My current project was a chessboard which, like most of the work I do, was made out of wood. While Val advertised mostly mechanic work, I’m not really all that great as a mechanic. I am reasonably great as a cabinetmaker and at woodworking in general, so most of the time that’s what I do.
When I’d been working on it about two hours, someone started pounding on the front door. It took me a couple seconds to realize it was probably a customer rather than someone from the pack, which should tell you something about the state of mind I was in. We were closed, but the light was on, and plenty of the regulars knew that meant someone was there who would probably be willing to help them.
It turned out to be Anna Rossi, one of my very few human friends. She had short brown hair and dark eyes, and a face that had more character than beauty to it. She wasn’t wearing perfume today, so I could smell her more clearly than normal, an odor defined by notes of olive oil and oregano. You spend your days in a kitchen, you smell like food.
“Winter,” she greeted me warmly. “I was in the neighborhood and I saw your light was on, so I thought I’d come check on my cabinet.”
I grinned at her. “Good timing. I finished it yesterday. Come on back and take a look.” She’d ordered the china cabinet a week and a half ago when she realized she didn’t have anything for a friend’s birthday. She claimed I was the only one who could get her something in that time frame, but I kind of doubt that was really why she asked me. Anna, I was fairly sure, was one of those people that always felt responsible for the wellbeing of her friends. At least she acted that way with me.
Of course, when we met I was still holding a cardboard sign on street corners on my days off. That might have something to do with it. Just maybe.
When I first met Anna, I thought she was Italian. I mean, dark hair, dark eyes, Mediterranean complexion, smells like olive oil, last name is Rossi, how much more Italian does it get? It turned out I was only a quarter right; her father was native Italian, but his mother was a Spaniard and he married a Cherokee. That’s what she said, at any rate; I’d never met either of them, and I sure couldn’t see Cherokee in Anna’s face.
She spent a good twenty minutes looking at the various works in progress in the shop, including the chessboard I’d started that morning. Finally she made it to her cabinet, made of birch and cherry, and spent another fifteen minutes there, examining every surface in detail until I wanted to scream. I mean, I like having my work be appreciated as much as the next guy, but enough is enough.
I still carried it out to her Jeep, though. She was a friend, I was raised to be polite, and Val would have my head if he knew I made a customer carry their own furniture. Probably not literally, but you never know with the fae.
It took some work, but the cabinet fit into the storage area of the Jeep nicely enough. Anna insisted on paying me twice what it was probably worth—like I said, she’s a giving person. I protested, but not very hard. I needed the cash. Besides, Anna pulls down more money as a high-end chef than I’ve ever made in my life.
“Hey, Anna,” I said as she started her car. “Could you tell your brother to come by today if he gets a chance? I’ve been meaning to call him, but…” I shrugged helplessly. I actually hadn’t wanted to talk to him until that morning, but it was still true enough.
Anna laughed. “I think I can guess what happened; I saw how much work you have to do in there. Don’t worry, I’ll send him over whether he gets a chance or not.” She grinned out the window and waved at me as she drove away, one moderately expensive gift tucked in back.
I watched her out of sight and then went back into the shop. I was already past second thoughts, and working on having fourth thoughts about the plan coalescing in my head.
It should be noted for the record that my objections were not baseless, and were in fact probably the contribution of the—relatively small—sane portion of my mind. What I was doing was dangerous. Really dangerous. Idiotically dangerous.
One of the most important things to remember about werewolves is that you are always, always dealing with the pack. Most of the time it’s not a big deal. Werewolves are individuals, and mostly they only act as a group on matters that affect the whole pack. That’s why, for example, I could stay close friends with Kyra for years without having to interact with any of the other wolves in her pack.
This time, though, I wasn’t just dealing with her. This was likely to involve the other werewolves, which meant I had to concern myself with the pack. That meant following pack protocol, something I hadn’t been doing.
