Nights were quiet here. Too quiet.
Life hadn’t been the same since I’d been forced out of New York. I’d gotten a bum rap and had barely managed to skate out of any official charges. Not an easy task for a man with no alibi. But mud sticks and I had it all over me. I couldn’t report what had really happened, not without being laughed out of the station and referred to a shrink. Or, worse, someone might have believed me.
In the end, I slunk out of the city that never sleeps with my tail between my legs, leaving my home and family legacy behind. My wanderings landed me in this podunk town on the crossroads of forgotten hopes and lost dreams. The local cops wouldn’t even look at me, but small towns and crooked colleges thrive on secrets, enough to keep me in business as a private investigator.
Even still, this was a new low. I’d slogged through manure-filled fields and battled enraged soccer moms at the local Wal-Mart in my quest to reveal the Truth. But if someone had told me years ago that I’d end up staking out a Tractor Supply Co. at two in the morning I’d have arrested them for public intoxication.
Trying to ignore the bite of cold air, I shifted restlessly on my tree branch. The full moon was out. These nights were hard and had been so ever since… that night.
It was almost a year ago when I was out on patrol helping my partner break up a gang throwdown near the docks. One minute I was chasing a perp through an alleyway, the next the world was nothing but teeth, fur, and spittle. I was down and out like a light, bleeding in the gutter while my partner got whaled on. Gil was never the same afterwards.
The medics patched me up but by the next day, my injuries had vanished. The only evidence to back up my report was my torn and bloodied uniform. Meanwhile, Gil was fresh out of surgery and all eyes were on me, all asking the same question: where had I been while my partner was beaten within an inch of his life?
I hated thinking about the investigation that followed. Three generations of Horn cops went up in flames. My grandfather refused to comment on the matter one way or another. I shuddered to think what my father would have said and done, how he would have reacted. Internal Affairs eventually cleared me of wrongdoing, but the trust and respect I’d built up in the station was gone.
Between my fellow officers painting a bullseye on my back and… the Change … I knew I needed to leave town for a while. I’d been rejected by the city that had birthed me and would only be welcomed back after I’d paid my penance.
The Change had redefined my life, opened me up to a whole new perspective. I was faster, stronger, and healed better than before. But these gifts came with a price. I had to be careful, meticulous about what I did and how I did it. I don’t know how the Change works but I’ll be damned to hell and back before I inflict it on anyone else.
On nights like tonight, when the mist rolls in, the bite of autumn fills the air, and the world is lit up by the full moon… On these nights, I become my other self. The silver light pouring from the heavens forced this supernatural curse to take hold. In a matter of moments, I ceased to be a man and became an animal.
I’ll admit gaining the power of flight was a sweet deal. It reminded me of my time in the Air Force. But my feathers glowed iridescent under light and my tail was… a lot to deal with. Stealth had never been my style, but at least it had always been an option. An option I’d lost in a single moment one year ago. Worse still, my mind was clouded in this form, constricted by animal biology.
My one saving grace hung proudly around my neck. Before he was killed by a no-good bounty hunter, my father had gifted me a strange medallion, telling me never to take it off. It had become my good luck charm.
As I’d slowly started to understand the Change, I would set the medallion aside before the full moon rose, terrified of losing this connection to my father. I spent those nights roaming the skies above the city, only daring to land on empty rooftops in case some punk decided he wanted to gift his girl something pretty… and fresh.
The night Gil retired, I was late getting back to my cardboard-box-sized apartment. The medallion stayed on when the Change occurred. And for the first time since I’d been cursed, my mind wasn’t shuttered by my new form. I could roam wherever I wanted, uninhibited by the instincts and worries that usually accompanied this form. I’d worn that medallion 24/7 ever since.
It made me wonder, though. Where had my father gotten it? Had he known about this curse? That it would be laid upon me? How exactly did the medallion protect me?
It was the ultimate mystery. Someday, I’d find the answers. Meanwhile, I had a perp to catch.
