The Bite of Winter: Chapter 2
We are pleased to release the second 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 third chapter will be released next Friday before launch day.
**WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD**
**It is strongly recommended that you first read book #1 (THE CURSE OF MOOSE LAKE).**
Read the second chapter now for free below:
“Come again?” I say. “In custody? What’s going on? Where is she? Is she okay?”
His irritated sigh issues through the phone. “Can I get your name?”
“Junior Agent Phoenix Mason. Moose Lake Field Office. Now, where is Ashley and what’s going on?” My brain goes into overdrive. If Ashley has been taken into custody by other IMS agents, she must have done something seriously wrong. She was just supposed to be getting food for the party after shopping in Duluth. What kind of mess has she gotten herself into?
“Can I speak to your supervising agent?” the junior agent asks.
My anger is quick to flare. “How about I speak to your supervising agent. What field office are you with?”
“The one that doesn’t care for conservations going in circles,” he says dryly. A woman’s voice reprimands him in the background, there’s some shuffling, protests from the junior agent, and eventually a female comes on the line.
“Sorry about him. I’m the supervising agent for the Duluth Field Office.” She has a distinct British accent that I’m not expecting. “We’ve got your girl in our office but she’s not calming down. Maybe if she sees a familiar face she’ll consent to transforming back. I’d rather not hit her with a bio-mech pulse or tranquilizer if I can help it.”
“She wolfed out?” I clap a hand to my forehead.
“And ran like a lost husky through Canal Park during a busy shopping hour. Spare some time to come down here?”
Ashley was out in the open in wolf form during daylight in a populated area? This is bad. This is very bad.
“Of course,” I say quickly. “We’ll head up straight away.”
“Ta!” she says and hangs up.
I stare at the phone a moment before running out to the barn. Jefferson is watching his computer screen intently but turns it off as soon as he sees me. There must be something of panic in my face because he practically launches out of his chair.
“It’s Ashley,” I say before he can ask what’s wrong. “We’ve got a problem.”
The second I finish relaying what I was told, Jefferson throws on his jacket and hustles down the stairs. We hop into the SUV, Jefferson takes the wheel, guns it, and I dial Hawk. He picks up on the first ring.
“You reach her?” he asks immediately. “We’re starving here.”
“Umm, yeah, slight change of plans. You need to man the field office until Jefferson and I get back. Ashley’s been arrested and they need us to go up to Duluth to calm her down enough so she can shift. Oh, and she was running around in daylight as White Fang.”
Silence follows, filled in only by muted voices in the background. I already know what he’ll say next when he regains his composure so I cut him off before he has the chance.
“You can’t come with, Hawk,” I say. “We can’t all go running off. Someone needs to stay behind.”
“If they need someone to calm her down, I should be there.”
“Hawk, don’t you think I have the best chance of calming her down? I’ve got a little more in me than sassy remarks and movie quotes, remember?” We don’t talk about it often, more to make sure it stays secret than anything else, but we all know it’s there. The magic in my blood made me Dasc’s target because what’s in me has the potential to cure werewolves. Sure, it needs to mature like wine—or so I’m told—but ample power runs through my veins. I used it before to calm the frantic and anxious werewolves in school back when Dasc was using his own power to put them under his sway.
“Your magic doesn’t make a frantic person calm,” Hawk continues to argue.
“And what, that’s your superpower? I’m her friend, too. I can get her to calm down. We’ll be back soon enough. I’ll keep you updated.”
“You better,” he says and hangs up.
I purse my lips and tuck my phone into my pocket. Jefferson gives me a sideways look.
“He’ll be fine on his own?” he asks.
I know he’s asking about more than being left behind. I’m also the thing that keeps Hawk from going dark side. We’ve been stretching the limits of how far and how long we can be apart before his werewolf instincts really kick in. Hawk can handle being on his own for stretches of time. Jefferson’s been keeping a close eye on our progress.
“He’s fine,” I assure him and focus on the road, worrying my lower lip.
