Different in Blood
By Julie Frost
"Routine" cheating-husband cases never, ever are.
The client was in her mid-fifties and wearing a fox stole that cost more than my annual salary, along with an unusual necklace made up of teardrop-shaped amber beads. Even for Los Angeles, she was ostentatious. She perched in the chair across from my desk like some kind of hungry but nervous raptor. "Mr. Lockwood, I trust your discretion will be complete. Robert can't know I suspect anything."
"This is what we do, Mrs. Hockney. Your secret and your prenup are both safe." I could smell the anxiety and upset coming off her in waves through the expensive perfume, which covered a faint underlying odor of wetland, hemlock, and sex. It made my inner wolf perk up, but I tamped it down impatiently. A case this close to the moon was probably a bad idea, but we were swamped and this one fell to me. Awesome.
"Thank you." She handed a file across. "This is his schedule for the next two weeks." A sigh. "I really do love him, you know. I thought he loved me too."
"Well, ma'am, that's what we're finding out, right? You could be mistaken, and the course of true love never did run smooth."
She gave me a sharp, knowing look. "But either it was different in blood—"
"Or else misgraffèd in respect of years." Robert was a good two and a half decades his wife's junior. About my age, in fact. "We'll get your evidence either way."
"I leave it in your capable hands, my Shakespeare-quoting young friend." She rose and left, the scent of stress wafting in her elegant wake.
Pam Coughlin, my boss and mother-in-law, strode out of her office a few moments later. She propped a hip on my desk and looked over the file I'd opened. "So, Ben, what d'you think?" Her Texas accent was less thick than normal; since business was good, money wasn't the worry it sometimes ended up being.
"Too early to tell, is what I think. I hope she's wrong, honestly." Sometimes the ugly side of the work got to me.
"Well, baby boy—" Pam had me by three inches and fifty pounds. If she wanted to call me that, I wouldn't argue, even if I was a big bad wolf and she was a squishy human. "Go find out."
"Yes, ma'am." I stood up, checked my pockets for my wallet, phone, and Micro Desert Eagle, and pecked her on her cafe-au-laitcheek as I walked past. Being her daughter's husband had its perks. "I'll call as soon as I have anything."
I took Pam's car, a nondescript white sedan far more suited to surveillance than my bright yellow Jeep Wrangler. Three hours later, I was parked in front of an upscale hair salon, shooting a photograph of everyone going in to compare with Robert's other appointments. I huffed out an impatient breath. He was keeping to his schedule like clockwork. Boring.
But most of the PI biz is dull as dirt. When it gets exciting, something has usually gone to shit. And I'd no sooner had my "boring" thought than it stopped being boring. I should know better, really.
Shouts and screams. I bolted out of the car, gun in hand, before I quite knew what I was doing. People flooded out of the salon, hairpins and clips flying, some of them still in their drapes with wet hair. I had to fight a crush to get inside. Once in, the scent of rotting swamp assaulted my sensitive nose, and I staggered a little.
One of the older stylists sat on the floor with her hand clutched over her chest. Her breathing, or what there was of it, came in labored gasps, and I wondered if she was having a heart attack. Robert was frozen in a swivel chair, wearing a drape, half a haircut, and a stunned expression. I muttered a curse and squatted in front of the stylist. "Breathe, ma'am. Two in, hold three, two out. You can do it." But she seemed just as freaked by me as by whatever had transpired, and I realized I was a scruffy little stranger holding a gun. I stuffed it into my pocket. "What happened?"
A male stylist with the vapors gestured toward the rear. "Some...thing. I think it was a...really ugly dog. Maybe a Shar Pei mix? Came in here and...growled at that guy." He pointed at Robert. It figured. "Scared the crap...out of all of us."
"OK. Call an ambulance for the lady. I'm gonna follow your thing." He nodded rapidly, already dialing, and I headed out the back door, following a trail that blazed as brightly to a wolf as a beacon would to human eyes.
