Location: The business district of Encantado, Nevada, a city known for its gambling and entertainment industry, and for being located alarmingly near a magic portal.
Zoey limped in to the office of Kalinda’s Katering at 9 a.m. on Saturday morning, wondering if she’d be picking up her paycheck or facing a firing squad.
After the week she’d had, the firing squad would be just about par for the course.
First her favorite cafe had closed up shop and vanished last Monday – the latest in a string of local businesses that had shut down.
Then she’d had the blind date from hell four nights ago. An acquaintance set it up, describing the guy as “perfect for you.” She must not have liked Zoey very much. “Perfect for you” was a drunken accountant who, five minutes after meeting her slurred that he “liked dating fat chicks because they weren’t so demanding.” Well, that was just a guaranteed panty-dropper…not.
And then when Zoey made it clear that she was going home right after dinner, alone - he stiffed her with the check. So she’d headed to the bar, and as far as she could recall, tried to drink her weight in tequila. Which was why she woke up with the phrase “love bites” tattooed on her right butt cheek the next morning. The fact that the calligraphy was really pretty didn’t help anything.
And after last night – well, it turned out, those sucktastic events? They’d been the high points of her week.
Kalinda stood up when Zoey entered her office, clad in her usual uniform of tuxedo jacket and skirt, her dark shiny hair yanked back in a severe braid, her brows drawn together. She was tall, mocha-skinned, regal and very annoyed. Zoey, by contrast, was short, plump, and had unruly brown waves, and had been told that she was annoyingly cheerful.
The look on Kalinda’s face told Zoey that her boss had already heard what had happened at the Blood Oath Pack’s party. Of course. Word got around fast in Encantado.
“Hello, Kalinda. Beautiful morning, isn’t it? The sun is shining, the phoenixes are flocking…” She gestured out the window at a half dozen phoenixes which were gliding overhead, trailing cold blue flames.
“There are three simple rules to catering a mafia pack event,” Kalinda said, her voice sharp enough to slice through bone.
Like Zoey hadn’t heard this lecture before. After all, Zoey worked those events all the time. She was one of the few girls willing to work the Blood Oath Pack shindigs, because everyone else was terrified of them.
Zoey was too, of course. Shifters were scary enough, but the Blood Oath pack? Effing petrifying. They’ve been known to literally eat their enemies. The pay was too good to resist, though. It paid triple what she earned at other catering gigs. And why would they eat the catering staff when they served up such delicious food? Then nobody would be willing to work the Blood Oath pack parties, and they’d have to go get their own food, which would cut into the time they spent fooling around with mob groupies and smoking stinky cigars.
That’s what Zoey told herself every time she went to cater their events.
And she got the same lecture from Kalinda before she went in, every time. Three simple rules.
“You don’t say. Why don’t you tell them to me?” she said. She might have been a little salty, but she felt like she had the right. Her right butt cheek had an enormous set of fang marks in it, right below the tattoo, and it was probably going to scar.
“Get in. Don’t get bitten. Get out. Is that so hard to remember?” her boss demanded.
Zoey shrugged. “Apparently.”
Kalinda gave her a dirty look. “Now is not the time for your sass.”
“When, exactly would the time for my sass be?” she grumbled. Could she schedule a time? Like five seconds from then? But she didn’t say it out loud, because Kalinda looked like she was about to blow a gasket.
“When you didn’t do something to provoke a Capo of the Blood Oath pack to bite you in the ass.”
Zoey looked at Kalinda with alarm. “How do you know he’s a Capo? I didn’t know he was a Capo.”
“Word gets around fast. What did you do to him, exactly? Step on his paw? Pull his tail?”
“Do you think I’m crazy?” she spluttered. “Seriously? You think I’d pull the tail of any wolf shifter, much less a Made Wolf?”
There were made wolves, and there were Made Wolves. Dominic Lombardi was both. First, he’d survived being bitten by a Born Wolf from the Warrior Class. Not the med-mages, not the empaths, not the Common Class wolves who could turn people safely – no, he had to go and get fanged by a Warrior. He went into it knowing there was a significant chance he wouldn’t make it – around 25 percent of the people who are bitten die within 24 hours, and then of the survivors, many die on the next full moon, when they go through their first turn.
