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Under my skin, p.3

Under My Skin, page 3

 

Under My Skin
 


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  From my perch on the shingled roof, I stared down at the neighbor’s dog, Cujo, a female yellow Labrador, chained to a tree. Day and night she barked, keeping up a steady drone, driving me crazy. Why did people get pets if they were going to cast them out of the house? Didn’t they know dogs were pack animals? All she wanted was to be with her people. I debated on busting out poor Cujo, but I had to avoid trouble, and I couldn’t get close to her without sending her into a barking frenzy. Dogs went nuts around me. They sensed I wasn’t quite human.

  “Maybe another time,” I murmured as I scanned the street.

  A ghostly fog had settled on the quiet town, muting the streetlights. Row upon row of the same model houses, each with identical stone siding, eerily perfect manicured lawns, and curving slate walkways. My uncle, real estate lawyer extraordinaire, had chosen to settle in Cowley Heights, the most affluent, if tragically carbon-copied neighborhood in Redgrave. In fact, the whole town suffered from a serious lack of oomph. Hard to believe a werewolf was roaming these freshly mowed, about-to-be-seriously-snowed-on lawns.

  Again I asked myself, Why bother going on a hunt? Alec Delacroix and his family could surely take down one rogue, if all the town gossip about Redgrave’s infamous werewolf hunting family was to be believed.

  But it was either this or toss and turn in bed for hours, fighting off nightmares, listening to the dog barking incessantly outside while Marcus snored inside. Plus I couldn’t take the risk that the lumbering werewolf who had attacked me in the woods might suddenly grab a few brain cells and track me to my uncle’s place.

  How would I explain that one? It wasn’t exactly like having a cuddly puppy follow you home from school—unless you defined cuddly puppies as having three-inch-long claws and bloodstained, yellowed teeth.

  The moon was nearing its full-orb glory, increasing my restlessness. My mother had always downplayed its effect on her wolven brethren, but now that I was unfettered by my father’s drugs, even a small influence from the moon might push me over the edge. I clenched my fists, arms rigid at my side. I hoped tonight’s hunt wouldn’t be a bust. I needed the physical outlet. Give me one measly paranorm. I’d bludgeon first, ask questions later.

  Although they didn’t know it, my aunt and uncle had taken a big risk bringing me into their home, their lives. Besides possibly putting them in a crapload of paranormal danger, I could be a bad influence on Paige, my cousin.

  Not.

  Paige, a pretty, popular senior at Redgrave High, had likely cut her teeth on Ouija boards when other kids were gnawing building blocks. My uncle and aunt really lucked out on the crapshoot called parenthood. And now they’d inherited me. But with a daughter like Paige, what was not-quite-human compared to really-unholy?

  Under my olive canvas jacket, the weight of my silver athame rested in the leather holster my mother had made for me long ago. I straightened to ease the pressure. Though the silver wasn’t touching my skin, its power worked through my long-sleeved cotton T-shirt, warming my flesh. Mom hated the hunter weapon of choice, but then she was full wolven and could barely glance at an athame without snarling.

  I lowered the bedroom window, careful to keep the weather stripping from squealing against the frame. I left my window open a crack so I could get back into my room without waking Paige, whose room was next to mine. Her window remained dark, her curtains unmoving. So far, so good, she hadn’t heard me. Not that she could hear anything over Marcus’s snoring.

  My uncle’s thunderous drone offended my keen hearing in a constant nightly assault. Even stuffing cotton balls in my ears wouldn’t help. I wasn’t used to all the static noise I could pick up now. But it would take more than my uncle’s log sawing to make me want to stifle my growing wolven abilities.

  No, the day I’d run out of the anti-wolven drugs my father had developed had been the best day of my life.

  It had also been the worst—the day I’d found out my parents were gone. Disappeared.

  Ever since, I’d had to abide by the Hunter Council’s rules. Had to follow Sebastian’s plan, telling people my parents were dead, so the Council could do their job and find out what really happened. But I might never know, might spend the rest of my life not knowing if my parents were alive or dead. And all because my mother wanted to follow her dream of being human.

  Human?

  How dumb was that?

