta reader found an big error in the reworked plot that I missed and I've been furiously fixing it. I *should* have it by next Wednesday. Self publishing is harder that it looks! LOL!
Ok, since none of the booboos are in the first chapter, I'm going to share that with you now. There have been some subtle but significant changes from the last time I posted it. For one thing, Mooney is no longer a moron, though he still does some really silly stuff. This was in response to the editor I hired pointing out that most people don't enjoy moronic main characters, male or female. I have to admit, I do like the new and improved Mooney a lot more. I hope you do, too!
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Guts & Butts Gazette
Competitive Sports Around Town
By Mooney McMahon
It’s been a tough week out there for high school sports enthusiasts as we get ready to break for the winter holidays. The Talbot's Peak H.S. Timber Wolves lost to the Naperville Jack Rabbits 70-50 in the first playoff game of the state basketball finals. They did manage to move on to to move on to the next round despite losing to prey animals, so they’ll be facing Nettuno High's Waves this Friday. Hopefully the pups won’t get washed out of the playoffs by a pond.
Right after the holiday are tryouts for the junior high wrestling team. All you pantywaists will be happy to hear that Coach Barton bowed to pressure to let girls tryout for a spot on the squad. At this rate, I’ll be announcing dudes doing cheerleading!
At the request of the Naperville drama teacher, I’m mentioning that results from last week’s debate team exhibition are available, but I’m not going to report them because arguing is not a sport.
The city council did not approve the request to allow roller derby tournaments at the city’s recreational facilities, so next week’s bone crusher will be held at the Roller Rama, assuming we can get old Mrs. Fuddy-Duddy to agree. There may or may not be a TP party planned for her house tomorrow night to encourage her to play nice.
On a positive note, the dodgeball league did get the funding needed to buy Kevlar volleyballs. As you may remember, the adults-only tournament was suspended when every one of the normal balls were popped. The All City Meat and Gravy Dodgeball Tournament should be rescheduled for after the New Year, just in time to work off the extra baggage from eating too much at Christmas dinner.
This is Mooney McMahon signing off for now. Don’t bother sending any more hate mail. I just drop it in the circular file.
The bailiff's gravelly voice jerked my attention back to reality. I was supposed to be checking out the crowd attending this hearing, not the guy on trial. Mooney McMahon was almost six and a half feet of black haired, blue eyed, well-muscled werewolf with classic All American looks. He might be trouble, but he was also serious eye-candy. All the bad ones were. That's the only way I explain why otherwise intelligent women fell for bad boys. We got hooked on the yummy bits before realizing our peril.
If there was a list that summarized every person alive, my entry would read ‘Marissa Cooper, earth witch, social misfit, and sucker for bad boys.’ I should have told Lex to shove it when he told me what my mission for the morning was. I have a coffee shop to run and no budget to hire any employees since it had only been six months since I’d opened. When I pointed out that me being his spy meant Java Joe’s would be closed while I was out, Lex nobly offered to cover the counter. The gods only knew why Lex was interested in the town’s ne'er-do-well sports columnist enough to do actual work, but I wasn't in a position to refuse. So there I sat, watching Talbot’s Peak, Montana’s version of Judge Judy.
Today’s judiciary hero, the Honorable Kevin Foxsmith, banged his gavel to silence the peanut gallery, which had been offering a running commentary. “Mr. McMahon, care to tell the court why we are here today?” Mooney, who had been busy making angry eyes at a heckler, jerked his attention to the judge's bench.
“Weren’t you supposed to call the court to order before you ask me questions?” The room filled with snickering.
Shaking my head, I marveled that a defendant could be this clueless, even after reading that ridiculous article in yesterday’s paper. Mooney McMahon should have been a blonde so the rest of the world would have some warning about his true nature.
“We did that part already,” the judge said sardonically.
“Ah.” Mooney looked like he was having to physically stop himself from snapping. With obvious effort, the wolf began defending himself. “So I was walking back from Walmart last night—”
“Walmart?" the judge interrupted. “At one ‘o'clock in the morning,” he paused while he ruffled some pages on his podium, “with four cases of toilet paper?”
“That’s right, Your Honor. The parking lot was full, so I had to walk a bit—”
“You were found eight miles from Walmart, Mr. McMahon,” the judge interrupted again. “That store is down by the interstate, not in Talbot’s Peak proper.”
“Right,” Mooney agreed with a cheesy win-over-a-tough-crowd smile. “I do have the receipt, if you want it. Anyway, I’d almost got to my car when the cop shined his flashlight in my face.”
“Walmart closes at eleven. Are you saying it took you two hours to walk to your car?”
“Yes, Your Honor,” Mooney answered earnestly. “Remember, I was carrying four cases of toilet paper and it was an eight mile walk.”
“And you did all of this while drunk? I see here that you spent the night in the drunk tank.”
“I wasn’t drunk, Your Honor. I did stop at a bar to take a little break, but I didn’t get drunk.”
“And your car was parked in front of the bar because you couldn't find any place closer to park?"
"That's right, Your Honor," Mooney nodded. The judge regarded him disbelievingly before looking down at the papers in his hand.
"The arresting officer reports that the bar you visited happens to be down the street from the house of a woman you made threats against."
“I didn’t make threats against anyone, Your Honor. I was just buying toilet paper.” Mooney straightened his collar on his white button down shirt, trying to look charismatic and trustworthy despite the sweat beading his forehead.
“Four cases of it?”
“Yep. Never know when you’re going to get diarrhea.” Mooney grimaced when sounds of snickering began to compete with sounds of disgust. I’m pretty sure someone said, "Especially of the mouth."
I had to agree. This half-hearted defense was silly, even by werewolf standards. Most wolves are arrogant enough to think they can get away with anything. But most of them also realize they have to at least offer a plausible excuse.
“All right, Mr. McMahon. I think I’ve heard enough." Judge Foxsmith sounded disgusted. "I’m sentencing you to twenty hours community service and a five hundred dollar fine—”
Mooney lost it. “Five hundred dollars? For carrying toilet paper?”
This time, it was the judge scowling as more sniggering broke out. “No, Mr. McMahon, for wasting my time. The community service is for attempting to carry out a terroristic threat.”
Mooney chuckled weekly. “Maybe we can talk about this, Your Honor. You know how these things go,” he continued. “I mean, there was that account in the paper about grey fox hair on someone’s dress—”
“Are you trying to bribe your way out of trouble from threats you made by extorting me over the town gossip column?” the judge asked incredulously.
