When three Seattle baristas are brutally beaten to death, the espresso-loving citizens, who revere their baristas, pressure the Seattle Police Department for quick action. With no clues, leads or suspects, the SPD brings in Harley Wolf, a consulting private investigator with a reputation for making brilliant deductions.
But Harley Wolf is no Sherlock Holmes. His special powers are more like those of the Hound of the Baskervilles. Harley is secretly a werewolf. His heightened senses and animal instincts aid him in discovering otherwise undetectable clues, and in tracking killers. At the dark, rain-slicked alley crime scene of the third murdered barista, he picks up the scent of a suspect he calls, the Marlboro Man, leading Harley deeper into the convoluted depths of the coffee bean scene.
Harley is no ordinary werewolf; he is also a vegan. Haunted by the myths of werewolves as monsters, and saddened by the stories of the mindless mobs that persecuted them, he vowed at a young age to fight for justice, and to control his instinct to kill. Conflicted by the raging hormones of his inner being that are ignited in the light of the full moon, Harley prowls the wet streets and alleyways of Seattle's haunted skid road, seeking out a real monster, the barista killer, and a tiny bit more of elusive redemption.
Murdoch Hughes has lived his adult life along the West Coast of North America, from Mexico to Alaska's Aleutian Islands. However if he were to call a place home it would be Seattle, walking her misty streets at night with the ghosts of her past, while sipping the dark espresso of her present, and scenting the seaweed and cedar dreams of the area's long Native American history.
He lived for six years on Unalaska Island, in the Aleutian Islands, working as a fisherman and a marine engineer. Then he sailed for two years with his wife Jan on their thirty-two foot sailboat, Hunter Star, down the Pacific Coast and into the Sea of Cortez, exploring the many islands and coves of Baja California Sur, Mexico.
Swallowing the anchor and moving ashore, they lived for four more years in the beautiful, peaceful city of La Paz, near the tip of the Baja peninsula. It was there he wrote his two Baja and Mexico based Rick Sage Mysteries: Murder In La Paz, and Death Mask of the Jaguar.
Murdoch is presently living and writing in the Seattle area.
I sniffed the air, shook the excess moisture from my coat, looked up through the misting sky toward the moon hiding behind layers of cloud, and stifled the howl that tried to escape me. Then I stuck out my right arm, raised the yellow crime scene tape and ducked under it as a uniformed Seattle cop leaning against the old brick building hollered, “Hey you—” and started walking toward me.
Looking up, SPD Detective Larry Meyers waved him off. “It’s okay, he’s with me. How’s it going Harley?”
I avoided his outstretched, meaty palm, keeping my hands jammed in my black windbreaker pockets, and nodded, hoping that would be enough. The greeting rituals of pureblooded humans were nauseous. Didn’t they know they were passing germs? Of course, I’m half werewolf so prancing around and sniffing butts and genitals as a form of greeting also had a down side.
Detective Meyers, his hand hanging alone in space for an instant, tried to recover by clapping me on the back. He said, “About time we got some back-up. Good to see you again.”
“In the alley?”
“Yeah, c’mon, I’ll show you,” he replied, leading the way. “But with this rain we’re not going to get much from the scene.”
I had a reputation to uphold. The SPD used me as a consultant on their tough cases. They hated to admit it, but they thought I was some kind of psychic Sherlock Holmes. I didn’t discourage them. The truth would be a lot harder to accept and taxpayers might balk at paying a bill submitted by a werewolf.
As we approached the Dumpster I said, “This barista, she worked at the Second Cup espresso café, in the University District.”
“Huh? Jeez Harley, how can you be sure of that already?”
The victim was in the Dumpster, on top of several full, black plastic garbage bags, her right arm hanging over the side. Her face had been beaten to a pulp, like someone holding onto her hair had smashed her head repeatedly into the concrete.
“She was killed over there,” I said, pointing to a spot next to the building where I had picked up the strongest scent of her blood. “This makes the third barista murdered. About time you people called me in.”
