“Lash, no, please—”
I slid my well-used survival knife deftly into the mark’s heart, his familiar gasp of surprise instantly gratifying. After a few more jerks, his body went limp in my arms. Withdrawing the knife smoothly, I lay the dead weight down across the stoop of his business. His employees would find it when they arrived for work the next morning.
Only one more thing to do.
Moving the coiled whip at my waist out of the way, I went to one knee to sever his head. The bastard rolled as I reached for him, going to all fours as his skin started rippling. A throaty growl issued from his mouth where fangs were rapidly erupting.
“Who’d have figured you for a goddamned shapeshifter?” I hissed, bracing myself for the lunge that was coming. “You’re a street thug, Ken—”
The black panther leapt, it’s still-shifting clawed hands more fingers than paws. Ken knocked me sprawling, kicking hard with his back feet, the nails shredding my shirt.
I shoved up and right with the knife. The cat let out a howl, then went for my throat.
I dropped the knife, and used both hands to keep those white fangs out of me, as I partly shifted, my own fangs forming fast. Spreading my lips wide, I bit down into Ken’s foreleg. He screamed and thrashed, trying to shake me loose, even as he changed form back to human. I held on tight, pumping the venom in as fast as I could.
Thirty seconds later, Ken went limp as his heart stopped.
Spitting the taste of wereblood out of my mouth, I quickly severed his head, placing it in his lap as my boss had instructed.
“Abraham told you to stop selling drugs in his territory,” I hissed. “That you weren’t going to listen was a given. But who the hell turned you? There’re no werepanthers inside the city limits.”
Ken didn’t answer.
I cleaned my knife blade on the remnants of his torn clothes. Why not? It’d already been amateur night here with me having to resort to my venom. Might as well move it up to total incompetence.
I walked off to my car, consoling myself that probably the cops wouldn’t notice poison residue mixed in with the victim’s blood when they had a headless, naked body to hush up. Even if they did, what I used was a common poison; something readily available at a dozen locations inside the city limits. In any case, the sky was lightening. My vampire boss would turn in for the day any minute now. Before he did, I had to get back and make my report.
“Ken’s dead. I left the body like you asked. Someone had turned him panther in the last week—unless you forgot to mention that when you asked me to kill him.”
Abraham shook his head. “I didn’t know. Was that trouble?”
Yeah, he’s naked andheadless. “No.”
He rubbed his eyes. “Good. We’ve had enough since the Crash. People all over the country are suffering. Hoover’s made a few speeches outlining some new government plans, but nothing’s come of them yet.”
“New Orleans will survive.” I bared a fang. “At least as long as you and I have anything to say about it.”
“Get some sleep, Lash. I’ll need you to go back at first dark to find out who turned him, and to make sure that my message was heeded. ”
“And if it wasn’t?”
“You know what to do.”
I sat in my room later that morning, sipping some single malt. For the past month, I’d been having trouble sleeping. A few shots were usually enough to relax me, but this morning it wasn’t working.
It wasn’t the killing, I was used to that. It wasn’t the failing economy, those fucking human deadbeats peddling drugs, or even the vampires and weres I had to keep in line for Abraham.
My own bad memories were keeping me up.
I hadn’t always been an assassin. I’d been a bright young man poised for a successful future, maybe an exemplary one. I’d been going to get married.
Instead I’d become Lash.
I downed the rest of my shot and got into bed, placing my weapons on the nightstand within reach. Sleepless, I lay there remembering.
The first thing I can remember is water and the smell of warm growing things. The damp soggy earth of the swamp, brackish black soup covered with a skin of pale green algae.
I lived with my mother and brother. We were dirt-poor, our home a one-room wooden cabin, the stilts of the floor supports sunk deep into the muddy water. We had a table and four chairs, a rocking chair, a small potbellied stove, and a bed. The latter was big enough only for my mother, but that was all right with us. My brother and I slept on the floor, preferring to be near the stove. Every night in the cool season, my mother would put in a log, and it was comforting to feel the heat soaking into us. We were always human at night, as the cold-bloodedness of our reptile forms let us get chilled easily. We were weresnakes of the water moccasin variety, a type of poisonous viper called cottonmouths.
