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By Kalayna Price
BelleBooks, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Kalayna Price
All rights reserved.
In the last ten minutes I'd gone from miserable to totally screwed.
An hour ago I'd thought a city named Haven would be good luck. Now I wondered who it was supposed to be a haven for — polar bears and penguins? Next time I snuck aboard a train, I would remember to check whether it was headed north or south. The snow-laden streets were the miserable bit; "screwed" began two blocks back when I picked up the scent of something never meant to exist in the human world. Well, a something other than me.
A woman cut a beeline through my path, her attention on a curbing taxi. I stopped, the man behind me didn't. He shouldered by with a grunt, his briefcase slamming into my thigh. I scowled after him, but he didn't look back, let alone apologize.
I hated crowds. Any one of the bundled-up people trudging down the street could be hunting me. Of course, that same anonymity protected me. Shivering inside my over-large coat, I resisted the urge to glance over my shoulder as I matched pace with the pedestrian traffic. Remaining inconspicuous was key.
A Do Not Walk sign flashed, and the crowd stopped on the corner of Fifth and Harden. Horns blared and drivers shouted, but despite the green light, there wasn't much room for the cars to move. Some of the more impatient foot traffic wove through the vehicles, earning a one- fingered wave from a cabbie as another car slid into the space that opened in front of him. I debated crossing, but decided keeping a low profile among the suits on the corner was safer. Shifting my weight from foot to foot, I held my breath as a city bus covered us in a dirty cloud of exhaust.
A hand landed on my shoulder.
"Kita Nekai," a deep voice whispered. "Come with me."
I froze, unable to turn for fear any movement would betray me into running. Breathe. I needed to breathe, an impossible task around the lump in my throat. My first gasp of air brought the hunter's scent to me, and the skin along my spine prickled in a response more primal than fear. Damn. Wolf. The blood rushing through my ears drowned out the street sounds so the crowd moved silently, in slow motion.
The fingers digging into my shoulder tightened, and my eyes darted to them. The manicured nails and white cuff peeking out under his brown coat sleeve marked the hunter as a suit. He'd blend in nicely with this crowd.
"Let go of me." I didn't bother whispering, and the woman beside me coughed as she glanced at us.
A half-turn put me eye level with the hunter's red-silk tie. I grabbed his wrist, a weak illusion that I was the one doing the restraining, and cleared my throat.
"Thief! Pickpocket! He stole my purse!"
People turned, their eyes taking in the hunter's pristine pinstriped suit and my Salvation Army duster with its patched elbows and frayed hem. The suits closest to us shuffled further away, casting leery glances from the corners of their eyes. But they watched. They all watched, and the hunter couldn't just drag me off the street with so many human witnesses. I saw that realization burn across his amber eyes.
The light changed, and the crowd surged forward, filling the small gap that had opened when I created my scene. The hunter clung to my shoulder, but the push of bodies dislodged his hand, and I let myself be carried away. The businessmen in tailored suits and women in pumps towered over me. I never thought I'd be grateful for being short, but with any luck, that would hide me from the hunter's view — if only I could cover my scent that easily.
The crowd flowed down a set of cement stairs to the subway. The voices of hundreds of commuters bounced off the underground walls, a symphony of impatience accented by flickering fluorescent tubes. As they pushed into lines in front of the turnstiles, I realized the flaw in this plan: money, or really, my lack thereof.
Okay, no time to panic.
A weathered sign advertising public restrooms hung on my side of the turnstile, and I hurried through the door. The hunter wasn't likely polite enough to obey the little girls' room sign, but I was willing to bet the line of women waiting inside would give him pause.
I bypassed the line, ducking inside the first open stall and locking the thin door against the angry murmurs of protest. The cramped space boasted dingy walls covered in scrawled insults and just enough room to stand in front of a rust-rimmed toilet. What a lovely hiding place. The need to pace itched my heels, and I rocked back and forth on my toes, hugging my arms around my chest.
Someone pounded on my door.
"Stall's taken," I said.
"Hurry up," an agitated, but clearly female, voice said.
I ignored her. There were two other stalls she could use.
I rocked on my heels again. I needed a plan. The bladder-heavy humans aside, if I tried to out-wait the hunter the after-work crowd would thin, and I needed human observers to protect me. The bathroom had only one door, and if the hunter saw me enter, all he had to do was watch for me to exit. Of course, if I could slip out without him recognizing me ...
How much did he know about me? He knew my name and clan, but did he know anything else? It was a chance I had to take.
Balancing on the toilet seat, I tucked my knees to my chest so I wasn't visible under the stall walls. Around me, agitated voices complained about everything from the wait to the gray weather. I closed my eyes and tuned them out. I needed to center myself. Mentally I stroked the coiled energy inside me. It boiled. Spread. I anticipated the pain but still drew a ragged breath as the energy burst to the surface.