After he survived his First Moon, he would have worked as a foot soldier the Blood Oath pack. He’d have been sent on assignments that could be anything from collecting money to revenge raids on their enemies, the Bianchi Pack. And then, when he’d impressed the Capo Di Tutti Capos - boss of all bosses - enough by being a vicious psycho killer, he was “allowed” to go through some sort of gruesome secret ritual, and after he survived that, he was a Made Wolf. A member of the Blood Oath Pack, the corrupt and violent mafia shifters who unofficially ran the north side of Encantado.
She knew all that from the wolf tat on his bulging right bicep. The howling wolf was nestled into a crescent moon, which meant that he was a Made Wolf. And the star above it meant that he hadn’t been born a wolf, he’d been made into a wolf.
Zoey also knew that Dominic Lombardi’s eyes were a blue-green that would make the ocean jealous, his slacks molded to his perfect butt in a highly distracting fashion, and his mighty thighs looked as if they could crush a woman to death - but most would have been willing to take the risk and die smiling.
She knew all this because she’d catered several parties that he’d attended. He’d ignored her, other than grunting a curt “thank you” when she served him drinks. If anything, he was more abrupt with Zoey than he was with the other servers, although he didn’t flirt with anybody. So she tended to avoid him – because he seemed to almost have some kind of grudge against her.
But Zoey hadn’t known that he was a Capo. That meant he was one of a very few men who served directly under Arturo Moretti, the Capo di Tutti Capos. Arturo tore people’s limbs off for just looking at him wrong – or so she’d heard.
Zoey paced in front of Kalinda’s desk, her butt cheek aching with each step. Stupid bite! It figured that the only time Dominic’s mouth was near her nether regions, it was in wolf form, sinking his fangs in.
She mentally slapped herself for that thought. Dominic was nothing but a very naughty fantasy. Even if she could have him, she wouldn’t, because of who he worked for.
“The no-shift potion is guaranteed, right?” Zoey asked.
“Of course,” Kalinda said. Her gaze slid away. “I’m pretty sure.”
Zoey spun around and pinned her with a glare of fury. “Pretty sure?” she screeched.
Kalinda threw up her hands in frustration. “Warlock Cyrus is the best in the district. I have never heard a complaint against him. The only way we can be sure, though, is if someone was bitten and went through the next full moon without turning. And none of my girls have ever been bitten before. The potion is strictly a precaution; a couple of times, the Blood Oath men got a little frisky when they were in wolf form and maybe, ah, nipped a girl. Or two.”
“Or two? So, like five or six?” Zoey glowered at her boss.
Kalinda’s gaze slid to the left. “Three or four. Through their clothing. They didn’t even draw blood, but I didn’t want to take any chances, so I started using the no-shift and I have never, ever heard of it failing. So we’re good there.” The fake smile she tried to summon up was the opposite of reassuring; it looked as if she was having gas pains. Kalinda was not a smiler.
“You never mentioned the nipping when you hired me,” Zoey said indignantly.
Kalinda looked her up and down with a critical eye, ignoring her complaint. “Do you suddenly crave raw meat? Are you unusually hairy?”
Zoey sank down into a chair gingerly, favoring her right cheek, and gave Kalinda look of annoyance. “I was bitten at 2 a.m. Seven hours ago. It’s probably too soon to tell. The next full moon isn’t for 28 days. And the werewolves don’t have any craving for raw meat when they’re in human form. You know that. Do they order a hundred pounds of hamburger? No, the pack gets filet mignon and prime rib.”
“Right, right.” Kalinda sat down in the chair next to Zoey’s, tapped her fingers on the chair arm nervously, her long gold-painted nails clicking on the scarred wood. “Pardon my panicking, this only involves one of my employees possibly accidentally offending a pack of wolf-men who delight in eviscerating their enemies. Why would I be a little tense? OK, walk me through what happened. Tell me everything that led up to him biting you.”
Zoey leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes. “Let me think a minute.” She tried to stifle an enormous yawn. She hadn’t slept all night. The room that she rented had paper thin walls and she lived right above a nightclub. And it was hard to sleep after having been bitten in the butt by a werewolf.