That nugget of information startled me. Judge Foxsmith was an actual fox? I was still pretty new to town, so I didn’t know all the ins and outs of the town yet. I did know that only about half of the residents of Talbot’s Peak were regular human and that not all the mundanes knew about their non-mundane neighbors. Could I could use family names to guess if someone was a shapeshifter and what they changed to? I filed that thought away, because the courtroom soap opera was continuing without me.
Mooney was looking a little green at the defendant’s table. “Well, no, Your Honor. Of course not.”
“Good.” The judge glowered. “As I was saying, forty hours of community service and a thousand dollar fine—”
“But you just said—”
“And you should refrain from using the newspaper as a platform for bullying, or as legal defense. I do not want to see you in my courtroom again. Are we clear?”
“As mud,” Mooney snarled, spinning around and stomping toward the door.
McMahon’s dramatic departure made my eyes roll spontaneously. As soon as they stopped, I resumed scanning the courtroom as the hearing wrapped up. If anyone was spying on Mooney the Goof, they’d be showing signs by now. The wolf probably didn’t have the money to pay his fine. Now I knew why I’d been sent to spy here. Lex wanted to make sure no one else was interested in Mooney McMahon’s financial or legal situation before trying to recruit him.
The room emptied quickly but no one was in a hurry to exit the courthouse itself. The lobby was packed with gossiping housewives and bored teenagers, their noise drifting back into the nearly deserted courtroom. I snuck one last glance around to check out who remained, mostly people that had actual business in the courtroom that morning, and then left on the heels of a few stragglers.
“Oh, look! It’s the blue-haired coffee monkey!” a sharp voice cut through the low rumble of the crowd.
I glanced at the speaker, Maggie Novak, but otherwise ignored her as I fought my way toward the door. Maggie was the gossip columnist for the somewhat ignobly named Guts & Butts Gazette. She’s also a coyote shifter and the leader of the Maggie Novak, Cruel Girl fan club. I had little use for her because she’d never matured much past junior high and spent a vast amount of time trying to convince everyone that it’s cool to be her.
“Hey, monkey,” Maggie said, cutting me off. “I’m talking to you.”
Sighing, I looked the taller woman over with a critical eye. Maggie had big dreams of getting a syndicated daytime talk show and she dressed as if she already had it. Today, she wore Gucci head to toe in shades of white and bright red. One’s personal style should be an indication to others of what they could expect. In my opinion, that meant Maggie should be dressed like hillbilly trailer trash, not Housewives of Orange County.
“What do you want, flea bag?” I asked in my surliest tone of voice. See? My outside matched my inside. My short, funky blue hair, black skinny jeans and sloppy off the shoulders sweater and tank top said, ‘Stay away from me because I bite,’ and it didn’t lie. I’m a witch, not a shapeshifter, but there are ways to take a chunk out of someone’s ass that don’t involve slobber. That might be part of the reason so many carnivores feel the need to try to browbeat me, but that’s their problem, not mine.
"I’m wondering what a lowly doulos like you is doing so far away from her master's heel," Maggie replied with a toss of her bottle-blonde hair.
I flushed at the lycan slur for a slave. Lycan culture is rooted in Ancient Greek zoology, not mythology. The Greeks had known that shape shifters were real, so most of the nastier shifter slurs are archaic leftovers from that long dead culture. I'd been called just about every name for an owned person from every culture over the years, so her insult was unpleasant, but hardly crippling.
I wasn't a slave, per se. I had rights and liberties. I own Java Joe's, even if Lex got 70% of the profits. But magic doesn't care about the laws of men. Parents own their children, magically speaking, until they come of age. When Lex took my life in exchange for a debt my mother owed, it was binding magically if not legally. I could now, as an adult, walk away from him. But I'd forfeit my magic and lose my protector, but not my knowledge of the darker side of the word, if I did. I'd lose the ability to protect myself while gaining a giant bulls-eye on my forehead. So, I stayed and tried not to react when shifter trash like Maggie called me names.
I smiled coldly at her as inspiration hit. I needed to treat this as an honest inquiry.
"I'm here gathering ideas for a new Talbot's Peak themed menu." With a cocked an eyebrow, I returned her derision with some of my own. "What are you doing here? Trying to get on your boss's good side by smearing his brother in your column?"
Her face bloomed an ugly crimson that clashed with her outfit. She turned without another word. Giving me her back was the ultimate carnivore insult and I knew it. It meant I wasn't worthy of her protecting her back around. I was very tempted to show her how wrong she was, but decided against it. Instead, I pulled on my heavy winter parka and trudged into the frigid late morning air, chewing on what I'd learned. I had a long, cold walk back to the coffee shop and plenty of time to digest it.
This town was a mixed bowl of crazy. The mayor was a chimp--and something of a chump. Many of the cops were German Shepherds, and half the hospital staff were ungulates of one type or another. Nor could one miss the high number of wild animals wandering around town in broad daylight. There were lots of things that went bump in the night around here, too. Of the ruling families, one was a clan of bats and one was a herd of big horn sheep, but the wolves were at the apex.
The McMahon pack, one of three local packs, tended to provide the most entertainment. It wasn’t just Mooney, though he was bad enough. The pack alpha and editor-in-chief of the only paper in town was well known for his hair trigger temper and his tumultuous romance with Zeva Wilk, alpha of the other smallish pack. They were a feast for a gossip columnist like Maggie. A feast she could not partake of because Nick paid her salary.
The largest pack, the Hancocks, was too scary to gossip about. Damien Hancock ruled his wolves with an iron fist, parading his perfect golden son Devon around like a champion Thoroughbred stud, damaging anyone who puts ink to stories that might tarnish his beloved heir’s image. My involvement with the Hancock Pack began and ended with the half sister I barely knew marrying one of Damien’s escaped wolves.
That left only the Wilks to gossip about. Making quasi-journalistic fun of New Age hippy wolves might be entertaining for a while, but it had its limits. One can only write about Oksana Wilk making patchouli flavored jerky and howling at the moon in naked human skin only so many times before it starts sounding stale. Especially since a smart gossip columnist wouldn't dream of mentioning that these are werewolves she’s making fun of.
That left the cud chewers, some bunnies, and the banana mad mayor for target practice. I could understand why Maggie might take another look at Mooney for gossip fodder. Everyone knew Nick was getting tired of cleaning up after his little brother. An alpha would never actually throw a member of his pack under a bus, but he might look the other way if the gossip columnist for the pack's paper started in on him. In twisted wolf logic, Mooney would be a bigger asset to the pack as a subject of ridicule than as a writer.
