Beginning: Part 1: Constantinople
Snow covered the road, the sidewalk, the front lawns of houses. Everything was white. The dog was white too. It ran out across the street, chasing something I couldn’t see. I stomped down on the pedal and felt the brakes lock up under me. I wrenched the wheel around. Tires skidded across the slick surface, and the whole vehicle began to turn, pivoting around until it was broadside across the road. The bags in the back flew off the seat and tumbled over each other. The dog barked and kept running.
My knuckles were white on the steering wheel and I rested my forehead against them.
There were no other cars about, but even so I couldn’t stay where I was. The damn thing had stalled. Oh, for the days of horse drawn carriages. I would never understand Dario’s fascination with the things. I wrestled with it to get it going again, and as the engine lurched into life, I guided the car back onto my side of the road, and then pulled over against the sidewalk and leaned back in the seat. There was no sign of the dog now. I cursed myself for not having noticed it earlier.
My mind went back to the wolf, as it had every moment since he had appeared two days ago. He was called Lupine Gray. Just Lou, he told me. He had appeared silently, a man with a young face but silver hair, silver like his wolf familia.
“We’ve been watching you,” he had said. “You have the skills we’re looking for.”
“Who are you?”
“I work for Victoria Mamba.”
My lips tightened. “Cadisi.”
“That’s correct. I’d like to make you an offer.”
I leaned my head back and stared at the ceiling of the car. Cadisi. A name that had grown in power and infamy since I had first heard it in Berlin. It would be a lie to say my interest hadn’t been drawn by them from the start. But although I had moved to America — their territory — in the decades I had been here, I was yet to venture into the southern states. Never had I imagined that they would seek me out, and send a recruiter to bring me into their fold.
Never had I imagined I would turn them down.
Lou Gray had said nothing when I declined his offer. He had merely bobbed his silver head once, then turned on heel and vanished with nothing more than a swirling of hot air.
Now the question that resounded in my mind was, Did I make the right choice?
Even as I considered it, I knew I had chosen the right option, the only option. Cadisi was not the place for me now; I had other responsibilities.
When Hugo had introduced me to the stranger in the house across the street, he had not anticipated the outcome any more than I had. To think that in two years we would be married, and five years after that begin a family. Though of course, Elise was not really my child. It had been Dario’s idea to adopt her when she became an infant orphan. I did not share the same bond with our her that he seemed to, but she was still my little girl. A child who had already lost one mother. At only six years old, I couldn’t let her lose another.
I hadn’t told Dario about the offer; there was no reason to now. The decision had been made. Cadisi had moved on.
I drove the rest of the way home and pulled into the driveway, barely even glancing at the house as I twisted around in my seat to reach into the back. Among the dislodged grocery bags, one of which had split and dumped vegetables on the floor, was the little horse I had bought. A man had been selling them from a ramshackle stall on the side of the road near the breadlines. The jobless masses had ignored him and his little wooden toys, but they had caught my eye. It was obvious the seller needed the money, possibly to feed a child of his own. The hand carved horse was painted white, with a little carved saddle on its back, and rockers under its hooves. I smoothed down the mane and opened the car door, ready to give it to Elise when she ran out to meet me.
I looked up to the house and my blood became as cold as the snow that covered the lawn. There were tire tracks across the grass and driveway that hadn’t been there before. Boot prints as well, lots of them. Several of the windows were shattered and glass littered the ground under their sills.
I was out of the car before I had even made the conscious decision to move, running for the front door. It hung open off its hinges, the lock blasted away.
The tiny side table that stood in the foyer had been knocked over. The vase that usually rested on it was in pieces across the floor.
I called Dario’s name but received no answer. I moved into the hallway, where a multitude of round holes had been punched through the walls and the paper was splattered with red. I was halfway down the hall when the first body came into view. I froze and braced a hand against the wall for balance, but the man on the floor who leaked blood into the carpet was not Dario.
He was a Hunter.
