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C3 Chapter 3

The air was already hot and humid, mosquitos drawling blood on her skin, when Leila opened her eyes on a bed of moss the next morning. She groaned and swatted at the infernal bugs biting her exposed skin. She decided that mosquitos most definitely had been a part of the original plague the Lord himself set upon the Egyptians after they had thoroughly pissed off the man above.

Dried blood, crusted and coated down her chin, neck, and chest just made her current situation even more uncomfortable, and her mood worse. Not that she often didn’t wake up coated in blood when her wolf took control on a full moon, but really would it be too much to ask for the beast inside her to go trapesing through some water after a kill?

The smell of death was in the air. Along with the smell of soured, brackish waters, decay, and rot from the swamplands all around her. Leila sat up and her eyes gravitated to the carcass lying less than twenty feet away from her naked body. It was hard to tell from the mangled flesh remaining and scraps of black furred hide, but it appeared to be a panther. It seemed as though her wolf had gone into a cat carb coma and crashed after feasting. Typical of both the wolf and woman herself, actually. She had always been a lightweight.

As she drug her naked, sweaty, mosquito bitten carcass through the swamplands in the direction of her apartment, she grumbled and not for the first time, why her wolf couldn’t be more considerate and end up closer to home. Even in her human skin, she had an excellent sense of direction and smell, both of which she implored now. She cursed more than once when her bare feet caught a sharp stick or her delicate flesh was snared by a thorny bramble. She swatted a mosquito the size of Texas on her left ass cheek and screamed a line of obscenities that caused some birds to flee in terror. Hell hath no fury like a werewolf the morning after.

She doubted Sterling would find her so appealing now. It hadn’t been a trick of the light last night, the way his eyes had taken her in hungrily. He had wanted her last night. She had wanted him even more. It was probably a good thing she hadn’t acted on her carnal desires then. She doubted Sterling could have survived her. Several of her toys certainly hadn’t made it through last night and she had to flip over her mattress to hide the claw marks.

Nearby, some green water stirred ominously, before a gator’s head broke the surface. The beast locked eyes with the swearing, blood-stained woman walking along the water’s edge. It probably figured she looked like an appealing breakfast. A tasty snack. Yes, that was true. Leila could be a tasty snack, if she was in the mood. Like she had been for that bartender back in Oklahoma (her first sexual encounter post her escape from the Blackwood Pack). She had relished in tequila and the freedom of fucking a man of her choosing, almost wishing that Ulric could watch her moment of triumph.

That bartender had removed her panties with his teeth. He had worked her up all night long, until she had practically begged him to take her fast and hard in the storeroom. He had slipped his fingers inside her, just after he removed her panties, and got her nice and wet, just to the edge. Then he’d popped the finger he had inside her, into his own mouth to savor the taste of her. The bastard left her panting, slick, and wanting to explode as his teeth had also grazed her erect nipples through the cotton of her t-shirt. But he refused to take her then. Instead, he continued to steal moments of stroking, whispering naughty things in her ear, as he pocketed her panties and made promises when the bar closed. By that four a.m. hour, Leila had feared she would be dripping down her legs. Neither one of them had made it out of the parking lot, after the pouring rain had made their clothes transparent. He took her in the backseat of his extended cab truck. They had fogged up the windows and her hand left prints on the glass.

But in the muggy marshlands of Southern Florida, naked, tired, thirsty, dirty, Leila had been a snack enough already to the seven billion mosquitos. Her eyes locked on the beast in the water, which was moving towards her with a hungry gleam in it’s eye. Her eyes flashed yellow-brown, and a growl escaped through her bared lips. The gator sank back beneath the opaque water with its tail between its legs and disappeared once more.

She snorted and continued on her way. She was the most dangerous thing in this swamp. That thought would have once caused her great pain and distress. She had been a mess of tears, snot, and self-pity following her first change. But Leila was no longer that shy, 17-year-old girl torn from her family and first love, life had hardened her body and mind into something else entirely. Exactly what, she was still finding out. Her father had always told her that the world would chew up the soft ones, and he had been right. He had encouraged his daughter to be just tough enough so the world is forced to spit you back out. She missed him terribly. Her mother and sister Lily, not so much. With them things had always seemed like a competition.

