The first appearance of a very important character in IRIS & IVY, a Moretown Bay novel.
The cab pulled into the loading zone in front of Kitty’s Kool Kat Lounge. The pink neon sign over the entrance promised live nude dancers. Jeremy doubted they’d be totally nude, but that wasn’t what he was really here for.
“Seventeen-fifty,” said the cab driver.
The windshield wipers slapped a steady beat against the late night rain off the Bay as Jeremy dug out two tens from his wallet. Enough for a tip, not enough to make an impression on the driver. Not enough for the man to remember he was here.
Jeremy passed the money through the slot in the clear plastic shield between the driver and the back seat. “Keep the change,” he said.
The driver grunted as he took the cash. He was a bald guy twice Jeremy’s age. He had a scar bisecting one eyebrow, and the kind of muscular neck Jeremy had seen on guys who worked out but never really bulked up. The driver’s eyes were bloodshot, and he had enough scruff on his lined face to make him look like Bruce Willis after a three-day bender. He’d driven as if he was sober, and he’d taken Jeremy to the kind of place he wanted to go. Beyond that, Jeremy didn’t care if the guy was drunk off his ass. In fact, that might make things easier in the long run.
“Let me give you a piece of advice,” the driver said.
Jeremy was about ready to make a run from the cab to the club. The driver hadn’t said a word to him since Jeremy caught the cab downtown and asked the guy to take him to a nightclub, any nightclub, in The Shadows. Jeremy kept his hand on the door handle but didn’t open the door.
“I give you a tip and now you talk to me?” he said.
The driver looked at him in the rear view mirror. “Think you’re a smart guy, don’t you?”
Jeremy tensed. “What did you say to me?”
“Guys like you, you’re a dime a dozen. You want to step out on the wild side, get away from your boring life in your uptown apartment with your uptown girlfriend, so you come down here to slum it up with the magic folk. You ask me to take you to a place where the cops won’t bust your ass for paying a little too much attention to a girl who can look like anyone you ever had a wet dream about. Am I right?”
Jeremy felt himself flush. This guy drove a smelly, junk heap of a cab into the seamiest part of Moretown Bay, and he thought he was good enough to give someone like Jeremy advice? What a joke. But Jeremy made himself sit still and quiet and act like he was listening.
“Cops fish guys like you out of the Bay all the time,” the driver said. “You don’t want to be one of them, keep your eyes open and your dick in your pants. The girls down here, the ones that aren’t human, they’re the kind who steal more than your wallet.”
Okay, enough was enough. Even a mild-mannered man would stick up for himself at this point.
“I can take care of myself,” Jeremy said.
“I bet all the smart guys they fish out of the Bay said that, too.”
Jeremy kept himself from touching the knife he had in its special pocket in his pants. It wasn’t time for the world to find out about him. He had work to do first. A reputation to build. Places to go, people to kill. A small-time loser stuck driving a cab for a living wouldn’t know anything about that.
“Thanks for the advice,” Jeremy said. He made himself smile and nod and pretend to be sincere.
The driver shook his head. “I’m gonna read about you in the papers, aren’t I? One of the missing, or one of the dead.”
Oh, you’ll read about me in the papers one day, Jeremy thought as he escaped the cab. You just won’t know it’s me.
The inside of the nightclub was like any other tittie bar, which was something of a disappointment.
Jeremy had moved up the coast to Moretown Bay from Portland a few weeks ago, and this was his first real excursion into The Shadows. He’d heard so many whispers about the dockside neighborhoods on the east side of the Bay. The locals said this part of town was where drugs and magic and crime ruled, and the cops didn’t even pretend to be in charge.
He had built up quite a fantasy about the place in his mind. He’d expected a strip club in The Shadows, a place where magic wasn’t strictly regulated, to exceed even his own outrageous fantasies. But so far all he saw were a few half-naked women dancing on a raised runway behind a U-shaped, black-topped bar. A few dozen little round tables and wooden chairs painted black were scattered around the floor. The chair backs had stylized cat eyes and whiskers in pink neon on the back, the club’s logo, no doubt.
Jeremy sighed. The music was loud, the air smoky, and the drinks would be watered down and over-priced. He hoped this trip wasn’t a waste.
The club’s clientele was exclusively male. A few uptown types like Jeremy, complete with sports jackets and silk polo shirts, sat at tables here and there, but most of the men were a rough sort—bikers, fishermen, wharf rats who picked up whatever work they could, and truckers who spent their days driving and their nights drinking. A couple of topless waitresses moved among the tables, clearing away empty glasses and replacing them with fresh drinks.
