I stepped over two corpses, gut shot and throats torn out, and tried to stay silent as I enter the hole. It is a five story apartment building that has seen better days. The East side of the building is mostly rubble and the rest is close. The air is filled with a palpable sense of violence that bodies strewn about serve to accentuate. Muffled voices from the floor above me and blood trails up the stairs to my immediate right clues me in that I am closing in on my goal. I keep low and avoid the holes in the ceiling as I make my way to the stairway. Too much to ask for a working elevator I guess.
“Keep her quiet! She’s not for eating. She is our little ticket outta this scum pit. Quiet girl!” I hear as nearly reach the second floor. Good. They have enough brains to leave the girl alone. That makes my job easier. I wince as my ankle nearly gives out on me. Been chasing these mongrels for the better part of the evening across East Side.
— — —
Four days ago I was snuggled up to a bottle of whiskey. My only plans for the night were to get good and drunk and drown out the signals bouncing through the air. Keep my head down and stay out of trouble. I don’t like trouble but she has an unhealthy fixation with me. Especially as of late, everything has been building up and it doesn’t look good. The entire city has been filled with whispers and that makes things rough on every one. The best thing a guy can do in times like this is keep your head down and stay drunk and oblivious.
And I am good at drunk and oblivious.
It all went to shit as I put the first glass to my lips when the Leo came in to the bar. I tried to make myself invisible in my booth. Leos never come down to deep slums unless bad things were brewing. The Cats and Dogs tended affairs this far in. A Leo meant exactly what I was trying to get pissed and avoid.
So of course he came right to where I was trying to hide.
“Dreary,” he growled and sat down, helping himself to a glass of my whiskey.
“Nope. Just a nobody trying to get drunk.” I have seen the type before. The long scar down his cheek and three platinum hoops in his ears marked him as high in the pride. He was imposing in an expensive black pinstriped suit, probably cost as much as the establishment he found himself standing in. His long blond hair hung low past his shoulders as did his beard. He looked like as much beast as man. But it was his eyes that caught you, like two pure uncut emeralds. Barely restrained malice pulsed from him in menacing waves.
“Boss wants you Dreary. Needs you for a job. I know it’s you, smelled you before. Never forget a scent. Smell different but close enough. You were at the building doing the delivery gig few months back. Remember me?”
I lost the delivery gig after that. Everything went straight down the toilet after that. I only got back on my feet because of that a month ago. My entire world changed, and not necessarily for the better. Still barely keeping it together from the series of ever spiraling shit that caused.
“Doesn’t ring a bell. Sorry.”
I was ready for him to launch himself at me. He tensed and his bright green eyes flashed yellow for the briefest moment. He showed remarkable restraint and chuckled, a low sound like a motorcycle engine. I wasn’t ready to take on a Leo. Not yet. I still barely had control. Definitely not one at his rank. The menace rolled off of him and I couldn’t believe every person in the bar couldn’t feel it.
He took a swig straight from the bottle, draining it while staring me down. “Well how about you explain the misunderstanding to the boss then?”
Shit. “What does he need from me? I am no one, just a man between jobs.”
“See, that’s the thing Dreary. Can I call you Gear? Your parents must have been fucking high on ched when they named you that. I’m Jason, Jace to my friends. Jason to you. Now for why I am here. Boss heard you have a knack at getting things done lately. Rumors swirl and all that. He wants to see you in action. And no is not going to be an acceptable answer. Looks like you are out of whiskey anyway. Shall we go?”
His emerald eyes flashed yellow again, he was making a point that this wasn’t really a question. We both know he can rip me to shreds with barely any effort. But bringing up my parents was nearly enough to make something happen and he knew it.
It is a stupid name. Fine. But I have to live with it.
“You owe me a new fucking bottle.”
“Sure. Do the job, survive and ake the boss happy and I will buy you a big fucking bottle of Sake. Fresh from the Sun themselves,” he let another rumbling chuckle and motioned that it was time for us to be going.
The Leos run the East Side and nothing happens that they don’t have a piece of. And normally they handle any small bits of trouble that pops up and catches their attention. This is very unusual. And I have found unusual to be something to give a very wide berth. When they take notice of someone that isn’t a part of their organization that becomes something even worse.
“Why me?” I asked as we exited the bar.
“Like I said, rumors swirl Dreary. And this job is one that would be better if the Pride wasn’t a part of.”
