The Bite of Winter: Chapter 1
We are pleased to release the first chapter of THE BITE OF WINTER by Bethany Helwig, book #2 of the International Monster Slayers series which will be released on April 18, 2017. The second and third chapters will be released over the next two Fridays leading up to launch day.
**WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD**
**It is strongly recommended that you first read book #1 (THE CURSE OF MOOSE LAKE).**
Read the first chapter now for free below:
Snarls and howls echo in the wintery air. If not for the cold, I would be overwhelmed by the smell of wet dog. As it is, it’s strong enough. My breath mists before me and I hug my winter jacket closer to myself in the freezing temperature. Werewolves race back and forth through the snow, jaws snapping and saliva flying. I keep my distance so I don’t get run over but one purposefully veers in my direction at full speed. I jump back just in time so I’m not flattened and almost lose my balance on the slippery field.
I cup my hands around my mouth and shout, “Ben, do that again and I’ll red card you!”
He barks at me and keeps running, his blue jersey sticking to his damp fur. He races after the soccer ball being pushed along by Hawk in wolf form moving towards the makeshift goal at the other end of the field in a red jersey. Other wolves in red jerseys team up around Hawk and protect his charge. The atmosphere is rich with adrenaline as Ben and the rest of the blue team rush to cut him off. When they get in close, Ben snaps at the ball and grabs it with his teeth. Before he can make a dash for the opposite goal, he’s hit from the side and the pair of blue and red jerseys go tumbling.
A yellow flag flies into the air and Deputy Graham jogs out onto the field in his Carlton County Sheriff’s jacket. His towering frame makes him seem like a giant amongst the wolves spread out around him. Strands of his chin length hair peek out from a dark beanie on his head as it starts to slip off. “Hey, hey! No biting the ball! This is soccer, not Frisbee!”
The soccer game pauses and the werewolves stand still, breathing hard. Ben and a werewolf I recognize as Jason untangle themselves. The deputy has to pull Ben’s paw out of Jason’s twisted jersey before they are completely extricated. He picks up the ball, shaking his head, and tosses it to me. It’s punctured and bleeding air fast, turning into a limp mass in my hands. I hold it up for Ben to see.
“This is why we can’t have nice things!” I shout and toss the ruined ball aside. A line of others, loaned out by players in the game, sits behind me. I pick up the closest non-mangled one and place it on the edge of the field.
Hawk trots over and stands perfectly still behind the ball, paw pointed. His reddish fur pokes through the jersey around his torso and gleams in the fading winter light. His team automatically starts spreading out between the blue jerseys.
I hold up my hands and call, “Resume!”
My brother nudges the ball with his nose and races back into the fold. The wolves dive around each other, fighting to get the ball to the goal. I may be prejudiced but Hawk is one of the best players on the field. He’s the captain of the red team and they’ve won four consecutive games so far. If he makes this next goal, it’ll be their fifth. I’m supposed to be refereeing along with Deputy Graham but I start cheering my brother on.
Mrs. Ferguson guards the goal, furry head bent down as she paces back and forth. The wolves pound across the snow packed down by their many trampling paws. Ben slides forward to block Hawk’s drive but overshoots and ends up running into one of his own teammates. The way is clear. Hawk tosses the ball into the air with his nose, launches skywards, and gives the ball an almighty kick with both back legs to send it towards the goal. Mrs. Ferguson slides.
“Goal!” I shout and jump up and down with my hands in the air.
The red team howls and they throw themselves into a literal dog pile on top of Hawk. I laugh and want to jump in to congratulate him, give him a noogie maybe, but there’s a crowd of wolves between me and my brother. I hold off and stand on the outskirts. I know better than to get into the middle of a pack of excited were-wolves.
Since Hawk and I started our campaign to turn the werewolves into more of a community rather than a loose smattering of loners, our job has become more like herding puppies than corralling wolves. The sight before me is evidence enough of that. Several are now jumping around like antelopes and eating snow simply because they can. It’s almost easy to forget what they are and what this city went through three months ago. I subconsciously rub the spot on my forearm that bears the scar from having my first life-threatening encounter with a werewolf. It doesn’t have the same silver sheen as your typical werewolf bite but I’m still marked where teeth punctured the skin. As a force of habit, I find Jason’s slinky gray wolf form in the crowd, always conscious of where he is. Jason had been under an alpha’s compulsion at the time he bit me, but still.
I heave a sigh and push the thought out of my mind. Dwelling on something like that will only give me a headache. Dasc, Lycaon—whatever his name is—is gone along with his influence. None of the werewolves gathered here would ever hurt someone like that now.