Thieves had been terrorizing this farm supply store for months now. The police had given up with no suspects or likely motives after a brief investigation. In desperation, the owner had turned to me to catch the criminals in action. Douglas Janson lived a neat, tidy life, mostly keeping to himself, but the same couldn’t be said of his sprawling extended family. There was a spider-web of adoptions, divorces, and second and third marriages setting the backdrop for bitter family rivalries. Douglas had refused to take sides in any of these disputes, but his policy of hiring on teenaged nieces and nephews could have angered the wrong person.
Unfortunately, there was no pattern, no rhyme or reason for the attacks as far as I could see. The criminals broke in, trashed and looted the store, and departed before anyone with a badge could show their face. The offices and cash safe were never disturbed while bags of animal feed were ripped open and their contents scattered all over the floor. Other products were broken and trampled, displays knocked over, and clothing pilfered.
Signs here and there pointed to an inside man. The security systems were always disabled and the front doors unlocked with no sign of tampering. The police had interviewed the employees, past and present, and claimed they all had an alibi. I’d be doing my own interviews soon. And I had a knack for sniffing out lies.
The police had staked out the store without any kind of success. The perps must have gotten some kind of tip-off, because their string of attacks ended as soon as the police started keeping watch. My hope was that they’d show their faces again now that the heat was off. And what criminal worried about a simple bird lurking nearby? They should feel ready to wander right up to the store.
Dull hoofbeats began to echo in the night as an unseen spectre approached. A ripple of excitement ran through me and I felt my feathers flutter. Hoof tracks were one of the few pieces of evidence the police had recovered.
The autumn mists were thick tonight. The burning silver light of the moon made the droplets of water drifting through the air look like smoke, adding to the eerie atmosphere. I waited, practically vibrating with excitement as I waited for the riders to reveal themselves. Then, I’d know. I’d know if any of my own theories about the identity of the perp and the reason for their continuous harassment were true.
Slowly, the dark form began to take shape, its outline growing clearer and clearer while the sound of hooves grew louder and louder. Clenching my talons, I leaned forward, automatically shifting my tail as counterbalance as I peered into the mist.
The vague outline continued to sharpen. I felt my pulse quicken as the outline solidified into an equine with long legs and ears. Its head swung, staring about, then the entire creature stumbled sideways into a parked car. A distressed braying rent the air.
Another shape emerged from the mists, smaller and lower to the ground. At first, the outline didn't make any sense, but then, a smaller shape flew off the other and landed on the distressed equine.
The other figure barked, wagging a fluffy tail as it bounced eagerly around the equine. A dog?
Feeling more and more bewildered, I stared at the unfolding scene. The dog raced back and forth while the equine — was that a donkey? — struggled to pull away from the car. The creature that had leapt onto its neck seemed to be pulling on the donkey’s mane, trying to make it move in a specific direction.
Suddenly, a new shadow appeared, even larger than the donkey. It shoved its way between the animal and the car, forcing it away from the vehicle.
As the donkey took several staggering steps, it drifted under a streetlight and several things became clear. First, the creature on its back was a raccoon, of all things, and it stood perched on the donkey’s haunches, clutching its blond mane with its paws. Second, one of the donkey’s rear legs was a metal prosthetic. Even at my distance, I could see the dull sheen of the metal under the flickering streetlight and the simplicity of the ankle joint linking the limb and artificial hoof.
Who made prosthetics for animals? I knew cats and dogs sometimes received prosthetics from their loving owners, but a donkey? Who did that? Admittedly, I didn’t know everything about caring for equines, but I’d always had the impression that horses (and I supposed donkeys) couldn’t survive the kind of injuries that might result in needing a prosthetic limb.
The dog trotted into view a moment later, stumbling slightly as it hit the ring of light. It barked a few times at the donkey before veering sharply towards the Tractor Supply Co. The donkey turned to follow, the sudden motion causing the raccoon to tumble off its back.
Every single one of these animals is acting like it’s drunk, I realized. Everything from the way they were moving to the strange interspecies interactions were evocative of drunks I used to help round up back home.
