Hunter’s Trail: Chapter 1

Chapter 1

“Seaweed!” Molly marveled for the third time, rubbing the sheet of paper-thin nori. “Can you believe it’s made of seaweed, Scarlett?”

I squirmed around on my utility stool so I could face her. The “Make Your Own Sushi Rolls” class was being held in the science lab of a private community college, the kind of room with shelves of beakers and those two-person tables with little gas nozzles. Molly and the rest of the class perched easily on the metal stools, but I was at a weird angle because I was using a second stool to prop up my knee brace. “I know I grew up in a small town,” I said drily, “but I was aware of seaweed as an ingredient in sushi, yes.”

She gave me a good-natured swat on the arm. “Don’t ruin this for me,” she said with a shark-wide smile, tossing back her copper-colored bob. There was a tinge of warning in her voice.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said, trying to work up some enthusiasm. Molly, I should mention, is my landlady and roommate. Oh, and when she’s not around me, she’s also a vampire. I’m a null, a human who negates all the magic in a certain area around me. Vampires who get close to me become human again and age just like anyone else, which is what Molly wants more than anything. She was only seventeen when she was turned, which isn’t nearly as old now as it was in 1905. In exchange for a very generous break on the rent, I’m supposed to hang out with Molly and help her get older.

Unfortunately, she’d recently decided that she wanted to define “hang out” as “take a ‘Make Your Own Sushi’ class together.” Vampires can’t eat people food, so Molly wanted to try some exotic new tastes while she was temporarily human. And for a traditional gal from Victorian Great Britain, it doesn’t get a lot more exotic than sushi rolls. I wasn’t about to point out to Molly that sushi had been around for a while and that the rest of Los Angeles had progressed a hundred steps down the evolutionary line of exotic food trends. I was afraid she would make me eat offal or something.

“Ladies,” said the instructor, approaching the table that Molly and I were sharing. “Everything all right here?” He had introduced himself as Hoshi (“rhymes with Yoshi”) and was a short Japanese man with a mild accent, a gleaming black buzz cut, and a tendency to overshare. He’d opened the class by explaining that he was teaching for some extra money because his American wife was expecting their unplanned third child. Because that’s something you tell complete strangers.

“You bet!” Molly chirped, beaming at him. “I can’t believe it’s seaweed!”

Hoshi cut his eyes over to me very briefly, unsure if Molly was putting him on. “She’s new to sushi,” I said gravely.

His eyes widened, as if now I was putting him on. Which was fair. “Right,” he said, a little suspiciously, and then he turned his attention to the rest of the class. “Let’s begin our first rolls, everyone,” he called, weaving through the tables to the front of the room, where he’d laid out his own supplies on the instructor’s desk.

He began walking us through making a simple cucumber roll, and I concentrated on his instructions. I rolled the rice and cucumber up in the nori, pressed down along the edges to make it stick together, and glanced over at my struggling roommate. Molly’s hands weren’t used to the motions of food preparation, and she had none of her usual vampire grace in my presence, so her lopsided roll fell apart over and over, until each attempt began to resemble a Charlie Chaplin sketch. When she began furtively wiping sticky rice off her hands with the dangly tail of her cashmere cardigan, glancing around to make sure no one had seen her, I couldn’t help snickering.

“Good thing I wore my play clothes,” Molly said seriously, and my snicker turned into a full-on laugh. In all the time I’ve known Molly, I have never seen her wear an item of clothing that costs less than a tank of gas, and her “play clothes”—cashmere sweater, designer T-shirt with a picture of a T. rex failing at a push-up, and jeans that looked soft enough to make baby asses jealous—were no exception. She looked up from her sweater, amused.

“What?” I asked, picking up a knife and cutting my long tube of sushi roll into slices.

“Scarlett Bernard,” Molly said, her voice low and joyous. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were actually having a good time.”

“Me? What? I am not,” I said immediately. Because I’m mature.

“Pants on fire!” Molly crowed, her voice now officially too loud. Hoshi paused in his instructions to send us a questioning look.

“She’s kidding, sir,” I called helpfully. “My pants are not actually on fire.” Giving us a stern frown, Hoshi went back to his lesson, and I said out of the side of my mouth, “Are you suggesting I shouldn’t be having fun?” Because frankly, the thought had occurred to me.

“Of course not. I just haven’t seen you look happy in . . .” She trailed off, and then finished awkwardly, “You know. A while.”