“I thought you were supposed to be keeping them in check,” a grouchy voice says behind me. “What is this? 101 Dalmatians?”
Jefferson stamps out from the trees, a black stocking cap over his shaggy gray hair and the collar of his fleece jacket pulled up to his ears. He’s let his scruff grow out into a thick beard since winter started. It’s his “extra layer of protection” as he puts it. His beady eyes appraise the werewolves with disapproval.
I just smile and rub my cold hands together. “Hawk won again in case you were wondering.”
“Any trouble out there?”
Jefferson heaves a sigh and frowns at the tangle of werewolves still running around and playing tag with each other. “Surprisingly, no, considering the racket they’re making. I could hear them howling all the way out at the road.”
“They were just having fun.”
“Yeah, well.” He rolls his shoulders and gives me a sideways look. “Too much fun and too much noise and they’ll end up drawing more attention than we can handle. Do you want them winning soccer games, or safe?”
I scowl at him and kick at the snow under my feet. He always has to be the downer of the group. “They can’t have both?”
“They can play soccer like normal people. They don’t have to wolf out for it.”
“They need this,” I say and throw a hand out to the werewolves finally settling down and tugging their jerseys off each other with their teeth. “It lets them blow off steam and get all that instinctual crap out of the way. We’ve cut way back on the number of incidents Moose Lake used to have.”
He rolls his eyes. “It’s only been three months, Phoenix. Don’t let it go to your head, and never let your guard down. Come on. We’ve got probation duties to attend to.”
The werewolves have started to shift and people stagger to their feet panting after the exertion of the game and the pain of transformation. Hawk stands on his tiptoes over the group and waves to me with a big smile before one of his teammates tackles him. I laugh and watch as a few boys wrestle with him for a bit.
I’ve always wanted this for Hawk, for him to fit in completely and have friends. I mean, we had friends back in Underground but none that were like him, none that knew intimately all the things a werewolf goes through. Even I can’t fill that void for my brother. After his alpha display when we took down Dasc, the werewolves flocked to him. They look up to him and I’ve never seen him happier.
But I also realize I’m standing on the outskirts now, looking on instead of being in the thick of it with him. I’m not a part of the pack, and never will be, but at least I’ll always be his sister when he needs me.
The teams disperse and everyone walks off the field into the sparse woods down a narrow path to an impressive colonial style house. Cows and horses fenced in near the enormous red barn shy away from the werewolves walking as humans. Animals must be able to sense the danger lurking beneath on some level. It makes them nervous but not terrified. Their owner, Mr. Wick, who’s a werewolf himself, still handles them just fine. He’s been kind enough to allow us to use his land on the far outskirts of Moose Lake to host these kinds of events. Thanks to soccer games, capture the flag, races, and whatever other games we feel like, the werewolves have been far more willing to comply with probation.
Jefferson and I catch up to the tail end of the werewolves and I pat Ben on the shoulder.
“Ready for your checkup?” I ask, and Jefferson moves on to talk to another boy.
Ben’s red in the face and still breathing hard. The front of his black hair is plastered to his forehead and when he tries to fix it, he ends up making it stick out in every direction. He smiles and heaves a little sigh before holding out his hand palm down.
“Sure thing,” he says and waits.
I pull out my bio-mech scanner, that looks like little more than a handheld video game, from my jacket pocket and switch it on. Ben holds his hand steady while I scan the probation ring on his finger. The ring doesn’t look like much but that’s kind of the whole point. It’s just an ordinary silver band until the bio-mech scanner does its thing. Then the whole band glows faintly blue while it transmits data to the scanner. Four seconds later and it’s back to being a regular old ring. Ben lets his hand drop and gives me another smile but I’m paying attention to the readings on my scanner, not him. Data displays in a line graph and each spike shows when Ben has transformed. Today’s transformation for the soccer game shows up in two sharp spikes—one for turning into a wolf, and one for turning back. The rest of the line is flat.
“How’ve you been, Ben?” I ask, eyes glued to the screen as I scroll back in time to the last time I tested his ring.
“I’ve been great!” he says enthusiastically and starts to stretch his arms. “School’s fine, I’m fine. I’ve been wanting to go see a movie though.”
I speed through the rest of the data and mark him as all clear. “Oh yeah?”
“Yeah, do you want to go?”
My mind draws a blank and I look up, finally finished with the probationary report. “Go where?”
“To a movie. With me.”
“Sure. What movie, what time, and who else is going?”
His entire face turns the shade of my hair. “I meant, you and me. You with me.”
“Yeah, I got that part. And who else is coming with?”
