In a world of supes, I am one of the shambling Mundies. A norm. A bloody Muggle. Cattle. Take my good friend Olive who is one of the rarest supes in existence: a purebred vampire sprung from the preternaturally beautiful loins of a daddy vampire and a mommy vampire. Or my best friend Nikki who is the only daughter of the chieftain of the local werelion pack. As a cub, she has yet to transform into a fearsome leonine beast, but she's stronger than five human males combined and once punched a hole through the driver's side of her cheating boyfriend's truck. Or my frenemy Lizzie--mostly friend, but I knew she was the bitch who told the entire high school that I went down on Derek Ramsey at Mike Stern's back-to-school bash in the eleventh grade because I was stoned and drunk off my ass so everyone, even the stupid freshmen, made blowjay gestures at me for the rest of the year. I was really popular for a bit, though, so there was that. Anyway, she got scratched on the boob by an overly amorous werewolf suitor in college and now has to chain herself up in her mom's basement three days out of a month for fear she would lose control and eat the dogs in her neighborhood. And then there is me, Liánhuā Chang, the token human whose main purpose in the group is to crack-wise and occupy the Asian spot in our United Colors of Benetton crew. My friends call me "Lottie."
The blame for my complete and utter mundanity lay at the feet of my father, Robert L. Chang, D.D.S. He is as human as human can be. There were no witches or warlocks in his family tree, not an Uncle Dracula in the closet or a grandmother who turned hairy and growly during a full moon. The Chang family are a nice bunch of intelligent, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth people who came over from mainland China a hundred years ago to build railroads and become dentists and dry-clean the clothes of rich, fancy Supes. My mother Aurora, proprietress of a small arts-and-crafts store, is half-Faerie. Flowers never fail to bloom under her care and tiny furry critters seem to follow her around wherever she goes--which is hell on my father's allergies--but that is about the extent of her powers. She is, however, endlessly beautiful despite being eighty years old and therefore thirty years older than my father. She looks slightly older than my own twenty-two years. It's kind of mortifying. She is a tall, willowy redhead with huge green eyes that take up half her face and skin so white she practically glows in the dark.
Why she fell in love with my stout, balding father who stood about five-nine in his patent leather shoes, and seems to be perpetually suffering from a bad head-cold, is one of the mysteries of the universe I shall never know the answer to. What happened to Amelia Earhart? How much Law & Order reruns can one person actually watch in one sitting before her limbs completely atrophy? How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll part of a Tootsie pop? Why did Aurora Caellum marry a schlubby dentist when she could walk into the Victoria's Secret corporate offices and proclaim herself the queen of Victoria's Secret models right then and there?
"Maybe you have secret powers you just haven't tapped into yet," says Olive.
She is browsing Facebook on her new iPhone and idly sipping her favorite drink: a caramel latte with a liberal splash of Type-O blood ice-blended with an obscene amount of whip cream on top. I try to keep the distaste out of my face and avert my eyes as she idly wipes away the dark brown smudge on the side of her mouth and licks her finger. She gives me a dirty look. I shrug. I love the girl and all, but let's face it, drinking blood is nasty.
"As much as I like the idea of being able to wiggle my nose and voilá, new outfit, I doubt it's ever going to happen." I pick up a stick of celery and swish it around in the cup of creamy blue cheese dressing in front of me. The four-alarm hot wings that accompanied them are long gone, the pile of bony carcasses the only evidence of my gluttony. "My mother is the living embodiment of a Disney princess. It'd be one thing if she were a powerful being like Maleficent or something. But hey, if you want your enemy to be attacked by really cute animals, she's your gal."
We are sitting at our favorite table at Queenie's, the diner we frequented during our lunch hour. It's cheap, the food's delicious, the owners know us, and best of all, it's vampire-friendly. The glass windows are reinforced with interwoven microscopic titanium fibers invisible to the human eye and serve to filter ninety-five percent of the sun's UV rays while still allowing bright light into the place. As a purebred vampire, Olive can withstand sunlight, but prefers to be out of it. She says sun exposure feels like having her skin abraded with a cheese grater. Every morning before she goes out in the day, she slathers herself in sunblock SPF-80, slips on a long-sleeved shirt and pants, gigantic sunglasses, and puts on a big floppy hat. Somehow she manages to look like Audrey Hepburn instead of Grandma Chang about to do some serious gardening.
One of the regular diners, a were-fox named Sylvie who is a clerk at the law firm where Olive interns, sees us and bares her teeth. She makes a beeline for our table, but another were-fox grabs her arm and pulls her to a chair. Sylvie plunks down her tray laden with greasy, deep-fried foods drowned with a mountain of shredded cheese, sniffs the air, and growls.
Olive and I stare at each other. Hers perturbed, mine holy-oh-holy-shit.