That may or may not affect Lex's plans for the McMahon Pack’s beta. I hadn't noticed anyone paying more attention to the proceedings than normal. Unfortunately, Maggie had noticed mine. That’s why I told her I’d been there looking for menu inspiration. It was the perfect cover.
A while back, I'd started coming up with names for drinks that made fun of pop culture icons. There was the Kevorkian Jackknife, which was guaranteed to wake the dead. A frothy orange juice and ginseng tea smoothie had been christened the Kardashian Kooler. My culinary inventions had been so popular that several patrons began asking for drinks named after locals.
Now, thanks to Mooney, Java Joe’s would have a new drink. It would be christened the Wolf's Tale. All I had to do was come up with a palatable recipe that evoked Walmart, toilet paper, and extortion. That could be tricky, but I figured if I could make Belieber Juice taste good enough to keep the tween scene coming back for more, I could make it work. Kicking ingredients around in my head, I started shedding layers of warm clothing in Java Joe's back room.
"It is about time you returned," a deep, cool voice said from behind me.
Groaning, I turned to face my boss/owner/bane, Lexor Naifeh. That wasn’t his real name. They didn’t have first and last names as modern people think of them back when he was born. Lex was an ancient Egyptian, the grandson of the lion god Nefertem. That was about all I knew for certain about his origins. He was extremely stingy about personal information. Actually, he was stingy with any information. It’s like every iota of training he'd given me over the years was a piece of his soul, which he parted with only under duress.
Lex was sardonic and timeless, standing about five’ six”, trim and utterly hairless. As in not even eyebrows. His copper skin was smooth and without the plasticy look that usually accompanies the very old who look young. His dark brown eyes are deep pits that bore into a person’s soul. He could be anywhere from forty to four-thousand years old. That agelessness was one way to tell a true deity from a mere immortal. Immortals look a specific age because they started off as mortals. Whatever age they were when they lost their mortality at was the age they got frozen at. Gods are not born mortal and do not age physically once they hit full maturity, be that at age two, like Cupid, or somewhat older, like Lex. It’s creepy. I could say that with full confidence because unlike most witches, I was raised by Lex in the Egyptian god realm.
"I'm back before the lunch rush, just as I said I would be." I flung my parka, scarf, mittens, and snow boots into a heap by the back door. Yes, I really did need all the outdoor clothes. Montana a week before Christmas was cold enough to freeze nose hairs to nasal cavity walls. I don't like the cold, even if Talbot's Peak was starting to grow on me. Not that it mattered. As soon as whatever plot drew Lex to Montana was done, he'd leave and I'd leave with him.
"And?" Lex demanded, pinning me in place with a glare.
"Mooney McMahon is an imbecile. I have no idea why you wanted me to snoop on him. The courtroom was packed with nosy people waiting to see what cockamamie comment was going to come flying out of his mouth next. They weren’t disappointed. He said he'd carried four cases of toilet paper eight miles because he might get diarrhea. A five-year-old could have come up with a better story." I brushed past Lex, ignoring his thunderous posture. He wasn't actually angry at my sass, and wouldn't have hurt me even if he had been. Not once in the fifteen years I’d belonged to him had he ever caused me actual harm. It’s pretty sad that he'd taken better care of me than my mom ever had.
"Anyway, the only person who showed more than idle interest in him, other than me, was the gossip queen of Talbot's Peak."
"Did she notice your interest, monkey-child?" He'd used my least favorite nick name, so I knew not to be flippant in my response this time.
"Yeah, but I covered it. Told her I was looking for recipe ideas, and I said it loud enough that several people heard. I'll debut a new drink called Wolf's Tale just as soon as I figure out how to express his drunken debacle in coffee form. No one will think anything of it." Watching Lex out of the corner of my eye to gauge his reaction, I slipped on my apron.
He looked thoughtful, which was a good thing. Life with a demigod was like that. One minute, the world as I knew it was coming to an end. Before I could blink, everything was chill. Chill Lex was much easier to deal with.
"Very good," he murmured approvingly. "I would suggest a black chicory blend, brewed extra strong with a shot of Kahlua syrup. Leave off the whipped cream. Male wolves don't usually go for frou-frou drinks that might question their masculinity."
I nodded in agreement. Lex was very good with creating concoctions. He once told me he'd learned the art of brewing at his grandfather's feet. Nefertem had been a god of perfuming, healing, and beer. I’d met him once when Lex took me to his grandfather’s court. Let’s just say I was glad we didn’t stay long in that hoary old lion’s den. Hippy werewolves were not as freaky as a hippy god. All drama aside, I'd been lucky to be taught potion making by Lex.
"I can change it up a bit for a few other people. Bavarian chocolate syrup for a Joker's Wild drink in honor of Brand Fliddermous's little brother, Joker. Maybe rose hip, patchouli, and lavender tea for the Wilk pack."
"Call that one Green Peace," Lex agreed nodding. "Add a bit of St. John’s wort. That mix, brewed at a low temperature, actually will lower cortisol and decrease blood pressure."
"Should we include a cinnamon coffee to the menu? Call it Cinnamon Dream in honor of Devon Hancock?” I asked. "Or would that piss his daddy off?”
"No, he will probably be amused by it," Lex shrugged. “Most of the wolves in that pack are cinnamon colored.”
Ralph stopped so abruptly he nearly dropped his coffee. Not his jelly donut, however. A moment of stunned silence was followed by the expected explosion. “What the flaming fuck?”
Messy as a bear’s den at the best of times, Ralph’s desk had been transformed into a garish shrine adorned with balloons, crepe paper, and wrestling memorabilia. There was even a replica of a WWE championship belt draped over a metal folding chair. In lieu of rose petals, the desktop had been strewn with printout photos of the same man’s face—bearded, clean-shaven, smiling, scowling, all with one eyebrow raised. In the very center stood a framed cover from the latest People magazine, proclaiming Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as “The Sexiest Man Alive.”
And right next to his desk, holding a big red heart-shaped balloon, stood that junkless snake Lamar with a huge shit-eating grin on his face. Maybe snakes did eat shit. Ralph wouldn’t put anything past a snake.
“It’s official,” Lamar cooed. “Your dream date is now the sexiest man on the planet. People says so. How could they be wrong?”
“Say cheese,” added staff photographer Jamie, and snapped a picture of Ralph’s face, which was rapidly going beat-red. Because of course the whole damned newsroom had turned around to watch. They lived for shit like this. Didn’t anybody come to work just to work any more?