Jeremy took an empty seat at the crowded bar. The bartender, a topless, older redhead with breasts too perfect and full to be natural, put a napkin down on the smooth surface in front of him.
“Ten bucks a drink, two drink minimum,” she said. “In advance.”
Jeremy took a twenty out of his wallet and put it on the bar. “Gin and tonic,” he said.
The bartender looked at him. Her eyes were deep, emerald green, and she had a row of freckles across her pert nose.
Jeremy took another ten out of his wallet and laid it on the bar with the twenty. “Keep the change,” he said.
She nodded at him and smiled. Her teeth were white and straight. Jeremy looked down as she took the money, and he was just in time to see her nipples contract into perfect little buds flushed deep red.
“Thanks,” she said.
The guy two stools down snorted. “Great trick, Kat. Never get tired of seeing that.”
The bartender rocked her shoulders, making her breasts jiggle. Her nipples flattened out, the flush gone. “Oh, you do, do you, Mort? I’ll have to keep that in mind.”
She left to mix Jeremy’s drinks.
“What was that all about?” Jeremy asked.
“What, you ain’t never seen a changeling before?” The guy took a long swig from his beer. “Trust me, kid. That ain’t all they can do. You fuck a changeling once, you don’t go back to vanilla pussy again.”
A changeling. Jeremy had never seen one up close, at least not that he knew of. That was the thing about changelings. They could be anyone and you’d never know, not until they died. Then they reverted back to their true forms, which Jeremy heard wasn’t anything close to human. The women Jeremy had worked with before, they were all mortals like himself, although he wasn’t vanilla. Not anywhere close.
Changelings. This was exciting.
This was exactly what he was looking for.
“Are all the girls in here changelings?” he asked.
The guy snorted again. “That’s why we drink this over-priced beer, kid. You wanna play, you gotta pay.”
Jeremy paid closer attention to the girls dancing behind the bar. They all had perfect shapes—flat bellies, round asses, and pert, perfect breasts. Their faces were smooth, their cheeks rosy, their lips full and sensuous. They danced to music that sounded like liquid sex, all deep, throaty bass notes and smooth jazz riffs that flowed from one song to the next without ever reaching a climax.
Changelings. All he had to do was pick which one.
It had been easier with the other girls. Jeremy had a type. Dark hair, dark eyes, not too much makeup, not too aggressive a stare. He’d found his type in bars from Stockton to Sacramento, from Medford to Salem to Portland. He hadn’t used his knife on all of them. Some he’d only frightened so badly that he knew they’d never turn him in to the police. He didn’t worry about them. They’d only been practice, after all. Every great artist had to practice before he began work on his masterpiece.
So far the police hadn’t connected the dots, but Jeremy thought that was because he’d ranged too far and wide. He intended to change all that in Moretown Bay. The place had a reputation. Too many magic users crammed into too small a part of a too-big a city. Drugs and corruption went hand in hand here, and that was just among the mortal population. Add in criminal magic users, and the police were already over-worked. Jeremy figured he could build himself quite a reputation of his own. He’d be famous, and he’d move on before anyone ever caught him.
The bartender put both drinks down on the bar in front of him. Jeremy took a sip from one glass. Watered down, as he expected. That was fine. He didn’t want to get drunk. He wanted to remember every detail, and he couldn’t do that if he was wasted. He wanted to enjoy every minute of his first time with a changeling.
He considered whether the bartender should be the one. It had been a neat trick, what she’d done with her nipples. Jeremy didn’t like redheads, but he bet they could change their hair color as easily as they could the rest of themselves. But there was something hard about her, about the way her stare was challenging, like when she hadn’t picked up the twenty off the bar but waited for Jeremy to give her a tip even though she hadn’t done anything to earn it. Jeremy didn’t like aggressive girls.
He picked up his two drinks and wandered over to an empty table near the back. He sat down and began to watch the other girls in the club.
There were four waitresses, all topless, all as perfect in their body shapes as the dancers on stage. Jeremy watched them as they moved among the tables, deftly avoiding being groped while they served drinks. None of them gave any of the men a lap dance. Tips went on their trays, not in the waistband of their black short-shorts with the long, kitty cat tails in the back.
At first, Jeremy thought the tails were part of the costume. Then he saw one of the waitresses laugh, and the tail of her costume curled and then relaxed.
Jeremy blinked. They actually had cat tails.
