The Bite of Winter: Chapter 3
We are pleased to release the third 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. Launch day is next week on Tuesday!
**WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD**
**It is strongly recommended that you first read book #1 (THE CURSE OF MOOSE LAKE).**
Read the third chapter now for free below:
At the word “selkie,” all the facts I know about them pop into my mind like hits from a web search.
Selkie—a seal that sheds its skin to become human, then puts that same skin on again to transform back. They come mainly from Scotland and Ireland, and it’s a rare occurrence to see one in the States. Take a selkie’s skin and they can’t transform back. People have stolen skins before as blackmail to keep a selkie under their control, so selkies guard the skins with their lives. Finding one here must mean there’s a selkie nearby.
“But . . .” My brain comes to a stop when I put that knowledge in context with what’s before me. “A selkie wouldn’t attack Ashley. They’re not monsters, and they don’t look like vampires.”
“I know that,” Charlie says irritably. “But whoever this belongs to probably knows something about what happened. I’m not buying it as a coincidence that there was an attack and a selkie skin in the same alleyway. This is the most solid lead we have. I’ll believe a selkie was here but I’m still holding off on accepting a vampire was waltzing around in the middle of a busy city hub.”
“Wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a stranger accosting her in an alleyway and a freakin’ movie star painted with glitter.” He gestures between the pair of us. “We have training. We can tell what’s what. She doesn’t. She saw what she wanted to see.”
“Why would anyone want to see a vampire in an alleyway as opposed to a regular guy?”
He nods thoughtfully, a rueful look on his face. “You know, I’ve been asking myself the same question ever since Anne Rice starting writing vampire novels.”
He rolls his eyes. “Forget it. We still have to figure out who this skin belongs to and why they dumped it in an alley. A selkie would never do that.”
I don’t want to admit it but he’s right. Even if it wasn’t a selkie that attacked Ashley—and it’s highly unlikely that one did—maybe the selkie saw what happened, or knows where we might find that vampire. The fact we found a skin just lying around is a very bad sign.
Charlie tucks the skin back into the purse, stands, and shoves the bag into my hands.
“Carry this,” he orders and stalks out of the alleyway.
“Why can’t you carry this?” I snap back. I’ve known Charlie for less than an hour and my automatic response is already to start an argument with him.
“Seriously?” he calls back without stopping. “I’m not going to carry a purse.”
I sling the strap over my shoulder and clutch it tight to my side. I’m not going to be the one to lose something this precious.
The reporter and cameraman are packing up so the crowd is quick to disperse now that the camera’s off. Charlie walks back to the street and hails Melody who is on foot on the sidewalk. There’s no sign of Jefferson, Ashley, or the SUV anymore. The three of us meet outside the entrance to the nightclub.
“Ashley freaked out after she saw the reporter here,” she explains. “Jefferson’s trying to calm her down, but she’s in a right state. I need to drop them off so they can wait at our office until we’re done here. Did you two find anything?”
I hold out the purse. Melody discreetly examines the contents and purses her lips. She and Charlie share a look that is a conversation all on its own. Melody stares him down and he goes from angry to irritated to resigned.
“Okay, fine,” he says without any context at all. “I’ll go.”
“Good,” Melody says and smiles.
I hold up my hand to get their attention. “Sorry, what just happened?”
Melody passes the purse to Charlie who promptly shoves it into my arms again. He huffs and explains in an undertone, “A group of selkies came to town on one of the salties at the beginning of fall and they tend to hang out at the Blue Comet.”
“Saltie?” I interrupt.
“Ocean-faring vessel. Selkies would never come this way by plane so they rode through the St. Lawrence Seaway, across the Great Lakes, and parked in Duluth,” he rolls off then continues as if I hadn’t said a word. “But Melody and the selkies don’t exactly get along—”
“Threatening to skin one alive tends to elicit that sort of reaction,” she comments offhand. “But they just love Charlie, don’t they?” She gives him a crooked smile and he goes rigid. “They’ll talk to him but they won’t even let me in the club. Phoenix, why don’t you go with him and see if they know who this skin belongs to?”
