Bound to the Bear
“With intelligence and wit, Kathy Lyons revolutionizes shifter romance.”–Fresh Fiction
Forever Yours (September 11, 2018)
Buy BOUND TO THE BEAR
What this bear wants, this bear gets.
Hard-bodied and military-trained shifter Hank Coleman will always do what’s best for the clan. With a mysterious virus ravaging the city and transforming anyone with shifter DNA into dangerously unstable hybrids, that means asking a human scientist for help. Hank knows that getting Dr. Cecilia Lu involved will mean exposing the shifter world and his black bear self, but it’s the animal attraction that sparks between them that could be the real danger.
Cecilia trusts data and what she can see with her own two eyes. So when the hottest man she’s ever met transforms into a bear right in front of her, she has no choice but to accept that shifters are real. And with hybrids attacking humans and shifters turning on their own kind, Hank and Cecilia have zero time to fight the desire that’s burning hotter by the minute. But war is brewing between the shifters, and Cecilia will be forced to choose between the world of men . . . and the world of her sexy beast.
BOUND TO THE BEAR by Kathy Lyons
“I need a clue.”
Cecilia Lu stared across her microscope at her coworker. He was snoring quietly on the couch. His entire body looked like a scarecrow with the stuffing pulled out, and no wonder. They’d both been logging twenty-hour days and were no closer to solving the mystery of the Detroit Flu than when they’d first showed up a week ago.
“No really,” she continued. “You know, like a place to look. Because right now, as far as I can tell, the answer could be in the neurotransmitters. Or the blood. Hell, it could be the phases of the moon because I sure as hell don’t know.”
She stared at the monitor where it was trained on their latest patient. The image on the screen was just too unbelievable to credit. But when she blinked her eyes and looked again, there was Brittany still looking like something out of a horror film. Brittany was a sweet girl. A gymnast with a B+ average at school and a laugh that made Cecilia think of unicorns snorting. It was both earthy and magical at the same time. But instead of the perky strawberry-blond girl who appeared in her social media profile, Brittany now had reddish black fur on her face, slit-shaped yellow eyes, and nails that extended in sharp, curved points like claws. Even her ears had changed into tufted points.
The girl had come in hysterical and bloody; she’d tried to claw out her own eyes. They’d knocked her out in the ER and sent her straight up here to the Weird Ward as it was now called. Yes, the CDC had jurisdiction of all the strange cases because—the theory went—the CDC had all the answers.
And now Brittany lay slack-jawed and restrained, but all Cecilia could see was the dark hair against white hospital sheets.
For most people, the illness put them in bed with congestion and a killer headache. Others threw up for a couple of days, which was how the disease had gotten its “flu” name. This last outbreak had added hallucinations to the list of symptoms, and now half the city was in bed seeing elephants wearing tutus on their ceiling. Clinics and hospitals quickly became overwhelmed by society’s most vulnerable members—the elderly and the very young. Add in crazy people seeing things, and the ERs had gotten many times the normal cases of gunshots and car crashes.
And then there were Cecilia’s cases. People like Brittany who came in deformed. Some arrived crazy. Others went insane afterward. Every one so far had died, and their autopsies showed deformities in their brains. Something happened to their nerves causing them to warp. And the brain had a whole lot of nerves to warp.
“Maybe I should get something to eat.” Her stomach rumbled at the thought, but that might just be a reaction to the sludge they called coffee in this hospital. She’d been drinking it nonstop since the day she arrived. “Some kind of brain food.” She leaned back in her chair and stretched her spine. How long had she been slumped over that microscope? “Bet I’d know the best foods if I were a brain surgeon. And I’d know if the answer is in the neurotransmitters, too. If only I’d studied neurology, then maybe I’d have a clue.”
Or maybe not. Dennis on the couch—the one who had collapsed in exhaustion—was one of the top neurologists in the world, and he was as confused as she was.
Cecilia hopped off her stool and stretched her aching back. She thought about ditching her lab coat as she went in search of brain food, but it had deep pockets that held her many different colored pens, her Detroit Flu dedicated notepad, and her phone. No sense in—
“Dr. Hayes? Are you Dr. Hayes?”
Cecilia spun around on her toe, pretending for a moment that she was Brittany doing a gymnastic move. Such are the things her brain did when it was exhausted.
“Sorry,” she said as she finished her spin, smiling as she…
Big guy. Big black guy with the broadest shoulders she’d ever seen and a jagged scar that cut across his jaw. It was an old one, probably happened years ago and had never been stitched properly. Poor guy. A good plastic surgeon could have made it nearly invisible. Instead, it was one of the first things anyone saw when they looked at his face. But even with the scar, she had to admit he looked pretty sexy. It wasn’t just his muscles and cut body, but also because his expression seemed warm and open. Like he was a big, soft place for her whole being to rest.
