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The entire Sweet & Sour series in one box set!A scoop of a lifetime drops into Trixie Lyal’s lap, but she finds herself falling far down the rabbit hole when a bite into a mysterious apple transforms her into a furry beast of legend. With the help of the handsome Orion, a local of her new hometown, she tries to make sense of her new world, and herself.
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Copyright © 2018 by Mac Flynn
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Continue the adventure
Other series by Mac Flynn
I never wanted, or expected, to be a part of the news, especially in a story I couldn’t publish. But such was my life as a small-town newspaper reporter with seriously badluck.
But first, I had to do a little bitching about my old job as I stumbled upon my new job, and newlife.
“I hate snow. I hate snow. I hatesnow.”
That was my mantra as I eased down the wintry county road. I was alone in my small, beat-up old sedan. It was fifty-thousand miles overdue for a checkup, but the wealth of a newspaper reporter wasn’t exactly counted in dollar amounts. It was more like a calling. An urge to know the truth. A longing to shed light on the facts.
Or that’s the bullshit I kept telling myself as I inched past the two-foot high snowdrifts that stood as sentinels along either side of theroad.
“Why couldn’t they have waited to lay me off some other time? Like July?” I muttered to myself.
It was true. I was unemployed, or rather, in-between jobs. The old job was two-hundred miles behind me, and the new one was a hundred miles and a mountain pass in front ofme.
I glanced out the windshield and sighed. The freak weather storm had been predicted, but I never thought I’d see such weather for early October. The only excuse was the road I found myself on sat somewhere around oxygen-tank elevation.
A flurry of thick, white snowflakes fell from the dark gray sky above me. The whiteness stretched forever, as did the rest of the scenery. I was in a stretch of the country that had few houses and even fewer cities. The hamlets and valleys I’d passed through could have been missed if I blinked. Clumps of small forests and rolling hills pocketed the land to my left. On my right was the constant companion of an ice-filled river with its banks peppered with tall, bare-bone trees occupied by the occasional unfriendly predator bird. Above me the sky showed that there was only an hour left untildark.
“Why couldn’t you have asked them for a little more time?” I scolded myself as I rounded another corner in the countryroad.
‘Them’ was my soon-to-be employer, a newspaper in a far-off city. I would be at the bottom of the totem-pole, a novice reporter in an unfamiliar metropolis. The city I left behind was my hometown, but it had done me wrong by not offering me any job opportunities. My flight from the unemployment line hadn’t been well-received by my mother.
“What do you mean you’re moving?” she’d shrieked after I told her the good news that I’d found ajob.
“They’re the only ones who offered me a job,” I’d pointedout.
“Well, maybe you didn’t look hard enough.”
“Mom, I contacted two dozen. Only three even got back tome.”
“But why that far?” my mom persisted.
“I don’t have much of a choice.”
A hulking shadow jumped into the road ten yards in front of me. I slammed on the brake and the car decided to do a dance across the slick surface of the road. Its rear slid left and right as IT skidded to a stop a few feet from the shadow. My headlights glistened off a bunch of brown, wet fur that covered something that stood on two legs. Yellow eyes glared at me from an elongated face before it turned away and loped across the road to my left. The thing jumped the growing snowdrift and disappeared into the white wilderness.
I leaned back in my seat and clutched at my heart. “Easy there, girl, easy. It’s gone. You’resafe.”
My heart was somewhat soothed. I turned the steering wheel so the car faced forward and inched my way into a straight path. The snowflakes fell faster and the day grew darker as night threatened to scare me silly. It’d have to really try after that terrifying creature scare.
“Stop letting your imagination get the best of you. There’s nothing out here but snow and crazy old miners. . .” I mumbled to myself. My eyes flickered to the side of the road where the creature had disappeared. “Wish I’d find one of those crazy old miners so they could tell me where the heck Iam.”
My prayers were answered by the sight of a road block on my side of the road. Two vehicles with state trooper markings were parked in front and behind the road block, and the drivers stood together on my end of the block. They both wore the large-brimmed hats and uniforms of old. One of them held up his hand and walked towards me. I slowed to a stop, this time without the dance moves, and stuck my head out my open window.
“Something wrong, officer?” I askedhim.
He walked up to me and smiled. “Sorry to tell you this, miss, but the road’s closed ahead.”
“Closed? Why?” I askedhim.
“This storm might not look like much here, but there’s winds on the top and the snow’s coming down too fast to see,” he explained.
I leaned back and threw up my hands. “Perfect. Just perfect.” A fitting end to a two-thirds completed hellish white roadtrip.
“If you need some place to stay there’s the last town you passed. Apple Hollow,” he suggested. “They’ve got a good motel with clean rooms and you won’t meet a friendlier bunch of people. Tomorrow you might be able to get through. The weather’s a little funny up here. One day we’ll have a blizzard and the next it’ll be all melted.”
I furrowed my brow. “I didn’t see anytown.”
“That’s because it’s set a ways back from the state highway and they don’t really advertise themselves,” he explained. He pointed at the road behind me. “You go back about a mile and take the first plowed road on the right. Go for about ten miles around two corners and you should find the hollow it’sin.”
I sighed and shrugged. “Why not? I’ve got time.” I raised an eyebrow and my eyes flickered to the trooper. “How much time do Ihave?”
He shook his head. “I couldn’t say, but it won’t be today. This is one of the last roads the state plows,” he warnedme.
“Well, thanks for the tip,” I told him. I went to roll up my window, but he put his hand on thesill.
