I could feel my eyeballs roll in their sockets before I opened my lids: never a good sign. I steeled myself for the brutal fact of daylight, but the dawn was as grey as if it hadn’t yet decided to get dressed. I reached for the crumpled pack of gaspers lying next to the bed. The object my groping fingers found puzzled me.
I opened one eye warily. It was a handkerchief, floral and trimmed in lace. The table beneath it was a similarly lacy object, a cascade of flounces that made it look like a lost wedding cake. My dull brain raised and then dismissed the idea of lunatic-by-night decorators. My lids closed again as I stifled a groan.
“Roman? You awake?’
I tried not to stiffen at her words, but it was no use. I grunted.
“You want some coffee?” Her voice made it a question, but I could feel her shifting off the bed presumably to go make some. The springs squealed slightly as she dismounted. Her soft footsteps headed away from the bedroom.
I willed myself to return to the lethean embrace of Morpheus, but he decided to respond with a sledge-hammer between my eyebrows. A fist pressed to my forehead did little to assuage the assault. A second front opened in my mouth: suffocation by sponge. I pried one lid open and spotted a squat glass resting on the frilly table with a mouthful of bourbon left in it.
Gingerly I raised myself on one elbow and made a shaky grab for the tumbler as sirens screeched inside my skull. It wasn’t much but that mouthful of bourbon fought back the cottony feeling in my throat even as my belly winced at its abrupt arrival. I lurched out of the bed and found myself clad only in a vest and pants. Staggering to the bathroom sink I saw a wreck of a man staring back at me from the mirror with red eyes and a sour expression.
Cold water braced me somewhat, though a spell of dizziness overtook me. I calculated the time left before the full moon and decided it must have only been rotgut that laid me low. I opened the medicine cabinet and found a small bottle of aspirin and shook a few into my hand. The refilled glass offered a hint of bourbon as I washed them down.
I found the rest of my clothes neatly folded on a chair by the bed, which suggested I hadn’t put them there. This morning just got better and better. The clank of my belt as I poked myself into my trousers echoed in my ears like a church bell and I sat heavily on the bed, willing the pounding to stop.
I had got as far as buttoning my shirt when she came back, two steaming mugs of coffee on a tray. “I didn’t know how you take it,” she said, a smile like a kicked dog’s cringe across her face. A small creamer shaped like a cow sat next to a sugar bowl that looked like a strawberry.
“Thanks,” I finally muttered. Sucking down the black java jolted my corpse back to life sufficiently to regard my Samaritan. I knew her. Mabel: corn-fed face, cornflower blue eyes, pink cheeks far too healthy for a low-life dive like Duffy’s, but I’d seen her there before, drifting on the fringes. Some religious nut no doubt, I guessed, come from the heartland to save the big bad city sinners. It formed the bones of a very old story, one that always ended badly.
“I’m late.” I upended the cup and its black tar burned the rest of the cotton away. At least her coffee wasn’t church-going. I threw on my jacket and shrugged a goodbye.
“See you ’round,” she said, her voice brimming with hope and her eyes too bright with something even more dangerous.
“Sure, sure.” My temples pounded a symphony that had me nodding as if in assent. I grabbed my hat and edged toward the egress.
“Thanks for saving my life.”
I hurried out the door without answering and staggered down the steps to the filthy streets.
“Coffee? Or are you ready to start oiling your neck again?” Duffy flipped the battered National Geographic over on the counter so that the unnaturally green frog smiled upside down from the cover as I sat on a stool. No one had a right to look quite so bright.
“Coffee.” I wished I had thrown a few more aspirins down my gullet but another cup ought to sort that out. Duffy’s java had about five times the strength of a normal brew. He claimed the beans had come from his cousin the alchemist. On days like this, I almost believed him.
He slid a mug across the counter and grinned a little too widely in its wake. “So, we gonna hear some wedding bells soon?”
A growl rumbled in my throat. The full moon was still days off, but the wolf already ran under my skin. He never really left anymore.
“Come on, Roman. You were awfully friendly with her last night.”
This time I did snarl. “I don’t remember a thing.”
Duffy grinned. “You missed a good show. Those metal jockeys never had a chance.”
I let the hot black blast fill my throat and ignored him. The wasps in my head were beginning to drown at last and a little silence would have aided their demise. Unfortunately Duffy blathered on, a pointless tale of drunken boasts, a damsel in distress and damage to the furniture that he blamed on me.
