Pick Your Teeth with my Bones
(Book one of the Eternal Spring, Invisible Forest series)
by Carrie Newberry
Copyright © 2017 by Carrie Newberry
Walking a beagle on a leash was the most patience-consuming task known to man. If border collies were born to herd and Siberian huskies were born to howl — I know, supposedly they pull things, but they only do that when they’re hooked up to a harness, and they howl all the time — then beagles were born to investigate every single blade of grass that ever dared stick its head out of the dirt. And not just grass. Rocks. Dead worms. Empty pavement.
My going rate as a dog walker was twelve dollars per half hour session. With a lab, I could jog a few miles in that time. With Hanson the beagle, I was lucky to make it all the way around the block without going into overtime.
Don’t get me wrong, I love beagles. They’re a wealth of information if you know how to ask. But Jesus, could we just take two steps in rapid succession, please?
The nice thing about walking with a beagle was that I could do some sniffing of my own. I’m a shape-shifter; half-human, half-wolf — NOT a werewolf. Werewolves are bitten, shape-shifters are born. So my nose was even stronger than Hanson’s. Not that there was much to sniff in this neighborhood.
Just like with every city, each neighborhood in Madison, Wisconsin had its own personality and the reputation that went along with it. The south side neighborhood where I lived, for example, was a past-her-prime exotic dancer — jaded, street smart, and requiring fortitude of character from those who got close to her. This neighborhood, where most of my dog walking clients lived, was the Diane Sawyer of the city. Rich and classy, but not snooty.
Walking around here always made me feel like I had Spaghetti-O’s spilled down my shirt.
Hanson and I barely made it down the driveway before I noticed it. A scent that definitely didn’t belong. Like all of a sudden Diane Sawyer swore off showers.
Hanson’s nose raised to the wind. Usually, when we walked, I never saw his eyes. They were always trained on the ground, where his primary sense held his focus on some scent trail. Now, his eyes met mine.
I sniffed again. More like Diane swore off showers and then rolled around in rotten cabbage.
Actually, it smelled a little like my neighborhood.
I searched the street for the source of the stench. The smell wasn’t strong enough to be detected by a human nose. My shape-shifter nose barely picked up on it. I should’ve realized that sooner, but I only drank two pots of coffee this morning. I was a little slow on the uptake.
My gaze landed on an unfamiliar car. I walked in this neighborhood at the same time every day, so I knew the regular vehicles pretty well. Maybe the car belonged to a visitor. But at ten in the morning, on a street populated by workaholic professional types, visitors were unlikely. Before I could drag Hanson over so I could investigate, a man stepped out from behind the car.
There were a lot of disadvantages to being a shape-shifter. For example, I needed to eat every couple of hours, because if I let myself get too hungry, all kinds of things started to smell like food. Like rodents. And people.
However, the super-sniffer was a definite advantage, and I made good use of it as the man walked toward us. Breathing in deep through my nose, I picked his scent out of the air and examined it. Holy mother of Larry, he stank. Again, not so strong that a normal person could smell it, but I could. Sometimes being in human form was a lot harder than being in wolf form. As a wolf, I could sniff up and down his leg and then pee on him without apology. As a human, I couldn’t even make a disgusted face.
Okay, get over it. I took another breath. Musty, like old books. Library? And curry. He ate Indian food recently, or maybe lived near a restaurant. And something citrusy, but not orange juice or lemon oil. Bergamot. He drank Earl Grey.
Yuck. Real men drank coffee, and real women, too, as far as I was concerned.
One more deep breath. Antiseptic? That was weird. The tea and books fit together. But the antiseptic — that was a head-scratcher. Although, germaphobes were a lot more common now than when I was a cub. Frankly, with how fragile the human body was, they should all wear protective padding and disinfect themselves constantly.
Germaphobe or not, he didn’t normally wear Eau de Landfill. If that stink was his natural scent, I wouldn’t have been able to pick out any of the other stuff. He’d come into close contact with something or someone that reeked, and the scent leeched onto him.
As he got closer, the stink grew stronger, and every one of my muscles clenched. For Pete’s sake, I told myself. You clean up doggy doo for a living. You can handle some bad B.O.
But… I didn’t like that scent, and it was more than just a gag-reflex thing. It tickled my memory. And it made the wolf in me rise up, shake herself, and prepare to pounce. Hunt, a voice inside me hummed.
Clenching my fists to ground myself in my human body, I told myself that maybe he just needed directions. Or maybe he was selling something. That made me feel better. I could walk away from a salesman without a single twinge of conscience.
He spoke, and all hope deflated. “Are you Kelly O’Connell?” Then his eyes widened, as he got the up-close-and-personal view. I knew I made quite a sight. My eyes were amber-colored, and my hair, even pulled in a ponytail, seemed to writhe, a living thing of silver and black waves. But what really made the eyes pop were the tattoos.
Usually, I wore a long-sleeved shirt while I worked, because the Celtic knot-work sleeves down both arms tended to alarm my elderly clientele. But it was already sixty-five degrees outside, and sunny, and I just didn’t have the heart for long sleeves that morning.
I heard a growl and looked down at Hanson. I didn’t know Hanson could growl. He stood beside me, legs rigid, hackles raised, tail high and straight, glaring at the interloper. The sight disconcerted me even more than the man’s scent. It was a little like seeing a woman in a dress with a beard. The mind kept trying to reconcile the picture, and the eye just couldn’t do it.
“I’m Kelly.” I wasn’t Kelly. Well, I was, but I wasn’t. The real Kelly O’Connell was born, and died, on May 1, 1977, in Lexington, Kentucky. I borrowed her name a few years ago, because she would’ve been the right age and because Kellan Faolanni wasn’t a name I could use in public. “Can I help you?” When he kept staring, I waved my non-leash hand in front of his face. As much fun as it was to make people’s eyes cross, I bored easily. “Yo. Anybody home?”