“Fine, fine, I’ll get you some coffee,” Kalinda said grudgingly. She liked to act like a hardass – she had to, to run any kind of business in Encantado – but she was protective of the girls who worked for her.
Zoey nodded gratefully. “You’re a lifesaver.”
As Kalinda hurried off to the kitchen in the back, she replayed yesterday through her mind, searching for clues.
Why had Dominic chomped on her gluteus? Was it because she’d asked to talk to his boss? That wouldn’t make sense; it wasn’t even him that she’d asked.
Yesterday morning she’d reached her boiling point. There were rats crawling around the piles of garbage that had been rotting in the streets for the last few months, as the trash pickup became more and more sporadic. She had stepped in the runoff and ruined her new sneakers. And the potholes? Forget about it. She worked as a bike messenger during the week, and riding through her neighborhood was like running a slalom course.
The residents of District 17 – informally known as the Northern Warehouse District - paid good money to the Blood Oath pack just like everyone else in the entire western sector of Encantado. In exchange, the pack was supposed to “protect” the waste disposal company from anything, magic or otherwise, That meant that the garbage trucks were guaranteed to arrive safe. But apparently all the garbage trucks were getting lost on their way, because she couldn’t remember the last time they’d picked up the trash.
At this point, Zoey and the other residents were paying their extortion money just for the privilege of not being murdered by a pack of corrupt furry goombahs. Yes, they didn’t pay as much as the wealthy districts, which meant they could only expect the bare minimum of services, but over the past few months, they’d stopped getting even that.
When citizens tried to take the trash to the city dump themselves, they were charged an outrageous fee – even after paying their protection money to the Blood Oath Pack.
They’d tried to talk to Jordan Smythe, the pack’s neighborhood liaison who collected their fees and passed them on to the Blood oath Pack. The results? Crickets.
And more garbage.
It wasn’t as if they had the option of leaving. Nobody in the Portal Cities was allowed to move out without permission from the Council of Mages, and even then, they would have to pay a steep fee and find another portal city that would accept them.
Magic-bloods weren’t allowed to live outside of the Enchanted Zones. Non-magics tended to get very nervous about magical folk living among them. They were afraid that the magic-bloods would cast spells on them or bite them. That was only sometimes true.
And from what Zoey had heard, most of the other portal cities weren’t much better – and the ones that were, only accepted very powerful mages. Since the Pendulum Swing of the 1950s, when magic again tore through the areas where the veil between universes was thin, the cities near the portals had mostly sunk into crime and poverty.
There was no paradise, no happy safe suburb, for those who had so much as a drop of magical blood in their veins.
Zoey’s tired mind was drifting. She forced herself to think about the party last night.
When she had been relocated to Encantado, she’d organized some of the other neighborhood residents and formed an unofficial neighborhood improvement committee. And since, through her catering job, she actually had access to the leaders of the Blood Oath pack, she had decided to very politely ask Arturo Moretti about it. He’d been drinking, and he seemed to be in a good mood, or less murderous than usual anyway.
She’d walked over to one of his men, Ottavio, and asked if she could be granted an audience to address issues in the Northern Warehouse District. She had been told that was the proper way to approach Arturo – through one of his men, and only after asking in a very deferential tone.
And Ottavio had nodded gravely, and stood up, towering over her, and started to answer – when Dominic bit her on the butt.
But she didn’t see how the two could be related. She really didn’t think she had offended anyone. She had spoken with the utmost respect, and Ottavio hadn’t looked angry. And she’d been speaking to him, not Dominic. Also – now that she thought of it – if Dominic had been angry at her, he wouldn’t have just nipped her. He’d have torn her in half.
Kalinda hurried back in, shoving a cracked mug of coffee into Zoey’s hands, and then leaned on her desk. “It’s instant. We save the good stuff for the customers,” Kalinda said. Zoey took a long swig of it and made a face.
“Yeah, you do,” she said.
“So talk. How did you bring the wrath of the wolf done on you? What have you done, Zoey?”
“Nothing,” she said, with an expression of wounded dignity, and took another sip, grimacing at the bitterness.
In hindsight, she shouldn’t have used the party as an excuse to try talk to Arturo. She’d risked getting Kalinda in trouble and that wasn’t fair.
