Last week we announced that Connie Suttle’s BUMBLE (LEGEND OF THE IR’INDICTI #1) is our Kids Corner Book of the Week and the sponsor of thousands of great bargains in the Kids Book category: over 250 free titles, over 500 quality 99-centers, and hundreds more that you can read for free through the Kindle Lending Library if you have Amazon Prime!
Now we’re back to offer a free Kids Corner excerpt, and if you aren’t among those who have downloaded this one already, you’re in for a treat!
by Connie Suttle
“Ashe, no matter how hard he tried, couldn’t produce a single scale, feather, talon or patch of fur.”
In the paranormal community of Cloud Chief, Oklahoma, Ashe Evans is a failure. Born to a shapeshifting mother and a vampire father, he should be passing his Transformational Arts classes easily. Sadly, Ashe can’t seem to become anything other than himself. Principal Billings, a werewolf, is threatening to send Ashe to a human school if he doesn’t transform soon. Ashe’s troubles are soon forgotten when a seventeen-year-old werewolf is found dead behind his rural home. Someone is killing those with ties to the human world and Ashe finds himself a target. Will he solve the mystery of the murders or will he become the killer’s latest victim?
Bumble contains content that may be inappropriate for some young readers. It includes scientific references to reproduction, some violence and mature themes. Recommended for ages 14 and up.
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
(Legend of the Ir’Indicti #1)
By Connie Suttle
Preoccupied with approaching doom while snowflakes settled on his hair and sheepskin jacket, Ashe Evans walked right past the white buffalo standing in two inches of snow beside the road. A disgruntled snort disturbed the snow-muted morning as the buffalo, offended by Ashe’s rudeness, thumped a hoof impatiently against frozen ground. Startled from his thoughts by the sudden noise, Ashe turned swiftly to locate its source.
“Good morning, Mr. Thompson.” Ashe, his nose and ears red from the cold, breathed a relieved sigh and waved at the large bison, causing the heavy backpack he carried to slip from his shoulder. Mr. Thompson’s breaths were misty white clouds in the late March snowfall as he blinked at Ashe in irritation.
Ashe Evans might have been any twelve-going-on-thirteen-year-old trudging toward a rural school in the snow. He wasn’t. Cloud Chief might have been any small farming community in western Oklahoma. It wasn’t. The buffalo might have been any buffalo still living in the Central Plains, but Amos Thompson would tell you himself (quite majestically, in fact) that he most certainly was not.
Protected by three vampires and a perimeter spell laid each year by an itinerant witch, Cloud Chief, Oklahoma, appeared to be a ghost town on maps and to passing non-residents. Inside the spell’s boundary, werewolves, shapeshifters and vampires populated the small but thriving community.
“Sorry I didn’t see you, Mr. Thompson,” Ashe apologized. Snow had collected atop Mr. Thompson’s woolly head, giving anyone with any imagination at all the idea that he wore a beret between short, curving horns. Ashe waited until he’d turned away to smile. Stamping his hoof again (Mr. Thompson had no patience for inattentive children) the buffalo trotted off to help neighbors check on spring lambs.
Hunching into his sheepskin jacket, Ashe hefted the backpack to a more comfortable position and continued on his way. Transformational Arts, his first class of the day was waiting, along with inevitable shame and eternal embarrassment.
Every seventh-grade student at Cloud Chief Combined was expected to take (and pass) Transformational Arts. With a vampire father and a shapeshifting mother, Ashe should be passing Transformational Arts easily. He wasn’t. Ashe, no matter how hard he tried, couldn’t produce a single scale, feather, talon or patch of fur. The school year was winding down too, with only six weeks of classes remaining. Struggling to fight off a recurring bout of misery, Ashe wondered if his parents ever imagined that he might turn out frustratingly ordinary.
“What happened to you?” Ashe, dumping his backpack beside a desk in Transformational Arts, stared at his best friend. Black-haired, dark-eyed and looking much like his werewolf Packmaster father, Salidar DeLuca frantically swiped at his left ear and hair, attempting to brush white chalk dust away before Mrs. Rocklin arrived.
“Dori hit me with an eraser,” Sali growled, glaring accusingly at Dori and Wynn across the aisle. Dori Anderson, a shapeshifting ocelot and Wynn O’Neill, an extremely rare unicorn, glared right back. A feud simmered constantly between Sali, Wynn and Dori, with occasional eruptions of mild violence and adult language. Fed mostly by insults from Sali, the hostility showed no signs of ever letting up.
“Don’t you know to duck?” Ashe wanted to snicker at Sali’s predicament—the chalk dust wasn’t easily removed from dark hair.
“It was a well-planned, two-prong attack,” Sali replied, his nearly black eyes staring at the chalk dust that now covered his fingers.
“Ah, the ocelot-unicorn maneuver—surround your enemy and distract him,” Ashe nodded respectfully at Dori and Wynn. Wynn, quite pretty with long white hair and pale-blue eyes, acknowledged the near-compliment with a return nod. Dori, wearing her curly, dark-blonde hair shorter, wasn’t about to concede anything to the enemy camp. With green eyes flashing a warning at Sali and Ashe, Dori turned away with a disgruntled “hmmph.”