Long story short, werewolves have a hierarchical system. The more dominant a werewolf is, the higher they rank. The few submissive wolves are at the bottom. At the top is the Alpha—a term borrowed from grey wolf literature, and no, I don’t know what they were called before that. Possibly the scientists actually started using the word after the werewolves did.
Dominance is mostly a part of your personality, and it isn’t limited to werewolves. Odds are good that you know a perfectly normal person who doesn’t like to give orders or make decisions for others, would rather follow than lead, and is happy being told what to do and when to do it. They probably don’t like confrontation, and they might not be willing to contradict authority even if they think it’s wrong. You may even be a person like that yourself. If so, congratulations! If you were changed you would almost certainly be a submissive werewolf.
Dominance is tricky to define, though, because it isn’t just the opposite of submission. It’s not about forcing others to obey. It is about being willing to direct others, refusing to cede authority, things like that. Mostly it’s a desire for control. A dominant person will not willingly allow control—of their own actions, of their environment, of their group—to be taken from them.
That’s not a bad thing. Dominant personalities tend to be good leaders, organizers, managers, and so on. They also tend to make successful werewolves, because they strive to control rather than allowing themselves to be controlled. Submissive werewolves are a lot more likely to allow the wolf to control them, and werewolves who do that die. That’s why, although submissive personalities make up about half of the human population, almost all werewolves were at least slightly dominant.
Kyra was a dominant wolf, definitely in the top half of the pack. Probably in the top five out of twenty-five or so—the local pack was a little on the small side, as such things go. I didn’t exactly keep close track of who fell where in the pack, because I never really cared.
What I did know was that she wasn’t highly enough ranked to involve an outsider in pack business. That was a privilege restricted to the Alpha. Christopher Morgan, the local Alpha, was a decent person who was generally pretty reasonable. He liked me, and he felt like he owed me for getting Roland taken care of.
Challenging his authority was still really stupid, which I knew. The Alpha can’t tolerate challenges to his authority. Other werewolves, whether they want to or not, will perceive it as a sign of weakness, which is an extremely dangerous thing to show a werewolf. If I played this wrong, or it got out of hand, it was entirely possible that Christopher would have to kill me to keep his pack in line. He would try to avoid it, he would regret the necessity of it, but I’d still wind up dead.
There are reasons I don’t like getting involved in pack business.
The next time I heard someone at the door was less than an hour after Anna left. In a mystery novel, that time it would have been the pack visitor I had been afraid of the first time. Somewhat to my disappointment, it was Enrico, who must have been off work to make it there that quickly.
I met Enrico Rossi entirely by accident, while he was working undercover. That’s where he spends most of his time, although I don’t really know what he does—I’m better at keeping out of police business than most of the rules I make for myself. When I met him he had been posing as a Hispanic gang member, but I know he has at least a dozen personas that he can play just as well, ranging from a homeless man to a lawyer. He’s astonishingly good at it.
Enrico did not inherit his sister’s distinctive and memorable appearance. His skin, hair, and eyes are all just a touch darker, making him look more Mexican than Italian, and his features are best described as nondescript. He’s the sort of guy who could step into a phone booth wearing a superhero costume, walk out looking like an investment banker, and convince you that it made sense even though you saw the whole thing. The man’s incredible.
I had no idea he was anything other than what he looked like when I met him. We were both eating at the same taco truck; me because I was poor, it was cheap and I didn’t have to go far from my house or Val’s shop to get there, him because it fit his disguise of a Mexican gangster. I’d been seeing him there for a few weeks and made casual conversation with him a couple times when a man in a ski mask tried to rob the place.
I kinda feel sorry for that man. A criminal has certain expectations when he holds up a roadside food vendor. They generally don’t include one of the customers breaking your arm and taking your gun away—growing up around werewolves I’d learned more than a little about how to fight. Especially the parts which can be charitably described as dirty. I’d had a plastic dish of lime juice, onions, and jalapeños to hand, and he hadn’t enjoyed having that in his eyes very much.