He took my gruff manner as a warning and didn’t respond, but I could sense him watching me intently. Being a werewolf detective meant my extra senses came in handy at crime scenes. I had a forensics lab brain. My mutant genes gave me special powers, kind of like those comic book superheroes—although I tended to think of my human genes as the mutant ones, but that was me. I was not even your run of the woods werewolf, because my werewolf genes had jumped ahead by one mutation. Maybe it was all the Seattle rain. Things grew wild in it.
Unlike other werewolves, in times of extreme stress I could do the change without a full moon, thanks to the unique brain chemical cocktail my werewolf adrenalin sparked in me. I hadn’t told the other werewolves I knew, because I was different enough as it was, even from them. It was scary too. I tried to avoid changing like that because it was unpredictable. It might be embarrassing and could be dangerous. If I wasn’t careful, something like a citizen putting a scratch on my Harley-Davidson Night Rod motorcycle could set me off. Hell, scratching my helmet might do it. It might be fun, siccing my inner being on bad drivers, but I had so far resisted the urge to see the look on their faces.
I’d learned to control myself—to keep from changing at inopportune times—with mantras and meditation, which I’d practiced for years. It’s like self-hypnosis. I needed that control now, because these barista murders felt like an attack on my own family.
Easy Harley, easy boy. I turned my head aside from the rank odors of death and the Dumpster, took a deep breath, held it for three beats, and exhaled. Then I pulled on a pair of latex gloves and approached the body. “Do you mind staying back, Larry?” I said, suppressing a growl while waving at him to get farther behind me.
The victim was a barista all right, and it was no hunch. I’d picked up the scent of coffee way back on the street. Mukilteo brand. Used by only one stand in Seattle. I lifted her arm and examined the nails so Detective Meyers would think I was using some actual police techniques.
Even without disturbing the body too much, I could see her badly beaten face, but I didn’t think it was the cause of death. From the signs, I’d guess strangulation. It was sickening. Killing your own kind for pleasure violated one of the strongest taboos no matter the species. And they called us the monsters.
Sniffing lightly I picked up a different coffee scent. Carefully lifting the vic’s right leg, I peered into the Dumpster. A spilled and crushed McBucks coffee cup was beneath the body, thrown into the Dumpster before the victim had been deposited there. It smelled older than the death, as did the beer-soaked garbage bags below. Did the killer sip his latte while waiting for the barista?
The smell of Chinese food was strong in her mouth. This area of downtown Seattle, called Pioneer Square—where Seattle’s pioneer roots first took hold in muddy ground—was near the International District, so she might have come from there. For Larry’s benefit I said, loudly, “She ate at a Chinese restaurant recently...in the International District...sweet and sour pork.”
They could get the composition of her last meal from a coroner’s report, and it was no great revelation that she had likely eaten her last meal at a Chinese restaurant, but I always mixed mundane revelations with stuff I discovered using my extraordinary senses. That way they felt they were getting the taxpayer’s money’s worth, and Larry would have some magical flourishes to excite the higher-ups.
However, I needed to come up with something more, something better, some clue that might actually help me solve this case. She still had the smell of sweat and fear on her. She wasn’t a smoker, but I could smell a faint aroma of cigarettes. I sniffed lightly again...a Marlboro Man. I had trained myself to distinguish cigarette brands, among countless other things. It came in handy in my business. A werewolf nose was a wonderful thing, in the open air. Shut up in a room with a smoker was torture though. Perfume was almost as bad.
I searched the alley, stooping to pick up a small piece of paper. It was a bus transfer ticket...the kind they give you when you switch buses. I held it up like I was looking it over, but I was smelling it. It wasn’t the barista’s. It had the Marlboro Man’s scent all over it.
“What’s that you found?” Meyers said.
“Bus transfer...the number seventy-three from the University route. It might have belonged to the killer. He could have followed her from work, on the bus. Maybe he took the transfer in case she got back on another one. And he smokes...Marlboros.
“She got off the bus, ate Chinese, and afterwards she walked over here. She was nervous, scared, hurrying. Maybe she spotted him, but I think it was something else. He surprised her, even though she was on the alert for something or someone...got her from behind and choked her so she couldn’t cry out. Oh yeah, and she has a boyfriend.”