“Mrs. Rocklin’s coming,” Ashe hissed, shutting down conversation inside the classroom as nine students scrambled for seats. Ashe heard their instructor walking down the hall from the opposite end of the building, giving his classmates plenty of time to slide into seats and innocently face the blackboard before Mrs. Rocklin arrived.
Exceptional hearing seemed to be Ashe’s only gift. Better than the werewolves and his vampire father’s, Ashe’s ability to hear the tiniest sounds from a distance had the entire community scratching their heads in confusion. As Ashe hadn’t managed to become anything other than himself, he wasn’t about to boast of his auricular proficiency.
Mrs. Rocklin eyed Sali, who continued to surreptitiously brush chalk dust from his hair. Knowing without question that Sali had been up to something, Mrs. Rocklin called on him first. “Salidar,” she said, lifting an eyebrow, “You will go first this morning. Try to get all your fur out on the initial attempt.”
Reddening guiltily, Sali stood. Ashe knew Sali was self-conscious during his changes from human to wolf and at times his turns weren’t a complete transformation under Mrs. Rocklin’s watchful eye. Dori snickered, earning a nasty glare from Sali.
“You can do it,” Ashe reassured his friend in a whisper so soft only Sali might hear. If Sali were alone or with Ashe, his turns were perfect. Whenever Sali transformed in front of his older brother Marco, something always went wrong. Marco wasn’t merciful when he teased Sali about the unsuccessful attempts, either.
Closing his eyes, Sali focused on changing. Before long, a furry, half-grown werewolf pup stood amid a puddle of Sali’s clothing, with no missing patches of fur. Proud of his accomplishment, Sali sat on his haunches and grinned a wolfish grin, his pink tongue lolling mockingly.
“Showoff,” Dori grumbled. Sali’s wolf hearing caught Dori’s words easily. Turning his head, he offered a sharp-toothed grin to her as well.
“Your ear is still covered with chalk dust,” Wynn pointed out maliciously. Several classmates stifled laughter as Sali raised a paw to awkwardly swipe at his left ear.
“Very good, Salidar,” Mrs. Rocklin acknowledged Sali’s flawless transformation while ignoring chalk dust. “Ashe, would you please?” she gestured with a hand. Mrs. Rocklin no longer had to finish the sentence; Ashe understood what was expected. Without a word, Ashe rose and pulled Sali’s clothing from beneath the wolf pup’s feet. Following a tail-wagging Sali, Ashe carried jeans, T-shirt and sneakers to the changing cubicle at the back of their classroom.
Ashe performed clothing duty six times before Mrs. Rocklin called his name. Lowering his head to hide the flush that crept up his neck and threatened to become full-blown embarrassment, Ashe stood amid whispers from his classmates. “He can’t,” competed with “he’s human.” For the first time, however, Ashe caught the worst insult any shapeshifter could level against another. “Empty,” echoed in his ears.
Blowing out a sigh and chanting “change,” softly to himself, Ashe concentrated, focused and grunted, even. Nothing. Not a single thing happened. Head hanging and cheeks flaming, Ashe sat down again. It was no use; he had no talent.
Feeling anxious and a bit nauseous, Ashe sat miserably through two more classes before lunch. “Dude, you’re trying too hard,” Sali whispered as they walked toward the school cafeteria. Worried that he’d bungled a spelling test and then failed to hear when Mr. Dawkins called on him in Math, Ashe barely listened to Sali’s attempt at reassurance. Mr. Dawkins, a werewolf, accused Ashe of daydreaming. Ashe wished it were daydreaming. Or spring break fever, which was affecting the other students.
“Hurry up; we’ll miss seconds on dessert if you don’t walk faster than that.” Sali pushed Ashe to a quicker pace along the polished tile corridor that separated rows of classrooms. Filled with noise and students rushing toward the same goal, the hall was crowded but not impossible for Sali to negotiate. “Dude, lose that funk and let’s eat, I’m starved,” Sali declared as they stood in line to get their trays. “It’s burger day,” Sali added, craning his neck to see what was being served. “If you don’t eat yours, I’ll take it.”
“You can have it,” Ashe replied listlessly.
* * *
“Ashe, it’s not something you can help,” Dori’s older sister, Cori, sat next to him at the cafeteria table he and Sali frequented. Sali traded his empty tray for Ashe’s mostly full one.
Great, Ashe thought. Dori’s been talking already. Now it’s all over school. They’ll all call me empty before it’s over.
Eighty-six students attended Cloud Chief combined, with all twelve grades taught in the same building. Sometimes, Ashe watched the two tiny first graders and wondered if he’d ever been that small. After considering it for a moment, he supposed that he had. Ashe liked most of his classmates, but Dori and Wynn would never sit with him and Sali at lunch; there was the unspoken war between them, after all. The others moved in their own circles and seldom included Sali and Ashe.
