Join werewolf reporter Justin Slinger as he sniffs out his next story for the Once Upon Times.
A serial killer is loose in the kingdom. Can Slinger hunt down the strangler? Will “Artillery Rose” (aka: Little Red Riding Hood) help him out or accidentally blow him up? Find out in Renegade Red (and the Merry Woods Strangler).
Enjoy a preview of part one below.
There were dozens of conversations torpedoing through the newsroom at any given moment, but I only cared about the one taking place on the other end of my receiver.
“Come on, Salty,” I coaxed the second mate of the Jolly Bobber. “Help me take down the dirtbags polluting the port. They’re destroying the ocean and working their crew like slave drivers.”
I fisted the corded landline as though my source would get away if I loosened one finger on the telephone. My other hand flipped through my slender spiral notepad, past scribbled notes to a fresh page near the back. I only had a few sheets left before it was time to start in on a fresh notebook.
Salty’s hoarse voice sounded irritable on the other end of the line. “Our crew has enough problems avoiding the royal fleet without drawing extra attention.”
“I told you, I keep my sources anonymous,” I reminded him.
“Sorry, Slinger. We’re setting sail. Time to weigh anchor.”
The disappointing drone of the dial tone sunk my hopes like a treasure chest lost at sea.
“Monkey flutter!” I cursed, before shoving a stick of cinnamon gum in my mouth and chewing aggressively.
I tossed my pencil on my notebook right as a pea-sized projectile hit the side of my face. When I whipped around, a second fragment pelted my forehead.
I growled at Crukmik, the editor-in-chief of Finance. The spindly imp grinned from above a pointy chin. When he lifted his skeletal fingers to throw another of whatever it was he had the gall to toss, I snarled in warning.
“Throw that anywhere near my person, and I will rip you apart, then reassemble you into an imp kabob and eat you for lunch—raw.” I would rather chow down on a bison burger from the Make a Sandwish deli any day, but my mood was foul enough to make good on the threat.
Crukmik lowered his bony arm and flashed thin, jagged teeth. “What? They’re magic beans. I thought you might need them after Kensington kicks your furry hide to the curb for being a doddering has-been.”
“Worry about your own runty stump,” I snapped.
The imp snickered. “Nothing to worry about in my section. Finance excretes gold as far as Kensington’s concerned.”
Right. Because of Crukmik’s connections with influential imps like Rumpelstiltskin. Not that any of us could razz him about it, since the bozo boasted about his prized consultant on a weekly—sometimes daily—basis.
Wings wafted from an open window as a seagull swooped over the heads of journalists before landing on my desk and dropping a small glass vial with a note crammed inside. My heart surged with renewed confidence.
I opened my bottom desk drawer, pulled out a carton of old fries, and offered them to the seagull, who snatched up three before flying out the way he had come in. After tossing the fries back in my drawer, I pinched the top of the note, freed it from the vial, and smoothed out the water-stained note over my desk. It was from Ariel, and what she had to share about the villainy taking place at the port was my golden goose.
Rooting out corruption meant more to me than winning journalism awards, but my editor felt differently. Luckily, exposing evildoing in the kingdom was a sure shot at a Pied Paper Prize, which meant prestige and job security and—most importantly—the freedom to take down more crooks. The only thing that could have brightened my morning any more at that moment was if the messenger seagull had crapped over Crukmik’s bald head on his way out.
No matter. I had exactly what I needed.
Note crushed in my hand, I tapped my foot, chewed my gum, and kept an eye on the closed conference room door where Kensington held weekly meetings. He was currently terrorizing the staff of the Society section.
When the door finally opened, reporters scurried out of the room as though huntsmen were chasing them down. A young blonde with floor-length hair plaited down her back sobbed with every shaky step she took to her desk. Judith, the newsroom director, brought a cardboard box over and set it on the young reporter’s desk. I didn’t know the chit’s name, making no effort with staffers until they had lasted at the Once Upon Times past the six-month mark. This one was packing up framed photos, wind-up toys, and a Humpty Dumpty cookie jar from her desk.
Kensington emerged from the room like an eternal shadow stretching across a field of daisies, slowly—but surely—smothering the light until they decomposed beneath his leather shoes. His dark brown skin made him appear more human than vampire, especially since no one I knew of had ever seen his fangs. The man never smiled. When he spoke, it was so fast, his lips had closed into a disapproving glower before anyone had ever seen them move. His attire was always a variation of a fitted wool suit vest, tie tucked in, matching tailored slacks, and a stiff white button-up top with the sleeves neatly rolled to his elbows. Today he was wearing a denim blue vest and slacks combo with a tie nearly as white as his shirt.
