ON THE PROWL - CHAPTER 1
It's always those days when you think to yourself, "Life is just perfect” that life decides to bite you in the ass.
It was a sunny Tuesday morning, and I was sauntering into the office – my new partner office, with a big window, tall ceilings, and a mahogany desk I sometimes just liked to stare at. In one freshly manicured hand was my traditional skinny latte, extra foam. In the other was a little bag with a blueberry muffin in it. (I used Splenda in the latte, which kind of cancelled the calories out.) Tucked under my arm was today's paper, and in my purse – not as yummy as the muffin, but definitely necessary – was a fresh box of wolfsbane tea.
"Good morning, Sally,” I trilled to my perpetually spandexed assistant. If she hadn't been hired by my boss, I would have fired her a year ago, but we all have our crosses to bear, I guess. She smiled tightly and adjusted her cleavage, then turned her back on me. We weren't exactly bosom buddies, but ever since I'd discovered a little bag of pot in her desk, at least she was no longer actively trying to get me fired and/or hauled off to jail. Which was progress.
I walked past her to my office, admiring the gold sign next to my door: "Sophie Garou, Partner.” Although it had been there for a week now – which was when Southeast Airlines, the big account I had pitched a few months ago, decided to hire Withers and Young as their accounting firm – it still felt like Christmas morning every time I saw it. I was probably the only werewolf in the country who was a partner at a Big Four firm, I reflected. Not that anyone at Withers and Young knew I was a werewolf, of course. That's where the wolfsbane tea came in; it helped me keep my animal impulses in check. Slobbering all over the clients and dashing out of meetings to howl at the moon isn't great for career advancement – not to mention client retention.
With the exception of my hairy little secret, I reflected as I tossed the newspaper on the desk and opened my muffin bag, life was pretty sweet. Withers and Young was on the fifteenth floor of one of Austin's plushest building, and my new office had a great view of Lady Bird Lake. Sinking into my cushy leather chair, I took a bite of muffin and watched a couple of ducks swimming aimlessly on the glassy surface. The only downside of the view, really, was that I kept getting distracted by ducks and squirrels – that whole predator thing. And now that I was in charge of the humongous Southeast Airlines account, that could be a problem.
Still, it was a minor concern, all things considered. Valentine's Day was just over a week away, and since I'd seen my boyfriend Heath leaving a jewelry store recently – with a small, ring-sized bag in his hand – I was, to put it mildly, looking forward to it. My mother, the semi-psychotic psychic witch, hadn't been indicted for killing off a right-wing politician in months. And the equinox was over a month away, which meant there were no obligatory full-moon transformations in my immediate future.
As I finished my muffin and ran my tongue over my teeth – I always got crumbs stuck in my canines – the phone rang.
"Hey, Lindsey. What's up?” Lindsey, who was also an auditor at Withers and Young, was my best friend – and a dead ringer for Angelina Jolie, which could have been a problem if she wasn't such a fabulous friend.
"Have you seen the paper?” she asked.
"They quoted Heath in one of the big articles. It's on the front page.”
"Really? Good for him.” I glanced at the front page of the Austin American-Statesman. "Three men found dead in Greenbelt: dog pack suspected.”
My hand froze halfway to my skinny latte. Heath's pet cause, so to speak, had been eliminating stray dogs in Austin, which he viewed as a "menace.” I wasn't too keen on his crusade – needless to say, I wasn't a big fan of dogcatchers – but this would just be fuel on the fire.
"Which article?” I asked Lindsey, even though I already knew.
"The one about the three guys who got murdered by dogs. The quote's on page six. Can you believe it? I always thought Heath was blowing smoke about the dangers of stray dogs, but maybe he was right after all. It gives me the heebie-jeebies. I went hiking there just last week!”
"I haven't read it yet,” I said, scanning the text.
"Three guys turned up dead,” she said. "Mauled by dogs. And it looks like Heath was one of the first people the reporter called.”
I scanned the article. Three unidentified men – two Caucasian, one Hispanic – had been found in the Barton Creek greenbelt, which was a mere mile from my loft, dead of massive bite wounds. I hoped the reporter was right, and that it was in fact a rogue dog pack attack. But what little hope I had flickered out when I discovered that the victims had been found (a) naked and (b) with fur stuck between their teeth.
