Thank you so much to all of you, who read Clean Sweep as a free serial on this website. It’s now out as an illustrated ebook and available for purchase. Print edition is coming shortly. I will add more information as we go along.
This is a short novel, about 60,000 words.
On the outside, Dina Demille is the epitome of normal. She runs a quaint Victorian Bed and Breakfast in a small Texas town, owns a Shih Tzu named Beast, and is a perfect neighbor, whose biggest problem should be what to serve her guests for breakfast. But Dina is…different: Her broom is a deadly weapon; her Inn is magic and thinks for itself. Meant to be a lodging for otherworldly visitors, the only permanent guest is a retired Galactic aristocrat who can’t leave the grounds because she’s responsible for the deaths of millions and someone might shoot her on sight. Under the circumstances, “normal” is a bit of a stretch for Dina.
And now, something with wicked claws and deepwater teeth has begun to hunt at night….Feeling responsible for her neighbors, Dina decides to get involved. Before long, she has to juggle dealing with the annoyingly attractive, ex-military, new neighbor, Sean Evans—an alpha-strain werewolf—and the equally arresting cosmic vampire soldier, Arland, while trying to keep her inn and its guests safe. But the enemy she’s facing is unlike anything she’s ever encountered before. It’s smart, vicious, and lethal, and putting herself between this creature and her neighbors might just cost her everything.
Brutus was dead. His body lay under an oak on the Hendersons’ lawn. A small group of neighbors had gathered around his corpse, their faces sad and shocked.
It had been such a nice morning. The Texas summer had finally cooled a little, allowing for a light, happy breeze. Not a single cloud marked the blue sky, and the walk to the twenty-four-hour gas-station convenience store had turned out to be downright pleasant. Normally I didn’t go shopping at the gas station at seven thirty on Friday morning, but when you run a bed-and-breakfast, it’s a good policy to accommodate requests from your guests, especially if they’ve paid for a lifetime membership. So I gathered my blond hair in a ponytail, put on my flowered skirt and a pair of sandals, and hightailed it half a mile to the store.
I was coming back, carrying my purchases, when I saw my neighbors gathered under the tree. And just like that, my happy day ground to a halt.
“Hey, Dina,” Margaret Pineda said.
“Hello.” I glanced at the body. A second’s worth of looking told me everything I needed to know. Just like the other two.
Brutus hadn’t been what you would call a good dog. An oversized black Chow Chow, he’d been suspicious of everyone, ornery, and often too loud for his own good. His chief activity when he’d managed to escape Mr. Byrne’s yard had been hiding behind trash cans and exploding with thunderous barking at anyone who dared to walk by. But no matter how annoying he’d been, he hadn’t deserved to die.
No dog deserved to die this way.
“Maybe it’s a mountain lion,” Margaret said. Tan, slight, with a fluffy cloud of dark, curly hair framing her face, Margaret was in her mid-forties. She looked at the body again and turned away, her fingers covering her mouth. “That’s just terrible.”
“Like, a real mountain lion?” Kayley Henderson raised her head from her phone. Being seventeen, Kayley lived for drama.
David Henderson shrugged his shoulders. He was a heavy man, not fat, but thick around the middle. He and his wife owned a pool-supplies shop in town and did their best to parent Kayley, with mixed success.
“Here? In a subdivision?” David shook his head.
“Why not?” Margaret crossed her arms. “We’ve got owls.”
“Owls fly,” David pointed out.
“Well, of course they fly. They’re birds.”
It hadn’t been a mountain lion. A puma would’ve pinned the dog and bitten through the nape of his neck, then dragged him off or at least eaten the stomach and the insides. The thing that had killed Brutus had smashed his skull with a devastating blow. Then it had scoured the dog’s sides and sliced open its abdomen, releasing the intestines, but hadn’t taken a single bite. This was a territorial kill, left for everyone to find —look how bad and clever I am.
“That’s the third dog in two weeks,” Margaret said. “It has to be a mountain lion.”
The first had been a lovable but dumb escape-artist boxer one street over. She’d been found the exact same way, disemboweled, behind the hedge by the mailboxes. The second had been a beagle named Thompson, a notorious lawn bandit who’d made it his life’s mission to add a present to every patch of mowed grass. He’d been left in the shadow of a shrub. And now Brutus.
Brutus had a lot of fur. Whatever had made those gashes in his sides had to have long claws. Long, razor-sharp, and growing from fingers with a lot of manual dexterity.
“What do you think, Dina?” Margaret asked.
“Oh, it’s a mountain lion,” I said. “Definitely.”
David exhaled through his nose. “I’m done with this. I’ve got to take Kayley to school and open the store in fifteen minutes. Did anyone call Byrne?”
Brutus was Mr. Byrne’s pride and joy. He’d walk him every afternoon through the subdivision, beaming when people stopped to pay him compliments.
“I did,” Margaret told him. “He must’ve gone to take his grandkids to school. I left a message.”
Hi, I’m so sorry to tell you your dog died in a horrible way… It had to stop. Now.
A man strode up the street. He walked with a light spring in his step that said he could run and run very fast if he chose. Sean Evans. Just the devil I wanted to see.
Sean Evans was a new addition to Avalon Subdivision. Rumor said he was ex-military. The rumor was probably right. In my experience, the ex-military guys came in two types. The first grew long hair, sprouted beards, and indulged in all the things they hadn’t been able do while they’d been in the armed forces. The second did their best to pretend they never got out.
Sean Evans belonged to the second category. His russet-brown hair was cut short. His square jaw was clean-shaven. Tall and broad-shouldered, he had a strong, fit body, honed by exercise to a lean, muscular precision. He looked like he could pick up a fifty-pound rucksack, run across the city with it, and then beat an ungodly number of enemies to a bloody pulp with his bare hands while things exploded dramatically in the background. He was said to be unfailingly polite, but something in his stare communicated a clear “don’t mess with me” message.
