Happy Saturday, all! I've been teasing and talking about my new project, White Wolf, for a few weeks now, and let me tell you, I am SO excited about this project - about this new series, Sons of Rome, which combines so many of my favorite genres and tropes. I can't wait to share it with everyone later this year...which is why I'm going ahead and sharing Chapter One now.
White Wolf is the first in a character-driven paranormal series with historical and contemporary storylines. Warnings (in general) for blood, violence, magic, scary stuff, sex, epic romances, accurate historical details...inaccurate historical details, alternate history, war scenes, actual battles, military stuff, lengthy references to real figures in history, and opinionated characters. Also, wolves...and the people they work for.
Copyright © 2017 by Lauren Gilley
All Rights Reserved
There was blood on the snow.
Gallons of it.
Arterial spray, the analytical part of her brain catalogued. She’d seen it before. But never this much. Great crimson arcs across the fresh white drifts, grisly hieroglyphs that attempted to explain what had happened to the bodies that littered the clearing.
They’d killed the wolves, too.
One lay at her feet, its spine twisted at an unnatural angle, its crumpled forelegs tucked into its thick gray ruff. Mouth open, pink tongue vulnerable against the snow. Teeth slick with blood. The wind shoved against her, stirring the hair of the dead wolf, parting it almost gently so she could see the gray, and silver, and white, and black variations in its coat.
A deep, terrible sadness overcame her, crashed through her like a wave. Took her breath, squeezed her lungs. She sank slowly to her knees, one trembling hand going to the wolf’s ruff. The hair was coarser than she’d thought…but then she dragged her fingers through it, burrowing deeper through the protective outer layers until she found the baby-fine undercoat, soft as goose down. The skin beneath was still warm. The yellow of its eyes was fading, though.
Bednyaga, she thought, tears burning her eyes.
The wind swept around her relentlessly, skimming ice crystals off the snow, scraping against her rough as sandpaper. The cold was beyond comprehension, so crippling she began to feel warm. Hypothermia. She smelled frost, and the musk of the wolf, and blood. Fierce copper notes against the clean white background.
Her heart thundered. The sadness became grief. And then it became pain, lancing through her middle. She swayed, clutching at the wolf’s fur as unconsciousness threatened to overtake her.
Above the rushing of the wind, she heard a long, mournful howl. A wolf’s howl.
She lifted her head to look across the gory snow and saw a man standing in the center of the clearing, head tipped back and face toward the sky.
Not a wolf’s howl, but a man’s.
The pain spiked, acute and visceral. She was dying, she knew.
As the darkness took her, the howling man turned and looked at her. Even from across the clearing, she could see that his eyes were a vivid and unnatural blue.
His lips peeled back off his teeth.
And he snarled.
Her vision failed. A bell began to ring.
Trina woke with a scream caught in her throat. She jackknifed upright in bed, gasping, choking down the yell that she refused to voice. If she screamed loudly enough, her neighbor Mrs. Jenkins would come knock on her door and ask if she was alright. Again. She was a sweet woman, and it was a nice sentiment, but Trina didn’t want to be checked on every time she had a nightmare. That would have meant three check-ins a night at this point.
They were getting worse. More vivid, more frequent.
As she sat with her hands clenched in her sweat-damp sheets, working to slow her heartrate, she ran her tongue along her teeth and swore she could still taste blood. Pulled in a deep breath and thought she caught a whiff of frost. Her skin prickled; felt windburned and frozen.
“It was just a dream,” she whispered to herself, curling her hands into fists in the bedclothes. She tried to ground herself in the moment, in the reality of her surroundings.
Her bedroom was more like a broom closet, too narrow to walk all the way around the bed, but she liked the exposed brick along the wall, the way red neon from Imperial Palace splashed across it. She let her eyes wander across the worn-smooth floorboards, her rope rug, discarded flip-flops, the partially-open closet door where the sleeve of a jacket peeked out through the crack. The window was open, the humid breeze lifting the curtains, bringing in the hiss of tires on wet pavement, the honking of horns, the rattle and chatter and noise of New York City. The rain pattered softly against the fire escape, the kind that made for perfect sleeping weather. Thunder rumbled in the distance, a hint of a stronger weather system moving in.