He runs a hand through the back of his hair and I frown at him, trying to figure out what his problem is. It takes me a moment before it clicks in my head. He’s asking me on a date. Duh. Now my face flushes and I panic.
“I think I hear Jefferson calling me,” I say in a rush and start jogging away. “Gotta go!”
Ben remains where he is as I flee. I’m such an idiot. Jefferson is already onto his second probation ring check when I slide to a stop next to him. Matt Jones keeps his hand steady for the check and gives me a curt nod—yet another werewolf that almost bit me. He’s also the boy I punched on my first day at Moose Lake High School. Then he later tried to hit on me. Our standing relationship hasn’t exactly been friendly and we tend to avoid each other to prevent awkward conversations. As soon as Jefferson gives him the okay, Matt hurries away.
“What’s with you?” Jefferson says and gives me a once over.
“Nothing,” I say a bit shrill, so I clear my throat. “Nothing at all. I’m as fantastic as a unicorn on a rainbow.”
He raises an eyebrow. “You realize that’s not a good thing, right? Unicorns hate rainbows.”
“Oh, I know.”
His eyes dart over my shoulder to Ben skulking away into the farmhouse. “What did you do now? Break that kid’s heart?”
I lean back in shock. “What?”
“Don’t play coy. That boy’s been trying to hold your hand since you got to town.” He shakes his head and studies some data on his scanner before continuing to mutter, “The number of times I’ve had to listen to Ashley fawn over his looks during your stupid werewolf Olympics . . .”
“Well, I ran away.”
At that, he throws his head back and laughs. Something must occur to him, though, because he quickly stops and gives me a piercing stare. “He asked you out and you just ran?”
“You’ve faced down a berserker, a shapeshifter, a pack of werewolves, a deranged psychopath, and now you run? Mrs. Ferguson’s going to filet you alive. And she was finally starting to be nice to all of us.”
I throw up my hands. “What was I supposed to do?”
“How about not run away? You could have just said no.” He pinches the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “Okay, I’m probably going to regret asking this, but have you ever been in a relationship before? Aren’t you teenagers always dating someone?”
Out of nowhere Hawk appears and throws his arm around my shoulders. “You kidding? Fifi here’s never been on a date, unless you count that centaur from Ireland—”
I shove him away. “Shut up! That wasn’t a date!”
He gives a bark of a laugh. “Well, what would you classify a night at the movies and dinner as?”
“A free movie ticket and free food,” I say flatly. “I couldn’t pass that up. And I’m not the one that kissed a water sprite—”
“You dared me to!”
Jefferson lets out a disgusted noise and starts to walk away. We jog after him to keep up and enter the farmhouse together. Hawk punches my shoulder and flees further into the house before I can hit him back. I lose him near the stairs as he slips between the werewolves crowded inside the house. Annoyed, I get back to work and move clockwise through the house scanning everyone with a ring on, which is just about every werewolf inside. After the fiasco with Dasc, the IMS wanted to keep a closer eye on those exposed to his powers of persuasion just to make sure there weren’t any aftereffects. So far that doesn’t seem to be the case.
When I turn a corner and bump into Jason, my hand instantly reaches around to the back of my waistband before the jolt of panic subsides. I let my hand slide off the handle of my mother’s gun that I always carry now, and try to pass off the motion as if it was nothing. It’s a reaction I don’t seem to be able to control. Sure, Jason bit me but he wasn’t in control then. He also attacked people at a high school dance while under Dasc’s persuasion, but so did a lot of other people. He’s the only one I react to like this, though.
I even out my breathing and urge my heart to stop racing. It’s just Jason and just a stupid reaction. I force myself to look him in the eye. He’s pale and seems to be getting paler all the time. Shadows paint the underside of his eyes and I swear he’s wearing eyeliner to match his black wrist cuffs and shirt. I haven’t really spoken to him since we bagged Dasc and no words come to mind now. Jason must feel the same because he doesn’t say a word either.
Fortunately, Hawk materializes beside me and takes the scanner out of my hands. He gives me a knowing smile and nods, giving me the okay to leave the awkward encounter.
“Hey, Jason, time for your checkup,” Hawk says and nudges me with his elbow so I back away and turn down the hall so I don’t have to deal with Jason. Every time I do my probation rounds Hawk comes to my rescue and deals with Jason himself. He’s been keeping a close eye on him ever since Jason bit me. I’m thankful for it.
A minute later, Hawk turns the corner and passes the scanner back with that same smile before slipping away to talk with some of his other friends. I heave a sigh and continue on, trying to clear the frustration from my mind.