“Just a friendly warning, though, miss. The people in the town are suspicious of gossip hounds, so you might not want to tell them you’re a reporter,” he advisedme.
I frowned and my eyes narrowed. “How’d you know I was a reporter?”
He grinned and pointed at my rear view mirror. A press pass hung from the neck. “It doesn’t take a reporter to see that,” he teased.
I sheepishly smiled and pulled down the pass. “Thanks.”
“Anyway, good luck,” he called to me as he steppedback.
I had no idea how badly I’d needit.
I turned my car around and crept back the mile he advised. My short, light-weight car slipped and slid in the increasingly tall snow drifts that littered the road. The wind picked up and threw the white fluffy stuff across the narrow highway so that I couldn’t see the yellow center-line. The lines on the sides were covered by the drifts from plowingspast.
I crept along the road and was relieved to see the turnoff. The country road was well-plowed compared to the highway, and I steered onto the road with a sigh. The road was barely wide enough for two cars of my size to pass, but I didn’t have any opposing traffic. The road wound as the trooper said. Civilization was left behind and replaced by scattered farmhouses and open fields dotted with the occasional bunch of trees. To my left and some five miles off was a large forest that stretched into a group of peeked mountains. To my far right was another group of craggy mountains. Those were part of the mountain range over which I was unable to pass. That meant the town I headed was cradled between a rock and a hard place.
I weaved around a few corners and watched with increasing concern as the snow drifts piled higher around me. There was a slight tunnel effect, and what with the road being so narrow I felt that any chance at turning around was cutoff.
“Just don’t stop if you hear banjos. . .” I muttered to myself, referencing a theme from an old movie about hillbilly cannibals.
The worst part was that I’d make a great meal. I wasn’t exactly skinny. Some people, trying to be polite, would call me big-boned, but I knew I wasn’t the slimmest Barbie on the block. I was definitely plump, but at least I had the boobs to go with my figure. Everything else was in proportion, too, just a larger proportion than I would have liked.
“Come on, girl, get yourself together. . .” I murmured as I rounded the lastbend.
I slowed the car to a stop and beheld the hollow below me. From the trooper’s description I expected a cluster of houses with a ratty motel. Instead I was greeted by a bowl-shaped depression in which sat two dozen rows of fine houses, most of a great age, and all in perfect square blocks that were evenly spaced. The sidewalks were lined with ancient oaks and maples, and the center street that connected with the road on which I sat was clearly designated as the commercial district. Small shops with clean windows looked out on the main road, and their bright, warm lights invited people inside for the coming holiday season. A large hospital stood in the south, and at the east in the distance was a two-floor brick schoolhouse.
The countryside around the town seemed to blend into the outlying neighborhoods. Yards melded into fields that stretched to the farmhouses, and beyond those was the dark forest. The whole area was covered in a thick layer of white fluff. It was as perfect as a postcard.
“Wow. . .” I whispered.
A harsh wind against the side of the car reminded me I wasn’t in the perfect-picture town, yet. I drove down the gentle hill and into the town. I left behind more than just tire tracks. The harsh wind and flurries were left at the peak of the hill. There must have been some sort of micro-climate caused by the depression.
I looked around. There was hardly a soul in view. The wintry weather kept most people indoors, but a few school-aged kids wandered down the sidewalks in groups, and here and there were some shoppers.
I passed an intersection and got a view of the side streets. To my left and one street down sat a tall brick building with a bell tower. On its right and situated on the corner of the block sat a combination of the police and fire stations.
I found my motel at the end of the main street. It was a group of small buildings shaped into a three-sided square with the office in the left front corner. The sign over the front read Moonlight Motel. There were a few other cars in the plowed parking lot, but I got prime real estate in front of the office. I stepped out and looked around.
The first thing I noticed was how quiet the town was. There wasn’t a single blaring horn, yelling pedestrian, or even a mother shouting for her kids to get the hell inside. The silence wasn’t unnerving, though. It actually felt peaceful. I took a deep breath and inhaled the scent of pine trees from the nearby forest, and a hint of diesel from the recently departed plow truck. The smells actually complimented each other.
“Not bad, but I bet not much goes on. . .” I murmured to myself as I shut my door and walked to the officedoor.
The lights were on, and as I stepped inside I noticed an older gentleman behind the desk. He looked up from his paper, a rag with the title of The Daily Brew, and smiled at me. The man folded the paper and met me at thedesk.
“What can I do for you?” he askedme.
“I need a room for the night, or at least until the pass opens,” I toldhim.
“I’d be glad to put up such a lovely young lady,” the man replied as he took a key from a board full of the things and held it out to me. “I think Number Thirteen should do just fine foryou.”
I took the key, but frowned. “Isn’t that a little bit unlucky?” I pointedout.
He chuckled and his eyes crinkled around the corners. “Around here we consider it an especially lucky number.”
“Oh-um, thanks, I guess,” I replied.
He waved away my compliment with his hand. “None of that now. You’ll make an old man blush.”
“Do these rooms have any microwaves or stoves?” I askedhim.
The man shook his head. “Nope, but there’s a good diner just down the way. You won’t find a better home-cookedmeal.”
“I think I’ll try it. What’s its name?” I wondered.
“Spellbinding Food,” he toldme.
I nodded. I remembered seeing that name on one of the long shop windows. “Thanks for theinfo.”
He winked at me. “Don’t mentionit.”
I looked down at the key in my hand. “Do I pay now or later?”
