"There are shifters, then there are Gallize shifters."
Cole Cavanaugh tuned his sensitive wolf hearing to every sound along this southeast corner of metropolitan Spartanburg. Quiet for a Monday night, but this wasn’t exactly a party area and he was not here for social activity.
He couldn’t risk being caught off guard and blow this mission.
Time was short. For him, anyhow.
Steady rain had started coming down hours ago, before dark. Just a sign of spring showing up. It reminded him of a sweet female voice telling him spring showers would bring May flowers.
That had been back when he was human and in love with a human woman.
Not the time to dial up that memory, Cavanaugh.
Ignoring the rain, he kept scouting for other predators stalking the night who might pick up his scent in spite of the weather.
As a Gallize wolf shifter, he included himself in the category of predators. Not all Gallize were wolves, but every one was just as dangerous as Cole.
Sure, he fought with the good guys, protecting humans, law-abiding shifters and his Gallize teammates, but he was no choirboy. He’d been trained to kill from the moment he finally took control of his raging wolf.
That had been the month he turned twenty, nine months after discovering he no longer belonged to the human race.
At twenty-six, he accepted what he couldn’t change.
A sharp pain drove through his chest. He stopped short and hissed under his breath at Gray Wolf, “Back down, dammit.”
Wasted words. The beast who shared his body wanted out to prowl and hated being denied. He could hear Cole speak, out loud or silently, but generally ignored him unless they were working as one, with the same goal.
That hadn’t happened in more than two weeks and might not ever again.
Catching his breath, Cole yanked back control, gritted his teeth and continued. It would be over for him and Gray Wolf soon, but right now they had a mission to complete.
He wasn’t sure which one would be more relieved when the end came.
Water dripped off the bill of the black Carolina Panthers ball cap he’d worn for tonight. The constant drizzle muffled sound for humans, but not so much for someone like him. He wouldn’t be the only shifter walking these streets in human form this late in the evening.
Things had changed drastically in the human world from eight years ago, when an undercover reporter—a jackal shifter—exposed the preternatural community to the world. Cole had felt the same shock as every other citizen and could admit he’d experienced a primal fear when battles broke out across the US, then in other countries. Frightened humans hunted the shifters, even those who had threatened no one. Angry shifters retaliated.
Nine bloody weeks later, a ceasefire was called and parties from each group met to create a tentative agreement.
Then the Power Barons showed up.
They were five legendary mages who’d made a pact early in the game, forming political alliances with humans before their kind ended up exposed and attacked, too. The Power Barons negotiated deals with heads of the major human governments, eventually proving there could be something worse than a person who grew claws and fur.
Some days the US reminded Cole of the old west, where towns lived through a roller coaster ride of peaceful days and bloody battles.
Did the jackal shifters care that one of theirs had exposed the preternatural world, putting everyone at risk?
No. They had no conscience when it came to making a dollar, which was why most of them were mercs.
Cole hoped that jackal bastard who started this mess had enjoyed his money for the three days he’d lived after earning it before an alpha lion shifter hunted down the jackal.
Were the Power Barons all really mages? Cole had no idea, but that was the story floated through the media. Those five now formed a ruling body, which governed any non-shifter being with extraordinary powers.
The US and other national governments echoed a common message that they considered the Power Barons an ally.
Politicians would join with the devil if they thought he could guarantee they remained in office.
Humans had no idea just who could do what in Cole’s world, much less the extent of terror the Power Barons were capable of committing under the guise of playing protectors.
He and Tess had sat staring at the carnage when the first images of confirmed shifters were televised. His initial concern had been finding a way to protect the woman who was his world.
Those college days belonged to another man.
A human man.
Cole swallowed and grunted at another push from Gray Wolf.
Our mate, rumbled from the beast.
“No.” He didn’t want Gray Wolf getting worked up, so he pushed him back on track. “Pay attention or we’ll get killed.”
The beast calmed again, but for how long?
He shook off the morose direction of his thoughts and kept his head down, eyes up and alert.
If one of the Black River wolf pack caught Cole before he found the rogue pack’s meet point tonight, he’d pay the price for being a lone wolf in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As a Gallize shifter, he could handle three or four on his own.