Ralph stomped up to Lamar and jabbed a blunt finger at his grinning face. “Get this through your scaly head. I am not queer for the Rock! It just so happens he’s the greatest wrestler who ever lived. And a better actor than people wanna give him credit for. A real man can admire another real man for that without wanting to, uh … ” Here Ralph ran out of steam. “You know. Without wanting to do other stuff,” he finished triumphantly.
Lamar, who didn’t appear to have a fearful, or sensible, bone in his sinewy body—or bones of any sort, for that matter—slithered closer. “What kind of other stuff?” he whispered eagerly.
Ralph’s grizzly blood rose to the fore. “Listen, Mr. Mind in the Gutter, I ought'a string you up and tie you in a knot—”
“Oooo! Sounds like a fun evening. Come to the club with us? We’ll bring the pics of Dwayne along. For inspiration.”
“I'm gonna kick you in the—oh wait, you don’t have any.”
“Yeah he does.” Jamie grinned. “Probably more than Dwayne.”
Ralph rounded on Jamie. He was an easier target. “Is that what you think?” he said with deceptive mildness.
“IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT YOU THINK!”
The bullpen went dead silent. Ralph had gotten his black bear dad’s diminutive size, but his grizzly mom’s full-on roaring genes. Even Lamar swayed backward, out of striking range.
“Listen up, you jabronies,” Ralph barked. “That goes for alla you. It’s okay to like another guy without, y’know, liking the other guy. I mean not like the snake here. The Rock is the greatest wrestler ever. He comes down to the ring, the whole arena gets electrified. Can any of you do that? Of course not. The man’s a frikkin’ genius. If Pimple wants to put him on their cover, it’s because they’re trying to class up their rag. He should be on the cover of Sports Illustrated anyway—”
“In a swimsuit?” Lamar asked.
“That’s it, scale boy. You’re goin’ down.”
“Too late. Did that this morning.”
“What the hell is going on in here?”
Scat. All the roars had brought editor Nick out of his office. If anybody could out-bellow a grizzly, it was an alpha wolf. “Now look whatcha done,” Ralph complained.
Nick growled low in his throat while he took it all in—the photos, the balloons, Lamar. He picked the snake to vent at. “What did I tell you about unauthorized parties during working hours?”
“Uh … not to have any?”
“Damn right. You’re not even on staff any more. You’re freelance. Clean up this shit and get the hell out of my bullpen so we can get back to work. And you—” He whirled on Jamie. “Delete all photos. No exceptions.”
“He didn’t even bring any cake,” somebody grumbled. Nick swept the room with an ugly glare, but the grumbler had successfully ducked behind a desk.
“And for the record,” Nick finished, “Andre the Giant is the greatest wrestler who ever lived, so I don’t want to hear any more of this ‘Rock’ crap.” He reached for the framed magazine cover.
Ralph snatched it away just in time. “This stays,” he said. And even Nick knew better than to argue.
“Yeah,” Alf the bobcat said, and took a deep swig of his beer. “It’s official. Cats rule.”
Gordo, the wolf on the barstool beside him, snorted. “In your dreams, Puss in Boots.”
“You doggies think you’re all that. But I got the proof. I was watching this show on PBS … ”
“About cats. About how we took over the world.”
“Not any world I live in.”
“Guess again. We started in Asia and branched out. We’re everywhere now. Europe, Africa, Australia. Maybe not Antarctica, but who the scat wants to live there? And wherever we go, we’re in charge.”
“You mean all the places that canines got to first?”
“Yeah, those were lousy neighborhoods until we showed up. Y’know what the show said? When cats came to North America, at least three species of canine went extinct. When it came to hunting, you tailwaggers couldn’t keep up with us.”
“More like they died to get away from the smell.”
“You want to talk smell, do you? Fine. We bury our scat. You just dump yours wherever. You want to know what ticks me off? I’m up in the hills, stalking a rabbit, and alla sudden my paw comes down on this—I don’t even want to think about it. It’s unsanitary, is what it is. Clean the hell up after yourselves.”
“Watch where you’re walking.”
“You watch where you’re walking. Saw this video of a jaguar killing a caiman. That’s a type of crocodile, Mr. I’m Too Good to Watch TV. When’s the last time a wolf pulled down a croc and ate it?”
“Not that many crocodiles here in the Rockies. I doubt if they taste any good, either. No offense there, Irwin.”
“And we’re adaptable,” Alf pressed doggedly—or was that cattidly?—on. “There are cougars living in the Hollywood hills, right outside of LA. How many canines have packs that close to humans, huh?"
Gordo set down his beer and turned to face the bar. “Hey, Nolan!”
A coyote shifter in a cowboy hat looked up from his game of pool. “Yo.”
“How many coyotes in the Hollywood hills? Real ones, not shifters.”
“Hell, I dunno. Scads. They’re down in the suburbs, too, eating humans’ pets. You ever eat poodle? It’s not half bad.”
“Eating pets, huh?” Gordo grinned triumphantly. “Does that include house cats?”
Nolan thought it over. “When they can catch ‘em, I guess. Little bastards are too quick, and too good at climbing trees.”
“But I’ll bet there are no cougars roaming the streets,” he pressed, ignoring Alf’s smirk. “Right?”
“Cougars don’t need to hit suburbia,” Alf said. “They can feed themselves. Make a real kill. No garbage cans or house pets for a cat, no sir.”
Both turned to Nolan for confirmation.
Nolan shrugged. “What can I say? We’re opportunists.”
“Humans like us better, too,” Alf said. “More people own cats than dogs.”
“Aha!” Gordo jabbed his finger in Alf’s face. “Domestic cats. Cats who sold themselves into slavery for a stinky can of tuna and a scratch behind the ears. The proud legacy of the feline race.”
“As opposed to canines, who did the same thing first?” Alf polished off his beer and wiped his mouth with a flourish. “There’s the big difference right there. Every ‘domestic’ cat on the planet is one kill away from going right back to the wild. The wolf’s poofy little descendants gave up the hunt in exchange for a collar and leash. We never did. We’re exactly where we’ve always been, at the top of the predator ladder. Game, set and match.”
“Not quite. Cats are still solitary. Canines run in packs.” Gordo gestured. Six wolves got up from the tables they’d been sitting at and stalked up to the bar, surrounding Alf and Gordo. “Strength in numbers, don’t you know.”