I enter the living room where Mrs. Ferguson and Mr. Wick are watching the evening news. Some report about ships missing off the east coast has them glued to the screen. I knock lightly on the side of the television to get their attention and hold up the scanner.
Mrs. Ferguson gives a little dignified huff and her short curly hair wiggles side to side. She holds out her hand like a princess waiting for a knight to kiss the back of her hand. I try not to cringe as I scan the ring on her finger.
Trying to make polite conversation, I say, “You did some great goalie work out there today. Nice save against Matt earlier.”
“Hmph. I still wasn’t good enough to stop your brother.” She lifts her chin.
“We’ll have to work on that,” I say and scan through her data quickly. “He’s going to float away in a high wind if we don’t deflate his ego.”
“I appreciate all that you and your brother have done for my son. Truly.”
For the first time she gives me a real, full on smile. My face flushes again. I appreciate the high praise but I can only imagine what her temper will be once she finds out I ran away from Ben, even though I’m sure I didn’t “break his heart.” He’ll be fine, but Mrs. Ferguson’s fury when it comes to someone messing with her son is terrifying.
“Thanks, Mrs. Ferguson. We do our best.”
Just then Hawk reappears with an entourage. “Where’s the food? I thought Ashley was supposed to be back an hour ago.”
I shrug and walk casually over. “I’m sure she just got caught up shopping in Duluth. She’s probably on her way back now.” I’m only a foot away and while his guard’s down I slug him in the shoulder. He topples to the side from the force of the blow and falls into a tangle on the sofa. I race back out of the house as fast as I can, laughing the whole way. I just manage to make it outside when he tackles me to the ground from behind. I throw out my hands and catch myself before I face plant in the snow.
“Truce! Truce!” I shout. Hawk’s laughing and I’m laughing and a few others gather at the door cheering us on to fight. My brother tries to kick out the back of my knees to make me crumple. I go down on one knee, grab his arms, and yank us both hard to the side. We fall into the snow but I roll onto my stomach faster than he can get up and push a handful of snow into his face.
I jump away and shout, “Winner!”
A sweeping bow to the crowd gets everyone laughing, but then I get a big wet snowball to the back of the head and almost fall over again. Hawk caws and starts to charge again when Jefferson pushes his way through the crowd and gives us the stink eye.
“Come on, Phoenix,” he growls. “We should get moving.”
“All right, I’m coming, I’m coming.” I evade Hawk’s attempt to give me a noogie and trot after Jefferson to our black SUV covered in road salt.
“Have fun!” I shout over my shoulder. Hawk waves and disappears back inside with the others. Jefferson tosses the keys to me over the hood of the SUV and I catch them lightly before sliding into the driver’s seat.
“Don’t crash,” Jefferson says, the same thing he says to me every time I drive, ever since his old truck turned into a wreck. I never say I wrecked it because it really wasn’t my fault. I can blame that one on Dasc—one in a very long list—for sending a werewolf with a semi to turn me into roadkill.
The playfulness bleeds out of my bones and I change into a different person driving back to the Moose Lake Field Office. I don’t let Hawk see this part of me. I can be regular old me with my brother but there’s a dark shadow of a person in me now ever since I emptied a clip of bullets into a man’s chest. Yes, he was a werewolf, the worst there is, but at that moment he was just a man. I shot to kill. I meant to kill him. Only Dasc, the first of all werewolves, could have managed to survive that many bullets coated in wolfsbane. It scares me what I did. Part of me is glad that it didn’t work and he survived. The other part of me—well . . .
Jefferson knows. He’s always known. He’s always had that dark part, the void left in place of his family. He understands. He would have pulled that trigger a thousand times, and he’s told me that, too, when he’s found me sitting alone in the middle of the night cleaning my mother’s gun, as if I could clean the shots I fired from my memory. You stopped a monster, he says. You saved an entire city. Then why do my hands shake when I hold a gun? I need to make it all worth it. I need to get answers from Dasc.
We make it home and I park outside the cabin. Together we trek through the half-foot of snow to the barn and Jefferson turns on the lights. The Green Monster remains dormant under its tarp to protect it from the salt and snow on the roads, like a bear in hibernation until spring comes. I move past it and take the stairs two at a time to the loft.
It’s hard to remember when there were only bookshelves, a map on the wall, and a rough table. After our successful capture of Dasc, the IMS was in a generous mood and gave us a major technology overhaul. Jefferson finally insulated the walls, brought the electrical up to code, and then the IMS technicians came. The map of Moose Lake is now rolled up and gathering dust in a corner. In its place on the wall is a list of all those people still missing—Jefferson’s daughter is at the top and not far below is Deputy Graham’s sister. Next to that is a weapon rack, an ammo cache, and a mounted television. Jefferson turns the TV on to a news feed for background noise before settling in front of one of our two computers.