She blinked, startled by her own thoughts. Must be the exhaustion. Meanwhile, she smiled as she dropped down onto her heels and walked toward him. “Dr. Hayes isn’t here. He had to go back to DC.” Or more accurately, he’d fled when he realized he was as clueless as the rest of them. She hadn’t thought the man was a coward, but two hours before the quarantine, he declared he had “important business” in DC and hopped on the last flight out of Detroit.
“Can I help you?”
The man gave her a weary smile as he gestured to her name on the lab coat. “Dr. Lu? Are you with the CDC?”
“Yup. Started with them right out of school.” Then she abruptly jumped to his side. “You’re bleeding!” His forearm had dark red spots in the shape of an animal bite. Most of it had sealed over, but some of the punctures were jagged and still bleeding sluggishly.
She grabbed his wrist with her right hand, turning the wound toward the light. Wow. He had big hands, and it was impossible not to notice the strength in his wrist and forearm. Attraction stirred inside her, and she covered her embarrassment by yanking gloves out of a nearby box.
“Let’s get you down to the ER. Did you know the animal that bit you?” There had been scores of reports of pets going crazy. Docile lapdogs suddenly becoming vicious terrors. Old cats that barely moved from their spot in the sun abruptly tearing around and howling. The CDC didn’t have reliable statistics on it, not with the human problem their main focus. But Cecilia had heard enough stories just from the hospital staff to guess that the two were related.
She wanted to see if she could isolate the same bizarre enzyme in afflicted pets as she’d discovered in her patients, but she wasn’t a veterinarian. She’d already sent the request up the chain of command, but it would take some time. Plus asking the police to bring in any “crazy pets” that they found was like asking guys in a war zone to stop fighting for their lives to play with the wildlife. It was frustrating because she could take the samples herself. You didn’t need to be a veterinarian to pull blood and saliva, but she didn’t have the credentials or the resources to get the pets in the first place.
“Um, yeah,” the man answered. “It’s okay. I was an army medic. Already treated it.”
She rolled his wrist to look at the underside of the bite. “That’s a really big bite. Was this dog a pet?” She looked up, her mind scrambling with hope. Was this her clue? “Was it unusual for him to react like this? I mean, if he was a pet, did he suddenly get wild? Do you know where he is? Can you take me to him?”
Her questions came out rapid fire, her mind already sorting through research possibilities. She steadfastly ignored the fact that the last thing she should do is wander off after dog saliva samples. But it wasn’t like she was making progress here.
“Yeah, I can,” the man said. “And this was definitely weird.”
She snorted. “That’s what they call us. The Weird Ward.” Then she sobered as she realized that was probably an inappropriate comment. They were the CDC, after all. They were supposed to inspire confidence and scientific know-how. “I mean…um…” She flushed. “Look, let’s get you down to the ER to get those wounds cleaned up.” She wanted to take samples of his blood and swab the wounds even though he’d already doused it with antiseptic. You never knew what interesting stuff could survive an alcohol swipe. And she wanted to stay with him. He was the first warm, comfortable person she’d been around in a very long time. Everyone else was either a patient, panicked family, or another uptight scientist like herself, completely absorbed in fighting a possible pandemic. “Give me the address of the dog. I’ll have the cops pick it up.”
“Cops are spread too thin, and nobody gets close to my dog without me.”
She pounced on his words. “So this was your dog? Your pet? He doesn’t bite people normally, does he?”
“Of course not.” He turned and used his free hand to grab her elbow and started leading her out of the lab. “I can take you to him, no problem.”
She laughed as she fell in step with him. “I’m not equipped to handle a dog. Certainly not an angry one.”
“It’ll be fine. He’s my—”
“First things first. Let’s get you to the ER. What’s your name? I’m Dr. Lu, but you can call me Cecilia.”
“Hank Coleman,” he said, extending his good hand to shake hers. His palm was huge, easily dwarfing hers, but it surrounded her in a pleasing warmth. As did his eyes. Light brown in a dark face. The edges crinkled when he smiled at her, and though everything about him felt sexy, what she most noticed was how he felt calm. As if everything inside him was quiet when every part of her was edgy, ragged, and way too caffeinated. She liked that about him, and she felt herself settle into his rhythms as they walked.
“Nice to meet you, Hank,” she said, her words coming out a little breathless. “Tell me more about your dog. What breed? How old is he? How long have you had him?”
They walked together to the elevator as she peppered him with questions. He answered easily, frowning when he couldn’t remember the creature’s exact age and had no clue about the breed. The dog was a mutt, he said, with the sweetest temperament until this morning.
They stepped into the elevator, and she waited for him to continue. He was just talking about his dog, but she loved the cadence of his deep voice. She could stand there listening to it for hours just to hear the rich timber of it. But he’d apparently run out of words and stood there, looking awkward.
“Tell me more about when he bit you. Did you notice anything different? Like was he foaming at the mouth or barking strangely?”