“Sean!” Margaret waved. “We’ve got another dead dog!”
Sean made a slight adjustment to his course, heading straight for us.
“He’s so hot it’s sick,” Kayley volunteered.
David turned purple in the face. “The man’s twenty-seven years old. That’s too old for you.”
“I didn’t say I wanted to date him, Dad. Jeez.”
For me hotness was a complicated matter involving brains, humor, and some other things, but all that aside, I was willing to admit Sean Evans was nice to look at. Unfortunately, in light of the events two nights ago, he was also the prime suspect for the dog killings.
Sean stopped and looked at Brutus. As he glanced up, I checked his eyes. They were amber, a particular shade of brown with a touch of a golden hue, almost orange in the sunlight, and they were surprised. He hadn’t killed Brutus. I let out a quiet breath.
A black SUV pulled around the bend. Mr. Byrne. Oh no.
The Hendersons beat a strategic retreat while Margaret waved at the SUV. Sean looked at the dog some more, shook his head, and sidestepped the body. He was about to take off. Stopping him and catching his attention was a terrible idea. Getting involved in this whole dead-dog affair in any way was an even worse idea. But the alternative was to do nothing. I’d done nothing the first two times, and the serial murderer of the dogs showed no signs of stopping.
“Mr. Evans?” I called. “A moment of your time?”
He looked at me as if he’d never seen me before. “Do I know you?”
“My name is Dina. I own the bed-and-breakfast.”
He glanced past me at the old house sitting at the mouth of the subdivision. “That monstrosity?”
Aren’t you sweet? “Yes.”
“What can I do for you?”
In the street, the SUV screeched to a halt. Mr. Byrne stepped out. A short, older man, he seemed to shrink even more as he approached his dog’s body. His face had gone white as a sheet. Both Sean and I looked at him for a brief second.
“How long do you intend to let this continue?” I asked quietly.
Sean frowned. “I don’t follow.”
“Something is obviously killing dogs in your territory. One would think you would want to take care of that.”
Sean fixed me with a thousand-yard stare. “Ma’am, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
Ma’am? Ma’am? I was at least four years younger than him.
Mr. Byrne knelt on the grass by Brutus’s body. His face went slack.
“The first two dogs were hidden, but this one is in plain view. Whatever is killing them is escalating, and it’s taunting you. It’s leaving its kill where everyone can see.”
Sean’s face gained a no-nonsense-tolerated expression. “I think you might be crazy.”
Mr. Byrne looked ready to topple over.
“Excuse me.” I set my grocery bag on the grass, walked around Sean, and crouched by the older man. He put his hand over his face.
“I’m so sorry.”
“I don’t understand,” Mr. Byrne said, his voice hollow. “He was fine this morning when I let him out in the yard. I don’t understand… How did he even get out?”
Margaret decided it was a good moment to escape and backed away.
“Why don’t you go back to the house?” I said. “I’ll get my car and bring Brutus to you.”
His hand was shaking. “No, he’s my dog. I’ve got to take him to the vet…”
“I’ll help you,” I promised.
“I’ll get something to line the trunk with,” Sean said. “Give me a minute.”
“I can’t…” Mr. Byrne’s face stiffened.
“I’ll take care of it,” Sean said. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Sean returned with some clear garden plastic. It took about five minutes for us to wrap Brutus’ remains and Sean carried the bundle into the back of the SUV. Mr. Byrne got in, and Sean and I watched the vehicle take off.
“I just want to avoid any misunderstandings,” I said. “Since you refuse to defend your territory, I’ll have to take care of it.”
He leaned closer to me. “Lady, I thought I told you already –I don’t know what you’re talking about. Go back to your place and sweep the porch or whatever it is you do up there.”
He wanted to pretend to be dense. There wasn’t much I could do about that. Maybe he was a coward, although he didn’t seem the type. Maybe he just didn’t care. Well, I cared. It would have to be enough.
“Very well. As long as you don’t get in my way, we won’t have a problem. So nice to meet you, Mr. Evans.”
I started up the street toward my house.
“Lady, you’re crazy!” he called after me.
I might be crazy, but I was very rarely wrong, and I had a strong feeling that life in the suburbs of Red Deer, Texas, had just gotten a lot more complicated.
The Gertrude Hunt Bed-and-Breakfast sat at the entrance of the Avalon Subdivision, on three acres of land, most of it taken up by the orchard and garden. Several mature oaks shaded the house, and a four foot hedge bordered the lawn along the side facing the street. The building’s original fish-scale wood siding had long rotted away and been replaced by a more practical, modern version in deep hunter green. Built in the late 1880s, the three-story inn had all the overwrought American Queen Anne features: a deep wraparound porch with short Corinthian columns guarding the entrance, three small second-story balconies, overhanging eaves, and both bay and oriel windows projecting seemingly in random places. Like many of the older Victorian houses, the inn was asymmetric, and if one looked at it from the north side and then from the south, it wouldn’t even look like the same house. Its eastern wall featured a small tower; its western side sported a round, protruding sunroom. It was as if a medieval castle and a Southern-belle, antebellum mansion had a baby and it had been delivered into the world by a gothic wedding-cake decorator.
The inn was lavished with spindle-work, didn’t make sense, and was too elaborate, but it wasn’t a monstrosity.
I walked up the porch stairs and petted the pale column. “He’s a rude idiot. Don’t pay him any attention. I think you’re charming.”
The house didn’t answer.
I stepped inside and my heart made a quiet little leap in my chest as I nodded at the photograph of my parents hanging in the front room. Every time I went out, some small part of me hoped that when I came back, I would find them right there in the hallway, waiting for me.
I swallowed, turned left, climbed up the spacious staircase to the second floor, and came out onto the north balcony where Her Grace Caldenia ka ret Magren was taking her tea. She looked to be in her mid-sixties, but it was the kind of sixties one achieved after living for years in the lap of luxury. Her platinum-gray hair was pulled back from her face into a smooth knot. She had a strong profile with a classic Greek nose, pronounced cheekbones, and blue eyes that usually had a slightly forlorn look unless she found something funny. She held her teacup with utmost elegance, gazing down at the street with a slightly sardonic, melancholy demeanor.