What would it be like to be with a woman with an actual tail?
Jeremy finished off his first drink and started in on the second. One of the waitresses approached his table. She was shorter than the rest. Her hair was dark, long enough that it touched her collar bone in front, shorter in the back. Her eyes were dark brown, her lips the kind of dusty red that had nothing to do with lipstick.
“Can I get you another round?” she asked.
Jeremy tried to see around to the back of her shorts. The need to see her tail was almost visceral. He hadn’t been this excited about something new since the first time he’d touched his knife to smooth skin and blood had welled up against the blade.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “This might be rude, but could I see your tail?”
She looked at him, and he could have sworn her eyes got darker, although it could have been a trick of the low light in the bar. She swiveled her hips, and her tail curled around the side of her waist. “This little thing?” she asked. “I almost forget I have it when I’m here.”
It looked exactly like a cat’s tail, sleek-furred and blunt-tipped. Jeremy had to keep himself from reaching out to touch it. He imagined that touching a waitress might get him thrown out of the bar. The bouncer at the door was twice his size, and he hadn’t looked entirely human.
What she’d said about her tail sunk in. “You don’t have it all the time?” he asked.
“Part of the costume.” She looked over her shoulder, then turned back to him and leaned over a bit. “I can do this, too.”
Jeremy watched, fascinated, as two cat ears sprouted from her head like horns, then melted back beneath her hair.
“Kat doesn’t like it when we mess with the costume,” she said, her voice pitched so low Jeremy had to strain to hear her over the music. “But it’s kind of fun, don’t you think?”
“Kat, that’s the bartender?”
“Yeah. She runs the place. She’s a good boss, but it’s not really my thing, you know? I’m just here until I can make enough to go to school.” She grinned at him. “I guess that’s my pitch to get you to leave me a good tip. You don’t mind, do you?”
Jeremy dug two twenties out of his wallet. His fingers brushed the knife on the way out of his pocket.
Patience, he told himself as he put the money on the table.
“Gin and tonic, right?” She picked up the money off the table and her smile got bigger. “And a really good tip. I think you’re going to be my favorite customer of the night.”
When she turned away to get his drinks, she put an extra sway in her hips. Her tail bounced along behind her.
Only after she’d left did Jeremy realize he’d never looked at her naked breasts.
The second round of drinks had no more effect on him than lemonade. When he made his way to the men’s room to relieve his bladder, the room didn’t tilt off balance like it did the few times he’d been truly drunk.
Tonight was the night, he could feel it in his bones. He was ready. His waitress was perfect. He only had to figure out how to get her alone.
As it turned out, he didn’t have to. She was waiting for him in the hallway outside the men’s room when he finished.
“Sshh,” she said, putting a finger to her lips. “We’re definitely not supposed to do this, so don’t make a sound.”
She took his hand in hers and led him further down the hall, away from the bar. They passed a closed door marked “Office” and another door to the largely unused ladies’ room. Beyond that was a velvet-curtained doorway opposite a door marked “Exit.” The waitress pushed the velvet curtain aside and pulled Jeremy into the dark room beyond.
“Where are we?” Jeremy whispered.
“Dressing room.” She clicked on a lamp that gave off about as much light as a nightlight. “We’re not supposed to bring customers back here, but…” She shrugged. “You’re kinda cute, and I don’t think you’ve ever been with anyone like me before, right?”
Jeremy shook his head, content to play the naive vanilla mortal and see where this went.
“I like guys like you,” she said. “Not that I do this kind of thing a lot, but I really liked that you’ve got a thing about my tail. That’s not what guys usually want. It makes it kind of fun. Makes me feel special.”
“So,” Jeremy said. “Can I see it? I mean, without the costume?”
She nodded and grinned a playful kind of grin, like a kid who knew she was doing something naughty. She slid her short-shorts off, and then turned around.
He could have done it then, clamped his hand over her mouth and slid his knife into her, but the sight of her black fur-covered tail emerging from the base of her spine right over her round, naked buttocks fascinated him. The tail twitched back and forth over her creamy skin like it had a life of its own.
“Can I touch it?” he asked.
She smiled at him over her shoulder. “I was hoping you’d want to.”
He reached out and stroked her tail, and she wrapped it around his arm. It was hard and ropy, as substantial as his fingers but much more expressive.
“I hope that’s not all you’re going to do,” she said. “Just pet my tail.”
It occurred to him that she was fully naked now. She bent a little at the waist, the move clearly inviting.