We reach the interstate and journey northeast to Duluth on icy roads. It grows dark and the headlights pierce through the evening gloom. I stare mindlessly out the windshield. This sort of thing wouldn’t have even happened if I could just cure werewolves now. I can tame and diminish the strength of the magical disease in their blood but I haven’t been able to rid them of it yet. We gave samples of my blood to Jefferson’s expert but the only word I’ve gotten on progress towards a cure is Jefferson telling me it’ll take time. How much time? I have no idea and it drives me crazy.
Exit ramps flash by to cities I can’t make out from the interstate. Half an hour passes and the SUV begins to climb hills until we finally reach civilization again. We crest the final hill and the view takes my breath away. A city of lights stretches out below us from the ice covered shores of Lake Superior to the heights of the hills to the northwest. Across the harbor and river, the lights of Superior in Wisconsin twinkle in competition. I haven’t been in what I would consider a big city since my time living in Minneapolis before I moved to Moose Lake. Hawk and I haven’t traveled much at all. Now the streetlights, tall buildings, and packed in suburbs feel like returning to my past.
The SUV curves along the side of the hill, making its way slowly down until we enter a twisty maze of bridges and roads. Factories, mills, and huge mounds of minerals line the shore on our right but to the left are retail shops, big box stores, supermarkets, and tightly packed in residential neighborhoods. We wind through traffic until Jefferson takes an exit on our right, and we enter an industrial area. Warehouses box us in until we’re practically at the lake’s edge.
Jefferson stops in front of a nondescript building with commercial red siding and hardly any windows. It’s at least double the size of Jefferson’s barn, boasts a heavy-duty steel door, and has a down sloping ramp that leads to a pair of closed garage doors.
“This is their field office?” I ask, peering up through the windshield at the array of antennas on the roof.
“No, I just stopped here because I like the color,” Jefferson says gruffly and gets out.
I sigh and follow after him. Hawk and I haven’t managed to smooth out Jefferson’s grouchy sass since we met. Not that we’ve really tried. It adds to his charm.
We stop beneath a floodlight outside the building’s front door. Jefferson buzzes the doorbell and we wait.
“Do you know them?” I ask offhand.
“Not really. You’ve meet them already, though.”
He rubs his hands together. “They were some of the agents that showed up to pull our butts out of the fire when we took down Dasc.”
“Oh. I didn’t know,” is all I can say. You think I’d remember someone as rude as Junior Agent Jaeger. Granted, I didn’t really chat with many of the agents that showed up that night. I was exhausted and out of it at the time. Being in a car crash and fighting for your life the rest of the night tends to have that effect.
The door finally opens and a woman stands in the way. My first impression of her is a safari guide like from the movies. She’s wearing tall brown boots, khakis, a matching shirt, and brown leather jacket. All she’s missing is one of those round kaki hats. Her curly blonde hair is tied loosely in a ponytail and stray wisps frame her sharp brown eyes. Built taller than both me and Jefferson, she makes an imposing figure.
“Can I help you two?” she asks. “It’s a little late to be sniffing around the warehouses.”
“We’re here for Ashley,” I say.
Her face brightens into a smile and she grasps my hand to shake it. “Just had to make sure. We have some random gents show up now and again. Junior Agent Mason, I presume?”
Jefferson leans in to make himself known. “Agent Jefferson Barnes.”
“Welcome, welcome. Do come in,” she says and steps aside to allow us entrance before shutting the door behind us.
The Duluth Field Office looks like an average living space with off-white plaster walls, an open kitchen, and dining area. It’s all one big room that looks out at the lake through tinted windows. It’s quaint.
The woman that let us in stands with her hands clasped behind her back next to the kitchen counter nearest us. “I’m Agent Melody Boyd, the supervising agent of this field office. If you’ll follow me, I’ll take you to Ashley.”
