There was great wisdom in striking the iron while it was hot.
I took a sip of my iced tea and brushed a little bug off the skirt of my yellow sun dress. I was sitting on the back porch of Gertrude Hunt Bed and Breakfast in a comfortable wooden recliner. In front of me our backyard spread, flooded with golden sunshine. The lawn was still green – we had a lot of rain this year – but the heat of a Texas summer poured from the sky, bringing everything to a standstill. The squirrels napped in their nests deep within the oaks. The mice and bunnies hid in their burrows. Even the bugs fell quiet, too hot to trill. Beast, my tiny black and white Shih Tzu, lay on her back by my feet and snored softly. The fan in the porch roof above me was going full force, but my forehead was still sweating.
Such a lovely hot day. Perfect day to take a nap.
I drank another swallow of my tea and closed my eyes. Behind me Gertrude Hunt unfolded, a complex collection of rooms and passageways many times larger than its physical footprint visible from the street and the subdivision on the other side of it. I focused on the kitchen. A seven-foot-tall shape moved within it, big, with foot-long quills thrusting from its back. The shape wiped down the counter, holding the rag with large, clawed hands.
Nap. Nap, nap, nap, you want to nap… If only I had powers of suggestion, my life would be so much easier.
I opened my eyes.
Next to me Caldenia fanned herself with a glittering fan and took a sip of her Mello Yello. “Still no luck?”
I shook my head.
“Then I will have to help you, my dear.”
She rose, put her straw hat on, and strolled into the kitchen. At first glance, our permanent guest looked just like an older Southern woman with a gentle tan, long platinum-grey hair pulled into an elegant updo, and a refined face that said she was stunning in her youth and still remained so. She chatted with neighbors, grew tomatoes with resounding success – I made sure that the inn watered them and added fertilizer at appropriate times – and mastered the art of smiling without showing her teeth. They were pointed and sharp, like those of a shark.
I concentrated on the kitchen.
“This heat is stifling,” Caldenia announced. “I’m going to retire for the afternoon. You could use some rest as well, Orro. If I were you, I’d take this opportunity before to nap before dinner starts.”
Orro rumbled something.
I felt Caldenia move through the kitchen and up the stairs toward her suite.
In the kitchen, Orro stopped, stared out the window…
He carefully folded the towel, hung it on the towel rack by the sink, and ambled out of the kitchen heading toward the narrow winding stairs leading down.
I held my breath, tracking him with my magic. Down the stairs, down, down, and to the cozy den where he made his lair. He stepped inside and shut the door.
I jumped out of my recliner. Beast leaped three feet into the air, landed on her feet, and barked once, looking from side to side.
I swung the back door open and dashed inside the kitchen. Beast chased me.
I sprinted to the oven, turned it on to bake at 350°, and spun around. The door of the pantry flew open, displaying 3,000 sq feet of space filled with shelves and refrigerators. Tendrils of striated wood burst from the ceiling, shot into the pantry, and dragged ingredients onto the island: sugar, flour, baking powder… I grabbed eggs and a bag of Granny Smith apples from the only refrigerator visible in the kitchen. The inn hauled out a heavy KitchenAid mixer out.
“Not that one, the small one,” I hissed. “That one is too loud.”
The KitchenAid vanished back into the pantry and another tendril delivered the handheld mixer into my hands. I put two large bowls onto the island and reached out with my magic.
The creature who ruled our kitchen with an iron claw was settling into his nest bed. Operation Apple Cake was a go.
I creamed the butter in the bowl and added a ¾ cup of sugar to it. Baking a cake for the man you love was stressful enough. Baking a cake in a kitchen ran by a Red Cleaver chef was an impossible feat. Orro viewed both the kitchen and the pantry as his sole domain. Trying to cook anything meant being observed over your shoulder, treated to a detailed critique, followed by multiple offers to help, followed by hurt feelings when said offers were politely and repeatedly declined, culminating in pouting and declarations of woe. If he was really in the moment, he would throw an existential crisis into it.
Orro typically slept for at least an hour and a half. My cake only took 50 minutes to bake. If I played my cards right, it would be cooked before he ever caught on. He would not mess with it onc e it was cooked. He was very ethical and respectful of others’ efforts.
I folded my dry ingredients into my wet ones, mixed everything, poured it into a greased springform pan, and focused on the apples.
Sean had gone out this morning to get more firewood. The inn required wood in the worst way, and we’d been going through a cord, sometimes two, every few days. It wouldn’t have been a problem if we were a BBQ joint, but we were masquerading as a quaint bed and breakfast that did a very limited business. Sooner or later, someone would start wondering what we were doing with all that wood. Sean staggered our firewood orders between different suppliers and bought waste wood whenever he could find it. Usually we ordered firewood online, but he found a supplier a couple of hours away who would deliver a full tri-axle load, seven and a half cords. The only catch was, they wanted payment up front in cash.
Sean didn’t like to leave the inn.
He didn’t mind it as much when he had to go to places other than our planet. Earth was home, the place where he was born and grew up, and Sean learned how to pass for a human. But then he walked out into the Great Beyond. The Universe bathed him in its breath. He saw the stars and other planets, he fought enemies he couldn’t have imagined, and he learned the true nature of his people.