But the trail stopped abruptly, replaced by the smell of burning rubber. A pair of tire tracks testified that whatever it had been, it hadn't wasted any time getting out of there. Sirens sounded, police and ambulances arriving, and I headed back in.
Spencer Winslow, my friend on the force, pulled me aside a few minutes later. He was big, black, and bald, and knew about my lycanthropy. He also looked incredibly disgruntled. "I can't believe they called us out here for this. I'm homicide, not damn animal control."
I shook my head. "I don't know what smells like that, Spence. And it either drove away itself or was driven away." I gave a rough shrug. "What did the witnesses say?"
"Not much." He snorted. "Basically, a large, revolting, and smelly creature burst in from the back, snarled loudly at Half-a-Haircut over there, and made everyone wet their pants before escaping. No one tried to stop it, for obvious reasons."
"Mmph. The Half-a-Haircut guy is someone I'm following. If our thing picked him to growl at, it might have something to do with my job." I raked a hand through my hair, which never failed to muss it thoroughly. Not that I was carefully-coiffed to begin with; some of the stylists, even now, were giving me rather jaundiced stares. "Awesome."
One of the uniforms was haranguing the shop owner about being dragged away from his coffee for something so stupidly minor. Spence shook his head. "I've got real cases to get back to. But if this turns into one, let me know."
"Will do." And with that I headed back to the office to apprise Pam of the situation.
"Sounds like it got a little ugly," she said.
"Uglier, anyway. This is a whole lot more complicated than Mrs. Hockney is letting on. We should get her back in here and find out what's really happening." I growled and bared a fang. "And if I catch the thing, it'll be sorry."
"You be careful. I know you're in soldier mode right now, Ben, and I don't blame you overmuch, but you don't need to get hurt or killed over this deal. Ain't no case worth that."
My gaze slid down to the handcuff scars ringing my wrists, a gift from Afghani insurgents in a war halfway across the world. "That poor lady nearly had a heart attack. I don't like women getting hurt on my watch, Pam." A female soldier had survived the ambush of our unit, but an insurgent had cut her throat in front of me, and I still had the occasional flashback. I swallowed hard and closed my eyes. "It pushes the bad button." This close to the moon, everything was amplified. Everything.
"You ain't there anymore, Ben. Breathe." Her voice was gentle. "Whyn't you take the rest of the day off? Or go home and have a look into the husband's financials from there."
I nodded, eyes still closed. "It's a good idea. I'll let you know what I find out."
And at home, I could have beer. Werewolf metabolism meant that it took vast quantities of alcohol to actually affect me much, but there was a certain beneficial psychological effect, anyway. My wife Janni came home from her catering job to find me sitting on the sofa, stocking feet up on the coffee table, pounding away at my laptop. She plopped down beside me and gave me a smooch. "Hey, sweetie. Bad day?"
I put the comp aside and wrapped an arm around her, burying my nose in her riot of curly, dark hair and inhaling the scent of Pack and Mate. "Better now that you're here. I really don't like walking in on the aftermath of a mysterious monster. It sucks." I gave her a summary of what had happened and then gestured at the computer. "Better yet, I'm pretty sure this guy is dirty. Lots of money disappears from his personal account on a fairly regular schedule with no indication where it's going. Mrs. Hockney gives him a generous allowance, and he tends to make cash withdrawals instead of using his debit card. He's nearly broke."
Janni's mouth turned down at one corner. "Well, damn. I know you hate these cases."
"I'm a werewolf who mates for life. I don't get cheating, Hermia." I called her that because she was little and fierce. "I don't get it on a fundamental level."
She kissed me soundly. "And that's part of the reason I love you. Even before the werewolf thing you were good that way, Ben."
"Aw, shucks, honey." I felt my face get a little hot. "But it's not looking good for the guy. Unless he's got a damn good explanation for this, I'll have to tell his missus that she has a problem."
"Maybe there's an innocent explanation. Maybe he buys...I don't know, books, or antiques, or stuff, and just likes to pay cash."
"I'll ask Mrs. Hockney if he collects anything. I hope you're right."
He didn't. So that was awesome. This case made me tired and cranky and I wanted to punch Robert in the face just on general principle.