I threw the boyfriend bit in because the chances were good I was right. Throw enough info at them like a magician does, they get overwhelmed. I laid the transfer back where I’d found it. Larry’s CSI crew would come in after I was done. As a special favor he’d held them back, knowing I needed to go over the scene first.
“My gosh, Harley. How do you do it?”
“Just hunches, detective. They’re worth nothing until you guys do the real police work.” No sense pissing on his territory. “I get a feeling about stuff like this, but feelings won’t even get me past the metal detectors at the front door of the courthouse. And I have been wrong a couple of times.”
“You’ve already been a huge help. We needed to come up with something quick to feed the newshounds, so the Mayor and the brass agreed to call you in. These baristas are like princesses around here. We all have our favorites. I really appreciate your coming in. Did you know this one, Harley?”
“No,” thank the Gods. “Am I on for the duration?”
“Yeah, but keep a low profile, okay? You know how they are about too much psychic stuff. That door swings both ways. And you’re not the Captain’s favorite—”
“Sure, but he’s an idiot and his wife is a bitch in heat—not my fault.” It had happened at a cop function I hadn’t been able to get out of. Larry’s boss, Captain White, had come into the hallway while I was trying to get his drunken wife’s paws off me.
“Aw c’mon guy, take it easy. We’ve all got our weaknesses.”
“All right, he’s your headache anyway. Where’s the press now?”
“We didn’t put it out on the radio. Until some citizen calls them on a cell phone, they probably won’t pick up on it.”
“Great. I think I’ll beat it before they do show up.”
“Roger. Keep in touch, you know, if anything else strikes you.”
“Okay. And let me know if your crew comes up with something more.
“Like always, Harley. Thanks for your help here.”
“Sure. I’ll probably start by talking to the owner of the Second Cup.”
“Good idea. I can’t believe how you figured that out.”
He shook his head as I walked away feeling like a magician after a good show. I had learned to differentiate brands and blends of coffee in the same way I had learned brands of cigarettes. It’s an easy thing for a werewolf, but in the matter of espresso it was my discerning palate as much as my nose. The Second Cup in the U-district was the only place in Seattle serving the Northwest Blend of the Mukilteo brand of espresso beans. They were the absolute best slow-roasted Arabica grade beans sold in the Northwest, by a small family group whose goal was the ultimate espresso—making it so that the espresso product, properly prepared, tastes as good as the beans smell when they’re ground. Like fresh-baked bread tastes as good as it smells hot from the oven. It was far superior to the McBucks blends. There was no way the huge factory roasters could match the art of a small roaster dedicated to quality. When it was freshly ground I could smell the difference a mile away...maybe ten. I loved my espresso and I needed one now.
I slipped under the police tape and circled the area. I’d had a strong scent of the Marlboro Man at the scene and I hoped to be able to follow the trail. However, the misting rain had been falling for hours, and the scent faded within a few blocks. I felt frustrated and enraged over the murdered baristas and I needed to walk it off.
I looked up. Although I couldn’t see the moon through the heavy clouds, I could feel its magical presence watching over me. With the moon in its first quarter, my werewolf senses were only about half-strength. Closer to the glorious full moon, I might have been able to follow the trail right to his den, although in this drizzle, maybe not.
Ordinarily I loved these late nights on the streets in the rain. It kept the mob inside, leaving the damp shadows to the loners—and the ghosts.
Yeah, ghosts. As I walked through Pioneer Square—built with bricks on top of the wood-framed ruins of the Great Seattle Fire—I kept to the alleys, where the occasional restless spirit drifted through the red brick side of a building, like a wisp of fog to ordinary senses. In this area they were mostly ancestors of local tribes, who could not rest at peace with a modern urban center weighing them down. Change doesn’t ride easily on the remains of the dead.
They were my friends on these late night prowls. I could communicate with the stronger of them. Not like you converse with people. With the spirits it was more like shared feelings, usually of melancholy, but also anger, and even happiness at meeting a kindred spirit. They had helped me, in ways that were closer to intuition than actual conversations. But even the weakest could sense my presence, like the one drifting through just ahead, dressed in the cedar hat and shirt of his time. I let him drift past rather than walk through him like most ordinary pedestrians—who had no idea of the bad luck they were accruing. The streets at night were no place for the weak or the ignorant. I felt a sense of anger and contempt that radiated from the spirit as it passed, and I crept into the shadows to determine the source of its unease.
