No one can sneak up on you if you keep your back to the wall. No one can hide in the shadows if you never turn off the lights. No one can hurt you if you never let them touch you. Trust issues? You bet. I have my reasons, but we’ll get to those later.
“Give me a break, Sam.” Owen, my trusty boy Friday and wicche extraordinaire, smirked.
“All I’m saying is that zombies have undergone more of a transformation over the years.” Hiding a grin, I blew on my tea and watched the waves hitting the glass wall of my bookstore and bar.
“Speed, maybe,” he said as he stacked glasses under the bar.
Perched on a stool, I sipped while Owen checked the liquor bottles, replacing empties. Tables were scattered throughout the bar, green leather chairs surrounding them, with small stained-glass lamps topping most. I scanned the room, checking if anyone needed a refill, but it was a ruse. Clive, a certain ridiculously handsome vampire, drew me like a zombie to brains.
“Nuh-uh,” I continued. “Remember the whisperers in The Walking Dead? Speech requires thought.”
“I beg to differ.”
Ignoring him, I forged ahead. “In I am Legend they could reason, and in 28 Days they were wicked fast. No more shambling around and bumping into trees for modern zombies.” I paused. “You know what, I’ve changed my mind.”
Clive sat at a corner table, lost in shadow. His eyes felt like a soft caress and an unfamiliar shiver ran through me. Swirling the tea in my cup, I allowed myself a quick glance in his direction. He took a sip, watching me, his storm-gray eyes crinkled in an almost smile.
“Are you shitting me right now?” Owen dropped an empty whiskey bottle into the recycle bin and pulled a fresh bottle from under the counter. Owen’s hair glinted in the light, a natural black liberally streaked with electric blue. Or maybe it was the piercings in his ears and eyebrow. The boy sparkled. He reminded me of a shiny Chris Peng.
What were we talking about again? Clive scattered my thoughts without even trying. He was Master of the City, the highest-ranking supernatural in town. He’d show up once a month, have a drink, and I’d start considering things I had no right to consider. I was not good romantic material. Still, Clive made me wish things were different, that I was different.
“Sam?” Owen waited for a response.
“No, what I mean is, I don’t think zombies have changed the most in pop culture; I think women have.” I totally had this argument in the bag.
Clive leaned forward and cleared his throat. “You believe the depiction of humans has changed the most?”
Clive never joined our reindeer games. I sat stunned for a moment, his voice a decadent rumble in the quiet room. Shaking it off, I said, “I was just messing with Owen on the zombies. He’s terrified of—”
“Who wouldn’t be? They’re zombies!”
“Here’s the thing, though. In Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead, Barbara is worthless. She’s a walking cliché. Weak, childlike—”
Heavy footsteps pounded down the stairs into the bar. I could have kept arguing, but I’d clearly already won the argument. Clive and his stupid sexy face were making it difficult to hold on to my thoughts.
“Nice tee.” Dave, my half-demon short order cook, came behind the bar, interrupting the excellent point I forgot I was making. He stared intently at my chest. I was wearing my zombie survival guide tee today. It was what had prompted the argument with Owen over the depiction of supernaturals in pop culture.
I hid beneath shapeless, sexless clothes to avoid attention. Seven years after the fact, and I still cringed when I noticed gazes drift to the scars trailing out of my sleeves or collar.
I used to be considered pretty—long, wavy brown hair, green eyes, a thin, athletic build. That was before. My efforts at androgyny, though, were wasted on Dave. He enjoyed fucking with people too much. My issues made me easy prey. He smirked, knowing his scrutiny was making me sweat. Grabbing a bottle of cinnamon schnapps, he poured himself a glass.
“Glad you like it,” I said. “You can never be too careful. It pays to be prepared for the shambling undead.”
Dave made a dismissive sound in the back of his throat. “Please. They’re only as dangerous or as focused as the demon who calls them. Most will give out before the fight gets interesting.”
I never knew how seriously to take Dave. He was a good guy, albeit one with deep red skin, pure black eyes, and occasional bouts of uncontrolled anger. But no one was perfect.
“I swear,” he continued. “Most demons have ADD. Just when things start to get good, they wander off to start some new shit. It’s why they never get anything done.”
He winked at me as he walked toward the kitchen.
I spoke to Dave’s massive back. “I’ll have to remember that. Thanks.”