Before I could consider the matter further, the fourth and final animal moved into the light. A strange flicker of energy ran down my spine. Almost without realizing it, I felt my tail feathers lift and spread. A horse, slender and beautifully proportioned, stood calm and poised for a moment under the flickering streetlight. Its pale coat shimmered like gold and the moisture caught in the short hairs glimmered like small gems. Even the way it stumbled back into motion, limbs staggering like a newborn foal, carried a certain amount of dignity and elegance.
I couldn’t tear my eyes away. Something about that golden steed captured my full attention. This horse was Trouble and I was done for.
The horse stumbled slightly over a parking barrier as it made its way towards the entrance of the Tractor Supply Co. Reluctantly, I forced myself to check on the other animals and was stunned to discover that the raccoon, having jumped back up onto the donkey’s back, had managed to unlock the main door. Working together, the two animals managed to drag open the deactivated automatic door and the entire miniature menagerie disappeared inside.
Once Trouble’s golden tail had fully disappeared inside, I felt my mind kick back into gear. Animals. The mysterious criminals knocking over the Tractor Supply Co. were animals? No wonder the cops hadn’t figured it all out. But why animals? Had they been trained? Were they from a circus or something? Or--
A cloud drifted in front of the moon, and for a moment, the quiet town street darkened.
Corran, you idiot.
Wes scrambled across the display counter, enraptured by the way the overhead lights reflected off the display of pocket knives. Shiny. So shiny. He wanted them. He’d find a way to get to his shinies. He fumbled for the keys hanging around his neck. Locks. Locks. Locks. He could open many locks with these. He could open the case, yes? Get the shinies.
Happy barking echoed through the store. Wedge had found the treats. Tasty doggie snacks. Good for Wedge, not for him. Couldn’t wash the treats. They crumbled. And became nasty. Couldn’t eat nasty treats. No snacks for Wes. Just shinies. Clutching at the edge of the countertop, Wes started trying his keys in the cabinet lock. He wanted his shinies.
While Wes continued to try and break into the cabinet, Hobbie let out an alarmed braying as Tycho nipped at his flank. They were racing up and down the aisles, scrambling to make the tight turns as they raced from one end of the store to the next. He’d lose if he went down. His prosthetic kept sliding on the tile! The turns were hard, so very hard, especially with Tycho chasing him. Had to keep going, had to run, had to win. He could beat a horse. He was stronger. He was smarter!
It was into this mess that a slender peacock flew into the store. The bird’s green and blue feathers gleamed under the overhead lights as it came to rest on top of a circular clothing rack. It swept an imperious gaze over the store as its tail feathers spread in full display.
Hobbie skidded to a halt, his prosthetic hoof scraping noisily on the tile. He fixed a round eye on the bird, watching it with wary interest. Seconds later, Tycho rounded the corner and collided with his hindquarters. They both went down in a heap of spindly legs and kicking hooves. Wes let out a chittering giggle at the spectacle.
The peacock drew itself up, arched its neck, and let out a piercing shriek, sounding like Death itself come upon them. Its spread tail made it look absolutely massive and a vein of terror lit up Hobbie’s mind.
The peacock shrieked again, then again, and again--
With a sudden snarl, Wedge launched himself up into the air and collided with the peacock, sharp teeth snapping at the thin neck. The bird lashed out with its leg as it struggled to push the collie dog off of it. Wedge lunged again, his deadly canines grazing the vulnerable neck. The peacock dodged, then lunged forward, stabbed at the dog with its sharp beak before fluttering its wings and taking off into the air.
Unnoticed by the peacock now circling and diving at the enraged canine, Wes scuttled forward. He’d seen shiny. Shiny had flown off the bird and onto the floor. Hunting along the floor, he finally found the shiny: a small metal disc lying half under the clothing rack.
Gleefully, Wes seized the shiny with his paws. Like my keys, he realized happily. On a cord!
Grasping the stretchy cord, he fumbled it down over his neck. The disc hit his keys with a soft clink.