Alf glanced upward, at the exposed beams overhead, and calculated whether or not he had the time or leg strength for a leap. “Scat,” he said.
Just a quick pop-in. I saw this video on YouTube yesterday and got a hilarious mental image of teenage shape shifters huddled around a school computer like they were watching something ilicite. Then one youngster in the back murmurs, "Oh, so that's why monkeys lick each other like that! Weird."
Sorry, I wrote this on my phone in bed, so I can't embed the vid. The link is perfectly work-safe, though. It's from one of my favorite YouTube channels, SciShow, and talks about why humans kiss. TTFN!
No post today, but that's about to change. Next week November starts, and that means NaNoWriMo. This year I've decided to apply pants to seat and fingers to keyboard and finally finish the serial story I started back in January. We left off with the rich and powerful of Talbot's Peak--Damien Hancock, Zhere Ghan and Brandon Fledermaus--goaded into a possible war by a mysterious, shadowy villain. And what about old Warner Hancock, deposed Alpha of the Hancock pack, whose May-December squeeze just gave birth to a possible rival to challenge Damien's leadership? And will Ghan really just let Sergei walk away from his employ?
And can I get past my crippling procrastination in order to get this down on paper?
We'll find out. I'm aiming for one chapter per day, at roughly 1000 words. (Relax, that's just the writing part. I'll only post one a week.) If I get done before the month's out, I'll start another story I've always wanted to do, that of Ray and Callista (featured last week), finding love amid the colliding worlds of garage bands and high-school musicals. It'll have to go here, because I don't think there's a market for young adult shapeshifter books, especially with no sex in them (underage characters, y'know). We'll see how that works out.
That should keep my paranormal muscles sharp, since my current WIP is a contemporary with nothing paranormal about it. Switching things up keeps the imagination limber. This ought to work, assuming there's nothing too good on TV.
“We killed it.” Ray Nardo skipped along the sidewalk. He felt like he could sprout wings and fly, if he wasn’t already a fox shifter. “That was our best performance yet. We’re gonna take the school talent contest no sweat. They might as well just hand us the trophy now.” He grabbed the hand of the band’s new lead singer and pulled her closer to him. “We couldn’t have done it without you. Tell me you’ll stay with the band.”
Callista Snow glanced at his face, stared longer at their joined hands. “I’d like to,” she said in a small voice. “But … “
“No. No buts. No more buts ever.” There was nothing small about her voice when she had a mic in her hand. Her voice could do it all—rock, pop, ballads, even show tunes. Compared to her, everyone else in school who thought they could sing was just backup. “You’re the Shedders’ star attraction. End of discussion.”
“Okay.” She swallowed, like she was gathering her courage. Ray was still trying to figure out why. Okay, so she was an arctic fox, and their colorless hair and dumpy build carried over to her human form. So what? When she sang, she turned into a supermodel. When she smiled, she even looked like a supermodel. Ray was determined to do everything in his power to keep her singing, and smiling. “But I’ll need … ” She trailed off.
“Name it. It’s my band. You need it, you got it.”
She swallowed again. “Some different songs. Something more in my range. Songs that aren’t so … guy.”
Ray stopped, but didn’t let go of her hand. “You mean chick songs?”
“If you want to put it that way, yeah.”
“What’s wrong with the Zeppelin covers? A girl can sing anything Plant can sing. It’s been proven.”
“But not Guns ‘n’ Roses. I Used to Love Her … ?”
“Yeah,” Ray admitted. “That could be problematic.”
“Or Springsteen. I know Benny loves the Springsteen covers, but my voice won’t go there. I don’t think any woman can sing Springsteen. Not even Cher.”
“Melissa Ethridge can. She did a duet with him on Thunder Road. But okay. Benny and I can take those.” Ray scratched his wild red hair with his free hand. “Cripes. I didn’t even think of this. We’ve never had a chick in the band before. Can they even rock?”
She yanked her hand free of his. “Halestorm?” she challenged. “Pretty Reckless?”
“Okay. Okay, yeah,” Ray conceded. His eyes lit up. “Can you sing Halestorm? Love Bites?”
Callista’s lip curled, showing teeth. “Watch me.”
“That’s definitely going on the playlist, then. What else?” Dammit. All he knew were male rockers. He’d never even thought about female singers, until he heard Callista. “Not ballads,” he decided then and there. “All rock ballads suck.”
“I know what you mean.” They looked at each other and said in unison, “Beth. Ewwwwww.”
“Damn, this is tough,” Ray said. “I guess Metallica’s right off the menu, huh?”
“I’d say so,” she said drily. “I’ll whip my hair around, but I’m not blowing out my voice on the first three songs in a set. Doing Halestorm is going to be rough enough on it without throwing in Metallica.”
“Heard you there.” Even Ray didn’t like singing too many Metallica songs in a row. Humans must have super-strong vocal cords or something.
Callista grinned suddenly, her round face unmistakably vulpine. “How about Alanis Morissette?”
“If you can—no. Oh no. You’re not doing that song. No man would go anywhere near that song. Or her. We’re four guys. I want to keep you happy, but you have to keep us happy too.”
She held on to that foxy grin. “Are you saying I can a sing a song men can’t?”
“I’m saying no man would want to. It’s the lyrics, not the melody. If it had different lyrics, any guy could sing it. Melody isn’t really the issue. Maybe we can adapt the lyrics to guy songs so you can sing them. Would that work?”
Callista thought it over. “Can I switch the genders on I Used to Love Her?”
Ray frowned at her. “No.” He took her hand again. “C’mon, let’s get a soda or something. We need to work on this.”
They strolled along the street, toward the ice cream shoppe. After many minutes of silence Callista said, “I can think of a song only a woman can handle. Many men have tried, and failed. It’s the music, not the lyrics. Only chicks can sing it.”
“Dudes can sing Over the Rainbow. You should hear that snake shifter at the club.”
“This is another one. I don’t think even a wolf could handle this one.” She winked at him. “Think you could?”
He showed his own teeth. “Bring it on.”
Moments later strollers in the town square stopped dead at the sound of two voices, one clear, strong and female, one male and struggling, dueting on, “And I… will always love youuuuuuuuu…”
Happy Wednesday. No flash fiction today. Sorry about infliction scifi on you the last time I posted. I've pretty much only been working on "Witch's Moon", mostly smoothing out the rough edges in preparation of being released in a few weeks. What non Mooney and Marissa writing I've been doing is non-shape shifter scifi.