“Um, nothing like that. He was angry. Wouldn’t stop barking.” His words stumbled to a halt, and she frowned. Most patients couldn’t stop talking about their attack. They usually rambled in a disorganized way, often focusing on all the wrong details. But Hank, here, seemed to be a man of very few words. That made him intriguing to her—and sexy as hell—so she focused even more on the details of his face, his body, and his words.
“What did you do that made him attack?” she pressed.
He rubbed his face, and she began to think something was off. As if he felt uncomfortable and that made her uneasy. But before she could ask him for more details, the elevator doors opened. They were on the main floor, but instead of heading to the ER, he steered her toward the outside door.
“This way,” she said as she tugged away from his grip. Or she tried to. He held her fast. “The ER—”
“I don’t need the ER. My car’s in the parking lot.”
She dug in her heels. She wasn’t one to judge based on size, color, or even an ugly scar, but she also wasn’t stupid. “I’m not going with you to get your dog.”
“He’s in my car. I brought him in because he’s not right.” Hank gave her an aw-shucks kind of shrug that was downright adorable. “That’s why I went to the CDC. He’s not okay. Thought you guys would know something about that.”
“You’ve got him in a cage? In your car?”
He nodded. “Look, I can keep him quiet. I just want you to look at him.”
“Let me get security to help.” Safety had been drilled into her from her first days at the CDC. Protocol stated that she not walk outside with him even if it was just across the street into a well-lit parking lot. Except when she looked around, security was nowhere to be seen. Probably all in the ER dealing with a full house of hallucinations. All the hospitals had been overrun since the first appearance of the Detroit Flu. But once the quarantine went into effect, it had been wall-to-wall patients in every ER in the city. And the clinics. And even a dental surgery center.
Hank turned and looked her in the eye. His demeanor was quiet, his entire body language gentle. “Look,” he said softly. “I know I look scary, but I really am not here to hurt you. I served honorably as an army medic. I save people. Here, I’ll show you.” He pulled out his wallet and showed her his military ID.
She flushed, feeling stupid for doubting him. He didn’t seem scary. In truth, she was really attracted to him. His car was right across the street. But most important of all, she really wanted to look at his dog. She’d seen too many of the Flu victims at their worst. She needed to know if Hank’s dog was acting just like that. If there were physical changes like with the humans. Plus, dogs didn’t get hysterical like humans did. At least not in the same way. If this was finally the big clue she’d been waiting for, then she was really anxious to get on with it. It seemed silly to wait for security when the dog was just across the street.
“Okay,” she finally said. “Let’s go.”
His body softened then with a smile that came from deep inside. She could see the relief as it flowed through him, but it didn’t quite meet his eyes. What she saw there was more of an apology. As if he was sorry for the trouble he was causing. Which was silly because this had to be the clue she’d been praying for. And how nice of the universe to deliver it in such a sexy package.
So she kept him talking, asking him questions as fast as they came to her, and they came really fast. He answered in frustrating monosyllables or something worse like “I don’t know. You’ll just have to see.” Talk about nonspecific.
They made it to a beat-up Chrysler 300, and he unlocked the back door and swung it wide with a see-for-yourself gesture. She started to duck to look inside when he caught her arm.
She paused in a semi-crouch. “Yes?”
“I’ve been ordered to do this by my alpha. I disagree, but only an idiot disobeys in a crisis. And I don’t see another way.”
She didn’t know what to think. His words didn’t make any sense, but when she started to react, he added two more words.
And then it was too late.
Bound to the Bear continues the story of the “Detroit Flu” that is activating shifter DNA throughout the city. It’s a misguided attempt to bring shifters into common awareness. What it’s really doing is making normal people puke and hallucinate while full shifters become aggressive. And then there are the hybrids, people with some shifter DNA but not enough to fully shift into animals. They half-shift and most go crazy. Oops.
I wrote this scene to introduce Hank as a full shifter and a hero out protecting a city gone insane. The problem was that it’s too heavy on explanation. Too much telling and the action was often confusing. So it went into the trash heap and is only available to you special people who enjoy seeing what I’ve had to cut. So…enjoy! And if you want the final, perfected version, you can always order a copy from one of these fine book retailers.
BOUND TO THE BEAR by Kathy Lyons
DELETED Chapter 1
Hank Coleman paused on his walk home and listened to the sounds of Detroit in the grips of a quarantine. Oddly enough, this street was relatively quiet since more than half the city was in bed thanks to the Detroit Flu. And the other half was busy looting about a mile east of here, so what was wrong on this sleepy corner?
He tried to feel the magical layer, searching for the disruption. He couldn’t read it clearly, no one could. But he was sensitive enough to know that the problem was ahead and to his right in a corner convenience store.
