Harlan hated tracking in the rain. Especially here in the city, where he had to remain human and smart prey could slip away. The hard rain washed even fresh scents from the air and made trailing a mark more of a pain than most were worth. But this one would be worth the trouble.
One last job, his boss had promised, and he’d finally be able to get out.
A flash of red hair caught his eye through the cold drizzle. He kept pace with a long easy stride, his hot breath fogging in the cool night air as he tracked her with heightened senses. The woman clearly didn’t realize she had a tail. She didn’t smell afraid, and her movements weren’t evasive–not that any mark could evade a werewolf for long.
He passed a dumpster, the stench making his eyes water. Where the alley ended at another dark backstreet, he glanced both ways, then stopped. Pattering rain and the steady drip from nearby gutters filled his ears. He couldn’t have lost her. He needed this job. Facing each direction in turn, he sniffed the air, wading through layers of city smells, the scent of rain, the dumpster behind him, trash and sewage in the gutters. Rain trickled down his neck, dripped off his nose.
There it was: female, human, the barest hint of rose–the scent he’d picked up at the auction house. Entwined with it was the ammonia-like scent of fear, and the tang of metal.
Suddenly worried, he took off after the fading scent trail, running down dark side streets, splashing through puddles that soaked his pant legs. The trail turned toward the abandoned warehouses along the river. He rounded a corner in time to see another flash of red disappear behind the steel security door of the closest building.
He barreled through a flimsy chain link fence, not bothering to find where she’d gone through. Racing across the yard, he caught the door before it closed and yanked, hinges shrieking in protest. He stepped inside and quested for her scent in the dark space. No rain to muffle it in here. Fear and tangy metal filled his nostrils, along with mold and rats and…something sharp and noxious, like sulfur, that accompanied the woman’s scent up the stairs.
He growled as the smell burned his nose, his lip curling in a snarl. The bounty she possessed was cursed?
He bounded up the stairs, pausing at the top to scan with wolf eyes. Ambient light filtered in through grimy windows. Near one of them stood the woman, head down, her back to him.
She didn’t smell afraid anymore. Now she smelled hopeless, resigned.
“Hey,” Harlan breathed. The woman didn’t respond. He took a step forward and tried again, a little louder. “Hey, you alright?”
She turned around, her wet hair clinging to her neck and shoulders, her eyes dull and empty. Just like Rebecca’s, before. For a moment he saw the same knife in her hands. The memory grabbed him by the throat, and he squeezed his eyes shut against it.
“I have to,” she whispered.
Steeling himself, he opened his eyes. Not his mate. Not a knife. This woman held a gleaming antique pistol that stank of sulfur.
“No, you don’t.” He inched forward.
“It’s the only way.” She lifted the pistol toward her head.
“Stop,” he demanded, his human voice layered with the wolf’s growl, two voices from one throat. She might be under the influence of black magic, but werewolves had a magic of their own. Maybe he could pull her out of it. Maybe he could save her.
She blinked slowly, lifting a hand to her temple, struggling under the two compulsions.
“It’ll be okay. Just give me the gun.” Harlan stepped closer.
She pointed the pistol at his chest. He froze.
“I have to,” she repeated, monotone. “And you’re not stopping me.”
Her finger twitched on the trigger. Harlan rushed forward, already twisting into a roundhouse kick when the shot boomed and pain seared his shoulder. His momentum carried him through the kick and the gun flew from her hand, clattering to the floor a dozen feet away. They both collapsed, Harlan panting and gripping his wounded arm, fighting to contain the wolf’s enraged howl. Power and pain raced through him, twin heralds of the change.
No. He clenched his jaw, determined to stay in control. Deep breaths. In…out. In…out. The urge to change faded.
A whimper made Harlan look up. The woman knelt on the dirty cement floor, cradling the hand he’d kicked and staring at him, her eyes bright and wide with fear.
“What happened? Who are you?”
“It’s alright. Name’s Harlan,” he growled. He jerked his head toward the pistol. “Recognize that?”
She eyed the intricately tooled ivory-handled piece across the room. “Antique Merwin-Hulbert, circa 1920,” she murmured. “My dad’s a collector. I thought–”
“Cursed,” Harlan spat. “Made you almost kill yourself.” He stood, grimacing at the pain blossoming in his shoulder. “And me when I tried to stop you.”
She tore her gaze from the gun, looked at him in horror, her mouth an O.
Walking over, he extended a hand. “Sorry about your hand. You need a doctor.”
She accepted his help up, focused on his blood-soaked shoulder. “You too.”
He half-shrugged and led her to the stairs. “Makes us even.”
“Thank you for helping me,” she said.
Harlan met her eyes, bright and alive. “No problem.”
She glanced over her shoulder. “What about that?”
Harlan eyed the gleaming pistol, considered pocketing it. Black magic wouldn’t affect him as long as he didn’t touch it with bare skin. A different life passed through his mind. One little pistol and he’d be free.
But how many lives would the cursed gun take to pay for his freedom?
“Don’t worry about it.” He pulled her away. “I’ll take care of it tomorrow. No one will find it tonight.”