  Tears stung my eyes. I sucked in a breath, muscles rigid. Time to put my wolven strength to the test. I charged from the roof, arms flailing, legs tight to my body. But I’d put too much into the jump. I landed hard. My knees buckled at impact. Moaning, I cupped my jaw. Crap. I’d bitten the edge of my tongue. As the blinding pain subsided, I stood upright, swiping dried grass from my jeans, the taste of my own blood sharp in my mouth. I glanced around. Had anyone seen my swan dive? Well, besides Cujo, whose barks had grown more persistent and shrill since I’d hit the ground. Thankfully, the neighbors were used to ignoring her.

  I inhaled deeply, my lips parting so that I could taste the night air as well as smell it. In seconds I picked up the foul, thin thread of the werewolf’s scent, musky and rotten.

  I stared down the street. The lights, the cars, the road turned grainy and out of focus. I stumbled, squinting hard, and then blinked frantically against the stinging in my eyes. The burn quickly faded, and my vision cleared. I could see…everything.

  Blanketing darkness lifted as if the night had been blasted out by floodlights. The night seemed like a page out of a graphic novel. Colors were super-saturated. My jacket looked a deep forest green. I had zoom lenses for eyes. I could focus on a single tree branch and inspect every knot and scratch on its surface. Wouldn’t that be handy come exam time? Heart racing, I started down the road.

  What would my parents think of me now—charging after a werewolf, using wolven vision and strength? If I’d had all this months ago, I wouldn’t have needed to hunt with my father’s crew always looking out for me. I could have gone on skirmishes alone. My stomach knotted. I might have been able to protect my parents.

  I charged down the pavement. I couldn’t go back and change things, but one thing was certain…this beast was mine.

  The stench was strongest on Foulton Drive, also laughably known as Redgrave’s downtown. The street ran from one end of town to the other, with the majority of shops, banks, and town service buildings gathered near the middle, but not one car passed as I walked down the sidewalk. Redgrave sidewalks rolled up at nine sharp. No 24-hour grocery chains or fast food joints here—the total opposite of living in Vancouver where even bookstores were open until midnight.

  The mist clung to the werewolf’s scent, thickening it, making it raunchier—if that were possible. I paused at the corner of Foulton and Cornerbrook. A lamppost to my left was plastered with flyers. I stepped closer, peering at the pages, some typed and others handwritten. All had pictures of…pets. Missing pets. Dogs, cats, and even little bunnies. No wonder I hadn’t startled any dogs during my trek through Redgrave backyards. One rogue werewolf couldn’t have turned them all into Scooby snacks, could he?

  Then it started—a clamor of animals, like a zoo gone mad. I flinched at the assault. I struggled to filter the sounds, the shrill screech of birds, yips of puppies, and yowls of kittens. I froze, scanning the empty street.

  There. Down a block and across the pothole-scarred road.

  I focused in. While wonder-vision was fun, I had the sneaking suspicion if I overused that particular skill, my eyes might start to cross and stay crossed forever.

  The display window at Polly’s Pet Emporium had been shattered, broken glass littered the sidewalk, and an amber glow from the store’s security lighting spilled onto the street.

  I shook my head, returning my vision from wolven-zoom to normal. No sirens wailed in the distance. Where were all the cops in this town? Was crime so nonexistent they didn’t even respond when a store alarm tripped?

  I jogged down the block debating my next move. I had promised the Hunter Counc
il I would lay low. In exchange, they’d promised to find my parents. Keeping the council happy was my only shot at uncovering the truth.

  Wasn’t my fault they hadn’t done their research about Redgrave. Rather than the small, quiet northern town they thought they’d chosen, turned out Redgrave had big bad freakage. Surely the Council wouldn’t want me to play all damsel-in-a-mess and sit on the sidelines while a rogue werewolf ran wild? Besides, how hard could it be to take down one itty-bitty werewolf? I’d helped Dad and his hunters drop a whole pack in a few hours.

  I crossed the road and stepped cautiously over the jagged glass protruding from the window frame. Glass crunched under my shoes, the sound as explosive as a land mine. I froze, holding my breath.

  When nothing charged at me from the pet shop’s glowing interior, I crept farther inside.

  Ugh. I wasn’t sure what stunk worse—the ripe-smelling werewolf on his haunches, leaning over a bunny cage, or the fear blasting from the bunnies dodging his seeking hands.