A sharp sting shot down my back, and the skin split open. My clothes vanished as they always had for my change. A whimper trembled in my throat, and I choked it back, but it escaped as my skin slipped off and reversed itself. My joints popped loudly as they reformed.
Someone banged on my door again. Could they hear the fleshy sound of my muscles and organs rearranging? I hoped they were just impatient. Then I passed into the seconds of the change in which I had no awareness of my surroundings.
My skin sealed around my body again, and the dingy stall snapped back into focus. My right foot slipped, and I fell up to my hips into the toilet bowl. Hissing, I scrambled over the seat and landed with a wet plop on the tiled floor.
Great, now I resembled a half-drowned rat.
Twitching my tail, I shook my back legs and tried to dislodge as much of the water as possible. I only accomplished further soaking the gritty tile. My back paw slipped, leaving gray streaks in its wake across the brown tile.
I craned my neck, then hesitated. Did I really want to give my fur a quick bath? That was toilet water. It was better for it to be on my fur than my tongue, right? I struggled with that thought a moment, my instincts demanding the offensive substance be removed.
"Anybody in there?" Someone shook the stall door.
My attention snapped back to more important matters — time was of the essence, a bath would have to wait. I was taking a risk by shapeshifting into my second form. If the hunter found me, I wouldn't be able to defend myself — at least not in any way that would matter, and no one would question him chasing down a cat. But, I had to get out of this subway station.
A child pointed as I crawled under the bathroom stall.
"Look Mommy, a calico!"
I sauntered closer to the girl, staying just out of reach — children had the tendency to pull tails.
"Stay away from it," her mother said, jerking the child back. "It might be rabid."
My lips curled to hiss at the insult, but I curbed the desire. Hostility wouldn't get me anywhere.
Purring, I wound around the legs of the next lady in line. She pressed a tissue to her nose and backed away. Great.
Who was my most likely ticket out? My gaze landed on a woman washing her hands. She'd been shopping, and several large department store bags stood staunchly at her feet. Slinking over, I dove into a fancy white bag and curled up beside a hat box and hoped she wouldn't notice the extra weight.
I repositioned myself to balance the load as she claimed her belongings and bustled out of the bathroom. The bag swung in her grip, propelling me into something hard. The turnstile was a nightmare. She pushed through it, and one of the packages squeezed all the air out of me. I thought the worst must be over as the bags swung free again, but the swaying made my stomach threaten to rebel.
No, I won't be sick. I refuse to.
I got sick all over her hatbox.
Shaking, I eased away from the box. The swish of the train doors opening initiated another barrage of attacks as people crowded into the car. The train lurched into motion, but the movement of the bag settled.
I peeked out and found myself at eye level with a startled brunette. She screamed, dumping the contents of her lap to the floor. I guess the cat was out of the bag — well, not yet, but I needed to be. Dashing through a forest of legs, I hid under the seat of a man in mud-caked construction boots.
From the limited shelter, I sniffed the recycled, train-car air. Not a hint of the hunter's scent.
Thank the moon.
In the past five years I'd caught a hunter's scent maybe half-a-dozen times. Most cities had at least one hunter stationed somewhere to watch for rogues and strays, but I'd never before had any reason to believe they were hunting me specifically. This wolf obviously was.
Closing my eyes, I mentally touched the tight coil inside me. It would be awhile before I could return to human form. Well, chances were good that the station where I ended up would be far from the hunter. Tucking my tail around my body, I resigned myself to a long ride.
NIGHT HAD FALLEN DURING my subway ride, transforming the city of Haven from the dull gray of evening to inky darkness. That darkness framed the welcoming glow of storefronts and streetlights glistening in the snow. Tomorrow, when Amtrak began running again, I would need to find a way back to the train yard. Tonight, I just needed a place to lay low and protection from the cold.
The streets lacked the hurried commuters that had been present in the business district, so they were easily navigated on four legs. I could only hope there was an animal lover among the varied shoppers. I stopped in front of a high-end clothing store and perched on the cleared steps in a pool of light, better to see and be seen.
I scanned the crowd, searching for friendly faces sympathetic to a stray cat. No one looked my way. Finally, a couple turned toward me. Show time. The woman leaned down and scratched under my chin. I purred encouragingly and nudged her hand, but the man tugged her arm. With the swish of her coat tails, she was gone. Pressing my ears back, I huddled into a ball for warmth and glared at the shoppers as they scurried from one pool of light to another.
Ten more minutes. If no one took me home or offered me food in the next ten minutes, I was giving up and shifting back to my human form. Of course, if I wanted someone to take pity on me, I probably shouldn't glare at them like I'd claw out their eyes.
I left my dry perch and moved to the center of the sidewalk to circle the legs of the first passing person. He shoved me aside with his boot without pausing.