Cori, a pretty blonde, was a high school junior and four years older than Ashe. She didn’t mind talking to Ashe now and then. Cori and Dori’s father, Nathan, was a good friend to Aedan, Ashe’s father. Both of them vampires, they’d known one another for a long time—long before they’d married and had children.
Vampires weren’t capable of having children in the normal sense. Aedan Evans had gone to scientists in the supernatural world and his and Adele Evans’ DNA was combined in a fertilized, donor egg. Ashe was quite familiar with that particular knowledge; his parents explained it carefully to him when he was ten. It was the only way a vampire could have children, and those children could only be born to a shapeshifter mother. Human DNA failed to combine with that of any vampire to produce a child. Cori and Dori, both born in a similar fashion (although their mother, Lavonna, had supplied the egg), had no trouble shifting. Ashe’s persistent failures were becoming fodder for school gossip.
“Cori, you’re a panther. That’s an amazing ability,” Ashe acknowledged Cori’s gift. “You don’t know what it’s like to have all of them staring and whispering when you can’t do anything.”
“Ashe, you’re smart,” Cori said. “You catch onto your lessons faster than the others. I know that may not sound important right now, but it is. And you can hear better than anyone else in the community. Everybody has a gift; you just have to figure out what yours is.” Cori blinked green eyes at Ashe, smiled slightly and picked up her nearly empty tray before Sali could snatch anything off it. Flouncing away toward the tray drop, (mostly to taunt Sali) Cori walked out of the cafeteria without a backward glance.
“Everybody else always knows what I should be doing.” Ashe rubbed his forehead.
“Dude, just forget it. Can we go into Cordell this afternoon and help your mom?” Sali gave Ashe a hopeful look.
Ashe’s parents owned Cordell Feed and Seed. Sali’s seventeen-year-old brother Marco could drive them; he had a car and welcomed any excuse to drive the short distance into Cordell to visit a human girl who worked at the Burger Hut. It was nearly spring break and Cordell Feed and Seed was busy—people were buying plants already. If Ashe and Sali came to help, Adele usually put them to watering trays of seedlings and sweeping the greenhouse.
“I guess,” Ashe mumbled an answer to Sali’s question. Sali jogged off to find his brother, who sat with a group of friends on the other side of the small cafeteria.
“He says he’ll drop us off,” Sali was back in no time. Ashe didn’t answer; he merely nodded his head.
Ashe wasn’t sure he’d live through his last three classes. He did, but barely. When Principal Billings sent for him during the final class of the day, Ashe became more worried. Was it because he hadn’t been paying attention in class? His parents would certainly be upset over that.
Principal Benjamin Billings, PhD, werewolf, sat behind a desk too large for his small office, dressed in a three-piece suit and tie. With dark-brown hair that held no hint of gray and brown eyes capable of boring straight through any mischief-bent student, Principal Billings ruled Cloud Chief Combined with a growl and an iron will. If Ashe hadn’t known he was werewolf when he turned, he may have guessed that Principal Billings was a bull. With a thick neck and compact, muscular body, Principal Billings evoked such an impression.
“Ashe, take this note to your parents,” Principal Billings smiled as he handed the sealed envelope to Ashe. Satisfied over something Ashe couldn’t immediately define, the old werewolf leaned back in his leather chair, causing it to creak annoyingly. “Make sure they get it,” Principal Billings said with a wave of dismissal, sending Ashe back to class. Sali had an eyebrow lifted, asking the nonverbal question as soon as Ashe slouched into his seat in Social Studies. Shoving the envelope inside his book bag, Ashe pretended to pay attention to Miss Campbell and didn’t look in Sali’s direction once.
Later, Ashe was glad he was sitting by himself in the back seat of Marco’s car on the way to Cordell. The snow had melted off as the day warmed up, leaving only a scattered, well-shaded patch here and there. Sali sat in the front passenger seat, restlessly turning his head this way and that to see everything as they drove past it. Ashe figured it was the wolf in him; Sali liked to poke his head out the window during warmer weather as long as his mother didn’t catch him doing it. Just the thought of Denise DeLuca getting onto Sali for hanging his head out the car window made Ashe smile for a moment.
“Dude, you think your mom will have cookies?” Sali was now peering over the seat at Ashe.
Adele Evans had a small kitchen at the back of the store and often baked cookies when Sali and Ashe came to help. When Ashe didn’t say anything else, Sali mumbled, “I hope she made oatmeal raisin,” before sliding down in his seat.
The familiar scents of fertilizer, chicken feed and live plants greeted Sali and Ashe as they stepped inside Cordell Feed and Seed. Rows of shelves stocked neatly with gardening and farming needs lined the store’s polished, concrete floor. Just inside the door, Adele stood behind the register, helping two customers when both boys walked in. Noticing Ashe’s slumped shoulders immediately, Adele frowned slightly as she closed the register drawer.
“Sali, there’s a plate of cookies on the table in the back.” As soon as her customers were gone, Adele sent Sali toward the rear of the store before stepping in front of Ashe. “Honey, what’s wrong?” she touched Ashe’s face briefly before taking her hand away. Tendrils of Adele’s honey-blonde hair had escaped the clip she’d used to tie back her shoulder-length locks, telling Ashe the day had been a busy one; his mother hadn’t had time to tidy up. Now her pretty, golden-brown eyes gazed worriedly at her son.
