The sky lights up a shade of white as lightning streaks across the rumbling, rolling clouds. Thunder sounds off in the distance, a low murmur signaling a storm is brewing. The black SUV slows to a stop, and I put it in park.
“A back alley?” Haley leans forward in the passenger seat as she looks through the windshield. “Why are we here?”
Without saying a word, I leave the car running as I open my door. The humid air hits me, offering another reminder of how suffocating this place feels. It is more than that, but I don’t want to process the other emotions at the moment. I slam the door and make my way to the front of the SUV, leaning against the front bumper. The headlights illuminate the empty alleyway and streets. It is a little past 3 AM. Only the insane come to this part of downtown at this time of night. Well, the insane and the type of company I hire.
“Is this the part where you don’t answer me and do the quiet creepy thing?”
I fold my arms across my chest, turning to Haley. Her hand is on her hip, another reminder she has been around Mia too long. She survived the change, several of them. At this point, her scent is different. She no longer smells like the insecure woman who jumped at the smallest noise, afraid of what would follow. Mia has helped her adjust, come more into her own, and learn to fight. But she is still a new wolf, and I have a purpose for her.
“What do you smell?” I ask, nodding toward several buildings lining the street ahead.
She looks at me for a second, then turns in the direction I indicated. She closes her eyes, inhaling as her brows furrow. Her head twitches slightly as she tries to differentiate the smells one by one.
“Rain,” she says softly, her eyes still closed. “Far away, but coming. I smell cigarettes, cologne,” she pauses, inhaling once more. “Ummm, food. No, not just food, sausage, like jambalaya.”
I nod. “What else?”
Her eyes pop open, looking at me. The beautiful brown is gone, replaced with gold.
“There’s more. People, a few of them.”
“Can you tell the difference?”
“Difference?” Her head tilts then turns to me
“Yes. Between male and female. How many are near? Who are they?”
She shakes her head for a second, looking down. “No.”
I push off the car, causing her to straighten slightly. She may have power now, but that same girl who was afraid of any man is still there. Buried, yes, but still there. I walk over, moving behind her. I can see over the top of her head with ease, which tells me exactly what direction she is looking. A dingy little tattoo shop, with neon flashing lights, stares back at us. The lights inside are on. I can hear the mechanical buzz of the gun from here, but tattoos are not why we are here.
I gently brush her hair to the side as I lean close to her ear. “Try harder. Now close your eyes and concentrate.”
Her breath hitches for a moment, but she does exactly what I say. I keep my gaze on the front of the shop, well aware of who is inside and why she is here.
She inhales again. “It’s musty, like sweat, and metallic. Umm…”
“Keep going. You’re doing well.”
“Soap. A fragrance, but more. Something I don’t recognize.” She leans against me. “Leather and coffee and…” She stops as a smile crosses my face. Her pulse speeds up, and I know she’s found exactly what I am looking for.
“Citrus.” The word leaves her lips on a hiss.
I step back, folding my hands in front of myself as I watch Ben walk in front of the clear window. He is speaking to one of the tattoo artists, showing his new piece. The guy nods, laughing with him.
“Ben Arnold. Two restraining orders requested by Haley Tunnel. He has traveled to several states following her. No court or judge can keep him away, despite the trips to the hospital and broken bones. Now, she lives in New Orleans in a small apartment above a restaurant. She has a job that doesn’t pay her enough to fix the locks on her door, so she keeps a shotgun beneath her bed. Sometimes at night, she cradles it, not knowing whether to end him or herself.”
Haley spins, her eyes blazing gold as tears prick them. “What the fuck is this? Is this a joke to you?”
I don’t move, even as she throws her words at me like weapons. Her chest heaves, partly from pain, partly from anger, and partly from adrenaline. The beast I made is barely caged. She storms closer, all fury and hurt.
“When we first met, you asked what I wanted from you. What I want is power. A power that you now have. A power that means no one will ever touch you again unless you want it.” I reach out as she continues to take in breaths in ragged pants. I move a single, stray brunette strand from her face with the back of my pinky. “Power is the only constant in this cruel world. Those who have it, use it on those who try to take it, and make them bleed.”
She doesn’t say anything, just stares at me.
“I gave you power in exchange for loyalty. You will finally get the revenge you desperately crave and that this world would not give you.” I paused, leaning forward, so my cheek barely grazes hers. “And when you take it, remember the one who gave it to you.”
I lean back and smile as the information finally hits her at her core.
“Now, take your clothes off.”
The bell dings as I enter the shop. Behind the counter, the tattoo artist’s eyes rise as he takes in my appearance. Another man sits in a chair to the left, smoking. Their art covers every wall in this dimly lit building, and some images have prices below them. Red and black paint lines the space you can see and continues toward the back. There are a few rooms toward the middle, but only three people are here. Perfect.
“Hey, guy. Can I help you?” The artist behind the counter asks, looking at my covered hands and the tattoos that dance across my neck.
I shake my head slightly, a small smile crossing my face. I reach behind me, clicking the door locked.
“Unfortunately, no. I am not here for that. I am here for him.” I nod toward Ben, who looks like he has seen a ghost. Sweat breaks across his forehead, and I hear his heart rate increase.