I did know. I’d spent the last few days huddled in bed, alternately icing my knee and staring guiltily at the ceiling. And before that . . . well, Molly was right; it was good to be out. “Thanks for this, Molls,” I said quietly.

Molly flashed a smile—and then frowned down at my perfect sushi roll. Arching a smug eyebrow, I popped a piece of the roll into my mouth. It’s a rare day when I’m better at something than she is.

“Seriously, how is yours staying together?” she demanded.

“It’s all in the wrist,” I said around a mouthful of rice. Molly apparently had missed that particular idiom, because she examined her own wrists with new interest, and I almost choked on a bite of cucumber.

Then my cell phone buzzed in my pocket and I jumped, knocking my cane from where I’d propped it against the table. It clattered loudly to the floor, and the middle-aged lesbian couple at the next table glared at me. I shrugged in a “what’re you gonna do” kind of way and leaned back so I could dig the cell out of my jacket, which I’d tossed on the empty table behind ours. The caller ID said it was Will, the head of the Los Angeles werewolf pack. I frowned.

My job is cleaning up crime scenes for the three Old World parties in Los Angeles—the vampires, the werewolves, and the witches—and I’m on retainer, so in theory, any of them could call me anytime. But I hadn’t had any work calls since my injury, and frankly, Will was the last person I’d expect to call me for any other reason.

The phone buzzed a second time, and Hoshi paused in his explanation to glare at me. I was tempted to turn the phone off and put it back in my pocket, but that went against years of habit—and besides, Will wouldn’t call unless he absolutely had to. And by the time I hobbled out to the hall with my cane, I’d miss him. There was nothing to do but answer. “Sorry, Hoshi, but I’m an obstetrician,” I lied. “I have to take this.” The instructor’s face relaxed into a forgiving nod, and the couple next to me went back to their own rolls. I held the phone to my ear. “This is Dr. Bernard,” I said serenely. Molly grinned without looking up from her sushi.

Will didn’t even mention the fake title, which told me right away that things were serious. “You need to get to my house right now,” he said, his voice urgent.

I blinked in surprise. He was calling me into a crime scene? “For . . . working things?” I said stupidly. No, Scarlett, he’s got an emergency grape-juice stain. I glanced down at my swollen knee, which looked barely restrained by the metal-and-Velcro brace. “Will, I’m not exactly fit for duty yet. Is it . . . really minor?” I asked hopefully.

“No,” he said shortly. “It’s a disaster. At my house.” My face must have changed, because Molly’s own eyes widened in alarm. A weight I hadn’t known I’d dropped settled itself back into place on my shoulders.

My employers and I don’t discuss crime scenes over the phone, for obvious reasons, but we also don’t bother using a lot of code words to describe the situations. Codes are difficult to remember, and ultimately, knowing in advance what I need to clean up won’t make me get there any faster. They send me to a location, I get there as fast as I can, and I use whatever I have in my van, the White Whale.

One of the few codes we do have, however, is “disaster.” If Will was using it now, that meant that somewhere in his house there was a dead human body.

 

Chapter 2

“Scarlett?” Molly said uncertainly. She had put a hand out like she was spotting me, and I realized I had swayed a little bit on my stool. I grabbed the edge of the lab table for balance and told myself to get my shit together. It wasn’t like this was my first dead body.

“Hang on a second, Will,” I said into the phone. Without hanging up I put the phone in my hoodie pocket and looked at Molly, tilting my head toward the door. She nodded and began gathering our jackets and her purse. Technically Molly could have stayed, since it was after sunset, but she wouldn’t have been able to taste anything without me anyway. She handed me my cane, and we walked—well, Molly walked, I did more of a weird pirate shuffle with the cane—out to the hallway. “Good luck!” Hoshi said gaily, probably glad to be rid of the two of us. Didn’t blame him at all.

As soon as the door closed behind us I put the phone back up to my ear. “I’ll come,” I said to Will. I raised my eyebrows a tiny bit at Molly, mouthing Will you help? at her. She nodded an affirmation. “Molly’s driving,” I added, sending her a grateful look.

“Fine,” Will said impatiently. “I won’t be here; you’ll have to clean up without me. I was just stopping home for a second to grab some papers. I was lucky I noticed it on the doorstep.”

“Wait . . . you’re leaving?” I asked, genuinely confused. I’d expected Will to be angry with me, but I didn’t think he’d actually blow me off, not with a dead body.

