Kyrie was worried about Tom. Which was strange, because Tom was not one of her friends. Nor would she have thought she could care less if he stopped showing up at work altogether.
But now he was late and she was worried. . . .
She tapped her foot impatiently, both at his lateness and her worry, as she stared out at the window of the Athens, the Greek diner on Fairfax Avenue where she’d worked for the last year. Her wavy hair, dyed in multicolored layers, gave the effect of a tapestry. It went well with her honey-dark skin, her exotic features, and the bright red feather earring dangling from her ear, but it looked oddly out of place with the much-washed full-length red apron with “Athens” blazoned in green across the chest.
Outside everything appeared normal—the winding serpentine road between tall brick buildings, the darkened facade of the used CD store across the street, the occasional lone passing car.
She looked away, disgusted, from the windows splashed with bright, hand-scrawled advertisements for specials—souvlaki and fries—$3.99, clam chowder—99¢, Fresh Rice Pudding—and at the large plastic clock high on the wall.
Midnight. And Tom should have come in at nine. Tom had never been late before. Oh, she’d had her doubts when Frank hired the young street tough with the unkempt dark curls, the leather jacket and boots, and the track marks up both of his arms, clear as day. But he had always come in on time, and he was polite to the customers, and he never seemed to be out of it. Not during work time.
“Kyrie,” Frank said, from behind her. Kyrie turned to see him, behind the counter—a short, dark, middle-aged man, who looked Greek but seemed to be a mix of Italian and French and Greek and whatever else had fallen in the melting pot. He was testy today. The woman he’d been dating—or at least was sweet on, as she often walked with him to work, or after work—hadn’t come in.
He gave Kyrie a dark look from beneath his bushy eyebrows. “Table seven,” he said.
She looked at table seven, the broad table by the front window. And that was a problem, because the moon was full on the table, bathing it. It didn’t seem to bother the gaggle of students seating at it, talking and laughing and eating a never-ending jumble of slices of pie, dolmades, rice pudding dishes, and olives, all of it washed down with coffee.
Of course, there was no reason it should bother them, Kyrie reminded herself. Probably not. Moonlight only bothered her. Only her . . .
No. She wouldn’t let moonlight do anything. She wouldn’t give in to it. She had it under control. It had been months. She was not going to lose control now.
The students needed warm-ups for their coffee. And heaven knew they might very well have decided they needed more olives. Or pie.
She lifted the walk-through portion of the counter and ducked behind for the carafe, then back again, walking briskly toward the table.
Her hand stretched, with the pot’s plastic handle firmly grasped in manicured fingers, nails adorned with violet-blue fingernail polish. One cup refilled, two, and a young man probably two or three years younger than Kyrie stretched his cup for a warm-up. The cup glistened, glazed porcelain under the full moonlight of August.
Kyrie’s hand entered the pool of moonlight, brighter than the fluorescent lights in the distant ceiling. She felt it like a sting upon the skin, like bathwater, just a little too hot for touch. For a disturbing second, she felt as if her fingernails lengthened.
She bit the inside of her cheek, and told herself no, but it didn’t help, because part of her mind, some part way at the back and mostly submerged, gave her memories of a hot and wet jungle, of walking amid the lush foliage. Memories of soft mulch beneath her paws. Memories of creatures scurrying in the dark undergrowth. Creatures who were scared of her.
Moonlight felt like wine on her lips, like a touch of fever. She felt as if an unheard rhythm pounded through her veins and presently—
“Could we have another piece of pie, too?” a redheaded girl with a Southern drawl asked, snapping Kyrie out of her trance.
Fingernails—Kyrie checked—were the right length. Was it her imagination that the polish seemed a little cracked and crazed? Probably.
She could still feel the need for a jungle, for greenery—she who’d grown up in foster homes in several cement-and-metal jungles. The biggest woods she’d ever seen were city parks. Or the miles of greenery from the windows of the Greyhound that had brought her to Colorado.
These memories, these thoughts, were just illusions, nothing more. She remembered those times she had surrendered to the madness.
“One piece of pie,” she said, taking the small notebook from her apron pocket and concentrating gratefully on its solidity. Paper that rustled, a pencil that was growing far too blunt and required lots of pressure on the page.
“And some olives,” one of the young men said.
“Oh, and more rice pudding,” one of the others said, setting off a lengthy order, paper being scratched by pencil and nails that, Kyrie told herself, were not growing any longer. Not at all.