I felt the aggression in the air, like a wave of hatred. It was so palpable I nearly staggered and pushed Jason to the side. Barely moved him honestly, he is a solid two fifty of pure muscle. But enough that the brick where his head had just been shattered as we heard the crack of a rifle. A yellow flash, first directed at me for daring to try and push him then aimed at the brick that had just been blown up by a bullet. His men that had been waiting at the fancy black pounder at the curb snarled and two of them leapt down the road. Preternatural speed made them blurs as they tore down the road.
Jason gave me a new look, reevaluating me for a long moment. He nodded his head. I tried not flinch as I heard ahead grows and screams from down the road where his men went. It was the sounds of large beasts tearing someone to pieces.
“Seems I may owe you two bottles of Sake now Gear.”
“What was that all about?” I asked pointing at the missing brick as the screams continued to echo.
“It is nothing but a family squabble. The squirrels have decided they want a bigger piece of the nut they don’t deserve. A better question is how did you know to push me out of the way?”
“I saw the glint of the gun,” I lied. No point playing all my cards this early. I couldn’t even explain if I felt like trying.
“Hmm. Well, seems you have pretty good eyesight my friend. Let’s go.”
He didn’t seem to buy my lie. Doesn’t matter, it is my story not his. I was a bit preoccupied with the squirrels being this bold. If the Leos are the top, and the cats and dogs are the middle, then the squirrels are the bottom rung of the hierarchy on the East Side. Never before have they been so brazen to tale action. Something big must be going on. The sight of the two Leos coming back to us with blood dripping from their mouths broke my reverie. One less squirrel I suppose.
We got into the pounder, a new model from the looks. Definitely not the type you tend to see in this part of town. All black and shiny chrome with a silver lion on the front of the hood. The two goons with blood on their faces and suits got up front and I was in the back with Jason and the last of them. It was a good sized vehicle but when you are between two six foot something monsters that weigh two fifty each there really isn’t that much space. Then find roared to life as we pulled away.
There is a this thing really purrs joke somewhere but the slabs of beef I was crushed between took it out of me. Do I settled in for a long uncomfortable ride.
— — —
I grew up on the East Side. Before the Pride took over. When I was a kid it was just the wild slums. Made up of flickering neon and crumbling concrete, the shadow of Downtown cast over it like a disapproving mother looking down in distaste. The Knights of Silence patrolled the streets in force, keeping a soft semblance of peace. Between the Knights and the occasional police pounder it was close to civilised, or at least as close as the slums ever gets.
My parents had a house on the outskirts of the city. Close enough to be part of the problem but far enough out to be free if the gangs and the shit that goes along with that life. My dad ran a pounder shop, repairing vehicles with no questions asked. Growing up on the ass end of the city seemed like the most boring thing in the world for a kid. The smell of the fog of the city proper mixed with the smell of shit from the farmlands outside if it.
It was all I knew. I figured I would learn to fix pounders and take over the family shop. Spent my days raising hell with my best friends, Billy, Jeff and Lin. We called ourselves a gang and pretended to rule over our little slice of hell. We were inseparable.
The Hellion Four.
We were benevolent rulers. Unrecognized but that is just semantics. It was mostly kids being kids, too much bravado not enough brains. When we turned fourteen we got the local tattoo guy to ink us up with our symbol, two dual headed pitchforks crossed like an X on our hearts.
Stupid kid stuff. The kind of dreams and playing around that never lasts. Big dreams and pacts to always stay together. It might have too. But then the Pride came to town.
We were far enough out that the usual gang wars didn’t come close to us except on the holovids at night. Small pickings, not worth the time it took to drive out and take over. Being out from under the thumb of any of the gangs meant no bribes or insurance money. It also meant no protection. Not that it was ever needed. Everyone came to my dad’s shop for repair, it was neutral ground. Hellion’s territory.
Like that meant anything.
We hung out in front of the shop in our matching fake leather jackets and ripped up jeans. We must have looked like giant tools. The epitome of what the country folk imagine city gangs look like. Or the exact opposite of reality.
The Pride came in like a storm. They were prepared, planned and predatory. It took less than a month to consolidate the inner East Side. Two months to own all but the outlying areas. We watched it night after night. They took territories faster than the news vids could keep up with. First the 88 Eyes were destroyed, good riddance to the Nazi scum. Then the Orthodox Crews. Next fell the Holy Strollers. The Sandmen. The Punx. Psychedelic Love Potatos. Log Cabin Republicans. All destroyed or assimilated into the Pride.
