Night Life

Nocturne City (Volume 1)

Caitlin Kittredge

St. Martin's Paperbacks

Chapter 1

I smelled the girl’s blood and saw her body in a pool of neon light. Signs from a bar facing the alley painted the scene dreamlike, the pavement slick and bottomless and the body’s skin pink and hard.

I could smell her blood because I’m a werewolf.

I had gotten the call because she was dead.

A uniform stopped me with an upraised hand. “Ma’am?”

I drew my jacket aside and showed him the Nocturne City Police Department detective badge clipped to my waist. He squinted at it in the ineffectual light and then nodded. “Sorry, Detective . . . Wilder. Go ahead.”

He even lifted the tape for me. I rewarded him with a smile. “Call me Luna, Officer . . . ?”

“Thorpe, ma’am.” He smiled back, tired blue eyes lighting up. I tend to have that effect on men, even when it’s 3 am and I’m wearing raggedy blue jeans and a T-shirt stained with fingerprinting ink. Not my off-duty attire to be sure, but you try cleaning blood out of a silk halter.

Thorpe called after me, “Hope you didn’t eat dinner. She’s juicy!”

Fantastic.

I walked into the red light from the beer signs, moving between CSU techs and a photographer snapping a digital Nikon. I stopped, the pointy toe of one boot just shy of the body, and looked down at the girl. Her throat was opened in a wide gash, obscured by dried blood. What hadn’t been left inside her—and that wasn’t much—was coating the blacktop, giving oily life to the ground below her. Her left index finger was severed neatly at the knuckle, a raw red-white disk with the blood coagulated.

Someone spoke from below my line of vision. “Another night, another dead girl. Nice to have a routine, isn’t it?”

Bart Kronen, one of the city’s three medical examiners, crouched next to the body, his bald head as red as everything else. I mimicked his posture and bent over the girl’s corpse.

“Nice wouldn’t be my word for this.” Closer, the blood wasn’t the only smell rolling off the girl. A sharp, musky odor lay under it, and that only meant one thing. I slid a glance to Bart to see if he’d figured it out yet, but he was busy with a thermometer and a stopwatch.

“Killer took time to get a souvenir, so make sure you print her skin before the autopsy. Any idea what made that gash in her throat?” Other than the obvious, of course—the musky scent was the panic of a trapped were, panicked because she had wandered down the wrong street and been jumped by a rival pack.

Kronen chuckled, plump cheeks crinkling. “If this happened before the Hex Riots I’d say you’ve got an outlaw were that needs to be put down, but as it is . . .” He shrugged and began packing away small evidence bags filled with cotton swabs taken from the body. He didn’t pick up my instinctive flinch at the phrase put down.

Weres don’t kill people, and never did, except the few who can’t take the phase and go insane. Were attacks were the fuse that lit the bomb of the Hex Riots over Nocturne City in the 1960s. If you got the bite, you pretty much resigned yourself to living with the constant, twitchy fear that someone would discover your secret and take matters into their own hands. Witches and weres don’t enjoy many civil rights in this day and age. On paper, sure, but when a self-righteous plain human with an aluminum bat is after you, it’s another story.

“Detective.”

I put my attention back on Dr. Kronen. “Hmm?” Great, could I manage to seem like more of an airhead? Maybe if I showed up for work tomorrow in a pink sweater set.

Kronen gestured to the dead girl’s hands. “You may want to take a look. She’s got some nasty defensive wounds.”

I slipped on the proffered glove and took her right hand in mine. Her fingers dangled limply, flesh stripped off the tips, nails torn and broken. Good girl. You fought like hell. You scratched him and kicked him, and made it hard for him to hide what happened.

“I’m also guessing we’ll find evidence of sexual assault.”

“Why do you say that, Doc?”

He rolled his eyes at me and stood up, brushing nonexistent dirt from his khakis. “Cause of death appears to be peri- and postmortem mutilation, and coupled with the ritual of severing the left digit, I’m guessing this is a sex crime.”

“Isn’t mutilation usually a secondary trait in sex crimes?”

Kronen nodded. “Usually, but I can’t find another obvious cause. I’ll know more when I can screen her blood for drugs and cut her open to have a peek at her internals. Your skin may lie but your guts never do.”

“Kronen, your reverence for victims never fails to amaze me.”

“In this line of work, Detective, if we didn’t laugh we’d all be prey to the wolves of insanity before the night was out.”

Wolves again. What was it with this guy? Well, as long as he was harping on it I might as well put my talents to good use and see if I could find anything he’d missed.

I took a second look at the girl, inhaling deeply as I let my eyes focus in on her skin, her hair, the creases and crevices where trace evidence could hide. The telltale sting told me that my eyes were starting to turn from their normal gray to deep were gold, and I blinked fast to clear them.