“What?” Charlie and I protest at the same time. We glance at each other before avoiding any more eye contact.
“You could use more hands-on experience, Phoenix,” she says. “And Charlie could use some backup.”
“I don’t need help,” he says flatly.
Melody tosses her hair back. “Just like you didn’t need a hand when one tried to drag you into the lake with her?”
His face turns brilliant red and he stalks away into the Blue Comet without another word. Melody shoos me after him.
“Well, go on then!” she says and pushes me towards the door.
I swing the purse onto my shoulder and push in the black door Charlie disappeared through. The wintery chill outside disappears into heat and a thick atmosphere inside. A neon sign above my head announces Blue Comet with a flashing picture of an actual comet below. The walls are black but decorated with florescent splashes of orange, green, and blue. Black lights overhead turn the paint vibrant. The air is heavy with the smell of sweat, cheap cologne, and alcohol. I walk carefully down the short entrance and into a large room pulsing to a techno beat. Flashing strobe lights make my head dizzy and I pause on the edge of the dancers filling up every crevice of the club.
A hand lands on my shoulder and I flinch away, spinning about to grab the person’s wrist before they can make another move.
Charlie jerks his arm out of my grip with a grimace and shakes out his hand. “Nice reflexes, psycho. Come on, it’s this way.”
He pushes through the dancers, past a bar with an illuminated glass countertop, and to another black door hardly visible in the far wall. A huge man larger than the door itself stands before it, arms crossed, tattoos up and down his forearms, no neck, no hair, and a massive jaw. I don’t see any tusks poking out between his lips, otherwise I would think he’s a troll.
“Heya, Quincy!” Charlie says with a wide smile and smacks the big guy on the arm.
The guy doesn’t move an inch but his tiny eyes narrow on Charlie who, despite being tall himself, is at least a foot shorter than him. “Charlie,” he says with no inflection whatsoever. “The girls have missed you.”
Charlie’s smile never dims but his face turns a brighter shade of red. He shrugs like it’s no big deal but there’s a bit of a twitch in his left eye as big-man-Quincy lets Charlie through. I make to follow after but find an arm the size of a tree trunk blocking my path.
Quincy squints down his thick nose at me. “Who are you?”
“She’s with me,” Charlie says and pushes the huge arm out of the way. He grabs my shoulder and starts tugging me down a flight of steps before there’s any argument. As soon as the door shuts behind us the stairwell becomes dead silent except for the clunk of our shoes on the metal steps. I look back and see a flickering blue, transparent light covering the door like some kind of florescent plastic wrap.
“There’s a dragon’s barrier on the door?” I ask, surprised. “For a place like this?”
“Yeah, duh. When there’s a dragon around they like to put up barriers.”
I pause on the steps and brace a hand on the wall. “There’s a dragon here?”
Charlie stops and turns about to face me a few steps down. “Did I stutter? Pretty sure there’s been one in the area for a while now.”
My jaw pops as I shift it back and forth. “Okay, what’s your problem with me? Stop dancing around whatever it is and just spit it out, will you?”
We both remain where we are, glaring each other down. He half turns like he’s about to ignore the question and keep walking, but apparently changes his mind and charges up the steps. He stops directly below me and puts his hands on both walls, leaning in so much I’m forced to tilt back. Despite myself, I actually find him sort of intimidating.
“When I first told you Ashley was under arrest,” he says in a low, very serious tone, “your only concern was what had happened to her.”
“Is that supposed to be a bad thing?”
“The first thing that pops to mind when I hear someone is arrested is who did they hurt? We don’t arrest werewolves because someone hurt them. You never even bothered to consider potential victims. She’s a werewolf, Mason. Part of them is human, sure, but part of them will always be an animal, no matter how much serum you pump into them.”
I open my mouth to argue but he cuts me off before I even get the chance.