Out there, he could be himself, an alpha strain werewolf. Here, on Earth, he had to pass for an ordinary man and after years in space, it no longer came easily to him.
I mixed cinnamon, sugar, and lemon juice into my peeled sliced apples, added a bit of flour, layered them on top of the dough, popped the pan into the oven, and exhaled. Halfway there.
“Thirty minutes,” I told the inn.
The inn creaked in acknowledgment.
Sean wanted to get the firewood. I offered to go with him, but he declined. I couldn’t make it easier for him while he was out, but I could greet him with his favorite cake when he came back.
A gentle chime rolled through my mind. A familiar presence entered the boundary of the inn. I motioned with my fingers and the wall sprouted a screen. On it, Officer Hector Marais carefully maneuvered his Red Deer PD cruiser up my driveway. Usually he parked on the street. Driving up like that meant he had special delivery.
I wiped my hands with a kitchen towel and headed to the garage. No rest for the wicked.
Officer Marais opened the trunk of his cruiser and bent down to give Beast a pet. In his mid-thirties, bronze-skinned, athletic, with blue-black hair cut short and a clean-shaven jaw, he was the very definition of the modern police officer. Everything from the collar of his uniform to the soles of his boots was “squared away” as Sean said. If the police department ever needed a model for a recruitment poster, there was nobody better.
He truly was a model police officer, completely committed to protecting citizens in his jurisdiction. Which was why once he found out that aliens existed, and that Earth enjoyed the special protected status, he took it upon himself to add extraterrestrial policing to his regular duties. If any normal Earth mechanic ever popped the hood of his cruiser, they would faint on the spot. We were very fortunate that Red Deer made its officers buy their vehicles through a subsidized program.
I looked into the trunk. A woman lay inside it wrapped in a stun net. She was a little older than me and wore a grey combat suit. Her tan skin had a slight cinnamon tint, her hair was dark red and braided away from her face, and her green eyes regarded me with open hostility.
The stun net, one of the fun modifications Sean and Marais had added to the police cruiser, was self-guiding and acted like a taser on contact, short circuiting the neural pathways. Marais had practiced firing it on Sean in an abandoned warehouse parking lot. He’d chase him with the cruiser and Sean would do his best to evade, while I served as a lookout and tried not to have a heart attack every time I heard a car coming. Marais hadn’t had a chance to use his new gadget until now.
The net should have stunned the woman into a mild coma. Instead, it seemed to just piss her off. She glared at me like I was everything that was wrong with her life. If looks could kill, my face would be sporting two burning holes. I leaned closer. A faint golden sheen rolled over her irises.
A werewolf. Made sense.
“Where did you find her?”
Marais nodded at the car. “I’ll show you.”
I let the tendril accept the transmission from the cruiser. Gertrude Hunt produced another screen showing the view from Marais’s dashcam camera. He had two sets in his car, one the standard issue from Red Deer PD and the other bootleg from us.
The street looked familiar. He was on Rattlesnake Trail, by the high school, heading east, with the walled subdivision on one side and the school’s baseball diamond on the other. Bright summer sunshine flooded the mostly empty road. The record temperatures chased the kids inside or to the pools, and their parents were still at work.
A dark humanoid shape shot past the cruiser. Marais was going at least 35. Top human speed was 28 miles per hour and whatever that was blew by his vehicle like it was standing still.
“Someone was running at superhuman speeds in broad daylight for all the honest world to see,” Marais said. “Apparently, she thinks the Earth Treaty doesn’t apply to her.”
The treaty applied to everyone.
I motioned to Gertrude Hunt. A tendril emerged from the ceiling, plucked the woman, still in the stun net, out of the trunk, and wound around her, pinning her arms to her sides. The stun net dropped to the ground. The inn’s tendrils widened, splitting into smaller branches and spun the woman. Weapons rained to the floor of the garage: a short-range energy sidearm, two knifes, a monomolecular cleaver short sword, and three small sticky bombs, each the size of a large grape. When attached to a door and detonated, they could blow a hole through the strongest terrestrial safe.
Hmm. I wonder what she intended to blow up with those. I could hazard a pretty good guess, and I didn’t like it.
The tendrils twisted my captive upright. She glowered at me and snarled.
Beast snarled back by my feet.
The werewolf woman didn’t seem impressed. In her place, I wouldn’t have taken the ten-pound Shih Tzu seriously either. It was a potentially deadly mistake.
I studied the woman. Let’s see, second generation, judging by her age, born after her people had sacrificed their home world to keep it from falling into invaders’ hands. In good shape, lean, with attractive, bold features. On Earth someone would think she was a star athlete, track, or tennis maybe.
“You are in violation of the Earth Treaty,” I told her. “Do you know what that means?”
She didn’t answer.
“The Treaty expressly forbids exposing the human population to the existence of extraterrestrial life. Any traveler wishing to visit Earth must make arrangements with an Inn like this one. Have you made such arrangements?”
“She knows,” Marais said. “I read her the rights on the way. She was heading this way when I apprehended her. Probably to see you.”