My mother always said that was our Achilles’ heel; that we were cold-blooded where so many other types of weres were warm-blooded. We could die if we froze, where others like werefoxes, werebears, and werewolves would not. It limited where we could live. There were many snakes in Texas, my mother said, and in the Southwest. There had been many in Florida in the late 1800s, but the ever-encroaching human population had driven most from their coastal homes into the swamp. We were one of those families.
My mother often told us of her childhood in the Keys, where she ate juicy birds and lay in the sun on warm sand.
“We will go there one day, Tryst,” she said, giving me a gentle smile. “You’ll see how beautiful it is.”
“Why do you never call me anything but Franco?” my brother pouted. “You always call Trystan by his nickname.”
“Because you are the older brother, and you have to be strong and brave,” she said sternly. “And because I doubted you wanted to be called Fran.”
I laughed. My brother hissed at me, but he laughed too. He was easygoing, my brother was, with more of my mother’s temperament than I had. He looked a little like her too, his mouth always ready to smile, his eyes usually twinkling, and his features open and honest. I never knew his father, so I couldn’t say if he had his father’s features. But his hazel eyes were my mother’s, and they were always happy.
We usually hunted in snake form, though that was the only time we changed forms, emerging from the house only after the transformation was complete. My mother was afraid of someone finding out about us and told us we couldn’t risk changing form outside. Even deep in the swamp as we were, sometimes swamp tours traveled off the beaten path, the white ghost faces looking all around in fear before the guide got the boat turned around. We would always hide and were never seen in snake form, only as humans. We spent at least a few hours every day in snake form, so it wasn’t as if we were deprived. But feeling of shame was there even then, that non-weresnakes would not accept us, that what we were was something to be hidden away and only let out when no one was watching.
I had long since heard the tale of Franco’s father, and how he died. But where was my father? One day, when I was about five, I asked my mother.
“Is he dead too?” I hissed softly, very worried she would say yes.
“No,” she said, hugging me. “At least I don’t think so. I would like to think I would know if he died.”
“Why isn’t he here with us?”
“He would like to be,” she said comfortingly. “He just can’t be right now, Tryst. But have patience. You’ll meet him someday.”
I wanted to meet him now. Waiting was crap, as my brother so eloquently put it. But no matter how much I wheedled, my mother would say no more.
Later that night, I woke up to find her missing. Franco was awake, and he grabbed hold of me as I went to get up.
“Stay quiet,” he said. “Mom’s upset. Don’t let on you’re awake.”
Franco was nine years of age to my paltry five years. I obeyed, silently peering out the window with him, through the ripped mosquito netting. My mother was sitting by herself in the moonlight, sobbing. My first instinct was to go to her, but my brother stopped me.
“See? This is where all your talk of your father has gone. You had to go on and on about it! Look how upset she is.”
“I’m sorry,” I hissed guiltily. A few tears slid from my eyes.
“Stop crying!” he hissed back. “You and I have to be strong for her. Crying makes things worse.”
“Okay,” I snuffled, biting my lip with my fangs, the pain stopping my tears. “What do we do?”
“Don’t talk about your father anymore. And help me hunt. You’re old enough to catch your own dinner now. Mom does enough.”
I nodded. I would try harder.
Things went on with almost no change until I was seven. Then my mother came home from hunting one day to tell us we were moving.
I felt a horrible sense of loss. This was the only home I knew. I didn’t want to go anywhere else. And the worst of it was that we weren’t just moving to another location in the swamp. We were moving to a town—a town of humans, where we would be forced to live among them. After years of having to avoid them, the idea was incomprehensible to me.
“No! I’m not going!” I shouted.
My mother looked so angry I thought she might spank me. She rarely did that, but she had once or twice, like the time I’d said “screw,” and the time I’d put some mud in her one pair of shoes as a joke. Instead, it was my brother who grabbed hold of me.
“Trystan, we have to. We don’t own this land we live on. The state of Florida does, and they’ve gone and sold it to developers. There is some talk of turning this area into a theme park of some sort, something to bring in more tourists—”
Fucking tourists. Why couldn’t they stay where they lived and out of our home? I fucking hated them; I hated them all, just as I feared them.
“—and so we have to leave. They’ll kick us out if they find us—”
“When are they coming?” I said, fearful to wake up and find humans peering at me through the window as I was sleeping.
“Not for a while,” my mother said softly. “But it will be soon enough. Tryst. There has to be no trace of us here. We need to find another home, one that belongs to us.”
