“Alpha Canis”

 

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Other than the fact that it was New York City, there wasn’t anything particularly unusual about the arrival. It took place between ten p.m. and two a.m., just like always, and like always a fat gibbous moon hung in the sky like a golden Chinese lantern emerging from beneath a black velvet drape. There was also the familiar smell of the car—clove oil and sweat and leather, and the not-unpleasant tang of cheap roadside burgers—and the driving industrial music on the CD player, not loud but just audible enough to insinuate its punishing beats into the brain, establishing a rhythm for thought.

Lucine smiled a little as she gazed out the car window, watching the twinkling lights of the city grow brighter from across the dark water. She’d never been to New York before, but Mars had. Lucine had always thought of it as a place apart, a place so magical that it surely didn’t really exist, a fairyland like Oz or Narnia. She certainly never thought of it as a place you could just drive to in Mars’s dirty red Viper, but reality was putting lie to that belief; there was the city, rushing forward to meet them as if it would devour them whole.

“The club manager put us up in an apartment less than a block from the place.” Mars was peering through the windshield with her cold blue eyes, getting a cigarette from her pack and lighting it without even glancing at what she was doing. In a moment the thick spicy smoke filled the air. “We’re staying with some guy who works the bar. I hope I have a place to park.”

Lucine did not comment, because she had not been asked to.

The miles went by as if in a dream, shifting lights and bridges giving way to towering concrete and noise, the energy and heat coming off the streets palpable even within the fume-filled bubble of the Viper. Lucine craned her neck eagerly, trying to take it all in. She had been to big cities before, of course; in fact, it was all one big city after another, and had been for years, but New York was different, simultaneously seducing and repelling, a dazzling debutante and a decaying whore. Lucine wanted to cram it all into her mouth and swallow it.

It was a Tuesday night, and traffic was probably as light as it ever got in lower Manhattan, but even so it took nearly an hour of inching, circling and swearing before Mars finally turned the car onto the darkened block where the Oubliette was, where the apartment was. Lucine looked out as Mars prowled the street like a shark, trying to find an empty space along the curb. Miraculously, she found one only a little way down from the club, on the opposite side of the street. She pressed her vinyl-booted foot onto the accelerator and the Viper roared into the opening with less than an inch to spare.

Mars reached into the back for her bag, which was also black vinyl, and then she pointed a commanding finger at Lucine, even though of course Lucine knew better than to move or get out of the car without permission. Mars got out, her leather skirt creaking, and then she walked around to the passenger side of the car and opened the door, reaching for the silver chain that had pooled in Lucine’s lap, the chain attached to the collar around her neck. Mars tugged it, just hard enough to be a little uncomfortable, and Lucine unfolded her lithe body from the passenger seat, keeping her gaze downturned.

Even before they reached the club entrance, Lucine could feel the music pounding from the very ground beneath her, beats that simultaneously punished and soothed. Mars tugged on her chain and Lucine looked up, taking in the nondescript facade of the establishment, painted a chipping blood red with old frosted glass inserts. The door was open, and some random pulsing lights could be seen from deep within the building. As they approached, a black clad figure emerged from the shadows, silver eyebrow spikes glinting. “You’re some of the performers for Thursday?”

“Mistress Mars and Lucine. Is Adam Severin here?”

“Yeah, he’s expecting you. Just take that first left down the hall past the bathrooms, he should be in the office.”

“Thanks.” Lucine followed dutifully at the end of the chain as Mars clacked down the hall in her high-heeled boots. The smell of the place was strange and yet intimately familiar, the secretive, earthy scent of many bodies close together, mixed with the lingering pall of cigarettes that were no longer allowed to be smoked.

Adam Severin, the club manager, was indeed in the office, a whip-thin man in his late twenties with a head shaved clean and black-framed glasses sitting on the bridge of his hawk-beak nose. He smiled as they entered, and asked if they’d had a good trip. Lucine only half listened as he talked to Mars about the show on Thursday, about the other acts performing, about turning up a few hours early for an informal run-through. She liked the sound of his voice and was content to listen to the melody of its rise and fall as she stood at the end of her silver chain, her hands folded demurely in front of her.

At last business seemed to be concluding, and Adam and Mars shook hands; Lucine knew better than to offer hers, and even though Adam had only just met them, he knew better than to offer his to her. He rooted around in his pocket for a moment, coming up with a set of two keys on a plain ring.

