The morning is cool and crisp, the crunch of fallen leaves beneath her feet so blissfully autumnal that Carrie is almost too distracted to notice the dark stain that cuts across the path. She pauses, breath steaming in the chilly air, still running lightly in place. She runs this trail every morning, knows every stretch and curve of it like the back of her hand, and she’s never seen that before: a splash of some rusty brown liquid, not quite soaked fully into the dirt, leading into the brush beside the path.
The brush that, she’s fairly certain, never had quite so many broken branches, or looked quite this trampled down.
Almost as if something had been dragged through it.
Carrie hesitates. She should finish her run, go home, and shower. Go to work. Definitely not go tromping into the undergrowth to find a—a dead deer or something. Especially not when whatever killed it might still be in the area. Might still be hungry.
There’s something tangled on one of the snapped branches. Something that looks . . . almost like a snarl of blonde hair.
I’m going to have to call in late to work, she thinks, her heart racing, and she steps off of the path.
“I—yes, that’s right. I understand.” Eli’s mom wanders into their tiny kitchen, rolling her eyes dramatically. “I know we might get a better offer with a longer listing time, but I need to—yes, even if it could be dramatically more.”
She paces back out of the room, either because she doesn’t want to distract Eli with the argument or because she doesn’t want him to hear her cursing. He gives it about fifty-fifty odds either way.
Eli is a mess. He still can’t shake the guilt that’s been nagging at him since last night. He remembers how excited his mom was just a few months ago, remembers stopping for the night on their way to Rose Lake and sitting with her at the tiny motel room table as they drew up a five-year plan together. Five years. It was the furthest ahead he could remember the two of them planning anything. His mom’s eyes had been bright as they’d gone over the diner’s menu, brainstorming ideas for new items they could introduce now that it was theirs.
And now they’re leaving. Again. Because he decided to cut through the woods one night instead of taking the long way home.
Oh, and there’s also the little matter where he broke someone’s arm and is, frankly, expecting either the police or a PTA mob to break down the door at literally any moment.
He opens up a new tab and brings up another website, filling out his search terms with the speed of long practice. He hates trying to find an apartment before his mom has a job lined up in their new city, but it makes for a decent distraction. And at least Charlie told him what area they’d want to look in so that the two of them would be going to school together. He’s never started a new school where he’s had a friend already waiting for him, and it makes the idea of leaving sting a little bit less.
Not much, but. A little.
“Okay.” His mom comes back in and drops down into the other chair, looking exhausted. “Roger’s going to start drawing up the paperwork. As soon as we have a buyer, we’ll be ready to go. I’ll call the high school tomorrow to see what they’ll need to get you enrolled. What’s left on the list?”
“The usual,” Eli shrugs. “Packing. Finding a job. Apartment.”
“Anything good so far?”
“One place that looked great.” He shakes his head. “The listing was totally shady, though. The place didn’t even show up on Google Maps—we’d have shown up and found out we signed a year lease on somebody’s closet or something.”
“You’ve got good instincts, kid,” she laughs, pushing herself to her feet and brushing a hand over his shoulder on her way to the fridge. “You thirsty?”
“I’m good. Hey. Mom?”
“I’m sorry.” He sees her turn around, but he can’t quite bring himself to look directly at her. “It’s my fault we’re moving again. We had a plan here, and now we’ve gotta abandon it, and I know you wanted—”
“Hey now.” She’s next to him in a flash, her hand gripping his chin to lift his face up until he finally meets her gaze, fierce and determined. “The only thing I wanted—the only thing I want—is for the two of us to be safe and happy. If that’s not here, it’ll be somewhere else, because all that matters is that we’re together. You got it?”
“Yeah,” he says, and his smile feels a little watery, but it’s real. “I got it.”
“You sure?” She looks skeptical, even with the smile she can’t quite keep out of her eyes. “Because I’ll make you write it out a hundred times on the chalkboard if that’s what it takes for it to sink in.”
“That’s the special board, mom.”
“And you write on it with chalk. Don’t backtalk your mother.” She presses a kiss to the top of his head before she heads back to the fridge. “So, other than the shady closet listing, how’s it look? Anything worth following up on?”
“A few places seem like they’d be okay. I’ve got a list going.”
“And what about your actual homework?”
“Already finished. There’s nothing really—” His phone buzzes on the table and he picks it up. “Nothing really tough. I didn’t have a lot.”
There’s a text from an unfamiliar number waiting for him:
someone found a body in the park
Then, a moment later:
this is charlie btw
Eli’s blood runs cold as he stares at the screen. He doesn’t know why Charlie would be telling him about a body, unless . . . well. Unless she thought it was werewolf-related.
Fuck his life right now, for real.
I’ve been home and at the diner all day, he finally texts back, and Charlie’s answer pops up almost immediately.
duh it’s not like i thought u did it. police are trying to keep it quiet but i guess it’s p brutal. how u feeling?