Unfortunately, it turned out not to be my Marlboro Man. With the bars letting out this time of night, there were a lot of the ignorant roaming the concrete trails, looking for trouble, like the three crossing the alley on the street ahead. They looked me over with their drunken eyes probing for weakness, and hurried on when they found none. I let them get ahead, and followed at a good distance. I didn’t have to be close and didn’t want to. The nauseous alcohol vapors trailing them and the mean tone of their raucous laughter marked them from afar, like they were wearing glow stick dunce caps blasting amplified prattle.
They kicked over a trashcan, sending it crashing into the street, and walked north under the Alaskan Way Viaduct, an elevated highway running along the Seattle waterfront. I crept closer, keeping in the shadows, struggling to control the primal urge to change surging within.
I sensed where they were headed as one snapped the antenna off an older model pickup, and another picked up a piece of broken two-by-four lying next to a building. The third finished off the bottle he was drinking from and held it by the neck like a club, as they switched to clumsy juvenile predator mode, searching the shadows for homeless people sheltering in doorways. Needing an outlet for the emotions that seeing the dead barista had released, I surrendered to the primal urge to change. Mother Moon, take me.
Wolf takes me fast, replacing humanfrustrations from the night’s senseless violencewith his predator’s instincts, the sharppain of reforming bone structure deadenedby adrenalin rush. A low, throaty growlas red-tinged, light-brown fur and paddedfeet silence his/my approach.
“Hey, hey, hey, what do we have here?” one of them shouted. Two people were huddling beneath a huge piece of cardboard, which he grabbed up, flinging it away.
Wolf/I closing ground on the unawaretrio now intent on their victims.
“Hey they’ve got a bottle of booze and they’re not sharing. How about if I give you mine and you give me yours?” shouted one of the three. He grabbed their bottle from an outstretched hand, and raised his to strike down at his two victims.
Growling, snarling, leaping, taking theprey’s arm in my canine teeth, Icrunch down hard on the meaty flesh, the force of the leap knocking himto the ground.
Wolf senses another attacking frombehind. Whirling, we face him, lips curledin warning as he raises the clubover his head to strike us.
Teeth-bared, growling, crouching to spring,I can nearly taste his fear-stinking blood,but the coward cringes, drops the boardto turn and run. Following the otheraround the corner, they abandon the thirdnow scrambling to his feet and alsorunning, screaming, dripping blood from theuseless arm he holds with his otherhand.
Wolf/I, letting them go while repeatingthe mantra...easy boy, easy boy, MotherMoon, easy.
This change was never like that of the full moon. It comes and goes quickly, and as I changed back I gathered up the clothes I’d strewn behind me. I’d barely managed to get my jacket and shoes off, but my short-sleeved, pullover shirt had stretched to accommodate my wolf body. I’d unfastened my jeans...but the zipper had ripped out. Luckily I never wore a belt just in case, and the jeans had slipped off me. My socks stayed on, however. I must have made some impression on my newfound playmates. Changing in public was not a good idea. I’d been lucky this time. Humans could accept seeing a wolf, but not in human clothing...that old saying about sheep I suppose.
As I gathered up my clothes and tried to make myself presentable enough to make it home, the two homeless guys stared at me. Their bottle hadn’t broken and there was a bit left in it so I handed it back to them, and then replaced the cardboard shelter over their heads. Hey, maybe the shock of what they’d seen would make them swear off alcohol. Or they would keep drinking hoping to get back there.
Whatever. They were temporarily safe, they had their wine, and I needed a nice triple espresso. I loped toward my houseboat on Lake Union to get a change of clothes. Then I would ride my motorcycle up to Capitol Hill, where I knew a nice espresso stand serving a decent roast would still be open...at least for me. I could almost smell it. Well, okay, there was also the stored scent of redheaded Helene, sometimes called Hell for short, and not alone because she was a hell of a barista. Not by far. She could be hell in every way, but playing with fire does have its rewards, and I figured I deserved one.