We write. We rant. We wrestle the magic.
Tonight isn’t for olive branches. It’s more like a storm long coming.
“Watch the news lately?” Jackson Harper asks, as four of his wolves stiff-arm their way into the living room. They’re a small, but mean, group of gentlemen, equipped with the furrowed brows and cauliflower ears to prove it.
The Old Wolf’s squat frame remains on the threshold. Slicked-back white hair runs to the nape of his neck, ending at the collar of a red flannel shirt. He could be an out-of-work lumberjack, or a paper towel spokesmodel past his expiration date. Really, he’s the Alpha in Demos City, but no one calls him that, or haven’t in the last ten years, anyway.
“Not in front of a TV much,” I say. “Anything good on that I missed?”
Harper takes a deliberate, almost sluggish step into my apartment. Behind me, his pack members fan out, one moving into the hallway that leads to the bedrooms, another heading to the kitchen, and the remaining two planting themselves square to my six o’clock.
“I saw the damnedest thing on the news not too long ago,” the Alpha—oh, why not?—says. “Someone blew up half of Front Street downtown. Cops said there were at least forty-three confirmed dead. Can you believe that?”
“Know anything about it?” Harper closes the front door behind him. “Heard your name mentioned.”
“That depends,” I say, hemmed in by wolves. “Do you want to hear the lie I planned, or the one I just made up?”
Harper lets out a wheeze of a laugh, but it doesn’t change the circumstances. An Alpha doesn’t pay a social call in the middle of the night unless there’s an eviction about to come down, or a verdict from a more lethal category.
There are no means left for me to make a clean exit either. I can smell the wolves who are just outside, which means all routes are blocked.
“You know why I let you stay in my city?” Jack asks. “Your little girl,” he says, not waiting for my answer. “She was the prettiest baby, I think, I’ve ever seen. Couldn’t just leave her out in the cold. Only a heartless prick could look a toddler in the face and turn her away.”
“And we’re both grateful.” Luckily, Shauna’s not here, and I’m not sure she’d think the same right now anyway.
“Is that so?” Harper moves a pace closer to me. He takes a breath that seems like it should make his ribs creak from the expansion.Nostrils flare as he lets it out in a single, audible blast. “You want to tell me why a man who swore he was going to keep a low profile in this city would even think about getting involved in a pissing contest with the Widow’s Hand?”
Rook’s blood in my mouth, the butter soft separation of skin beneath fangs, is an easy memory to find. The beast tends to those moments, pruning them in its macabre psyche to keep them crisp and vivid in their recollection. A shame I didn’t get to see him expire, to watch the murderous candle go out for good. “I took a job,” I finally say. “I was on the clock when the Widow’s Hand got in the way. Couldn’t let them just kill my boss. A guy could get a reputation if he starts letting racist prison gangs walk all over him.”
“We had a deal, Leon.” Harper motions to one of his wolves and wipes a fine layer of sweat from his jowls, smearing the excess on his corduroys.
Situational awareness comes with an ability to notice changes in the immediate environment and understand what those changes mean. Survive a few fights where death is in the cards, and the next time someone wants to take a shot, the brain might just sense the event happening before the train pulls into the station.
“You haven’t held up your end of the bargain as well as I’d hoped.” A broad-shouldered goon hands Jackson something small.
“C’mon, Jack, I didn’t go looking for a fight,” I say. “Those men tried to kidnap my daughter. The way I see it, they had it coming.” Shifts in the airflow tell me the wolves at my back are on the move. Jack’s eyes betray their locations–one at each of my shoulders, toeing the edges of my peripheral vision.
“That may be true,” says Harper, “but we had an agreement. And you’re in breach of contract.”
The beast raises its hackles like the sails of a great ship. “You sure there’s no other way?” I ask Harper. “I just painted in here.”
He gives no reply, only holds a sour, deep-set expression that could make a marble sculptor envious. Fighting a cadre of the Old Wolf ’s hardest men might make for a good story, but it isn’t what I want written on my tombstone. Still, there’s no reason to permit the sons of bitches free reign without a good show. A guy could get a reputation after all.A flit of his finger sends the two wolves towards me at a knuckle-cracking lumber.
Sorry about this, coffee table.