“Principal Billings sent this.” Ashe pulled the sealed envelope from his book bag and handed it to his mother, stepping around her quickly to follow Sali. He didn’t miss his mother’s expression, however; Adele stared at the envelope in shock. Ashe joined Sali at the tiny kitchen table, and ate one cookie while Sali ate four. Ashe pushed Sali toward the greenhouse afterward to water tomato and pepper plants.
Flats of tomatoes and peppers were lined up neatly across slatted wooden tables. Sali loved to use the sprayer hose, sending a fine mist over the small, tender plants. Ashe left him alone; he’d already swept beneath the tables so Sali wouldn’t create a river of mud when the water dripped down. While Ashe swept the rest of the greenhouse, he weighed his options. Perhaps he could do gardening or landscaping someday, since he didn’t have any shapeshifting ability. He could certainly open a gardening shop somewhere. He’d worked with his mother since he was six—he’d learn everything about the business and support himself somehow. Sali, moving on to spray larger plants in pots at the back of the greenhouse, left Ashe alone to consider his probable human future.
* * *
“Sali, your mother’s here to pick you up,” Adele stood in the greenhouse doorway an hour later with Denise DeLuca.
“But mo-om,” Sali turned one syllable into two, his dark eyes pleading with his mother to leave him with Ashe.
“Sali, come along, I’m sure you have homework to do,” Denise DeLuca held out a hand. Sali wasn’t about to take it; he was too old for that. He waved at Ashe and walked out ahead of his mother, ducking away from the hand she placed on his shoulder. Ashe went to put away the broom.
“Ashe, we’ll sit down and talk when your father wakes,” Adele said. Face paling at her words, Ashe nervously chewed his lip as he studied his mother’s frown. “Honey, don’t look like that, you’re not in trouble. Not that much, anyway,” Adele said, giving Ashe a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. Ashe attempted to school his face; he’d been depressed all day over Transformational Arts. “Come on, let’s close the store.”
Adele closed the store at six. Always. She might have made more money by staying open later, but she wanted to be home when Aedan woke every day. The store was closed every Sunday no matter what, giving Adele a day off. Ashe set to counting out money from the register and adding up checks—he loved that part of closing down the store.
“Here, Mom. The deposit slip is filled out.” Ashe handed the bank bag with the cash and checks inside to his mother. Smiling a genuine smile this time, Adele took the bag and slipped it in her purse. She made a stop at the bank every morning before opening the store for the day.
“At least the snow melted off,” Adele observed as they climbed into her old and battered Ford truck. “But that’s Oklahoma; freezing in the morning, hot by afternoon.”
“Not hot,” Ashe huddled into his sheepskin jacket.
“I know, baby. But it did get into the high forties.” Adele put the truck in gear and pulled out of the tiny parking area behind the store.
Ashe and his mother kept a calendar in the kitchen that listed sunrise and sunset times, so they’d know when Aedan would wake. Thursday, March twenty-sixth listed sunset time as seven forty-six. They’d gotten home a quarter to seven and Adele set about making dinner for herself and Ashe—spaghetti with garlic bread and salad.
Ashe chuckled softly. The old myth that vampires were allergic to garlic was just that—a myth. He and his dad had laughed many times over the vampires portrayed in movies and on television. Still, he’d never seen his father’s fangs. Or the claws. His dad always said someday, when Ashe was ready. Ashe guessed that twelve-going-on-thirteen wasn’t ready.
Dinner was done at seven-thirty and Adele got Ashe seated at the table with a plate of spaghetti in front of him. “Go ahead and eat, Ashe. I’ll get your father up.” Ashe watched his mother as she unlocked the door into the lower level of the house and walked down the steps. The locked middle door was to protect his father while he slept during the day. Aedan was very strong and could punch right through the heavy steel door if necessary.
* * *
“Aedan?” Adele called softly before walking into her husband’s steel and concrete bunker. Concealed below the underground portion of the house, the entrance to Aedan Evans’ bunker was hidden beneath a cleverly designed trap door. Any bit of sunlight that hit Aedan’s skin could cause it to blister and disintegrate within seconds. He, Nathan Anderson and Old Harold, who claimed no last name as his own, all had hidden rooms beneath their homes to protect them from sunlight. Aedan watched his wife carefully as she let herself down the ladder into his bunker.
“What’s wrong?” Aedan asked, shrugging into a shirt. He knew something was; Adele never came down to the bunker, she always waited for him to come to the top floor of the house.
“That’s exactly what I asked Ashe earlier,” Adele held the envelope out to Aedan. Aedan’s gray eyes flared briefly as he examined the handwritten address in near-darkness. Lifting the envelope from Adele’s fingers, Aedan carefully opened the letter to read.