But that was in a fair fight.
Black River pack members used the drugs they peddled, some of which supposedly enhanced strength for any type of shifter. Rumors flew that they had concoctions capable of taking down a shifter elephant, if there was such a thing. Also, the Black River pack generally operated in large groups.
Cole had two additional Gallize team members in the area, but they would be well hidden.
For now, he just needed to make the most of the tip their boss had received ninety minutes ago. He and his two teammates had been sent here to be on site and ready if the call came.
Hunching his shoulders so he appeared nonthreatening to any eyes on him, he plodded across the dark street to the next corner.
He’d like to be excited about gaining a break in this case and at the chance to find his missing teammate, Sammy Dubois, but concern clawed across Cole’s neck over one small detail of the tip.
Their resource claimed Sammy had been fingered for a recent double homicide—the murder of a honeymooning couple.
Cole had known Sammy for seven years. They’d fought side by side for six of those years, putting their lives on the line for humans.
Sammy had been his Gallize mentor and was a deadly bear shifter.
Now Sammy supposedly had turned into a murderer overnight and joined up with the Black River wolf pack that made and sold dangerous synthetic drugs in the US.
Neither of those two things fit the man Cole knew. Plus, wolf packs didn’t take in other animals.
But Sammy had gone missing four days ago, right before a young couple hiking in the Nantahala National Park was found ripped to pieces by a grizzly, based on forensic evidence. Justin “Herc” Labeau, another grizzly shifter on their team, had confirmed the scent on the bodies as Sammy’s. But Justin quickly pointed out that the scent hadn’t been as strong as he’d expect.
As Gallize bear shifters, Justin and Sammy had been friends a long time, which had to make this just as hard for him as for Cole.
Had the Black River pack set up Sammy for the killing?
Just one more in a long line of questions Cole had about Sammy joining a wolf pack.
A voice coming through Cole’s comm unit broke into his thoughts. “Smokey in place and eyes on the picnic.”
That would be Justin letting Cole know he was in a high point position where he could watch the roof of the warehouse being used as a food bank.
Cole replied, “Copy that.” He kept strolling slowly, waiting for his other team member, Rory Wallace, to check in.
“Hobbes on site and eyes on the porch.”
That meant Rory was set up on the backside of the building, but as a jaguar shifter, the only thing he had in common with the cartoon tiger was claws and a tail.
If they were in animal form, they could communicate telepathically. For team communication while in human forms, their Gallize tech department had developed unique radio systems that transmitted their words mixed with a loud, irritating noise intended to damage an eavesdropping shifter’s hearing.
Cole and his team wore headgear that filtered out everything but their words.
Just before the next corner, he paused at the sight of a homeless man tucked into the narrow doorway of a closed business. The balled up human shivered in spite of the moderate temperature. The skinny old guy’s threadbare shirt and pants were no defense against a bone-chilling rain. His baggy pants were soaked all the way up his thighs.
One sleeve had ripped half off, exposing the tattoo of an eagle, a world globe and an anchor on that bicep.
US Marine Corp.
It didn’t matter which division of the military this guy had come from. He’d served his country and deserved better.
Seeing the poor soul in this condition gutted Cole. He’d fought alongside soldiers who hadn’t known the special unit supporting them had been made up of shifters with a better chance of surviving if someone had to take a bullet.
Many times he’d wanted to inform them, but the military leaders who knew about shifters did not want their identities known.
Terrorists were better accepted than shifters.
Those human soldiers had raced into danger, knowing it might be their last day on earth.
Shit. Cole couldn’t stay to get this guy help right now, like so many others he’d gotten off the streets, but neither could he leave him in this condition. He dug out cash from his jeans and shoved it into the pocket of his custom-designed windbreaker, then shrugged out of the garment.
The boss would dock his pay for it and chew his ass for taking it off.
Cole draped the temporary cover over the old guy and whispered, “I’ll be back later.”
He hadn’t expected a reply and didn’t get one.