“R-Roman. Look, man, you haven’t called. I checked. Still have the phone on me.”
The larger gentleman to my left stood after he saw me lock us inside while the artist behind Ben got to his feet. “Look, man, whatever beef you have with this guy, leave us out of it. We’re not involved. Just trying to make a living.”
I stride forward, nodding. “Aren’t we all?”
Ben shuffles to the side, more than likely planning on trying to get around me.
“You know, my father used to beat my mother.” I let out a cold laugh. “Actually, he used to beat everyone: family, enemies, friends. He was every bit the tyrant his name symbolized. He was cruel, calculating, and manipulating. A monster. Although, some say he got it from my grandfather and great-grandfather. Not that we will know now.”
I raise my hand, and he stops speaking. “Shh, I’m still talking. The moral of the story is, there is always someone who thinks they are stronger and deadlier, who uses their power on those they deem weak. But I don’t believe in weakness. Every beating, every time he locked me up, it changed me. Now he rots several feet beneath the earth. Although, some say his very soul burns in Hell now. Will you tell him I said hi?”
I reach for the light switch, flipping it off as Ben scrambles towards the door. He makes it a few feet before a large brown beast lurches from the hallway, jumping on his back and ripping into him. His screams echo throughout the parlor. The man that was sitting in the chair jumps so far back he knocks over every vial of ink, painting the floor in an array of reds, whites, and blacks. The smell of urine coats the room, and I can’t tell if it’s from Ben, who is currently being eaten, the man to my left, or the one scrambling behind the counter. I head toward him first. He reaches under the counter, but I grip his wrist, snapping it as the gun he grabbed falls to the floor. Haley’s muzzle lifts from the still body beneath her, blood coating it as she turns toward the scream. I push him forward, dragging him toward her.
He stumbles and cannot see much except the glowing eyes of the werewolf in front of him. “Sorry about the lights. It is hard on newly turned wolves in the beginning. She is still learning, so be gentle. Okay?”
I throw him toward her, and she launches, cutting his screams off quickly. She is a fast learner. Impressive.
My head snaps up, focusing on the man who is currently running down the hall toward the exit. There is no door there now. I took it off so Haley could sneak in while I distracted the front desk. I watch her shake her head violently, tearing flesh, and know he will make it outside before she sees him. Whistling loudly, she snaps her head toward me as I nod toward the empty hall. It’s mere seconds before she is down the hall and out the door. A good start to her future, that’s for sure.
I feel a hand grasp my shoe, and I look down. I see the mauled version of a person, still trying to survive. I want to feel something, a hint of regret or remorse, pain, something, but nothing comes, nothing but hunger. I feel my skin prickle with the beast I keep locked behind the silver chain around my neck. A shiver trails from my toes to the back of my neck.
My fists clench. Maybe I made a mistake. I shouldn’t have been the one to bring her for her first killing. I know my limits. I usually can control it, but New Orleans has a source here that threatens every fiber of my being.
I grab the chain around my neck, the power beneath it thrumming, but only barely. Taking a deep breath, I feel the hairs on my arms slowly reside.
Kneeling, I grab the bloody face, making him look at me.
“It’s nothing personal. Just business.” I say nothing else, snapping his neck. A quick and painless death compared to what the others had.
I shake my head, silencing the wolf.
Maybe he will find peace since this world offered none.
I stand and adjust my jacket before heading outside. The alley is empty, which I assumed. There is no sign of Haley or the man who left. My phone chimes, and I pull it out of my pocket, my eyes still on the empty street in front of me. Mia’s name flashes, and I raise it to my ear.
“It’s done.” Her voice stops as I hear her car start. “I’ll send you an address. He is still there.”
Rain patters my umbrella. Mia sent the address to another seedy part of town. It’s a bar, well, what remains of one. It was burned to the ground. Several people litter the street, huddled together, and pointing at the smoldering ruins. The use-to-be bar is one I recognize. Once a popular hangout for were-rats, but not anymore. A figure of a man stands off in the distance, unseen by the human eyes. The rain drenches him. He’s a shadow against the vibrant reds and blues of the police cars. Shoulder-length dark hair clings to his features. He’s a few inches shorter than me or Dominic but reeks of power. Untempered. Hidden. Smoke dances near him, and the scent clings to him. Firebringer. This is the one Mia told me about. Had he destroyed the whole building alone?
I stop inches away from him, my umbrella a shield from the downpour that’s picking up. He doesn’t move. Mia tells them all who will come for them if they pass the test. Most reek of anxiousness and fear, but not him.
Yes, I think, to my wolf, to myself. Perfect.
Rain, murmurs, thunder, and sirens are the only noises tonight. A sign of a new beginning for New Orleans and the world. A beginning to an end. I don’t move, nor does he, as we watch the flames slowly die out thanks to the increasing rain. An image of home flashes before my gaze. A mansion reduced to rubble. A king’s head on the floor. Wolves howling in the distance.
A smile touches the corner of my mouth before I speak, “Well done. Welcome to the Augustine Cartel. Your new home, Ash.”