I hid a smile. Caldenia was worldly, wise, and fashionably weary of life. Despite her detached air, she had no intentions of going gently into that good night and had gone to a great length to make sure she wouldn’t pass on any time soon.
I opened the plastic shopping bag and pulled out a yellow plastic package and a yellow can. “Your Funyuns and Mello Yello, Your Grace.”
“Ah!” Caldenia came to life. “Thank you.”
She opened the bag with a flick of her fingers and shook a few Funyun rings onto a plate. Her long fingers plucked one up, and she bit into it and chewed with obvious pleasure.
“How did it go with the werewolf?” she asked.
I sat in the chair. “He’s pretending I’m insane and that he doesn’t know what I’m talking about.”
“Perhaps he’s repressed.”
I raised my eyebrows.
Caldenia delicately chewed another Funyun. “Some of them do mentally castrate themselves in that way, dear. Controlling, religious mother; weak, passive father –you know how it goes. Genetic memory does have its limits. Personally, I was never one for denying your urges.”
Yes, and several million people had paid the price.
Caldenia placed her thumbnail against the rim of the Mello Yello can and turned it. The metal squeaked. She popped the tab and neatly lifted the top off of the can. The edge of the cut was razor-sharp. She poured the contents into her teacup and drank, smiling.
“He’s not repressed,” I said. “He’s spent the last two months marking every inch of what he considers his territory.”
Caldenia raised her eyebrows. “You saw him?”
I nodded. Even in the dark Sean Evans was difficult to mistake for anyone else. It was the way he moved –a supple, powerful predator on the prowl.
“Did you get a glimpse of his equipment?”
Caldenia shrugged. “I just want to know if it’s ample. A natural curiosity.”
Sure, curiosity. “I have no idea. He was relatively modest about it and I didn’t linger.”
“There is your mistake.” Caldenia sipped her tea. “Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero, my dear.”
“I’m not interested in seizing any of Sean Evans’ days. I just want him to stop the dog murderer.”
“None of this is your problem, you know. The inn hasn’t been threatened.”
“These people are my neighbors.” Yours, too. “They have no idea what they’re dealing with. The killer is getting bolder. What if it kills a child next?”
Caldenia rolled her eyes. “Then whatever passes for law enforcement in this corner of the universe will deal with it. They will likely spectacularly fail, but the perpetrator either will stop to avoid attracting any more attention or perhaps the Senate will send someone to deal with it. Either way, my dear, not your problem.”
I looked down the street. From the balcony I could see nearly three hundred yards down to the first bend of the ridiculously named Camelot Road before it curved this way and that through the subdivision. People hurried to work. To the right a couple of toddlers rode their tricycles up and down the concrete driveway in front of their house. To the left Margaret was refilling her bird feeder while a small, fluffy ball of reddish fur that was supposedly a Pomeranian bounced up and down at her feet.
They were my neighbors. They had their normal lives and ordinary problems. They lived in the suburbs, struggled with debt and a faltering economy, and tried to save for their children’s college. Most of them weren’t equipped to deal with things that had sharp teeth and a predatory intelligence stalking them in the night. Most of them didn’t even know things like that existed.
My imagination conjured something with long claws bursting from under the hedges and snatching up a toddler. The rules and laws by which I lived said I shouldn’t get involved. I was neutral by definition, which gave me certain protections, and once I compromised that neutrality, I’d be fair game for whatever owned those claws.
“Misha!” Margaret called.
The Pomeranian dashed around her, all but flying over green grass.
“Misha! Come here, you little brat!”
Misha dashed the other way, thoroughly enjoying the game. In a minute Margaret would lose her patience and chase her.
You’d have to be a heartless snake to leave them to deal with a monster on their own. Caldenia, despite her twin hearts, was quite heartless, but it didn’t mean I had to be.
Caldenia crunched another Funyun.
I smiled. “More Mello Yello, Your Grace?”
I fished another can out of the bag. There would be no more dead dogs if I could help it.
I opened my eyes. My bedroom lay shrouded in gloom, the moonlight painting long silvery stripes on the old wooden floor. The magic chimed in my head. Something had crossed the boundary of the inn’s grounds. Well, something magically active or weighing more than fifty pounds. The inn was pretty good at distinguishing between a potential threat and random wildlife that wandered onto the grounds.
I sat up. Next to the bed, Beast raised her tiny head from her dog bed.
I listened. Crickets chirped. A cool breeze drifted through the screen of the open window, stirring the beige curtains. The wooden floor felt cool under my bare feet. I really should get a rug in here.
Another gentle chime. It felt as if someone had tossed a rock into calm water and the ripples splashed against my skin. Definitely an intruder.
I stood up. Beast made a mad lunge and licked my ankle. I took the broom from its spot against the wall and left the bedroom. A long hallway stretched before me, dappled with cool darkness and moonlight coming through the large bay windows. I walked along the hallway, zeroing in on the disturbance. The Shih Tzu trotted next to me like a vigilant seven-pound black-and-white mop.
The inn and I were bound so tightly it was almost an extension of me. I could target any intrusion with pinpoint accuracy. This particular intruder wasn’t moving. He was milling about in one spot.
The house was dark and quiet around me. I crossed the hallway, turned, and stopped at a door to the western balcony. Something moved below, in the orchard. Let’s see what the night dragged in. Soundlessly, the door swung open in front of me, and I stepped out onto the balcony.
In the orchard, twenty yards from the house, Sean Evans was urinating on my apple tree.
You’ve got to be kidding me.
“Stop that,” I hissed in a theatrical whisper.
He ignored me. His back was to me and he was still wearing the same jeans and gray T-shirt I’d seen him in that morning.