“Mr. Dalton, I presume?”
I swiveled my neck to the right, a mistake as the wasps took flight once more. “Who wants to know?”
He was tall and trim, clad in a Saville Row suit worn with such utter carelessness that he had to have been born to it. Sandy brown hair topped a face with the bluest eyes I’d ever seen and an amused look that its wearer probably never lost. He took a drag on a Gauloise and favoured me with a broad smile that managed not to suggest any sort of friendliness. “Edward Jameson.”
“You’re a long way from home, Mr. Jameson. Why didn’t you send your butler instead?”
One eyebrow raised just enough to deepen the picture of amusement. “It’s a rather delicate matter. My butler and I have a little understanding; he pretends not to know all my intimate secrets and I pretend to believe him. May I sit down?”
“Suit yourself.” I held the mug out and Duffy refueled me. I wasn’t eager for a new job but my bank balance would be happy to remind me that our dance card needed filling.
“I would like you to find my sister,” Jameson said in a voice low enough to suggest that this was not information on general offer.
But it was the wrong thing to say given my last unfortunate case. Duffy snorted and I shot him a look that had a few wasps clinging to it and he shut up. “If you want me to find some floozy, you just say so. I’m not going to think any less of you.”
Jameson frowned. “I want you to find my sister, Beryl Jameson, and persuade her to return home.” He reached into the breast pocket of that slate grey suit and pulled out a photo. There was no doubt about their relation. The crisp black-and-white image offered the same high cheekbones and big eyes that looked a lot more fetching on her features. Her lips had the same arrogant, amused smile, too. On that face, however, it looked like sauce you’d want to taste. “I’m afraid we find ourselves up against a sort of deadline as well.”
“Already booked the holidays in Tuscany?” Duffy said over the Nat Geo, chortling at his own wit.
“I can see how you worked your way up to the apex of your field,” Jameson murmured, a cold smile on his face, but his eyes on me. “There’s a wedding.”
“Does she know that?”
“Indeed.” A flicker of irritation mixed with genuine pain strobed across his face. “She has showed a remarkable lack of interest in the proceedings.”
“Maybe she can just send a gift. I hear pizza stones are popular.”
Jameson exhaled a cloud of smoke. “It’s her wedding.”
It had to be my imagination, but I could have sworn the smile in her picture got a little more devilish. “Could be she’s changed her mind.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Some other guy? Or girl?” I shrugged.
I studied the lines of his face. “You seem awfully certain.”
“I know my sister.” Jameson stubbed out his cigarette in the tray that had the likeness of a can-can dancer. “If Beryl had decided to call off the wedding, she would have had no qualms about saying so. There’s something else going on.”
“She won’t return your calls?”
“Beryl’s not answering the phone. She’s not in her flat. That’s why I want you to find her.” The irritation bled through the careful cool mask of his face. Funny how a few minutes talking with me seemed to always bring that out in people.
“Do you have any idea where she might be? Or should I just start buttonholing saps on the street?”
“I understand you know the sort of places that people go when they don’t want to be found. That is why I was told to contact you.” The icy look on his face would have filled a martini shaker and left plenty over for a highball.
“Does she have any known vices? It helps to have someplace to start. Gambling? Dope? Drink? Nude pachinko?”
Jameson’s big blue eyes had dark lashes that looked a lot better on his sister, but they kept the threat in his gaze from getting too warm. “She’s not above a little flutter now and again. The relaxed ambience of a casino might suit her.”
“It gives me a place to start,” I agreed with a rusty smile.
“I suppose this will start you off on your travels,” Jameson said as he handed me a cheque with a pleasing number of digits and an embossed card. “Phone me when you find her.”
“Paedophile,” Duffy muttered as Jameson walked out the door, carefully avoiding contact with anything in the bar.
“You’re just not used to posh people,” I said, holding my cup out for a last refill. “You have a prejudice, Duffy.”
He shook his head and tapped a finger on the green frog. “Something’s not right about him. You best take care.”
“His cabbage looks right enough.” I squinted at the cheque in the dim light. “I’ve got no complaints with a man who pays well.”
“All the same—”
“You wouldn’t invite him home for a meal with the family?”