“Okay,” I said falteringly. “I’ll go.”
That next day, we packed up everything and gorged ourselves on as many fish, frogs, and birds as we could catch. The morning after, we put our few belongings on our backs, and began poling out of the swamp in our small boat. We made it out in only a few hours.
I was instantly afraid. I hadn’t known the world had so many people. I saw five immediately as we came out into a small clearing. They were in a large fishing boat with a scruffy-looking man at the helm. The four men were fishing, though they looked as if the suits they were wearing were much too hot and uncomfortable for them to be relaxing. There was a woman too, smoking a long cigarette and looking at us as if we were a dead fish’s guts or something else just as worthless.
We poled past them, and one of the men spat at us. I felt shock and then utter rage.
“Natives. Little better than Negros,” the man said, averting his eyes. “They breed like rabbits.”
“Should have a hunting season on them,” the other man said, and they both laughed.
My brother grabbed hold of me and told me to keep quiet, so I didn’t swim over there in snake form and bite him as I wanted to. My mother just averted her gaze and pretended as if nothing was the matter.
We poled to shore and left our boat there. We wouldn’t need it where we were going.
It took us three days of walking to reach a town. We bunked down in some bushes at night to sleep. I was just happy it wasn’t raining. Storms were frequent, and I didn’t want to be wearing soaked clothes for days.
When we got there, she took us directly to the sheriff’s office, told us to wait, and then went inside. Franco stayed with me, but when he heard the conversation, he hissed and went in. It took me only a second to decide to follow him.
“Ma’am, there are no jobs here for cleaning,” the sheriff said, eying my mother with a strange look in his eye. “But if you want to try the saloon, there’s no doubt an opening for a barmaid, and you’re more than qualified by the look of you—”
“Thank you, no,” my mother said curtly. “I’ve no wish to work in a saloon. We’ll try the next town. Perhaps it will be bigger—”
“No one will hire you there, either,” the man said in a slimy voice. “You’re fine for the fields or the brothels, but not for work as a lady’s maid—”
My mother just looked at him for a moment, nodded once, and took my brother and me to the next town. The answer was the same there. And at the next.
We worked our way north slowly. We ate when we were hungry, and slept when we were tired. Looking back, if we had not stuck to back roads and small towns, we might have starved. But as the swamp had, the forest held many mice, rabbits, birds, frogs, and other prey for us. Still, we were always hungry. Flesh might have filled our bellies as snakes, but an all-protein diet, especially a lean one, and the constant walking took its toll on us as human. When we finally reached the town of Centennial, just a few miles from the coast of South Carolina, we were almost skeletal. We rested for a while before entering the town. At a small farm on the outskirts, my brother was able to work for a week, netting our family not only a warm place to sleep at night, but also something besides flesh to eat.
By the time we walked into Centennial, I was no longer seven.
For the first time in our travels, luck was with us. The local diner’s cook had just died in a brawl, and his position was open. My mother tried for that first, but was turned down. Happily, the cook’s wife, now a widow of some means, packed up her bags that same night we arrived. The next morning, my mother took the widow’s old position, that of waitressing in the restaurant and cleaning up at night.
It wasn’t a bad time. There were mostly people of Spanish descent in that town and just a few whites. While they didn’t know us, the paler members of their society persecuted us in the same way, so we were welcomed. For a time, it was easy to blend in.
There was no school in town. These people labored in the fields, and their children started working young. In retrospect, I’m not sure why my mother didn’t have my brother and me get jobs, as that would have helped with rent and expenses. Instead we hunted a lot to supplement her earnings, and now because of all the people around, we had to do it in human form. We stunk at it, and it took a good part of the day to catch a few rabbits. My brother asked for a gun so that he might hunt deer, but my mother refused to even consider it. So he built a bow and arrow instead and showed me how to set snares, and we were able to keep ourselves in meat. But the game was not as abundant as it had been in the swamp, and while we weren’t hungry, we never really had enough to feel full.