Leila had more time than she would have liked to ponder her past, as it took a few hours for her to reach the area where she had discarded her clothes the night before. She used her bra to wipe off as much of the blood as she could, which had been loosened up by her sweat (and maybe a tear or two also). She slipped her t-shirt over her head and shimmied into her thong and jean shorts. She flung the bloody bra deep into the swamp.

She could hear the sounds and smells of life nearby from the small town of Stillwater. A dog barked. The revving of a car engine. The glorious smells of greasy breakfast foods wafting from Mama’s Diner, making her stomach grumble. A door slamming, followed by running feet, and a mother yelling at her kid to be home in time for lunch. Stillwater was that type of town. Where kids went out to play, old men sat on a bench in front of the hardware store smoking their pipes, teenagers hung out in the old cemetery drinking, making out, and telling stories at midnight, and woman congregated in the beauty salon or church basements to trade recipes and gossip while sipping their iced tea. Leila found it refreshing and nice. She had grown up in the city, lived in a tenth floor apartment, and had most of her life scheduled with ballet, piano lessons, swim lessons, etc. Leila hadn’t even realized how suffocated her life had been until just this past year when she finally learned what freedom truly meant.

She envisioned one day owning a little house with a picket fence, a dog in the yard, in some little town like this. Having a beautiful child or two, and a handsome husband she adored. She let these thoughts entertain in her mind as she made her way up to her apartment. She knew she looked like a hot mess, but the town folks she passed on the street acted pleasant and cordial as ever. Those early risers greeted Leila with a smile and a have a good day, on their way to their jobs or running errands.

It was the lady from the Methodist church named Ginger Holcomb who kept Leila the longest this morning. Ginger always had been the nosy sort. Her hair was bottled ginger. Her teeth stained from the nicotine she denied putting in her body as it was “a temple to the Lord.” She was as thin as a beanpole, except for her breasts which had a perkiness not naturally achieved. She was on the cusp of fifty and attributed the cosmetic procedures she had done was in the time before she came to Jesus and was born again. It was also rumored she had kept her slim figure in her youth from cocaine use. Nowadays, she just used smoking and a tapeworm she had ordered off the internet. Zenia’s grandmother Alba had confirmed the tapeworm thing through a clairvoyant communication with the Orishas of her religion.

This morning Ginger was on her way to the ladies club meeting at the church. She was carrying a pink box of pastries in her manicured hands which matched the pink of her skirt. Upon seeing Leila, her nose wrinkled up in disgust for a flicker of time and her dull blue eyes made a sweep of Leila’s person. Then she placed a hand upon her chest and feigned a look of concern.

“Miss Dupree it’s so good to see you. Is everything alright? I saw the deputy from the sheriff’s office at your door this morning. I’ve been worried sick ever since,” said Mrs. Holcomb.

Leila’s chest clenched. Scenarios began to play through her mind. Each one growing increasingly worse than the last. Sterling? Had something happened to Sterling or one of her other coworkers at the Stillwater Bar and Grill? Clyde Morten had been madder than a hornet last night after Sterling threw him out of the bar. Had he returned with a grudge to settle?

“I’m well I assure you. I was just out for a morning run before it got to hot.”

Mrs. Holcomb eyed her attire again. She looked skeptical but said nothing to refute Leila’s claims.

“I’m glad to hear it. You had better give the sheriff’s office a call. It seems they left something on your door. Of course, if I had to guess, I’d assume it may have something to do with the body they found last night right outside the Stillwater Bar.”

Leila’s fist clenched around the metal of the railing to her apartment steps causing it to bite painfully into her skin. Her heart crashed into her ribs violently. She couldn’t draw a breath into her lungs.

“Who?” Leila finally managed.

Mrs. Holcomb seemed to relish in being the first one to spread such news as this. She adjusted the box of pastries under her arm. And leaned in closer to Leila as if it were a secret. She could smell smoke under the woman’s heavily applied floral perfume and mint on her breath.

“Word around town it’s Clyde Morten. Not too surprising they found that man dead outside a bar. God rest his soul.”

Leila took a moment to try and collect her thoughts. Mrs. Holcomb swatted at a fly that buzzed around her pastry box. Not unlike the woman herself, pesky and hard to get rid of. She watched Leila’s reaction to the news, no doubt to use in her next telling at to the ladies in her church club. Leila was sure she had made the talk at several of their meetings.