Because I'd been the one to burst into the salon when the commotion happened, I could question him without revealing that his wife had hired me. I corralled him outside a restaurant the next day. When he saw me, he flinched violently and acted like he wanted to turn around and run. Considering the fact that, like most men, he had over six inches and eighty pounds on me, it was a ridiculous reaction—but some people twig to the wolf without even realizing it.
I tried to be good. Kept the fangs covered and the claws where they belonged. "I see you remember me." My nostrils couldn't help but flare, though, when I smelled that same swamp-and-hemlock odor that had become an integral part of this case. It was faint, however, and...not quite right, and my brow creased a little.
"How would I not remember you? You ran in while everyone else ran away."
"Not soon enough to catch the critter. Any notion who sent it or what it was?" I cocked my head and hoped I looked more like a curious collie than a starving wolf. "I mean, it growled at you. Specifically. What was that about?"
His expression was acutely uncomfortable. "It was my wife's ex. He's blackmailing me."
"Your wife's ex is a...thing?" I pinched the bridge of my nose, completely unable to match the elegant Mrs. Hockney up with something that looked like a Shar Pei. "What's he blackmailing you with, Robert?"
His jaw tightened. "If I told you, you wouldn't believe me."
"Man, you have no idea. None." My tone was desert-dry. "Try me."
He was clearly a man who needed to talk about this with someone, but—"If I'm going to discuss any of this, I need vodka. Lots. Of vodka."
I gestured at the restaurant. "Well, they serve it. So why don't we go in, order some booze, and you tell me what you think I won't believe."
Five minutes later, we were sitting at a corner table with drinks. He grasped his glass like a drowning man and wouldn't look at me. "This is ridiculous," he muttered, before squaring his shoulders. "Do you know what a squonk is?"
"A what? No." That was a new one. Vampires and werewolves, I was intimately familiar with. What the hell was a squonk? "Why don't you tell me?"
"Oh, God." He raised his glass to his lips, and about half the drink disappeared. He still wouldn't look at me. "It's a creature that can literally dissolve in its own tears because it knows how hideous it is. Native to Pennsylvania."
"O-K." I eyed him up and down. "Clearly, not you." He had the chiseled look of a gym rat, and, while he wasn't movie-star handsome, he was good-looking enough, so far as I could tell from the strictly aesthetic point of view of a very married heterosexual werewolf. "What's that got to do with this?"
He let out a massive, heavy sigh, and the rest of his drink disappeared. "My wife is a were-squonk."
It all came out as one mumbled word, and I took a few seconds to parse it. It's not often that I'm left speechless. "She's a what now?"
"Her moon form is human. But she can Change anytime she wants, and so she just...stays human, all the time. Well. Wouldn't you?"
A headache started to pound right between my eyes. "So, the thing that burst into the salon..."
He nodded wearily and gestured for another round. "Was one as well. Like I said. Her ex."
"And that's what the swamp smell is?" I made mine a triple.
His new drink bid fair to follow the first one. "Yeah. But it gets better."
"Do I want to know?" No, I did not. But it was essential to my case. Both my cases.
"I told her that I'm a were-squonk too." And there went the rest of his drink. "I'm faking it."
All the facepalms. All of them. "How. How the hell do you fake something like that." Questions as statements. I was getting stressed. More stressed. "I can smell it on you, Robert."
He lifted an eyebrow, and I realized that I'd probably just outed myself as not quite human either. "I know an alchemist. He set me up with the right formula." He reached across the table and grasped my wrist desperately. "But you can't tell her. Please." And that's when he noticed that his sudden move toward me caused me to pop my two-inch-long, razor-sharp claws, and he recoiled. "What are you?"
"Oh, dammit." I put them back. "Werewolf. I won't eat you."
"Dude, no way." Robert edged away slightly.
"You're married to a were-squonk and faking it yourself, and balking at the idea of a werewolf? Get real."
"I meant, no way you're not gonna eat me. I know how your kind is."