Still she felt tension leave her as she turned her back on the table and walked out of the moonlit area. Passing into the shadow felt as if some inner pressure receded, as though something she’d been fighting with all her will and mind had now been withdrawn.
While she was drawing a breath of relief, she heard the sound—like wings unfolding, or like a very large blanket flapping. It came, she thought, from the back of the diner, from the parking lot that abutted warehouses and the blind wall at the back of a bed-and-breakfast.
Kyrie wanted to go look, but people were waiting for their food, so she set about getting the pie and the olives and the rice pudding—all of it pre-prepared—from the refrigerator behind the counter. Next to it, Frank was peeling and cutting potatoes for the Athens’s famous “fresh made fries, never frozen,” which were also advertised on the facade, somewhere.
While she worked, some of the regulars came in. A tall blond man who carried a journal in which he wrote obsessively every night between midnight and four in the morning. And a heavyset, dark-haired woman who came in for a pastry on her way to her job at one of the warehouses.
Kyrie looked again at the clock. Half an hour, and still no Tom. She took the newcomers’ orders.
On one of her trips behind the counter, for the carafe of coffee, she told Frank, “Tom is late.”
But Frank only shrugged and grunted, which was pretty odd behavior for the guy who had brought Tom in out of nowhere, hired him with no work history while Tom was, admittedly, living in the homeless shelter down the street.
As Kyrie returned the carafe to its rest, after the round of warm-ups, she heard the scream. It was a lone scream, at first, startled and cut short. It too came from the parking lot at the back.
She told herself it was nothing to do with her. There were all sorts of people out there at night. Goldport didn’t exactly have a large population of homeless, but it had some, and some of them were crazy enough to scream for no reason.
Swallowing hard, she told herself it meant nothing, absolutely nothing. It was just a sound, one of the random sounds of night in the city. It wasn’t anything to worry about. It—
The scream echoed again, intense, frightened, a wail of distress in the night. Looking around her, Kyrie could tell no one else had heard it. Or at least, if Frank’s shoulders were a little tenser than normal, as he dropped fries into a huge vat of oil, it was the tenseness of expectation, as if he were listening for Tom.
It wasn’t the look of someone who’d heard a death scream. In fact, the only person who might have heard it was the blond guy who had stopped writing on his journal and was staring up, into mid-air. But Kyrie was not about to ask a man who wrote half the night what exactly he had heard or hadn’t. Besides the guy—nicknamed “The Poet” by the diner staff—always gave the impression of being on edge and ready to lose all self-control, from the tips of his long, nervous fingers to the ends of his tennis shoes.
And yet . . .
And yet she couldn’t pretend nothing had happened. She knew she had heard the scream. With that type of scream, someone or something was in trouble bad. Back there. In the parking lot. At this time of night most of the clientele of the Athens came in on foot, from the nearby apartment complexes or from the college dorms just a couple of blocks away. It could be hours before anyone went out to the parking lot.
Kyrie didn’t want to go out there, either. But she could not ignore it. She had the crazy feeling that whatever was happening out there involved Tom, and, what the heck, she might not like the man, but neither did she want him dead.
She gave a last round of warm-ups, looked toward the counter where Frank was still seemingly absorbed in his frying, and edged out toward the hallway that led to the back.
It curved past the bathrooms, so if Frank saw her, he would think she was going to the bathroom. She was not sure why she didn’t want him to know she was going to the parking lot. Except that—as she got to the glass door at the back—when she saw the parking lot bathed in the moonlight, she thought that something might happen out there, something . . . Something she didn’t want her employer to know about her.
Not that it could happen. There was nothing that could happen, she thought, as she turned the key. Nothing had happened in months. She wasn’t sure what she thought had happened back then hadn’t all been a dream.
The key hadn’t been turned in some time and it stuck, but finally the resistance gave way, and she opened the door, and plunged into the burning moonlight.
Feeling of jungle, need for undergrowth and vegetation, her heart beating madly in her eardrums, and she was holding it together, barely holding it together, hoping . . .
She jumped out onto the parking lot and called out, “Tom—”
Something not quite a roar answered her. She stopped.
And then the smell hit her. Fresh blood. Spilled blood. She trembled and tried to stop. Tried to think.
But her nose scented blood and her mouth filled with saliva, and her hands curved and her nails grew. Somehow, with clumsy claws, she unbuttoned her uniform. She never knew how. As the last piece of clothing fell to the ground, she felt a spasm contort her whole body.
And a large, black jungle cat ran swiftly across the parking lot. Toward the smell of blood.