“Sean Evans! I see you. Stop marking your territory on my apple tree.”
“Don’t worry,” he said without turning. “It won’t hurt the apples.”
The nerve. “How would you know? You’ve probably never grown an apple tree in your entire life.”
“You wanted me to handle it,” he said. “I’m handling it.”
He was handling it, all right. “What makes you think that marking things will have any effect? The dog killer ignored your marks before.”
“This is how it’s done,” he said. “There is a certain etiquette to these things. He challenged me, and now I’ll challenge him back.”
“Not in my orchard, you won’t. Get out.”
Beast barked once to add her support.
“What is that?” he asked.
“It’s a dog.”
Sean zipped himself up, turned around, and took a running start at an oak tree. It was an incredible thing to watch: six feet away from the oak he leapt up and forward, bounced off the bark upward to the spot where two large branches split from the trunk, pushed off them like he was weightless, landed on the branch stretching toward the balcony, ran along it until it thinned, and crouched. The whole thing took less than two seconds.
His eyes shone once with bright golden amber. His face had gained a dangerous sharpness, predatory and slightly feral. A shiver ran down my spine. No, not repressed. Not even a little bit.
A werewolf was bad news. Always. If I had met him on the street like this, I’d have started making soothing noises and thinking of exit strategies. But we were on my turf.
“That’s not a dog,” Sean said.
Beast let out a tiny snarl, astonished at the insult.
“She weighs what, about six, seven pounds? Now, I’m willing to concede that somewhere in the distant past one of her ancestors might have been a dog. But now she’s an oversized chinchilla.”
“First you insult my house, now you insult my dog.” I leaned on my broom.
“She has little ponytails,” Sean said, nodding at the two tiny ponytails above the Shih Tzu’s eyes.
“Her fur gets in her eyes. She’s due for a grooming.”
“Aha.” Sean tilted his head to the side. He seemed completely feral now. “You’re asking me to take a dog with two ponytails seriously.”
“I’m not asking you to do anything. I’m telling you: get off my property.”
He bared his teeth at me in a slightly deranged smile. He looked hungry. “Or what? You’ll hit me with your broom?”
Something like that. “Yes.”
“I’m so scared right now I’m practically shaking.”
He was within the inn’s boundary. I was clearly an innkeeper –the broom was a dead giveaway. Yet he showed no respect. I’d met some arrogant werewolves –when you were a highly effective killing machine, you tended to think the world was your oyster –but this one took the cake. “Go away, siri.” There. That would fix him.
“Name’s Sean.” He tilted his head again.
No reaction to the insult. Either he had a bulletproof ego or he had no idea I’d just called him a sniveling coward in his own language.
Sean tilted his head. “So how does a girl like you know about werewolves?”
“A girl like me?”
“How old are you?”
“Most twenty-four-year-old women I know sleep in something more revealing. Something more adult.”
I raised my eyebrows. “There is nothing wrong with my Hello Kitty T-shirt.” It was thin and comfortable, and it reached to my mid-thigh, which meant that if I had to get up in the middle of the night to dispatch any intruders, I’d do it with my butt covered and modesty intact.
Sean frowned. “Sure, if you’re five. Got a touch of arrested development happening there?”
Argh. “What I have happening is none of your business.”
“It fits,” he said.
“The T-shirt. It fits your whole lifestyle. I bet you grew up around here too.”
Where was he going with this? “Maybe.”
“Probably never left the town, right? Never been anywhere strange, never done anything crazy, and now you run this bed-and-breakfast and drink tea with old ladies on a balcony. A nice quiet life.”
Ha! “There is nothing wrong with a nice quiet life.”
“Sure.” Sean shrugged. “When I was twenty-four, I wanted to see the world. I wanted to go places and meet people.”
I couldn’t resist. “And kill them.”
He bared his teeth at me. “Sometimes. The point is, if you’ve stayed around here all your life, how do you know about werewolves? There isn’t one for miles, and if there is, they’re dormant. I combed this territory before I took it. The closest werewolf is in a suburb of Houston, and when I spoke to him, he confirmed that there hasn’t been an active werewolf in this area for years. So how do you know about werewolves?”
“Don’t like your own kind much, do you?”
“Do you always duck the questions or am I just special?”
“You’re special,” I told him, sinking as much sarcasm into it as I could. “Now shoo. Go on.”
He dipped his head and stared at me, with unblinking, focused intensity like a wolf in the middle of winter sighting his prey. His eyes shone, catching the moonlight. Every hair on the back of my neck rose.
“I’ll find out. I don’t like being out of the loop.”
And now he was threatening me. That does it. One more word and he’d regret ever opening his mouth. “Leave. Now.”
The werewolf grinned at me, his eyes full of wild. “Fine, fine. Sleep tight.”
He dropped off the branch, fell two stories to the ground, landed in a soft half crouch, and took off running. His long legs carried him out of my orchard, and a second later the magic chimed in my head, announcing that he had left the inn grounds.
I turned and walked back to my bedroom, the balcony door closing softly behind me. Obnoxious smart-ass. Never been anywhere, never done anything, huh. Arrested development, huh. Considering that it was coming from a man who spent his nights peeing on his neighbors’ fences, that was rich. Shoot, I should’ve told him that. Oh well, too late now.
I climbed back into bed. They didn’t call his kind lunatics for nothing. At least he decided to do something about the dog killer.
Half an hour later I decided it was time to stop thinking up witty and inventive insults involving werewolves. The house was quiet. Beast snored softly. I yawned, flipped over my warm pillow, and scooted deeper under the covers. Time to go to sleep…
The magic rippled, splashing against me like a tide. Someone was running along the edge of the inn’s grounds, skimming it. It was moving fast, too fast for a human. It could be Sean, but somehow I doubted it.
I knelt by the spot where the intruder had veered off from the inn’s boundary. Four triangular indentations marked the hard soil –claw marks. The trespasser had sunk its claws into the ground as it turned on its foot and dashed off. I had just missed it.
