The newsroom was never silent.
At any given moment at least a dozen people – usually more – would be tapping away at their keyboards with varying levels of speed and force, producing an irregular staccato rhythm that was punctuated by the ringing of telephones, the whirring of photocopiers, and the barking of editors. It was the frenetic pulse of the daily news, driven by the furious heartbeat of the information age. It was discordant and chaotic and beautiful.
It was music, in its own way, and hearing it always made me feel like a part of some grand journalistic tradition, a sacred order whose mission was to root out lies, secrets, and corruption, bringing the truth into the light of day.
It was an absurdly idealistic notion that had little grounding in reality, and I knew it. That didn’t make it any less intoxicating.
I tapped idly at my keyboard, considering my next words carefully. For the past few days, I’d been working on a series of articles about the wild wolf population in Arizona, and it was getting increasingly difficult to avoid slipping into editorial diatribes. Maybe I’d ask Kurt if I could do an opinion piece to cap the whole series off.
As the only werewolf journalist at the Sonoran Reporter (and probably in the entire American Southwest), I had, inevitably, ended up assigned to the wolf-related story. It was blatant stereotyping, but I didn’t complain. It gave me an excuse to get out of the city for a couple days on the (entirely real) pretense of conducting interviews. As much as I loved Phoenix, living in the city was a constant source of low-level stress for my lupine instincts.
It hadn’t been too hard to muster the energy to get passionate about the subject. I didn’t particularly care much for natural wolves, and the members of Canis lupus that I had encountered seemed to feel the same way about me. That was fine though, because the issues involved were larger than just the wolves. Issues like poaching laws going unenforced. It was far too easy to imagine myself or another werewolf caught in a poacher’s gun sights and mistaken for a regular wolf.
Or maybe even not mistaken, but shot anyways.
I shook my head, trying to dispel thoughts of men with guns from my mind. Even if someone did shoot me, I would have to be exceptionally unlucky to die from it. Werewolves healed fast, so unless the bullet hit a vital organ, I could survive a gunshot wound. Theoretically, at least. It wasn’t something I was eager to test any time soon.
Despite my best efforts, my thoughts kept drifting back to one of the last interviews I had done before driving back to the city. I had finished talking to all the big names – lobbyist leaders, program heads, local politicians – and had decided, almost on a whim, to interview one of the local cattle ranchers. I’d had some half-baked idea of getting the perspective of the man on the street, so to speak.
The first thing that had struck me about the man was the number of guns he owned. He kept them mostly out of sight while talking to me, but firearms have a very distinct odor of steel, oil, and sulfur. An odor which pervaded his house, overpowering every other scent there.
The second thing about him that had stuck with me was his rabid, fanatical hatred of wolves.
“They’re a menace,” he had said. Shouted, really. “An absolute menace to every honest, hard-working man like myself. They’d slaughter entire herds in the fields if we let ‘em!”
I had politely asked him how many cattle he had lost to wolf predation.
None, I was informed, but he assured me that it was only because of his “constant vigilance.”
I had been tempted to tell him that I was a werewolf, just to see what his reaction would be, but I wasn’t sure what I would do if he reacted violently. So in the end, self-preservation won out, and I finished the interview and fled to the safety of my car with nary a word about my lycanthropy.
I had no question at all about whether that man would shoot me if he saw me while I was a wolf. And I was under no illusions that he was alone in his convictions.
“Has anyone ever told you that you worry too much?”
I blinked, snapping myself out of my reverie, and looked up to see Rico Durante leaning on the edge of my desk.
“I’m not worrying,” I said, a bit too defensively.
“You’ve got that look on your face. The one you make when you’re thinking deep, cynical thoughts.”
I hmphed petulantly. He was right, of course. Rico had been my friend for years. He probably knew my body language better than I did.
“Nickel for your thoughts?” He said.
“Isn’t it supposed to be a penny?” I asked.
“Gotta keep pace with inflation,” he said, grinning. “Come on, what’s got you down?”
I sighed. “I don’t know. General malaise, I guess.”
“That kind of week, huh?”
“Yeah.” To be honest, it had been that kind of week for a few months now.
“Anything I can do to help?”
I smiled. “You already have.” Rico had a way of improving any situation just by being there. I suspected it was because of his unassailable cheerfulness. It was infectious.
“And here I was thinking I’d have to pull out my Dr. Phil impression,” he said.
The mental image of Rico – with his perpetual five o’clock shadow of stubble and slicked back hair – doing an impression of Dr. Phil was ridiculous enough to make me laugh.
“See?” He said, smiling. “That’s more like it. You gotta learn to laugh more, Stone.”
I waved him away. “Go on, shoo. I’m supposed to be writing an article, and if you make me late for this deadline neither of us is gonna be laughing.”
He raised his hands apologetically. “Alright, alright, I’ll get out of your hair.” He started walking away, then turned around to face me. Walking backwards now, he said, “Remember. Laugh more.”
I rolled my eyes and turned back to my computer, all thoughts of werewolf hunters gone from my mind. Rico might not have known exactly what was bothering me, but he had known precisely what to say to make me feel better.
It didn’t take long for me to finish typing up the rest of the article. It wasn’t anything spectacular that would be going on the front page, but I had known that going in. Satisfied with what I had written, I emailed the draft to my editor, along with a request to do an opinion piece to finish off the series.