Mr. and Mrs. Evans, the note began, I hesitate to place labels upon any child who studies in my school, but I cannot turn a blind eye to the status of your son. In no time during my lengthy tenure as an educator have I actually witnessed a child born of supernatural parents who had absolutely no ability. Children born to a human-supernatural mix, yes, but this—not until now. Ashe holds no ability. He has produced no sign of it during the entire year and my initial fears are now confirmed. I suggest you search for an alternative method to educate your child beginning with the fall semester, as he will not be allowed to continue at Cloud Chief Combined.
Benjamin Billings, PhD, Principal.
Adele backed out of the way while Aedan punched a hole through the black cinderblocks of the bunker, denting the sheet of thick steel behind.
* * *
“Son, why didn’t you tell us you were having trouble?”
Ashe looked into his father’s gray eyes as he spoke. He’d seen them go red at times if Aedan were angry. Aedan’s eyes weren’t red. Breathing a sigh of relief that his father surely heard, Ashe shrugged. “Son, I realize this is embarrassing for you, but you could have said something. The last grade card we received had satisfactory on it.”
“But Dad, three of the others hadn’t turned at that point. Now I’m the only one,” Ashe slapped a hand over his mouth at the outburst.
“Ashe, will you keep trying? Please?” his mother sat next to him on the sofa, placing an arm around his shoulders. His father had settled on the coffee table, facing Ashe so they could have one of their man-to-mans, as Aedan called them.
“I always try,” Ashe muttered, bowing his head. He was almost as embarrassed now as he was during Transformational Arts class. Rubbing a spot of smeared dirt on his jeans, Ashe couldn’t meet his father’s steady gaze.
* * *
Raking a hand through jet-black hair, Aedan watched his son carefully. Ashe was slight of build, although tall for his age, at five feet, four inches. Aedan was nearly six-four, so he wasn’t surprised that Ashe was taller than normal. The boy would fill out in time.
Ashe had slightly curly, light-brown hair and inquisitive blue eyes that examined the world around him, eager to learn everything he could about it. His grades were always good and his bedroom was filled with shelf upon shelf of books; Ashe loved to read.
Aedan had decided quickly not to tell Ashe about the contents of the note and the possibility of his expulsion from Cloud Chief Combined. He had no desire to place more pressure on his son than he already bore. The summer months were coming and if Ashe failed to exhibit any ability by that time, he and Adele would talk to him then.
“Son, all we’re asking is that you keep trying. Just relax, it’ll come,” Aedan quirked a smile. “Any homework?”
“No, Dad. But I think I flunked a spelling test today.”
“Perhaps you should do a little studying anyway.”
“All right.” Ashe slid off the sofa and shuffled toward his room.
* * *
“Aedan, what if the fertilized eggs got mixed up? Sharon and Jonas O’Neill donated, but what if the clinic didn’t use it?” Adele turned worried eyes on her vampire husband. “Ashe could be human, Aedan.”
“There would be no child if the egg came from a human. You should know my DNA will destroy any human element introduced into it.”
“I don’t know, Aedan. What if this is an exception? What if our child is human anyway?”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Aedan muttered. “We have a child. Most vampires don’t ever get that. Will it matter if he isn’t like us?”
“I’d like to think it wouldn’t matter to anyone, but you know the community won’t see it that way. Most of them, anyway.”
“There’s still time. Time for him to prove them wrong. Ashe is special. Smart. Persistent.”
“There’s a part of me that might be glad if he’s human. You know the Council will come calling if he shows anything special.”
“Stop worrying about that. If they follow the rules, he’ll only be offered vampirism when he’s older. Much older. And able to make that decision for himself. At least that’s how it was explained to me when I was offered the chance to have a child. Only a few vampires were allowed to have children. Or to attempt it, at least.”
“At least Nathan’s girls are safe.” Adele hugged herself and turned away from Aedan. “Girls don’t turn. They die. So they don’t attempt it.”
“It would be foolish to do so,” Aedan agreed softly. “There hasn’t been a female vampire successfully turned in nearly seven hundred fifty years.”
“But what if Ashe ever shows anything exceptional, Aedan? How would the Council look at him, then?”
“You know they have a different set of rules regarding enrichment of the vampire race. If they find someone that will benefit the race, they’ll bring them in and make the turn, forcefully and early.” Aedan looked away. Adele watched as a sadness she couldn’t explain briefly crossed his features.
“Yes. I do know that. I wish Lavonna hadn’t told me.” Adele sighed. “Well, it looks like we won’t have to worry about it anyway. Our son may be human, despite our DNA. And we’ll have to deal with it.”
* * *
“Ben didn’t bother to tell me he was sending the note,” Greta Rocklin’s mouth tugged into a frown as she slammed the refrigerator door harder than warranted. “Ashe tries so hard and he never says a word about having to pick up and carry for his classmates. Aedan and Adele are probably going crazy. I would if I had to send my child off to Cordell Junior High in the fall.” Greta was one of thirty-eight adult werewolves in Cloud Chief. They had their own Pack—Marcus DeLuca was Packmaster; Greta’s husband Micah was Marcus’ Second. Greta’s hair was nearly black, her eyes deep brown, while her husband’s hair and eyes were black. Both were tall and lean as most werewolves were. Usually in a sunny mood when her husband came home, Greta now vibrated with unhappiness.