He moved quietly toward the store, keeping all his senses alert. He wished for the millionth time that his magical studies could make him into something akin to Marvel’s Dr. Strange. He’d love to wave his hands and shift reality to what he wanted, but it didn’t work that way. All he could do was feel the layer of magic that pulsed beneath “ordinary” reality. He knew when it was out of balance, he knew when it pulsed with power, and he knew that right now it was working extra hard to keep shifters and other magical creatures hidden from the rest of the world. Why? Because the Detroit Flu was actually a poison that activated shifter DNA and all over the city people like him were going crazy.
Hank slipped into the convenience store quietly, crouching low and moving his considerable bulk with ease. It was a talent he’d perfected young, but it came in handy when stopping a rampage-in-progress.
He dropped behind a shoulder-high stack of beer cases, hearing his knees pop with the movement. He wasn’t worried about the noise. The hybrid was banging and growling loud enough to catch everyone’s attention. That was the other surprise consequence of the Detroit Flu. People with some shifter DNA turned into a bizarre mix of human and animal in a random combination of both. The creatures were usually insane and stank like fermented human waste.
The thing tearing into soft packs of hotdogs was no exception. It was average height for a man but skinny as hell. Probably had been a teenager before turning hybrid. It was face first in the shattered deli case as it ate whatever was in there. Hot dogs a moment ago, baloney now. Hank only knew because the plastic coverings lay discarded at the thing’s feet.
The hybrid’s jeans were torn, but in the way of normal use. The legs appeared completely human and hung just like on a regular kid. It was the back of his neck that gave him away. Dark gray fur stood out coarse and thick on his neck. And shoulders that seemed disproportionately large, not to mention the hybrid stench that made Hank want to gag.
His bear shifted inside in mind, animal instincts surging forward. Hank was a black bear shifter, and the need to go furry had been a constant drive since puberty. But shifting in public was too dangerous especially when every third person in Detroit had a gun. Humans were likely to shoot hybrid and bear alike in a wild spray of bullets because it all looked crazy scary to a normal.
He took a quick look around. A terrified teenager crouched behind the cash register to his left and a mom with a puffy nose clutching her squirming toddler and the last bottle of NyQuil Cold and Flu to his right. The pair were pressed against the refrigerator racks and would have to pass right by the hybrid to get out. No other people in the store, but that could change at any moment. He had to end this fast.
He slipped closer, moving as quickly as possible to sneak up behind the hybrid. He got between the creature and the mom, gesturing behind his back for her to run. She started to move, but at that point the toddler lost it.
A high-pitched screech cut through the air, the kind only little kids can make. The creature’s head came up with a snarl, the body twisting in the way of a dog on hind legs. It wasn’t balanced like a human, and no wonder since the face had the muzzle and sharp teeth of a wolf. The eyes were normal though. A furious dark brown that seemed weirdly human in that narrow, muzzled face. Hank couldn’t tell if the ears were pointy because they were covered by a Detroit Lions knit cap.
Silly detail that: a wolf wearing a lion. Especially as it was pulled down low on one side but rolled up the furry head on the other.
The toddler wailed again. The sound made Hank wince. The hybrid went insane.
It attacked in an ungainly lurch. One step, then it dropped to all fours a second before it leaped at the pair. The woman scrambled backwards, but she didn’t have room and she was still holding the kid. So Hank sprang to intercept.
He got lucky on the timing. Caught the hybrid broadside such that they both smashed into the rack of drug store items. They went down, rolling in packets of Advil and Tylenol while toothpaste tubes rained down on them. The hybrid twisted, snapping at Hank’s jugular.
Well, shit. No human fought like that. A neck bite came from wolf instinct and this creature had it in spades. Which meant Hank was fighting a crazed animal, not a freaked-out teen. Some small percentage of hybrids kept their human minds intact. His pack’s beta was one such creature, but he was a lucky one. This hybrid obviously wasn’t.
The thing was wiry, but Hank was larger and heavier. He used his weight to his advantage, trying to pin the squirming, snarling beast though it was like wrestling an eel. The maneuver might have worked if Hank had learned to fight without breathing, but he was up close and personal with a stench bad enough to make him gag. His belly clenched as his body tried to reject everything he’d eaten in the last week. That took his attention away from the fight and gave the creature his opening.
The bastard chomped down on Hank’s upper arm. It felt like two beds of nails slamming down in a vise. Hank snarled as pain burst through his mind. The bear inside him roared and surged forward, and he snapped a Buddhist mantra to hold it back.
The greatest worth is self-mastery.
He didn’t have the breath or the time to say the words aloud, but it worked. His bear remained a physical presence in his body, but didn’t burst through the surface. Great for him, but the snarl had enraged the hybrid.
The thing raked at Hank’s face with its hands, but didn’t have the sharp claws of a wolf. Thank God because if they had, Hank would be cut to shreds. And when that didn’t work, the hybrid tilted his head back to howl in frustration.