“Oh, no need to worry about payment just yet,” he assuredme.
My eyes flickered up to his smiling face and I frowned. “Whynot?”
There was a twinkle in his eye that I couldn’t read. “Just call it a hunch. Oh, and tell Mab, Troy sent you. She’ll give you a piece of apple pie, or a piece of her mind.” He chuckled at his ownjoke.
I managed a strained smile. “Thanks, I’ll dothat.”
He smiled and nodded. “See that you do.” He turned away, paused, and glanced over his shoulder with a wide smile on his face. “Oh, and good luck tonight. I’m sure you’ll needit.”
I backed up and nodded. “Um, yeah, I’m sure Iwill.”
This guy was nuts, but I didn’t have much choice but to follow his advice if I wanted a hot meal. The weather outside was calm, but the snow still fell in sheets of white. The job of the snow plow was fast disappearing, and so was the light. The time was three, and in an hour it would bedark.
“I hope I can find my car tomorrow. . .” I muttered to myself as I pulled my overnight bag out of mycar.
I made myself comfortable in the uncomfortably numbered room, and walked down the street to the diner. Something made me pause halfway down the road. I rounded a corner on one of the streets that intersected with the main road and glanced down at the residential area. The depression around the town forced the houses to be built on higher and higher ground.
Down the street I could see a good-sized hill. A group of kids sledded down the slope and climbed back up for another run. I watched mesmerized as the monkeys raced up the hill like they were high on pixie sticks. Their speed was incredible. They were just as fast going up and comingdown.
I don’t know how, but I must have caught their attention. One of the sledders reached the bottom and froze. They pointed at me and yelled something to their friends. The group scattered like criminals alerted to a cop car, leaving behind their sleds and the echo of their laughter.
I shrugged and walked on. Weirdkids.
The diner was one of those old-fashioned ice cream parlor-type diners with a counter on the right and tables on the left. The floor was decked in large red and white tiles, and the stools were a bright, shiny red. I decided to forgo the stools and stand-alone tables, and went for one of the cushioned booths. My rear was tired from the long drive. It needed a break and some pampering.
I sat down and leaned back. My eyes caught movement at the counter, and my gaze fell on a fiendish-looking feline. I furrowed my brow. I’m sure I hadn’t noticed it earlier. The creature was hard to miss, what with its jet-black fur and piercing yellow eyes. It stared back at me without blinking. Not even its tail or whiskers twitched.
I was never any good at staring contests and decided this one wasn’t worth winning, so I looked away. Movement grabbed my curiosity again and I glanced back at the counter. The cat was gone, but a human woman veered around the counter and walked over tome.
She was middle-aged woman with purple streaks in her long black hair and a wide smile on her face. She wore a white apron over her ample bosom and a long purple dress that draped like a robe down to her ankles. Her wrists were covered in shimmering bracelets that looked awfully real, and an ornate necklace was wrapped around her pale neck. In one hand was a pad, and in the other hand held the pencil.
She looked down and studied me with a sly smile.
“What a treasure the storm has brought us,” she commented.
I managed another of my tense smiles. By the time I got out of this weird town my face was going to be stuck like that. “Yeah. Just a lonely traveler trying to get over thepass.”
Her eyes flashed a strange color, I would have almost called it purple, and her sly smile widened. “But I sense your journey is almostover.”
I shrugged. “Yeah, or mostly. Anyway, what’s on themenu?”
“I think a spaghetti for you, and some garlic bread,” she commented.
I blinked at her and my eyes swept over the diner. “Is this an Italian place?” I wondered.
“For you, yes. Would you like our special sauce on the noodles?” she askedme.
“Um, yeah, I guess.” I did hanker for some pasta. “Andwith-”
“Large meatballs,” she finished forme.
I shrank into my cushioned seat and regarded her with suspicious eyes. “Yeah. How’d youknow?”
She chuckled. The sound sent a shiver down my spine. “You have the eyes of a predator. Would you like anything to drink withthat?”
“Not blood,” I quipped before I could stop myself.
The woman didn’t lose her smile as she wrote a few notes on her pad. “A coke will do, then. Your food will be ready in a few minutes.” She half-turned away from me, paused, and glanced over her shoulder. Her gleaming eyes looked down at me with a teasing look. “And you needn’t worry about the pass. The snow will stop soon enough.”
“The weather report says that?” I askedher.
She chuckled, and again I was left with a tingle down my back. “No, young one. Those weathermen are all fools to believe in their machines and graphs. I can’t smell it as well as others, but I can feelit.”
And with that she walked away with my order. That I kind of didn’t quite order myself.
“Smell it. . .?” I murmured.
And that’s when he came into the diner, and mylife.
The man slid into the booth seat opposite me and smiled. He was young and handsome with short, jet-black hair and sparkling blue eyes. His complexion was a little on the pale side, but his body was muscular and in shape. Not rock-solid, but something a girl could snuggle up to without getting poked and prodded byabs.
“I don’t believe I’ve seen you around here. A new arrival?” he askedme.
I snorted. “More like a castaway. The storm on the pass drove mehere.”
“I see. I hope everyone’s made your stay comfortable,” he commented.
I raised an eyebrow. “Are you the mayor?”
He laughed and shook his head. “No, and I wouldn’t want the job. I’m just a simple hunter, a scouter, if you would.”
I blinked at him. “Awhat?”
“I help find lost things in the woods,” he explained.
I glanced out the window at the trees beyond the town. “That must be a pretty lucrative business aroundhere.”