When another customer who is obviously about as law-abiding a citizen as you are pulls out a pistol and a badge and arrests you on the spot, I imagine it just makes your day that much worse.
I still get special treatment and a discount at that taco truck. Enrico doesn’t, because the owner doesn’t recognize him. He’s that good.
Today he wasn’t in costume, although he wasn’t in uniform either. He looked just like the sort of unremarkable, moderately prosperous person you might expect to find managing a business or running a store. As far as I could tell that was the closest he came to taking all his masks off.
“Anna said you wanted to talk to me?” he said by way of greeting, grabbing a bottle of water from the refrigerator we kept in the office and sitting down.
“Yeah,” I said, taking the seat opposite his and trying to think of a polite way to phrase what I was going to say next. Eventually, I decided it didn’t exist and just came right out and told him. “Look, I need a favor. I need a really, really big favor.”
“I’m not going to like this, am I?” he said cheerfully, leaning back casually—and, I noticed, just as casually placing his hand near where a shoulder holster might ride. That might have just been my paranoia talking, but I didn’t think so.
I grinned at him anyway. “No, probably not. There was a death last night in Manitou, a real nasty one. The body looks like it was savaged by animals. You know the one I’m talking about?”
Enrico leaned forward, any trace of casualness gone from his posture. “How do you know about that, Winter?” he asked sharply.
I shrugged. “I know somebody who mentioned it. Anyway, if there’s another death like that one, is there any way you could get me in to look at the scene?”
He gave me a hard look, which didn’t faze me at all. Not that his was bad—but I grew up surrounded by werewolves. Compared to some of them his wasn’t all that impressive. “What, you want to look at the body before we tell the media?” His voice was hard.
I snorted. “No. In fact, I’d really rather not look at it at all. But,” I paused here, not sure how much I should tell him. “There is a very small chance that I could see something useful soon after it happens. Something that the cops wouldn’t see.”
He grinned at me in a way that wasn’t—quite—patronizing. “We hear that all the time, Winter. People watch too many episodes of CSI and get to thinking they know better than the forensic people. Truth is they’re good at what they do. They aren’t likely to overlook some crucial detail that you’re going to just walk in and see.”
“That’s not what I meant,” I said quietly. “Besides, you really think forensics is going to turn up anything useful?”
The grin faded from his face. “Probably not. If they were going to they already would have, I suppose.”
I gave him a puzzled look. “I thought they usually took more than a day about their stuff.”
He shrugged. “Well, sure, but I don’t think they’re feeling real hopeful. I mean, I guess they might find something this time, but they’ve had almost a month to look at this mess and they haven’t got anything. The whole station’s been talking about it.”
There’d been other deaths? Almost a month of deaths? Kyra hadn’t mentioned anything like that—and I didn’t think she’d have concealed it from me.
I couldn’t afford to ask Enrico about it, though. Revealing that I’d only known about one death wasn’t likely to increase his confidence that I could help.
Instead, I told him “It’s not real likely they’ll find it next time, either, then. Is it.”
He sighed and shook his head. “No,” he said, standing up. “It’s not.” He paused. “You really think you can do some good?”
I shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t really know. It couldn’t hurt anything.”
He hesitated, then sighed. “Look, Winter, I can’t get you in. I’m not assigned to this case. But I’ll talk to some people who are and see if they can do anything. If they can I’ll call you.”
He left without saying goodbye.
After that conversation I wasn’t in the mood to work any more. I locked the shop up behind me and started walking home. It wasn’t a terribly long walk, and it was one I took on a regular basis. It didn’t take me very long.
My house was on the far western edge of the city, in an undesirable part of town. It was too far to be convenient to pretty much anything, but not so excluded that it could be scenic and desirable. I could see the forested slopes of the Peak and its surrounding foothills, but they weren’t anywhere near me. Where I lived there wasn’t anything more scenic than borderline desert spotted with crabgrass and the occasional scraggly bush.