The little bell above the front door tinkles and Nikki walks in, all six-one and one-hundred-and-fifty pounds of her, looking like she had just stepped off a runway in Milan instead of the store down the street that sells baby couture where she is an assistant manager. She is wearing black tights, a red sleeveless empire-waist dress showcasing her buff, golden arms, and a black bandanna covered in red rosettes wrapped around her black and gold corkscrew curls. The smile on her face disappears as soon as she sees Sylvie and I swear to God, the whole restaurant darkens as storm clouds form in the sky and block the sun. The other patrons, sensing that some shit is about to go down, look at each other with worry and grip their own tables. The ghoul wiping down the counter, as though anticipating a bloodbath, flashes a grin wide enough to split his pallid cheeks.
"Ah, fuck," Olive mutters.
She glances over her shoulder and I know she's checking out the exit. If a rumble goes down, Olive can make the fifteen feet from our booth to the back door in a blink of an eye. I, on the other hand, probably can't take more than three steps without getting my throat slashed by an errant were-talon or bleeding out as I drag myself to the door carrying my own amputated arm. I am always the loser in worst case scenarios.
I reach across the table to take Olive's cold hand. "I don't want to die."
Olive bats away my touch. "Look on the bright side, at least you won't have to go back to your shitty job."
But Nikki does not march over to Sylvie's table to knock her head off. Instead she thrusts her proud chin forward, puts a bright smile on her mug, and struts over to us, taking the open chair to my right so she has her back to Sylvie. It is a horrible strategy on her part because she won't be able to see Sylvie coming up behind her, but I don't say anything. If she wants to ignore Sylvie, that's one thing. As the only Mundy in a group of supes, I've learned never to piss one off if you're attached to your jaw and don't want to lose it. But Sylvie is so not ignoring Nikki. And I really don't want to be caught in the middle of a were-rumble. I have to get her out of here. Fast.
I tug at Nikki's elbow and lean toward her. "Hey, maybe we should go somewhere else."
My best friend snorts and looks at me like I'm crazy. "Do you think I'd let that bitch push me out of my favorite diner? I've been going to this place for years!"
I implore Olive for help with a stare, but she only shrugs. I turn back to Nikki. "Come on, dude, I've got a bad feeling about this."
"Shut up already, Lottie, I mean it. I'm not scared of that ho," she growls. She glances down at my empty plate and pushes out her lower lip in an exaggerated pout. "You ordered hot wings without me?"
"I was hungry. And you were late. Again." I tear open a packet of lemon-scented hand wipe and clean off the orange goop from my fingers. I consider asking her again to leave with me, but bite my lip. When Nikki has made up her mind about something, there's nothing in the world that could make her change it. A lion would never back down from a fox. "You want to go halfsies on a turkey club?"
"No, I'm in the mood for something bloody. You want half of that?"
I shake my head and she smirks. I don't eat meat unless it's been broiled, fried, or baked beyond recognition. I don't like being reminded that my food was once a bleeding slab of flesh that used to be attached to a living animal. Nikki, on the other hand, enjoys her meat squealing and squirming on her plate when she cuts into it.
A purple-haired elf waitress comes up to our table and Nikki asks for a double cheeseburger, rare, with pickles, and an extra-large plate of hot wings. And cheesy fries. I groan. I can't ever get enough of cheesy fries and unlike my friends, I do not have a fast metabolism. It's another reason I despair being a Mundy. Luckily, my stomach is too busy churning in fear to be accommodating.
Olive leans over toward Nikki. "Did Antwan call you yet?"
Last week, my girls and I walked into Devour, our favorite dive bar, and Nikki caught Sylvie all over Antwan, her man of the week. Nikki can't commit to a guy longer than two weeks, but in those two weeks, that dude is hers and she does not share. Our friend Lizzie launched herself in front of Nikki to keep her from attacking the were-fox and got an elbow to the eye for her trouble. A werewolf waitress and Sylvie's friend Denise also jumped into the fray to break up the two women, but by the time Nikki and Sylvie were separated, Nikki had a fistful of Sylvie's red hair with bits of scalp still attached to it. During the scuffle, I took cover behind the bar and stood next to Brandon, the vampire bartender, who gave me a glass of a pinkish concoction with a neon-green bendy straw and two cherries.
"Shit yeah. Fucker's been flooding my voicemail with sorries. He was all over my Facebook and Twitter, too, so I finally had to block him." Nikki reaches for Olive's drink, takes an experimental sip, smacks her lips, then takes another before giving it back to Olive. "Not bad. Too sweet, though. Type-O?"
"You are a blood connoisseur!" Olive smacks her palm with Nikki's in a high-five.