In the interest of keeping this shape shifter seductions blog post about shape shifters, I decided to share what I've been reading. I'm currently re-reading a short story called "Bodyguard" by Jennifer Ashley. It's a fun little short in her Shape Shifters Unbound series. If you haven't given that series a try, you should. It's quite good and off brand so it's not expensive for us e-book readers to buy. It's a dystopian world where shape shifters are known and not always treated well by scardy-cat humans.
I've also been re-reading Ilona Andrews' Innkeeper Chronicles blog serial. If you've never read that, I also highly recommend it. The first two stories have been collected and released as books. The blog is on chapter 13 of the third story. You can read that one from the beginning for free.
That's about all I've got for you this week. Have a great day!
Continuing the circus story. This is as far as I got. Next week I'll have to write something new.
# # #
Bang on the money. Their expressions—primarily fear and variations thereof—told him he’d come to the right place. Only Magritte succeeded in keeping her face impassive. The lion-man continued to growl, with echoes from the tiger.
“Ingenious,” Shane went on. “A travelling circus. Three or four nights in a town, then gone. The perfect hiding place for a killer shifter. Let’s see … I’ve already seen your lion in action. We’ve also got tigers,” he said to the Indian couple, “elephants”—he swung his gaze to the roustabouts, then to the tall, skinny boy—“a giraffe, a—” He stopped at the boy in the baggy pants, and frowned slightly. No zing at all.
The boy raised a shaking hand. “I’m human,” he said. “Can I go?”
“You stay put,” Magritte snapped. She moved toward Shane. It was less a step than an undulation.
“And,” Shane finished, “a snake.”
Magritte grew very still. She couldn’t stay that way for long; her body insisted on weaving, even if only fractionally. She regarded him with fresh wariness. “You have the gift,” she said, not a question. “You are juiz. Of the old line.”
He’d never heard that particular word for it before, but he could guess what it meant. “From birth to death,” he recited. At her nod, he breathed more easily again.
“Why are we just standing here?” the lion-man burst out. “Why are we even talking to him? We know why he’s here. He wants to kill us.”
“Jonah.” She never took her steady stare off Shane. “Be still. I’ll handle this.”
“Juiz,” she cut him off. “The judge.”
“Literally, justice,” Shane said. “But yours is close enough.”
“Don’t look like no judge to me,” one of the elephants said.
Shane allowed himself a smile. “Looks can be deceiving. Can’t they?”
Magritte cut off the elephant’s good-natured chuckles with a hiss. “We’re not unfamiliar with your kind. Where I grew up, we knew judges as unwavering, but not wanton killers.” Her tongue appeared across her lips, a brief flicker. “Who are you here for, and why?”
Shane climbed carefully to his feet. He tried not to blink as he met Magritte’s glare. She held all the power here. Personification of justice or not, he’d live or die at her word.
“I can’t give you the who yet, because I don’t know it, but I can tell you the why. I’ve been tracking a shifter who’s taken to murder. So far the body count’s at six, all adult humans. It took me a while to find the pattern and realize they were connected. Each murder happened in or near a place where your circus had set up.”
Magritte narrowed her unblinking eyes. “What makes you think a shifter was responsible?”
“The claw marks, for starters. The victims were torn apart. The wounds were too ragged to have been made by a knife. Everything points to a large animal, or a shifter in animal form.”
“And you think that shifter is one of my people?”
He could hear the young lion’s harsh breathing behind him, feel the leading edge of hot leonine breath against the back of his neck. If he so much as coughed wrong, he was sure he’d feel claws in his flesh. He kept his voice steady, his tone reasonable. “Your circus features large, dangerous animals. Wherever you go, somebody dies in an animal attack. With six victims, it can’t be coincidence.”
“Or it really could be an animal.” The lion-man’s voice came practically at his shoulder, closer than Shane had guessed. He leaned in to add in a silky growl beside Shane’s ear, “It happens.”
“Not six times in a row.” Shane risked a sideward glance, at the tiger cage. “Are there any real animals here?”
Magritte’s lips curved minutely upward. “There’s Susie.” She nodded toward the sleepy lioness. “She’s a rescue from a home menagerie. She’s perfectly harmless. She’s more at ease around humans than she is other lions, that’s why she’s not in a zoo.”
“And Ramar,” the Indian man spoke up. “We rescued him from the black market. My wife and I raised him from a cub. He’s practically our son.”
“He never leaves the circus grounds,” the Indian woman added fiercely. “When he isn’t in his cage, he’s with us. Always.”
“And the horses,” Magritte said. “All of our horses are real. Horse shifters tend to follow the rodeo circuit.”
“Thass ’cause they after the women.” The elephant-man who’d spoken earlier laughed. “All them lovely ladies on the prowl for cowboy ass. Ain’t no women go to the circus, just families and teens on dates. What stallion gonna sit still for that?”
“I knew a man whose mama was a donkey,” another elephant said. “Boy did everything half-assed.” The quartet guffawed loudly, until Magritte silenced them with a pointed glare.
“I didn’t see any horses,” Shane said.
“They’re coming later, with the rest of—” Too late, Magritte cut the admission off.
“Then there are more of you.”
With the game up, she fluidly shrugged. “The rest of the troupe will be arriving throughout the day. We also have several human employees, both short-term and part of the family. I doubt any of them stopped to kill anyone along the way.”
So did Shane, or he’d have heard about it on the scanner. The other six victims had been found out in the open, like the shifter was flaunting his kills. Or hers, Shane amended, well aware of the stony glare on the face of the Indian woman. “Are any of them cats?” he asked.
“We’re expecting the rest of the lions, two more tigers, and two bears,” Magritte said. “The others aren’t carnivores. Their animal forms have no claws. You will harm no one except for the guilty party, should you find one. The rest are to be spared.”
“Magritte!” the lion wailed. Clearly he did not agree. “You’re not really going to let a hunter—”
“Jonah!” Her voice cracked liked a whip. “He isn’t a hunter. A judge kills only in the name of justice.” Her eyes got thin again as she turned them on Shane. “Is that not so?”
“It is.” Shane half-turned to address the furious lion directly. “My kind is almost as old as yours. We were never intended to be killers. In the beginning we were protectors, of shifters as well as of humans. When a shifter went feral, we were the ones charged with stopping them. When humans took arms against shifters, it was our job to settle the matter—in the shifters’ favor, more often than not. Our powers made it easier for us to tell shifter from human, and feral from innocent. Over the centuries we’ve saved more shifters than we’ve killed.” He smiled grimly. “If it helps, think of me as a cop.”