  My breath came fast and hard. I panted lightly, working for control. My inner wolf licked its chops at the heady scent of fear rippling through all the animals in the store but recoiled at the unsportsmanlike tactics. Where was the fun in slaughter? Where was the thrill of the hunt? The chase?

  I whipped out my athame and held it high. My hand shook with a blend of exhilaration and blind terror.

  I cleared my throat.

  Once.

  Twice.

  Too busy crunching on Peter Rabbit, the werewolf didn’t hear me over his own bloodlust.

  “How much is that beastie in the window?” I belted out an old wolven favorite in my very un-American-Idol-worthy singing voice. That oughta get his attention. “The one eating bunnies for sale?” I sang, mucking around with the lyrics.

  The werewolf’s dark form stilled. His morphed hand, sporting a mix of human fingers and bestial claws, opened. A lucky bunny dropped from his grip, landing unharmed on the blood-spattered floor. It scurried under some metal shelving, its pale fur stained crimson.

  A snarl of annoyance rumbled in the werewolf’s throat as it shoved its forearms off the cage, dropped to all fours, and turned to face me. For the second time that day, I stared into the werewolf’s red eyes, bright with human intelligence though a wildness flickered in their depths. The stuff of nightmares stared back at me, through me, and called to the beast that lurked within. Finding me out. My body tightened against the urge to flee. To hide.

  I waved my dagger to remind the beast, and myself, that I was the one in control. Or at least, I hoped I was. The security lights glimmered off the sharp silver blade, making my point for me.

  Flinching, the werewolf averted his massive head. Thank God, I didn’t have to bluff this time. Now I was all about the follow-through. My doubts faded on a mind-blowing rush of power at the beast’s show of fear.

  I took a bold step forward.

  The beast stumbled backwards, knocked into the bunny cage, and sent the trapped creatures into spastic scuttles.

  I had him. We both knew it.

  But then I slipped in the bunny blood and crashed to the floor. I cried out, flailing my hands in the air, trying to regain my balance, but my feet shot out from under me. My head cracked against the linoleum.

  I landed in a sprawl under the werewolf’s stinking jowls. His foul breath filled my nostrils as stars spun in front of my eyes. My athame flew from my hand, scraped across the floor, and came to rest a few feet away, its momentum slowed by a rack of jerky treats. I twisted onto my stomach and reached frantically for the hilt. Oh, this was so wrong. My nails dug into the linoleum floor. I inched closer. My breath escaped in a ragged sob. My splayed fingers trembled. An inch. One inch more. So close. But not close enough.

  A heavy paw planted itself on my back.

  I couldn’t breathe.

  I couldn’t move. Claws dug into my jacket.

  I craned my neck and stared up at canine lips as they slowly twisted to form a maliciously human grin. A thick line of bloody drool wavered inches from my face. I shook my head from side to side, trying to avoid the drool. It struck my neck with a heavy splat, running down my neck to the floor.

  And so the hunter became the prey. Irony really sucked the big one.

  A shot rang out. My body seized. Breath clogged in my throat.

  The animals in the store fell quiet.

  Above me the beast’s grin extended, but the light died in his eyes as a thick pool of black blood formed in the center of his forehead. My nose crinkled as the battery-acid fumes of silver meeting werewolf lit into the air. His breath left him in a rattling gasp. With a thud he toppled onto me, all two hundred pounds of suddenly human deadweight.

  Not how I envisioned my first encounter with a naked guy.

  “Get him off her!” The voice was familiar, but I’d never heard it so authoritative.

  Two sets of hiking boots rushed to my side, carefully avoiding the bunny blood. The werewolf’s weight eased as my rescuers grunted and heaved the guy’s body off me. Lungs free to expand, I gulped in waves of ripe pet store air. Air curdled by the panicked frenzy of caged animals.

  I pushed my chest off the floor with shaking arms and raised my head. A slick gush of werewolf blood ran down my neck.

  I blinked in shock. “Brit?”

  My only friend at Redgrave High stood before me, an uncertain smile on her face. Wearing yellow plaid cargo pants tucked into her usual Doc Martens, a black leather coat belted at the waist, and a skull-covered scarf tied artfully around her neck, Brit looked like a gothic pixie on a mission.