She trots down stairs against the right wall and we follow. The lower level changes into something reminiscent of the armory in Underground. The off-white walls are replaced with light gray and imbedded with blue LED lights to outline the massive room we enter. There’s a stand of computers back to back in the center, then numerous weapons on display along the walls next to mounted televisions and metal cabinets. It makes Jefferson’s loft look like, well, a barn. We pass through the main room into a hallway with a couple of closed doors that I assume could be living quarters, an open door to the garage where several SUVs sit, and to the last door at the end of the hallway with bars on its single window. That gives me a bad feeling straightaway. Waiting just outside the door is a man I can only presume is Charlie.
“This is Junior Agent Charlie Jaeger,” Melody says and intro-duces us.
He’s taller than I’m expecting, as in at least six feet tall, and better looking, too. Part of me associates a bad attitude with a face to match when I hear someone over the phone. He should be more crone-like, sneering, wretched, and smelly. Instead he’s got intense green eyes, charming freckles, a face out of a magazine, and hair that can’t decide if it’s really blonde or brunette styled short and fluffed up on top. He’s got sharp fashion sense too, to the point I almost feel shabby by comparison—corduroy jeans, a white button down shirt rolled to the elbows and a dark blue suit vest. He’s handsome. It makes me angry.
He cocks his head to the side as he sizes me up. “Finally come to grace us with your presence?”
“Charlie,” Melody sighs.
I glare at him and push past to open the door. The inside is basically a cement cell with brackets on the walls where I suppose chains could be linked to hold down monsters. And huddled in the corner shaking and letting out the weirdest sort of whine is a wolf. Its muzzle turns towards me and great big tears roll down its furry cheeks. When Ashley the wolf sees me, she lets out a keen howl.
“Ash, what did you get yourself into?” I say and go to kneel beside her. Her whole body is shaking so I put both hands on her shoulders to hold her steady. “You gotta calm down, okay? We can’t help you like this.”
“You sure that’s safe?” Charlie asks from the doorway.
I throw him a dark look over my shoulder. “She’s under the serum. She’s not going to bite me.”
He holds up his hands with a sarcastic smile. “Well, as long as you’re sure. Shall I put your doctor on hold while we wait?”
Melody smacks him upside the head so he gives her a dark look but finally shuts up. With him quiet I can finally focus all of my attention on Ashley. I want her to stop shaking and be okay. I will that urge to protect my friend to pulse off my skin. Her shakes slow until she simply sits there breathing deeply in and out. Hawk was right, though. It’s not enough. Now I need to be her friend.
“I’m going to protect you, Ash,” I say with as much confidence as I can muster. “It’s going to be all right. You believe me, don’t you? You know I’ll stick up for you. Remember when I punched Matt for picking on you and your friends? I won’t let you down.”
At that Ashley nods and signals with one paw for me to move back. I get up and give her space. She crouches and lets out a low whine as her body changes shape and the fur recedes until she’s a human again on all fours. Her winter jacket is muddy and when she inspects her soiled superhero shirt, she lets out a soft cry. I quickly give her a hand up. As soon as she’s on her feet she gives me a bone-breaking hug and starts sobbing in earnest. I pat her back awkwardly as the other three look on.
“It’ll be okay,” I try to reassure her. “Just tell us what happened.”
She pulls back and takes several long, shaky breaths until she stops crying. She runs a hand over her disarrayed hair then grasps my upper arms, her eyes wide.
“I was attacked, Phoenix,” she says dramatically.
“Attacked?” I glance to the others and they all seem to be paying much keener attention. “Attacked by who?”
“Not a who. A what.”
“It was a—a vampire.”
There’s a loud sigh from the back of the room, its source none other than Charlie. “Oh, for crying out loud—”
“You got a problem?” I snap.
He gestures to Ashley, whose grip on my arms is starting to hurt. “Come on, she’s got Love Moon fan girl written all over her. She saw what she wanted to see or she’s making up a story to cover for wolfing out in public.”
“You calling her a liar?” I step away from Ashley, and both Charlie and I start closing the distance between each other. My hands curl into fists and I see Jefferson tense to the side.