“Noted.” I swallowed the last of the java and slipped off my chair. “Time to earn that paycheck.” I almost felt human again. Pity I wasn’t.
“No, never seen her.” The hunchback left a greasy print on the edge of the photograph when I tugged it from his grip. “I’d remember that.”
I tried to ignore the way he licked his lips. His tongue oozed out like a diseased slug, leaving a glistening trail behind it. “You know any new underground games afoot? Something good if you wanted to hide your predilections?”
“You’re not talking about Ton-Ton’s joint, eh?” His sneer grew. “I hear you’re none too welcome in the Haitian’s club,” The hunchback wiped his palm on his waistcoat with lascivious pleasure. “Not welcome at all. Put his zombies on you, didn’t he?”
“I got bad manners, what can I say? You got any suggestions?”
He chuckled. It sounded as if he were chewing on a small furry animal desperately trying to escape its fate. The pong that wafted up from his teeth made the possibility seem less remote. “I dunno. People say things, but you know, I don’t always listen that close.”
Aw, poor fella. He is not appreciated. I greased his palm a little further, not that it needed much. “Maybe that’ll jog your memory a bit. I have the feeling something’s just popped into your recollection.”
“Well,” he admitted, “I did hear rumours of the pikey starting up a new floater in the Marquis, that old cha-cha palace.”
Pikey? “You mean Marinova? I didn’t know she was back.” I couldn’t decide if that was good news or not. “Fast work if she’s got the Marquis renovated.”
He shrugged. “Like I said, it’s something I heard. Maybe your fancy filly turned up for the grand opening.”
“Thanks. You’ve been helpful.”
The hunchback grinned and rubbed his hand on his waistcoat again. “I’m always glad to pocket a little extra dosh.” He hopped up from his stool to open the door for a smart-suited businessman who saved a disapproving look for me, which seemed unfair given the present company. “I got a lot of time on my hands.”
I nodded and headed out into the street. The past three days had been a bust with a lot of pavement pounding and very little luck. The moon was getting fatter but my leads had stayed thin. I wasn’t sure how Marinova would greet me, but it seemed the most promising trail so far. In no time I stood before the old hotel in the town centre. The corpse looked lively. The façade showed its age, but a considerable crew patrolled its entrance. Workmen zipped in and out the propped-open doors.
I buttonholed a mug I knew slightly. “O’Connell, is Marinova in?”
The Irishman looked at me with some doubt. “You sure she wants to see you? I seem to recall a little contretemps between you and her cousin, or was it her brother—?”
“Water under the bridge,” I assured him. What’s a few dead bodies between friends, after all? “She in?”
O’Connell shrugged. “In the casino room I expect. But you want to be careful there, Roman. The pikey’s got a long memory and she’s not keen on interference.”
“Who’s interfering? I’m just looking up an old friend. And I don’t think she much appreciates being referred to as a pikey. She comes from a long and illustrious line of travelers.”
O’Connell’s face fell. “You know I was only saying it in fun—”
I nodded. “Sure, sure. I’ll keep it to myself, nothing to worry about.”
Leaving the Irishman sweating, I waltzed through the reception area, dodging a couple of men carrying a new roll of carpet. It looked like Marinova had intentions of doing the place up right; she must want to lure the uptown crowd down here as well as the suburbanites across the river. Someone had a whole lot of folding money. The plan made me idly curious, but not enough to lose track of my aim here.
I headed up the rich red-carpeted steps to the ballroom and saw a splendour that dazzled. It glittered like a little bit of Monte Carlo in the midst of this seedy neighbourhood, one that had seen better years but not since my great aunt Fanny’s day.
I found Marinova near the baccarat tables. Her black hair fell in its usual tumble, but she wore a cocktail dress that made the most of her ripe curves. I decided on the amnesia approach. “Well, Marinova! Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world—”
Her expression remained unreadable as she turned to regard me. “Roman Dalton, how you have changed.”
I shrugged. “A little more mileage on the meter, that’s all.”
She smiled and walked right up to me and took my hand in hers, then stared intently at my palm. “Changed indeed.”
I tried to pull my fingers from her grip without success. “I’m looking for someone, maybe you’ve seen her?”
Marinova dropped my hand then and gave me a strange smile. “And why should I help you, Roman Dalton?”
“You’re such a good-hearted woman, how can you resist?”