“OK, you wanted a recap,” she said quickly. “I showed up at the event, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Dominic was in human form. He did glance my way once, but most of the night, he was talking with just a few people and pretty much ignoring me. One of them was a tall, good-looking guy with a scarred face, I think his name’s Romano, and he’s always with Dominic at all the parties. I think he’s an enforcer. One of them was Giuliana, she’s Arturo’s secretary and also his niece, and one was a dark-haired girl who kept following him around and petting his arm.” She tried to keep the snarkiness out of her voice when she said that, and felt like she’d mostly succeeded.
Dominic had acted like he was just casual friends with the blonde, and looked bored with the dark-haired girl, which had made Zoey happier than it should have.
Kalinda frowned in thought. “For some reason that makes me nervous.”
“Everything makes you nervous,” Zoey pointed out.
Kalinda made a skeptical “psssht” noise, and glanced out the window. A day-walker in a black cape was strolling by – that was a rich-as-hell vampire who’d paid good money for powerful charms that would make him temporarily immune to sunlight. The wards that were affixed to the window glowed as he walked by. It cost Kalinda a small dragon’s hoard to keep those wards charged. Kalinda’s wards were a lot stronger than those on Zoey’s apartment building. Hers could keep out level 7 and below magic. Zoey’s apartment building was a level two; it kept out uninvited vampires and mild curses from slightly irritated witches, but that was about it.
A lion shifter jostled by – she could tell because of the rounded furry ears and flowing golden mane – and accidentally jostled the vampire, and the vampire swung to face him with a snarl. A long, tense moment stretched out between them before they finally strolled off in opposite directions.
“Of course everything makes me nervous,” Kalinda said irritably. “Anyone who lives in Encantado, and isn’t nervous, has their head up their ass.”
Zoey shrugged. Yes, living in a Portal City was fairly terrifying on a regular basis, given that the portals tended to burp out scary hostile creatures at random, and they never knew if the Mages would be able to hold them off, but she just didn’t see the point in being afraid all the time. She did her best to enjoy life wherever she was and whatever the circumstances.
“I dunno,” she said. “What good does it do to stress all the time? If I’m fated to hexed or dragon-roasted, I might as well enjoy my life up until the last moment. And try to make sure that everyone around me is too. And if I’m not fated for a terrible death, then I’d have spent a lot of time worrying about nothing.”
“Fine, Perky Pollyanna, nothing scares you. That’ll be huge comfort when you end up getting eaten by a troll. Now finish telling me what happened.” Kalinda fixed Zoey with her fierce dark glare.
Zoey nodded, trying to remember. “Well, the rest of the night, he just ignored me. After the moon rose, they all started getting louder and friskier and a couple of older guys pinched my butt, and I ‘accidentally’ spilled a drink on one of them and stepped on the other one’s foot.” Kalinda had told her to do that. Those kinds of macho guys would run right over the girls if they didn’t stand up for themselves. And it worked; the guys yelped, their friends laughed at them, and they didn’t try anything else that night.
She sighed. “And I was standing there with a tray of hors d’oeuvres when I felt a sharp pain in my butt. My right cheek, in case that matters.”
“It doesn’t,” Kalinda assured her, with a look of annoyance.
“I screamed and spun around and there was this huge, beautiful white wolf staring at me intensely. I recognized it as Dominic because he had the same blue-green eyes and…and I don’t know, I could just tell it was him. Everyone turned and stared at me. I was so shocked that I just dropped my tray and ran.” She finished the rest of the coffee and set the cup down on a small side table. “So…that shifting potion…”
“I already told you. I’ve never heard of it failing.”
Well, that wasn’t super reassuring, given that, from what she’d heard, being bitten by a Warrior Class shifter would be just about a guaranteed ticket to the nearest mortuary - if the potion didn’t work. To survive their bite, a person had to have a large physique and the constitution of a world class athlete.
At this point, though, all that she could do was wait for 28 days and hope not to die at the next full moon. Fun!
Kalinda was about to ask her something else when she looked out her window and sucked in her breath.
“Go to the kitchen,” Kalinda said, in a low, urgent tone. “Now.”