“There hasn’t been a vampire in Minnesota for fifty years,” he counters. “Try Wisconsin, but not here. Minnesota is werewolf territory. They don’t mix and match.”
“Oh, that’s funny. I must have imagined that shapeshifter working under a werewolf’s orders in Moose Lake then. They do mix.”
“That’s different. Apples and oranges.”
“Why the flaming hydra dung are we talking about fruit now!” I shout.
“Enough!” Melody slaps a hand on the metal door and the loud reverberation startles us both into silence. She glares at us and moves to place a hand on Ashley’s shoulder. “Where and how were you attacked, Ashley?”
Ashley runs a hand under the edge of her nose, her eyes darting between all of us. “Canal Park. I was heading between some of the restaurants when I was jumped by a vampire.”
“What did it look like?”
“Pale. Really pale. Sharp teeth. Weird eyes. When he tried to grab me I panicked. I didn’t mean to transform, I promise!”
We IMS agents share looks—actually, I avoid Charlie’s gaze completely—because Ashley has roughly described your typical vampire—pale, sharp incisors, bloodshot eyes, ragged. Vampires usually don’t feed off people with any type of magic though, diseased or regular. It’s like playing Russian roulette. Maybe they get a high off the magic in the blood, or maybe their head explodes. Every person’s magic is different and affects vampires differently, but usually their heads just explode. It’s not pretty so they usually aren’t dumb enough to try it.
“And then what happened?” Melody says, her voice soft and comforting. I determine I really like Melody and really don’t like Charlie. How on earth do they stand to work together?
“I wolfed out.” Ashley sniffles. “I don’t really remember what happened next. I ran and kept running. I don’t think the vampire tried to follow me.”
“Yeah, well,” Charlie says in that same sarcastic tone. “Once this vamp figured out dinner wasn’t quite the treat he thought, he probably thought better than to run after you. That, or there wasn’t a vampire at all.”
I’m inclined to start another argument, and Jefferson must sense that, too, because he quickly puts a hand on my shoulder and says, “Why don’t we go back to the scene? We should figure out what exactly we’re dealing with here. Ashley can show us where she was attacked.”
She nods, but her fingers knead the bottom of her shirt anxiously. Melody agrees and leads Ashley out of the room. Charlie and I hang back a second longer to glare at each other before following after behind Jefferson. While everyone moves into the garage to hop into one of the Duluth team’s black SUVs, my phone buzzes in my pocket. Hawk’s mug displays on the screen.
“Hey, what’s going on?” he asks the second I pick up.
“Ashley’s fine, for the moment,” I say. “She says she was attacked by a vampire so we’re going to check it out. I’ll call when I know more.”
“Are they going to be pressing any charges?” he asks.
I glance at everyone waiting in the car for me. Charlie gives me the stink eye before looking away. “I don’t know. I’ll call you back,” I say and hang up before he can keep pestering me. I don’t have anything for him, despite how much I’d like to.
I hop into the second row seat next to Ashley and Jefferson while Melody takes the wheel and Charlie sits shotgun. The garage door lifts and we pull out into the dark wintery night. Ashley fidgets constantly next to me so I pat her awkwardly on the shoulder. I’m not so great with words of comfort, not like my brother, so I don’t say anything at all. We wind down a road alongside the interstate, passing warehouses and shipping yards, an aquarium, a huge convention complex, and some old ship docked as a museum until we turn into a stretch of shops and restaurants that line the road all the way to a massive lift bridge.
“Well, this is Canal Park,” Melody says from the front and signals a right turn to join the throng of creeping traffic. It’s crammed here. Must be a hot spot. “Which way, Ashley?”
“Up on the right in a couple of blocks,” she says subdued. “Near the Blue Comet.”
“That’s a nightclub,” Charlie says. “Aren’t you underage?”