Good. That pulled the upper teeth out—which hurt like hell—and it gave Hank the opening he needed. He hauled his hurt arm back, feeling the rip in the muscles still embedded on the hybrid’s lower jaw. Then he cut the other elbow hard across the hybrid’s face.
The howl ended with a yelp, but Hank didn’t give the creature time to recover. He twisted to the side, maneuvering the hybrid down just like he’d been taught in high school wrestling. Seconds later, he had the thing pinned beneath him, the animal’s head locked in a full nelson. The creature fought hard, growling and scrambling with a shifter’s strength, but that’s where Hank’s greater bulk came in handy. He outweighed the thing by at least sixty pounds.
So he kept the animal down.
And while he held him there, Hank started talking. He kept his voice level, speaking directly to the knit cap because somewhere in there were the thing’s ears.
“Calm down,” he ordered. “You’re a man not a beast. I know you’re in there. Be a man.”
It was that last part that was important. Because these hybrids didn’t just appear out of thin air. Every one of them had been a normal man, woman, or child until something in Detroit’s water activated their shifter DNA. But they weren’t normal shifters either. They only had part of the needed DNA, so when they changed it was into a partial creature. Not full animal, not full human. Most minds broke under the strain.
But not all, and Hank was pinning his hopes on getting this kid to return to rational.
“You’re stronger than this,” he continued. “Your mind is in control. Be a man.”
There was a split-second pause. A stilling in the hybrid which gave Hank hope he was getting through. And then the hybrid reared back.
Hank was saved from the head butt by the full nelson hold. His hands and arms took the strain of the backwards slam, but the hybrid was stronger than a normal kid. And when his head arched back, he pushed away with his arms. Suddenly, the creature was levering himself upright on arms and then legs that shouldn’t be that strong.
Shifter strength plus adrenaline. Thankfully, he was prepared. Hank tightened his grip, his whole focus on keeping the hybrid contained.
In the background, he heard the child’s screams abruptly muffle as the bell above the door dinged. Mom and child escaped out the door. Good. That meant he just had to worry about the hybrid who was straining with all the power in his damnably wiry body.
Hank twisted hard, keeping the lock on the wolf’s head while jerking the hybrid until its knees buckled. The joints slammed hard down onto the floor, crunching loudly under the impact. The creature howled again, this time in pain. All Hank could do was hold on. The thing was on its knees, head and torso up. Hank had his legs braced, one against the metal rack of diapers, the other tight against the creature’s hip. If he could just keep the thing contained until…
Help arrived? There was no help in a city gone mad. More than half the cops were in bed. The other half was busy containing the riots to the east. Only the shifters were keeping the peace, and only in tiny pockets of territory where they had the numbers. This store was in the dangerous no man’s land between the grizzlies and the wolves. No shifter was out here, and it was only bad luck that Hank had been walking by on his way home.
Which meant he had to search for an answer on his own. He had to calm a hybrid now writhing in pain. And he had to do it—
The hybrid ripped sideways in Hank’s arms, taking them both down. Hank kept his arms locked because that was his only hope. But while he struggled to find purchase on top of the creature, it jerked twice. Two full body spasms and then the rattle.
Copper blood tainted the air and flowed dark on the floor.
Hank forced his hands open and unlocked his hold. The hybrid didn’t suddenly leap up or attack. It couldn’t. It was already dead, its life blood coating everything.
Hank’s head shot up, his mind scrambling to process what had happened. It was the terrified teenager. The employee who had been cringing behind the cash register was standing two feet away, a Baretta gripped in his fists. The smell of gunpowder mingled with the stench of hybrid and blood. A normal human wouldn’t be able to pick out the detailed scents, but Hank’s bear nose understood them clearly enough.
“Is it dead?” the kid asked. “Is it?”
Hank reached down and pressed two fingers to where the hybrid’s carotid artery should be. No pulse, not even a weak one. Then he forced himself to look down. Entry wound wasn’t in view, but the exit wound certainly was. A massive hole in the right side of its chest emptied blood like a river. If the kid had shot square on, that would be the entry wound on Hank’s chest. The bullet would have gone straight through into Hank. But it had been a sideways shot, likely shredding the hybrid’s heart, ending with a big hole in his side.
“Yeah. He’s dead.”
Hank exhaled, trying to find some balance amid the carnage. Then he turned back to the kid who was still standing with legs spread and arms braced, site trained on the dead hybrid.
“Put the gun down, son.”
“What if it moves?”
Hank shook his head. The hybrid would never move again. “You’re safe.”
He wanted to go to the kid and gently settle him down. The boy was starting to shake, but Hank didn’t dare stand up. The kid was too nervous, his eyes wide and his breath short. Instead Hank turned slowly—very, very slowly—as he talked in the same voice he’d used on the hybrid.
“What’s your name? I’m Hank.”