Grease, urine, blood, garbage, and the smell of wet brick from the recent rain all mingled. It wasn’t what I’d ever describe as pleasant, but there was nothing out of the ordinary, either.

The girl herself looked about twenty, with porcelain skin and black hair, a lighter color showing at the roots. Leather skirt, black platform sandals, and a shocking lime-green halter top made out of stretchy material that showcased her chest. No bag, wallet, hidden money roll, or anything else that would help me ID her. And it wasn’t exactly like I could go knocking on her pack’s door for information. An Insoli like me would get a boot in the ass at best, a torn throat to match the dead girl’s at worst.

I walked with Kronen back to the ME’s van. “So, any theories?” he asked me, tossing his gear into the back.

“Based on the neighborhood and the outfit . . . pro. John gone bad. Always tragic, but it happens a lot around here.” Kronen was a good medical examiner and a decent guy, but he shared the human attitude that Were=Bad & Scary & Okay to Hurt. Best to feed him the party line for anonymous dead hookers.

Kronen got into the driver’s seat and shut the door. “Prostitute murder in a downtown alley? How rare. Shocking, in fact.”

“Absolutely shocking,” I agreed, glad that he let it go at sarcasm.

“I’ll page you when the autopsy is scheduled.”

“Thanks. Night.”

“Morning,” he corrected me. And it was, nearly four thirty.

I walked back through the tape and sat in my 1969 Ford Fairlane. Black, shiny, fast, and a hell of a lot better than an unmarked vehicle from the motor pool.

I was a liar. Even as I voiced my theory to Kronen, I knew it was a bad excuse. The torn throat, the fierce defensive wounds, and the missing finger joint all spoke to something far more violent than a business transaction gone sour or a were pack warning a pro off their turf. Lots of packs did street-level dealing and sent their mates out to work the streets, but run across one of those puritanical pack leaders and you were in deep crap. Usually the offending were got away with some nasty bruises and a humiliation bite. Killing just made it bad for all of us.

It could have been a human who killed her, a savage one, but I dismissed that as quickly as it popped into my head. Even without phasing, a were could fight off a human three times their size. We’re strong. Not Spider-Man strong, but we manage.

Attempts to rationalize failed, which meant I was right. She had been killed for a reason. A heightened five senses comes standard with being a were, but I firmly believe it gives you heightened instincts, too. Now I would use them to find out why the girl in the alley was dead.
 

 I looked at the dashboard clock as I pulled away from the scene and turned onto Magnolia Boulevard, once the heart of downtown Nocturne City. If it was a heart now, it was one in dire need of a quadruple bypass and a pacemaker. Boarded-up storefronts glared at me like empty eye sockets, illuminated by broken streetlamps and holding enough shadows to hide a multitude of sins.

The clock read 4:42 am. With no means to ID the girl with until she was fingerprinted and x-rayed at the morgue, I had nothing to do for the rest of my shift except go back to the Twenty-fourth Precinct, file my report, and see if any progress had been made on my seven other open cases. That, I doubted. Working the midnight-to-eight shift in homicide does not lead to a high clearance rate, or a lack of bags under my eyes. Some nights I swore I should invest in the company that made my concealer and retire.

Magnolia intersected Highland and I made the right turn, crossing over into the old Victorian district. Highland Park was one of the few neighborhoods where the residents had been able to stop the city from widening the street and chopping down the hundred-year-old oak trees. It also housed the Twenty-fourth, tucked neatly into a skinny brick two-story that had once been a firehouse, back when fire trucks were horse-drawn and the Hex Riots weren’t even a puff of smoke on the horizon.

The grazing lot for horses had been transformed into a parking lot for cops, and I pulled my Fairlane into the only free space—if the tiny margin between two patrol cars deserved the title. As a detective, I had an assigned spot, but someone was already in it. The Fairlane scraped against concrete, and I winced. That didn’t sound like it could be repaired with a fine brush and a dab of Black Magick nail polish.

I got out and looked at the license plate of the car that had taken my hard-earned spot. The small rising-moon crest told me city vehicle, a black Lexus with tinted windows and no other identifying marks. What it was doing at the Twenty-fourth, in my parking space, was a mystery I wasn’t up to solving at the moment.

I satisfied my frustration with a kick to the Lexus’s bumper, and went into the precinct.
 
 
 

At some point in history, the department had decided that fluorescent lights were not only cheap but also flattering to the complexion, and installed them on practically every inch of ceiling. Other than that small addition, the fire brigade had their way. There was still a brass fireman’s pole in the corner of the squad room. Sometimes, at Christmas, we wrapped tinsel around it.

My single desk, tucked into a corner, held just enough space for my computer, a hanging file, and a picture of me, my cousin Sunny, and our grandmother from when Sunny and I were kids. Sunny and Grandma Rhoda were smiling. I was not.