“It’s not werewolf business, it’s shifter business,” Micah reminded his wife. “Would you say anything if it were a human-shifter mix?”
“No, but they should realize what they’re doing going in. That poor child. This will cause harm, Micah. Aedan is always the first there if someone needs help. Aedan, Nathan and Old Harold rebuilt the O’Neill’s barn in four nights after the tornado last year.”
“You’re saying that Billings is letting his racism show. That’s a serious charge, Greta.”
“I didn’t say that.” Greta hugged herself and walked away from Micah.
“Good. If you didn’t say it, I don’t have to report it.”
“Ashe, you may go first today. Take your time; we’re not in a hurry.” Ashe jerked in his seat at Mrs. Rocklin’s words; she never asked him to go first. Scrambling to his feet when Sali hissed at him to stand up, Ashe wavered for a second, momentarily stunned into immobility. “Don’t force it, just relax,” Mrs. Rocklin encouraged. Ashe tried to relax. Really. He just couldn’t. Everybody was watching.
Cheeks warm with embarrassment amid inescapable whispers, Ashe struggled with both the desire and the effort to turn. His mother always said his animal would speak to him when it was ready. Nothing spoke to Ashe. After ten minutes of exertion with no results, Mrs. Rocklin asked him to sit, moving on to other classmates who mostly met with success. Dori botched her turning, as did two others; the entire class was distracted over the beginning of spring break.
“Dude, you don’t know how to relax,” Sali said over lunch. Ashe pushed his tray over so Sali could spear his uneaten carrots. Sali didn’t care what the food was; he was hungry.
“And I suppose you’re going to tell me?” Ashe snapped, his voice harsher than intended toward his best friend.
“Nope. I don’t do yogurt.”
“That’s Yoga, furball,” Cori settled beside Ashe. “Besides, your animal is a given with two werewolves as parents. I heard Mr. Harris got a letter from Randy Smith.”
Ashe might have been less surprised if a grenade had been tossed inside the cafeteria. He and Sali jerked their heads toward Cori at her statement. “But,” Sali said.
“Yeah. That’s what I said. I don’t know that he would do something like that, especially after he was expelled and we had to move away. His mom and dad went to live in Santa Fe.” Cori opened her milk carton and stuck a straw in it.
Ashe watched as Cori went through the routine of lunch, but her hands shook as she placed a paper napkin in her lap and lifted her fork. The news about Randy Smith’s letter upset Cori more than she was letting on.
Ashe didn’t know Randy Smith personally; he’d been five years old when Randy, the son of a human-werewolf marriage, was forced to leave their community at age thirteen and ordered to attend a human school. Children born to human and werewolf parents would never be werewolf. Barely six months later, Randy let something slip in the presence of humans regarding the hidden paranormal community and everybody had to pack their things and leave their homes in New Mexico.
Randy’s parents had also been forced to seek a home elsewhere. Now, the exiled boy would be old enough to attend college and the community was comfortably settled in Cloud Chief. Randy’s name was still whispered angrily among the adults, however. None of them had forgotten their betrayal at the hands of a thirteen-year-old half-human.
Only Randy’s age had prevented the death penalty from being levied against him at the time. Revealing information on the Pack carried an automatic death sentence for any adult. Ashe’s parents didn’t think he knew anything about Randy Smith, but everybody did. The gossip at school was enough to give nightmares to the younger students.
“What did Mr. Harris do? When he got the letter?” Sali chewed carrots he’d taken from Ashe’s tray. Cori frowned at him for talking with food in his mouth.
“I don’t know. I just overheard the stuff about the letter when I went past Principal Billings’ office. I’ll bet the information is in Billings’ computer, though.” Cori smiled hesitantly at Ashe.
“Don’t look at me. I had scary dreams for weeks after the last time.” Ashe stared at his tray—Sali had emptied it. “I dreamed Billings turned into a bull and chased me through Cloud Chief.”
“He never knew,” Cori scoffed. “And all you did was get in to check grades. You didn’t change anything.” The year before, Ashe had hacked into the Principal’s computer after Cori begged him to do so. Terrified that she wasn’t passing algebra, Cori was sure her parents would ground her for a failing grade. Ashe discovered she had a low C after breaking into the Principal’s computer, and Cori was satisfied with that. “I’ll bet the password is still the same,” Cori added, toying with her meatloaf.
Ashe snorted a laugh at Cori’s statement. He figured Billings’ password was still the same, too, unimaginative as it was. BigWolf had gotten him right in the first time. Benjamin Billings was an old werewolf, born long before the peace treaty between the vampires and the werewolves. The two races now cooperated and had for the past forty-seven years. Ashe knew his father was old, too, but Aedan never talked about the times before. Neither Ashe nor his mother knew how old his father was. When he’d asked once, Aedan had carefully steered him away from the subject.
“Come on, Billings always goes home early on Fridays. And it’s the start of spring break. Everybody will be out of here in no time. We can slip into Billings’ office and find out before we go home today,” Cori wheedled, slipping a lock of long blonde hair behind an ear, her green eyes begging.