“Not you.” The woman sneered.
Oh. Another one.
“Thank you, Officer,” I told Marais. “I’ll take it from here.”
“Never a dull moment.” He opened the front door, reached for a hidden button in the dashboard, pressed it, and the net slid back into the trunk, primed and ready to be reused.
“Oh! I have something for you.”
I held out my hand. The ceiling parted and a vacuum-sealed parcel landed in my hand, two skeins of wool yarn, shimmering with blue and green. “For your wife.”
“Thanks. She’ll love it. What kind of wool is it?”
“Tell her it’s muskox.” It was close enough unless someone did a microscopic analysis. It was a gift from a guest, and Officer Marais’ wife ran a knitting blog. She would enjoy it much more than I would.
I watched Officer Marais get into his vehicle and drive down the driveway. A moment later I felt him cross the boundary of the inn.
It was just me, the female werewolf, and her undying hatred for me. I didn’t take it personally.
The werewolves of Auul were poets, and storytelling was in their blood. Sadly, the saga of their planet turned out tragic, the way sagas often do. They were invaded by an overwhelming force, so they bioengineered werewolfism to repel it. Then decades later, the enemy made their own version of supersoldiers and invaded again. The people of Auul built teleportation gates, knowing they would destabilize their planet, and created the second-generation werewolves, the alpha strain, more dangerous and deadly, to guard them as they evacuated.
The alpha strain werewolves protected the gates to the bitter end, until the cosmic forces that powered them tore Auul apart. Almost all of them died in that last stand.
Sean was the son of two alpha strain werewolves who somehow made it out just before the cataclysm. He was born against all odds, he was freakishly powerful, and after serving in the military, he met me, learned where he came from, and caught a glimpse of the Galaxy. It beckoned, and Sean followed its starlight.
He had fought a devastating war on Nexus, bringing both the Hope Crushing Horde’s and the Holy Anocracy’s offensives to a halt. He battled the best fighters in the Galaxy and triumphed. He had no equal in close quarters combat. He could lead an army or stand alone against overwhelming odds.
It was simply too much for the werewolves. Here was the son of their heroes who came out of nowhere and became the best werewolf ever. They were a people without a planet, refugees scattered across dozens of worlds. They needed a folk hero in the worst way, and my boyfriend proved to be irresistible. Everything about him was legendary and mythical. The fact that he shunned fame and glory only made it worse.
Werewolves favored a direct kind of courtship. In the past few months, we’d had several female and male visitors who arrived at Gertrude Hunt to declare their admiration and interest. Luckily for me, the man was very different from the legend he had inspired.
The image on the screen changed into a big timer counting down. 30… 29… 28…
“I have to go,” I told her.
“I want to talk to him!” the werewolf woman snarled.
“He should be back soon.”
“Hopefully not for another twenty minutes. It will give you a chance to rehearse your speech.”
She blinked but recovered. “I don’t have a speech!”
“You say it like it’s my first time. There is always a speech.”
The timer reached zero and went off.
“Got to go.”
I took off down the hallway, escorted by Beast, while the woman’s curses slowly grew fainter behind me.
Dina’s Apple Cake
4 egg yolks
2/3 cup white sugar
1 stick of butter (1/2 cup)
1/3 cup of sour cream
1 1/2 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 pinch of salt
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
Zest of 1 lemon
3-4 large Granny Smith or other baking apples
1 tsp of cinnamon
1 pinch of flour
4 egg whites
2/3 cups white sugar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a springform pan. I used 2 6-inch ones, because smaller cakes are easier to store, but 9 or 10 inch springform pan would work as well.
Separate egg yolks from egg whites. Refrigerate egg whites.
Grate zest from 1 lemon. Peel apples, slice them into 1/2 inch thick slices, add cinnamon and flour. Mix thoroughly. If the apples are on the sweeter side, add a bit of lemon juice. Set aside.
Cream 2/3 cups sugar with room temperature butter with a hand mixer. Add egg yolks one by one, mix thoroughly. Add sour cream, vanilla, and lemon zest. Mix.
In a separate bowl combine flour, baking powder, and salt. Mix. Add to the wet ingredients and pour into the springform pan. Layer the apples on top. Bake for 30 minutes.
After 30 minutes, removed the pan from the oven. Whip egg whites until stiff peaks form. Add sugar a little at a time and continue whipping until meringue forms and the entire 2/3 cups of sugar is gone.
Layer meringue on top of the apples. Bake for additional 20 minutes. Meringue should be blush and pretty. Remove from oven and let cool to room temperature. Gently run a knife along the edge of the pan just like Dina did, to cut meringue, otherwise when you release the pan, half of it will come off. Release the pan and lift straight up.
Enjoy with tea or your favorite beverage.
Those who didn’t attend the chat will receive access to this chapter on Christmas Day. Please don’t spoil the surprise for them. The first scene of Chapter 2 will be posted during the week after the Christmas holiday.
I found a typo!
Thank you for not pointing it out. You are reading the first draft, which will contains mistakes. Dedicated proofreaders will go through the chapter and proofread it before publication.