She laughed. It was a warm sound, one that gave me unreasonable hope. Her words offered less encouragement. “I think rather you owe me a little something extra.”
“Maybe I can cut you in on this deal if you help me out.” I had no idea how that might work, but I always found it easier to promise good intentions than to deliver them. What was it Amelia Earhart said about asking for forgiveness rather than permission? “There’s plenty of money at stake, and it looks like you’re burning through an awful lot of it here.”
A waitress appeared with a tray and two glasses of pale greenish liquid. I wondered how she had been summoned. Marinova took the glasses and handed one to me. “Na zdrowie.”
“Better days.” I tipped the glass back and the zubrowka warmed my throat. The thought crossed my mind that it might not be my health we were drinking to, but I knew it would be fatal to hesitate with her.
“My better days are here,” the dark beauty said. “I think yours may be behind you.”
I tried to hide my irritation. “What’s that? A gypsy curse? I got plenty of better days ahead.”
“How many until the moon is full?” Her eyes were black as midnight and I found their gaze too much to endure.
“Why should I care? I’m no star gazer. Listen, there’s this bird I gotta find, might be here. A real thoroughbred type, swanky pedigree, family the kind who hunts little critters on bigger ones.”
“My target clientele,” Marinova said with a laugh. “I’m keeping the miscreants like you out of this place. Every level requires more money, fewer allowed in. People yearn for exclusivity. I promise it.”
“I’ll get my tux out of mothballs,” I muttered. I dug in my pocket for the picture now sporting the hunchback’s fingerprint. Nothing lasts forever. “You ever see this beauty? Her brother’s looking to squire her home again. The family misses her terribly.”
Marinova did not look at the picture. “If she doesn’t want to go home, why should she?”
I lifted my palms up in innocence. “I’m not going to force her. I get paid to find her. If she don’t want to come home, I tell her family so. They just want to know she’s all right. No funny business, no commotion.”
She looked at me with something that felt an awful lot like pity. “Try the penthouse lounge.”
“You’re a queen among women.” I pocketed the picture and turned to go.
“And you’re a beast among men, Roman Dalton.” Marinova spoke softly but the words hit like a blow anyway. I hunched my shoulders and walked on, the zubrowka churning my guts. When I reached the lifts I punched the button with a little more energy than it called for to summon one. The wolf arched in my spine. His time drew closer. I hit the button again. I needed to finish up this job.
When the doors opened at the top of the shaft, opulence greeted me. If the room below seemed well appointed, this lounge offered the crowning achievement. Every bit of it gleamed with well-polished wood and metal. The colours of the walls and furniture came from a muted palette that suggested soft tones and murmured conversation: the kind of dosh that never had to raise its voice to be heard. I ignored the waiter who looked at me as if I had been rolled there by some sort of dung beetle. There was a platinum head at the end of the long oak bar with just the right arrogant tilt to it. I knew it had to be Beryl Jameson.
I made my way across the silk carpet to the curve of the bar where she sat on a tall silver chair. Jameson wore a slinky dress that hugged her shape like a jealous husband, but she would have looked just as good in a gunny sack. Doubtless she’d look best in nothing but a hair ribbon. I would have admired the view a little longer but I was beginning to feel conspicuous as I passed the swells. “Beryl Jameson?”
Her head turned toward me, a smirk on her lips and an ebony cigarette holder in her hand. I was right; the big blue eyes looked better on her than on her brother, the long dark lashes shading the startling colour as if it were too much for mere mortals. But it was her perfume that got me by the throat and raised all the hairs on the back of my neck. The wolf’s heart thudded in my chest with an unfamiliar ache. It took all my power not to growl and leap on her right then. Sweat sprang out on my forehead and my collar became too tight.
“No one but my family calls me Beryl,” she said, her voice a contralto copy of her brother’s with the same languorous insouciance. Her gaze traveled up and down me. No doubt she’d want to wash her eyes afterward. “They want me dragged back home, don’t they?”
I affected innocence again. “No one suggested dragging you. I’m just here to request that you consider the possibility. Nothing more.”
Beryl laughed. Her friends regarded me with expressions normally reserved for kiddie fiddlers in the park. “What’s going to persuade me?”
“Maybe we could talk private like for a minute?”