“Before you try and tell me that’s not what happened tonight,” he says, his eyes dark and dangerous, “let me tell you something you should try and remember. Werewolves never want to be exposed. What happened with Ashley was a fluke accident. They normally guard themselves so well that exposure is a nonissue. Ninety-five percent of all werewolf arrests are because they bite someone. Whose defense should you really be jumping to?”
The words to defend my actions fall flat in my mouth. I went to Ashley’s defense because she’s my friend. Innocent before proven guilty, right? But if she hadn’t been my friend, then would my first thought be about the safety of others? Have I gotten too close to the issue to be able to see objectively? Granted, I don’t know if I’ve ever been able to. If it had been Hawk in Ashley’s place today, I would have already broken him out of custody and not listened to a word from Charlie or Melody. What kind of IMS agent does that make me?
Charlie finally pulls away and continues down the stairs. I follow after with lead feet, considering what he said. I wonder if he took my defensive attitude about Ashley so strongly because he’s been affected personally by something of the same nature. Maybe someone he cared about had been a victim of a werewolf or monster before. Everyone gets into the business somehow, right? If it hadn’t been for my own parents being murdered by a werewolf, I might not be where I am today.
The stairs continue for three floors until I hear music coming from below and we arrive at another black door. Charlie yanks it open, clearly ready to get away from me, and reveals a rather different scene from the one upstairs.
The walls inside are made completely of aquariums but no aquariums I’ve ever seen. There are no fish or sea critters inside but different colors of water swirling through the thin panes. Regular people have a miniature version of these—what are they called . . . lava lamps. Right, like giant thin lava lamps of bright red, blue, green, purple, and orange water slipping past and around each other in endless loops. Concrete channels crisscross the room and flow with the same water creating vivid streams between the feet of the people inside. The lighting is low and I almost stumble on a boulder sticking out of the floor. There are larger ones like it around the room used as chairs. It would be almost beach like if not for the bizarre water.
Women—tall, tan, athletic, and beautiful—are having drinks and dancing to a mellow techno-beat laced with the sound of waves and seagulls. Even though it’s winter outside, they’re all wearing short skirts and tank tops with sequins. I note no one except me and Charlie are wearing shoes. My winter jacket is becoming unbearably warm so I quickly unzip it to air myself out.
“Stay close,” Charlie warns. “They tend to get a little competitive with other women.”
I snort. “I can handle myself.”
“Trust me, they—”
“No, trust me.”
He rolls his eyes. “Whatever.”
We move forward together and the second the dancing women spot Charlie, they smile and rush over like he’s a long lost best friend. He holds out his hands to try and keep them back but they’re running their hands through his hair, touching his arms, trying to hug him, and eventually start dragging him over to a rock in the middle of the room. They forcefully set him down and corral him so he can’t get up any more. He tries to keep up a cocky pretense but his face is flushed and there’s desperation in his eyes. The whole thing makes me uncomfortable but I also have to bite my lip to keep from laughing.
“Ladies, ladies!” Charlie shouts over the music. “Please, I’m on business.”
“But yer always on business!” a particularly tall blonde croons in a heavy Scottish accent. “Don’t you ever just come for comfort?”
I’ve heard stories of selkies being seductive but this is just ridiculous. They’re throwing themselves at him. It’s then I realize he’s also the only guy in the room. Even the DJ in the back is a woman wearing a backwards ball cap. I guess it’s a good thing they don’t hang around in the general public, for everyone’s sake.
“I need to ask you a few questions,” Charlie continues, trying to talk around a selkie stroking the side of his face.
“You can ask us anything, Hunter.”
Hunter? I think it’s a pet name or something before it dawns on me. I almost forgot Charlie’s last name is Jaeger, German for hunter. I’ve heard that name before. There’s a famous IMS agent with the last name Jaeger but a lot of people just refer to him as the Hunter. It can’t be Charlie himself, of course. The Hunter is no junior agent and I’ve heard stories about him for a while. Charlie could be related though.