In front of me the street lay silent, the trees mere charcoal shadows rustling softly in the wind like sheets of paper sliding against each other. The subdivision was hardly rambunctious, and even on Friday nights, the activity died down by midnight. It was close to one o’clock.
I breathed in quietly, listening, watching. No hint of movement anywhere. No stray noises. I’d taken three precious seconds to throw on some shorts and a thicker T-shirt and snap a rubber band around my hair, and now the thing with claws was gone.
I raised my hand, focused my power on the tips of my fingers, and then touched the indentation. A pale yellow trail ignited on the ground. It faded almost instantly, but not before I registered its direction. It was heading down the street, deeper into the subdivision.
Chasing it would mean leaving the inn’s grounds, where I was at my strongest. I should stay out of it. I should turn around and go back to bed. It was none of my business.
If it killed a child, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. I’d made my decision, for better or worse. Now wasn’t the time to have doubts.
I needed a weapon. Something with reach. I concentrated. The broom flowed in my hand, the “plastic” of its handle melting into dark metal shot through with hairline fractures of glowing, brilliant blue. A razor-sharp blade formed on one end while the shaft of the broom elongated to seven feet. An old line from an Italian martial-arts manual popped into my head: the longer the spear, the less deceiving it is. Seven feet would do.
The last of the blue cracks melted. The spear, now the dark gray of Teflon, felt comforting in my hand. I took off down the road, keeping to the shadows. The glowing trail faded. I would’ve loved to rekindle it, but I’d left the inn’s grounds and my bag of fun tricks had shrunk.
Avalon Subdivision had been built by a drunkard who couldn’t draw a straight line if his life had depended on it. The streets didn’t just turn, they curved and looped back on themselves as if they were the whorls of a giant’s thumbprint. Camelot Road was the subdivision’s main street, and even it bent like a snake slithering through the forest of houses. I passed by the side streets, briefly glancing down each one. Gawain Street, Igraine Road, Merlin Circle… The streets lay empty. Here and there lights were still on, but most of the residents had gone to bed.
A floodlight shone bright in the distance. Probably motion triggered. Someone or something was moving outside.
Keep going or check it out? If it was nothing, it would cost me time. But if it was something, I could stop looking.
I crossed the street to the opposite side and ran, hiding in the shadows of mature oaks. It would only take a minute.
A house sat in the shadow of a poplar tree. Gray Texas limestone, two stories, bay window, two-car garage –pretty standard fare for the subdivision. A car sat in the driveway, a Honda Odyssey, both passenger doors and the hatch open, showing white plastic bags in the cargo area, probably from a twenty-four-hour grocery store. The familiar shape of a child’s car seat curved in the back. The door of the house stood ajar.
A couple coming home from a trip, maybe? They must’ve stopped at the store on the way so they wouldn’t have to go out tomorrow, come home, parked, and taken their child inside. It was probably nothing, but I wouldn’t know until I took a closer look.
The house directly across the street from the limestone offered no cover, but the property right before it had a nice thick hedge. I snuck over to the hedge and crouched to the side of it, resting my spear in the grass.
A car started somewhere deeper in the subdivision and drove away, the sound of its engine fading. Silence claimed the night. The moon shone bright, a glowing silver coin spilling gauzy veils of light onto thin shreds of clouds. Here and there stars pierced the darkness. To the left, a plane left a pale trail across the sky. The air smelled fresh, the night breeze pleasantly cool on my skin.
A shadow dashed across the lit-up driveway, swiped a grocery bag from the back of the Odyssey, and sprinted across the yard to the side of the house before sinking into the night shadows.
Got you, you creepy bastard. If I had blinked, I would’ve missed it. As it was, I got a vague impression of something simian and large, covered with patchy fur.
The thing on the side of the house ripped the bag apart, tossing the pieces out onto the moonlit lawn. Only its forepaws were visible –ratlike, larger than human hands, with bony hairless fingers armed with sharp black claws. Chunks of a yellow Styrofoam tray followed the bag, and the creature tore into its contents. A crunching noise announced bird bones being crushed. Lovely.
“Baby, did you bring in the groceries?” A woman asked from inside the house.
A muffled male voice answered.
Stay in the house. Stay in the nice safe house.
A woman appeared in the doorway. She was in her early thirties and looked tired, her shoulder-length brown hair messy, her T-shirt rumpled.
The creature dropped its stolen meat.
Stay in the house.
The woman crossed the threshold and headed for the car. The creature melted into the shadows. Either it hid because it was scared or because it was about to strike.
The woman checked the trunk, picked up the lone grocery bag, looked into it and frowned. “Malcolm? Did you take the chicken in?”
The monster was nowhere in sight.
Take your bag and go inside.
The woman leaned into the rear passenger door, talking to herself. “I could’ve sworn… losing my mind.”
A flicker of movement on the side of the house, high, about fifteen feet off the ground. I tensed, ready to sprint.
The beast scuttled into the light, crawling along the sheer wall fifteen feet up, like some giant monstrous gecko. It was at least five feet long, maybe five and a half. Spotted black and blue fur grew in patches along its spine; the rest of it was covered with pinkish wrinkled skin. Its skull was almost horselike, if horses could be carnivores. Long jaws, too large for the head, protruded forward, making the wide, flat nose seem ridiculously small. A forest of sharp bloodred fangs sprouted from the jaws, barely hidden by white lips. But the eyes, the eyes were worst of all. Small and sunken deep into the skull, they burned with malevolent intelligence.
The creature gripped the brick wall with oversized digits and dashed across, toward the car, agile like a monkey, too fast for a spear throw. A moment later and it jumped off the wall, clearing the car in one single, powerful lunge, and landed behind the Honda.
Damn it. I hefted my spear and ran.
The woman straightened.
The beast leaned forward, muscles on its four limbs tensing. It looked enormous now. The biggest Great Dane I’d ever seen was four and a half feet long. This beast had a full foot on it.