I call it a house, but I’m not honestly sure that it deserves the name. I live in a literal log cabin, which I think was built in the nineteenth century and not renovated since. Okay, that might be an exaggeration; it has indoor plumbing, and a gas stove, so it must have had some work done. On the other hand, there was no furnace and the insulation was crap, meaning that only the room with the woodstove ever really got warm. Nobody wanted to live in it and it hadn’t been worth building anything else in that neighborhood, so it had sat empty for years before I moved in, looking rather lonely in the middle of that desolate space. I don’t have any close neighbors, because nobody’s interested in living near me. Occasionally some company or other considers building something nearby, but so far none of them had even made it to the planning stage.
I bought the cabin and the lot it sits on when I first moved to Colorado Springs, when I had a little more money available than I did now. I think most of the people who had seen it found it distinctly unappealing. For me, it was perfect. It had solitude, and lots of open space, and there wasn’t much traffic through the area. It was also cheap enough that I could afford to buy it, which not many places were.
Just now I felt as happy to see it as I ever had. It had only been a few hours since I’d left, but I felt exhausted and I really, really wanted to sit down.
When I opened the front door, I found that the pack still hadn’t sent anyone. That meant that either Christopher didn’t know that Kyra had asked for my help or—more likely—he knew but had chosen to allow me the opportunity to make amends for my breach of pack politics. Like I said, he’s fairly reasonable as werewolves go. He would give me every opportunity.
It seemed wise to take it while I could, so I sat on my battered couch and called Christopher. He’d given me the number years ago, but this was the first time I’d ever used it.
He answered on the second ring. “Hello?” Christopher sounded much the same as he looked, like a pleasant, well-educated young man. It was, of course, a carefully constructed mask, which bore about as much resemblance to reality as Enrico’s pretense of being a criminal.
“Christopher?” I said, making sure to keep my voice equally level and polite. “This is Winter. Kyra called me for help with that body this morning…?”
“I know,” Christopher replied, his voice not sounding quite so polite now. See? I was right.
“Then you know that she couldn’t smell anything.”
It hadn’t been a question, but he chose to answer anyway. “Yes, she told me. Did you have any more success?”
“Not really. Everything I saw said werewolf, but a new werewolf couldn’t hide his scent.” I paused briefly, then continued, “I have a friend in the police. He says he might be able to get me in to look at any other bodies they find like this.” Tone of voice was very important with werewolves. Right now, I couldn’t afford to sound like I was instructing Christopher, or even making a request; it had to be an offer instead. It’s important not to make dominant wolves think you’re ordering them around when you don’t have the authority to do so. It’s even more important when you’re dealing with Alphas. All their instincts rebel against that. It doesn’t overwrite their personality, but I believe in playing it safe where possible.
“Go ahead,” Christopher said after a brief pause. “You can call Kyra in to see if she smells anything, too. Keep me posted.”
“Wait a second,” I said hastily before he could hang up on me. “Did you know there’ve been other deaths like last night’s? Happening in the past month?”
There was a longer pause before he answered this time. “What?” he said, his voice quiet and very, very dangerous.
“When I mentioned the body in Manitou, my friend said that forensics has had almost a month to look at this mess.”
“Did you ask him what he meant?”
“No,” I said, growing exasperated. “I was trying to convince him to trust me enough to let me look at a crime scene, Christopher. Telling him I didn’t know what was going on wasn’t exactly the best way to go about it, now was it?”
“I haven’t heard anything about other deaths, Winter. Is it possible that your friend was lying? Maybe leading you on to see how much you actually knew?”
I hesitated. “I don’t think so,” I said eventually. “I suppose it’s possible, but it’s not really his style.”
“I see,” Christopher said softly. “I’ll be talking to the people who should have told me about something like that, then. Thank you, Winter.”