“Is anyone missing from your party?” he asks, and startles when the blonde plants a kiss on his check.
“Well, you are every night,” she says and gives him a wide smile.
Oh, for the love of—this is getting old really fast. I can’t take this anymore. I swing around the purse and haul out the selkie skin, holding it high so everyone in the room can see it.
“I think one of you left your pajamas outside,” I say loudly.
The music screeches to a halt and everyone falls silent. All eyes turn to me. The women in the room don’t look even remotely friendly now. Maybe I should have heeded Charlie’s warning. I clench my jaw and hold my ground against the burning glares I receive from every corner of the room. Then from the very back someone bursts out in laughter. The angry eyes veer and bodies part so I can see a single girl with black hair that falls to her waist. Her head is thrown back and she’s holding her stomach she’s laughing so hard.
“Shut up, mercow!” the blonde next to Charlie shouts.
Mercow? I look at the black-haired girl’s feet and realize there’s webbing between her toes. Selkies don’t have that feature when they shed their skin. The girl must be a mermaid, transformed. Oh, boy. Selkies and mermaids have some of the worst love-hate relationships known to the legendary community. Getting in the middle of one of their fights is the last thing I want to do. They’ve been known to haul people into the ocean for interrupting their spats. You’d think they can’t stand the sight of each other, and yet for some reason they always hang out together.
The blonde spins about on me. I’m getting the impression she’s the leader around here.
“Where did you get that?” she hisses.
“Do you recognize it?”
“Answer the question!”
She’s still got a hand on Charlie’s shoulder and he’s wincing like she’s squeezing the life out of him.
“Answer mine first, and then I’ll answer yours,” I say. “Official IMS business.”
The blonde smiles sweetly and finally lets go of Charlie, who starts rubbing his shoulder, then stalks towards me. I lower the skin into the purse and hold it between us. She’s a good half-foot taller than me, gorgeous hair, long legs—a super model basically. Nothing like a good blow to the self-esteem when trying to be tough. She suddenly grabs the purse and tries to wrench it out of my grip. I hold on and can hear the fabric start to rip as it’s pulled in two different directions.
“I don’t think so,” I growl. I grab her wrist to wrench her forward and hook my foot around the back of her knee. Unfortunately for me, she does the exact same thing at the same time. We both pull and twist in unison and crumple in on each other, landing in a heap on the floor with the purse between us. No one moves to stop us. Everyone just watches.
“Bad move, Mason!” Charlie shouts.
She snaps a blade hand at my throat but I block with my forearm and shove her off. The blonde tries to roll away with the purse but I snag the strap to wrench it towards me. She plants a foot on my chest and pushes hard. The purse rips in two. The skin falls in a lump onto the floor. Again she lunges for it but I send a well-aimed kick into her shoulder to throw her onto her back. I catch the edge of the skin with the toe of my shoe, fling it upwards, and tumble roll backwards to catch it before it lands on the floor again. I have a fleeting moment of triumph. Unfortunately, that leaves me wide open, one hand stretched up in the air with the skin and the other keeping me balanced on the ground. A bare foot meets the side of my face. Pain shocks through my cheekbones, nose, and teeth and I fall backwards. Miraculously, I still manage to clutch the skin to my chest, keeping it away from the blonde.
I roll out of the way of her next kick coming for my gut and come up on one knee. My entire face pulses and I taste blood in my mouth.
“Not cool!” I shout.
I’ve been holding back, it’s true. I didn’t plan on getting into a fight with a selkie, but now she’s ticked me off and has assaulted an agent. We both rise to our feet. I hold the bundle of skin and wait for her to make a move. She shifts back and forth on the balls of her feet.
“You really don’t want to do this,” I warn. “But take your best shot if you’re stupid enough.”
She leaps, twists in a perfect circle, and her foot comes flying at me in a roundhouse kick. I drop the skin, grab her foot, and effectively drop her face first onto the floor. I keep my hold on her foot and maneuver to put my knee in the middle of her back to pin her to the floor. My other hand grabs her arm to keep her immobile.