Stories began to circulate of beasts roaming the night. Of lions, panthers and wolves in the alleyways attacking ched dealers. No one cared about them though, synthetic heroin/cocaine hybrid that fried as many brains as bad nano. Urban myths. Werewolves spotted patrolling roofs around the Pride HQ. Insanity and Folktales spread among the huddled masses.
I will never forget the day the first Leo came to dad’s shop. He pulled up in his pounder, not unlike the one I was in right now. All shiny and sleek, promises of riches and violence with a plastisteel underbody. The silver lion hood ornament caught the sun as he pulled into the lot. He unfolded his large frame from the vehicle and stared the four of us down. We stared right back but anyone could see that what he was and what we pretended to be were not in the same weight class.
He knew immediately I was the leader of this little ragtag group and came to stand directly in front of me. I had to look up to meet his eye, “Can I help you?”
“Yes cub, I am looking for the owner of this fine establishment. My pounder needs an oil change.”
“Plenty of oil change joints on the highway. This is a repair shop,” I said, trying to keep the tremble out of my voice.
I swear his eyes flashed from blue to yellow as he stared at me. Then smile spread across his face making the scars on his cheeks more vicious somehow. Solitary platinum hoops in his ears shook as he let out a small laugh.
“But none with the reputation of this garage. Fetch him for me cub,” his tone said not to reply but to move. I listened and got my father from the back room.
My dad spoke in hushed tones with man and had him drive into the open bay.
“Did you see that pounder? I bet he is a Leo,” Jeff said excitedly. “Did you see those scars?”
“He is definitely a Leo. I read that the scars are part of the initiation. Single hoops say he is second lieutenant,” Lin replied. Always kept his face in the vids and surfing the web for information.
“I didn’t like the way he looked at us Gear. Disrespectful. Maybe we need to teach him respect,” Billy muttered. This was his way, he was the smallest of us and always the first to want to fight.
I didn’t want to admit it but he scared the piss out of me. “No. We do not want anything to do with him. There is something about him that screamed murder.”
Lin nodded agreement, “I have read they are all lycanthropes. Rumor on the dark net says they have a passage of initiation where they infect new recruits with both lycanthropy and nano.”
“What the fuck does that mean?” Billy asked.
“Lycanthropy is a five dollar word for werewolves,” Jeff whispered looking into the garage where my father and the Leo stood speaking quietly.
“Bullshit. What next vampires? Alligators in the sewers?” scoffed Billy.
“Actually the thing about alligators in the sewers is coming up a lot more lately. Or something like it. I heard they call themselves Dragons,” Lin replied, oblivious to or outright ignoring the sarcasm. Hard to tell with him.
“Oh fuck that nonsense All that reading you do and no real fucking learning. Makes me sick. Werewolves and dragons,” Billy spit on the ground as he said it.
If I could go back in time and let them know it was all real, all of it. Convince them we needed to run as far and fast away as we could. I would do it. The Hellion Four could run out of the city and start over somewhere else. Head up north to Chicago or out west to the freelands. Anywhere but here.
The Leos and my father began speaking louder, talking about alliances and freedom. Neutrality and choices. This was the last good day we all had. And then it went to shit. It happened so quickly we never even had a chance to enjoy it.
— — —
“You with us Dreary?” asked Jason, shaking me from the memories.
“What was that? Long drives smashed between two men always makes me sleepy.”
“Boss said you were funny.”
“Your boss doesn’t know anything about me Jason. Not a single fucking thing.”
“You’d be surprised what the Boss knows. He knows all about you. Seems the two of you have met before, in another life.”
“Really? Care to explain? And why we are not headed to Pride HQ? We should have been there half an hour ago. Where are we really going?” I asked, emboldened by the anger starting to brew in my chest. Old memories bringing up the ragged pain of days gone by.
Suddenly I felt the intent of the silent Leo and tried to keep away as I felt the prick in the side of my neck. The world began to swirl around me and the last thing I heard was Jason say, “Good questions Gear, all in due time. Now sleep…”
— — —
I was asleep in my room when I heard the growl and shattering glass from below. I sat up and listened to the sound of glass crunching beneath feet. Then the third step stair squeak as whoever it was climbed them. My door was open and I crept towards it a and gently pushed it closed. I saw two yellow orbs at the top of the stairs as I did.