It was still pretty early in the evening when I left the office. Early enough that going home right away wasn’t a very attractive prospect. So instead, I went to the Bullet.
The Silver Bullet is a bar in south Phoenix that serves as the focal point of the city’s therianthrope community. The owner, a werepanther named Desmond Ward, opened the place a little under two decades ago, intending for it to serve as a sort of neutral ground and safe zone for Phoenix’s shapeshifters. So far, it seemed to be working out pretty well.
They also serve a hella good rare steak, which probably contributes more than a little to that success. Fastest way to the heart is through the stomach, as they say. (Which is pretty accurate in a literal sense as well, although it really depends on the strength of the rib cage and whether or not that forces you to take an indirect approach.)
I went there most nights I got off early, sometimes to drink but mostly to socialize. It was one of the few places I could cut loose and truly relax, not having to worry about keeping my lupine instincts in check, because everybody else was operating on the same (or similar) instincts too.
Katrina Williams was manning the bar tonight. She was a werewolf, like me, and one of my closest friends in the Phoenix pack. We’d both moved to the city around the same time, and, being broke, millennials, and werewolves, had ended up as roommates for a few years.
“Hey Heather,” she said, noticing me come in. “Bit early, aren’t you?”
I pulled up a seat at the bar. Other than the two of us, there were only a handful of people inside. Most of the regular crowd wouldn’t start showing up until happy hour started.
I shrugged noncommittally. “I suppose.”
“Uh huh.” She looked at me studiously, trying to gauge my body language. “So is this a vodka chased by tequila kind of early, or a light beer kind of early?”
Not that there would be much difference between the two. My lycanthropic metabolism made it difficult to get even close to drunk. I wasn’t clear on exactly why that was, but it had come in handy more than once during college.
I shrugged again. “Let’s say beer, for now. And a steak.”
“You got it.” She pulled a glass out from under the counter, filled it with a frothy golden lager, and slid it over to me. Then she ducked into the kitchen for a moment to relay my order to whoever was cooking tonight.
“Anything interesting on the grapevine?” I asked when she returned.
Now it was her turn to shrug. “Eh, not much. Closest thing to news I’ve heard today is someone saying that Benson was spotted in Vegas.”
“Vegas, huh?” I said, suppressing the urge to snarl. Just the mention of the former pack leader’s name made me want to growl. “Any idea what he’s doing there?”
“Hell if I know,” Kat said. “To be honest, as long he stays out of Phoenix, I don’t give a shit what he does.”
“What happens in Vegas?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
I took a long sip of my beer, then shook my head in disbelief. “Can’t believe that son of a bitch isn’t dead yet,” I said. “Or in prison.”
“It’s only a matter of time.”
“I hope so.” I took another drink. “I’ve already got enough anxiety on my plate worrying about Kidd and this thing with the lobos.” Within the pack, we used the Spanish name to distinguish the wild wolves from us. “The last thing I need is to add the threat of him coming back into town to all of that.”
Kat looked at me with concern. “Has anyone ever told you that you worry too much?”
I actually laughed at that. “Multiple times today, in fact.”
“Maybe you should listen to them.”
I sighed. “If only it were that easy.”
Someone shouted something – an order number, most likely – from the kitchen, cutting Kat off before she could reply.
“Be right back,” she, before ducking back into the kitchen. She returned a moment later with the steak I had ordered, which she exchanged for the now empty glass sitting in front of me. I started eating while she refilled it.
“So,” she said, placing the full glass in front of me. “What is the thing with the lobos anyways?”
“Mmm.” I held up a finger while I finished chewing. “Okay, so, have you been reading the features I’ve been doing this week?”
“I skimmed a couple, but other than that, no.” She actually managed to sound contrite about it.
“That’s fine, don’t worry about it. You’re not really the intended audience anyways.” I took another bite of steak. “Anyways, there’s two major things regarding the lobos, at least as far as you or I should be concerned.” I listed them off on my fingers. “First, there’s the huge amount of poaching going on right now, which the state and the feds are mostly turning a blind eye too.”
“You’re worried one of us might get shot?”
I nodded. “I don’t think it’s likely, given that we rarely run in Apache. But it’s happened in the past, it can happen again.”
“And the second thing?”
“Our Senators are doing their damnedest to get the lobos off the endangered species list.” I paused for more steak. “And that’s a problem because it would decriminalize wolf hunting throughout the state.”
Kat looked at me skeptically. “What, you think that people would start hunting us?”
“Don’t look at me like that. It’s still only considered manslaughter if you kill a werewolf in wolf form and it can’t be proven that you knew they were a werewolf.” Another bite of steak. “As long as wolf hunting is illegal, it’s difficult to use that as a defense, which makes the murder charges easier to prove. Delisting the lobos would remove that deterrent.”
Kat’s expression was a mixture of concern and doubt. But mostly doubt. In fact, almost exclusively doubt. “You’re paranoid, you know that?”
I shrugged. “I prefer the term cautiously pessimistic.”
Kat shook her head. “That attitude’s not exactly healthy.”
“Neither is getting shot.”
She didn’t have a response to that.
Most people didn’t.