I went for coffee before I settled in to type up the report on the dead girl. She’d be Jane Doe number three this year among my cases.

The squad room was deserted, but the desk clerk waved at me as I walked by.

“Long night, Wilder?”

“The longest, Rick.”

He clucked in sympathy.

“Heard you caught a mutilation homicide down on Magnolia.”

I’ve given up trying to figure out how the police gossip network disperses information. It could give you a headache.

“That’s right” is all I said.

“So, how’s Sunny doing?” he asked me, smiling shyly. Rick has been in love with my cousin ever since she moved here. Whether he’s figured out that she’s a witch or not, I don’t know.

“She’s fine. Teaching meditation over at Cedar Hill Community College. How’s your little one?” Rick’s wife had left him three years ago, leaving him saddled with a five-year-old son and a job that kept him working nights. As far as I could tell, though, he did okay. He was attractive, in that quiet dark-haired way, and stable as a cement pylon. He would be good for Sunny. But he was also a plain human, and I wasn’t going to encourage them.

“Great. He’s growing like a—”

A bang from the frosted-glass door down the hall opening interrupted us. Wilbur Roenberg, captain in charge of the Twenty-fourth, stepped out. Seeing him working at this very early hour made my gut clench. Roenberg and I didn’t get along even when I’d had a full night of sleep and wasn’t on the tail end of a bad shift.

“We’ll talk, Wilbur,” said a shortish man in a dark suit, with hair and eyes to match. He shut the captain’s door and took clipped steps down the hallway toward Rick and me. He carried a black briefcase, and his shoes were highly polished. I realized the dark suit was a tuxedo. He wore a red silk tie, the only hint of color on his monochrome frame.

Roenberg wiped his face with the back of his hand before disappearing down the hall toward the men’s room.

“You have a nice night, sir!” Rick called as the visitor passed. The guy turned and gave Rick an evil eye. I heard Rick gulp. Tuxedo kept staring, his hand on the door to the outside. His posture had the reptile quality of someone who knew how to fight, and probably fought dirty.

“Shouldn’t you be doing your job instead of flirting?” he finally asked, pure dark eyes flicking to me.

It was my turn to provide a hostile stare. Tuxedo didn’t flinch, but his full lips curled up slightly.

“Is there anything else I can help you with, sir?” I asked, adjusting my loose tee so that my badge and my  service weapon showed clearly.

After a long two ticks of the clock, he looked away. Point, Luna.

“The name is Lockhart. And I doubt very much that you can, Officer,” he said, before turning on his heel and striding out like he had a badger nipping at his ass.

“What a butthead,” muttered Rick, punching a few keys on his computer.

I walked over to the door and watched Tuxedo leave. I wasn’t surprised when I saw the black Lexus screech out of my space and speed away down Highland. A city bigwig named Lockhart. I’d remember the name. See if he got a warm welcome next time he needed someone to fix a parking ticket.

Walking back to my desk, I almost ran head-on into Captain Roenberg. He jumped aside, face flushed and stale coffee on his breath. “So sorry, Detective Wilder.”

“That’s fine, sir,” I told him. He wasn’t sorry. Roenberg was a throwback, and it was apparent every time he deigned to make eye contact that he was really seeing me in pumps and a frilly little apron. Fair’s fair. Every time I was unfortunate enough to see him, I wanted to plant a solid left in his smug little mouth.

“Yes . . . ,” he said absently, hurrying past me toward his office.

“Don’t get any cooties on you,” I muttered, glad I was going the other way. At least not all cops in the Twenty-fourth felt the same way as Roenberg. Most of them could deal with my being female. It was the were part I kept under my hat. Not that I wore a lot of hats. They make my head look like a dinosaur egg.

I decided to type up Jane Doe’s report and clock out early. Those other seven cases weren’t getting any colder.

Name? the computer prompted me. I typed Jane Doe. Age? Unknown. I filled in all the boxes for physical description and forwarded the file to Missing Persons for a cross-check. In three weeks, if I was lucky, they’d tell me they found nothing.

Cause of Death?

My fingers stopped. I saw the girl lying on the wet pavement, dried blood on her tattered throat. Wet blood under her, matting the long black hair. The tight clothes that left no room for any ID. Torn, bloody hands reaching out to fend off . . . what?

I blinked. The night had been too long and too full of death. Under the COD field I typed exsanguination and checked the box to indicate that the autopsy was still pending. The printer spit out a hard copy of the report, and I attached the appropriate forms and tucked it into my open-case file, which was really just a tattered accordion folder sitting on top of my desk.

Jane Doe: filed and processed and tucked away where she needed to be.
 
 
 

 I got up, stretched, and slid into my scuffed motorcycle jacket. The telltale point in my lower back twinged. Definitely time to go home. I had made it to the squad room door when I heard a voice bellow, “And where does that sweet ass think it’s going?”

