California Wine Country
August 23rd, six days until full moon
The click of the lock at the top of the stairwell is my only indication that morning is upon me. My ears perk up and I listen for the coming footfalls. The weight on the stairs combined with the creaking of each wooden step will let me know which handler has come for us this time, which unlucky puppet has drawn the short end of the straw and is stuck with letting the dogs out, or in this case, the werewolves.
Sure, he’ll come sauntering down the stairs sporting a brave face and looking at me with cold, dark eyes meant to intimidate. But the wolf inside me can smell his inner fear. Despite the fact that I’m the one caged, underneath the handler’s cool, superficial shell he’s the one who’s truly afraid.
A long column of light filters down the stairs and I blink my eyes into focus as the bright rays infiltrate the pitch black cellar. I don’t really need to blink. Not with my exceptional vision. But I do it anyway because sometimes I simply like to pretend I’m a normal seventeen year old girl, one who can’t see in the dark. It’s nonsense, I know. I’m not fooling anyone. Least of all myself.
The door yawns wider and before the first heavy boot, soiled with old blood that he’ll pass off as wine stains, hits the top step, my senses go on high alert. I never know what morning will bring—or who will bring it.
A breeze rushes down the stairs ahead of the handler, carrying the aroma of the grand estate with it. I push past the metallic scent of dried blood to catch traces of grape juice in the air, a common smell on the majestic vineyard—that and illegal drugs, the estate’s real source of income. Going beyond those familiar fragrances, I breathe deeper and get hints of fresh bread baking in the upstairs kitchen. It must be Thursday. Mica, the estate’s cook, always bakes on Thursday.
In my human form I roll onto my side and lean toward the smell. Wistfully, my tongue darts out and brushes over my bottom lip. There is something about that scent that always entices me and before I can help it I envision myself eating a warm slice covered in rich creamy butter, crispy on the outside, moist and tender on the inside.
My nostrils widen, but I know the bread isn’t meant for me and not even one delicious crumb will pass over my dry lips. Not unless Mica sneaks it to me. As much as I’d love to taste her offerings I don’t like it when she takes chances for me. Disobedience is far too risky for the aging housekeeper. Despite that, my stomach growls in response to the aroma and I fight off the cravings. I can’t hope for bread when it’s unlikely that I’ll even be given a scrap of food today, especially if I can’t please him.
A boot hits the second step—the handlers always descend slowly—and as I stretch my legs out on my dusty mattress I hear the waking groans of Jace and Clover stirring in their own cages beside me. I glance their way, and that’s when my attention falls on the one empty cage in the cellar. My mother’s den. I breathe deep and fight off a pang of sadness that I cannot afford to feel.
I turn away from the empty cage and stare at the gray cement walls. I can’t bear to look at her den any longer. It only reminds me of how they killed her and how all the pups were forced to watch—to learn that disobedience comes with a price. Guilt and sorrow eat at me to think that she’d died trying to free me.
When step number five creaks, I diligently try to shake off the memories. The handler is close which means I can’t think about my mother right now. I push all thoughts of her aside, knowing that right now I have to think about my father and what he taught me before the master killed him. Never let them see your fear.
I harden myself.
Before my master’s puppet even reaches the bottom step, I know it’s the one they call Lawrence, the handler I hate the most. The one with a weak mind, strong back, teeth like baked beans and beady eyes that fit his ugly rat face.
He likes to call me kitten. I have a few choice names that I’d like to call him in return, but I always bite the inside of my cheek to resist the urge. Partly because I’d be whipped and partly because Miss Kara educated me and taught me all about manners. I realize that an educated wolf with manners might sound laughable. In my line of work, however, education and manners are as lethal as a bear trap to those I hunt. That’s how I lure my marks, how I bait my prey. A pretty face and good grace go a long way for a trained killer like me.