“Will you knock it off?” I say. She tries to wiggle out of my hold but my magical strength doesn’t allow her to move an inch. “I’m not giving this skin up until I know whose it is. A friend of mine was attacked tonight and whoever that skin belongs to was either involved or a witness. Now you can either help me, or you can drool on the floor until you change your mind. Any questions?”
“Just one,” she wheezes, my knee in her back not allowing her a good full breath. “Ye’ll give the skin back once I tell ye?”
“I’ll give it back to who it belongs, not just anyone. I know the power of a selkie skin. I don’t want it falling into hands that’ll abuse it.”
“Then let me up.”
I release my hold and stand. When she rolls onto her back I offer her a hand but she ignores the gesture and gets up on her own.
The mood in the room is drastically different from when we first arrived and the selkies all but ignore Charlie now. He and I follow the blonde to a glass bar along the back of the room where the mermaid that laughed before is sitting. I brush away a trickle of blood coming out of my nose with the back of my hand.
“Thanks for the help,” I grumble to Charlie.
“Oh, you clearly had it sorted. My common sense and rationality would have only gotten in the way.”
Right, ha-ha, what a charmer. “You freakin’ unicorn.”
The blonde snaps her fingers to get our attention and motions to the bartender who sets down three glasses of something dark blue in front of us along with two bags of ice. The blonde downs her drink in one go and presses the ice to the side of her face. I ignore the drink but take the ice and hold it against my throbbing cheek.
“That was some fighting back there,” the blonde says. “I’m impressed. What’s yer name?”
Now she’s impressed? I could have sworn she was furious. “Junior Agent Phoenix Mason.”
“You can call me Nessa.”
Charlie downs his drink and leans one elbow on the countertop. “What can you tell us about that skin, Nessa?”
She sighs and motions for another drink. “Nothing good, I’m afraid. It belongs to my sister Gillian.”
“Do you know where she is now?” I ask.
“She was supposed to meet us here tonight and hasn’t showed.” Nessa leans in towards us, her dark eyes fierce. “You said yer friend was attacked. Attacked by what?”
“A vampire,” I say.
“Or so she thinks,” Charlie interrupts.
The selkie laughs and the mermaid behind her joins in. They give each other sharp looks and stop instantly. Nessa flips her hair and turns back to us, giving the mermaid the cold shoulder.
“My sister wouldn’t be taken down by a wee whelp the likes of a vampire. We’re fighters. We’re protectors.”
She quickly asks for another drink and keeps her eyes down this time. There’s something about the way she says protectors that sounds defensive.
“Are you protecting someone, or something, now?” I ask.
This earns me her best glare yet. “Ye ought to know better than to ask me that. I’d never give up information so private.”
Huh. Okay. I consider the dragon’s barrier at the door upstairs. A barrier like that is uncommon and very unusual for a place like this. Could the selkies be here protecting a dragon? Granted, dragons don’t really need protection. They’re the most powerful magical beings on the planet—well, usually. Hydra are nasty pieces of work that come close to the strength of majestic class dragons. Is there a dragon in this room right now? My eyes scan the women chatting and dancing in groups to a soft melody in the background. I espy more mermaid webbed feet and catch the Scottish accents of the selkies. No one sticks out in this crowd as a dragon in disguise.
“I’m sorry for the way I reacted,” Nessa continues, her tone losing its hard edge. “I know it wasn’t proper, attacking an agent and all. But it’s my sister’s. That’s the strongest and weakest part of her. I couldn’t have it in another person’s hands, especially not a stranger. Are you going to press charges? Send me to the penitent cells?”
She waits calmly for an answer. Clearly the threat of the penitent cells doesn’t faze her much, but she’s put the decision in my hands. Charlie glances between us and his lips part. I cut him off before he can pronounce judgment on my behalf.
“If it were my family,” I say, “I would have done the same. I have done the same. I want to help find your sister and figure out what happened in that alley. If I leave the skin in your care, will you agree to help our investigation however you can?”