Fine? Freaked, but fine. Shouldn’t I be?
just lmk if you start feeling bitey
Fuck. His. Life.
hey small towns are gossipy right? lmk if you hear anything. maybe the vic knew the rogue, might be a lead
‘Vic’? Who are you, David Caruso?
just keep your ear to the ground, furball
Ear to the ground. Right.
Turns out working at the town’s only diner is the best ground ever to have one’s ear on. The dead body is all anyone is talking about, though without any official statements everything Eli’s making a point to overhear is filtered through someone’s neighbor’s nephew.
So far he knows it might have been an animal attack, a serial killer, or aliens—that last one courtesy of Mrs. Lilly, who thinks aliens have been mowing her lawn for the last four years. Then again, with Eli’s newfound furry status, who knows; maybe E.T. really is worried about old ladies’ hedges.
Still. His money’s on animal attack, provided you use a fairly liberal definition of “animal”.
His best chance of a clear idea of what’s going on turns up at 8 a.m. on the dot for his regular ham and cheese bagel. Deputy Ron August is a man that walks like he’s taking gravity personally, every step measured, precise, and poised as though he’s expecting to come upon a sharp cliff at any moment. Whenever he comes into the diner Eli has to squash the urge to ask him if he’s okay. Today is no different.
“The usual, Deputy?” Eli asks, clutching his notepad as the deputy climbs up onto a stool with the concentration of a mountaineer.
“Thank you, my boy,” August says like there isn’t a mere stone’s throw between their ages.
Eli pours the deputy a coffee and steels himself before blurting out, “Busy day for the department.” Shit. “I heard.” Shit. “Around town?”
He’s officially awful at this. August knows it too, just gives him a look over his first sip of coffee that makes Eli rethink the gap between their maturity levels.
“Hmm,” August says, noncommittally. “I’m sure the grapevine’s already come up with ten different scenarios that are more interesting than the truth.”
“Which is . . .?” Eli says, hope like a brittle thread in his voice.
Deputy August rolls his eyes. “You’re terrible at this.”
Eli deflates like a balloon. “Tell me about it.”
Costa’s yell of, “Order up!” at the kitchen window almost drowns out August’s laugh.
Of course, there are more direct means of getting information about the body. Which is how Eli finds himself outside the town morgue at 2am watching YouTube tutorials on how to jimmy a window lock.
The mortuary is shuttered and quiet, the employees probably long home and asleep. Just like he should be, dammit. Only he can’t get the thought out of his head: animal attack. The bite mark on his arm may have disappeared, but he’s not an idiot. To someone not in the know, a werewolf attack might well look like a random animal attack. And if the rogue killed someone. . .
A part of him is arguing that this isn’t his problem. He didn’t ask to be attacked, to be thrown head-first into sharp claws and sharper teeth.
But he’s here now. And what he does next speaks more to his own moral compass than anything else.
The low basement window is as old as the rest of the building, with locks to match. Eli’s able to slide his high school ID card between the two panes and shift the rotating catch to open it. Or rather, that’s the plan until his ID gets jammed and he’s suddenly very aware that he’s just stuck something with his face on it in the lock of a building he’s trying to illegally break into.
His heart starts hammering as he tries to pull his card free, the window rattling loud enough that Eli fervently checks over his shoulder. Nothing. This side of the mortuary faces a blind alley between it and the post office. Eli turns back—
—and promptly has a heart attack.
He yelps, falling away from the window—and the face in it—onto his ass. He’s dead. He’s so dead.
And then he realizes the face is laughing. The super familiar face.
Charlie opens the window, still quietly cackling at him. “You should have seen your face.”
Jesus Christ. “What are you doing here?” Eli hisses.
“Same thing you are, hot shot,” Charlie says, stepping back from the window. “C’mon.”
Eli checks both ways down the alley but his yelp doesn’t seem to have alerted anyone of his foray into criminality. He slides forward and shuffles through the window, landing light-footed on the cold, tiled floor. His ID is under the window and he makes a point of securely pocketing it before he follows Charlie further into the darkness.
The mortuary is cramped, more of an afterthought than a real facility—Rose Lake isn’t big and Eli can’t imagine it gets a lot of use. Certainly not suspicious-death use, anyway. The room they’ve landed in is like something out of a crime procedural with the budget of a student horror movie. One wall is a bank of square doors just begging for a down-and-out detective to roll a body out of. In the middle of the floor is a metal table, all the creepier for how perfectly polished it is.
Charlie leads him across the room and into a small side office where Alyssa is hunched over the lone computer’s keyboard. She looks up when they enter and groans.
“You owe me ten bucks,” Charlie says. Eli doesn’t know whether to be impressed or offended.