She took a deep breath, and then another, until she no longer smelled frost and blood. Jesus. She sat forward and braced her elbows on her thighs, lifted her hair off her damp neck in the vain hope that the summer night air would cool it.
The nightmares had started about three months before, and though they differed, some things remained constant: the snow, the blood, the wolves. The crushing sense of fear, and pain, and grief. Each night it was worse – though her heart slowed and her sweat dried, the emotional hangover lasted for hours, usually preventing her from falling back to sleep.
The part she didn’t understand was this: she’d been born and raised in New York. She’d seen snow, sure, especially that Christmas at her uncle’s house in Buffalo when she was ten. But she’d never seen snow like in her dreams. Had certainly never seen a wolf…nor touched its fur and known how soft it was right up against its skin.
She’d never met a man with eyes that blue who could howl like an animal.
In her line of work, nightmares were a given. But it wasn’t the job that stalked her dreams. No, it was something that wasn’t even real, and yet was far more frightening than the real-life monsters she helped to catch and put away.
She heard a car accident unfold on the street outside: squeal of brakes, skid of tires, then the crunch. A moment later she heard angry shouting from two separate voices and figured no one was hurt. She ought to walk to the window and peek out, make sure she didn’t need to call it in. But the sense of obligation was fleeting, her legs too shaky to hold her weight right now.
She fumbled across her tangled covers until she found her phone. Two-fifteen a.m. Still plenty of time to catch more sleep…if she could.
She didn’t lie back down, though. Instead, she flipped the covers back and eased out of bed, wincing as her knees tried to buckle. There was an odd throbbing pain low in her back and racing down her legs, the pain from the dream manifesting itself in reality somehow. Psychosomatic, she guessed.
She stepped over to her dresser and pulled open the top drawer. Shifted her underwear to the side to get to what she wanted: the bell. It was small and bronze, tarnished and beat up. It looked like nothing, like something someone pushed aside at a yard sale to get to something better beneath; if her dad hadn’t told her it was a family heirloom, she would have tossed it long ago. But she had so few links to her ancestry in the old country, no photos, no keepsakes. So the bell lived in her underwear drawer, and she pulled it out sometimes, like now, holding it up by its flimsy silver chain.
She couldn’t read the Cyrillic engraving on the inside, worn almost completely away at this point, but Dad had told her it meant “Our Friend.”
It tinkled softly as she lifted it, a musical little chime. Just like the bell she’d heard ringing in her dream. “Keep it close,” Dad had said, smiling at her, “and it will ring when dark forces are near.”
He’d always been a weird one, her old man.
An entirely different kind of ringing started up behind her, startling her. The bell slipped from her fingers and fell back into the drawer, jangling.
It was just her phone, and she cursed herself for being so jumpy. Stupid dreams.
She grabbed the iPhone off her bed and thumbed the lock screen. “This is Detective Baskin.”
The scene was four blocks from her apartment, so Trina walked, shielded from the rain by the kind of big black umbrella that people always cursed: too wide, dripping rainwater, its metal spines threatening to poke out eyes. When she was a beat cop, she’d had a clear plastic poncho she’d tugged on over her uniform, one that always seemed to leak in the join of hood and shoulder, until her blue polyester was glued to her skin and she was shivering and miserable. She didn’t pay any attention to some of the dirty looks her giant umbrella drew: she’d earned this thing, and she was going to use it. Same went for the black trench she’d pulled on over jeans, tank top, and green Hunter boots. Middle of the night phone calls were worth it if it meant she didn’t have to wear that damn uniform and poncho anymore.
Not like she’d been sleeping anyway.
It was a night ripe for fictitious interpretation. The rain-slick streets, the colored neon reflected in puddles, the steaming subway grates – all of it straight off the pages of a comic book. Pedestrians were staggering home from bars, talking, laughing, shoving one another good-naturedly. The day’s heat had been broken by the rain and the dark, and the night was alive, exuberant and too excited to be contained by wet pavement and concrete. Trina breathed in the warm damp air and let herself be drawn toward the revolving red and blue lights down at the end of the block. Down where someone’s night had gone very, very wrong.