“I wasn’t in the Blue Comet,” Ashley shoots back defensively. “I was walking down the alleyway to the parking lot. I had been at the Chocolate Factory.” She stares down at her hands morosely and says in a sad undertone. “It was delicious.”
The SUV moves an inch at a time in the traffic. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say we were in rush hour traffic in Minneapolis. This is ridiculous.
“I could walk there faster,” I say.
“Want to grab me a coffee while you’re at it?” Jefferson grumbles.
I keep a hand on the handle of the door, ready to hop out as soon as possible. Cars fill every parking spot, people walk in groups on the sidewalks laughing and talking, stores display bright signs and throw out welcoming warm light. Ahead in the distance, beneath a neon sign that proclaims Blue Comet, a lady stands holding a mic in front of a video camera held by a squat man.
“Reporter,” Charlie says and points out the window. “Who’s ready for their fifteen minutes of fame?”
Before waiting for permission, I throw open the door and hop out. I try to blend in with the crowds and come up behind the reporter and cameraman along with a group of other onlookers. The next second Charlie is there, an arm stretched out in front of me.
“And where are you going?” he asks casually and looks down his nose at me.
I shove his arm away harder than I mean to and he stumbles to the side. When he straightens his look changes from condescending to surprised and wary. Yeah, that’s right. I’ve got power in my veins. Don’t underestimate me.
“I’m going to listen to the report,” I growl. “I’m not a rampaging berserker, you know.”
“That’s debatable,” he says under his breath.
Instead of arguing, we both stop and listen as the reporter starts to talk.
“That’s right, Jim,” she says, flashing brilliant white teeth. “Locals reported seeing what appeared to be a timber wolf running behind the shops here in Canal Park. At first glance a few thought it was a dog that had gotten loose from its owner but it was confirmed to be a wolf after reviewing footage taken by an eyewitness. I’m here with Kevin Rogers who managed to capture the sighting on his phone. Mr. Rogers, in your own words, what did you witness tonight?”
“Oh, sweet piping Pan,” I mutter under my breath. If they had actual footage of Ashley turning—
A lanky teenager wearing just a ragged hoodie despite the temperature eases into the spotlight with a goofy grin, waving at the camera like a fool.
“Hi, mom!” he says. As far as introductions go for your first time on camera, I think he hits the top of the stupid list. “Yeah, so, like, I was just hanging with my buddies and I saw this huge thing out of the corner of my eye. I thought it was a pitbull or something. I started following at the other end of the alleyway here—” He saw a possibly dangerous dog and decided to follow it? Moron. “—and it stopped and looked straight at me. I pulled out my phone and started recording because it was a wolf. No lie!”
“And there you have it,” the reporter says to draw the attention back to herself. “Authorities have not been able to locate the animal and commented this is very unusual behavior for wolves who tend to shy away from human contact—”
She drones on but it’s clear no one actually saw Ashley change—well, except for the vampire. And why was a vampire here in the first place? On top of being out where it could be seen, it attacked someone in a very busy part of town? Was everyone drinking a glass of stupid here?
“I’m going for that alley,” I say. “You’re welcome to try and stop—”
Charlie isn’t there. I glance around and spot him already receding into the shadows of the alleyway. How did he get there so fast? I push my way through the crowd, bypass the reporter, and jog into the alley after him. Steam issues from the restaurant on the right and billows in the cramped space shared by dumpsters and recycle bins. A cold breeze off the lake scoops up the foul odor of the trash and carries it away.
Next to the last dumpster at the end of the alley I find Charlie kneeling on the ground, a massive purse in his hands.
“Uh, what are you doing?” I ask.
Instead of answering, he pulls from the depths of the purse a long, glossy looking wrap the color of ash. The more he hauls it up, the less like cloth it appears to be. The light from the restaurant’s floodlight catches it and I realize it’s not cloth at all. It’s skin. The skin from a seal to be more precise. I know exactly what that is.
“There might not have been a vampire here,” Charlie says and heaves a heavy sigh. “But there was definitely a selkie.”