The boy swallowed. “Milo.”
“Hello Milo. You can relax now. Give me the gun. You’ve done what you need to, so—”
“Safety on first,” he said.
Someone had trained the boy. “Put on the safety then.”
Milo did it smoothly, as if he’d shot the weapon a hundred times before. Though probably at a target and never a living thing.
“Now give it to me.”
“I don’t know you. It goes back where it belongs.” Milo straightened up and walked jerkily behind the counter and back to the cash register. He placed the weapon somewhere underneath and then stood there as if waiting for someone to buy gum or something.
“Milo, I need you to phone—”
“Is it over?” A little boy with curly brown hair and two big eyes slowly rose from behind the counter. The teen abruptly shoved him back with a hiss.
A boy and from the similarities to Milo, probably a little brother. So that’s why the teen had overcome his terror to shoot. He was protecting his brother.
“Yes,” Hank said, keeping his tone gentle. “It’s best if you stay back there.” Then he looked at Milo and spoke in a softer tone. “Make sure he doesn’t touch the gun.”
Milo nodded. “He knows better.”
Let’s hope so. Meanwhile, they had a dead body to deal with. “Can you call 911?”
The little boy popped up again and waved a cell phone. “I already did. They said it’ll take a while.”
Of course, they did. The cops were running ragged inside the city and the national guard refused to come in and help. They were sitting outside the city in a strict perimeter keeping everyone in.
As of yesterday morning, Detroit was quarantined. The first two waves of the flu had been bad enough, but this third wave had added hallucinations to the cocktail of symptoms. That was probably what triggered the quarantine. No one wanted the Detroit Flu escaping the city limits. Which was bullshit because there was nothing viral about this “flu.” It was poison, pure and simple that someone was dumping into the water supply. Normal people got the flu. Shifters got aggressive. And people with partial shifter DNA became crazy hybrids. But of course, the normals didn’t know that. And—
His back pocket buzzed. It was his phone which he’d tucked neatly back there while he’d been fighting the hybrid. Hank stood up slowly. His pants were shit now, soaked in blood, but at least Milo wasn’t about to shoot him.
He grabbed his phone and thumbed it on. “Coleman.”
“I need you to run an errand.”
Hank grimaced. The new alpha of the Detroit grizzlies wasn’t one for small talk. He was a good guy, as far as Hank could see. Smart, efficient, and he’d taken out the previous pyscho alpha, so that made him a good guy in Hank’s book. Didn’t mean Hank was willing to run himself ragged for the guy just yet. Oath of loyalty aside, every man—and bear—had his limits, and Hank had been going non-stop since before the quarantine.
“Can’t,” Hank said. “Got a situation needs clean up.”
“So does most of the city. Where are you?”
Hank rattled off the address knowing the answer before it came.
“That’s at the far edge of our territory.”
Yeah, it was. In fact, it was in disputed territory with the wolves, but given the quarantine—and that about 1% of the population had turned hybrid and gone crazy—all the shifter clans had shrunk in tight to protect their centers. Which left this stretch of land completely unprotected.
“Hybrid went off in a convenience store.”
“You in danger? Need help?” Simon’s voice was sharp with command, and Hank felt warmth spread through his blood. It was a subtle feeling akin to a ripple in the magical layer that permeated the world. He doubted Simon even knew he was doing it since few people knew of this energy he called magic. Fewer still could sense it as he had learned to do.
Meanwhile, the longer he stayed silent, the stronger the sensation became. It was like the grizzly alpha was reaching out psychically trying to find a way to both connect and protect his clan.
“No danger, but there’s a mess. I won’t leave until the cops get here.”
“Cops won’t get there. Ryan says three quarters of the force are out sick. The rest are overrun.”
Hank grunted. Ryan was a smart-ass with a detective’s badge. He was also more charming than any grizzly shifter ought to be and a straight up good guy. He would know what was happening with the police, which meant that Hank would have to handle the situation here on his own.
“I’m sending over Mrs. Garcia and her sons. You sure it’s safe?”
“All quiet. The hybrid is dead.”
Hank heard typing in the background, probably texting the address to Mrs. Garcia. “Wait there until the crew arrive. Leave your information for the cops. We’re doing things legit now.”
“It was clean.”
A grunt of approval. “Then I need you to get to the CDC and bring a doc into the fold.”
Hank stood silent, waiting for an explanation, but Simon wasn’t one to elaborate even on his craziest orders. Eventually Hank had to press for details. “Come again?”
“I’ve emailed you files. Science and medical. Everything we have on the Detroit Flu. Give it to a doc.”
A doc? “Which one? Who one knows about us?”
“Pick one and tell him. People are dying. It was bad under the first two flu waves, but this last one gives the normals hallucinations. That helps keep the shifter secret, but it doesn’t solve the biological problem. So pick a doctor and bring him into the fold.”