“Don’t go, Lil.” The young Beau Brummell at her side laid a manicured hand on her arm. A glance from her made him withdraw the hand at once. I liked her even better already.
“I’ll be all right over here,” she said, nodding her head toward a booth in the corner. “A couple of pink gins for my consultant and me, Josef.” Jameson slipped off her chair and walked over to the table. I followed the sway of her hips like a mesmerist’s pigeon. It was all I could do not to let my tongue hang out like some Tex Avery cartoon. I wasn’t sure why I was so hot and bothered. Must have been the perfume. Or maybe it was the lack of action for so many a moon.
I let her sit first, then slid down on the opposite side. “I appreciate your giving me a chance to talk.”
She shrugged. “They want me to come back. I’m not going back.”
I nodded to show I was not an unreasonable guy. “Your brother said something about a wedding.” I looked down at the rock on her hand. It could have cooled a highball with ease.
Jameson looked up as the bartender brought the drinks on a silver tray. “Thank you, Josef.” She slid one across the table to me. “Slainté.”
As she tipped her head back to drink, all I could think about was how much I wanted to fasten my teeth around her neck and make her whimper. I shook myself and downed the better part of my drink. It wasn’t half bad, but I had a feeling it might not settle well on top of the Polish vodka. “It would be a shame to disappoint all those guests.”
Her brow furrowed. “What’s your name?”
“Dalton. Roman Dalton.”
“What’s your story, Dalton?”
“One as old as the world. Just an honest man struggling in a world he never made.”
She barked a quick laugh. “Honest!” The puzzled look returned. “You’re a detective.”
I nodded. “I’d say I preferred dick, but I get called that a little too much to enjoy it, Miss Jameson.”
“Lil.” Jameson smiled, then looked thoughtful. “There’s something odd about you.”
“I missed the Paris fashions this year, so I’m out of season. Imagine my embarrassment.”
“You’re not what you seem.”
“Neither are you.” I couldn’t say why my heart was racing again. I downed the last of the gin. It probably didn’t help.
“I’m not going back. They wouldn’t understand.”
“Money: they can pay. Drugs: they can sort it out. You got a lover? They can probably manage that as well. Nothing much that can’t be dealt with. That’s what money’s for.” I managed to keep the bitterness out of my voice almost completely.
“It’s not like that,” she said, turning her head away. “You don’t know how it is. You wouldn’t understand.”
“Try me. I’ve seen some pretty strange stuff in my time. Things you wouldn’t believe.”
“Why do you smell like that?”
I blinked. “You don’t like a smoker?”
Jameson leaned over the table and sniffed at me. “That’s not smoke.”
“I don’t know what you mean, I—”
“Let’s go to my suite. We can’t talk here.”
I nodded, flummoxed. Without a word she stood up and darted toward the exit. I trotted behind her as she slammed her hand onto the call button. On the ride down, her fingers drummed rapidly on her crossed arms, but she stayed on the far side of the car and did not speak to me. We got off on the ninth floor and she let us into the first room down the corridor.
I barely stepped inside the door when she slammed it behind me, threw her clutch on the low table and spun around. “What are you?” she hissed. I didn’t get a chance to answer because Lil launched herself at me and bit my neck. We went down together, growls erupting from our throats.
I rolled her over so I was on top once again. I grabbed the collar of her dress to pull it off her shoulder and bite her breast. Lil howled and fought back, hands scrabbling at my shirt as buttons flew across the carpet. Her nails raked my chest and I sucked the air in surprise. I shoved her dress up in search of that intoxicating scent and buried my face between her thighs.
Her hands ripped at my clothes and hair as she struggled against me. Rolling across the floor we fought, her teeth on my chest as I tried to pin her down. When I finally managed to wiggle out of my trousers, she was ready for me and pulled me on top of her, sinking her teeth into my shoulder as I sank into her. We howled together, a wild and desperate threnody, as the beasts in us merged.
I awoke about three, for once without the piercing spike of a hangover in my brain. I savoured the feeling with relief for a moment, then I moved and became aware of the aches that tortured my flesh. I could see the purple marks of bruises on my shoulders where Lil’s teeth had found a hold. My shins were barked and long-unused muscles screamed their complaints as I rolled out of bed to take a piss. The wee man had some complaints of his own, feeling raw and red as I winced over the bowl. How many times had it been?