“What if he locks his office?” Ashe wanted to wriggle out of sneaking into the Principal’s office, although Sali was now staring at him with mischievous interest.
“Lock’s broken. Marco did that,” Cori smiled maliciously at Sali. Sali’s older brother had broken the lock; he and James Johnson had been sent to Principal Billings’ office for disrupting class. They’d shoved each other while standing near the door, waiting for the Principal to call them in. Marco slammed into the door, breaking the lock and causing the door to swing wide. He’d gotten detention for a week over it.
“It’s still broken ’cause Billings doesn’t know how to fix it,” Sali muttered. “And he won’t ask Dad to come fix it for him.” Cori snickered at Sali’s explanation. Marcus DeLuca, the werewolf Packmaster, was also a locksmith with a small office in Cordell.
“Look, dude, everybody else is gonna be crazy to get away from here. And Old Harold won’t come by to clean until eight.” Sali was just as curious as Cori was. Ashe frowned at his friend; Sali wouldn’t be the one in real trouble if they got caught.
“Come on, it won’t take five minutes,” Cori coaxed. “How are we going to learn what really happened if you don’t?”
Shrugging his thin shoulders, Ashe gave in. “All right. If nobody is around and you agree to keep watch.”
“Great!” Cori giggled and clapped her hands.
* * *
“This isn’t going to work,” Ashe muttered to himself as he and Sali hung back while their classmates raced away from the classroom. Spring break was officially started.
“Getting cold feet?” Sali slapped Ashe on the back. As a werewolf, even a young one, Sali was stronger than he looked, nearly knocking Ashe out of his chair.
“I had cold feet when Cori mentioned it the first time,” Ashe replied, watching as Miss Campbell, their Social Studies teacher, left the room.
“Let’s go find Cori. Maybe we won’t have to dawdle after that,” Sali gathered his backpack and slung it over a shoulder. They’d waited ten minutes before rising to leave the classroom behind.
“I think the others are gone.” Cori found Ashe and Sali instead, right outside their classroom. Ashe blinked at Cori in near-darkness—the hall lights had already been turned off as the last teacher left the school, leaving only weak afternoon sunlight shining through the school’s front doors to illuminate the hallway. Ashe knew Cori and Sali, being what they were, could see much better than he could in the dimly lit corridor.
“I just walked past the Principal’s office,” Cori whispered, bringing Ashe’s attention back to their intended espionage. “It’s empty.”
“Come on,” Sali bent over, cautiously looked both ways and darted silently to the next classroom doorway, preparing to repeat the action.
“Dude, what are you doing?” Ashe stood in the middle of the hall, staring at Sali. Cori, standing beside Ashe, covered a smile.
“Spy stuff,” Sali said, bending over again.
“Sali, the school is empty—I can’t hear anything except us,” Ashe pointed out.
“Oh.” Sali straightened. “Well, let’s go, then.” His athletic shoes squeaking on tile, Sali trotted off toward the Principal’s office. Ashe shook his head at Cori before following Sali down the hall; the young werewolf was humming the theme from Mission: Impossible.
“We’ll be right outside,” Sali shoved Ashe inside Principal Billings’ office moments later and shut the door.
Ashe stood still, staring at the closed door for precious seconds, wondering how he’d gotten involved in the mess to start with. Shaking himself mentally, he surveyed the utilitarian cube of an office before turning toward Principal Billings’ desk. Built of Mahogany, the solid wood behemoth was positioned toward the back of the small space.
Sliding onto the Principal’s leather chair, Ashe tapped the keyboard to dismiss the screensaver and entered the password. All of Principal Billings’ files popped right up. Thankful for the high-speed internet service the community paid for, Ashe went searching through files. He found one for Randall Smith, the ousted student, but right beside Randy’s name, Ashe found his own. Gulping nervously and quaking a little, Ashe opened Randall Smith’s file first.
Randall Smith is charged by the community with exposure of the community, punishment for which is expulsion with compulsion not to mention the community to humans for the rest of his life. Compulsion performed on Seventeen February, by Aedan Evans. Should perpetrator Smith commit a similar crime in future, according to Pack Law he will be condemned to death. Randall Smith may not approach or contact the community from this point forward or the death penalty will be levied.
The official-looking document was signed by Packmaster DeLuca and witnessed by three other werewolves. Principal Billings was one of those three. Ashe drew in a breath as he paged to the second document.
Letter received from Randall Smith on March 25. Paul Harris, a former instructor, neither requested nor condoned the forbidden communication. All information has been presented to Packmaster DeLuca for authentication. Authentication verified March 26. Pack Law is clear; Randall Smith should be sentenced to death—Benjamin Billings, Pack Secretary.
Principal Billings had inserted a personal note at the end. I will volunteer to perform the execution, he’d written. Ashe’s breaths were ragged gasps. He knew Pack Law was different from the laws humans followed, but this—surely they couldn’t do this. And how had Randall Smith found Mr. Harris to send a letter? That shouldn’t have been. It made no sense at all to Ashe. He could see Randy contacting some of his former friends, but why a teacher?