Rain quickly saturated his dark T-shirt and jeans, but his body ran hot thanks to Gray Wolf. To be honest, he welcomed the cool relief on his skin. He’d been ordered to wear the windbreaker because it had an inner liner similar to Microlattice, a synthetic, high-tech material constructed of very small, interconnected, hollow tubes. The lightest metal developed, supposedly, and impervious to a tactical blade.
Created in a similar fashion, the middle layer of his windbreaker was intended to prevent sharp claws from slicing open the arms and chest of a human body.
That wouldn’t be a problem as long as Cole didn’t actually engage with shifters while in human form.
If he did, well, he wasn’t just a shifter and Gray Wolf wasn’t just a wolf. Gallize shifters came with a few extra bells and whistles. In Cole’s case, he had the ability to push his preternatural power to an even higher level for a short period when needed for battle.
You can still die if the enemy rips out your heart.
Sammy’s words bounced around in Cole’s head, reminding him that while the Gallize were harder to kill than most shifters, they were not immortal.
A harder downpour slapped the street and sidewalk by the time he reached the last block leading up to the building. Pathetic light from streetlamps managed to poke through the weather.
Keeping his voice soft when he spoke into his comm, Cole said, “Big Bad with eyes on the cottage,” letting his team know he was in place. From this side of the street, he could observe the overhead door used for truck access.
Rory confirmed then said, “No lights on the porch.”
Justin followed up with, “Quiet here, too. That hobo better not be playing games.”
Justin had voiced concerns about the snitch, Sonic, who was human. If Sonic had fed them good information, they’d have action in the next ten minutes.
Cole respected Justin’s opinion, but Sonic had not given them a reason to doubt him. Yet. Sonic wore a silver skull earring and sported skull tattoos all over his body. He talked a big game, which Cole attributed to Sonic’s need to hold his own with a brother who shifted into a mountain lion.
Couldn’t be easy for a human sibling.
Sonic wasn’t a bad sort and he’d come through for them more than once, especially in this area.
But no one on Cole’s team had liked Sonic’s news about Sammy.
As someone familiar with the dark underbelly of the human and shifter worlds in this city, Sonic had been the only person to discover intel about the Black River pack possibly infiltrating a local food bank. If that turned out to be true, that pack was using this food distribution point as a cover for trafficking Jugo Loco.
“You think someone’s cookin’ in there?” Justin asked.
“Maybe,” Cole allowed.
Justin was questioning whether the drug was being made here. Jugo Loco had been developed from the powerful hallucinogenic derivative of Ayahuasca, a plant grown in South America. For many years, humans had touted how a simple tea made from the plant produced shamanistic experiences.
Then a pack of enterprising wolf shifters with no morals had taken the flowering vine into a lab and developed a synthetic drug capable of jacking up a nonhuman.
That’s when it earned the street name Jugo Loco.
As if shifters needed one more reason for humans to hate them?
Sixteen deaths had been attributed to the substance in the past eight months. Nine shifters overdosed and seven humans had been attacked by some of those shifters who had lost their minds on the drug. The Black River pack was building a powerful reputation for having a state-of-the-art medical facility somewhere in South America.
They maintained it was dedicated to shifter enhancement and healing.
That might impress some in Cole’s world, but not him.
His people believed it was an experimental lab capable of doing worse to his kind than the human scientists who were anxious to cut open shifters for study.
Moving further along the broken sidewalk, Cole found a dark cubbyhole that offered a decent view of the loading area.
He could also watch the walk-in entrance to the left of the overhead door.
Three minutes had passed when a figure stumbled along the sidewalk on the food bank side of the street.
Wearing rags wrapped around his head and more hanging from his body, he hunched against the rain. It was hard to determine much about the stranger until he paused to down a slug from a whiskey bottle.
Cole growled under his breath.
Not a good time for a civilian to step into this operation.
The homeless guy had made it to the corner near the door entrance when he sat down beside a large trashcan and practically disappeared into the night. He leaned back against the wall where the short roof overhang for the delivery entrance shielded him from the rain.
Sighing, Cole couldn’t begrudge a homeless person shelter of any sort.
