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He must have choked on his own vomit. There’s no blood, no sign of struggle or violence. The fog of a party, booze and smoke and sweat and sex, hangs in the air around him undisturbed. His body is laid out on the floor in a circle of empty bottles and cigarette butts, in an attitude almost of repose, one hand on his chest, one hand thrown out, empty fingers curled.
He’s a tall man, broad-shouldered. Death slackens his features, makes his age hard to guess, but his fraternity T-shirt implies typical college-age, somewhere between eighteen and twenty-five. Blondish hair, brown eyes, smooth tan, no freckles. Class ring on his right hand.
Behind me, Vivienne steps into the house, bringing a swirl of outside air from New Orleans’ French Quarter in August, a hot and humid stew of spice, garbage, flowers, horse droppings, vomit, perfume, coffee, caramelized sugar, diesel, mud. And alcohol, of course. Always alcohol.
“Abby! What are you doing here? Did you do this?”
My heart races. No, I didn’t do this. I can’t possibly have done this. But what if I did? What if I did and I forgot? I lean forward and inhale deeply, of the dead man, but the fresh stink gets me coughing. I don’t pick up any trace of myself, although it’s possible the urine and rot and half-digested alcohol could be distracting me. But there is something familiar here, some elusive quality that gives me a disorienting hit of deja-vu. It’s — it’s —
“Abby, look at me, did you do this?” Vivienne grabs my arm and turns me around to force eye contact.
I shake off her hand, annoyed. “I was just walking past, Viv. I smelled him and thought — ” What? What did I think, exactly? That I could help? That I could play detective?
“Did you call the cops?” She circles around to the other side of the dead man, high heels sharp against the bare wooden floor. She folds her arms and stares, as if daring me to lie to her.
“I didn’t.” Not yet, anyway. I hadn’t thought of it yet.
She nods. “Good. Don’t. If you need to report a body, call me, not the NOLA PD. You have my number, don’t you?”
“Call you? Why? So you can cover up my crimes?”
“You think you’re being sarcastic, but the answer is yes. If you end up killing someone, we have to clean things up afterward.”
My stomach lurches, nausea and dread amplified by the sickening reek in the room. “Killing somebody. Do we end up doing that a lot?”
“Often enough. It’s nearly always self-defense. One of us fights off a would-be mugger or rapist, and we use a little too much force, or the attacker is unusually stupid. But we can’t let these cases go to trial. There would be too much risk of exposure.” She lifts her gaze from the dead man and catches my eyes, staring, serious. “If the thought of killing someone bothers you, little one, come out to stay with your own people in Bayou Goula. Nothing to worry about there. Only Varger for miles around.”
“Varger” is what my werewolf relatives call themselves, and I’m not completely sure whether they use it to mean “werewolf” or “this particular group of werewolves here, who mostly live in Louisiana.” Vivienne, as the legal representative of my biological grandfather Claude Verreaux, has spent the last three weeks ambushing me at unexpected moments and trying to convince me to go out and live with him. It’s every bit as creepy as it sounds.
“So, are you rougarou like the Mafia of New Orleans, or what?” I use the term I first learned for them, the Cajun term “rougarou,” which they seem to regard as vaguely insulting.
Vivienne glares at me. “We aren’t criminals, Abby. But we must take steps to protect our secrecy. Again, if it bothers you, there is a solution.”
“I already left one cult, I’m not running off to join another one.”
“We’re not a cult. We’re a people. Your family.”
“That doesn’t mean you’re not a cult. New Harmony was also my family, did you forget?”
She works her mouth as if she’d like to spit something out of it, then takes a deep breath and tries again. “A cult has to have some overwhelming belief system, no? Some god? Some purpose? We have nothing like that.”
“Yes you do. You were just yelling at me because I don’t believe in your sacred principle as much as you do. Secrecy. Secrecy is your god.”
She glares at me, eyes flashing amber for a moment. I glare back. This is what happens when two werewolves try to out-stare each other. Hard eye contact that escalates to a flash of the irises, like when you shine a light at a cat in the dark. If nobody backs down, maybe you start growling a little. Eventually, somebody looks away, gives up.
So far, I have not been the one giving up.
Viv flings her gaze at the bare wall, anger still at a high pitch. She’s only given up for now. This is also what happens when two werewolves try to out-stare each other: if one wins the immediate contest, but both of them continue to think they’re right, they will have the same conflict again, and again, and again.
“I’ve already notified my police contact. You should go before he gets here. You don’t want to contaminate what might be a crime scene.”
“I haven’t touched anything.”
“Good. Now, please leave.”
“But — ”
“But what? If you wanted to help by using your sense of smell, I’ve got that taken care of. You can go home.”
I grimace. She’s right, I guess. They probably don’t need more than one werewolf nose on site. But I hate the feeling that I’m letting her tell me what to do, so I growl slightly before turning around, push my way through the green shutter doors back onto the street. In the distance I hear sirens.
I inhale deeply, feeling unsettled, anxious, not sure why. Finding a dead man will do that to you, I guess. I’m not sure where to go now, what to do. In New Orleans I have no school, no friends. I rarely have to babysit or do housework, since Steph’s mom has that covered. Except for the one day I spent talking to a Teen Vogue reporter, I mostly wander around the city with no particular destination and a bunch of obnoxious werewolf relatives following me around.
I inhale again. That’s it. Relatives. I’m picking up the smell of someone who is my close kin.
Werewolf novel Waking up Naked in Strange Places — Sequel Stripping Down to Scars is on the way!
Stories in Talebones, Space Grunts, and Witches, Stitches and Bitches.
I’m doing something I’ve never done before! Inspired by Rachel Aaron’s 2k to 10k I’m going to attempt to track my productivity in a meaningful way. Usually, I don’t do word counts except at Rainforest where there’s a contest and I get sorta competitive. And I certainly don’t track when I’m most productive, relative to what kind of writing project (editing, drafting, outlining, etc.) and that sort of thing.
One of the things I want to find out is the difference in productivity or quality between when I write a little here, little there, and when I get in huge blocks of time for a writing party. My sense is that writing parties are more effective, but I want evidence! So another thing I’m trying to do is arrange my day job to a 4-10s schedule to leave Fridays as writing party days.
Here I go! Wish me luck!
As always, I encourage donations in extremely lucky multiples of $13.
Bonus! Sponsor me and get an official blessing from Saint Expedite in postcard form!