I shook as I stood there. I heard my father scream in alarm and the monster roared. Soon my mother’s voice joined the cacophony and wet ripping sounds. I grabbed my jacket and like a coward rushed out the bedroom window. As I scurried across the awning over the front porch and leapt to the old wooden pole, my dad called it a telephone pole and raced down to the ground. As I ran I stole one glance back and saw a form in my window staring at me.
I swear to Silence there was a lion staring back at me with golden eyes.
I ran and ran. Panic driving me on until I got to Billy’s house. I could hear the sounds of my parents screams as I tossed pieces of broken road at his window. It seemed to take forever before his light popped on and he opened the window
“What the fuck do you want? Gear? Is that you?”
“Let me in, hurry!”
The front door opened and I rushed inside. I tried to explain to what had just happened. Fear and confusion pouring out of me. His mother called the police as I spoke.
“A lion? Gear, that is ridiculous.”
“I know what I saw. Get Jeff and Lin to meet us here. Please.”
They showed up fifteen minutes later. Billy’s mom gave us a ride in her beat up pounder. We arrived at the same time as the police bots. My house was on fire, as was my father’s garage. The flames shot up in great gouts, licking the air and leaving a greasy smell. I tried to run into the house but the guys wouldn’t let me go. I fought them, screaming and sobbing. They just held me, the four of us crying together as fire ate my entire life.
The bots walked in the burning house, oblivious to the flames. They exited empty handed. I fell to my knees as they approached. The sound of a pounder caught my ear and as I turned I saw the Leo from the garage the previous day smile and wave at me.
— — —
I came to in an abandoned warehouse. I tried to get a sense of the room around me. There were five Leos, two cats and a wolf in the immediate area. I kept my eyes closed and listened, hoping to get a sense of the room.
“He’s awake Boss,” I heard Jason say.
“I’m aware,” came a deep rumbling voice. “Hello Mr Dreary.”
I opened my eyes to the sight of the biggest Leo I had ever seen. He was easily seven foot tall and must have weighed three hundred and fifty pounds, but carried it well. He sat shirtless across a table from where they had propped me up in a chair. Scars lined his face and torso, five hoops in each ear, and dark black eyes stared unblinking at me.
I just stared at him.
“Thank you for coming to speak with us Mr Dreary.”
I laughed at that. The tension in the air rose. “Not given a choice in the matter, was I?”
He laughed as well. “No, I guess you were not. But alas, here we are. Jason says you saved him from a certain death. And he owes you two bottles of Sake upon completion of the little errand we have for you.”
“I got lucky.”
His eyes narrowed at that. “No need to be so modest Gear. Rumors have it you have knack for being lucky. More than that if you listen closely to the street.”
“I wouldn’t put much stock in rumors. They tend to only tell half the tale.”
“So the part about the Nazi doctor, his special pills. This is not the whole story?”
“I seem to recall your Pride killed off the Nazis, Mr… I don’t seem to know your name.”
He laughed again, then signalled to the man behind me. I felt the impulse to kill and ducked as a knife flew where my head had just been. Pushed back and knocked my chair onto its back as the next swing came for me. Using momentum I rolled backwards punched straight up, catching him right in the balls. He doubled over and rage, mindless rage, filled his face and the room around me. His eyes flared green and his face began to shift. Black hair sprouted and his mouth and nose began to break and shift. Finding myself in the unfortunate position on my back I thrust both of my feet into his midsection and felt the impact in my knees as he flew back.
By the time he landed he was fully a panther. And I was fully fucked.
“Enough!” came booming from the Boss. “Shift back!”
A hiss answered him and the black beast crouched down to pounce on me. The sharp crack of a pistol sent it flying to the side.
“I said Enough! The next round is fatal. Shift back.”
I watched the big sleek killing machine go through what looked like a painful transformation back onto human form. I had never seen the change in person. The holovids didn’t do it justice. Didn’t capture the sounds of bones snapping, joints popping in and out of place. It was horrific and mesmerizing. The most inhuman spectacle I had ever seen and I could not look away.
“I apologize for that Mr Dreary. He will be suitably punished for his actions.”
I swallowed hard and just nodded.
“Impressive reflexes, just as I had heard. Seems not all rumors are half truth.”
“Lucky. Like I said.”
“Yes. Quite. Most do not get a single blow landed to a Panther. You managed two. Impressive indeed.”
I despise two things, being attacked and being forced to perform. In one move I was made to do both. I picked up my chair and sat back down. I took care to brush my shirt and jeans off. Made a show of it as I tried to stop my hands from shaking.
“What is this job you want me to do?”