“It has its rewards, but you haven’t answered my question,” he commented.
I turned back to him and raised an eyebrow. “I thought Idid.”
He smiled. “Well, maybe it’s an unanswered one. You see, you haven’t told me yourname.”
“Isn’t it the man who’s supposed to introduce himself first?” I pointedout.
His smile broadened and he held out his hand for a shake. “The name’s John Huntley, but most people just call me Orion.”
I grasped his hand and gave it a shake. “TrixieLyal.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Lyal? That’s an unusualname.”
“Well, it’s the only one I’ve got, so I guess I’ll keep it,” I quipped.
Orion retracted his hand and looked me over. “You ever thought about trading that name in for a newer model?”
I feigned shock. “Mr. Huntley-”
“Orion,” he correctedme.
“-I do believe you are trying to ask me to marry you,” I finished.
“Maybe I am,” he teased. He scooted his gut against the table and lowered his voice. “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
I leaned back against the seat and smiled. “Anotherone?”
He grinned. “I could go at this all night if youwant.”
I shuddered. Now I knew how one of my victims in the newspaper industry felt. “Please don’t.”
“Then this’ll be the last one. How’d a beautiful woman like you get to be lost in a place like this?” he wondered. “Most people wait until after the snow storm to gethere.”
“I wish I would’ve been a little more ahead of the snow,” I commented. “But if you mustknow-”
“I must,” he teased.
“-I was on my way to a job on the other side of the mountain. I’m a reporter,” I toldhim.
Some of the humor vanished from his face and he raised an eyebrow. “What kind of reporter?”
I wagged a finger at him. “You said that’d be the last question.”
“Can’t a guy get a free lie every full moon?” he wondered.
“I’m sure you met your quota the day after the last full moon,” I teased. My eyes noticed movement out of the corner on my right, and I looked at the diner counter. The black cat was back. I jerked my thumb towards the counter and its feline inhabitant. “What’s with the cat, anyway?”
Orion followed my gaze and smiled. “Mab? She’s an old fixture around here,” he explained tome.
I furrowed my brow. “Isn’t that the name of the owner of the diner?”
His eyes studied my face. “Who told youthat?”
“There you go with those questions again,” I scoldedhim.
“Let’s just say your question refilled my count by one,” he suggested.
I snorted. “I’ve dealt with politicians who were less slick thanyou.”
“I grease myself every morning, but you still didn’t answer my question,” he remindedme.
I jerked my head in the direction of the motel. “The owner of the motel toldme.”
Orion raised an eyebrow. I was starting to notice a pattern. “Troy?”
“That’s the name he gave me to get me a free slice of apple pie,” I told him. Orion leaned back and folded his arms across his chest. He studied me with an unblinking, and unnerving, stare. “What? Do I have something on myface?”
He smiled and shook his head. “Only a beauty unsurpassed in these parts of the woods, but I think I’m keeping you from yourfood.”
At that moment the door behind the counter opened and Mab stepped into the seating area. In her hands was a tray with a large plate of spaghetti with bread and a coke. She passed by the counter and I noticed the cat had again vanished. Mab set the tray in front of me and glanced at Orion with mischievouseyes.
“Have you found something to your liking, Sour?” she askedhim.
I blinked at him. “‘Sour?’”
He shrugged as he stood. “It’s another of my nicknames. Anyway, I’d better be going.” He smiled and nodded his head at me. “It was a pleasure to meet you, MissLyal.”
“Trixie,” I correctedhim.
He chuckled. “Trixie, then. Goodnight.”
“‘Night,” I replied.
Orion turned his back on me and left. Mab returned to the depths of the diner kitchen, and I dug into my meal. It was pretty good, maybe even top notch. I just hoped the bill wouldn’t be the top of my traveling budget. My new company hadn’t given me any money to move so the motel and food bills came out of my own pocket.
Something on my right caught my attention. I glanced at the counter and found that the black cat had returned. It watched me with those bright yellow eyes, and occasionally its tail twitched.
“What?” I asked it. The cat replied by blinking nice and slow. I picked out a large meatball, sucked off the delicious sauce and held out the ball of meat to the ball of fur. “You wantsome?”
Mab jumped down and strutted over to me. This cat would’ve made a great runway model for a line of furs. It stopped a foot short of the table and sat down. I tossed the ball. The cat neatly leaned forward and snatched the meat in midair.
I smiled. “You’re pretty good, but that act would’ve gotten you into a lot of trouble in your namesake a couple hundred years ago.” The cat’s eyes narrowed and it let out an audible growl. I held up my palms. “Hey, don’t blame me. I wasn’t there.”
The cat stood, spun around so I got a good look at its ‘cute’ end, and stalked off. It resumed its position on the counter, but kept its back to me. I shrugged and resumed my eating.
I put down my fork a few minutes later and patted my stomach. The plate was licked clean, or nearly so. Right on cue Mab came through the rear door, and again the cat was gone. It was almost like her own cat didn’t like her company. Mab picked up the tray and plopped down thebill.
I picked up the slip of paper and raised an eyebrow. “Only five bucks?” I askedher.
“And if you would, cash is preferable,” she toldme.
I shrugged and reached into my back pocket for my wallet. “All right, but-” The careening of a truck into the front wall interrupted my looking-a-gift-horse-in-the-mouth attitude.
The front wall exploded in a mess of glass and splintered wood. We both ducked under the table and bonked heads as the remains of the wall fell down on our heads like splintered hail. The chaos lasted for about three seconds before everything quieted down and the dust stopped falling.