This was the worst fear of any shifter who thought they could live as humans lived. They had found us.
I forced myself to continue. At least one Hunter was dead, perhaps the rest were too. Dario was a soldier once; trained to hunt the Hunters. They would need an army to stop him.
As I entered the living room I saw the destruction was far worse than what I had imagined. Bullet holes riddled the walls. Fluffy white down from shredded cushions littered the floor and over-turned coffee table. The stench of blood hung, thick and sweet, over everything, and in an almost perfect circle, lay the bodies of at least a dozen men. In the center of the ring knelt Dario.
He was still breathing, that was the first thing I noticed. Although his back was to me, and his shirt marred by a bloodstain than ran from his shoulder, I could see the slow rise and fall of his breath.
I breathed myself, realizing only then that I had stopped.
‘Dario,’ I said, my voice small. He didn’t respond. I looked around at the carnage. ‘Where’s Elise?’
He rose. In one fluid movement he was on his feet and turning to face me. It was then I saw her, tucked into his chest, his arms around her small form and her eyes closed. It was as if she had fallen asleep and he were simply carrying her to bed. The image was so familiar, but for the dark rosette that had blossomed across the front of her white dress.
The wooden horse fell from my grasp and bounced on the wet, red floor.
Two weeks later.
The door slammed shut behind me as I marched down the front steps and across the driveway. I paused at the letterbox and ran a hand through my hair, almost tearing it out at the roots. Dario’s voice rang in my ears and my throat felt hoarse from our last shouting match. I didn’t look around to see if the neighbors were watching. The weeks of their stares and silent pity was as difficult to endure as the animosity inside. I glanced up at Hugo’s house and saw him standing in the window of his office. He raised a glass of wine, a silent invitation to enter. I turned and walked away down the street.
The cold from the snow covered ground soaked through my shoes quickly, turning my feet numb. I kept walking anyway, I wasn’t ready to go home again, yet.
Our fights were becoming more frequent; in the last few weeks it had felt like there was hardly a time we weren’t fighting over some small thing. He blamed himself for Elise’s death, for failing to save her, and it was swallowing him. The more I tried to reach him, the more he pulled away. I didn’t know how to tell him that as much of the blame was mine. If I hadn’t stopped the car, I might have reached them in time. I could have saved her.
The presence appeared beside me silently, as it had before. A second set of crunching footsteps joined mine and I looked up to see the silver haired wolf shifter beside me.
“Mr. Gray,” I said, angling off the sidewalk and into a white blanketed park.
“Lou is fine,” he corrected.
“Why are you here? I thought Cadisi would have forgotten me by now.”
“Not at all. I wish to extend our greatest sympathies to you.”
“Thank you,” I said without looking at him. In the past fortnight I had received as much sympathy as I could stomach.
“I also wanted to advise you that our offer is still open.”
I stopped and turned to him. “That’s why you’re here, to offer me a job? My daughter was killed.”
“Yes,” I cut him off. “And you are mistaken if you think that I have spared even a thought for you or your agency.”
“Your loss was great,” he said. “And your marriage is suffering for it.”
‘I’m neither blind nor deaf,” he said. “No one would blame you for wanting to explore alternate avenues. You told me last time that your responsibilities prevented you from accepting a place with us. Those responsibilities are considerably lessened now.”
I backed away. I had operated under the belief that the Hunters had found us through some fault or mistake of our own. Had I been wrong to assume so much?
Could I really believe that Cadisi, the agency sworn to the protection of shifters, would really set the Hunters on their own so as to bring them closer to what they desired? Could I afford to not believe it?
Dario needed me, as I needed him. If I told Lou as much, would the Hunters, or something worse, find us? Would I bury my husband too?
I looked back towards our home, even though it was hidden from view by trees and houses.
“What happens, if I say yes? What happens to him?”
“You must cut all ties. You can never contact him again.”
“But you’ll leave him alone?”
I turned back to Lou. “Give me two days, and then I’ll go with you.”
– End –