A pair of large headlights pierced the rain two blocks away on Cole’s right and headed in his direction.
The truck turned out to be a food bank delivery vehicle.
Cole pulled back tight, waiting.
In thirty seconds, he would have to make a decision.
As it passed between Cole and the food bank across the street, gears groaned and squealed as the metal overhead door rolled up.
Evidently the driver had a remote control.
Or he’d called someone to tell them he was approaching. That would mean two people inside once the truck was parked.
The vagrant turned toward the noise and scurried toward the opening as the truck pulled inside. Amazingly, the shrunken guy moved fast in a stooped run and managed to get inside the building just before the big metal door would have squashed him.
Cole couldn’t believe his eyes.
First rule of a mission was if something could get fucked up, it would.
Tonight’s mission guidelines were simple. Gather intel and evidence while leaving no DNA or trail.
Their boss would then hand the information over to the specific US authorities who would make the bust.
Cole had no issue with being a shadow operator that no one knew existed. He preferred it, but sometimes things just did not work out as planned.
He couldn’t stand by while an innocent walked into danger.
The truck driver could be a Black River pack member. There could be another inside.
That vagrant might be another veteran on the streets.
Veteran or civilian, one of those wolf shifters would scent him at some point and kill the guy in the most heinous way.
The Guardian would not approve Cole’s new plan.
Their boss was not entirely like Cole and his fellow Gallize shifters, but for over three hundred years their leader had owned the title Väktare, which meant guardian.
Cole held their Guardian in the highest respect, but he had no intention of informing the boss of his plan, since doing so could not bring help in the next minute. Besides, no one on Cole’s team tonight would be in danger except him.
Rory and Justin were not putting their lives, and futures, at risk when this was Cole’s call alone to make.
His days were numbered.
That made him expendable.
They weren’t. They had a chance at mating and beating the curse.
If he didn’t survive this, he knew in his heart that his team would continue trying to locate and save Sammy.
Easing from the shadow, Cole took a step forward, decision made.
Cole strode quietly into the empty street and veered toward the walk-in door on the food bank building. He kept his senses open for any other monkey wrenches flying toward the mission.
Speaking softly into his comm unit, he said, “Got a hiccup. Clueless night crawler just entered the lion’s den.”
That informed his team he was referencing an innocent homeless person getting in the way.
Justin came back with a reminder. “Interfering will change the transcript.”
“Copy that.” Cole knew the mission parameters. At this point he was supposed to cross the street, wait for the truck to leave and tag a tracking device to it. If the truck departed before regular food bank workers showed up around daylight, he would enter the building to hunt for hard evidence of Jugo Loco, then leave unnoticed.
Going in now would risk engaging the perpetrators.
Cole added, “I’m catching the night crawler and bugging out. Maintain status quo until you hear from me.”
He heard cursing in stereo.
Rory and Justin could be pissed, but they’d be alive to complain.
If he was unable to get out with the homeless guy, it would be because the wolves had killed them both.
If he found the evidence and couldn’t exit the building, he’d break protocol and send word for his men to alert headquarters.
Every shifter on the Gallize teams knew the importance of leaving a scene clean in this type of operation.
Cole wouldn’t have to worry about leaving any evidence of his presence if he were caught by the Black River pack, because they fed prisoners to their pack.
The one upshot of getting killed and eaten if he had to engage? He wouldn’t have to face an ass-chewing.
Cole stepped onto the pavement and crossed the street at a slow pace to avoid drawing attention, but adrenaline spiked through him.
Sensing a hunt, Gray Wolf nudged Cole. Me first.
Not going to happen. Cole didn’t need one more headache right now and Gray Wolf had become increasingly difficult to manage every day over the past two weeks. At one time, his wolf would go dark and stay quiet for twenty to thirty hours, which would worry Cole back during the early days.
Now, he’d welcome any respite from Gray Wolf’s constant pushing to be released.
Cole would have to face the Guardian soon and admit he was close to losing control due to the mating curse, just not right now.
When questioned by other members on the team, the Guardian confirmed that he’d witnessed one case more than a hundred years ago when a Gallize wolf shifter failed to bond with a mate within ten years of his first shift.