“Slinger! Fink! Conference room, now,” came the whip-like crack of his voice.
With his vampire speed, my vexatious rival—Alister Fink—shot inside the conference room ahead of me in a motion of lean, muscular finesse. If I were in my beast form, I could have given him a run for his money. Fink and I were both twenty-four, were graduates of the same university in the same year, had started at the Once Upon Times the same week, and—thus far—had been awarded one Pied Paper Prize a piece. We were both single, which Gretel from Society called a waste of two young, gorgeous, rugged men. “You’re the rugged one,” Gretel had informed me with a matronly wink. From the outside, it might have seemed we had a lot in common. In reality, I’d rather book an all-inclusive Fantasia cruise with Crukmik than spend one day alone with the bloodsucking opportunist.
The smug son of a bat was already seated at the conference room table, leaning back in his chair, eyebrows twitching gleefully. He was the kind of vampire who could pull off the whole bleached-out look and make it somehow suave, like one of the perfect marble statues in the queen’s renowned garden. He had lush, gravity-defying hair. If any of his thick chestnut strands were out of place, it was on purpose, and every last lock was one rich dark color, unlike my rusty hair, which couldn’t decide if it was red or auburn and took off in wild directions if it grew past an inch—precisely why I kept it trimmed. (A totally necessary pain in the tush, but worth the upkeep.)
I was too stoked about the information Ariel had sent me to let my so-called colleague get to me today. As Kensington smacked the door shut, I shoved my gum into my cheek with my tongue.
Kensington strode to the opposite end of the conference room and placed his palms on the table, leaning forward as he stared Fink and me down with the whites of his eyes gleaming.
“Boys, let me be blunt. If you don’t step up your game soon, I’m demoting the pair of you to fact checking.”
I clenched my jaw, loathing how Kensington always lumped Fink and me together. It was as displeasing as the prospect of cleaning up other journalists’ stories in the far dark corner of the newsroom, where the fact checkers pored over stories line by line.
I lifted Ariel’s note, my ticket to the investigative reporting expressway. “Actually, sir, I have new information from a reliable source for the port story I pitched last week.”
Kensington didn’t spare the note a single glance. “I’ve reassigned Fink the story. He already got the scoop from Ursula.”
I would have snarled if Kensington had been anyone other than the kingdom’s most merciless vampire.
“Sir, with all due respect, I found that story first. Fink would still be chasing after flying monkeys if he had not overheard me on the phone with Salty last week.” Damn vampire with his keen hearing matching my own. Taking calls in the newsroom was like trying to have a private conversation in an echo chamber.
“I’ve already started making inquiries,” Fink said with a smirk. “By the time I’ve finished digging up dirt, heads will be rolling—and possibly feeding the fish—courtesy of the Once Upon Times.”
My upper lip curled in a silent snarl.
“Don’t worry, Slinger. I’ve got an assignment for you,” Kensington said. “I want you to catch the Merry Woods Strangler.”
My gum scraped down my throat like a lump of coal when I accidently swallowed the chewed-up wad.
Kensington might as well have demoted me on the spot. The Merry Woods Strangler, Merry for short, was currently the kingdom’s most notorious serial killer, with nineteen known murders to his credit. Even with a hefty reward out for information leading to the psycho’s capture, nothing useful had ever come about. An army of bounty hunters were trying to track him down around the clock, not to mention the constables of the kingdom’s local district with every resource and funds at their disposal.
The only thing anyone had to go on was the killer’s species—wolf shifter—and the gruesome method of strangulation before he ripped his victims apart with fangs and claws. From what the criminal profilers had pieced together, the guy went after ailing seniors who lived on their own with family nearby who would eventually check up on the parent or grandparent. It was creepy and disturbing the way he patiently cased remote cottages, killed elders, then waited for an unsuspecting loved one to fall prey to his clutches. There were always at least two ravaged bodies, torn apart—and half-eaten—beyond recognition.
Whatever expression had etched itself over my face made Fink smirk. “If anyone has a shot at hunting down Merry, it ought to be you, Slinger. He’s one of your own, after all.”
I shoved my anger down and reacted the opposite of how Fink would suspect—with a wide grin like a dog who had been handed a big, juicy bone. “Excellent point, Fink. My skills would have been wasted on the wharf. Hunting is more my speed. Catching the kingdom’s most notorious serial killer . . .” I whistled. “A Pied Paper Prize is only the beginning. This has book deal, film rights, and red carpet written all over it.”