Hurriedly Ashe closed that file, wondering what he should tell Cori and Sali. While he pondered that dilemma, he opened the file labeled with his name, coming face to face with the note Principal Billings sent to his parents.
* * *
“What did you find?” Cori pushed for information as they walked out of Cloud Chief Combined together a few minutes later.
“Just a note from Principal Billings, saying that the letter was neither requested nor condoned,” Ashe replied. He wasn’t lying; he just wasn’t giving complete information. Randall Smith could be condemned to death during the next full moon, which fell on March thirtieth. The werewolves would take care of Pack business first, before making the change.
Nobody living in the community ever forgot when the full moons came—the wolves were forced to change and hunt. The shapeshifters also changed, but theirs was a less frenetic transformation. Ashe’s mother, a peregrine falcon, went out flying by moonlight, his dad going out with her and watching over her; waiting on the ground below with a robe when she tired and came back to him.
Ashe hunched his shoulders, refusing to mention his file or the note that Principal Billings sent to his parents. If he couldn’t find his ability (Principal Billings was convinced he didn’t have one) then he would be enrolled in Cordell Junior High come August.
He’d never had human friends. He knew how to act around them for the most part, but never being able to talk freely about his life again? To be constantly on guard against anyone learning what he and his parents were? It frightened him. He could never bring human friends home; it was forbidden. Would they become suspicious? Ashe worried about that, too.
Shoving hands in his pockets, he walked silently beside Sali and Cori as they made their way home. The day was fine and warmer than the one before, even if the ground was still soggy after the brief snowfall. Ashe might have stood in silent wonder as a rabbit leapt from a clump of dead grass and raced away, but his mind was clouded with personal misery.
A hint of green lay across the prairie, with the beginnings of new grass and wildflowers peeking between the taller, pale-brown stalks left over from the previous year. Slender stems waved cheerfully in an Oklahoma breeze as Ashe walked quietly homeward. Cori broke away first—her home was less than a quarter mile from the school. Sali and Ashe split shortly after, Sali going north, Ashe following the gravel road that ran next to his house.
The Evans home had an elaborate alarm system; Ashe punched the code on the keypad located outside the garage, letting himself in. Another keypad waited beside the kitchen door, with a separate code to get through it. Ashe keyed in the second code to get into the house.
It was only four-thirty; his mother wouldn’t be home for another two hours and his dad wouldn’t be awake until an hour after that. The thing Ashe liked most about the winter months was that his dad was up earlier in the evenings. During spring and summer, the daylight hours stretched endlessly.
A note lay on the kitchen table when Ashe went to the sink to get a glass of water. Your dad will take us to Oklahoma City to buy books tomorrow evening, his mother had written. Normally, that would have made Ashe punch the air in delight. They’d leave right after sunset, eat at a nice restaurant and then visit one of the bookstores that stayed open late.
After reading the two files in Principal Billings’ computer, Ashe was so depressed he didn’t feel like doing anything. He’d never met Randy Smith, but he didn’t think that writing a letter should result in someone’s death. The contents of the letter hadn’t been in the file; Ashe wondered what Mr. DeLuca had done with it. Briefly, he pictured himself as Randy Smith, with Principal Billings offering to execute him if he let anything slip at a human school. The thought made him shiver.
Ashe was working at his computer later when Adele looked in on him. “Honey, I’m about to start dinner, will you bring your laundry out? We’ll work on it tonight.” His mother gave him a warm smile.
“All right.” Ashe shut off the computer and went to gather dirty clothes. While Ashe loaded the washer and added detergent, he wondered why his parents hadn’t given him the full contents of the note. Perhaps they didn’t want him to be upset over spring break. He certainly was upset after learning he was destined to attend a human school. Now he was forced to act as if he didn’t know.
“Socks and underwear in the washer,” Ashe washed his hands and dried them on the towel his mother always folded around a drawer handle in the kitchen. Painted a sunny yellow, the Evans kitchen had windows facing north and east. A hall on the southwestern side led into Adele’s solarium, where plants and cooking herbs were grown. The door leading into the garage was also on the western wall, and it was kept closed and locked at all times, to protect Aedan while he slept.
“We’re having smothered steak, honey,” Adele said. Ashe loved smothered steak. Principal Billings’ note meant his parents were more worried than usual about him. It was also the reason his mother was making his favorite meal. Wondering when they planned to tell him about the human school, Ashe went to the cabinet to get plates for the table.
“Son, how was school?” Aedan walked into the kitchen while Ashe and his mother were eating. Ashe watched as his dad leaned down to kiss his mother on the forehead. Vampires looked and acted human most of the time, as did werewolves and shapeshifters. They kept their other nature hidden, to protect the races. Ashe sighed at the thought. Humans, if they were aware those races existed, would be terrified of them and try to kill them. At least some of them would. If he couldn’t change, Ashe would be forced to attend school with hundreds of humans. His silence would protect his parents; the humans could never learn what they were. It could become the most serious secret he’d ever kept.