Limping back to the bed, I found Lil deep asleep yet. My rough digits had left deep bruises on her arms and thighs. They looked black in the moonlight, My teeth had marked her throat. Nonetheless she looked peaceful enough in her slumber and snuggled against me as I slipped back under the covers. I decided not to think about anything at all and willed myself back to sleep with one arm crooked around her waist. It was the sweetest oblivion I had tasted in some time—maybe ever.
The sun decided to hide its head that day, which was just as well when we surfaced about noon. I woke to the drumming of the rain outside and a steady gaze from those remarkably blue eyes. “You’re not so much in the morning light.”
“You on the other hand are a peach.” I touched the purple on her throat with a finger. “A bruised peach, but a peach nonetheless.”
“I finally meet another wolf and he’s a middle-aged ex-cop with a bad attitude.” Lil shook her head.
“How’d you know I was an ex-cop?”
She laughed. “Aren’t all you shamuses ex-cops?”
“Shamus? Listen to the society bird sling the lingo.” She tweaked my nipple and I yelped. “So how’d it happen?”
Sighing, she lay back on the pillows. “Would you believe up on the moors? The ancestral home. It’s like something out of Brontë tale. I was just hacking along on my old gelding Winky, trying to think about where everything went wrong. It came out of nowhere. Or Scotland. I hear that’s the home of the original Big Bad Wolf.” She laughed: a flat, mirthless sound. “Pulled me off my horse. Tore through my clothes. I thought I was dead. Then I woke up.” Lil laid an arm across her eyes. “You?”
“Bikers in a bar fight.”
She laughed but there wasn’t much humour in it. “Get me some gin and a ciggie, will you?” I rolled out of bed and padded over to the minibar. I poured a whisky for myself as well then lit two cigarettes. Lil sat up. I handed her the tumbler of gin and put the coffin nail to her lips. She inhaled deeply. “Bloody buggery bollocks, innit?”
“Yep.” I blew out a cloud of smoke and sipped the whisky.
“Let’s paint the town red tonight, shamus. One last time.”
I looked at her pale face and those big blue eyes. “Whatever you say, partner.”
“Hey, that Mabel was looking for you,” Duffy said as he emptied the can-can girl ashtray under the big silver star that hung over the bar since a yuletide three years gone. It seemed to have picked up some new cobwebs this week. “You want I should call her over to take care of you?” He chortled, ignoring my growl. “I hope the other guy looks worse.”
“That Jameson been by at all?”
Duffy rummaged under the bar. “He called, ah, let’s see. Yesterday.” He consulted the crumpled note. “Wanting to know if you’d made any progress.”
I settled myself down on a stool, wincing. “Yeah. I made progress. Gimme some whisky to celebrate.” I lit another cigarette and reached for the glass. No matter I’d already oiled my neck enough to be feeling no pain. I was counting down the hours until sunset, a time I’d come to dread. But not tonight. Tonight would be gangbusters.
“Jesus, Roman. You look weird. And done in.” Duffy tutted as he refilled the glass.
“You just never seen me happy before.” I could feel my grin getting a little sloppy but I was past caring. I took a long drag on my gasper and enjoyed being alive for a moment. I should have known it couldn’t last.
“Roman?” Her voice grated like a pair of heels dragged over pavement. “You busy?”
“I’m always busy,” I growled. Last thing I needed. No whinging zombies, no bargain vampires, and certainly no well-meaning do-gooders.
“I just thought we might talk for a minute.” The worst part had to be her too-nice smile in that too-soft face. It made me want to push it right through the other side of her head. I hunched my shoulders. The wolf had little patience today.
“Listen, Mabel. I know you’re glad to be alive and all, but that don’t mean there’s something between us.”
“You seemed to want some comfort the other night,” she said, laying her soft white hand on my rumpled sleeve. “I can help fight the evil within you. You can win.”
I shrugged off her touch. “It’s a curse. It’s not a moral failing, I’m not a lost soul. The world is fucked up and there’s no silver lining that doesn’t come with a bullet. Go back to Wisconsin.”
“Michigan,” Mabel whispered.
“Whatever.” I swallowed the last of the whisky and slid the glass back to Duffy for a refill. “You stick around here and you’re going to get hurt.” I turned my back on her in a way that I hoped made it clear I had no intention of turning around again. I didn’t need to see that big lower lip tremble or see tears in those eyes. Their cornflower blue could not match Lil’s crystalline beauty. I wanted to pull the night around me like a cowl. Duffy regarded me without a word as he poured out more of that low rent elixir.