“What’re you doing here?” Alyssa says, turning her attention back to the computer.
Eli hesitates. What is he doing here? “I had to know,” he says, not bothering to elaborate. There’s really only one reason he’d be interested in a dead body given the circumstances.
“You should have told us,” Charlie says. “We could have carpooled.”
And . . . she’s right. There’s no reason for him not to have been a team player, only . . . he can’t remember the last time he had a team. Uncomfortable, he just shrugs.
“What’re you doing over there?” he says to Alyssa.
She doesn’t look up as she answers. “The coroner hasn’t looked at the body yet,” she says. “We want access to the paperwork when they do.”
“She’s hacking the matrix,” Charlie says.
Alyssa rolls her eyes. “I’m installing spyware.”
Wow. This is definitely more boring than TV had led him to believe. Out of habit, Eli pulls out his phone. He and Owen never swapped numbers so he’s been a little obsessive about checking his Facebook friend requests.
“Are you Instagramming your first break-in?” Charlie says and Eli can’t help his small laugh.
“No, just . . .” He doesn’t finish the sentence.
“You could friend him, you know,” Charlie says and Eli has to fight the urge to clutch his phone to his chest like an offended old lady.
“You so were,” Charlie scoffs good-naturedly even as she lunges for his phone. “Here, I’ll do it.”
But his reflexes are too fast—Charlie’s left two feet short as Eli holds his phone securely out of her reach. Good to know he’s getting something out of this whole werewolf thing. Charlie whines like a five-year-old and Alyssa groans.
“Can you two please take this somewhere else?”
Charlie’s eyes light up. “Wanna see the body?”
Before he can answer, Charlie’s dragging him into the examination room. It’s obvious they’ve already looked at it because she bee-lines for one of the square doors before turning back to him. “Coming?”
And Eli . . . doesn’t know. He’s never seen a dead body before. Even when his dad died it was his mom who identified the body. Eli had been left in the hall, tears coming too hot and fast. He finds himself biting back the familiar sting even as he takes a step forward.
Charlie clearly has no qualms about dead bodies, unhesitating as she opens the cooler door and pulls out the metal tray. It’s too loud in the hush of the mortuary and Eli flinches instinctively. It’s easy to forget that they’re somewhere they shouldn’t be. Everything just seems so . . . ordinary.
Then Charlie pulls back the sheet over the corpse and things become very unordinary.
Apple pie. Twice a week like clockwork. It was her favourite, she’d told him once. It reminded her of her grandmother.
Ms. Harker looks pale and strange and very dead. Her neck is a mess of pink flesh, the blood long-since drained—whatever killed her tore out her throat. Eli sucks in a breath and suddenly wishes he hadn’t. She smells like raw meat, like the stock Costa defrosts every morning before the breakfast rush. There’s a bitterness, too, something acrid and heavy on his tongue. It’s the same way Austin smelled when his arm had snapped in the woods.
Steeling himself, Eli takes a step forward. This close he can see a flash of white in the mess that is Ms. Harker’s neck. Bone. Charlie’s only uncovered her to her chest, but even Eli can recognize the bite on her shoulder for what it is.
“Are you okay?” Charlie says, probably just now realising that dead bodies aren’t a big theme in most people’s lives.
Eli swallows. Is he? “Yeah,” he says finally. “I know her . . . knew her. She’s a regular at the diner.”
“Oh,” Charlie says, awkwardly. “Sorry.”
Eli shakes his head and takes another breath. It’s no better than the first but it gives him an idea. “If this is the rogue, could I smell it on her?” he asks.
Charlie shakes her head. “Maybe if you’d had a few years to get used to your senses,” she says. “New wolves are crap at differentiating input.”
Eli looks down at Ms. Harker again. She’s no less dead than before and Eli finds it makes him angry. “But I can try?”
Charlie has the decency to look sympathetic. “You can try.”
Before he loses his nerve, Eli bends over and takes a deliberate breath through his nose. But Charlie’s right: underneath the stomach-churning meat smell, there’s just a riot of different threads. The smell he thinks is fear—probably a specific mix of sweat and pheromones—undercuts everything, but other than that it’s a jumbled mix of decaying plant matter, a sharp woodsy smell, metallic blood, and countless other scents that coalesce into a brown sludge across his senses.
He wrinkles his nose as he straightens and Charlie raises her eyebrows. “Um. She smells like the park.”
Charlie pats him on the shoulder like she’s handing him a participant trophy. “Well, an attempt was made.”
“Done,” Alyssa says suddenly, and Eli’s half surprised he doesn’t jump out of his skin. “Let’s get out of here.”
Eli takes one last look at Ms. Harker before Charlie covers her face again. He’s very aware of how close he came to being in her place, a body behind a square door in a cramped mortuary. More urgent, though, is the feeling that it’s the last of its kind he wants to see.
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