That first shift usually happened when a Gallize was in his early twenties.
Not like Cole, who’d met his wolf at nineteen.
Once the curse took effect on that shifter long ago, he’d lost control of his animal within three weeks. The Guardian had put him down, explaining it was the only humane treatment for both the human and the animal.
Over the years, Cole and his teammates had joked about it, making bets on who would bite the bullet and take a mate first.
That was before Cole witnessed the powerful Sammy struggling to manage his animal.
Gray Wolf snarled at being ignored.
Cole paused on the food bank side of the street and clenched his muscles at the internal struggle he fought constantly now. He curled his fingers, feeling the tips of his claws release. His neck muscles tightened. Gritting his teeth, he forced the claws back out of sight and flexed his hands.
When he had control again, he continued toward the food bank door. Rain failed to subdue the noxious smells of urine, rotted food and just plain trash.
He reached the walk-in access to the building and put his ear against the metal door, listening.
No voices or other sounds came through.
Maybe there weren’t any wolves here, since it didn’t sound like they’d found the human yet.
He didn’t have that kind of luck these days.
Using skills he’d gained after joining the Gallize teams, he made quick work with his lockpick tools, then slowly turned the knob.
He pulled the door open an inch.
Pitch dark greeted him.
He sniffed, taking in the odor of multiple humans who probably worked here.
His night vision took over as he entered slowly, sniffing for any shifter scent. Nothing stood out to him besides mildew-laden air, but it had a weird acidic tinge.
What the hell could that smell be?
No scent of Sammy, either.
Cole wanted to feel relief at that, but Sonic had heard that the Black River pack was taking in shifters for experimental treatments. Word was, a mountain lion shifter had offered big money if the Black River pack could make him normal.
Rumors circulated that the pack had a doctor performing successful transformations, turning shifters into human only.
Cole rolled his eyes every time someone mentioned the ridiculous idea.
Did people really believe you could pry the animal from a shifter’s body? That would be as realistic as infusing an animal into the complex makeup of a normal human.
Magic played a role, but even that didn’t fully explain the transformation for some shifters.
A new thought sent chills through Cole.
Could Sammy have believed that offer and gone looking for help for the mating curse?
Sammy had been on edge and showing more signs, but …
No. Surely Sammy wouldn’t have bought into that load of crap. He’d been the one to teach Cole the difference between truth and myth in their world.
Claws broke through Cole’s fingertips. Again.
Gray Wolf banged back and forth, agitated. I protect us.
Cole forced his breathing to stay calm when his skin rippled with the need to change his shape.
Clenching his jaw, he wrangled power back into his own hands and locked down his shaking body. Gray Wolf was getting worse.
Staring at the half claws, Cole couldn’t deny the seduction of a possible cure. At the same time, he could not fathom that the Black River pack had one for any shifter, especially a Gallize-specific problem.
He would accept his fate when the time came.
Not yet. Not as long as he had a chance of finding Sammy.
When the claw tips finally retracted, Cole let out a breath and dismissed all thought of cures. He focused on locating the homeless guy inside. Once he did, he had to get them both out without drawing attention. With a deep inhale, he stepped into the area the truck had entered and caught the scent of a human who hadn’t bathed in a while.
The scent trailed around the rear of the delivery truck to the driver’s side.
No sounds of a human being killed and no scent of a wolf shifter. Maybe a human had delivered the truck and was in the office doing paperwork or drinking coffee.
Getting that kind of break would be nice, and it would allow a minute or two to investigate.
Cole took note of food stacked on pallets in untidy rows and on shelving closer to the door. Stepping carefully, he searched until he spotted cases of pre-made sweet and unsweetened tea in gallon jugs.
Jugo Loco had been discovered shipped as plain old tea more than once, because it was extremely difficult for anyone to determine if a jug had tainted product by smell alone.
Even for the sensitive nose of a wolf shifter.
Taste would work, but Cole didn’t trust touching the liquid with his tongue. Apparently one sip was all it took, since any shifter accidentally getting ahold of the drug would taste the taint immediately and stop drinking. The reports of vicious attacks by out-of-control shifters had been graphic, and his wolf stayed on the edge of crazy as it was these days.