I hung up. It had been a long time since I had to deal with a pack, and I found I was unaccustomed to the precarious nature of it. There’d been a time when I wouldn’t have thought anything of a conversation like that. I wasn’t entirely sure whether I was more worried that I was out of practice at dealing with the wolves, or glad that I’d managed to avoid dealing with werewolves long enough to get out of practice.
Of course, that might not have been the only thing bothering me. Werewolves take a dim view of incompetence. If whoever should have been monitoring this had been doing such a poor job that almost a month passed before they realized people were dying, they would probably be facing some fairly severe punishment. If Christopher decided that it had been a deliberate attempt to keep him in the dark, well, it would be worse. A lot worse. You can’t afford to be lenient when you’re dealing with werewolves. They’re predators, and some part of them will always interpret a move like that as a sign of weakness.
It was entirely possible that that phone call had signed someone’s death warrant. Maybe that was why I felt so disturbed. I’ve killed people, but I’m not comfortable with it. That’s comforting, really.
In any case, I’d accomplished something. I could, if Enrico managed it, take a look at the next in what was apparently a series of deaths without incurring trouble with the pack. And I knew that either Enrico was playing me, or Christopher was, or else he honestly hadn’t known what was happening. I wasn’t sure which prospect I disliked most.
I don’t sit around and mope when I get upset. That’s never made me feel better, and I guess I never saw the attraction of feeling awful.
One thing that does make me feel better is doing something, anything, just so that I can feel like I’m accomplishing something. Most of the time that means doing something unrelated to what makes me upset, because I can’t fix it and I don’t want to think about it. Usually it’s work, like earlier today when I’d worked on that chessboard. This time I decided to do housework. I’d been putting off cleaning for weeks, and it really needed done.
It still didn’t take me very long. My cabin wasn’t large, at all. I was the proud owner of one kitchen, one bathroom, and two bedrooms, one of which served as my de facto living room, office, and storage area. I did the dishes, which in my house accumulate at a snail’s pace most of the time, and did a certain amount of dusting as well.
Anna is an excellent cook. Kyra isn’t quite as good, but she can still make some pretty good food. I can’t, which is why I had a frozen pizza for dinner. It wasn’t very good. Most of the time I probably wouldn’t have bothered but, like the werewolves, I tend to eat more around the full moon. I’m not quite sure how much of that is upbringing and how much is natural.
After my meager meal I took a plate of brownies I’d made the day before into the spare bedroom. They were significantly better than the pizza, loaded with chopped walnuts and chocolate chips. I’m a terrible cook, but I can make tolerable dessert when I’m motivated.
While I ate I looked online for any mention of the deaths Enrico had mentioned. I didn’t find anything, which wasn’t much of a surprise—there was no way in hell Christopher’s people would have missed something that obvious. Then, thanks to the peculiar way the Internet works, I wound up reading about Indonesian folklore for an hour and a half.
I have this hobby—although, if I’m going to be completely honest, it might be better described as an obsession. I study mythological creatures. I’ve been doing it for most of my life now.
I have a whole list of reasons that this is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. A lot of those beings aren’t nearly as imaginary as science likes to pretend, for example, and knowing what their abilities and weaknesses are is likely to be important if I ever encounter one. Even knowing how to recognize them might be important.
They’re good reasons, and they’re true. But, once again being completely honest, they’re complete bullshit. The real reason I started doing this was to figure out what I am, an endeavor which has so far been unsuccessful.
See, here’s the thing. What I’d told Kyra about my mother was true. She was inclined to sleep with anything that moved, and I’m not sure that’s as figurative as I would like it to be. When you have a mother like that, trying to figure out who and what your father was is a pretty tricky task.
She did at least know what encounter had resulted in me. I never heard the story from her, and barring a miracle or heavy-duty necromancy I never will; she committed suicide by disinterest when I was about six months old. She told her sister what happened, though, and my aunt basically raised me until I was eleven.