Two patrol cars were parked at slants at the end of an alley between a dry cleaner and a club that was one in a long line of revolving too-dark clubs that had occupied the ground floor building space. Crime scene tape was strung up between the cars and beyond, tied off on a street sign and Wall Street Journal machine respectively. A small crowd was starting to gather, onlookers stretching up on their tiptoes to see. A few had phones aimed toward the action and the uniforms were waving them away, telling them to move along.
Trina spotted a familiar dark blue unmarked parked across the street and ducked under the tape, managing to keep her umbrella aloft. “What’ve we got, Eugene?”
The nearest uniform jerked a thumb toward the alley. “It’s a strange one. Your boy’s over there with Thompkins. ME and CSI are on the way.”
Trina nodded. “Thanks.” And walked over toward the dumpster where another uniform and her partner stood over their DB.
The side door of the club – they were calling it Angelo’s these days – was propped open with a brick, blue light beaming out into the alley. Trina caught a glimpse of a pale face: male, mouth partially-open, eyes wide and sightless.
“Hey,” she said, drawing up beside the others, umbrella cocked back so it didn’t whack anyone in the head.
Lanny, the big idiot, of course didn’t have a hood, his short dark hair glittering with raindrops as he turned to look at her. “They wake you up?” he asked. He was chewing gum; she could see it cracking between his back teeth, could smell the mint on his breath…and the bourbon.
Oh, Lanny, she thought. She shrugged and said, “No. Couldn’t sleep. What’s the story?” She tilted her head toward the body.
Lanny looked at her a moment, a beat too long, dark eyes missing nothing.
She looked back. Two could play the you’re-not-taking-care-of-yourself game.
He glanced away, finally, nodding. Blue light from the club skated down the humped profile of his twice-broken nose. “Mid-twenties. Dressed to party.” Black skinny jeans and Vans, skin-tight shirt, smudge of eyeliner. “Won’t know for sure until the techs get a look at him, but check this out.” Lanny crouched and aimed his flashlight at the side of the dead boy’s throat.
The raw, bloody wound was roughly the size of a fist, a sequence of deep bruises in an oval with two distinct punctures.
“What does that look like?” Lanny asked, a trace of amusement in his voice.
Trina swallowed, a little nauseas suddenly. She knew what it looked like. “Makeout session got too rough,” she said, because that was the only possible explanation.
Lanny twisted to glance at her over his shoulder, smirking. “I like it a little rough, but I ain’t ever met anybody who liked it that rough.”
Blood had run down the kid’s neck and stained his shirt; it was drying black, gummy under a coating of rainwater.
“You know,” Officer Thompkins said, thoughtful. “I’ve seen these people on TV who wanna…you know…dress up and stuff. Fake…” He gestured to his own mouth as Trina and Lanny stared at him. “Fake teeth? Like they wanna be vampires or something.”
“Hmm,” Lanny said, fighting and failing to hold back a smile. “You might be on to something, Thompkins.”
Trina kicked him lightly in the hip.
“I’m here, I’m here,” their ME, Dr. Harvey, said as she bustled through, snapping her gloves into place. She wore a white lab coat over sweats, hair pulled back in a sloppy bun. Like Trina, she’d been at home. A lab assistant rushed after her, carrying her bag and holding an umbrella over her head. “What’ve we got?” Harvey asked, crouching down beside Lanny.
“You tell us,” Lanny said, amicably. “We haven’t touched the body yet.”
“Smart man.” She surveyed the corpse, lips pursed, muttering under her breath. Something that sounded like “what a waste.” Young bodies were always the ugliest because they presented a portrait not just of death, but of lost potential. “Get out of my light, would you?” To her assistant: “Andy, hand me the…”
Lanny stood and took Trina’s elbow, walked her past the door and out of the way as techs swarmed the scene. “Thompkins, go inside and start canvassing patrons. See who we need to interview.”
When the uniform was gone, and they were relatively alone, Lanny breathed out a deep breath and slumped back against the brick of the neighboring building. “Jesus.” He turned and spat his gum into the alley’s detritus and dug a pack of smokes from his pocket. The shuffling around lifted the scent of smoke, and liquor, and perfume off his jacket and straight to Trina’s nose.