Digging into his back pocket, Cole pulled out a plastic baggie containing a set of test strips coated with a reactive chemical which would turn blue if any of the drug was present in the gallon units.
The first two jugs tested negative, but the strip changed color to blue on the third jug.
Now to find the civilian before any wolves showed up and detected a human—or Cole—on site. He had to attach a satellite transmitter to the truck for tracking, get the homeless guy in hand, then exit as quietly as he’d entered.
When he neared the back of the truck, he peeked into the bed area where cases of tea were stacked.
Sonic had come through.
Based on what Cole had just found in the storage area, this load could very possibly hold more Jugo Loco.
Cole sent a series of taps on his comm unit, letting his men know he was inside and all quiet.
What he didn’t have a code for was how something felt off about all of this.
No sign of life stirred.
But the human’s scent increased the closer he got to the driver’s side.
So did that sharp, stinging smell.
Closing his eyes for a second, Cole struggled to pull out a single scent and processed ... the strong scent of death.
But what was that pungent smell overriding everything else?
Where were the people to unload the truck? He moved silently along the truck toward the driver’s door, breathing through his mouth.
A tiny scuff of noise jerked his head around to the left.
Cole found his homeless guy trying to hide behind a stack of empty pallets.
Sniffing in spite of how the tart smell burned his nostrils, Cole picked up the human’s scent again. What the hell was in that cab that smelled so bad?
Please don’t let it be Sammy.
Cole would have to be closer to scent even Sammy over that stench.
With one more look at the human hiding on his left, their eyes met.
It wasn’t a man, but an elderly woman who looked to be seventy going on two hundred. Her pale, wrinkled face told the story of a hard life. The sickly gaze she held on him said she had one foot in the grave.
He lifted a finger to his lips and she became very still, watching Cole with the attention of prey facing predator. But she didn’t make a sound. That worked for him.
Easing forward again, he swept a look through the dark and too-quiet room. On the next breath, he finally picked up a mild scent of shifter that was no longer in the room. The putrid smell from the cab overwhelmed Cole’s olfactory senses.
He sucked in a deep breath and fought not to cough, but this time he picked up the smell of fresh blood.
Hell. He moved forward quickly.
A worn out yellow ball cap snagged his attention first.
He knew that cap.
Then a skull earring flickered into view.
No. He leaped to stand on the running board and gagged at the mix of bitter odor, blood and body fluids. Sonic stared straight ahead with wide-open, dead eyes. His throat had been cut from side to side. His hands were taped to the steering wheel and a note was pinned to his chest. The message was written below the Black River snarling wolf logo that every member wore as a tattoo, and read:
Surprise, Cavanaugh. Tick. Tock.
Cole’s mind revolted against the words and image.
His heart banged viciously.
A loud click sounded, then ticking started. Cole’s gaze shot to Sonic’s feet where a bomb had been strapped between his legs.
Nine seconds ... eight ...
Cole might get out in time if he ran straight for the door, but he couldn’t leave the woman.
He wheeled around and launched off the truck, landing in front of her. His claws extended and his face tried to change shape.
She backed away and froze.
Cole could hear each tick. Five ... four...
In one scoop, he slung her over his shoulder and raced for the door while shouting in his comm, “Bomb! Retreat, retreat!”
Justin and Rory’s voices blurred with the roar in Cole’s ears.
Gray Wolf howled to be released to save them.
Sirens screeched from multiple emergency units advancing. Were they coming here? How could anyone know already?
Cole kicked the door open.
The last second ticked in his mind.
In one move, he yanked the woman down, wrapped his body around her and leaped forward.
The explosion blasted him higher off his feet and threw him across the street.
Time slowed and heat wrapped his body in a scalding blanket, burning clothes and skin.
He hit a brick surface, snapping bones in the arm and hand he’d shoved out to protect the woman from being crushed.
Blood spewed from his mouth. His momentum held him in place for two slow seconds. Then he slid to the ground.
Sirens faded until he heard nothing.