The creature opened its mouth and growled. A deep, guttural snarl rippled through the night. The hairs on the back of my neck rose. It didn’t sound like a dog. It sounded like something dangerous and vicious.
The woman froze.
Don’t run, I willed, moving toward them. Whatever you do, don’t run. If you run, it will chase and kill you.
The woman took one tiny step toward the door.
The creature slinked behind her and murmured something in a strange language full of whispers and moaning, as if a dozen people lamented and mumbled at once.
“Oh Jesus,” the woman whimpered and took another baby step toward the door.
The beast let out a high-pitched cackle. I was almost there.
The woman dashed into the house. The beast chased her. The door slammed shut and the creature rammed it head-on. The door shuddered with a loud thud.
Oh no, you don’t. I flipped the spear and thrust. “Put your weight into it, darling!” Mom’s voice said from my memories. I sank my entire momentum into the spear. The point of the spearhead sliced into the pink, wrinkled flesh, right between the creature’s ribs.
The beast howled. White blood bubbled around the wound.
I leaned into the spear and turned, wrenching the impaled creature away from the door and pushing it onto the grass. The monster clawed the lawn, my spear stuck in its ribs like a harpoon. I lunged down, pinning it, and pushed, putting every ounce of strength into the spear, forcing the beast across the grass and into the darkness on the side of the house.
My heart pounded at about a million beats per minute.
The revolting thing screeched, squirming on the end of the spear. If it was human, it would be dead. I should’ve hit its heart, but it showed no signs of dying. I had to finish it and quickly, before the entire subdivision noticed its screaming and came outside to investigate. I had no clue what its vital organs were or where they were located.
If I couldn’t aim for precision, I’d have to go for massive trauma. I freed the spear with a sharp tug. The beast flipped on its feet, impossibly fast, and struck, its long claws like sickles. I shied to the side. Sharp talons raked my left side, searing my ribs with hot pain. I bit on a scream and thrust, aiming for its gut. The beast knocked my spear aside with its shoulder. I whipped the weapon around and drove the butt of the spear into its throat, pinning it to the side of the house. The beast gurgled, scraping at the air with its claws, trying to rend me to pieces. Now, while it was struggling to breathe, or never. I flipped the spear and drove it into the shrunken chest.
Bone crunched. I freed the spear and stabbed it in, again and again, as fast as I could. Stable, powerful thrusts. Another crunch. White blood leaked from the gashes. Sweat drenched my face. The spear felt too heavy.
Another thrust, another, another…
Thick white pus tinted with clumps of pink spilled through the wounds.
The beast sagged. Its horrible clawed hands rose one final time and then fell, limp.
I stabbed it again, just to be sure. My wound burned like someone was sinking red-hot needles into my side. I doubled over. Ow. Ow, ow, ow.
As much as I wanted to dramatically collapse in pain, now was neither the time nor the place. I had to get that cursed thing out of here before somebody saw me.
I surveyed the monster. It was a skinny beast, but still five feet tall. Had to be at least a hundred pounds. Carrying it was out of the question. Not only it was too heavy, but it was bleeding white slime, which could be corrosive or toxic. Dragging it was my best bet.
I concentrated, sending a mental image to the spear. Electric blue veins shot through the weapon. The spearhead curved into a crescent barbed hook. A cross-handle formed toward the foot of the shaft. That would do. I hooked the beast and pulled.
The body slid across the grass. The damn thing was heavy.
A thump followed by a faint creak announced the door of the house swinging open. Great, just what I needed. I spun, weighing my options. I was in a narrow space between two houses. Behind me, a wooden fence guarded the backyards. The lawn in front of me provided no cover. If I moved into the light to the left, the people would see me. Nowhere to go.
A man swore. “Look at the door.”
A woman said, “Oh my God.”
Oh my God is right.
A cell phone beeped. “I need to report an attack,” the man said. “Something chased my wife…”
I had minutes before the area was crawling with cops. Well, didn’t that just take the cake?
The fence belonging to the house on the left had a gate. I reached over it, groping for a lock. My fingers brushed metal. Victory! I flipped the latch. The gate swung open. I hooked the creature, dragged it into the neighboring backyard, and shut the door behind me. So far, so good.
The backyard was empty. Young oaks threw their shadows over the grass and to the right a wooden playhouse crouched in the shadows. Too small and too exposed to offer a good hiding spot. Besides, I couldn’t spend my night in the playhouse. I had no idea how long the cops would stay, and dragging the beast home in daylight wasn’t an option.
I pulled the creature across the grass to the opposite side of the yard and tried the fence. It was old and weather-beaten.
The distant wail of a siren rolled through the night. Alarm shot through me. I grabbed the old gray wood and pulled. A nail creaked, the wood popped, and a board came free in my hand. I grabbed the next one.
The siren was getting closer.
I yanked the second board off the fence. Here’s hoping people in the house were sound sleepers.
The siren screeched, so close.
I pried another board loose, then another. The gap had to be wide enough. I hooked the beast under the ribs and pushed it through the hole. It stuck, wedged. I grabbed its legs and stuffed them through, one at the time, careful not to touch any of the slime. Come on, fit through, you ugly thing.
The siren fell silent. I glanced over my shoulder. Red and blue lights illuminated the night behind me. The cavalry had arrived.
I pushed the last of the beast through the gap and climbed after it. To the right of me, a short palm spread its leaves, flanked by elephant grass. Water splashed.
“Did you hear that?” a woman asked.
I crouched behind the growth. No. No, you didn’t hear anything. Don’t mind me, I’m not hiding the corpse of a nasty creature behind your flower bed. Nope. Nothing here but cute, fluffy bunnies scampering adorably into the night…
“Hear what?” a man asked.
“The sirens, Kevin.”
Kevin was my kind of people.
Water splashed. “I’ve got the only siren I care about right here.”
Hello there, Mr. Smooth.
The woman giggled.