“You got no heart, Roman.”
I picked up the glass and drained it. “You gotta be cruel to be kind. Nothing less than the truth. This town will chew her bones. Besides, I got a date.”
“Not mixing work with pleasure again?” Duffy arched an eyebrow at me. “Remember how it went last time.”
“It’s not like that. This is different, a whole other galaxy altogether.” I held out the glass again.
After a long look, Duffy poured a little more. “You might want to go easy on the sauce—especially tonight, Roman. If the last few months are anything to go by, heads are gonna roll.”
I waved away his concerns. “I’m staying out of trouble tonight. No strife, no hoodlums. Just a big night out with a woman who understands the beast in me.” I saluted Duffy and headed out the door into the late afternoon sun. The wolf in me stretched his limbs and prepared for release. How glorious to be working together instead of tearing at each other’s throats.
She met me at my place. I figured it was safer. We’d be off the streets. Lil looked around the flat and gave me an amused grin. “Spartan.”
“Hey, I’ve gone all out on the hospitality front,” I complained. “Clean glasses, clean sheets.” I handed her a tumbler of the good stuff from a newly popped bottle of gin. “Nothing but the best.”
She took the glass. The ice clinked against the sides. “You ought to get some bitters.”
“I’ll add it to my shopping list,” I said, looking at her over the rim of my glass, trying to keep the wolf in check a few minutes longer. The suspense rested like a ball of fire in my gut, one the whisky couldn’t extinguish.
“It comes over like an itch at first, doesn’t it?” Lil’s eyes seemed bigger in the dusk, wet with something that wasn’t tears. “From the inside.” She downed the gin with a grimace, then with no further preamble shrugged off her dress to stand naked before me, her breasts like twin moons filling my brain. I dropped my glass and pounced. We rolled across the floor trading bites and yips, tails entwining and raw howls of lust gurgling from our throats. For once, I could let the beast run free without hiding myself in oblivion. For once, the wolf was happy.
I should have known it wouldn’t be enough.
We coupled and rested and did it all again. And then she looked at me with those yellow eyes and laughed, and we sank a few more drinks and hit the streets. After a time I can’t remember much. The night was long, the drinks and the blood flowed freely, we ate well. You wouldn’t miss most of the lowlifes we mowed down in our drunken spree. Honestly, we were doing the city a favour. We cleaned up more recalcitrants in a night than the men in blue had in the last six months.
But yeah, I felt bad about Mabel. Maybe even guilty. Some days, everything hurts. The tabloids printed those pictures of her head sitting on the flower box in my neighbour’s window, that look of surprise on her face. I know there will be nights when I wake up defending myself to that face.
Duffy tried to be sympathetic. “You did warn her. I suppose she ought to have listened.” He folded over the National Geographic with the Peruvian snails on the cover, nudging the overfilled ashtray aside. “It don’t get no easier, does it?”
I nodded and shoved my glass over for a refill. My head was full of hornets again. I ached in every joint and limb. The bruises on my neck and face would heal. The whisky helped. Not enough, of course, but it did its part to numb the dull ache of it all. I could have done without the blaring box, where some breathless society sycophant panted after the thoroughbred couple as they announced their happy news before ranks of dignitaries and relatives. The scarf around her neck hid a lot, but her smile was lupine. I had a feeling the wedding night would be memorable, at least for her. I wouldn’t have wanted to take the odds on his survival.
“You want I should turn that off?” Duffy asked solicitously, which somehow made it even worse.
“Nah, it happens. Right?”
“It’s a curse,” Duffy said, topping up my glass again.
“That it is, that it is.”
K. A. Laity/ Graham Wynd is an award-winning author, scholar, critic, editor, and arcane artist. Her books include Chastity Flame, Lush Situation, Love is a Grift, Satan’s Sorority, How to Be Dull, White Rabbit, Dream Book, A Cut-Throat Business, Owl Stretching, and Pelzmantel. She has edited My Wandering Uterus, Respectable Horror, Weird Noir, Noir Carnival and Drag Noir, plus written many short stories, scholarly essays, songs, and more.
Her podcast Is It Funny? can be found here.