Mab reversed her course from beneath the table and rose to her feet. I crawled out after her and looked around at the destruction. The front booths were a mangled mess, the wall had a gaping hole where the door formerly stood, and the bottom of the door itself peeked over the top of the counter. Snow from the sidewalk flowed a few feet onto the linoleum floor.
The cause of the destruction, an old white pickup, sat at an angle with the driver’s door facing us. The window of the door was mostly shattered with only a few jagged bits on the bottom.
“That’s the last time I look a gift horse in the mouth. . .” I muttered.
Mab strode past me and to the truck. I followed close behind. The male driver was slumped over the wheel. The man wore some sort of brown fur coat and had long, shaggy hair. His hands that lay on the wheel were also incredibly hairy and ended in long, sharp nails.
Mab froze two feet short of the door. Her arm flew out and stopped my progress. “Wait,” she orderedme.
I nodded at the driver. “He might need-” A groan interrupted me. I was starting to see a pattern of shut-up.
The driver shifted and lifted his head. I gasped. His face was a grotesque mix of hair, blood and dust. His brown eyes drooped and he swayed from side to side. He turned to us and narrowed his eyes. His lips curled back in an ugly snarl that revealed some really sharp teeth.
“Barrett,” Mab calledout.
The man didn’t reply. He ignored the door and tried to climb out the window. His seat belt kept him in his seat. He looked down and snarled at the strap. The man’s hairy paws fumbled and pawed at the belt, but never went for the clasp.
Mab turned to me and grabbed my shoulders. “Do not attempt to approach him again,” she ordered me as she pushed me back to the end of the counter near the kitchendoor.
“What the hell is wrong with him?” I questionedher.
She ignored me and used an old land line phone stuck in the wall. The phone rang for a few seconds before someone picked up. “This is Mab. Please send two cars to my diner. Barrett crashed his truck into the front wall and may be under the influence.” She paused and shook her head. “No, not of alcohol. The Sickening.” Another pause, and she nodded. “I will try my best, but I have no antidote here. Goodbye.” She hung up and glanced at me. “If you prefer you may-” She was interrupted by our furry friend in the pickup.
The man managed to get out of his seat belt. He crawled through the broken window. His blood dripped onto the floor as he stood on all fours. His body stretched and tore his pants and shirt. Fur poked out from the torn clothing. The man-thing glanced from Mab to me, and back tome.
Mab rushed forward and wrapped her arms around me. She pulled me behind her and scowled at the man-thing. “Barrett, you must remain calm,” she orderedhim.
The man snarled and stalked towards us. Saliva dripped from his sharp teeth. His long nails clacked on the linoleum. Mab backed us up towards the kitchen door. The man tensed and leapt at us. His outstretched, clawed hands aimed for our necks.
The yell came from behind me. The door swung open and someone rushed out. The person shoved Mab and me to the side and swung a punch at Barrett. The fist landed on the side of the wild man’s face. Barrett yelped and flew to our right. He crashed into the wall and dropped onto one of the tables. The man twitched a few times before he stilled.
I glanced at our savior. It was Orion. He scowled at the limp body of Barrett.
I raised my shaking hand. “Could somebody please tell me what’s goingon?”
I heard a call of police sirens, and two patrol cars skidded to a stop in front of the diner. Four offices with long rifles jumped out of the cars. They climbed through the debris and into the diner. The officer in the lead looked over the situation and turned to the men behindhim.
“Put a shot in him and get him out of here, and be careful not to get bit,” he ordered the other three.
They nodded and hurried over to the fallen man. The officer who gave the orders shouldered his rifle and strode over to us. He was a man of forty with a hefty, tall build and a tense, bearded face. His short brown hair was slicked back and his brown eyes stopped onMab.
“You made the call, Mab. Mind telling me what happened?” he askedus.
“His truck crashed into the front of my diner,” Mab spoke up. “He was partially transformed before he awoke and tried to attack us. Orion stoppedhim.”
“I heard the crash from the motel and got here as quick as I could. When I saw the truck sticking out the front I made my way through the back door and got here just as Barrett attacked them,” Orion explained.
The officer turned to me. “I don’t recognize your smell. How long haveyou-”
“She’s just a visitor,” Orion interrupted.
The officer pursed his lips and his eyes flickered to Mab. “And she saw everything?”
“Yes, but there is no cause for concern,” Mab assuredhim.
The man shook his head. “That’s not for you to decide. I need to-” A yelp from behind him caught our attention.
We looked to the table and the three officers. Two of them had Barrett pinned to the table and the third had a needle stuck into the man. The needle was long and had a large container on top. Barrett writhed and squirmed in their grasp as the greenish contents in the needle was injected into him. The last drop of the liquid disappeared into the man and he slumped over. My eyes widened as I watched the hair all over his body disappear into his clothes andskin.
The lead officer stepped into my line of sight and blocked my view of the table. His eyes flickered to Mab and Orion. “Like I said, I need to contact the mayor and get this thing sorted out.” He returned his attention to me. “Do you mind staying in the area for a few more days? I might need to ask some more questions later.”
I had a hell of a time keeping my attention on the officer, but I managed to look him in the face and shrug. “I guess I could.” I had to be a good little girl and not ask questions, at least for a little while.
The officer nodded. “Good. I’ll need a statement from all of you by tomorrow afternoon.”
The other men picked up Barrett and carried him out the front mess to one of their cars. The lead officer turned away from us, but paused and glanced at Orion andMab.