Clive, impeccably dressed in a dark suit and snowy white shirt, tapped a long finger on the table. “‘Weak, childlike…’”
“Hmm? Oh, yeah.” My brain went on hiatus while I watched him take another sip. The man gave good swallow. “Um.” And that British accent did funny things to my stomach. Clive was stupidly handsome, with dark blond hair, intense gray eyes, strong jaw, and broad shoulders. It was good he only dropped in every once in a while. I’d never be able to interact with him on a daily basis.
How did a single syllable undo me? “Barbara was weak and childlike, tripping and falling. She’s almost comatose with fear in the 1968 version of the film. When Romero remade it in 1990, Barbara was a warrior. She strapped on the ammo and started blowing away zombies.”
He tilted his head, studying me. “Better to be fearsome than fearful?”
“Yes.” Seven years of battling back the fear that wanted to swamp me, wanted to pull me back down into the dark, pushed the harsh sound from my lips.
Nodding slowly, he stood. “I’m glad to hear it. Good evening.”
Like a slavish zombie to a juicy frontal lobe, I watched him climb the stairs and leave. What was it was about today’s conversation that prompted the normally brooding vampire to speak? Zombies? It felt more like it was women fighting back that had piqued his interest.
The sky tonight was a brilliant purple, the water almost black as it crashed against the windows. My bookstore-bar was nestled into a cliff face at the waterline. During low tide, waves swirled around the bottom of the window. At high tide, the window-wall was almost completely submerged.
My home lay hidden beneath one of San Francisco’s scenic spots. Land’s End had a long stairway that led down to an overlook. When humans reached the bottom of the steps, they found themselves on a platform that overlooked the meeting of the Bay and the Pacific Ocean. When supernaturals walked down the steps, they passed through a magical entrance and kept going deep underground to my bookstore and bar.
As much as I thought the bar was a work of art, it was the view that got all the attention. It was also why I’d decided on dark wood throughout. When you had an uninterrupted glass wall looking out on the ocean and Golden Gate Bridge, additional eye-catching décor seemed pointless.
To the left of the stairs was the bookstore. An old-fashioned pub sign, The Slaughtered Lamb, hung down from the carved entrance. It was an exact replica of the one in the film An American Werewolf in London. It was my nerdy nod to being an American werewolf behind the bar. The Slaughtered Lamb was for supernaturals only. After all, everyone needed a strong drink and a good book.
Looking up, I found two bright yellow eyes staring intently at me. “Ule, it’s nice to see you.” His cup was full, thank goodness. “I see Owen has set you up this evening.” The concoction smelled foul and I had no desire to refill it. Owen brewed some kind of rodent tea for customers like Ule, an owl shifter. “Do you need anything else?”
He gazed down into his cup for a moment, before his large, unblinkingly eyes found mine again. “No.”
I tapped the bar and smiled. “Good talk.”
Something large thumped against the window.
“Oh, dear.” A wicche’s concerned voice drew the attention of the room. She was staring out the window at the black, teeming water.
An object was drawn away with the tide before rushing back and smashing into the glass again. A body. Female, naked, and torn up. I came around the bar, horrified. Well-hidden scars burned in recognition. The tide slammed her back into the window, and I jumped.
The body jerked in the swirling water in a kind of grotesque ballet. Closing my eyes, I felt my gorge rise. I couldn’t leave her out there alone. I knew what it was like to be torn up and alone.
Turning, I looked for one of my regulars, a selkie. He was slight and dark, with translucent hair and brown, sealskin-colored eyes. I gestured to the window, hand trembling. “Will you get her, please?” Her body slammed into the window, and I recoiled.
The selkie hung the modesty robe back on a hook by the water entrance, wrapped his sealskin around himself, and dove out into the ocean. We saw him seconds later, navigating through the strong tide, pushing her body toward the square of water in the floor of the bar. It was held in place by a magical membrane. Ocean nymphs and other water fae could cross back and forth, but the water never broke the barrier.
He nudged the body towards the entrance. Leaning forward, I grabbed her and pulled. She slid a few feet across the floor before rolling onto her back.
Milky eyes stared sightlessly up. Her body was blue and bloated. Bloodless slashes exposed muscles, ligaments, and organs. The cuts were ragged. Who knew how long she’d been in the water. Her injuries might have been the result of rocks or sharks. The extent of them, though…my own hidden scars flashed through my mind.
Grim, an aptly named dwarf, offered the blanket I kept behind the bar.