Fink’s smile shriveled up like the husk of humanity he’d been remade of. If I were in wolf form, I would have wagged my tail in victory.
“We’ll see,” Kensington said shrewdly.
The bloodsucking titan’s skepticism fueled my resolve to do the impossible. I’d worry about how I was going to pull off this miracle once I got away from these leeches.
As soon as we were dismissed, I stormed out of the conference room ahead of Fink and nearly barreled into Marcy from Society, who was bent over helping the sobbing terminated staffer whose box of personal items had landed on the ground. The blubbering chit’s Humpty Dumpty cookie jar had broken to pieces in the fall. Hadn’t she heard about the recall on those things at the beginning of the year?
A familiar chill breezed through when Kensington stepped out of the conference room. “Back to work, staffers,” his voice boomed. “The news doesn’t sleep, and neither do I.”
“Easy for a vampire to say,” Lucy, a witch at the desk in front of mine, grumbled.
I snatched up my notebook and pencil and then, recalling there were only a few more blank pages left, headed to the newsroom’s supply closet.
Halfway there, I stopped at the coffee counter where Gretel, editor-in-chief of Society, was ripping open packets of sugar and pouring them into her steaming mug.
“What was that about?” I asked, nodding at the sniveling female as Judith finished escorting her out.
“That was Rapunzel.”
The name sounded familiar, and then I remembered why.
“The chick who was trapped in a tower for half a decade?”
Gretel sighed heavily. “Poor thing. After Marcy interviewed her for her article, Rapunzel took it into her head that she wanted to be a Society reporter. She couldn’t keep up with deadlines or the fast pace—probably too used to sitting around playing with her hair.” Gretel tsked and shook her head. “The rest of my staff aren’t much safer at this point. Kensington wants us to uncover the identity of the young woman who fled the palace ball and lost a glass slipper in her haste. He demands we find her before Prince Charming’s army of servants and, more importantly, before the Wish upon a Star Tribune.” Gretel gave up on the sugar packets and poured directly from the jar. Sugar granules cascaded into her mug like sand running out of an hourglass. “Remind me why we do this job?”
“Because ours is the most noble profession in the kingdom.”
“Right. Tell that to Maleficent. She’s suing the paper for libel again.”
“Your section’s problem, not mine.”
Gretel snorted. “Way to be a team player, Slinger.”
I offered her what I had been told was a winsome smile. “Cheer up, Gretel. At least you don’t have to catch a serial killer.”
I left her gaping and hustled into the supply closet, fully aware of the tick-tock of the proverbial crocodile snapping at my heels.
A fresh stack of spiral notebooks filled a shelf in back. I grabbed one and turned, snarling at the sight of Fink blocking the doorway. I hated how good his woodsy aftershave smelled and despised him even more for splashing just the right amount over his cleanly shaven cheekbones. With my keen sense of smell, I was constantly choking on the fumes of body mist, perfume, and hair spray citizens used in heavy doses.
“Out of my way, Fink,” I growled.
Alister Fink had one of the most expressive faces of any vampire I had ever known—usually used for taunting or gloating—but at the moment his gaze appeared as neutral as the rest of his kind.
“Let me help you with the strangler story,” he had the nerve to suggest.
My next growl rumbled into laughter. I tucked the notebook under my pit and folded my arms across my chest.
“What’s the matter, Fink? Afraid I’ll show you up?”
“Not even a little,” he huffed with an eyeroll. He looked over his shoulder, then shot his arm out and closed us in the supply closet together, words rushing out of his mouth before I could protest. “This isn’t an ordinary assignment. Merry is dangerous. Bounty hunters who have gotten too close to discovering his identity have ended up dead. The constable can’t link the murders, but we all know how incompetent that lot is.”
I narrowed my eyes. Was Fink suggesting I couldn’t handle this story on my own? More likely he loathed the idea of me receiving all the glory when I uncovered the truth.
“I can handle a rabid wolf,” I said dismissively, pleased that Fink thought highly enough of my tracking skills to worry that I would deliver this story to Kensington on a tea platter with biscuits.
“This isn’t a competition,” Fink said.
It most certainly was, and I planned to win. Not only would I catch the Merry Woods Strangler, I would do so and get my story turned in before Fink finished the wharf piece.
“Move.” My throat rumbled.
When the exasperating vampire didn’t budge, I charged, ready to shove the fiend aside and be on my way before he could bare one fang. Fink shot at me and grabbed my blazer by the lapels, which took me aback as I readied my fists for combat. Urgent lips kissed mine, and the canine in me basked momentarily in the warmth of his affection. This is what happened when I went too long without physical contact. The caress of his lips felt way too good, and for a moment I forgot what all the hurry was about.