The children mostly shied away from my brother and me. They were nice enough to point out the best place to steal a few apples on a lazy Saturday afternoon for a snack, the best local swimming hole, and the older men and women who might shoot at anyone who trespassed on their land. But when we showed up, they always excused themselves and melted away, leaving us alone. Idiot that I was, I believe that they had just realized it was time for dinner. My brother clued me in one night as we sat outside the diner looking at the stars. My mother was cleaning up after the day, and we were waiting outside for her, hoping there had been food left over today that we might have for supper. I was secretly hoping for leftover pork chops. I’d never had pork before we’d left the swamp, and the taste of it was delightful—so sweet and fatty. But pork was a low probability. Usually it was bread or vegetables that were left over, when there was anything at all.
“They’re afraid of us, those other kids,” he hissed, which meant he was upset. “On some subconscious level they know we aren’t human.”
“Can’t we do anything?” I said in a small voice. “I want to be liked. I want to play ball with them, like they play sometimes on Sunday afternoons—”
“Forget it,” my brother said, throwing a stone pebble into the street puddle where it splashed. “You can’t be anything but snake. And you’ll never play ball with them. Never, Tryst.”
I felt sad, but said nothing. What was there to say? My brother was older and he knew a lot more than I did, so he was probably right.
My mother came out and gave us a smile, though she looked tired. But I didn’t see how thin she was, just how glad she looked when she saw us.
“Ready to go home?” she said.
Immediately my heart lifted. I swallowed the hope bitterly, reminding myself she meant our new home here, not our home back in the swamp.
We nodded. Franco took the wrapped parcel she handed him, and I took the one she handed me. Slowly we trudged home, and when we got there, my mother put the frying pan on the stove, and Franco unwrapped the parcels. Tonight we had bread, potatoes, some rabbits Franco had caught, a pair of frogs, and a thin sliver of butter. We divided it up, and as usual, my mother insisted we eat the larger portions because we were growing. We insisted she eat the most, because she was working a twelve-hour shift every day but Sunday. And we ended up sharing it all equally, as we usually did.
About a month later, my brother and I noticed that a man was now waiting for our mother to close up the diner each night. He was nice-looking, tall, and soft-spoken. He would give us candy, which I greedily took, though Franco always refused. His name was Rodney, and soon enough we found out that he owned the local paper. It wasn’t much of a publication, just one for the county, but he made decent money. He lived in a nice house, a big two storey that was about a block away from the diner.
I saw the way he looked at my mother though, and I didn’t like it. Neither did Franco.
Things finally reached a breaking point on a Saturday night. My mother had been anxious all day, though she denied anything was wrong. We were waiting for her as usual when it happened.
Rodney was inside, talking to her like he normally did and drinking a cup of coffee. Then I heard her shout.
“Really? They said yes? Please don’t say it if it’s not true!”
“Yes, Rachel, it’s true. They want you to come and be a lady’s maid there at the Case Hotel. I just got the letter today. Here, take a look.”
I was shocked. I hadn’t known my mother could read. Our family didn’t own any books, or anything with a printed word on it.
“My God!” my mother said happily. “This is so wonderful! I’ve been praying and hoping so much for this!”
“I hoped you’d be happy.”
“I am—Hey! Stop it!”
“Rachel, stop being a tease. You understood if I helped you get this job, you’d come across.”
I heard a hard slap, and then silence.
“I’m no whore,” my mother said, and I was shocked that she could sound that angry and not be hissing. “So don’t treat me like one, Mr. Gehn.”
“I’m sorry,” he said in a softly. “I’ll be leaving.”
Rodney came out the door, and we both hid, not wanting to see him. He was shamefaced, and walked quickly towards his house. My mother came out a few minutes later. She appeared calm as she usually was, her face placid and serene. Yet the scent coming off her was one part rage, and two parts disappointment. She began walking toward home. Without a word, we followed.
My mother made polite conversation through dinner, though her scent of fury and bitterness remained the same. Finally, Franco asked her loudly what the hell was going on. I don’t know who was more taken aback, my mother or me.
“Franco, I applied for a job at a large hotel on the coast. Rodney helped me, and wrote the letter. I can read, but my penmanship is not the best. I got it.”
“So we’re leaving again?” I couldn’t tell if he was angry or upset. Maybe he was a little bit of both,
“Yes, in a few days, less if we can. It will take us a week at least to get there by walking, maybe more. They expect me in two weeks.”
I went to bed upset. But more was to come.
I was sleeping near the fire when a loud cry made my brother and me come awake bolt upright. It was coming from my mother’s room—the only other room in this place we called home.