"Do you." That wasn't a question either, and Alpha Stare was a go for launch. "Because I thought I did too—until it actually happened to me and I found out that everything I 'knew' was wrong." I toned it down a little. "But this isn't about me. It's about you and your relationship with your wife. Man, you have to tell her."
"I can't. She won't love me if I'm just human."
I gave him a Look worthy of the one Janni would give me when I'd just said or done something monumentally stupid.
"You're an idiot. She married you. Unless it was for ridiculous reasons, she loves you and will love you no matter what. Although I gotta say, that's a pretty big lie, man."
The rest of his drink went the way of the others. "You think I don't know that? I'm not that much of an idiot." He stared at the table and moved his fingertip absently through the water ring his glass had left. "Except when it comes to her, I guess." His speech was beginning to slur.
"And you're not cheating on her, are you?" I had to ask, although I already knew the answer. Mrs. Hockney's suspicions were unfounded, although Robert's actions were odd enough to arouse them.
He nearly took a swing at me before he remembered what I was. "I would never cheat on Kathleen."
"I figured. I had to ask though, man, don't get offended that it's part of my gig. I'm a PI, it's what I do."
"Fine." New drinks arrived. "But I can't tell her. And I can't let that asshole tell her either." An expression of wild hope crossed his drunken face. "You can help me! You're a werewolf, you're way tougher than him. You can tell him to cease and desist, and if he doesn't, then you can eat him."
"Again, for the cheap seats: I don't eat people. They taste terrible." I was only half-kidding. "I can only imagine how a were-squonk would taste. If it's anything like they smell, I'll pass." I pinched the bridge of my nose. "Where does this guy hang his hat? You gotta drop point for the money you're paying him to keep his mouth shut?"
"He calls me. But as soon as he does, I can come and get you, or whatever, tell you where he wants me."
"How the hell is this my life?" I delved into my wallet for a business card. "Fine. Do that. And for God's sake, call a cab to take you home. You're crocked off your ass." I called one myself, because I didn't drive with any alcohol in my system at all.
On the way home, I leaned back on the seat, put my hand over my face, and shook my head.
I let Mrs. Squonk know that I still needed to solidify some things in her case, but that it appeared her suspicions were unfounded. Robert called me in a panic early the next morning. "He wants me to leave ten thousand dollars under a bench in Griffith Park this afternoon. I don't have that kind of money right now and he knows it!"
"He's setting you up to fail. That's all right. It means he's confident and also sloppy." I grabbed Janni's big hand mirror out of the bathroom drawer and shoved it into the backpack I always had with me, filled with a change of clothes in case of accidental wolfing. Going back to human, naked in a crowd of people, had taught me my lesson the first time.
I hit up one of my more esoteric contacts for some liquid hemlock. After doing some research, I thought I knew how to stop this guy from exploiting Robert anymore, and if being a werewolf taught me anything, it was that mystical crap loved a play on words. Since squonks were native to hemlock forests, then the coniine from hemlock flowers would turn our were forcibly back to his squonk form.
At least, that was my theory. I was ready to be proved wrong. Probably would be, because that was the way this case was going.
I grumped over to Griffith Park in my Jeep, parked, and slung my pack of supplies over my back. Robert waited for me, pacing next to an isolated bench, and he practically pounced when he saw me coming. "What do you think?"
"I think we're taking this guy down. And if you have a problem with my methodology, you should probably go home now."
"Did I tell you how long he's been bleeding me dry? Whatever you have to do."
I took a breath. "OK. It might go bad. And you still have to tell your wife, man, or I will."
"Fine. At this point, I don't care."
I wasn't so sure that he'd have this lack of squeamishness when the rubber hit the road. His funeral. Maybe literally. I handed him a bottle of the hemlock extract. "You need to throw this on the guy. Think you can do that?"
"Will it stop him from blackmailing me?"
"It will turn him back into a squonk. And then we can stop him blackmailing you."
"OK." He jerked his chin. "Here he comes."
