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This wasn't the first time chocolate got me in trouble.
I died first, so I made cookies.
They were popular fare on Pirate night, so I needed to make a lot. Darryl had gotten me a jumbo-sized antique mixing bowl last Christmas that probably could have held the water supply for an elephant for a day. I don't know where he found it.
If I ever filled the bowl entirely, I'd have to have one of the werewolves move it. It ate the eighteen cups of flour I dumped into it with room for more. All the while, piratical howls rose up the stairway from the bowels of the basement.
"Jesse-" Aiden began, raising his voice to carry over an enthusiastic if off-key whistling rendition of "The Sailor's Hornpipe."
"Call me Barbary Belle," my stepdaughter, Jesse, reminded him.
Aiden might have looked and sounded like he was a boy, but he hadn't been young for a very long time. We had assimilated him, rather than adopted him, as he was centuries older than Adam and me put together. He was still finding some things about modern life difficult to adjust to, like the live-action-role-playing (LARP) aspect of the computer-based pirate game they were playing.
"It only works right if you think of me as a pirate and not your sister," Jesse said patiently. Ignoring his response that she wasn't his sister, she continued, "As long as you call me Jesse-that's who you think of when you interact with me. You have to believe I'm a pirate to make it a proper game. The first step is to call me by my game name-Barbary Belle."
There was a pause as someone let out a full-throated roar that subsided into a groan of frustration.
"Eat clamshells, you sodding buffoon," Ben chortled. His game name was Sodding Bart, but I didn't have to think of him that way because I was dead, anyway.
I got out my smaller mixing bowl, the one that had been perfectly adequate until I married into a werewolf pack. I filled it with softened butter, brown sugar, and vanilla. As I mixed them together, I decided that it wasn't that I was a bad pirate, it was that I had miscalculated. By baking sugar-and-chocolate-laden food whenever I died first, I'd succeeded in turning myself into a target.
The oven beeped to tell me it was at temperature, and I found all four cookie sheets in the narrow cabinet that they belonged in-a minor miracle. I wasn't the only one who got KP duty in the house, but I seemed to be the only one who could put things in the same place (where they belonged) on a regular basis. The baking pans, in particular, got shoved all sorts of odd places. I had once found one of them in the downstairs bathroom. I didn't ask-but I washed that motherhumper with bleach before I used it to bake on again.
"Motherhumper" was a word that was catching on in the pack with horrible efficiency after "Sodding Bart" Ben had started using it in his pirate role. I wasn't quite sure whether it was a real swearword that no one had thought up yet, one of those swearwords that were real swearwords in Ben's home country of Great Britain (like "fanny," which meant something very different in the UK than it did here), or a replacement swearword like "darn" or "shoot." In any case, I'd found myself using it on occasions when "dang" wasn't quite strong enough-like finding cookware in bathrooms.
I thought I was good to go when I found the baking pans. But when I opened the cupboard where there should have been ten bags of chocolate chips, there were only six. I searched the kitchen and came up with another one (open and half-gone) in the top cupboard behind the spaghetti noodles, which made six and a half, leaner than I liked for a double-quadruple batch, but it would do.
What would not do was no eggs. And there were no eggs.
I scrounged through the fridge for the second time, checking out the back corners and behind the milk, where things liked to hide. But even though I'd gotten four dozen eggs two days ago, there was not an egg to be had.
There were perils in living in the de facto clubhouse of a werewolf pack. Thawing roasts in the fridge required the concealment skills of a WWII French Underground spy working in Nazi headquarters. I hadn't hidden the eggs because, since they were neither sweet nor bleeding, I'd thought they were safe. I'd been wrong.
The majority of the egg-and-roast-stealing werewolf pack was currently downstairs, enthralled in games of piracy on the high seas of the computer screen. There was irony in how much they loved the pirate computer game-werewolves are too dense to swim. Coyotes, even coyote shifters like me, can swim just fine-except, apparently, in The Dread Pirate's Booty scenarios, because I'd drowned four times this month.
I hadn't drowned this time, though. This time, I'd died with my stepdaughter's knife in my back. Barbary Belle was highly skilled with knives.
"I'm headed to the Stop and Rob," I called downstairs. "Does anyone need anything?"
The store wasn't really called that, of course; it had a perfectly normal name that I couldn't remember. "Stop and Rob" was more of a general term for a twenty-four-hour gas station and convenience store, a sobriquet earned in the days when the night-shift clerk had been left on his or her own with a till full of thousands of dollars. Technology-cameras, quick-drop safes that didn't open until daylight, and silent alarms-had made working the night shift safer, but they'd always be Stop and Robs to me.
"Argh," said my husband Adam's voice, traveling up the stairs. "Gold and women and grog!" He didn't play often, but when he did, he played full throttle and immersed.
"Gold and women and grog!" echoed a chorus of men's voices.
"Would you listen to them?" said Mary Jo scornfully. "Give me a man who knows what to do with what the good Lord gave him instead of these clueless scallywags who run at the first sight of a real woman."
"Argh," agreed Auriele, while Jesse giggled.
"Swab the decks, ye lubbers, lest you slide in the blood and crack your four-pounders," I called. "And whate'er ye do, don't trust Barbary Belle at your back."
There was a roar of general agreement, and Jesse giggled again.
"And, Captain Larson," I said, addressing Adam-my mate had taken the name from Jack London's The Sea-Wolf-"you can have gold, and you can have grog. You go after another woman, and you'll be pulling back a stub."
There was a little silence.
"Argh," said Adam with renewed enthusiasm. "I got me a woman. What do I need with more? The women are for my men!"
"Argh!" roared his men. "Bring us gold, grog, and women!"
"Men!" said Auriele, sweet-voiced. "Bring us a few good men."