The strangest feeling settled over him, as though a fog had been gently pushed away. The limited mental focus of his raccoon form expanded and he could suddenly think as clearly and rationally as any other night that included recreational drinking.
Blinking, he jumped up onto the rack, using the hanging clothes to drag himself onto the display at the center of the metal frame.
The peacock had landed on one of the exposed rafters and was hissing angrily at Wedge, who circled below. Hobbie and Tycho, meanwhile, had righted themselves and were watching with flattened ears and twitching tails.
Another were-animal, Wes realized as the peacock launched itself at Wedge. That wouldn’t end well.
Sure enough, the bird’s long tail feathers slapped a stack of boxes off one of the shelves and sent them flying to the ground. If the medallion belonged to the bird, then it had probably just lost a lot of higher level thinking. Which meant it was up to him to end this.
Bracing himself for a brief moment, Wes launched himself towards the dueling pair. Super Raccoon to the rescue!
It eventually dawned on me that my leg itched. In fact, I itched all over. Confused, I took in the earthy smell surrounding me and the tiny dull needles that poked at me everywhere. Everywhere but my back. What had happened to my bed?
Groggy from not enough sleep and with a full moon hangover, my senses slowly started to awaken, taking in more details. Then I realized there was a very noticeable, very male body pressed up against my back and I couldn’t remember how it had gotten there.
Suddenly panicked, I jerked and scrambled away, then stared in shock and confusion. Instead of my cheap apartment with peeling wallpaper and a second-hand bed, I saw wooden stalls, hay, and farming tools hanging on the far wall. Whipping around, I looked back and saw a tall blond man blinking up at me with bleary eyes. He looked like major Trouble… and was extremely naked.
I was also extremely naked. This was not good.
A camera shutter clicked nearby.
Trying to cover myself, I spun around again and found two more men, also naked. One of the men had a phone in his hand, pointed right at me. He waved, expression cheerful.
“I didn’t get your junk or anything,” he said, “but there was no way I was going to miss capturing that look of pure terror when you realized Tycho was cuddling up to you.”
I felt trapped, hemmed in on all sides, and scooted backwards until my back was pressed up against the side of the stall we were all in. I forced myself to take a deep breath, then another, then took stock of the situation.
Trouble rolled onto his back, covering his mouth as he yawned. “Couldn’t you apply yourself to something more useful?” he grumbled.
“Can’t. Pinned. Trapped forever.” Flopping back onto his bed of hay, the dark-haired man absently patted the head of another blond, who was using Dark Hair as a pillow. Blond #2 was dead asleep and didn’t so much as twitch at the way Dark Hair moved. Something in my brain twitched. #2 was missing part of his right leg. That meant something.
“Then how did you get your phone?” Trouble demanded.
“Our Fearless Leader, of course.”
“And just where is he?”
“Getting clothes for our guest,” a new voice broke in. Another dark-haired man peered into the stall I’d awoken in. Meeting my eyes, he gave me a brief nod and tossed a bundle of cloth at me. “I had to guess whose stuff would fit you the best.”
Clothing. Thank god for small mercies. While I scrambled into the loaned clothing, “Fearless Leader” turned to the others. “Wes, what the hell did you do?”
“Me?” Dark Hair protested.
“Hobbie’s still asleep and Tycho isn’t awake enough to cause trouble. Which means that you have to be the reason our guest looks so traumatized."
Wes scowled. “Oh, no. You don’t get to pin that on me. Tycho’s the one who cuddled up to him last night and freaked him out this morning. Talk to him.”
“I was cold,” Tycho explained when everyone looked at him. Unconcerned, he folded his hands behind his head. “What else was I supposed to do?”
“Who are you? All of you?” I demanded as I finished pulling on my loaned pants. “Where am I? What’s going on?”
The group’s leader studied me for a moment, his dark eyes thoughtful. Then, he extended his hand, reaching over the short stall gate. “Wedge Antilles,” he said once I’d grasped his hand. “That’s Wes Janson, Hobbie Klivian, and Tycho Celchu. We’re at a friend’s farm just east of town. What do you remember from last night?”