I called to a gaggle of teenagers with my most pathetic meow, but though one of the girls glanced at me, they didn't stop.
What was wrong with these people? I didn't look mangy, anymore. I had broken down on the subway and washed my fur. I still wasn't sure the bath made me feel any cleaner, but it did make me look more presentable.
I paced. Clumps of snow stuck between my paw pads, and ice clung to my tail. This wasn't working. Time for Plan B — whatever that was, but it definitely included two legs that could walk me into somewhere warm.
I ducked into the alley behind a clothing shop. A large dumpster took up most of the space, but a quick sniff told me everything I needed to know about it — nothing edible there. Weren't there restaurants in this part of town?
Twitching my tail in annoyance, I crouched in the deep shadows and made quick work of shifting back to human form. The snow chilled me to my core in the seconds between my bare flesh forming and my clothes appearing. Stupid city. Maybe I'd been too optimistic before — even polar bears would freeze here. I huddled inside my coat and hurried back to the street.
Now that I was five feet taller and walking on two feet again, the city changed for me. Colors were richer with my human eyes, but the shadows hid more from my sight, making the darkness far more oppressive. I trudged past the teenagers I had begged to take me home earlier. Now, I kept my gaze down, avoiding drawing attention to myself. The teenagers, absorbed in divvying out a street vendor's Styrofoam cups filled with hot chocolate, ignored my presence even more as a human than they had as a cat.
I turned on Magnolia Boulevard and then onto Primrose. Shop after shop displayed brightly dressed mannequins. How many clothing stores did this city have? I could understand if the people here needed more clothing than most to stay warm, but the fashions I was seeing would never have been worn on the street. I stopped to stare at a window featuring a live mannequin decked in an elaborate evening gown. It must have been deliciously warm inside for her to flash that much skin, but with my battered coat and blue jeans there wasn't a chance I could blend in to their clientele.
I trudged on. The happy glow of a bookstore greeted me a few blocks later. That I could handle.
I stomped the snow off my sneakers and watched it puddle on the welcome mat. The aroma of fresh coffee and hot cinnamon buns drew me toward the café in a corner of the bookstore. My stomach rumbled. Shifting was hungry business, and I'd done it twice today without a meal in-between. But I still had exactly no money, so after a quick glance around confirmed the café's lack of free samples, I wove my way through aisles of bookcases, further from the inviting smells.
I hadn't caught hint of a hunter's presence since leaving the subway, so this was about as safe as I could get without leaving town. I shucked my coat and hat, and left them in a vacant chair. Then I went in search of a book.
SEVERAL HOURS PASSED before the soft background music turned off and a crisp voice announced that in fifteen minutes the store would be closing. I shut the book in my lap and added it to the growing stack around me. The overly defined man on the cover stared out hungrily at me. I frowned at him.
Purposeful footsteps headed straight for me, and my head snapped up. Had the hunter ...? My gaze landed on a teenage girl fidgeting idly with her green-and-yellow name tag. She popped a pink bubble between her teeth before looking at the top book on my stack.
"You know," she said, plastering an artificial smile on her face. "That's a great book, very sexy and hot. She's one of my favorite authors. Did you know she released a new book two weeks ago? It's hot. Really hot. I think we still have a couple in stock. Let me find you a copy." She scanned the shelf of books behind her, popping her gum again. "Ah, here it is. You should definitely read it. Speaking of hot, another steamy book is —"
"That's okay. This really isn't my flavor of reading material."
"Oh, that's too bad. Well, are there any other books I can help you find?" The smile never slid off her face. I wondered if her cheeks hurt after a full day of working.
"I'm actually on my way out," I said, freeing myself from the overstuffed chair.
It took effort to keep from scowling at the sales girl, who was still watching me after I'd donned my coat. Instead, I ignored her and walked away. I must have blipped on her radar as more interesting than the other customers, because she fell in step beside me.
"I like your hair. It's really crazy and alternative. Must take forever to do."
The look on my face knocked the plastic smile off hers. No one actually liked my hair. It was a random mismatch of black, orange-red and white streaks — not silver like aging people, but true white. It looked like the highlighting job from Hell. Unfortunately, it was natural. I tried to imagine the sales girl willingly doing something similar, but couldn't. The soft-looking girl in front of me had a heart-shaped face people probably considered cute. A word no one ever applied to me, at least not while I stood on two feet. Though the same height, which meant the sales girl was on the short side, we were polar opposites in every other way. With my sharp features and unusual coloring, people tended to call me striking, but never cute. If I could have traded my calico mess of hair for her finely permed blond, I would have. But I couldn't. My hair was a side effect of what I was.
Excerpted from Once Bitten by Kalayna Price. Copyright © 2009 Kalayna Price. Excerpted by permission of BelleBooks, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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