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.