“Could one of you escortMiss-”
“Trixie Lyal,” I toldhim.
He raised an eyebrow. “Is that your realname?”
“That’s what’s on my Social Security card,” I quipped.
He sighed. “Well, could one of you escort Miss Lyal back to herroom?”
“I will,” Orion offered.
The officer nodded. “Good. If I don’t see anyone of you tonight-” I noticed his eyes flickered to me, “-then have a good night.”
We exchanged the same sentiments and he left in one of the two cars. The other car followed close behind him. Orion turned to me and swept his hand towards the ruined frontwall.
“Ladies first,” he offered.
I coyly smiled. “Then shouldn’t you go first?”
He returned my smile. “Beauty before age, then,” he corrected himself.
“Good catch,” I complimented him as I accepted his offer and strode forward.
Orion turned to Mab. “Good luck with the cleanup.”
A strange smile graced her lips. “Luck is not what Iuse.”
He shrugged. “Well, don’t strain your fingers toomuch.”
He joined me closer to the wrecked front wall, and together we waded through the mess and out onto the quiet street. The hour was apparently late for the sleepy small town and all the residents were tucked safely into their houses. I waited until we were on the next block before I began mywork.
“So are you going to tell me what happened there or do I have to play mean?” I askedhim.
He shrugged. “A little drug problem. It happens in every little town where there’s nothing goingon.”
I stopped and crossed my arms over my chest. “Drugs can turn people into monsters, but not literally. What’s really goingon?”
He stopped a few feet in front of me and faced me. A smile was on his lips, but the corners were strained. He shrugged, but didn’t look me in the eyes. “Not much goes on in a sleepy town likethis.”
“So what was that back there? The exception to the rule?” I questionedhim.
“Just some trouble that’s been resolved,” he assured me as he half-turned from me. He nodded down the block. “But I need to take youback.”
“So I won’t see any more?” I guessed.
“No, so the rapists and murderers don’t get you,” he teased.
I sighed and walked up to him. “Fine, but you’d better tell me everything tomorrow.”
“I’ll give you the exclusive if I can,” he promised as we continued on our way. He cast side-glances at me and a more relaxed smile graced his lips. “Do you like dogs?” he wondered.
I raised an eyebrow, but shrugged. “Yeah, I guess. Why?”
He shook his head and stared ahead of us. “No reason.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Uh-huh. By the way, you find out what you wanted fromTroy?”
He started and swung around to face me. “How’d you know I went there?”
I jerked my head in the direction over my shoulder. “You told that cop you heard the noise from the motel. After what you asked me at the diner I figured it wasn’t a coincidence you were there.”
Orion chuckled. “You’re not too bad of a reporter. It’s a pity you can’t stay here. You’d be pretty useful.”
“For the Daily Brew?” I wondered.
“For me. I could always use a beautiful assistant to manage my research,” he admitted.
I continued our stroll down the sidewalk. “Maybe you couldn’t afford me,” I teased.
“Maybe the bonuses I could give you would be worth the lower pay,” he countered.
I raised an eyebrow. “Suchas?”
“I could offer you board, and there’s always room for a beautiful young woman in my house,” he toldme.
I snorted. “There’s probably so many in there already I doubt there’s room forme.”
He smiled. “Would you believe there’s onlyme?”
“And your dog?” I guessed.
He blinked at me. “Mydog?”
“You asked me if I liked dogs,” I remindedhim.
Orion chuckled. “I’ve got to watch what I ask you, but no, I don’t have adog.”
“Pity. I really do like myself a good German Shepherd,” I commented.
He grinned. “So you like bigdogs?”
“The bigger the better,” I admitted.
“What about wolves?”
I couldn’t help but flashback to the incident on the highway. That thing had kind of looked like a wolf. I shrugged. “Sure, whynot?”
By this time we’d reached the motel. Troy stepped out of the office and squinted at us. “What was all the noise?”
Orion laughed. “Don’t you know?” he teased.
Troy lifted his eyes to the dark winter sky. His lips were pursed tightly together as he shook his head. “I can’t seethis.”
“Well, I guess I’ll hit the hay,” I spoke up. I stepped away from Orion and turned to face both men. “Goodnight.”
Troy bowed his head. “Goodnight.”
“Have sweet dreams of me,” Orion teased.
“I’m not sure I’d call that a dream,” I returned.
I waved to them and slipped into my motel room. For my first order of business I made sure all the curtains were shut and the bedroom and bathroom lights were on. Then I grabbed a flashlight from my bag, plopped myself on the bed, and waited a few minutes. After the appropriate time had passed to make them think I had prepared for bed, I shut off first the bathroom light and then the bedroom light.
There was a window at the rear of the bedroom. I pried open the heavy window and peeked my head out. The wall behind the room led to a narrow alley. I eased myself out and clicked on my flashlight. The beam illuminated the snowy ground. I turned to my left and started down the alley.
I didn’t think this sleepy little town was quite what it appeared, and I was going to find outwhy.
The short distance to a real road was soon covered. I stopped and looked up and down the street. The streetlights shone brightly on the newly fallen snow that lay at the bases of their posts. The area was quiet.
I glanced up the street at the hill. The discarded sleds sat as silent testament to past fun. I knew I needed to investigate the diner, but a little voice inside me told me to go up there. Try as I might, my sensible, reporter mind couldn’t argue against the voice. I walked up the street to the pile of sleds and shone my flashlight on them. Most of them were the old-fashioned runners, the ones with lots of speed but no brakes.