The blackmailer didn't hide his inner squonk as well as Mrs. Hockney. He was amazingly repellent, even in human form, and his expression turned gleeful when he saw us waiting. "You've broken the agreement, Bobby-boy. I'm going to tell her everything."
"You're not going to tell her anything, Percy. You're going to get out of our lives and stay out." And Robert uncapped the bottle of hemlock and flicked his wrist, flinging the contents all over the guy.
Percy howled and fell to the ground, convulsing and foaming at the mouth. The reports from the salon had said that the squonk was about the size of a big German Shepherd, but he grew instead of shrinking, tearing out of his clothes and ending up about twice the size of alion instead. I really should have expected unexpected results. We were dealing with mystical shit, after all.
I also wasn't ready for the sheer, mind-numbing ugly up close and personal. The squonk's skin was far too big for its body, and covered in warts and tufts of disorganized hair. Even the color was unpleasant, a diseased-looking grayish green shot through with muddy brown. No wonder Mrs. Hockney stayed human all the time.
As Percy leaped toward him, Robert let out an undignified squeak and backpedaled, but he tripped over a grass hummock and landed on his ass. The zipper on my backpack picked right then to get stuck, and I struggled and snarled at it in an effort to get at the mirror inside, finally just ripping the pack itself open with my claws. Robert scrambled backward, but Percy lunged at him and fastened his square, flat-topped teeth around Robert's upthrust arm. Now it was Robert's turn to howl, and blood sprayed as Percy wrenched his head, let go, and lunged again.
That was when the Change took me. Too much adrenaline, coupled with the smell of blood and the fact that it was nearly moon time, made it inevitable, really. The mirror fell to the ground as I tore out of my clothes and hands changed to paws. Now Percy was only two times my size rather than five. I t-boned him right in the ribcage, knocking him off-balance and away from the bleeding human, and he turned his attention to me, baring his teeth—
And Robert, with remarkable presence of mind, scooped the mirror up and shoved it into his face.
Percy shrieked, a sound filled with sorrow and horror rather than rage this time. Then he flopped down on his haunches and burst into tears.
And, holy shit, what tears. He wailed his heartbreak to the sky in an outpouring of brokenhearted sorrow the likes of which I had never seen before, not even in Afghanistan where horrible things were a way of life. And I found out that Robert hadn't exaggerated when he said that a squonk could literally dissolve from crying. Percy got smaller and smaller as the pool of tears got bigger and bigger, and before long he was completely gone, leaving just the puddle soaking the grass.
I had issues of my own. I was triple my human size now, my clothes in shreds on the ground. Going back to human meant being naked, at least momentarily, out in the open and in front of a relative stranger. Robert eyed me as if he thought I'd attack him at any moment, and he edged away, oozing a fearful prey response that made the wolf prick up his ears and want to stalk closer to him.
I tamped the impulse down and grabbed my backpack in my jaws. A wooded area lay a little ways off, so I headed into it to Change and get dressed. By the time I got back to Robert, he was seated on the bench and staring at his bloodstained arm.
...Which had healed without leaving a single mark. Oh, boy. He clearly had no idea how to take that, and his expression was lost as he looked from me to his arm and back. "Ben, what?"
I lifted an eyebrow in a shrug and sat beside him. "Well, at least you're not lying about being a were-squonk anymore? Except your normal form is human and the moon form is squonk." He blinked several times, and I snapped my fingers sharply at him. "Don't you dare start crying on me. I do not want to explain to your wife why her husband is a squonk puddle."
"I don't...how? How do you do this?"
I shrugged. "It's not so bad. Three nights a month I grow fangs and fur and run with my Pack. Sometimes we stay in and have pizza and beer with the human members instead. But you're going to have to talk to her, man. I have no idea what you do to get your squonk on, but she'd know."
"Come with me," he burst out. "Please. You can help me explain."
"Seriously? What are you, twelve? She's your wife, not your mother." Although she was old enough to be his mother. I tactfully left that out.
"Yeah, well. She's...formidable. You'll know when you meet her."
I needed to talk to her anyway, after all. "I suppose so."