I leaned forward and peeked out from behind the greenery. A pool spread in front of me. Solar lights floated on the water, dappling the bottom with red and yellow circles. At the far end a man and woman in their forties sat on a step, half-submerged.
“Come on,” Kevin murmured. “Kids are asleep, the water is warm, the moon is out… I have the wine. We should drink the wine and then…”
“Would you like to fool around?” the woman asked.
“I wouldn’t be opposed, no.”
She put her arms around his neck. “Getting romantic in your old age?”
The shrubs at the edge of the pool were too short. I could possibly sneak by if I moved fast while they were distracted. If I tried to drag the body, they’d definitely see me.
I looked at the house. Directly in front of me, on the second floor, the curtains were open. An iPod charging station sat on the windowsill next to a stuffed teddy bear. Kid room.
I snuck along the shrubs, sprinted to the side of the house, and held my breath.
“Mmm, taking charge of the situation…,” the woman purred.
“You love it, baby.”
I almost felt bad, but I had no choice. I put my hand against the house. I was much weaker outside the inn, but I could still manage a basic push.
The inner workings of the house spread before me, the structural beams, the long stretches of pipe, and the spider work of wiring. I singled out the right wire and sent a gentle nudge.
The iPod station blared, spilling Nicki Minaj into the night.
The pool fell silent.
Something crashed above me. The music died.
“Mom?” a young female voice said. “Is that you?”
“Yes,” the woman answered. “Go back to sleep.”
“Is that Dad? Are the two of you doing it in the pool? Ew!”
Another window slid open and a boy’s voice called out. “What’s going on?”
“Mom and Dad are doing it in the pool.”
“Nobody is doing anything!” Kevin barked. “Go back to bed!”
“You know you can get diseases from doing that, right? The pool water isn’t sanitary…”
“It definitely won’t be sanitary after they’re done with it,” the boy quipped.
“Back to bed! Now!”
The windows closed.
Kevin groaned. “How long until they finish high school and go off to college?”
“I don’t think I can hold out that long.”
“Why don’t we grab our wine and take it inside?” the woman said. “We can go to our giant comfortable bedroom, lock the door, and drink wine. In bed.”
“That’s a great idea.”
A couple of minutes later, the door thudded closed. I waited a little while longer to be on the safe side and resumed my dragging. If my arms didn’t fall off, the cops didn’t bust me, and the amorous suburb residents stayed in their houses, I might even make it home in half an hour or so.
An hour later I trudged to the side gate of my wooden fence. It opened in anticipation and I stepped through onto the inn grounds. Power coursed through me. The spear-hook flowed back into the broom.
The dog door in the northern entrance swung open and Beast dashed out. She licked my feet, growled at the dead creature, and ran around me in a circle.
“Everything quiet while I was gone?”
The Beast dived at my feet again and licked my shoe.
“Take him to the basement,” I said.
The lawn under the body opened and the corpse fell through. The dirt and grass closed behind it and smoothed themselves out.
I went inside. The floorboards of the lobby parted at my approach, folding back on themselves and dropping down to form a stairway that led under the house. The stairs ran into the steel door. I descended and touched the metal. Magic licked my palm. A complex pattern of dark blue hairline cracks formed on the door and it slid aside. I walked in.
The lamp that was suspended in the middle of the room ignited, drenching the steel table below it in a white glow. The dead creature was lying on it and looked just as revolting as I remembered.
To the left and right, mood lamps came on in their wall sconces, their yellow light soothing and comfortable, in sharp contrast to the sterility of the lab lamp. Shelves lined the far wall, filled to the brink with books, while glass cabinets containing jars and containers in every size and shape occupied the other two walls. To the right, a concrete-and-tile decontamination shower stood waiting its chance to shine in the event of an emergency.
“Thank you.” I touched the table. “Secure, please.”
Metal strips curled from the table’s corners, locking the creature’s four limbs in place. I didn’t think it would come back to life, but you never know. Stranger things have happened. I put on a pair of scrubs, safety goggles and slipped on a pair of gloves.
The beast lay on its back, its wrinkled, hairless belly exposed. Ugly critter.
Time for the Creature Guide. I pulled a thick book from the shelf and waved my fingers above it. The book flipped through the pages, reacting to my magic. Looking things up manually was a centuries-old tradition, as ancient as the inns themselves. The advent of computers hadn’t changed anything. In the event of a Law Enforcement Breach, a computer would the first thing the LEOs –law enforcement officers –would confiscate. I had a laptop upstairs in plain view, partially for that exact purpose. They were welcome to my Twitter account and my gallery of cute fluffy animals dressed in hilarious Halloween costumes. Nobody thought to check the dead-tree books anymore, and even if they did, they would likely mistake the Guide for a novelty volume.
This copy of the Creature Guide was old. The inn itself was late nineteenth century, but the Creature Guide had a mottled leather binding with some gold tooling on the cover, which put it at least two centuries earlier. The prior owner of the inn must’ve inherited it from another innkeeper. As soon as I gained access to some funds, I’d have to get a more recent version.
The book was indexed by several criteria. I decided on Breathing. It was the most obvious choice and would let me knock a fair number of species off my list. The page offered me a long list of codes. I took a pair of forceps from the tray and pulled the beast’s nose open. Nothing obstructed the four nasal passages. The air didn’t seem to have had any adverse or toxic effects on it. I noted the codes for Nitrogen, Oxygen, Argon, CO2, and Neon, and continued.
Symmetry: bilateral. If you drew a line along the beast’s body from nose to the tail, the left side would be the mirror image of the right. Habitat: tentatively terrestrial. It didn’t have any gills, fins, feathers, or digging claws. Blood: white. A page of chemical tests presented itself, and I took a few samples and set to work.
Half an hour later I had the code range and pulled another thick volume from the shelf. “M4K6G-UR174-8LAN3-9800L-E86VA.” Say that three times fast.