Hank stood there, his heart pounding hard in his ears. “Pick one and just tell him about…” He glanced up to see Milo listening intently. Milo who was a normal, vanilla human and knew nothing about shifters. “About us?”
“Yes. Try for the one in charge.”
Like that was going to work. There were rules about telling a normal about shifters. Protocols that were sacrosanct, and those who ignored them were punished severely. History had shown all too clearly the devastation that occurred when too many people learned the truth about shifters. It didn’t make logical sense. Every teenager fought the restriction, but the rules were iron clad because bad things happened when too many people found out about shifters. Hank thought about it like static electricity. Everyone who knew about shifters sparked along the magical layer. Too many people in the know? Too much magical spark. Eventually it all went boom.
And so Hank had never, ever told, not even his closest friends. Which is why, incidentally, he didn’t have any close friends. And now he was just supposed to pick a doctor and bring him in?
That was insane.
“You know there are rules, right?” Hank asked. Simon was brand new to the alpha game. Maybe he just didn’t realize what he was saying. “Have the other alphas agreed?”
“My choice. Blame it on me.”
Like that was going to matter if this went sideways. If Detroit ended up going the way of Pompeii.
“Is there a problem?” Simon’s words didn’t come through with any emotion. As far as Hank could tell, the man didn’t have a lot of those except for his mate Alyssa. Simon’s mind ran like a computer and had less compassion than Siri, but he protected his people in the way of all great alphas and Hank had sworn his loyalty to the man. So he voiced his biggest fear.
“I’m worried about triggering a magic kick-back.”
Didn’t the man’s computer like brain know this already? “It’s what happens when too many people learn the truth. Like having a volcano erupt and bury us all.”
Surprisingly, the man didn’t scoff. “How big a risk from bringing in one more man?”
Hank rolled his eyes. “It doesn’t have a meter I can read.”
Silence as Simon tapped on his tablet. The previous alpha had records on his people, and Simon was likely pulling up that data. “Says here that you studied under a mystic. Would he know?”
“She. And she’s dead now.”
“So we’re flying blind.”
Funny, but that’s what the mystic had called the magical layer: the Blindness. She spoke like it was a living thing that kept normal in ignorance. But before he could comment, Simon gave his decision.
“We’re being exposed now. If the CDC can stop people from becoming hybrids, then it’s worth the risk.”
It probably was. But if things went sideways, then the blowback would begin with Hank. Whatever response magic did to silence them all would start right at Hank’s feet. But that was tomorrow’s problem. Right now, he had a couple kids to handle and a hybrid corpse to hide.
“I’ll go as soon as the Garcias arrive.”
“Roger that.” The line went dead. Yeah, great talking to you too, Hank groused silently. He thumbed his phone off, crossed to the front door, and flipped the CLOSED sign around.
“We’re supposed to stay open until two,” Milo said.
Hank didn’t bother answering. Just shot the kid a hard look. Fortunately, the boy had sense and nodded.
“So, um, Noah says the cops won’t be here for a while.”
Noah must be the little kid, the one who kept peeking over the counter to stare at the body. Hank had already done what he could to block the boy’s view, but the kid was obviously not squeamish.
“Which is why I’ve got help coming. Is there a back room? Somewhere we could put the body until the coroner shows up?”
Milo nodded, his gaze slowly shifting from Hank’s face to the hybrid. Noah was pulling himself higher on the counter and there was nothing Hank could do to keep either of them from seeing the full extent of the carnage.
“What kind of monster is that?” Noah asked.
“A bad one,” Milo answered. “A real bad one.”
“Yeah,” Noah said, the word more an exhale of awe than anything else.
And right here was the way magic worked. It hid the hybrid’s true nature—a human being with a wolf face and torso—so all these boys saw was a monster. Already their minds were blurring the details. Soon they wouldn’t be able to recall deformities or that the boy was wearing jeans. Only that it was hideous, and Milo had killed it. And if they told anyone about it, it would be passed off as another Detroit Flu hallucination.
Hank tried again to distract them. “We’re going to need a mop and bucket.”
The younger one jumped up. “I’ll get it.”
“No!” Hank snapped. “You stay there.” No need to expose the kid to anything more than what he could see from behind the counter.
Milo pushed his brother backwards. “You watch the cash register. I’ll go.” Then he carefully stepped out from behind the counter and headed for the back. Meanwhile, Hank squatted down and gingerly tugged at the hybrid’s jeans. Sure enough, the back pocket held a wallet with ID.
Hank winced as he pulled out the driver’s license. Darryl Mills, seventeen years old. Not even old enough to vote. He made a mental note of the address. Someone would have to make sure Darryl’s family knew he wasn’t coming home.
“What are you doing?” Milo’s voice was sharp and filled with panic.
Hank’s head snapped up and he quickly scanned the store. Nothing seemed out of place. Noah was still behind the counter, but Milo’s face was tight with strain as he stared at Hank.