“Thank you, Mrs. Holcomb, but I had better get upstairs and call the sheriff’s office.”

She made it up a few stairs before the woman’s nasally voice called to her once more.

“Well don’t you even want to know how Clyde died?”

That stopped Leila’s ascension up the iron stairs on the side of Harry’s Hardware. She gave the woman a tight-lipped smile as she looked down. Unfortunately, she got a peek down Mrs. Holcomb’s blouse and it turned out Leila wasn’t the only one not wearing a bra that morning.

“Was it a heart attack?” she guessed.

Even as the word’s left her lips, she already knew a deputy wouldn’t have come knocking on her door over Clyde Morten meeting his end from a heart attack. She also knew it wouldn’t have been the sheriff because it involved climbing a flight of stairs.

“Why heaven’s no! They say the poor man’s throat had been slashed from ear to ear. More like clawed open really. The sheriff’s department have been questioning everyone who was at the bar last night. It was awful really. Of course, when you place yourself in dens of iniquity, depraved things will happen.”

Leila wondered if this was what a heart attack felt like. When your heart clenched so tightly inside your chest, you feared it would stop beating. When you couldn’t get any air to seep into your lungs and it seemed your chest would explode. No. Her wolf hadn’t killed a man. Even a vile one. The blood on her was animal. Her memories from the time inside her wolf came in jagged, distorted, fragments, but she would have remembered something like slashing out Clyde Morten’s throat.

Mrs. Holcomb took a few steps closer. Her lips were moving but Leila couldn’t decipher the words, nor did she care. She just wanted to get upstairs, shower off the sweat and blood hidden beneath her clothes, then drive down to the Stillwater Bar and Grill to get to the bottom of this whole mess.

She muttered a thanks to Mrs. Holcomb again and dashed up the stairs. She was unlocking her apartment door when she heard a word that would catch her attention anytime, anywhere. More like a name. Her hand froze in mid-unlocking of her deadbolt and she glanced down at the street once more.

“Sterling Mount is the prime suspect from what I hear. Seems he and Clyde had a fight in the bar the night before. I always knew that boy had more of his daddy inside him than folks believed. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree after all-”

Leila grabbed the yellow note hanging off her doorknob, shouldered the door open, and pushed her way inside. She shut it firmly behind her to drown out that dreadful woman. Sterling Mount was many things, but a killer was not one of them. She had to see him. Talk to him. Know he was ok. Hold Sterling in her arms and assure him everything was going to be okay. That they would figure this all out.

She threw off her clothes and slipped into the scalding hot shower. Watched the blood and dirt swirl down the drain. She couldn’t help but wonder if some of the blood was from Clyde. But no. She would have been able to smell the difference between human and animal blood. Right?

Her phone was ringing where she had left it on the charger the night before. She jumped from the shower soaking wet with the water still running. She left a trail across the hardwood floor as she ran across it to reach her nightstand. She snatched the phone up and Zenia’s name flashed across the screen.


“Damn girl! About fuckin’ time. Everyone was starting to think you were dead. Sterling especially is chomping at the bit. But the cops wouldn’t let him leave to look for you.”

She breathed a literal sigh of relief. “I know. I’m sorry. I was up at dawn for an early run. I missed the deputy too. There was a notice on my door. Is it true what I hear Zenia, is Clyde Morten really dead?”

A pause on the other end and the sound of a door shutting as if Zenia was going someplace more private. When she spoke again, her voice was lower, muffled.

“Deader than a doornail. I can’t say I’m too torn up about that. That prick had it coming. But what I don’t like is the way the cops around here seem to be focused in on Sterling. It’s a bunch of bullshit. You had better get down here and give your statement Leila. Let them know you aren’t dead and give Sterling some piece of mind. He looks pretty torn up.”

Leila sighed. Sterling was a good man. He didn’t deserve this. She told Zenia she was on her way and hung up her phone. She grabbed some random clothes and forced her body into them, still dripping wet. All that mattered was Sterling needed her. He had been good to her, given her a job with a less than a grade A fake ID, even arranged for her to meet up with the owner of the apartment so she had a place to live other than her car. And come hell or high water, Leila Dupree was going to clear Sterling’s name. She was going to use her unique abilities to find the real killer. Even if that meant, the real killer was staring her in the face every morning in the bathroom mirror.

Libre Baskerville
Gentium Book Basic
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