"Isn't that great?” Lindsey said.
"That three guys got killed in the greenbelt?” I asked.
"No, dummy. That Heath got a quote in the Statesman.”
"Oh. Right. Yeah.” I stared at the photo of a black body bag being pulled out of the undergrowth. Unless there was some new group in town whose idea of a good time was stripping down, rubbing ground beef all over themselves and taunting packs of feral dogs, I had a sinking feeling I was looking at the fallout from a werewolf squabble. Which was more than a little bit disconcerting. I hadn't seen a single werewolf in Austin since last September, and before that, I'd run into a grand total of two in twenty years. The whole dead-in-a-public-park thing was an unpleasant new development, to say the least.
"Sophie? Why are you so quiet?” she asked.
"Sorry,” I said, reaching for my latte. "Not enough coffee, I guess. Can I call you later?”
"Sure,” she said. "Tell Heath congrats from me when you see him.”
After we hung up, I read the article again, feeling a growing sense of dread – and not just because of the extra dogcatchers I was sure Heath was already out recruiting. Ever since I'd moved to Austin at the age of eight, I'd kept my identity secret from the werewolf community at large. So far I'd been successful, but that was largely because there were almost never any werewolves in Austin. If this article was anything to go on, though, that was no longer the case.
My eyes kept returning to the picture on the front page, and I couldn't help imagining what was under the black plastic. Finally I forced myself to turn the paper over and push it away. My eyes drifted to the picture of Heath, which was framed and placed in a prominent position on my desk, and I smiled a little despite the dire news in the paper.
Heath and I had been together for more than a year, and I think we were both considering the possibility of a future together. Aside from the chemistry between us, we had similar goals, and had similar family issues. Both of us were hardworking, upwardly mobile professionals trying to distance ourselves from our pasts – I was an auditor with a major firm, and he was one of Texas' rising legal stars. Whereas he had fled to Texas to break free from his uptight New England parents, however, I had spent the last ten years trying to distance myself from my rather unorthodox upbringing as the werewolf daughter of a psychic witch. Okay, so maybe not similar circumstances, exactly…
But despite a rather annoying – and inexplicable – fondness for the Beastie Boys, Heath had everything going for him. He hadn't run screaming when he met my mother, for starters. Add to that a biting sense of humor, great biceps, dark silky hair, a delightful habit of surprising me with wonderful gifts... and major political aspirations. Although that last part wasn't such a great attribute, actually – particularly given his penchant for reining in the feral dog population. Not only had he been working longer hours since he discovered his passion for political advancement, but I still had a scar on my butt from my last dogcatcher run-in.
My thoughts flashed to that jewelry bag I'd seen Heath with again. Could it be that there was an engagement ring in it?
And if there was, how was I going to break the whole I'm a werewolf thing to him?
I sighed and sipped my latte, my mind turning back to the werewolves again.No need to be concerned, right? After all, none of them had come knocking at my door, so why worry? I'd just stay away from the greenbelt for a while. Right now, I told myself, my first priority was to get cracking on my new account. I shoved the paper into a desk drawer and forced myself to focus on my computer, clicking on e-mail to check for missives from Southeast Airlines. As I scrolled through the spam, my mouse stopped at a weird message titled "Audience required.” It was from the Lupine Society. Maybe it's some kind of society for bluebonnet lovers, I told myself. Hope springs eternal, I guess.
My latte forgotten, I clicked on the message.
It wasn't about bluebonnets.
In fact, unless I was very much mistaken, it was from the Houston pack.
I sucked in my breath and bit my lip, almost puncturing myself with a canine. I had broken twenty years of anonymity a few months ago when I tangled with a few made werewolves (made werewolves aren't born werewolves; they've just gotten their paws on enough werewolf blood to join the pack, so to speak). When I found the three of them harassing a sorority girl in the Sixth Street alley, some deluded hero instinct had made me decide to be Wonder Woman and step in to save her. Even though she had been wearing awful shoes. I mean, bad taste isn't enough to die for, is it?
Anyway, the sorority girl got away, but not before the packette (my pet name for the trio) got a good whiff of me. And although they had since been unmade (sort of de-werewolfized), evidently the cat – or in this case, the wolf – was still out of the bag. Either that, I realized with a shiver, or someone connected with the incident on the greenbelt had sniffed me out.