Half an hour later, he and I sat in a richly-appointed living room, or maybe it was a parlor, surrounded by expensive bric-a-brac and sipping soft drinks from heavy crystal glasses. Mrs. Hockney came in, saw Robert, and froze.
Her scent changed as well, to something a lot less swampy and a lot more predatory and loaded with sex pheromones, and my eyebrows went up. She noticed me noticing and twitched her head as she sat down. "Mr. Lockwood. I see you've met my husband."
Robert shrank back from me. "You know each other?"
I scrubbed a hand over my face. "Your wife hired me. She thought you were cheating on her. You know? The private phone calls. The money disappearing. The fact that you'd leave and flat refuse to tell her where you were going for long stretches of time." I held a hand up. "He was being blackmailed, Mrs. Hockney, not cheating on you. And the blackmailer won't bother anyone ever again. He was your ex, and we left him in the park as a puddle."
She went a little pensive at that information. "Percy always was the clingy type. I suppose he thought that if he could get rid of Robert somehow, I'd take him back. Not likely." She turned to Robert. "Oh, Robbie. What was he blackmailing you with, for Heaven's sake?"
His eyes bored a hole in the carpet, and his voice was low and ashamed. "I've been lying to you. I'm not a were-squonk. Or. Well. I wasn't. Percy bit me, so I guess I am now. But I loved you and I figured you wouldn't love me if I wasn't...like you."
"Is that all? Of course I knew. It is part of why I love you, Robert, you silly man. You knew what I was and didn't care. Or—" And she gave a tiny shrug as sex pheromones filled the room. I don't know if Robert could smell them, but I sure as hell could. "You thought you knew what I was. I've been keeping a little secret of my own."
I leaned back in my chair and rubbed a hand over my face. "The fact that you're a succubus is not a 'little' secret, Mrs. Hockney."
Robert frowned and recoiled a little. "A succu—Like, a demon who preys on men via sex?"
"In a manner of speaking," she answered. "But I won't hurt you, Robbie. I can only prey on certain supernatural creatures. Predators themselves."
He relaxed, and I wondered if she was doing something squonk-specific to him. "Then I'm safe?"
"My 'fox' fur is actually a rumptifusel and that amber necklace is made from the crystallized tears of a hodag. But they died happy. Squonks are herbivores. Part of the reason I love you is because I can't hurt you." That didn't stop her from shooting a blast of pure sex appeal my way with a wicked little smile.
It bounced off. "I'm a werewolf who mates for life, ma'am. Don't even try."
"I can't help what I am, Mr. Lockwood."
"Maybe not. But you can sure help what you do with it. Also, if I hear about you causing harm to humans, we're gonna have words. More than words. So keep your nose clean, Mrs. Hockney." I rose. "You've both clearly got a lot to talk about, and I'm intruding. I'll see myself out."
Robert made a desperate grab for me and missed. "Please don't!"
"‘Marriage counselor’ is not in my job description, Robert." I rolled my eyes. "Fine. You still love her even though she's a soul-sucking demoness?" He nodded, and I turned to Mrs. Hockney. "You still love him even though he's been lying to you all this time?" She nodded, and I threw up my hands. "There. Everything else is just details. You're both grown-ups, work it out."
"Thank you, Mr. Lockwood," Mrs. Hockney said. "You've been very helpful."
"You'll get my bill." A corner of my mouth turned up. "All is well ended, if this suit be won. Right?"
Mrs. Hockey got up and sat beside Robert, grasping his fingers. "Your gentle hands lend us, and take our hearts."
"Awesome. You two crazy kids live happily, or squonkily, or whatever, ever after. OK?"
I left. A thought struck me as I started my Jeep. "...the hell is a rumptifusel?"
About the Author
Julie Frost lives in the beautiful Salt Lake Valley in a house full of Oaxacan carvings and anteaters, some of which intersect. Her work has appeared in Cosmos, Azure Valley, Stupefying Stories, and Plasma Frequency. She whines about writing at http://agilebrit.livejournal.com/, or you can follow her on Twitter via @JulieCFrost.