“Roman told me to give you these,” he said, handing the keys to Mars. “They’re both the same, for the apartment door. He said to just go ahead and make yourselves at home because he doesn’t get off work here until three. Bigger bedroom is his; he says you guys can share the smaller one. His roommate’s in Prague.” Adam smiled at this, and Lucine thought he had a nice smile, sort of like a wolverine. “You know the address, right? The building number’s 134, only about six down from here. Front door should be propped open; if not, hit the buzzer and someone will open it. He’s on the fourth floor, apartment number eighteen.” He smiled again, and Lucine almost smiled back, but then caught herself. “Welcome to New York,” he said.

Lucine followed Mars back out of the club and across to the curb where the car was parked. Mars looped the silver chain around her wrist to have her hands free, and then she opened the trunk and pointed inside. “Carry the big one.”

“Yes, Mistress.” Lucine reached in and maneuvered their big black suitcase free. It wasn’t terribly heavy, though it contained most of their everyday clothes, and all of their performing outfits and accessories; after years on the road, they knew how to travel light. Mars grabbed the small overnight bag and slammed the trunk, giving Lucine and extra hard tug on the leash for almost not moving her hand away fast enough.

The front door of the building was propped open, so Mars glided in, pulling Lucine behind her. There was no elevator, and Lucine’s arms were starting to ache from carrying the awkward suitcase up the stairs. Occasionally she deliberately slacked her pace or mewled her discomfort, just so she could earn a swift rebuke from Mars in the form of a savage chain tug or a withering glare.

The apartment, once they had managed to shove open the tight metal door and fumble their way to the light switch, was a typical Manhattan closet with a postage stamp living room, a cramped toilet with a shower stall, a slip of a kitchen that looked barely used, and two miniscule bedrooms with worn hardwood floors and narrow barred windows overlooking a back alley. Lucine liked it immediately; it was cozy and oddly welcoming, and had a lingering animal odor that appealed to her sharp senses. At Mars’s command, Lucine carried the suitcase into the smaller bedroom. She dropped it on the floor a little too loudly, then shuddered with pleasure when Mars used the long silver chain to swipe her across the back.

They were both very tired, and once Lucine had undressed and curled up on the end of the bed, she watched adoringly as Mars unzipped her boots and tossed them aside, as she slid out of her leather skirt and her black tank top. Normally Lucine would undress her mistress, folding each article of clothing just so, placing the boots in perfect alignment under Mars’s eagle gaze. But tonight Mars was clearly too exhausted for games, and had ordered Lucine immediately to her usual sleeping place at the foot of the mattress.

Mars, now wearing only a red bra and matching underwear, stood staring down at Lucine for a long moment. She was achingly beautiful in this pose of studied disapproval: Her hair was ice-white and piled in disciplined curls upon her head; her pale flesh was alive with sinuous curves of ink. After making sure that Lucine had cowered sufficiently at her implied wrath, Mars yawned, then leaned down and unsnapped the collar, tossing it and the chain aside with a metallic clink. That done, she slipped beneath the covers, making sure to dig her toes painfully into Lucine’s ribs. Lucine sighed with happiness, and was asleep minutes after Mars extinguished the lamp. Sometime in the night, she half awoke to the sound of a key jingling and a door closing nearby, but in the presence of her mistress she felt no apprehension, and soon drifted off again.

****

Morning brought the smells of coffee and sugary baked goods, which in turn brought Lucine out of her deep slumber. Mars was already up, her shampooed hair hanging like spun platinum down her tattooed back as she dug through the larger suitcase. Lucine did not make a sound; she just waited, and after a moment Mars turned to look at her as if she had sensed her consciousness. “Get up and come here,” Mars said, and Lucine obeyed, untangling her cramped limbs. Mars snapped the collar back on and tugged the chain, then studied Lucine’s face and body very closely. Lucine knew that she was already beginning to change, this near to the full moon; the hair on her body was a little coarser and thicker, the angles of her face were sharpening. No one else was likely to notice anything unusual, but Mars always noticed.

“Get dressed,” she commanded when she was finished staring. “Look presentable. You have to meet Roman.”

Lucine unearthed some clothes from the suitcase, just a regular black gypsy skirt and a tight purple t-shirt with a black rose printed on it. She didn’t have to put on any of her performing outfits, not until tomorrow night.

Once Mars had dressed and pulled back her still-damp hair, she led Lucine out into the living room, which contained no furniture except a couch, two small bookcases crammed with books, and a cheap desk with a computer on it. It was at this desk that Roman sat, staring at the computer screen, a chipped coffee mug beside him and a pastry dripping a dark red jam clutched in one hand.

