Outlier Prophecies Book Three: The Werewolf Coefficient – Chapter One
The woman should be dead, yet here she is in all of her high-ponytailed, blond-haired, flattering-yoga-pants glory. She sits on the side of the remote jogging trail, her face sticky with happy tears. Her plastered grin takes up most of the room on her face. And she should be ecstatic: she’s alive and not dead as the oracle predicted, which means the actuary who assigned her probability of death has some explaining to do. I’d be rejoicing for her, patting her on the back, handing her tea and blankets, like the officers gathered around her, but I’m pissed.
Because I’m the actuary.
I’d assigned the probability of death. Even though I had assigned a six percent chance of survival (which gets me off the hook for a full review), the body crushed under the tree limb nearby presents a complication. Oh, him, yeah, the oracle never even mentioned him.
A gust blows freezing air into my face and tendrils of my black hair into my eyes. A hair tie would have been nice, but I left the house in a hurry after the early morning summons chirped on my phone. On a Saturday, no less. This would really fuck up my weekend. If I were late they’d fine me. Procedure is the official word, but it was more like a punishment.
The woman sits, frozen and pale, on a rotting oak log, the crunch of fallen leaves all around as officers work around her. The rising sun splatters light through the bare branches. During the summer months anyone can stand in the center of the forest and not spot a skyscraper, but at the end of winter, with the leaves scattered along the dirt and pine needle floor, I could see a glimpse through the bare dogwoods of the Angel’s Peak Bank—the tallest building on this side of the city.
The sensitive, a representative of the oracle, leans over the woman. His tan robes, bushy hair, and beard barely move when he speaks and blesses her. I turn around so I don’t have to see it—I’m not a fan of the monk-like dedication of the Brotherhood of the Vates. A small dedicated group of sensitives who take their job so seriously they’ve turned it into a priest-like existence.
We have a substantial following in Angel’s Peak. The Vates don’t make up all the sensitives we have under employment in the Department of Oracles, but they are slowly gaining a majority. Especially after a small but significant leak a few months ago when a recently hired sensitive had been revealed to be a leader in the anti-fate movement.
I can’t be near the Vate, not now. I don’t want to hear about my mistake being a blessing of human error, how I misinterpreted the oracle’s messages, or once again be reminded that according to Brotherhood law “oracles shall not be negatively criticized by errors in interpretation.”
I turn away, letting the wind blow at my back, pushing me to join Officer Ian Becker. Even the wind betrays me—Becker and I had taken a step back, a huge step back. We’d been forced together when Becker needed someone to step in as a pack mate for him. He’d been in bad shape, a stressed, emotional wreck, with difficulty controlling his aggressive outbursts.
As part werewolf he needed touch to center himself and to regulate his limbic system. After reading several books on the subject, I’d educated myself in a way I wish I had before volunteering to become his substitute pack member. Becker didn’t have a pack and desperately needed one when we first met. A high stress situation led me to step into that role and now I’ve been left wondering how I can detangle myself from that responsibility.
What I didn’t count on were the growing romantic feelings for my coworker—not something I wanted. Becker in his weaker state might have convinced me to give in to those feelings, but now that a few months have gone by, he seems more relaxed, maybe even relieved with our new distance. It hurts, because there was a part of me that wanted it to be real. Not some werewolf pheromone-driven attraction.
I’d drawn out the boundaries of our arrangement a lot tighter than when we’d started. No more night pack sessions aka evening snuggling where we both fall asleep and become unguarded and unaware of what Becker’s pheromones are doing to us. No more crawling through my window in the early morning hours. All sessions are currently scheduled during the day when we both have a break in our schedules and Becker must leave right after.
We’ve made an effort to make it as non-sexual as possible by moving it to a couch instead of a bed. Playing a show or movie that could distract us both. Before all this I would have imagined it as a personal hell to feel this connected to another person. To trust someone with a vulnerable part of myself. To have them rely on me so completely to give them something they needed. But the truth is that I’ve grown dependent on the sessions. And that scares the hells out of me.