It had stopped raining and she snapped her umbrella shut, the white glow from a security light falling unforgivingly across her partner. The bristle on the strong line of his jaw, the dark circles under his eyes. The shadow of a lipstick smudge beside his mouth.
“Here,” she said, reaching for his face.
“What?” He lifted his head, unlit cigarette dangling from his lip.
Trina wiped at the lipstick with her thumb, two quick swipes and it was gone. “You missed a spot.” She inspected the pad of her thumb when she pulled it back and found an electric shade of pink. “Ah, I see she was a real Upper East Side type.”
He shrugged and ducked his head so he could cup the flame of his lighter in one hand. “Didn’t bother to ask.”
Trina sighed. There were a dozen things she wanted to tell him, most of them some variation of “you should take better care of yourself.” She chose to ignore the strange twist in the pit of her stomach that felt almost like jealousy and settled for, “What happened to not drinking while you were on rotation?”
He took a deep drag on the cig and turned his head to exhale down the alley, avoiding her gaze. “One drink. And I didn’t know I would get called in.”
“You smell like a lot more than one drink.” Like anonymous bathroom sex, too. “And that’s the whole point of being on rotation – you don’t know when you’ll get called in.”
“You gonna turn me?” he asked, brows quirking, tone deceptively light. Like he didn’t care. Like it wouldn’t crush him to lose his badge.
“You know I won’t.” But she couldn’t leave it at that. “How much did you have before you got behind the wheel?”
He turned toward her then, eyes flashing under the light, jaw going tight. Drop it, his look said. “I’m fine.”
“Except you’re not.”
He stared at her, the kind of gaze that made suspects squirm and request lawyers.
She stared back, heart thumping hard behind her ribs.
Lanny took his cig between his fingers, exhaled a plume of smoke, wet his lips. Prepared to say something.
“Detectives!” Harvey called.
Lanny flicked his cigarette to the wet pavement. “Coming.”
Trina shelved the moment with every intention of continuing it later.
Last year at Thanksgiving, Trina had been the lucky recipient of an invitation to the Webbs’ family dinner. Lanny’s mother had called her personally on her office line: “I told Roland you have to come, please tell me that bad boy actually invited you? He did? Good. Wonderful. You don’t need to bring a thing, sweetie, just your pretty face. We’ve got enough food to feed all of Queens.”
And they had, the narrow two-story brick house packed with relatives bearing covered casserole dishes.
Lanny’s mother, Trina had learned that day, was Italian-American, five-foot-eight, and a knockout. She had a mane of thick black hair that fell to her waist and which she was letting go gray naturally, which on her was a rich silver the color of a fox’s pelt. Wide-hipped, and dark-skinned, a mother of six, she’d reeled Trina in for a crushing hug the moment she met her and declared her “gorgeous.” “I don’t know why my boy doesn’t bring you around more often.”
“Ma,” Lanny had protested.
His father, by contrast, was English. Slender, pale as cream, soft-spoken and scholarly. He was a literature professor at NYU and favored thick wool sweaters. He hadn’t seemed like the father of six boisterous rounders, but when seen alongside his wife, they proved to be perfect complements, a delight of contrasts, each shoring up the other’s weak spots.
That Thanksgiving – seated at a long, cobbled-together table with what must have been every Webb and Moretti relative in existence – Trina had delighted in seeing her partner in his childhood home, meeting his people and learning the ways they’d shaped him.
Lanny had his mother’s eyes, and nose, her tan skin and her thick black hair. On the surface, he had her easy charm and humor. But he also had his father’s habit of holding things back, keeping his concerns and problems tucked deeply away. English in his reservations, using jokes to deflect anything too serious.
So when he said he was “fine,” Trina knew he was anything but. And she knew that if she pressed too hard too fast, he’d dig in his half-English heels and clam up.
She would have to tease it out of him, like handling a recalcitrant suspect.
Speaking of which…
To read the rest, be sure to follow me on social media so you'll know when White Wolf goes live in a few months!