My brother grabbed beneath his bed, and lifted out a huge rusty revolver, which he loaded with four bullets. He got up from bed, and I heard the cry again. My mother was in danger! She needed our help! I got up without thinking, but my brother pushed me back down.
“Stay here,” he hissed at me. “I’m going in there.”
I nodded because I was afraid. Franco ran for the door, throwing it open. Through the gap I glimpsed my mother on her bed, fighting hard with Rodney. She was strong, but she hadn’t eaten enough in months, her strength was at low ebb. And Rodney was a man crazed with lust.
“Give it to me! I’ve waited long enough to have you! You act like you’re a goddamn virgin, but you’ve got two sons, Rachel, so you clearly know how to please a man—”
“Get off me, vermin! Get—”
“Get off her!” my brother said, steadily pointing the gun at Rodney with both hands. “Right now.”
Rodney looked at my brother, and slowly got up off my mother. I was instantly relieved to see he was fully dressed.
“Give me that, you whelp, before you hurt yourself—”
“Give it to me—”
“Get out! Or I’ll shoot!”
Rodney had inched closer. With a quick move, he slapped the gun out of my brother’s hands and punched him in the face. My brother fell to the floor. Rodney began hitting him over and over, grunting. My mother tried to stop him, but he struck her hard across her face, knocking her back to the bed.
Something happened to me then. I calmly got up from my hiding place, went to the gun, picked it up, made sure it was cocked as I’d seen my brother do, and walked to Rodney, who didn’t even see me. I put the muzzle against the side of his head and pulled the trigger.
His head exploded in a spray of blood, and he fell backward off my brother to land on the floor, still twitching. My brother looked at me, fear in his eyes. Yet when I reached a hand down to him, he took it. We went over to our mother, who hugged us.
“We have to leave,” Franco said, looking at Rodney’s corpse. “They’ll know we killed him.”
“We have to hide the body, get rid of it.”
They both looked at me in shock, then with dawning understanding.
“What?” I hissed. “We need to leave, and make it seem we had nothing to do with him dying. They’ll know where we’re going from the letter, and if we leave the same night he’s found murdered, they’ll send someone after us—”
“Tryst is right,” my mother said. “Take him to the bridge near the river and throw him off. The current will pull him downstream. They’ll say he drowned, that his head was smashed open on a rock when he fell in. Take a bottle of whisky with you, he’s known as a drinker—”
“Where do we get that?”
“Go to his house and get one. Here are his keys. His wife may be waiting up for him, so be extra careful. Grab anything of value that won’t be easily missed.”
I’d not thought my mother would ever steal from anyone. But in the next moment, I saw her reach into his pocket, pull out the letter from the Case Hotel, and tuck it into the front of her dress. Then she went through his pockets and grabbed his wallet, which was full and clinked a good deal. That also went into the front of her dress.
“Take him now, my sons,” she hissed. “I’ll clean up here.”
We left, carrying him between us with effort. We got him to the bridge without being seen. Here my brother tore off a scrap of his suit, and then together, we threw him off. His body swirled in the current, and then he was lost in the shadows.
We went to Rodney’s house next. I stood guard while Franco sneaked in and came out with a bottle of whiskey, a pair of plain silver cufflinks, and a few silver spoons.
My brother left the scrap of cloth near the bridge. He also dropped the bottle of whiskey on the ground so it spilled, and left the keys lying next to the bottle.
“She was awake,” he whispered. “His wife was awake. She almost saw me.”
“I didn’t know he had a wife.”
“It doesn’t matter. Come on. We have to hurry.”
We hightailed it back to our soon-no-longer-to-be-home, and found my mother waiting and packed.
“Where did you get the gun?” she asked Franco, when we were beyond the town limits.
“From the corpse of a militiaman on the riverbank,” my brother said. “He looked like a deserter; he had no food, no pack, not even any shoes.”
“Were there any more bullets?”
“Just the four,” my brother said. “He’d used the gun on himself twice.”
“Stupid humans,” my mother said, rolling her eyes. “No will to survive.”
“I want the gun back,” my brother said forcefully. “It’s mine.”
“It’s Tryst’s, and he’ll carry it until we reach the coast,” my mother said flatly. “He has the will to use it, and you don’t, Franco. Don’t be upset about that. I’m not any good with guns, either. Some people find it easier to kill than others do. Your father never liked to kill.”
