ONCE BITTEN by Kalayna Price
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 florescent 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 afterwork 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 grey 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 grey 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 anyway 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.
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Random House (Blanvalet)