“Yes,” he said shortly. “Esmé’s watching the bar, and she has to pick up her kids.” I had met Esmé, a short, pretty werewolf in her mid-thirties who had gotten married young, had kids young—and then had been turned into a werewolf when she and her husband were attacked during a camping trip to Canada. Her husband hadn’t survived, but Esmé had made it through the change, and suddenly found herself a thirty-year-old widow with three kids and never enough money. With Will’s office manager, Caroline, dead and his bartender, Eli, in hiding, I understood why Esmé was picking up shifts at his bar, Hair of the Dog.

But not why the bar needed to be open. “Couldn’t you just put up your Closed for Private Party sign?” I asked. I’d seen it a couple of times when Will had emergency pack business.

“Health inspector’s coming tonight. Too late to reschedule.” His voice was coming out as a growl now, his words in terse short sentences. This was not a good sign. Will’s control is excellent. If he was struggling to keep it together . . . he was either really upset, or the body was in really bad shape, and the smell of it was pushing at his self-restraint. Or both.

I kept my voice calm and careful. “Is anyone else at your place?” Will’s place served as the pack’s home base; all the werewolves spent a lot of time there. I’d been there myself twice, both times to clean up blood after werewolf fights.

“No. House is empty. I’ll leave the front door open.”

“Okay, I’m on it,” I said. Will just grunted and hung up. I looked at the phone, shaking my head. Shit. I glanced up at Molly, who was patiently holding out my jacket.

Only a week earlier, my psychotic ex-mentor, Olivia, had been running amok in LA. Olivia had a thing for controlling people, and I was the toy she wanted most for her collection. So she’d come after me and mine, hoping to break me down in every way she could. Olivia had sent cookies laced with wolfberry to Hair of the Dog, where my friend Caroline and my sometimes-friend-with-benefits Eli both worked. Caroline and Eli were werewolves, and giving them wolfberry is basically like giving a regular human a truckload of PCP and a bunch of stabby weapons.

I hadn’t been with them when they were poisoned, but I’d seen the fallout. Caroline had died that night, shot with silver by Will when he couldn’t keep her from attacking the poor humans who’d been at the bar. Eli had lost control so completely that he’d killed two people. Plagued by guilt, he’d begged Will to shoot him too, but I wouldn’t let him. Instead, I’d done something I was not supposed to be able to do: I’d focused my power outward and changed Eli back into a human. Permanently.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, honest.

I’d passed out afterward, possibly from changing him, or possibly as a result of the confrontation with Olivia, when she’d poisoned me with illegal chemotherapy drugs and made me fight an enormous man-shaped clay demon. What can I say, we had some issues.. At any rate, it sent me into . . . well, a bit of a coma.

When I woke up a few days later, I’d felt the vertigo before I even opened my eyes, a nauseous sensation as though someone had scrambled gravity within the boundaries of my own skin. It took me a few attempts just to open my eyes because pulling up my eyelids was like trying to hold up the bottom of a curtain with a stick. When my eyes finally focused, I saw a bunch of medical supplies on a little table next to me. The table and the wallpaper behind it were familiar, and after a moment I put together that I was in my own bed, in my own bedroom at Molly’s house.

Will was in a folding chair next to my bed, bent over a cell phone. He looked terrible. Which was startling in itself, because werewolves don’t really look terrible. There are many downsides to being a werewolf, but one of the few advantages is that the werewolves practically hum with good health. They have a high metabolism and natural athleticism, and they don’t get sick or suffer minor ailments like pimples or cold sores. Most of them don’t even have bad hair days, they’re that healthy. When they’re in my presence, some of that sheen dulls a little, but they still look like the picture of wellness.

But Will looked as terrible as I’d ever seen any werewolf look. His tan dress pants and Hair of the Dog polo shirt looked slept-in, and his unremarkably brown hair was greasy and sticking out in weird directions. There were new hollows under his eyes, and even sitting in a chair, he looked like he was struggling to stay upright.

I must have shifted or something, because he looked up from the phone. “You’re awake,” he noted.

“Will,” I mumbled. The vertigo had eased a little bit, but trying to put words together was like trying to do magnetic poetry upside down. “What happened to you?” I managed.

“The pack,” he said heavily. “The pack is falling apart.”

I don’t know what I was expecting him to say, but that wasn’t it. “Why?”

Will looked at me patiently for a moment, but when I didn’t speak he sighed and said, “Because you cured Eli.”

It came back to me then, in a rush: the witch murders, the mentor-turned-vampire, the scarred witch in the white lab coat. Her pet golem. And Eli.