* * *
Soft pads on asphalt. Asphalt. The word appeared alien to Kyrie’s mind, locked in the great loping body, feeling the movement, the agility, and not quite believing it.
Strange feeling on pads. Hard, scratchy.
Muscles coiling and uncoiling like darkness flowing in moonlit patches. Bright moonlight like a river of fire and joy. Running. Smelling with sense that no human ever possessed.
And the feline stopped, alert, head thrown back, sniffing. A soft growl made its way up a throat that Kyrie could only just believe was her own.
Smell—a rich, spicy, flowing smell, like cinnamon on a cold winter night in Kyrie’s human memory, like rich molten chocolate, like freshly picked apples to that dwindling part of herself who thought with human memories.
She took a deep breath and felt her mouth fill and overflow with drool, while her paws moved, step on step, toward the smell, soft pads on asphalt, growl rising from throat.
What was it? What could it be? Her human mind could not identify the smell that came at her with depth and meaning that humans did not seem capable of perceiving.
She felt drool drop through her half-open mouth, onto the concrete, as she looked around for the possible source of the wondrous scent.
There were . . . cars—she had to force herself to remember the word, to realize these were man-made and not some natural plant or animal in a jungle she’d never seen but that was all this body knew and wanted to remember.
Cars. She shook her great head. Her own small, battered Ford, and two big vans that belonged to Frank and which he used for the daily shopping.
Around the edge of the vehicles she followed the scent. It was coming from right there, behind the vans, from dark liquid flowing along the asphalt, between the wheels of the van. She padded around the vans. Liquid looked black and glistened under moonlight, and she was about to take an experimental lap when the shadow startled her.
At first it was just that. A shadow, formless, moving on the concrete. Something with wings. Something.
Her hackles rising, she jumped back, cowering, head lifted, growling. And saw it.
A . . . lizard. No. No lizard had ever been this size. A . . . creature, green and scaly and immense, with wings that stretched between the earth and the sky.
The feline Kyrie dropped to her belly, paws stretched our in front of her, a low growl rising, while her hair stood on end, trying to make the already large jungle cat look bigger.
The human Kyrie, torpid and half-dormant, a passenger in her own brain that had been taken over by this dream of moonlight and forest, looked at the beast and thought, Dragon.
Not the slender, convoluted form of the Chinese dragons with their huge, bewhiskered faces. No. Nordic. A sturdy Nordic dragon, stout of body, with the sort of wings that truly seemed like they could devour the icy blue sky of the Norsemen and not notice.
Huge, feral, it stood before Kyrie, fangs bared, both wings extended, tip to tip probably a good twelve feet. Its muzzle was stained a dark red, and—as Kyrie knit her belly to the concrete—it hissed, a threatening hiss.
It will flame me next, Kyrie thought. But she couldn’t get the big cat to move. Bewildered by something that the now dominant part of her couldn’t comprehend, she lay on her belly and growled.
And the Kyrie part of her mind, the human part, looked bewildered at the dragon wings, which were a fantastic construction of bones and translucent glittering skin that faded from green to gold. And she thought that dragons weren’t supposed to look that beautiful. Particularly not a dragon whose muzzle was stained with blood.
And on that, on the one word, she identified the enticing smell. Blood. Fresh blood. She remembered smelling it before the shape-shift. But it smelled nothing like blood through the big cat’s senses.
With the feline’s sharp eyes, she could see, beneath the paws of the dragon, a dark bundle that looked like a human body.
Human blood. And she’d almost lapped it.
Shock and revulsion did what her fear couldn’t. They broke the human Kyrie out of the prison at the back of her own mind. Free, she pushed the animal back.
Push and push and push, she told herself she must be Kyrie. She must be human. Kyrie was smart enough to run away before the dragon let out with fire.
And never mind that the dragon might run her down, kill her. At least she would be able to think with a human mind.
All of a sudden, the animal gave, and she felt the spasms that contorted her body back to two human legs, two human arms, the solidity of a human body, lying on the concrete, hands on the ground, toes supporting her lower body.
She started to rise to run, but the dragon made a sudden, startled movement.
It was not a spring to attack nor a cowering in fear. Either of those she could have accepted as normal for the beast. It was a vague, startled jump. A familiar, startled jump.
Like coming on Tom around the corner of the hallway leading to the bathroom and meeting him coming out of it. Tom jumped that way, startled, not quite scared, and she always thought he’d been shooting up in there—must have been shooting up in there.
Now the same guilty jump from the dragon, and the massive head swung down to her prone body, to look at her with huge, startled blue eyes. Tom’s eyes.