“I was just getting some ID.”
“But you got it from…it.” He pointed a shaking finger at the hybrid. “From the monster!”
Hank nodded, and he straightened slowly. He still held both the wallet and ID, but with a relaxed hand. He was ready for anything, his body appearing loose but with an undercurrent of awareness. And his bear was ready to sprout fur and claws any second. All because Milo was radiating distress. His breath was tight, his eyes wide, and the hand that gripped the mop was white with strain.
“Milo, I need you to calm down.”
And then it happened. Milo’s eyes narrowed and blinked, then opened wide only to narrow again. He was trying to see, his brain fighting to process what was really there over the erasure of the Blindness.
Until he stopped. His body froze with his eyes wide. Hank could practically hear the pop in the air as the magic strained then released Milo’s mind. Suddenly, the boy was really seeing. His mind was free of the covering fog, and now he really saw.
“That’s a… that’s a…” He swallowed. “It looks like a werewolf.” Then he pointed to Hank’s hand. “That’s a wallet. And it’s…” Suddenly the pieces fell into place for him, and Hank’s heart lurched.
Hank was across the body and gripping Milo before the boy panicked and did something stupid. He shouldn’t have worried. The teenager was shaking from head to toe as he finally started thinking for real.
“I know him,” Milo whispered. “That was Darryl.” He looked up at Hank for confirmation. “That’s the name on his license, isn’t it? It’s Darryl. He came in here all the time.” Milo’s gaze slid across the store to the candy rack. “He liked Mars bars.”
Hank didn’t know how to answer. He’d heard of this before. The moment when the magic released and a normal started seeing the truth. Word was that it broke minds. Normals ended up drooling on themselves in some psych ward. The last thing he wanted was for another casualty tonight. There’d already been too many.
And then Milo looked at his own hands. “I killed Darryl.”
“He was poisoned and that made him sick,” Hank said.
Noah straightened. “Poison?”
“It’s in the tap water. They call it the Detroit Flu, but it’s actually poison.”
“And it changes people into monsters?”
“Yes,” Hank said, but Milo’s head snapped up.
“Darryl wasn’t a monster! He liked sports cars and Mars bars. He has a girlfriend.” Then Milo blanched. “He had a—”
“He was sick. You didn’t have any other choice. You were protecting your brother.”
Milo took a second to absorb that. Thankfully, the words sunk in and he began to nod. “I was protecting Noah. I had to.”
“You had to.” It wasn’t true. Hank could have contained the hybrid. At least he’d been trying. But Milo didn’t need to know that.
A shudder went through Milo’s body. It was weak, but it felt like a dog shaking off the wet. Or maybe it was a normal shaking off the Blindness. And when it was done, he turned to look at his brother who was once again peering over the counter.
“You were right. There are werewolves.” He looked down at the hybrid. “Darryl was one of them.”
Hank jolted as he turned to see Noah nod sagely.
“Told you.” There was a wealth of accusation and relief in those two words. Hank might have dismissed it, but there was a sheen of tears in the kid’s eyes. Clearly, he’d needed someone to believe him. And now, thanks to a hybrid’s rampage, his brother did. And Milo’s next words confirmed it.
“I’m sorry. You were right.” Then he swallowed, his gaze going back to the hybrid. “I’m sorry.”
The words might have been for his brother or for Darryl. Hard to tell, and heartbreaking to hear.
Meanwhile, Hank was focused on the little brother. “You’ve seen other werewolves?”
The boy nodded. “Saw a whole van of them near the river. They got out naked. Real guys, but then they did this jump and when they landed, they were wolves. I saw it.” He glanced at his brother. “But nobody believed me.”
“Listen closely, boys,” Hank said. “What you know is a secret. Like a big, dangerous, problem secret. You can’t talk about it.”
“But…” Milo gestured weakly at the body. “But people are going to see. They’re going to know.”
Possibly. But Hank had seen more than this covered up. People used words like deformity, swamp gas, or mass hallucination. Whatever worked in the most general way. People who really saw had details. Everyone else just said, monster. And then the front door chimed as someone came in.
Hank spun around, but he needn’t have worried. It was Mrs. Garcia and two of her sons here to clean up. Hank didn’t have to say anything. They knew their job. He just held out Darryl’s driver’s license knowing she would take care of notifying the family. Then he pulled out his phone and talked to the kids.
“I’m going to text you my information. You want to talk? You come to me.” He drilled both boys with his heavy gaze. “You can’t talk to anyone else about werewolves.”
The boys nodded solemnly.
“I have to go.” He spoke both to the kids and Mrs. Garcia who had already taken the mop out of Milo’s hand. He had to go home to change, though he was running out of clothing that wasn’t bloodstained from one thing or another. Then he was off to the CDC to force a doctor to believe in magic.