“Did mine?” I couldn’t help asking.
“He didn’t mind it,” my mother said, her expression troubled. She didn’t look at me. “He didn’t mind it.”
Two weeks later, we arrived at the Case Hotel. I was afraid at once. This place was huge. There was a small town, rows of big houses, still larger houses along the coastline, and finally a grand hotel with five hundred rooms, an expanse of white beach, and thousands of people. On the outskirts of all this, there were many small, rough houses, which I discovered later served as quarters for the servants who worked in all those big houses.
We were lucky, my mother said. Being a lady’s maid, she had free lodging in the hotel and free food. But all was not well.
“It was understood you were single, not a mother,” the blonde woman at the counter said when my mother handed her the letter. “You can’t work here and have illegitimate children. This hotel has a reputation to uphold—”
“They are not illegitimate. My husband died.”
“Can you prove that? Death certificate? Marriage certificate? Birth certificates?”
My mother got out some papers and handed them to her. The woman behind the counter looked at them, and then back at my mother.
“Where is the one for the younger boy?”
“His father died before he was born. They wouldn’t give one to me without his signature,” my mother lied.
I couldn’t believe that such a bad lie would be believed, but the lady behind the counter nodded. “They’ll have to work for their keep, and they won’t draw any salary, not until they reach the age of thirteen.”
“Fine, but they must have all the food they need, so they can work as hard as they can,” my mother said firmly. “And not just bread and water. Meat, at least twice a day, and not just fat and gristle—”
“That is understood,” the woman said, nodding again. “The Case Hotel is known for its fairness to its workers. This will work out well, actually. Being boys, they’ll be good assets, much better than if you had two girls.”
My mother gave a smile, but as we headed to our room, she scowled. When we got there, we were pleasantly surprised. The room was huge, with a large bed big enough for my mother, and another couch that turned into a bed for my brother and me. There was no stove, but the room was warm, the blankets were heavy, and the carpet thick as a blanket. We had never had carpet before. I took off my shoes, so that I might feel it under my feet. I wanted badly to become snake and slither around on it. I just knew it would feel so soft along my underbelly.
“Rest,” my mother said. “I need to sleep. In an hour, we’ll go down to dinner, and then find out what we will be doing.”
“Do I really have to work?” Franco said hesitantly. “I don’t mind, but I don’t know how to do anything.”
“Watch, and do what they tell you,” my mother said. “I’ll do the same. It will be okay.”
She was right. My brother was soon bussing tables in the hotel restaurant. He said cleaning up after the rich guests was more than a little disgusting. Yet sometimes the food was barely eaten, and then Franco would get to sample some of the expensive dishes, like poached salmon, whitefish, and escargot. He boasted about that to me until my mother took him aside and said something to him, and then he said no more about it.
My mother liked her job too. As a lady’s maid, she took direction from the servants of the ladies themselves. Most of what she was required to do was simple fetching and tidying, or preparation, like laying out clothes, or drawing a bath. While it was nerve-grating sometimes, she said she liked it, that it was much easier than what she had done until now, and that no men were ever around to bother her at all. That last she said with relief, making me wonder how many other men had bothered her in her other job. No doubt, looking back, she felt bad about killing Rodney and taking his money after he’d helped her get this job. My brother felt a little bad too about it, I thought, from the way he sometimes sat by himself and seemed to stare off into space.
I didn’t feel bad. That fuck had deserved everything he got, and more besides. He’d gotten off easy. My only regret was I had no money for more bullets, though I did swipe some sandpaper and oil and got the gun cleaned up and oiled so that the metal shone, and the center chambers slipped out easily and with no noise when I pressed the release. I then practiced getting the bullets into the gun quickly, and sighting potential targets in. But with no more bullets, I couldn’t practice my aim.
I hadn’t a lot of spare time, anyway. I wasn’t asked to be a busboy for some reason no one ever really told me, though I deemed it was because I looked a little menacing and didn’t smile much. Maybe they thought the sight of me wouldn’t make people hungry. Assholes.
Yet I was good enough for hard labor. I was put to work in the stables, cleaning up after horses for the guests. Cars had been invented, but not very common yet, though once in a great while one of the richer guests had one. The stable housed many horses of all breeds. Some were horses that stayed there for a time with their masters, and some were horses the hotel kept for guests to rent out, both for pleasure and for transport. Yet all those horses had two things in common; they all scented the snake in me and didn’t like it one fucking bit.