I closed my eyes against the glare of the closet’s overhead lighting and kissed Fink roughly back, trying to picture that it was a different male canoodling with me in the closet. Prince Charming? Yuck. The prince wasn’t half as gorgeous as Alister Fink.
“Your tongue tastes like cinnamon,” Fink murmured.
I nipped his bottom lip and snarled, “Bite me back and I will go full wolf on you.”
The breath of Fink’s chuckle tickled against the stubble on my chin. “Do you know how hot it is when you speak Alpha to me?”
My lips were grinning like they belonged to someone else. It was time to panic, not flirt, because Fink’s mouth had warmed up like a bright summer’s day at the park. His cheeks were burning up. There was only one thing that heated a vampire’s skin that way. If not blood, then the alarming alternative. Fink was enamored.
No. No. No, my mind howled.
An enraptured vampire was the opposite of the cold shell that alienated me in a way I was comfortable with. Once besotted, vampires were famous for their passion, devotion, and infatuation.
The hairs along the back of my neck lifted.
I had to get out of that closet and pray to the Moon Goddess that Fink wasn’t actually interested in anything serious. We were reporters. No time for meaningful, long-term relationships. And really no time for an office romance that could sink a career faster than cannon fodder.
I pulled away and stiffened my spine. “I’m leaving now.”
Fink’s brows lifted. “Meet you later at that café with the spicy Aztec cocoa you love to drink while drafting articles?”
Fudge me. It was already starting.
I narrowed my eyes. “Is this your way of keeping tabs on my ideas?”
Fink chuckled. “You think I care about breaking news or a paltry Pied Paper Prize? My father could make me senior vice president of Seize Candy with one stroke of a pen. I only went after a Pied Paper to impress you.”
Once removing my jaw from the floor, I demanded, “Why did you get a degree in print journalism in the first place?” The reporter in me couldn’t leave it alone. I had to know.
Fink slid one hand behind his neck, looking casual rather than nervous. “I was taking Intro to Multimedia as an elective at the University of Zoz when I noticed this annoyingly studious and scruffy male in the back row. He was always growling at me and my friend to keep quiet. When we told him to sit up front like a good teacher’s pet, he challenged us to try and make him give up his spot.” Fink’s eyes glimmered. “Didn’t realize I had a thing for flippant mongrels until freshman year of college. I did some digging around, found out you were on the journalism track, and changed my major from business to Justin Slinger.”
I tried not to gape in horror, but my moods did not come with aloof masks I could slip on in a second.
This was the last thing I needed right now. I was already walking a tightrope at the Times, and now a vampire’s obsession had been confirmed from the source’s own lips. I was in trouble, and there was only one way to deal with awkward moments involving cute guys who made my palms sweat, and that was to tuck tail and run. Metaphorically. I would never do something so cowardly in real life.
“Call me Alister.” His grin looked almost human—boyish.
It was never a good thing to be on a first name basis with a vampire unless being lavished in love and attention got your tail wagging. Crap. That probably wasn’t the best thing for me to think about at the moment.
“Fink!” I said louder.
He leaned back and raised one brow. “Yes, Sparky?”
Ohh, and I loved pet names. Not that I would ever admit that to Alister . . . I mean Fink!
“I have work to do, and no Daddy Warbucks to fall back on if this story flops.” When his lips smirked, I growled and snatched a fresh notebook from the shelf. “Don’t even think about offering to become my sugar daddy. That is a hard pass.”
As I elbowed past Fink, he chuckled and asked huskily, “How hard are we talking?”
I burst out of the closet with a snarl, not caring that it drew the attention of the journalists at nearby desks. They would never suspect Fink and me of sucking face. It was unthinkable. I hardly believed it, and I had been one half of that warped equation.
I needed a distraction stat. Going after a serial killer suddenly sounded like an auspicious project. Field work was where I thrived. It wasn’t in my nature to remain cooped up for long periods. Once I had meat in my belly and fresh air in my lungs, I could figure out how to get Alister Fink off my scent. Lucy had connections in the witching world. I was sure she could point me in the direction of a sorceress who could whip up an anti-infatuation spell for me to roll around in. It worked on other wolves, so I didn’t see why it wouldn’t repel a vampire, even a determined one.
– End of Part One –
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Best read after Silvereyes and the Three Wolves in the 2022 ONCE UPON A BITE Anthology.