He finally managed to find his way up to my face. He gave me a crooked smile. “Sorry. I just — you have a lot of tattoos.”
“Yeah.” I waited. If I was being paid to be courteous, I could manage it for hours at a time. This guy wasn’t paying me. When his crooked smile faltered, I sighed, feeling like I just cussed out a third grader. I bit the inside of my cheek and dug deep for more pleasantries. “Don’t worry. You’re not the first person to do a double take.”
The crooked smile was back, stronger than ever. I took a closer look at him.
When meeting people, I rarely noticed visuals until five minutes after the person walked away. I could pick their scent out of a line-up, but their face? Not so much. I needed to make a conscious effort to notice appearance. Tall. Pale skin. No gray hair mixed in with the reddish brown, so probably not old. Clothes — oh, who cares, he was wearing some. He spent a lot of time indoors with people who apparently slept while wrapped in moldy gym socks. What more did I need to know? Oh, yeah. How the hell to make him go away, before that scent made me shape-shift and eat him.
What would a human do? I wracked my brain for my knowledge of “normal” behavior. I stuck out my hand and once again offered him my borrowed name. “Kelly. And you are?”
Oh, that was stupid. Shaking hands meant he entered my personal space, which meant his stink came closer, too. I clenched every muscle in my body to keep from ripping his throat out with my teeth. This meant that when I shook his hand, I used too much force, and he made a pained sound before I managed to release him.
He shook his hand with the sort of furtive movements people use when they hope you won’t notice their weakness. “I’m Darcy. Jamison. I’m really sorry to bother you, but it seems I need your help.”
Darcy? Seriously? Who names their son Darcy? And I thought my mom was a sadist.
Shaking my head, I focused on the rest of his statement. I could smell he didn’t have a dog. But as I was currently wearing my dog-walker hat, I stayed in character. “Oh. I’m sorry.” I smiled. “My schedule is full right now, but I can put you on my waiting list.”
He looked puzzled.
My smile stiffened. “If you give me your phone number, I can call you if a slot opens up. What kind of dog do you have?”
“Oh.” He laughed, a little half-assed sound that set my teeth on edge. “I don’t have — that’s not what I meant.”
I bit the inside of my other cheek, to keep from offering a few suggestions as to what kind of help he should seek. A stronger soap, perhaps. I looked down at Hanson to occupy myself. The beagle was once again sniffing the grass. If this person wasn’t going to feed him or pet him, he wasn’t worth Hanson’s time.
Jamison-like-the-whiskey took my silence as interest, and continued with more confidence. “I have some questions. About, well, this.” He slipped off the backpack I failed to notice. All part of the clothes I couldn’t be bothered with. I needed to work on my observation skills. The backpack could’ve been an Uzi, and then where would I be? Full of more holes than a Dunkin Donuts on a Sunday morning.
But, as it turned out, the backpack was the least of my problems. From that unremarkable navy blue pack, he pulled a sheaf of very old papers. Even before I saw the writing on them, in a language that looked like the fugly offspring of Urdu and Welsh, my palms started to sweat and my heartbeat went all wonky.
Those papers — papers that shouldn’t exist because we destroyed them all, damn it — reeked like the man holding them. My nose sent up all kinds of distress flares. How did this doofus stumble on these papers, and how did he know to bring them to me? Shit, fuck, damn it all to fucking hell. I started reciting some of my favorite words as I struggled with what to do next.
Kill the fucker, grab the papers, and take them both home with me for a bonfire. Maybe grab some marshmallows and graham crackers on the way.
Except Janus wouldn’t let me kill people anymore without clearing it with him first. Damn it.
I considered just stuffing him in the trunk of his car and driving him to Janus. I was sure that, upon meeting the poor bastard, Janus would give me permission to take care of the problem. And if not, at least Jamison would be Janus’s problem, not mine.
While I contemplated the various paths to his demise, he continued talking. Not only was he smelly, he was verbose. My lucky day. “…so I tried looking up dead languages on the internet, but I couldn’t find this one. And I showed it to a friend of mine, who’s a professor at the UW. She speaks eight languages and specializes in Middle Eastern—”
He showed them to a friend? Jesus Christ.
“—but she’d never seen anything like it, either. So, I looked you up.” He looked at me, wide-eyed like the prey animal he was. “Can you help me?”
“You looked me up?” I tried to think. Not my strong suit, at the best of times.
“Yeah, online. Your dog-walking website.”
My dog-walking website wouldn’t have told him where I’d be walking that morning. And it certainly wouldn’t tell him that I could read those documents. I felt sweat begin to pool in uncomfortable places.
Should I ask him more questions? I should. “How did you know where to find me?”
“I, um … she … I…” She? She who? His breathing grew loud and fast, and even over the rush of the breeze and the sound of his breath, I could hear his heart begin to pound. Then he started to sweat. Not so that anyone without hyperactive olfactory glands would notice, but boy, did I notice. “Cold” sweat had its own scent. It was more sour, it coated the tongue and hung in the back of the throat, and it helped us predators find easy prey.
My second egg sandwich from an hour ago suddenly seemed a distant memory. It wasn’t just hunger. It was a desire to hunt, kicked into high gear, building inside me like an orgasm. I could give him a running start. Then I could stalk him, get high off his fear before…
Hanson glanced up at me, his ears twitching back and his nose working. I needed to get us out of there. I couldn’t shape-shift out in the open. And I was responsible for Hanson, who, if I went hunting, would probably follow his nose into the middle of the street and end up a pancake. Before I could leave, I needed those fucking papers. But unfortunately, the train had just rocketed past Finesse Station and was barreling toward Massacre Central. We needed a plan B.