"Your presence is required by the Houston Lupine Society,” read the e-mail. "An audience has been scheduled for Saturday, February 7 at one o'clock p.m. Failure to appear will result in forfeiture of any and all rights.”
An audience? Forfeiture of any and all rights? Who did these people think they were? They aren't people, I reminded myself. They're werewolves.
I cursed whatever werewolf rule it was that made Austin an official part of the Houston pack's territory. I'd recently discovered that my living in Austin made me an intruder.
To make things worse, the date was this coming Saturday – the same day, naturally, as the office retreat my boss had been planning for months. And, of course, the full moon, but with enough wolfsbane, that wouldn't be too much of a problem – thanks to the tea my mom made for me, I'd limited my compulsory transformations to the full moons closest to equinoxes and solstices. Unfortunately, I doubted Adele would be up for rescheduling the retreat – she'd been selecting table centerpieces for a month now. And somehow I doubted the Lupine Society would be willing to compromise.
As if on cue, my phone rang again. It was Adele.
"Sophie, so glad I caught you. I need your help picking tablecloths.”
"For the retreat. I'm thinking suede or gingham. What do you think?”
"Um, about the retreat…” I began.
"It's going to be incredible, isn't it? You can't miss a minute of it. So, I'm leaning toward suede. With gingham napkins.”
"Sounds fine,” I said faintly.
"Great. I'll see you soon; don't forget to pack your boots! There'll be horseback riding – and maybe even a cow patty toss!”
After I hung up, I wiped my sweaty palms on my skirt and tried to focus on work.
But all I could think was, Crap.
I was closing up my office for the day and about to head home for a restorative tumbler of wine when my mother called.
"Sophie, darling! How's my favorite girl?”
"Fine, mom.” Which wasn't strictly true, but I wasn't up for talking about my e-mail from the Lupine Society right now. Or the little issue that had taken place in the greenbelt. I just hoped my mother's psychic abilities were on the fritz today. "What's up?”
"I was making plans for Valentine's Day, and I wanted your opinion. Do you think I should make reservations at Romeo's, or Chez Nous?” Chez Nous was an intimate little French Bistro in downtown; Heath had taken me there many times.
"Who are you going with?” I asked, cringing.
"Why, Marvin, of course.” Marvin Blechknapp was the pool-ball shaped attorney who had defended Mom on a murder case recently. I couldn't understand the attraction – he was more Dom Deluise than Brad Pitt – but my mother was ga-ga over him. As he evidently was for her, even though she was a bit left of center. Okay, so maybe running a magic shop called Sit A Spell and having a werewolf for a daughter was more than a bit left of center. But you get the idea.
"I think either one would be good,” I said. "Mom, can I call you back? I'm on my way out the door.”
"Sure, honey. But I just had a quick question.”
"Have you noticed anything unusual lately?”
I sat down. "What do you mean, unusual?” Had she read about the incident in the greenbelt? I wondered.
"Oh, I don't know. Maybe a chicken head or something.”
The hairs on the back of my neck prickled. "A chicken head? Um, no. I'm pretty sure I would have noticed a chicken head.”
"No dirt, or anything?”
"Oh, you know. Graveyard dirt.
"No, no graveyard dirt that I know of. Although I'm not sure how I'd distinguish graveyard dirt from regular dirt.”
She breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank goodness.”
"Just keep an eye out, okay?” I heard a bell tinkle in the background. "Whoops – customers. Got to go. Catch you soon. Love you, sweetie!”
She hung up before I could respond.
Chicken heads and graveyard dirt? As I powered the computer down and headed for the door, I found myself – not for the first time – wishing for a mom who did something normal. Like waiting tables, or knitting afghans, or running a corporation or something.
Then again, if I had everything I wanted in life, I wouldn't be addicted to wolfsbane tea and have a Bic razor habit, either. Sometimes I guess you just have to play the hand that's dealt you. Even if they do turn out to be tarot cards.
I drove the five blocks home to my building, said hi to Frank the doorman, and headed up the elevator to my loft.
As my mother requested, I did a quick survey of the hallway. No chicken heads. No graveyard dirt, either, although I did spot a dust bunny in the corner by the stairway.
As I fished for my keys, I took a deep breath and froze.