Her lips curl into a smile and she extends her hand. “Aye. I’ll abide to it.”
“Then you’ll be hearing from us. Call if you hear anything or if Gillian shows up.”
I give her hand a good shake and pass the skin over. She folds it neatly and sets it in her lap.
The selkies and mermaids part to let us leave. Charlie and I walk silently side by side back up the stairs, through the noisy club, and into the cold outside. A light snow is beginning to fall illuminated by the warm light of the street lamps.
“I’ll have to tell Melody what happened, you know,” Charlie says. “That decision not to press charges wasn’t yours to make.”
“Do whatever you want,” I grumble.
We trudge along the sidewalk until Melody flags us down from the SUV having returned from dropping Jefferson and Ashley off at the field office. The second we get into the car, Charlie explains what happened in the Blue Comet and doesn’t hold back on the details. Both of them give me looks in the rearview mirror.
“But Nessa agreed to help?” Melody asks.
“Leave it,” she warns. “If they don’t want to make an issue out of it then neither should we. I don’t blame her for trying to start a fight over that skin either. You have no idea how touchy they are about that sort of thing.”
I lean forward from the backseat. “Do you know who those selkies are protecting here in Duluth?”
“Does it matter?” Charlie says. We enter the dark area of the docks so I can’t see his expression but I’m sure it’d be sour if I could.
My fingers dig into the edge of the seat and the fabric almost starts to tear. “Do you really think it’s a coincidence there was an attack right outside the club where a group of selkies were? A group possibly protecting someone or something? What if the attack wasn’t random? What if that vampire was waiting for Gillian or one of the other selkies and Ashley was just in the wrong place at the wrong time?”
Melody raises an eyebrow at Charlie. “You know, she’s got a point.”
The garage door opens and we park inside the field office. We all hop out and follow Melody up the stairs.
“Either way,” Melody continues. “We’ve got a selkie missing and a possible unknown monster running around. Get me eyes on the town, Charlie. Start canvasing. See if you can find anything.”
“Of course,” he says and hurries back to the SUV.
Jefferson is waiting near the door with Ashley hugging her arms to herself—there are streaks on her cheeks from crying. I pat her on the shoulder and look to Jefferson.
“No charges at this time,” he says in an undertone. “But we’re recommending she do an hour with a counselor from Underground.”
“No penitent cells?” I whisper, surprised.
“Agent Boyd and I will forward our assessments to the Minneapolis Division and they’ll make a decision. For now we just need to get her home until we hear back.”
I nod and wrap an arm around Ashley’s shoulders to guide her to the door. Melody walks us out and gives me a pat on the back before I climb into the passenger seat. Jefferson guns the engine and we fly out of the warehouse district and return to the chaos that is Canal Park so we can pick up Ashley’s car. The traffic’s as slow as sludge again so I prop my elbow against the window and tuck my chin into my hand to wait it out.
“So, you got into a fight with someone already?” Jefferson asks gruffly.
I give him a sharp look. “How did you—I didn’t say anything yet—”
“You’ve got a fat lip and a shiner coming on.”
“Oh. Right.” I cross my arms over my chest and stare out the side window. “I didn’t get in trouble. It’s fine.”
“Are you fine?”
“Is that concern I hear? I’m touched, Jefferson.”
He rolls his eyes. “More like concerned for your sanity.”
I’m working on a witty comeback when my phone buzzes. I pull it out expecting to see Hawk’s crossed-eye photo on the screen but it’s the number for the Minneapolis Division Headquarters. Nervous, I pick up and press the phone to my ear.
“Identification please,” a bored woman’s voice says.
“0919-32, Junior Agent Phoenix Mason.”
When Jefferson gives me a questioning look I just shrug. I have no idea who’s calling. Maybe it’s Witty with an important update? He usually just emails though. The seconds tick by until the line clicks and a deep baritone comes on.
“Mason, this is Director Knox. We need to talk.”