He turned as he heard them enter. “Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” said Mars, but Lucine had stopped in her tracks and was staring at Roman, because she could see from his eyes that he was like her, lupine, and she could hardly believe it. She should have known from the thick animal smell of the apartment, but she’d been so tired last night, and pleasantly overwhelmed by the mythical city.

A painful tug at her collar brought her up short, and she glanced at Mars’s pretty scowl, apologizing with her eyes. “Say hello to Roman,” Mars commanded.

“Hello, Roman.” Lucine’s voice was soft, lilting, but she could hear the underpinnings of a growl all the same; it always happened a couple of days before the change. She didn’t know if Mars was aware of Roman’s nature, and of course she could not tell her. Lucine had never even met another creature like herself, save for her mother, who had died some years before.

Roman was looking at her with an open stare that barely masked a sort of feral intensity. She wanted to return his look, but she was aware also of Mars’s imposing figure just inches away, radiating heat, and so Lucine dropped her gaze.

When the strange moment had passed, Roman took a thoughtful bite from his pastry, not minding that bits of the red filling were clotting around his lips and jaw. “There’s coffee in there if you want some. And I got some doughnuts and stuff, they’re in that white bag.”
“I’ll get it,” Mars said, looking significantly at Lucine as she said it. “You stay here.”

Lucine deflated a little. Mars must have seen what had passed between her and Roman, or else she wouldn’t have denied Lucine the pleasure of getting the coffee and pastries and serving them to her mistress. She could sense Roman was looking at her and willing her to raise her head, but she didn’t dare.

Mars returned carrying one mug and one pastry, and she drank most of the coffee and ate more than half the pastry, then put the rest on the floor for Lucine to have. Lucine crouched and fell to, happy that Mars’s odd mood seemed to have passed so quickly.

There was a long silence as Lucine finished her sparse breakfast, licking her fingers clean of jam and sugar, and then finally Roman coughed uncomfortably and said, “What had you two planned on doing today? I mean, the show isn’t until tomorrow, and I don’t have anything in particular I need to do. If you wanted me to show you around, that is.”

“It might be nice to do a bit of sightseeing,” Mars said, glancing down at Lucine, who was still sitting on the floor. “She’s never been to New York. Have you, Lucine?”

“No, mistress.”

So Roman took them for a long walk around the crowded streets of the city, talking all the while as Mars glided along beside him, listening to him with her cold eyes staring forward and her red lips curled into her trademark scowl. A few times Roman deliberately tried to include Lucine in the conversation, but she resisted, happy to simply follow along at the end of her chain, peering around the city in silence.

In the early afternoon they rode the subway uptown and walked languidly through the Met, Mars pausing to examine the intricately worked swords in the arms and armory wing. Lucine thought it was a wonderful place, and stared eagerly at each object they encountered, trying to burn its memory into her brain. Roman was still talking—he seemed to know a great deal about almost everything, and Lucine couldn’t help wondering about him, wondering where he had come from—but after a while his voice became forced, and his surreptitious glances in Lucine’s direction seemed to be turning desperate. Lucine could see his eyes in the reflection from the glass case enclosing a medieval reliquary, and they glowed green like an animal’s eyes, like her eyes when the light was just right.

At dinnertime the three of them stopped at the café in the American wing for coffee and scones, Roman sitting across the table from Lucine and Mars. Mars was looking at them frankly with her own very human eyes, which in their way were just as frightening as a wolf’s. “I’ll be back in a minute, I’m just off to the ladies’,” she said, and she laid the end of Lucine’s leash in a little silver pile on the tabletop. “Stay here,” she commanded.

“Yes, mistress.” Lucine lowered her head.

The moment Mars had rounded the corner, Roman leaned across the table and spoke, as Lucine had known he would. “Hey, I know your relationship is none of my business, and I don’t want to mess everything up between you two because you seem happy and everything, but why, Lucine? Is that even really your name?”

Lucine couldn’t bring herself to look at him, even though Mars was not there. “It’s my name now.”

He lowered his head to her level, trying to meet her gaze, but she avoided it. He sighed. “You’re like me, Lucine. You could be… I don’t know, free, like our kind are supposed to be. How did you get mixed up in this? Why do you let her treat you like that?”

At this Lucine did raise her head, and she could feel her eyes flashing fire at him, could feel the growl building in her throat. “I love my mistress. And she loves me.”

“Lucine…”

She looked down at the table again. “You don’t understand.”

“You’re right. I guess I don’t.”