A noise behind me caught my attention. I spun around. My flashlight beam fell on nothing but empty street. I breathedout.
“Easy there, Trixie. Just your imagination. . .” I murmured.
My imagination made another noise. Again it was behind me. I spun on my heels and slipped on the icy road. My feet flew out from under me and I landed with a hard plop onto the ground. The landing jarred my flashlight from my hand. Pain reverberated from my tail bone and up my spine. I winced and carefully stood so I could rub my bruised bottom.
“Great job. . .” I muttered. I looked around for my flashlight. That’s when things got weird.
I found where it landed. There was a neat little indent in the snow in the shape of its smooth, cylindrical body. The only problem was there was no flashlight. I turned left and right, though careful this time not to slip. I only saw the footprints left by the dozens of kids and a few cat tracks.
“Damn it. . .” I hissed.
I got on my hands and knees, and scoured the area. The last thing I needed was for some kid to find it, tell their parents, who would tell the cops and then they’d trace the flashlight to an outsider, namely me. Then my whole cover about going to bed would be blown, and I’d lose the story. Maybe even mylife.
A light caught my attention. It was a small beam that was three feet wide and had the intensity of a full moon. I looked up the hill in the direction of the soft glow. The light crested the top and flowed over me like a warm, intangible spring. I sat up straight and stretched my neck upward. This is going to sound unbelievable, but I swore the light moved with me. It rose higher and retreated up the hill. I stood, and the light disappeared over thetop.
My curiosity was piqued. I stumbled up the hill to the top. Before me was a less severe incline. The road passed through the half of the residential blocks that occupied the north side of the main street and stretched into the country.
The light was a thin band that followed the road until the way bent to my right. The paved road went east, but the light created a trail that led along a snow-covered dirt road, and that went into the trees that stretched into the hills and mountains beyond thetown.
I should’ve gone back to my room, or at least gone for my car, but my common sense flew out the window before the bright, mysterious light. All I could focus on was following it to its conclusion. Heck, maybe this was the big break I was looking for, anyway.
I trudged up the road. The light stayed ever at a ten-foot distance in front of me. The houses on either side of me were lit, but their lights held no allure for me. There was only me and the white beam that led me onward.
I don’t know how long I walked. Maybe it was a couple of minutes, or maybe a couple of hours. Nobody disturbed my solitary march, and I reached the end of the paved road. Here I hesitated. The dirt road was plowed and led into the tall, dark forest. The road, and the light, entered the forest disappeared around a bend a few miles into the trees.
I glanced over my shoulder. The lights from the town twinkled back. I could just make out the west wall of the motel. I’d probably gone five miles without noticing. It was a long trudge, but a shorter way back downhill. All I had to do was turn around and change myfate.
Fate, however, had other plans.
The light from the beam strengthened. I looked back at it and blinked against the dazzling light. The brilliance lasted only for a moment and then died down, but I was hooked. I stepped onto the dirt road and hurried up the slope. It was the same tune. The light retreated, and I advanced.
I entered the thick trees. The shadows of their long, skeletal arms stretched out as though to grab me, but the light held the darkness at bay. I wrapped my coat closer to me as the chill of the winter night began to sink into my bones. My feet were cold and wet, but still I continued onward like a woman possessed. I wasn’t far off on that guess.
The walk through the woods last for two miles before I rounded the bend. The trees broke open to create a large, sloped meadow some fifty yards square. The trees formed pockets that were scattered here and there, and the road wound between them until it ended in a loop at the bottom of a small hill of earth at the rear of the meadow. A path of stones climbed the small, round hill and stopped at the flat top. There also wasn’t a speck of snow on the hill. On the top stood a large, magnificent appletree.
Normally in the winter I wouldn’t know an apple from a peach tree, but this one was evidently special. The leaves were not only all there and green as gourds, but the limbs were loaded with red, shiny apples. Their round, full bodies invited man and beast to taste their sweet juice.
The size of the apple tree was also extraordinary. The ancient plant rose up some fifty feet into the sky and its branches on either side shaped itself into a giant mushroom.
The light I followed stretched back into the tree and disappeared into the leaves. All except one spot. A soft glow emanated from one of the apples on a lower branch. The light pulsed with life and surrounded the tempting red fruit. Its smooth, clean skin shimmered in the unnaturalglow.
My eyes were stuck on the apple. I stumbled up the slope and stone steps to the top. The apple hung five yards to my left. I stepped over the many thick roots of the tree and stopped below the apple. The fruit hung low on its branch, but when I stood on my tiptoes I couldn’t quite brush the tips of my fingers against its pristine bottom. I tried a small hop. The high jump wasn’t my specialty, but my fingers touched one corner of the bottom.
The stem of the apple broke from its branch. I caught the apple in my cupped hands and looked down at my prize. Its shiny surface begged me to take a bite, but the skin was blemished. A tiny drop of water fell onto its smooth surface and slipped over the side onto my hands. The water waswarm.
I looked up. A tiny drop of water glistened where the apple stem had connected to the apple. The droplet quivered and stretched downward. A sensation of sadness swept overme.
The second drop fell into my hand and forced me to look down again. The apple tempted me. This time no amount of water would lead me away from my purpose in coming to this strange place. I raised it to my lips and opened my mouth.
“Stop!” a voice shouted.