Jeremy unzipped and moved in behind her. The knife in his pocket was practically burning through his trousers. He was ready. He’d touched her tail. In a minute, he’d touch her blood.
He thought the tail would get in the way, but their bodies fit together as well as every other woman Jeremy had ever been with. Her tail wrapped around his waist, thumped against his belly, stroked the side of his cheek.
He understood now what the man at the bar meant. He’d never go back to a vanilla mortal again, but not for the same reason as other men.
Jeremy slipped the knife from his pocket without missing a stroke. All the other women he’d had before were just practice for this, the first one that really counted.
She was just the right fit beneath him. He slid the knife between her ribs at an upward angle at the same time he clamped his hand over her mouth. He held her tight as she shuddered and her blood spilled out over his hand.
She was perfect.
He savored the moment until she became too heavy to hold. He laid her down gently on the floor and crouched down beside her. He shouldn’t wait, but he wanted to see what she looked like in her true form. He wanted to remember every minute of his time with her, including her transformation.
When she changed, it wasn’t what he’d expected. Her tail melted away, reabsorbed into her body, but instead of turning into something inhuman, her body thickened at the waist, flattened at the hips. Her breasts shrank inward, her shoulders widened. Her thighs and arms turned muscular, and her hair pulled back until it was short against her skull. Short, and dirty blonde. Just like his own.
What the hell?
She turned over on her back and looked up at him with his face.
“Surprise,” she said in his voice.
He stumbled back, falling over himself in his haste to get back on his feet. She was on him in an instant.
She might have had his body, but she was inhumanly strong, much stronger than he was. She knocked his feet out from under him. He fell flat on his back, his head bouncing hard on the floor. He dropped the knife as she fell on top of him. Before he could grab for it, her arm lengthened and she snatched it away.
“One thing you should know about changelings,” she said. “We can be anybody we want to be. Even you.”
“But I killed you,” he said.
“You tried to. That’s another thing.” She poked him in the chest with her finger. “Our heart’s not in the same place as yours. That’s the only way a human can tell we aren’t. Human, that is. Maybe you should have studied up on us before you tried to kill me. We heal really fast when you don’t hit us in the heart.”
His own face stared down at him barely inches away from his own. He felt dizzy. If he hadn’t already been flat on his back, he might have passed out.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“Your life,” she said. “I told you working here wasn’t really my thing. I think I want to be you for a while, see what that’s like.”
Be him? “You don’t want my life. It’s boring. Really.”
“Oh, I doubt that.” She grinned at him with his face. The expression had no mirth in it. “You stuck that knife in me like a pro. I’m pretty sure you’ve done that before. Want to know what it feels like?”
Before Jeremy could say or do anything, she’d sprouted another arm to hold him down and another to cover his mouth. He felt his own knife slip in between his ribs, angled up toward his heart.
The pain was exquisite. He shuddered as wave after wave ripped him apart with every breath.
Her eyes widened, the pupils darkening. “Oh, my. I can see why you like it. I might have to do this again.”
She watched him intently as he struggled to get free, but he was getting weaker every second. Finally she dropped her hands away. He tried to scream, but he couldn’t take enough air into his lungs.
She stood up. She was still naked, but her body was his again now, right down to the scar on his thigh from when he’d fallen as a child and the sparse hair on his chest. She held his wallet in hands that looked just like his. She took out his combination driver’s license/identity card, the brand new one he’d gotten only weeks ago when he’d moved to the Bay.
“Jeremy Jones, huh?” she said. “I think I’ll like that name.” She waved the license at him. “Everything I need, right here, to be you, Jeremy. How nice for the state to put it all in one convenient place.”
A sound like rushing waves started to build inside Jeremy’s head. The dim light from the nightlight seemed to be fading. He tried to say something, but he couldn’t catch his breath.
“What was that?” she said. “Did you have some last words for me?”
Jeremy thought about all the hard work he’d done, all the practice he’d put into making himself the perfect killer. He’d even had a name picked out for himself: Lady Killer. If the cops hadn’t picked it out for him, he’d planned on sending an anonymous note and signing it the Lady Killer.
“I was going to be famous,” he murmured.
She stared down at him. Just for a moment, her eyes turned emerald green and as hard as stone. “Oh, don’t worry.”
She bent over and picked up his knife. The last thing Jeremy saw was the changeling wiping his own blood off the blade.
“You will be,” she said. “You will be.”
Copyright © 2013 by Annie Reed
Cover art Copyright © Boborsillo | Dreamstime.com