I take the swivel chair next to him at the other computer setup with two widescreen monitors. After logging into the IMS remote servers, I upload the probation ring data we collected at the farmhouse before moving on to what I really want to see. Witty’s been emailing me constantly—because I harass him if he doesn’t—with updates on Dasc’s condition and ongoing interrogation. Today’s email is thin with the same line he’s been repeating for the last four weeks.
“Any change?” Jefferson asks, leaning back in his chair to see my screens.
I read off Witty’s message in a dry monotone. “Dasc is nearly recovered. Still refusing to talk. Will send another update in a few days.”
“So another boatload of nothing.”
“Yup. There’s a P.S., though.”
“Yeah?” Jefferson’s eyes widen hopefully.
“Says, No, you still can’t come see him. Stop asking. Real charmer, that Witty.”
He sighs and raps his fingers on the arms of his swivel chair. “I guess we can’t blame them for not letting us interrogate him ourselves. You tried to kill him. I would kill him.”
“But answers first, right?”
“Right. Then I’d kill him.”
We say it casually like we’re discussing the weather or what we want for supper. We come off like we’re joking but we’re really not. I run a hand through my hair that’s damp thanks to Hawk.
“Anything interesting in the feeds?” I ask to change the subject.
He shrugs and clicks through a few browser windows. “Not really, just some gossip from one of the teams afloat that got information on a possible leviathan sighting.”
That certainly catches my attention. “Really?”
“Don’t get so excited,” he grouses. “They’re baseless rumors. All the leviathans and a lot of other monsters died out hundreds of years ago, but every now and then people will claim they saw one of the old favorites. There was a story just last month where a senile retired agent claimed he saw a lamia—you know, one of those serpent-lady-demon-things—consorting with Big Foot in the sewers of Paris.”
“Did they ever figure out what he really saw?”
“Turns out it was a regular human girl meeting up with a really hairy guy. And that leviathan sighting? It was probably a whale.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
He gives me a sharp look. “Trust me, you wouldn’t want those rumors to be true.”
I shrug my shoulders and stand when my stomach rumbles.
“You want anything from the fridge?” I ask.
He shakes his head and starts typing away, intensely focused on his task. I know what he’s doing but I don’t say a word. Instead, I take the stairs and move into the cabin. The stacks of paper that once flooded the place are gone. The dinosaur of a computer that used to sit on the table is now a burned out hull on Jefferson’s makeshift gun range. Once we had gotten the new computer equipment, we celebrated by smashing the old one to pieces and roasting marshmallows over the fire we set inside its corpse. That was a fun night. The kitchen is clean and tidy nowadays—thanks to yours truly.
I open the fridge and absently scan what’s available. The beer bottles have been replaced with 12-packs of Dr. Pepper. Jefferson stopped drinking once Dasc was in custody and has been sober ever since. Soda and coffee fuel our work these days. I start inspecting a foam container of venison—the staple of our field office—when my phone buzzes in my pocket.
When I pull it out, Hawk’s cross-eyed mug displays on my phone.
“Miss me already?” I say by way of greeting.
“Have you heard anything from Ashley?” he asks.
“She still hasn’t shown up?”
“No, and she won’t pick up for me. Maybe you’ll have better luck.”
I frown. “That’s not like her. I’ll give her a ring.”
He hangs up and I dial Ashley’s number, listening to it ring while I pick out my dinner. Eventually I get her voicemail. That’s odd. She’s normally glued to her phone and hates missing out on parties. For her to not show up is unthinkable. I dial again and then a third time until the line is finally picked up.
“Hello?” It’s an unfamiliar male voice. “To whom am I speaking?”
Instantly suspicious and on the defensive, I say, “I could ask you the same thing.”
“You came up as the I.C.E. contact when you called.” There’s a moment of silence. What, is he letting that sink in or something? Who the pixies is this? “Nosce te ipsum.”
My training kicks in and the dinner I’ve picked out is quickly forgotten. Nosce te ipsum is the Latin code phrase used when IMS agents are trying to identify each other. It means “know thyself.” The only reason this guy would know I’m an agent is if he knows Ashley is a werewolf because all werewolves must have an agent listed as their “in case of emergency” contact. But how would he know Ashley is a werewolf, unless . . . she transformed in front of him?
I respond with the appropriate phrase. “Timendi causa est nescire.” Ignorance is the cause of fear.
“This is Junior Agent Charlie Jaeger,” the male voice says. “We have your friend here in custody.”