I whipped my head up and saw Orion rush towards me from a clump of trees on my right. He covered the ground like a rabbit and raced up the hill to where I stood. Orion snatched the apple from me and grabbed my wrist. He pulled me towards thepath.
“We have to get you out of here,” he insisted.
His strength was great enough that I couldn’t stop him from pulling me down the path, but my mouth still worked.
“What the hell are you doing? Left go of me!” I demanded.
“No time! Just run!” he persisted.
We made it five yards down the dirt road when a shadow stepped from a clump of bushes and stepped into our path. The darkness didn’t let me get a clear view of him, but it was a large man with glowing dark eyes. He wore a heavy brown fur coat that covered him from his neck to the tops of his thick black shoes. The man held up his palm towards us. Orion skidded to astop.
The man took a step towards us. “What do you think you’re doing, Orion?” the stranger asked my companion.
Orion pulled us back a step and pressed his lips together. “Damn it. . .” I heard him mutter under his breath.
The man stretched out his hand towards me. “You know the rules. Anyone who has tasted an apple must come with me,” the man remindedhim.
Orion held up the apple. “She hasn’t tasted the apple, and she’s not from here. That means she can gofree.”
The man’s glowing eyes flickered to me for a moment before they returned to Orion. “No, that means the mayor and Librarian need to be consulted. They’re at city hall right now for the meeting.”
“Come on, Armel. Just this once let one through,” Orion pleaded.
The man dropped his arm and took another step towards us. His eyes narrowed. “Don’t make me use force. You know you won’t win, and the woman might gethurt.”
Orion turned to me and pursed his lips. He let out a great sigh and his shoulders sagged. “We need to go with him,” he toldme.
I wrenched myself from his distracted grasp and glared at both men. “I’m not going anywhere until somebody tells me what’s going on.” I half-turned towards the hill and waved my hand at the tree. “What the hell is that thing? How come there’s no snow on it? How’s its leaves still on in the middle of winter?”
Armel stalked towards me, but Orion stepped in front of him. He looked at the great sentinel and shook his head. “Let me handlethis.”
Armel pursed his lips, but nodded. “Sure, but hurry. I don’t know when the meeting’s breakingup.”
Orion returned his attention to me. He stretched out his hands and took a step towards me. “I’ll explain everything later, but right now you need to trustme.”
I snorted. “I don’t even knowyou.”
He stopped and smiled. “You know I love dogs and am looking for an assistant.”
My eyes narrowed and I took a step away from him. “I don’t think I’d be right for the job. Too many trust issues.”
Orion sighed and pulled out a vial from inside his coat. The white, mist-like contents were sealed by a cork. “Sorry about this, but I did try to get you tocome.”
He popped the cork and jumped at me. I twisted around to run away, but his arm wrapped around my waist. He pinned me against his chest and stuffed the mouth of the vial into my nostrils. I squirmed in his arms, but accidentally took a deep breath of the pungent-odoredmist.
I was out in a flash.
I don’t know how long I was out, but the awakening wasn’t much fun. My body ached like I’d been through a no-rules schoolyard brawl and I had a headache that threatened to split my skull. I creaked open my eyes and found I lay on my right side on a blue leather couch. Spread out in front of me was a large square room. The lights were out, but some windows beyond my sight to my right allowed some natural light into the room. A desk sat to my right and a door was set into the wall at my left. A couple of bookshelves sat against the wall oppositeme.
Seated in a wooden chair close beside me was Orion. His legs were crossed and his eyes were on me. I started back and my eyes widened when I noticed his eyes were a bright yellow. Orion closed his eyes, and when he opened them they no longer glowed.
“Good evening, Sleeping Beauty,” he teased.
I sat up, but a little too quickly. My aching head swam and I swayed from side-to-side. I clutched onto the side of my head and winced.
“What truck hit me?” I mumbled.
“A small dose of wolf’s bane,” he toldme.
I looked up and furrowed my brow. “Wolf’s bane? As in the werewolf stuff?”
“The one and the same,” he replied.
That’s all I needed to hear. “I gotta get out of here,” I insisted as I swung my legs over the side of the couch. I clutched my head with both hands as the room spun in circles.
Orion leaned towards me and grasped my shoulders. “Don’t move too quickly.”
“So I noticed,” I quipped. I looked into his concerned face and searched it for signs of insanity. There were no evident signs, but maybe I was the one going insane. “What the hell’s going on here? Where ishere?”
Orion released me and leaned back against his chair. His eyes brushed over the room. “Here is the mayor’s office in the city hall. To get to the next question you want to know, it’s all because of that.” He nodded at something to my right.
I followed his gaze to the thick wooden desk. Atop the desk on the corner closest to us was the apple I picked. I don’t know how I was sure it was mine, but something inside me told me it definitely belonged tome.
I pursed my lips and my eyes flickered back to Orion. “That doesn’t make any sense to-” A noise from the door interrupted me. It sounded like someone opened another door and let out a thousand angry voices.
Orion turned his head towards the entrance and frowned. “They’re coming.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Who’s coming?”
Orion stood a split second before the door opened. Three people walked into the room. The first was a woman of fifty. She was tall and wore a professional blue skirt and white blouse. Her heels clacked against the wood floor and her alert eyes took in the room in a second.
Behind her came two men. The one immediately behind her was of an age so ancient he could only be described as geriatric. The announcement of his birth must’ve been written using cuneiform. Spectacles graced the lower part of his nose and his wispy white hair was combed back over his skeletal skull. He wore a brown tweed suit as aged as himself with dark patches on the elbows and knees.
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