Turning brought me face-to-leering-face with David Bryson, a fellow detective—if fellow could be classified as the occasional lewd comment and a burning desire on my part to kick him. The only thing keeping me from phasing out on him was the hope that he’d be fired for sexual harassment and I’d get to watch.

“Hey, Wilder,” he panted. A younger Hispanic man was attached to Bryson’s arm via handcuffs. The kid had gang tats and a bloody gash on the side of his head. “Be a good girl and help me get this piece of crap to interrogation,” Bryson said, detaching himself from the kid and recuffing him.

“What the hell happened to his head?” The gangbanger smelled like sweat, cheap weed, and fear. Bryson gave off adrenaline and coppery, impotent rage.

He grinned at me. “Vato resisted. I showed him he couldn’t resist the hood of my car.”

I sucked in a breath. “That’s great, Bryson. Really great. What’s on the menu for the rest of the night? Toilet bowls and telephone books?”

“Aw, who’s he gonna tell? Dumbshit doesn’t even speak English.” He shoved the banger into a chair by his desk. “Am I right, Pedro?”

“Su madre aspira martillos en infierno,” Pedro muttered. I turned away quickly so Bryson wouldn’t catch my snort and grin. Red-faced, he didn’t even notice me.

Instead, he grabbed Pedro by the neck and slammed him face-first into the brick wall of the squad room.

Pedro moaned once before he slid down and curled into a ball on the linoleum at our feet. “You think that’s some funny shit, don’t you?” Bryson shouted, drawing back his foot for a kick.

I stepped over Pedro and put out my hand, palm up. “Enough, Bryson.”

He glared at me, foot still poised, big shoulders hunched. I’d spent enough time in my kickboxing dojo to handle an opponent bigger than myself, but Bryson was not only big, but also armed and a cop with training of his own. This standoff definitely called for sugar rather than round kicks.

“He had it coming,” Bryson snarled at me when he realized I wasn’t going to move.

“Leave it alone, or I’ll help this poor kid file a complaint against you right now,” I told Bryson. “And you can bet I’ll be calling Lieutenant McAllister at home to make sure he sees it.”

After another long second, Bryson stepped back and fixed his tie. Pedro got up and ran like hell.

Bryson heaved a dramatic sigh. “Shit, Wilder. You can be a class-A bitch sometimes.” His eyes traveled down to my chest, lower, and back up. “If you weren’t so cute I might pop you one.” He reached around and patted me on the bottom. “Thank that sweet ass.”

Bryson squealed as I grabbed his index finger and bent it backward, applying pressure on the knuckle and creating a vise that could snap bone with a few milligrams more pressure.

“David, I know that the time for this conversation is long overdue, and that’s my fault, because up until now I couldn’t believe that you could really be such a gigantic dickhead. But apparently you can, so listen up.”

“That’s my trigger finger you got!” he yelped.

“Then you shouldn’t have put it on my ass.” I pinched harder. “I couldn’t care less what you think of me. But for the record, I think you are a violent, incompetent psychopath who has no business being a police officer.” Somewhere between the dead girl and the Lockhart jerk from the city, my annoyance had boiled over into rage, and I was feeling it deep down in my gut. Bryson just happened to be the closest target. Not that he didn’t deserve it.

“Now that we understand each other, David . . .” I squeezed and relished the cry of real pain I elicited. “Take your opinion of me and stick it up your ass. If there’s room next to your head, of course.” I twisted his hand to the snapping point, realizing how easy it would be to hurt him. How easy it would be to lean in and feel his hot breath as I tore his throat. My hand clamped down and the joint let out a popping sound.

I let go, jumping a step back.

Bryson stared at me with wide eyes, holding his hand. Then he turned without a word and practically ran out of the squad room. The big baby.

As soon as he was gone, I bolted for my car.

Shit. It had never hit me so early before a full moon, and so hard. A full seven days still. I stroked the chain under my shirt and felt the cool kiss of the silver star pendant against my skin. The rage I’d felt in the squad room still demanded satisfaction, a hunt brought to a bloody close.

Weres are all instinct and nerves, loosely held together by the thin veil of humanity that covers us when the moon is new. When we get angry, control is a memory. You can hurt people, and probably will at least once. Wearing silver when you’re human is a good deterrent, or a little wolfsbane next to the skin if you don’t mind smelling like an old lady’s medicine cabinet. But when were rage really grips you, nothing on this earth can stop it.

I breathed in, out, and turned on the car, forcing my hands to stop shaking. Bryson was an idiot and a terrible cop, but what I had done was unforgivable. I had lost it. Something had awakened the were and I didn’t know what. That scared the hell out of me.

I kept my pentacle outside my shirt, touching it every few seconds with my free hand. It did little to calm me as I drove home while the sun came up.
 
 
Copyright © 2008 by Caitlin Kittredge. All rights reserved.