The pages rustled. My analysis gave me roughly one hundred and thirty-two possibilities. Luckily for me, the descriptions came with pictures. Let’s see… No, no, ew, no, how did this thing even move, no… I kept turning the pages, and when a familiar revolting image appeared, I almost blew right by it.
Ma’avi Kerras. The Ma’avi Stalker family. Predatory, deadly, hunts by sight and scent, travels in packs. Packs. Great. The intelligence scale indicated the stalkers ranked between forty six and fifty eight, about as smart as the average baboon, which made them quite intelligent for the animal kingdom and very dangerous. Not intelligent enough to travel to the inn by themselves, however. Someone had brought this lovely creature here, to Red Deer, and let it loose on an unsuspecting populace. Had it been dumped here and left to wreak havoc? Why? By whom? Where were its masters?
I read the article again. It was more like a stub, a brief summary, than an in-depth description. I needed more data. I sighed. It’s one thing to know your archives are woefully inadequate, but it’s a completely different ball game when your nose is rubbed in it.
The stalker was dead. Even if I had somehow managed to take it alive, it didn’t have the brainpower to spill the proverbial beans. Cutting it into small pieces would be satisfying –my ribs still hurt –but futile.
I pulled off my gloves. If only Mom and Dad were still here…
The heartache mugged me. I squeezed my eyes tight against the hurt and wished with everything I had that they would walk through the door. My magic rolled from me in a powerful wave.
The inn creaked in alarm.
Nice going. I was scaring the house.
I opened my eyes. They weren’t there. Of course they weren’t.
“It’s all right.” I petted the wall. “It’s just a human thing. I miss them, that’s all.”
Further research would have to wait till morning when my head was clearer. I told the house to refrigerate my evidence and went upstairs to take a shower, treat my wounds, and swallow a couple of painkillers.
Beast raised her head and growled. I opened my eyes. I was sitting in a soft, oversized chair, trying to cure my headache with a cup of coffee. Dealing with intruders was the next to last thing on my want-to-do list this morning, the last thing being anything that involved werewolves.
My wounds had turned out to be shallow. The claws had barely grazed my ribs –it still hurt like there was no tomorrow –and once properly treated, most of it was on the mend. Unfortunately, dawn brought me the gift of a splitting headache, and a thousand milligrams of painkiller wasn’t even making a dent in it. I finally gave up on sleeping, crawled downstairs, made coffee, and settled down into the chair in the front seating area to drink my poison in peace.
My parents looked at me from the photograph on the wall. Yes, I went off the inn grounds and involved myself in some terrible mess. You would have too, in my position.
Beast barked, her gaze fixed on the screen door.
No peace for the wicked.
The magic splashed around me. Incoming. It could be a guest, although most guests would be more polite.
I leaned over to glance outside through the screen door. Sean Evans was marching across my yard, emitting menace. His face was grim and his eyes betrayed steely determination. All those hard muscles finally revealed their true purpose –they were propelling his big body toward me at an alarming speed and their strength guaranteed he’d mow down whatever was in his way. If I shut the door, he’d go right through it. That’s how the medieval knights must’ve looked when they assaulted a castle.
I looked at Beast. “Raise the drawbridge.”
The tiny dog gazed at me, puzzled.
“You’re a terrible gatekeeper.”
Sean pounded on the screen door’s frame. “I know you’re in there.”
“Should we let him in?” I asked Beast.
“I can hear you,” he snarled.
So he could. I sighed. “Okay. Come in. It’s unlocked.”
He yanked the door open and strode into the house. “Where is it?”
“Good morning to you too, sunshine.”
“I said where is it?”
“Not so loud. I have a headache.”
He leaned over, planting his hands on the arms of my chair. His amber eyes were all but glowing. Sean Evans was officially pissed off. Serves you right, furball.
“What did you do with it?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” I drank my coffee.
“You went out and killed it last night and then you dragged it back here.”
I gave him my best innocent look. “Sir, I think you might be crazy.”
“You left a scent trail a mile long and I tracked it to this house. You took my kill and got hurt doing it.”
“What makes you think that?”
“I smelled your blood. What the hell possessed you to go out there? I said I was handling it.”
Oh, that was rich. “Handling what? I asked you to take care of it. You blew me off and decided to limit your involvement to poisoning my apples.”
“Poisoning? Really?” He actually sputtered.
I’d wanted him to handle it because I hadn’t wanted to break my neutrality and he was uniquely suited to killing things. But now that ship had sailed, and given his attitude, I was better off without his so-called help. I leaned forward so we were eye to eye. “It’s being handled. Your involvement isn’t necessary. You’re free to continue on your serial urination spree.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Sean! Go. Away.”
He locked his jaw. “I don’t know what the hell is going on here, but I’m not leaving until I get it sorted out.”
Of all the rude, arrogant morons… “Is that so?”
“Yes. You will show that thing to me and from now on, I will deal with them.”
I opened my eyes really wide and fluttered my eyelashes at him. “I’m sorry, I must’ve missed your coronation ceremony. Silly me.”
Ha! He remembered my name. I waved my fingers in the direction of the door. “Shoo. Leave, and don’t slam the door on your way out.”
He planted himself, arms crossed, muscles bulging. “Make me.”
He didn’t deserve a warning, but I gave him one anyway. “I’ve had about enough. I’m serious, Sean. Leave or there will be consequences.”
“Give me your best shot.”
Fine. “Your welcome is withdrawn.”
Magic smashed into Sean. He went airborne. The side door swung open just in time and he flew through it and into the orchard. The orchard was a safer bet. The bulk of the house shielded it from the passersby and traffic, which would hopefully let us avoid pain-in-the-butt questions.
I heard a solid thud, then got up, and looked out through the open door. Beast joined me.
Sean lay unmoving on the grass. Ouches.
I glanced at Beast. “I did warn him.”
Sean raised his head, shook it, and rolled to his feet. His face gained that feral, predatory look.
“Uh-oh. We better brace ourselves.” I sipped from my coffee cup.