I grip the table at the long ends, lift, and swing it in an upward arc towards the first wolf. A mug half-filled with liquid explodes; Sunday’s newspaper scatters in the air as the table flat cracks into the wolf ’s chest. Wood splinters like a broken bat, and the wolf topples backward. The crash brings more bodies in through the front door. Pack members surround their Alpha, some producing weapons of varying calibers.
Ten against one. Goddamn pack wolves.
Half the coffee table dangles by its own shards as wooden fingertips touch one another to form a loose weave. I ready another swing, but the second wolf is on me. He throws a wide hook, hitting me with a heavy leather sap just behind the right ear. The ship inside my head lists to one side coming close to a full capsize. Sight dissolves into lightning and other assorted bright flashes that streak blue and orange blotches. The coffee table breaks apart, hitting the floor in cartoonish slow motion. Hands better suited for meat pounding grab me under both armpits. Booted feet meet the backs of my knees and drive me into a floppy, kneeling position. I try to fight them off in my dizziness, to get my feet under me again, but twin blows to the jaw quell the pending riot, creating a fast-growing knot on my chin to match the one behind my ear.
Time passes. Could be a second. Might be a month.
Harper’s weathered work boots are the first thing I see when the vessel inside rights itself. He tips forward, bringing his hammer-nosed face into the frame. “I think you broke my man’s sternum,” he says. “That’s been added to the list of your offenses.”
“Send me an invoice.”
Muscled arms tighten their grips on my arms at the shoulders and wrench them out wide. The beast wants to play, probes the primal edges for an opening in the fence, but I can’t let it. Change now, and I’d never make it to full bestial form before Harper’s men separated my head from my body. My pulse bounces on a thread, breathing approaches a labored state. Fight or flight—can’t stave it off forever. Biology is merciless when it comes to the desire to keep on living.
“What am I supposed to do here?” Harper asks. “You’ve put me in a very difficult position.” Inward fits make outward appearances across his face—brow furrows, mouth half-opens and closes without words said, and abrupt periods of handwringing continue. In the grip of his wolves, my fingers go tingly before hot numbness overtakes them as long moments drag into minutes. An indecisive executioner is a damn shameful spectacle, even for the condemned.
“Just end it already,” I say. “Do it now before I change and take half of you with me.”
“You don’t give the orders here, boy!” Harper stamps a booted foot. “This is my sentence to hand down. I choose the time and the place!”
“Then, do it. Quit grousing.” Bluff of all bluffs. Holding a two and a seven off suit. Push the chips all in, hope the sunglasses do their job. At the core, I’m just a thing that wants to keep on being a thing. Shauna has family now; she won’t be alone. She’ll be cared for by the Matron if I suddenly go absent.
“Won’t even beg for your life, will you?” He spits on the carpet. “I could order a coward’s death. No man here would hesitate if that were the case. That’s not good enough for Leon Gray, though. No, he has to stand his ground to the last.” The Old Wolf moves his gaze around the room: toward the ceiling, a window overlooking the downstairs parking lot, to the pack wolves crowding around. At once, he grunts and hunkers down into a crouch. From his pocket, he produces something small, possibly the same object that traded palms from his pack member to himself before all the furniture breaking started.
“You know what this is?” he asks.
“It’s a bullet.”
“Not just any bullet,” he says. “It’s your bullet. Consider it on loan to me for the time being. I’m not about to orphan a child, but you’ve used your one freebie. If you step out of line, or I call on you for something and you don’t answer, you’re going to default on my loan, and I’m going to collect. Understand?”
Nothing else to do but nod. Acknowledge the governor’s pardon. Even sarcasm has good enough sense to keep its ideas in the fridge when the ax swings overhead. Harper’s wolves relinquish their grip on me. Blood flows a singing hello into pincushion limbs. Have to stay on the floor; knees don’t work yet. Pack members file out of the apartment—except for the one I nailed with the coffee table. A couple boys carry his still unconscious body.
Harper remains behind, rising out of his crouch. “They respect you,” he says, once all his pack members have left. “I respect you. Not every man could raise a girl on his own. Not with Nathaniel Poole trying to wedge himself into the picture.”
“Heard about that, did you?” I ask.
“Yeah.” I manage a crawl to the couch. Gonna have to shift to heal the jaw. Might’ve chipped a tooth in there as well. “So, we’re good?”
“For now,” Harper turns for the door, “but you owe me.”