I had changed Eli back into a human.

Despite the disorientation, I tried to sit up, flailing my arms backward and ramming my head forward like a spastic turtle. “Stop!” Will ordered, and although he looked like shit and he was human in my presence, there was such command in his voice that I froze. “I’ve had a doctor taking care of you, but she’s on a food break,” Will said, more quietly. “Don’t do any damage to yourself while she’s gone.”

For the first time, I noticed the IV and catheter that were attached to my body. Awkward. The IV stung where I had tugged at it during my daring attempt to flail around. I felt so strange, like my head was tired and sober but my body was on spring break in Cabo. “S’wrong with me?” I mumbled.

“You had a grand mal seizure after you cured Eli,” Will said matter-of-factly. “You hit your head on the metal bars of the cot and got a mild concussion. You also twisted your knee and tore a ligament or something. The doctor can fill you in when she gets back.”

I leaned back and took a deep breath, trying to calm down. Cured. I had never attached what I could do to that word before; it seemed absurd, cartoonish.

But . . . wasn’t that exactly what I had done?

“I wanted to help him . . . I thought I was . . .” My voice broke, and my mouth was suddenly too dry to swallow.

“I’m fairly certain you weren’t thinking much at all,” Will said frankly. I started to protest, and Will held up a hand. “Look, I understand why you did it. I saw Eli fall apart too. But now he’s had to leave, Caroline’s dead, and there are rumors flying in the pack. You have no idea how you’ve changed things.”

I winced. Will regarded me sadly, and for a minute his expression was exactly like the look on my father’s face when I’d been suspended for liberating a few dozen frogs from the high school science lab. “I have to get back,” he said, “but I need you to understand something, okay?” I gave him my best nod, and he continued with careful enunciation, “You can’t tell anyone.”

I blanched. “About Eli?”

“Eli, what you can do, that night at the bar, none of it. I’ll do my best to keep the pack together and hopefully it’ll blow over soon.”

I thought of Jesse Cruz, the LAPD detective who’d partnered with me on the witch murder case—who had kissed me after I’d shot Olivia. Oh, God. He must be worried out of his mind. “Jesse . . . ,” I began.

“Detective Cruz has been taken care of,” Will interrupted. He saw my jaw hit my lap and immediately shook his head in tired bemusement. “Sorry, bad phrasing. We didn’t kill him. Dashiell pressed his mind to think you’re in the UK for a bit. We didn’t know how else to handle him until you woke up.”

I relaxed. I had sent my brother, Jack, to the UK to visit another null when Olivia was running amok. Jack must have returned to LA by now, but Jesse didn’t know that.

Will stood up. “I’ve got to get back.”

“Will, wait,” I protested. I had a hundred questions. Who was the doctor? How did I get to Molly’s? Who already knew what? And for the love of God, who had changed my clothes while I was unconscious? But I settled for simply, “Where’s Eli?”

“Hidden,” Will answered. “I’m keeping him in the city until we know for sure that it’s permanent. There’s still the chance that the wolf magic will seep back in.” There was a note of hope in his voice, which told me just how bad things were. Eli had been tortured by guilt over killing those people when he was on wolfberry. And apart from that, he had hated being a werewolf, which is like constantly fighting a battle for your own identity. Will should have been at least a little happy for him, like a cancer patient whose chemo buddy goes into remission. The fact that the alpha was actually hoping the werewolf magic would come back was a very bad sign.

Will moved toward the door   “Can I see him?” I asked, trying to get the words out quickly before he could disappear.

He paused. “You can talk to him on the phone, if you want to,” Will said gently, “but you should really think about whether or not that’s a good idea.”

“Why?”

He gave me another one of those sorrowful, knowing looks, like I was being dense on purpose and it was making him sad. “Because he’s free now, Scarlett. Give him a little time to adjust, figure out what he wants. Maybe something good can still come out of this mess.”

Guilt sagged down on me like a new layer of pain as I realized he was right. Eli was no longer chained to magic or the pack; he could do whatever he wanted. And he deserved a chance to be human without me pulling him back into all the crazy.

 

So I’d stayed away from Eli. And now there was a dead body at Will’s to get rid of. It seemed like a pretty clear sign that I’d done the right thing.

As Molly and I walked out to the van, I glanced over at my roommate, who had a self-satisfied smile on her lips like she’d won a bet.

“What?” I asked.

“See?” she said smugly. “Now aren’t you glad I wore my play clothes?”

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