  Strong hands lifted me to my feet.

  “Well, that looked embarrassing—falling on your butt in front of a werewolf you thought you had in the bag. Everyone agree?” The question, with its sharp bite, distracted me from Brit’s gothic-superhero-to-the-rescue stance.

  A guy stood next to me, a crowbar slung over his shoulder, staring at me with suspicious, dark eyes. He was tall, lean, and looked a lot like my new and highly untouchable crush, Alec. But his nose wasn’t as hawkish, and his hair was way shorter.

  “I’m fine, thanks for asking.” I frowned up at him. “No broken bones or puncture wounds. Don’t worry about me.”

  He ignored me. “What’s she doing hunting on our turf?”

  His gaze flicked behind me. I was being held upright by someone. A very tall, strong someone. My pulse raced. A solid muscled chest pressed against my back. Thighs shifted against mine. A delicious heat built up between us. Slowly I lifted my chin. My breath caught in my throat. I stared into the most intense brown eyes I’d ever seen. Alec.

  “You sure you’re okay?” He turned me in his arms, studying my expression.

  Completely ignoring the goose egg throbbing to life on the back of my head, I nodded. Uh-huh. Yup. More than okay. Deliriously fantastic, in fact.

  I didn’t say the words out loud, but Alec’s amused expression suggested he’d guessed why I couldn’t converse like a normal person.

  Was it lame for a girl to swoon at a guy’s feet?

  I didn’t get the chance to find out.

  “It’s Ethan,” said the guy who looked like Alec—but had none of his special brand of hotness—as he pulled on Alec’s arm until he released me. The two of them walked over to the body that lay on the floor a few feet from where I’d fallen.

  The werewolf had morphed into his human form after he died. Just like in the movies. Unlike in the movies, however, his body wasn’t clean and unmarked as if he’d been born again. When a werewolf died and resumed its human form, it bore all signs of the physical beating it had taken. Skin peppered with deep purple bruises. Bones jutting out at odd angles. In this case, the bullet wound was a clean entry. A single pool of blood trickled down his cheek, but the exit….

  Brit tossed her coat over his naked torso and stared down at the dead boy’s face, her expression bleak. Tears welled in the corner of her black-rimmed eyes.

  “Matt.” She reached out for Ale
c’s almost look-alike. “I think I’m going to be sick.”

  Matt guided her quickly to a far corner of the store. I blocked out the sounds of her retching and Matt’s soothing words. I frowned. Brit and the guys walked, stalked, and tracked like hunters, but getting sick after a kill was the mark of an amateur—or someone far too emotionally involved. What was the deal with Brit? Hadn’t she told me she couldn’t even run? How was that NOT a requirement for a member of a hunter crew?

  Alec knelt by the boy’s head. “Ethan Macleod. He went missing about a month ago. The last full moon.” He met my frown with one of his own. “The third werewolf we’ve taken down in as many months.”

  I wished the rumors weren’t true, that the Delacroix weren’t tracking werewolves, that no one in Redgrave had seen the things Alec and his crew had.

  But the proof was lying on the floor in front of us. If Redgrave had paranorms working over the young, the vulnerable, turning them into werewolves, I had to be very careful what I said around the Delacroix. A group like this probably wouldn’t be jumping for joy if they found out I was half-paranorm.

  Ethan’s body began to tremble. Alec stepped back. A faint white glow radiated through his bruised flesh, building until rays of light shot from his eyes.

  The energy inside Ethan grew. His body radiated so much light Alec covered his eyes behind the crook of his arm. In the corner, Matt turned his back to Ethan, shielding Brit with his body. I’d never witnessed the entire process of a paranorm’s passing, although I’d tried many times while hunting with my father. In the end, again, the light won.

  I squeezed my eyes shut against the terrible burning white light. Heat waves vibrated in the air. Sweat beaded on my forehead. A muted rumble, like thunder from a vast distance. Then silence.

  I opened my eyes a few seconds later. No light. No Ethan. Just Brit’s coat flattening to the floor. It settled across a long black burn where Ethan’s body used to be. That was one good thing about the paranormal world. It took care of its own. Even Ethan, a human so recently turned into a werewolf, left no untidy traces behind.

 
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