Hesitating, I glanced around the barn again. This was a messy situation, but my gut said to trust Antilles. And it had never steered me wrong before. (And I was going to ignore how much it pushed me to keep an eye on Celchu… at least, until he got some pants on.) “Corran Horn. I was on a stakeout,” I finally said. “Keeping an eye on a business that’s been knocked over several times in the last few months.”
“And that’s it?”
I narrowed my eyes at Antilles’s probing question. What else could I say to a bunch of strangers? I couldn’t tell them about the full moon and shapeshifting, or a strange, vague memory of racing through the night, keeping watch over my-- my people.
Antilles didn’t seem offended by my silence. Instead, he seemed amused. “Wes, do you mind?”
Janson looked up from his phone, startled. He was still messing with Klivian’s hair. “Mind? What? Oh.” Clicking his phone off, Janson tossed it at Celchu. Then, winking, he changed.
Klivian let out a sudden startled snort as his pillow vanished in a strange shimmer. “Wha--?” Blinking, he jerked his head to the side as a small raccoon began to pick at his hair, chittering incessantly. “Wes, knock it off.”
It finally clicked. “You’re the animals from the store last night. You’re the ones who’ve been ransacking it!”
Antilles winced. “Not on purpose. It-- We-- Well, it was an accident. The first time, at least. It’s sort of become a habit we’re having trouble breaking. You know how hard it is to think straight when transformed.”
“No, I--” My hand flew to my chest. The medallion! It was gone! Raking my mind, I tried to remember the events of the previous night. It must have come off at some point. But when?
The raccoon suddenly chirped at my feet. As I looked down, the small raccoon shimmered again and suddenly we were face to face. Janson smirked and leaned in slightly, making full use of the extra inch he had on me. “Interesting little accessory,” he drawled. Holding his hand up, my father’s gift appeared in his hand, swinging back and forth on the thin cord. “How exactly does it work?”
“None of your business,” I growled, snatching the small medallion out of his hand. Stretching the cord out, I pulled it on and suppressed a sign of relief when its familiar weight came to rest just below my collar bone.
Janson was unperturbed by my attitude. Instead of retreating, he shifted to the side and leaned against the side of the stall, looking at me with interest. “You know, you look familiar. Are you going to Red River College?”
“No,” I snapped.
“Of course not!”
Tapping his lip, Janson studied me for a few more moments. Then, his eyes lit up, his expression turning joyous. “The pervert in Wal-Mart! My sister walloped you with her diaper bag! That’s where I know you from, the security footage!”
“That was your sister?” The dark-haired woman who’d mistaken my attempt to chase down a suspect for something else flashed through my mind. “What does she carry in that bag, rocks?”
“Close to it.” Grinning, Janson turned to Antilles. “He’s that PI, the one that wanders around muttering to himself like he’s narrating an old-timey noir movie.”
“I do not!”
“I heard the new PI in town came up with his own theme music,” Celchu said. He grinned as he rose to his feet.
“That’s not true!”
“What’s going on?” Klivian mumbled from the ground.
“Alright, that’s enough,” Antilles declared after Janson and Celchu exchanged a few more supposed rumors. It was hard not to sigh in relief. “Put some damned pants on, all of you. Horn, if you’d come with me, I can explain more about what’s going on.”
“I can do that,” I agreed. “You’re all the first shapeshifters I’ve ever met.”
“Then there’s a lot we can tell you. Come on, we’ll leave these reprobates be.”
“Don’t get into too much trouble without us,” Celchu said. Meeting my eyes, he winked and I felt a flush spread over my face.
Face burning, I hurried out of the stall gate Antilles had opened and away from the other were-animals. I couldn’t get into any more trouble that I was already in. This lot were trouble, especially Tycho Celchu. That man was Trouble with a capital-T. I wouldn’t be able to solve this case for the owner of Tractor Supply Co., not without giving up my own secret. But maybe I’d gained something better instead. I’d just have to keep a close eye on them.