A hard, swift clack of heels signaled Mars’s return, and for a second she stood over the table, casting both their figures into her long shadow, before sitting down again and sipping at her coffee, a strange smile on her beautiful face. “Did you have a nice talk while I was gone?”

Roman didn’t answer; he just shrugged and took a bite out of his scone. Lucine dutifully said, “Yes, mistress.” Mars looked at her, an endless tide of emotion and meaning in one single glance, and then she reached out and stroked Lucine’s cheek, first softly, then fiercely, digging her fingernail into the giving flesh at the junction of Lucine’s jaw and neck. Lucine closed her eyes, relishing the sensation.

After that, Roman hardly talked at all; when the museum closed, they rode the subway back to the apartment, none of them speaking. Roman walked to the corner and brought back Chinese food for the three of them, and after that he turned on the computer and left the two women to themselves. Lucine couldn’t help but feel a little bad for him, though there was some other emotion tugging at her too; curiosity, surely, and perhaps even a little longing, a desire to experiment with a different life, one among her own kind, one where she was not forever on the end of a leash, where her monthly change was not witnessed by crowds of fascinated onlookers. But what would life be like without Mars there, always at her side? She could hardly fathom it, did not want to imagine it. Mars was like an extension of her, an appendage, her representative to the wider world. Losing Mars would be like losing a limb.

The women went to bed early, Lucine undressing Mars carefully, lovingly, and then curling up at the end of the mattress. She slept well and woke late, already feeling the changes starting in her body, feeling her skin thrumming with anticipation. When she looked at herself in the mirror in the tiny bathroom, she could see the lengthening of her face, the striking definition of her muscles. She liked the look of herself this way, wild and hungry.

Roman was at his computer again, another half-eaten pastry in his hand. He barely turned when they entered the living room. “Are you going to see the show tonight?” Mars asked him, her voice bearing the slightest hint of mockery.

“I’m not working tonight,” he said without turning around. “But I’ll probably check the show out anyway.” He would be starting to change now too, Lucine thought, and she wondered what he did when his own time came, if he ran the streets of Manhattan, tearing at the throats of the lost, the homeless, the drug addicts crouching in narrow alleyways. The thought of such a massacre both repelled her and appealed to her. How did he keep from being seen, from being caught? It all seemed so precarious, so romantic.

At Mars’s command, Lucine had packed their performing clothes in a bag that she carried across her shoulder. They left the apartment and Roman’s silent back, and walked down the block to the club, where Adam Severin let them in and allowed them to leave their outfits in the back office. Some of the other performers were there also, milling around and talking, many of them clearly old friends. Mars knew a few of them from performances in other parts of the country, and she talked to them as Lucine stood contentedly at the end of her chain. Later a group of them went to lunch, and Lucine tagged along, smiling shyly at one other submissive who wore a tight black leather bodysuit and accompanied his tall, severely red-headed mistress at the end of his own thick leash.

After lunch, there was a rather ramshackle rehearsal back at the Oubliette, with Adam Severin presiding good-naturedly, assigning everyone their spot in the lineup and making sure they knew their places and had the music they wanted cued up at the correct time. The show didn’t have to be flawless, as many of the audience would only be half-watching as they engaged in various forms of play themselves, but it was important to have some sense of continuity and professionalism, just to keep spectators from getting bored or restless. Lucine did her part as she always did, miming her transformation as it was obviously not yet occurring, and then she and Mars cleared the stage for the next act.

Night fell, and from the cramped space behind the stage Lucine could hear and smell the crowds as they entered, the scent of their sweat and blood making her heart gallop like a hummingbird’s. She could feel the physiology of her body twisting back to ancient shapes, a memory of her distant mammalian ancestors, and she closed her eyes and breathed in and out deeply, enjoying the prickly sensation of each hair on her body standing at attention. Both she and Mars had changed into their stage clothes, and Lucine’s coarsely haired flesh was almost all on display, covered only by strips of red leather across her breasts and hips that were specially made to tear away when the transformation began in earnest. Mars stood by, silver chain in one hand, riding crop in the other, wearing a skin-tight dress of shimmering black vinyl whose hem revealed black stocking garters against tattooed white thighs. They were performing first; the rising moon would wait for no one.

As she followed Mars out onto the club’s small stage—really no more than a raised platform—Lucine could hear the pulsing of the music and beneath that the low hum of the crowd as it boiled and shifted and turned its collective attention upon them. Because of the lights shining down from the ceiling, Lucine couldn’t see any individual faces in the audience; it was just one many-eyed mass. And though she could not see the sky, see the fat white moon as it hovered over the city, Lucine knew it was there. Her body was telling her.