Just last night Becker casually asked me to join him for coffee, maybe to talk about what had led to my decision to shut him out. I fumbled. I wasn’t ready to deal with the aftermath. Not yet.
If I admitted I wanted more and Becker no longer did, then I’d lose him. He’d pull away for my “benefit.”
Becker leans in close to the jagged tree limb. His gaze travels up to the eucalyptus where the fresh splintered shards dangle like the other half of a puzzle.
When Becker glances at me, I ignore the pity in his expression. “What happened?”
“Kinda obvious, don’t you think, Kate?” His slip in the use of my first name unnerves me, making me itch. He pulls out a tissue to inspect the tree without leaving prints. “Why don’t the oracles ever predict anything useful like alerting the city to trim the trees?”
I’m thankful he stays on the topic of the investigation. “There’s no money in that, Becker. This is why you keep failing your detective’s exam.”
Becker flashes a half-smile, but his eyes are not amused. He must have failed again recently. He sniffs the tree.
“Smell anything?” I ask. Not that it will be useful; evidence gathered by latent werewolves is deemed unsubstantial. There are no true werewolves in existence anymore. Although Becker is pretty close to being full-blooded.
“Fungus,” he says. “They’re going to have to cut this whole section of the park down. It spreads quickly.”
He hands over an extra pair of rubber surgical gloves for me. I snap one on and take a look at the section of branch he shows me. Damn. I’d hoped for some sign of foul play, maybe evidence of a sawed off section to help the breaking limb along. If someone had planted this fungus here in hopes for it to fall they had to have had one hell of a foresight and years of patience.
“The organization representing the ancestors of the Fae won’t be happy if they take out this forest. It’s one of the few original undisturbed woods around Angel’s Peak.”
Becker folds his arms and stares past the tree, lost in thought. A quick glance affirms that nobody can see us behind the limb and scattered foliage. I clench my jaw, unsure if I should console him or not. My instinct wins and I gently place a hand on his shoulder.
“What are you doing over here?” he asks, broken from his spell. “You’re supposed to be talking to the survivor. Figure out how she got so lucky.”
I motion to the dead body. “This guy is more interesting. I was hoping for foul play, a couple of anti-predictability free will woo-woo groups out to mess with the fabric of fate and all.”
“Not this time.”
“Damn it.” I slam my gloved fist into the splintering bench.
“Chill out, Hale, you’re only human. Humans make mistakes.”
And wasn’t that just it? Wasn’t that just the exact finger-on-the-problem moment? I was only human. No trace of elf, fairy, mage, not even witch. In this melting pot of a city, eighty-seven percent of the population could lay claim to at least some supernatural ancestry. I didn’t find it amusing that his simple phrase reminded me I’d descended from bigots.
“No.” Something doesn’t add up. It’s more than the sting of a wrong calculation. I watch the survivor hug the sensitive. I whisper to Becker, “Get me everything on the oracles that made this prediction.”
“Information above your pay grade.”
“But not above yours.” I inch closer to him. “I’ll help you study for your next exam.” He looks unconvinced. I drop my voice to a low whisper. With no other werewolves on the scene and Lipski nowhere around, only Becker can hear. “I’ll agree to one time off the couch. Just one.”
He tilts his head, pretending to consider, although his eyes give away his answer instantly. “Pinning your mistake on an oracle won’t get you off the hook.”
I press my lips together—I refuse to pout, so I glare until he answers.
“On the bed?” he asks, one eyebrow tilting up.
Oh come on. He has to know that won’t fly. “On the floor.”
“With pillows,” I add to sweeten the deal.
He crosses his arms. “No television. It doesn’t feel like I get the full benefit like before.”
He nods. “Lights off.”
“No. We leave them on.”
I shrug. “Yeah, fine.” I’d read that the less sensory distractions during a pack session, the more effective. Ideally there would be some skin-on-skin contact, but neither of us was comfortable enough to cross that boundary. Becker wasn’t trying to make this romantic. I could tell by the flush of his cheeks that he was still as uncomfortable with this as I was.
“I’ll even provide dinner.”
“I’ll come by at seven.”