I was kicked twice in my chest on my first day. If I hadn’t been were, I’d have died. As it was, I felt sick all afternoon from the pain as my ribs knitted back together. The next day one bit me on the arm, hard enough to almost crack the bone. After that, I took to stealing sugar lumps from the kitchen whenever I ate a meal in the back, where the servants were usually fed dinner, to bribe the horses. With that routine bribery, I was never hurt again, though the horses tolerated me in their stalls only so long as I gave them the sugar and got out again in about ten minutes. Luckily I was fast, being weresnake, and I learned to be even faster.
My work ethic pleased my boss, who gave me other stable work to do. Fortunately, that was not in the presence of any animals, so I could slow down my frantic pace. Even better, he paid me for it. It was only five pennies a week, but that was a lot back then. If he’d been an ass, he could have made me work for free. I was grateful to him, and in return helped him when I could, carrying heavy loads, and running errands for him on my own time. He was kind to me, the first human who was. His name was John.
Months passed that way, and then some years, and we all grew older. Because we no longer had to hunt, my brother and I filled out, as we hadn’t for many years. Franco was taller than I was by at least a foot, and I gathered from what my mother said that his father had been taller than mine. I resented that, I admit. Still, it wasn’t as though I was a dwarf or anything, so I never complained, though I was very jealous of his good looks. Women looked at him the way they never did at me, soon after he turned sixteen. As he got older, he got more and more attention.
My mother was much healthier. Her face lost that tired look she had worn for so long, even though she continued to give us a lot of her own food. I am ashamed to this day that I took it, and didn’t think of her more. But she was stubborn, and might not have eaten it even if my brother and I had refused to.
It was about a year after we came that the management of the Case Hotel established a school for the children of the hotel workers. There was a movement in those years after the Great War to better the younger generation, so that there would never be another war so horrible as that first one. Even so, the management wouldn’t let the children of fieldworkers or servants who didn’t work at the hotel attend. Most late fall and early spring days, both slow seasons at the hotel, we gathered in the afternoons. They taught us basic reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Again, despite their good intentions, not all was well. The first schoolmaster was a pedophile and a monster. You’d think those were the same things, but he was more than a sexual predator; he was a master at covering his crimes up, and making the child believe there was no one to turn to. He lasted four and a half weeks, until I caught him at it one Sunday afternoon when I was out sunbathing as a snake and practicing loading my gun. Hearing cries for help and recognizing the voice as someone from class, I went to investigate, and caught the schoolmaster sodomizing one of the eight-year-old boys. After that, I had only two bullets to practice loading the gun.
The boy I’d saved thanked me and swore he would tell no one. As far as I knew, he never did. If only all humans were like him… Anyway, he helped me toss the body out to sea, and the tide took it out. That afternoon, I bought some more bullets with the money I stole from the schoolmaster and my savings from working in the hotel. I told the shopkeep it was an errand for my supervisor and he believed me.
Now I had fifty bullets. I practiced shooting sometimes, only spending five bullets at a time. At first, I was a terrible shot at any distance, but by the time I’d reached the last five, I was decent.
Years passed. When I was fifteen, things went bad for a while. The old stable master John got sick from the flu that winter. I did my best to nurse him, and even got my mother to make him some healing poultices to try to break his fever. But it was for nothing, and he died without seeing the spring.
The new stable master, David, expected me to do the same work I’d been doing with no extra pay, and I had no say, although I tried asking for fair compensation. He found out the hard way that I’d work better if he paid me the day the hotel owner’s prize stallion kicked down his stall door, and it had to be replaced. When I let him try to lift the two hundred-pound door by himself instead of helping him, he dropped one end on his foot, breaking it in two places. I came to his aid, and not only got it off his foot, but also carried him to the hotel’s resident doctor. Things went better after that. I begin to get ten pennies a week, which improved my disposition toward him.
I could read well by that time, though my writing wasn’t that great. But while I had friends in the pages of my books, I had not one single friend in that whole damned school. The boy I’d saved talked to me for a while, but drifted away as he got older. Not that I minded being alone. I didn’t. My books and my brother and mother were enough.
At least they were until May of 1921, the summer I turned sixteen and everything changed.