Mars led her by her silver chain, and as Lucine walked she could feel her shoulders hunching forward, feel her fingers and toes beginning to lengthen and consolidate. The noise from the crowd was already starting to swell as the change took place; it was unlikely any of those assembled had ever seen a true lupine transformation before, and they were riveted by it, and perhaps a little apprehensive, for Lucine could smell the sudden perfume of adrenaline in the air.

Lucine dropped to all fours, snarling her discomfort as her limbs stretched and bent. Her barely-there costume fell away, though now there was no titillating human flesh to see, for she was now covered with a thick down of silvery fur. Mars was standing very near, talking to the audience in her commanding voice, the chain held loosely between her fingers as if she might drop it at any moment. The tension in the crowd was palpable now; Lucine heard a stifled shriek as she turned her massive head toward them, letting them see her glowing green eyes.

“Lucine is my slave as a human,” Mars said, raising her chin and smiling a wide, red-lipped smile that suggested she held a delicious secret. “But will she be so accommodating as a beast?” On this cue, Mars dropped the silver chain to the floor.

The audience gasped, as they always did, and Lucine, trained well even in this form, followed her own cue by lunging toward the first row of the crowd, baring her slick white teeth and growling. There were screams now, and she thought she heard a slight commotion beneath the music that might have been a few people darting from the room. After a few more moments of this charade, Lucine turned her head toward her mistress, fixing her with a flat, hateful stare.

Mars stared her down, defiantly, the riding crop raised. She spread her legs in a gunslinger stance, planting her feet in their high-heeled boots. “Lucine!” she commanded, and again on cue Lucine lunged at her, snapping her jaws closed a mere inch from Mars’s saucily exposed belly. The audience was in a near frenzy now, thinking something had gone wrong, wondering why someone didn’t stop it. In her wolf form, Lucine basked in the attention, making a great show of fierceness, snarling up at her mistress, flecking lupine saliva all over her beautiful tattooed flesh. At last Mars drew back and swiped the riding crop across Lucine’s snout, and even though Lucine loved the feel of it she pretended it had hurt her; she pulled her head back and howled. The crowd was getting into the act fully now, terrified to watch but terrified to look away, and this was the point that Lucine loved the most, when she knew everyone in the room was with them, fascinated, mesmerized.

And then there was a blur in the darkness, coming from the space at the back of the stage, and suddenly Mars was no longer standing there with her crop, mistress of the wolves in her black vinyl dress. The screams in the audience began again in earnest, but there was no panic; perhaps they all just thought this was another part of the show.

It wasn’t. For there was another huge mass, another wolf, charcoal black with a red, red mouth, and he had knocked Mars onto her back and was straddling her, his jaw open above her quivering throat.

Roman. He had come to the show after all, Lucine thought in her oddly disjointed lupine manner. The smell of him was powerful and fearsome; he had come to kill.

Lucine crouched on her haunches, watching. Utter silence had befallen the crowd, and even the music seemed to have faded into insignificance. Roman’s dripping canines were poised ever so softly on Mars’s neck; he had only to close his jaws and her blood would shower the onlookers with scarlet arterial spray. Mars lay on her back, looking small and vulnerable beneath the beast. She had dropped her riding crop, but her face was composed, her cold eyes open and staring into those of the wolf astride her. She knew he was going to kill her, and she was not afraid.

Lucine waited. She knew she could attack now, defend her mistress, tear the interloper limb from limb. He was no bigger than she was; it would be an even match. But she also knew, somewhere deep in her animal consciousness, that this was a test of some kind. A growl began, very low in her throat.

Roman’s jaws were beginning to close, and as the edges of his sharp teeth broke the flawless skin of Mars’s neck, the first trickles of blood began to flow, and then among the crowd there was panic, for now it was clear that this was no longer part of the act, no longer the safe manifestation of transgression they had all signed up for. The blood was impossibly red against her flesh; yet still she did not flinch. She waited. Lucine waited.

At last, just when Roman’s terrible jaws looked poised to tear the life from Mars’s bleeding throat, Mars opened her mouth, her lips as red as the blood. When she spoke, her voice was ragged and barely audible, yet its commanding tone was undiminished, and Lucine understood it perfectly. “Lucine. Kill.”

Lucine could not say “Yes, mistress,” but in her wolf-like way she thought it as she sprang forward onto Roman’s back and buried her teeth into his jugular.

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