It obviously wasn’t helping, if that fury burning in the young man’s eyes was any indication. He chuffed under his breath. And what did a hunter do to you, Shane wondered, to inspire all that rage? Or was it just humans in general?
He turned partially back to Magritte, keeping the lion at the corner of his eye. “When I’m done,” he said, “I won’t betray you. I just want the killings to stop. I’ll need to meet the other shifters in your group.”
“You will,” she said, “and I know you won’t betray us. Because you’ll be staying here, where we can watch you.” She held up her hand before he could speak. “Yes, I know. You’re a man of your word. When these people joined me, I promised to protect them. I also keep my word. Jonah?”
The lion stepped up to Shane’s side. He was a couple of inches taller than Shane, and bristling with power. He flexed his naked muscles in a show of intimidation. Shane refused to show any reaction.
“Jonah will watch over you, to make sure both you and my family remain unharmed until this is resolved.” Magritte’s lips did a serpentine twist at the lion-man. “Try to keep him relatively intact.”
“No promises.” Jonah purred against Shane’s cheek. “Welcome to the circus.”
I meant to write something new this week but time got away from me, so here's a continuation of last week's story. We'll see how I do next week, after I mow the lawn.
# # #
Before the man could leap or Shane could shoot, a thick cord of rough-skinned muscle wrapped around Shane’s waist and lifted him clear off the ground. With a sudden flip of the cord he found himself upside down and being shaken like a can of soda. He got off two wild shots before the gun flew from his hand.
The cord slid loose and dumped him on ground that lurched like the deck of a ship. He flailed for the knife in his boot, his backup weapon, but couldn’t even find his own body, let alone the hilt. His head spun like a dervish, and his gut seemed determined to climb up his throat and join it.
Somewhere an animal roared anxiously. Shane thought it might be the tiger.
Gradually the world, his brain and his stomach all settled back into their usual places. Shane groped across the dirt for his gun. A pair of muscular brown legs stepped into his ground-level sightline. A hand appeared and disappeared, taking his gun with it. Another set of legs joined the brown ones. These were gray, wrinkled at the knees, and thick around as fire hydrants. There were four of them.
“Thanks, Mindy,” the man said from somewhere above Shane’s head. “Better get inside before one of those asshole do-gooders sees you and tries to liberate you.”
The owner of the wrinkly legs let out a sound somewhere between a wheeze and a car horn. A trunk swept across Shane’s field of vision and slapped the lion-man on the ass. He raised his head enough to watch all of “Mindy” amble into the tent, and realized he’d just found one of the missing elephants. Not exactly Jumbo-sized, more on par with a Clydesdale. A youngster? Considering an adult could have crushed him, Shane figured it was better not to argue.
He elbowed most of his torso off the ground. The roars still shook the tent walls. They did indeed originate from the tiger. The lioness treated Shane to a filthy look that said, You got me up for this?
“Dammit.” The lion-man passed Shane’s gun to the midget elephant and hurried over to the tiger’s cage. “Now look what you’ve done,” he fired at Shane. “If he shits himself, you’re cleaning it up.”
Shane sat up gingerly. Now that he was all the way upright and his head had stopped spinning, he had a better view of the elephant, which had his gun snugly secured in its trunk. He couldn’t take on even that small of a pachyderm with only a knife, or anything less than an assault rifle, so the gun was likely to stay in its possession. The elephant also blocked the tent’s only exit. It fanned its ears at him and made what sounded to Shane like a questioning noise.
“Because he’s a hunter, that’s why.” The lion-shifter eased his arm into the tiger’s cage and scratched the agitated cat behind the ears. “Take it easy, Ramar,” he crooned to the tiger. “It’s okay. Everything’s okay. The nasty human’s not going to hurt you. Before we can do anything to him, we have to tell Magritte,” he finished the elephant end of the conversation.
“You’re going to lose that arm,” Shane said.
The lion-man growled, in a deeper rumble than the tiger’s. “He wouldn’t dare. I outrank him and he knows it. There we go, that’s a good boy. See? I’m right here. Mindy’s right here. Everything’s okay.”
The tiger settled somewhat, although its tail continued to twitch and it continued to glare at Shane through the bars. The lioness huffed and lay back down.
“Now.” The lion-shifter pulled his miraculously intact and unmauled arm from the cage and turned to Shane. “Who are you after? Anyone in particular, or just any shifter you find?”
“Depends,” Shane said. “How many shifters do you have here?”
The man shut his jaw with a snap. Aha. So there was a family here. All lions? A killer pride? That would be new.
Beyond the tent, in the outside world, he caught another trumpeting call, unmistakably elephant. The smaller beast tossed the gun back to the shifter so she could respond. He caught the gun and pointed it inexpertly at Shane.
Shane weighed his chances. He’d yet to meet a shifter proficient in any kind of weapons beyond those provided by nature. Their instinct was to shift. He’d have to drop the gun for that, and Shane would have a chance. Not much of one with the elephant there, but more than if the rest of the pride showed up.
Suppose fortune favored him, and he got his gun back. What then? Shoot the young man in the head? Kill every lion he found here and hope he got the right one? It shouldn’t matter. They were shifters, and one was a murderer. But it did matter. For some reason it mattered a lot.
While he warred with a moral dilemma he’d never once considered before, the rest of the troupe arrived.
The four roustabouts barreled into the tent, followed by an Indian couple, a twentyish kid in baggy pants, and another kid almost seven feet tall, at least two-thirds of it leg. They all made way for the final arrival, Magritte del Rio herself. She spotted Shane and stopped dead with an ominous hiss.
At the same time the small elephant suddenly shimmered and morphed into a plump, black and naked teenage girl. She darted behind the largest and beefiest of the roustabouts. From this safe haven she proceeded to make a series of faces at Shane.
“You said you’d got all of them,” Magritte said to the roustabouts. Her unblinking glare remained fixed to Shane.
“He’s not a protestor,” the lion-man said. He handed Shane’s gun to Magritte. “He’s a hunter.”
The close air inside the tent got closer, squeezed by sudden tension. The circus folk moved into a circle around him. By the looks on all their faces, he figured they didn’t plan on letting him out again.
Shane kept very still, not just out of caution. If he’d tried to stand with all the psychic zings shooting at him, he probably would have fallen over anyway. He didn’t even need the warnings from his gift. The young man and girl changing shape right in front of him were giveaways enough. Then there was the similarity of features between the girl and the man she hid behind, both in their faces and their wrinkled knees.