I nodded my thanks, unable to speak. Shaking out the blanket, I covered her with it.
“Do you know her?” Owen asked.
Voice unsteady, I responded, “Not sure. She’s a wolf. I can smell that under the seaweed and brine. I’ll call my uncle, see if he has anyone missing from his pack.” Alone, lost in the cold, dark ocean. “If she’s not his, I guess I’ll have to contact the Bodega Bay pack.” How had the woman ended up here of all places?
Owen rested his hand on my back. “Can I help?”
I stiffened. I didn’t like being touched, not even when I needed it. Maybe especially then. It had been seven years since I’d been attacked and turned. Werewolves, like many other supernaturals, weren’t supposed to age. I’d been seventeen when I was turned, but I looked older now. Being the lone wolf in San Francisco meant I hadn’t had anyone to teach me fact from fiction. Maybe the books were wrong about werewolf aging. Regardless, my body might be a horror, but it was that of a strong, healthy twenty-four-year-old. Emotionally? Well, there were some things you never recover from.
After getting the dead woman photographed, wrapped, and placed in the far corner of the cold-storage room, I sat in my office. Breathing deeply, I tried not to remember the soft pop the knife made as it broke the skin and sliced through my body, the harsh intake of breath as teeth tore and claws ripped. No. It was better to be fearsome than fearful. I wasn’t going down that path again.
Sitting up straight, I scrubbed my face clean of tears. Enough. I willed my pulse to slow. I needed to call Marcus. I barely knew him, had only met him right before I’d been attacked and then had been pushed away afterward. He reminded me of too many things I’ve tried to keep hidden.
I hadn’t realized it growing up, but the reason my mother never allowed me to see or speak with Uncle Marcus was because she knew he was a werewolf. Right after she died, when I was seventeen, he reached out, wanting to get to know me. I didn’t remember my dad. He was gone before I was able to form and keep more than the vaguest of memories. No matter how I asked, Mom wouldn’t talk about dad, saying it was dangerous to give the dead too much of ourselves.
Even though I had promised my mother never to contact Marcus, when he sought me out at her funeral, it felt like a second chance at family. He seemed kind, but I should have listened to Mom. I’d agreed to visit him on what I’d later learned were his pack grounds. I’d been attacked, tortured, raped, and turned by a werewolf he couldn’t identify and never found.
Staring at the Degas postcard on the wall of my office, I forced my mind to think about delicate ballerinas in blue, letting them take the place of suffering and humiliation. When my hands had stopped shaking, I uploaded the photo of the dead woman and sent it to Marcus. Maybe he’d know who she was. If not, I wasn’t sure what to do with her. We never handed over our dead to the human authorities. The less they knew about us, the better.
The phone rang six times before a voice clicked on, asking for a message.
“Marcus, it’s Sam. I fished a dead woman out of the bay in front of the bar. I just sent a picture of her to your email. If she’s not one of yours, I’ll contact the other Bay Area pack.”
Hand clenched, short nails digging into my palm, I struggled with how to continue. “I guess I just didn’t want her to be alone.” I cleared my throat. “Anyway, could you let me know if you recognize her? I’d appreciate it.” I let the receiver fall into the cradle.
After closing, I decided to go on a run. I needed normalcy and control of my own body. Exercising to exhaustion helped me sleep. I refused to let the memories isolate me from the world again.
Jogging up the stairs, I inhaled deeply. Cold, salty wind skated off the ocean as I stretched at the cliff’s edge before heading out. Muscles warm and relaxed, I sped up, running hard and fast, away from open ground and through the woods. Fallen pine needles carpeted the ground. A muffled foghorn bellowed in the distance. It should have been calming, but I couldn’t shake off the feeling I was being watched. A rustling in the trees brought me up short. I scented the wind. Stilled to listen. Nothing.
Running again, I carved my way through the long beach grass, swirling in the high winds along the bluff. The waxing moon glowed in the gathering fog. A couple of miles from the bookstore, I scented a wolf and skidded to a stop. I was the only wolf in San Francisco. There were no packs in town. It was part of the reason I lived here.
Heart thundering, I couldn’t stop thinking about the woman we’d fished out of the bay. I desperately wanted to shift, to protect myself, to have claws and fangs. It would take too long, though. I’d be vulnerable to attack until I’d completed the change. Tipping my head up, I scented the wind again. It was stronger. The wolf was closing in and I was out of time.