"Stupidheads," growled Honey. "Die!"
There was a general outcry because, apparently, several someones did.
I laughed my way out the door.
After a moment's thought, I took Adam's SUV. I was going to have to figure out what to do for a daily driver. My beloved Vanagon Syncro was getting far too many miles put on her, and her transmission was rare and more precious than gold on the secondary market. I'd been driving her ever since my poor Rabbit had been totaled, and the van was starting to need more and more repairs. I'd looked at an '87 Jetta with a blown engine a few days ago. They wanted too much for it, but maybe I'd just have to pony up.
The SUV growled the couple of miles to the convenience store that was ten miles closer to home than any other store open at this hour of the night. The clerk was restocking cigarettes and didn't look up as I passed him.
I picked up two dozen overpriced eggs and three equally overpriced bags of chocolate chips and set them on the counter. The clerk turned away from the cigarettes, looked at me, and froze. He swallowed hard and looked away-scanning the bar codes on the eggs with a hand that shook so much that he might save me the effort of cracking the shells myself.
"You must be new?" I suggested, running my ATM card in the reader.
He knew who I was without knowing the important things, I thought.
I found the limelight disconcerting, but I was slowly getting used to it. My husband was Alpha of the local pack; he'd been a household name in the Tri-Cities since the werewolves first revealed their existence a few years ago. When we'd married, I'd gotten a little of his reflected glory, but after helping to fight a troll on the Cable Bridge a couple of months ago, I had become at least as well-known as Adam. People reacted differently to the reality of werewolves in the world. Sensible people stayed a certain length back. Others were stupidly friendly or not-so-stupidly afraid. The new guy obviously belonged to the latter group.
"Started last week," the clerk muttered as he bagged the chocolate chips and eggs as if they might bite him.
"I'm not a werewolf," I told him. "You don't have anything to fear from me. And my husband has put a moratorium on killing gas-station clerks this week."
The clerk blinked at me.
"None of the pack will hurt you," I clarified, reminding myself not to try to be funny around people who were too scared to know I was joking. "If you have any trouble with a werewolf or something like that, you can call us"-I found the card holder in my purse and gave him one of the pack's cards, printed on off-white card stock-"at this number. We'll take care of it if we can."
We all carried the cards now that we'd (my fault) taken on the task of policing the supernatural community of the Tri-Cities, protecting the human citizens from things that go bump in the night. We'd also been called in to find lost children, dogs, and, once, two calves and their guard llama. Zack had composed a song for that one. I hadn't even known he could play guitar.
Sometimes the job of protecting the Tri-Cities was more glamorous than others. The livestock call, in addition to being musically commemorated, had actually been something of a PR coup: photos of werewolves herding small lost calves back home had gone viral on Facebook.
The clerk took the card as if it were going to bite him. "Okay," he lied.
I couldn't do any better than that, so I left with my cookie-making ingredients. I hopped into the SUV and set the bag on the passenger seat as I backed out of the parking space. Frowning, I wondered if his strong reaction might be due to something that had happened to him-a personal incident. I looked both ways before heading out onto the road. Maybe I should go talk to him again.
I was still worrying about the clerk when there was a loud noise that stole my breath. The bag with the eggs in it flew off the seat, and something hit me with a loud bang and a foul smell-and then there was a sharp pain, followed by . . . nothing.
I think I woke up several times, for no more than a few minutes that ended abruptly when I moved. I heard people talking, mostly the voices of unfamiliar men, but I couldn't understand what they were saying. Magic shimmered and itched. Then a warm breath of spring air drifted through the pain and took it all away. I slept, more tired than I ever remembered being.
When I finally roused, awake and aware for real, I couldn't see anything. I might not have been a werewolf, but a shapeshifting coyote could still see okay in very dim light. Either I was blind, or wherever I was had no light at all.
My head hurt, my nose hurt, and my left shoulder felt bruised. My mouth was dry and tasted bad, as if I'd gone for a week without brushing my teeth. It felt like I'd just been hit by a troll-though the left-shoulder pain was more of a seat-belt-in-a-car thing. But I couldn't remember . . . even as that thought started to trigger some panic, memories came trickling back.
I'd been taking a run to our local Stop and Rob-the same all-night gas station slash convenience store where I'd first met lone and gay werewolf Warren all those years ago. Warren had worked out rather well for the pack . . . I gathered my wandering thoughts and herded them down a track that might do some good. The difficulty I had doing that-and the nasty headache-made me think I might have a concussion.
I considered the loud bang and the eggs and realized that it hadn't been the eggs that had exploded and smelled bad, but the SUV's air bags. I was a mechanic. I knew what blown air bags smelled like. I didn't know what odd effect of shock made me think it might have been the eggs. The suddenness of the accident had combined the related events of the groceries' hitting me and the air bag's hitting me into a cause and effect that didn't exist.
As my thoughts slowly achieved clarity, I realized that the SUV had been struck from the side, struck at speed to have activated the air bags.
With that information, I reevaluated my situation without moving. My face was sore-a separate and lesser pain than the headache-and I diagnosed the situation as my having been hit with an air bag or two that hadn't quite saved me from a concussion or its near cousin. The sore left shoulder wasn't serious, nor was the general ache and horrible weariness.
Probably all of my pain was from the accident . . . car wreck, I supposed, because I was pretty sure it hadn't been an accident. The vehicle that hit me hadn't had its headlights on-I would have remembered headlights. And if it had been a real accident, I'd be in the hospital instead of wherever I was. Under the circumstances, I wasn't too badly damaged . . . but that wasn't right.
I had a sudden flash of seeing my own rib-but though I was sore, my chest rose and fell without complication. I pushed that memory back, something to be dealt with after I figured out where I was and why.