One for the books, indeed.
“Let me make an educated guess,” he said. “You’re all shifters. Every one of you. Aren’t you?”
“The Big Sleep? More like The Big Yawn, or The Big Disappointment,” Ziva grumbled, tossing the book onto her desk and bitching to herself for drawing this month’s book review column. Last month the book was a steamy, hot erotic novel, filled with full-frontal and enough grind to make a wolf in her prime, well, primed. This month, hard-boiled detective novel from the forties. Bleck.
“That’s a classic, you know.” Nick said, from where he leaned against the door to her office.
“A classic? If you mean it comes with cheese and bacon and I can get it over at the grill, then I agree, but if you mean a classic in reading material then I have to ask, can you read?”
“I gather you didn’t like the American Hard-Boiled detective novel.”
“Duh.” Need she say anymore?
“Since I’m not going to print duh, I suggest you add a bit of substance to your review.”
Huh, I guess she did. “Okay, how about boring, misogynistic, and racist with an ending that jumps from A to Z, with no clues in between as to how emotionless, hard-boiled egg-head figured it all out?”
“Better, now start with that, add some examples and keep it to three hundred words.”
“Fine, but I’m warning you, it’s not going to be pretty.” It’s going to be pretty straight up honest about what they thought of women back then and how irritating it was to read…not to mention, boring.
“I didn’t ask for pretty…”
“Damn good thing!”
Nick receding laugh filled her ears as she got to work. A classic…please.
Here's another one I dug out of my files. Shane, a supernatural cop with psychic powers, tracks a killer shifter to his hideout in a traveling circus. But which one of the circus animals is his quarry? Or could there be more than one?
# # #
Shane stalked among the tents and vehicles and kept a cautious distance from any people he spotted. Let the protesters think he belonged to the circus, and the circus folk vice versa. As long as no one suspected he might be other than he seemed. Something his quarry was no doubt also thinking right now.
He paused behind a Job Johnny and let his psychic senses do a recon. Somewhere, probably in a cage, was an animal that wasn’t an animal. The claw marks on the victims had suggested a big cat, so a cage would make his job much easier. He moved his hand beneath his jacket, to the butt of his gun with its load of silver bullets, and waited for the zing of connection.
Instead he got hit with a tidal wave.
For a moment he nearly lost himself in psychic overload. Just in time he cut the connection, before it knocked him cold. He clung to the Job Johnny and struggled for breath until the echoes faded, leaving scrapes across his mind like nails across a blackboard.
Damn it to hell. More than one.
In his entire ten years of hunting shifters he’d only ever had to take on one at a time. It was usually the solitary ones that turned to killing humans in the first place. Shifters in groups policed themselves.
That blast hadn’t been any solo act. That was a whole damned orchestra. Could he be dealing with a family of rogues, all hiding out in a travelling circus? There would be one for the books.
One thing for sure, he didn’t dare use his psychic senses again. He shoved away from the Job Johnny and aimed for the nearest tent, with his hand still in his inner pocket, locked to the grip of his gun.
Fifteen minutes later he finally let it go. Fifteen minutes of furtive searching and dodging circus personnel hadn’t turned up his elusive killer shifter. Or animals of any kind, actual or not.
The sound of frustrated voices sent him ducking behind the wall of a tent. He peered around the edge. A group of protesters had been rounded up by four beefy roustabouts and were being herded toward del Rio’s RV. “But there have to be elephants!” a scrawny young man with a scraggly beard kept wailing. His T-shirted fellows all nodded.
The roustabouts remained unmoved. “Ain’t no elephants here.”
“But I heard one when we pulled up!”
“Maybe they hidin’.”
“Yeah, thass it. They hidin’. Lemme go check under my bed.” The men laughed and gave the activists a shove to activate them faster toward the office.
With all their backs to him, Shane slipped into the tent. And found his animals.
There were three of them, all cats. The lioness was sprawled out asleep on the floor of her cage. The tiger scrambled upright and pressed his muzzle against the bars. His lips pulled back as his nose took in the scent of stranger. The male lion gained his feet in one graceful bound. His ears flattened and he bared his fangs at Shane.
The lion was not in a cage.
Three things happened at once. Shane experienced the psychic zing that told him he was in the presence of a shifter. His hand dove for his gun. The lion charged.
In the race between gun and attacking shifter, the lion came in first. It knocked him to the ground and pinned him with its weight. Its paw came down, deliberately, on the wrist of his gun hand. Eyes of green, not lion-yellow, glared murderously into his own. The hot breath that fanned Shane’s face smelled of fried eggs and pancakes.
The lion’s muzzle blurred into a youthful human face, brown-skinned and topped with messy blond hair that almost obscured the green eyes. Now a lithe, muscular but no longer leonine body pinned him to the dirt floor of the tent. The hostility in the shifter’s eyes gleamed unabated as he leaned in close to Shane’s face. “I know what you are,” he snarled, in a voice like the growl of a predator. “Hunter.”
“Not quite. But thanks for showing me what you are,” Shane said, and punched him. Lions posed a problem, but humans he could handle. The man lost his balance, just enough for Shane to throw him off. He delivered a kick to the shifter’s midsection that landed him on his naked ass with the breath knocked out of him. Before he could think to switch back to lion, Shane regained his feet and aimed his gun at him.
The tiger roared and circled in its cage. The lioness raised her head and blinked at them. Neither of them changed into anything else. Shane risked a quick scan. No zing. “Are you the only one?” he asked the lion-man.
Shane studied him. He’d taken the shifter for a kid at first, but at second look put his age at mid-twenties, not much younger than himself. That fit the profile. Shifters who went rogue were usually the young ones, feeling their power, and the older ones, feeling helpless as that power waned. This wouldn’t be the first big cat he’d had to put down in order to save human lives.
Pity. As a lion he’d been magnificent, all supple muscle with a thick blond mane. In human form he was just as beautiful, practically vibrating with passion and power. Instead of shooting, Shane took a moment to savor that beauty, and regret the need to end it. Such a waste.
Those eyes burned at him. He found himself groping for some excuse not to put that fire out. Of course. There were other shifters here. What if this one wasn’t the killer he hunted?
“You get three seconds,” he barked at the lion. “How many other shifters are hiding here?”
Just shoot him already, practicality demanded. And still he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger.
Just in time he spotted the telltale bunch of muscles in the lion-man’s thighs and knew he was preparing for a suicidal charge. No choice now. Shane took reluctant aim at that broad, naked chest.