According to her, my mother said that she was roaming the forests of western Canada under the full moon in December. Needless to say she was in wolf form, partially because of the full moon and mostly because she was in the forests of western Canada in December, and humans really aren’t built for those conditions.
Apparently she was approached by a large and extremely attractive male wolf at that point. Now, werewolves don’t turn into wolves, exactly—they are larger by a wide margin, and more heavily built as well. They’re close enough to wolves to justify the name werewolf, though, and that was more than close enough for my mother’s taste.
I did say she’d screw anything that moved.
Apparently the two had an excellent time that night, or more properly several. I’m really not comfortable even contemplating that scene. Some things are just too icky even for me.
So, moving right along. After that night my mother realized a few things. The first was that my father was gone, having left no scent she could track and no prints in the fresh snow, which should have been impossible and was her first indication that he was something more than he seemed. The second was that she had no desire whatsoever to have sex with anyone or anything else. Considering her usual habits that’s probably either a change in attitude equal to the conversion of the entire Roman Empire to Christianity, or an indication that my father was so good that every other living thing on earth paled in comparison, at least to her mind. Again, not something I want to think about.
It took her a while to realize she was pregnant, probably because it should have been impossible. Although male werewolves have been documented to father children as wolves—I don’t know the details and I really don’t want to—females basically can’t conceive in wolf form. Without getting too graphically detailed, the female body produces all its sex cells at birth. As such it won’t produce more eggs after changing shape, making it physiologically impossible for them to become pregnant. And, according to my mother’s presumably detailed and shameless description, she had stayed in fur throughout that encounter. That might have been because there were limits to even her perversity, but everyone I’d spoken to thought it more likely that she didn’t think she could convince the wolf to perform with a human body. Which, like many of my mother’s exploits, was disturbing in the extreme.
Having somehow overcome that barrier, there remained the fact that most female werewolves can’t bear children by normal means, because the transition from one shape to the other is too jarring and violent for the fetus to survive. Werewolves don’t actually have to shift to the wolf every time the full moon comes around, but the urge to do so is very strong, and becomes stronger the longer they go without shifting. There aren’t more than a dozen werewolves, of either sex, in the entire world who could go for the requisite nine months without changing once. My mother had not been one of that dozen.
When she learned she was pregnant, she went to the Alpha of her pack, in northern Wyoming, and told him she wanted to go and live with her family so that they would be nearby when she gave birth. That was a bit of a strange request, given that she’d never really gotten along with them that well, but he agreed anyway. Werewolves tend to understand not wanting people there to see you when you’re vulnerable.
Somehow she pulled it off, and I was born in the middle of September in my aunt’s house in northeastern Oregon. She named me Winter after that night in the woods, and Wolf for a surname. I suppose it fits, but I’m not fond of my last name and I don’t use it much. I already inherited eyes of a golden shade which, while technically within human possibility, look like they belong on a wolf better than a man. A lot of people assume they’re colored contacts. My hair also resembles an animal’s, although not so visibly. It looks black at a glance, but it’s actually dark grey, and has a tendency to become matted in remarkably little time. Having a name like Winter Wolf (I don’t have a middle name) on top of that really makes it seem like I actively try to resemble a literal wolf, when the truth is that it was an accident of birth.
My mother never recovered, mentally. She’d already lost interest in sex, but after I was born she just faded away. She spent most of her time as a wolf, alone. Eventually she lost interest in food as well, and less than a week later they buried her.
Once I started to understand all of this, I was very interested in what my father had been. I think probably it would be more worrisome if I weren’t a bit obsessed with it, really. Unfortunately, in a decade and a half of looking, all I’d managed was a long list of things he wasn’t.
By the time that I made it to bed, it was almost midnight, later than I usually stayed up. That was all right, though; I didn’t have to be at work tomorrow until I felt like it. I figured I’d just sleep a little late and everything would be fine.