I tore back towards my cliff. A mile from home, the sound of paws pounded the sandy dirt behind me. Would anyone hear if I screamed? The fog swallowed screams. I raced headlong toward the trees, frantically looking for a weapon of some kind. I wouldn’t let anyone overpower me, hold me down—not ever again. Paws thundered on the path.
Ahead, I saw the silhouette of a woman. I ran to her. Moonlight glinted off a swath of blonde hair. I felt momentary relief, thinking I had help. Then the hatred rolling off her hit, and I realized too late that I’d been herded into a bigger threat. I didn’t know what she was—the wolf’s scent was too strong—but I knew she wasn’t human.
Understanding that death loomed before and behind, I pivoted to the right and ran toward the brush growing at the edge of the cliff. I felt the wolf’s fur brush my ankle as he passed. He skidded, spun, and started after me again. Out of options, I sprinted to the cliff and threw myself over.
My heart stopped on the free fall. I had three or four seconds to question the sanity of my plan before I was plunging into freezing seawater.
Plummeting down, my body cracked against the slanted cliff face, deep underwater. I kicked off, fighting my way to the surface before my lungs burst. Breathing was difficult at the surface as waves capsized over me, pulling me under. I spat seawater. Knowing I couldn’t be far from the bar entrance, I swam, hoping the wolf hadn’t followed me over the cliff.
Like a ragdoll, I was tossed, pulled down, and then shoved back up by the teeming ocean. Something brushed across my cheek, something long and flat that I hoped very much was kelp. I caught only a glimpse of it before I was knocked sideways by another wave.
The seaweed or whatever it was scraped against the back of my neck. Cringing, I batted it away as I was yanked under again and again, fighting the relentless undertow. I sputtered to the surface and realized the vine had encircled my neck, squeezing tighter as my body was spun in the churning waves. Treading water as best I could, keeping an eye out for jagged rocks, I scanned the darkened cliff face, looking for the bar entrance. It was hidden from view, glamoured to look like nothing but rock, but there was a deep groove bisected by a forty-five-degree slash that almost made an X-marks-the-spot landmark. The bar entrance was right beneath that X in the stone.
Sputtering water, I yanked at the vine that had begun choking me. It moved and constricted once more. When I pulled, it undulated in a way plant life didn’t. The scream stayed trapped inside my head as my larynx was crushed by what I hoped, by all that was holy, was not an eel. Sentient underwater seaweed was less terrifying to me than an eel wrapped around my neck.
Needle-like teeth latched onto my hand. I froze in horror for only a moment, but it was enough to drag me back under the freezing waves. Fingers numb, I tore like a wild thing at the creature encircling my neck. I felt bites on my neck and hands, but I didn’t care, so great was the cringe factor. With a final rip, I snatched the now inert pieces of God-anything-but-an-eel from my throat and let them drop from my bloody hands.
A wave crashed, and I was under again. Eel parts floated away, but it was the shiny thing dropping straight down that caught my attention. My hands flew to my neck. It was bare. My mother’s necklace. I’d ripped it off when I’d killed the eel. It was all I had, my only link to her. Diving down, I grabbed with unfeeling hands, but somehow managed to catch it by the stone pendant before it sunk into the murky depths of the bay.
Eel-free and clutching my mother’s necklace, I swam toward the bar’s entrance. Even though I was preternaturally strong, it was a slow and arduous journey. Thankfully, the wolf hadn’t followed me over the cliff. When I finally found the entrance, I dragged my exhausted, battered body in and lay there, panting and shivering on the barroom floor. Who were those two up top? Were they connected to the dead woman?
The Slaughtered Lamb was warded to high heaven. My wards, a kind of magical security system, were set with me as the key. Over time, they had begun to respond to my intentions as well as my words. I locked them down and dragged myself back to my apartment to take a long, hot shower.
The black stone pendant hung limply from my injured hand. I couldn’t explain it, but not having it around my neck was causing my head to throb. I would get it fixed. The first chance I got, I would get it fixed and back around my neck. I’d been little when my Mom set out the jewelry making tools and made it for me, when she made me promise to never take it off.
Even after a steaming shower, I couldn’t stop shivering. Later, dressed in my warmest sweats and burrowed under blankets, I wished for a cup of cocoa and a hand to hold. Instead, I fell into a restless sleep as my mind cycled through trauma, past and present.