I shudder. I once accidentally took a mouthful of one of Olive's drinks. The bitter coppery taste of blood mixed with chocolate and rum made my stomach revolt and I barfed in front of all our friends. One asshole took a video of it with his camera phone and uploaded it to Youtube within the hour. I was an Internet sensation for about a month. To this day, I don't pick up a drink unless I am one hundred percent sure it's mine, which is why I keep a firm grip on my drinks and don't let go unless that sucker is drained.
From the corner of my eye, I can see Sylvie and her friend with their heads bent together in a serious conversation. I crane my neck over my shoulder to pretend I'm checking out something behind me and take a slow, careful sweep of the area until my gaze lands on Olive again. She frowns at me and I shake my head. Sylvie is glaring at the back of Nikki's head as though she is trying to drill a hole into her skull with her eyes. Nikki is oblivious to her enmity, babbling to Olive about the lion her cousin set her up on a date with this weekend using elaborate hand gestures. Nikki is a very animated speaker. Around her, if you're not quick enough to dodge, you're liable to get knocked out.
I slide my palm across the back of my neck as I sit up in my chair. Sylvie is still eyeing Nikki like she wants to tap-dance on my friend's spine. Nikki is laughing and joking around with Olive, determined to ignore her. To a were-animal, there is no greater insult than to be dismissed as a pest and nothing more. I have a vision of Sylvie sneaking up on my best friend and slitting her throat open with a steak knife. The were-fox's golden eyes narrow into slits. Her friend grabs her shoulder and gives her a shake.
I shift in discomfort and scratch my throat, but the itch only gets worse, burrowing deeper until I can feel it in the bone. Sharp tiny pin-pricks more annoying than painful. And then it begins to spread. It starts from my scalp, sliding down the side of my face. My fingers form a claw and I dig into the area between my breasts. I rake my nails from my jaw to my collarbone. I pinch the inside of my wrist and twist hard. Scrape my back against the hard plastic of my chair. I plunge my fingers into my hair and scratch hard like I'm trying to shake something off. The pain replaces the itch, but only for a moment. Now it feels like a trail of ants marching from my nape to the base of my spine, little ants with arms carrying needles.
"What's up, Lottie, you got fleas?" Olive asks with a smirk.
"I don't know. I think it's an allergic reaction or something." I am scratching my neck raw, but the itch won't ease. Goosebumps are sprouting all over my arms and my skin is crawling like it's trying to get away from my flesh. "Does anyone have Benadryl or calamine lotion?"
"Yes, right next to my tube of Preparation-H." Nikki chuckles, then stops when she gets a good look at me. "Oh my god, you have to stop scratching, chick. You're bleeding." She grabs my hand and shows me my own nails. "Look."
But I don't stop even when I see the blood crescents under my nails. With my free hand, I begin to work on the arm that Nikki is holding.
Beads of sweat are popping up on my forehead and upper lip, my heart is slamming against my ribcage. The gouges I have made on my skin are starting to burn in the open air. I look down at the fork next to my plate and wrap my fingers around the handle. Nikki notices, guesses my intention, and keeps a firm grip on my wrist.
My eyes dart to where Sylvie is sitting. She is tearing into her chicken-fried steak and baked potato like a woman possessed with a starving demon, shoveling forkful after forkful into her mouth even before she has swallowed whatever is in there. Her anger is a red-orange ball with green and violet spikes growing bigger and bigger. She grabs the purple-haired elf as she passes and points to the menu as she shovels more food into her gaping maw. The elf nods nervously before scuttling away. Nikki follows the direction of my stare and her lips tighten into a straight line.
"Her heart rate is elevated," Olive says, her sky-blue gaze trained on the vein in my neck.
I can hear the air sawing in and out of my mouth. Tiny black dots form in my vision as I look at Olive and try to focus on her face. She has two noses, one hovering to the side of the other. I squint and the two images merge into one, but wavers and splits after a moment. A wave of nausea sweeps over me and I swallow hard to keep myself from vomiting on the table. My head is lolling back and forth as though my neck is unable to support the weight. I put a hand to my temple to keep my skull steady. Pain shoots up my throat. I grab the glass of water and with a shaking hand, attempt to bring it to my mouth. I miss and it spills down the front of my button-down shirt. The cold water feels divine on my burning flesh and I sigh. I raise the glass so I can pour it over my head.
Nikki grabs my wrist to stop me. "Hey, Lottie. Hey. Talk to me."
"What's happening?" Olive asks. She snaps her fingers in my face. "Is she in a trance or something? Is someone doing this to her?"
At that, Nikki shoots up to her feet, knocking her chair over. I can only watch in awe and horror as she takes a flying leap across the room and tackles Sylvie to the ground. She lands on the were-fox's abdomen, yanks her up by her ponytail, rears back her arm, and smashes her fist into Sylvie's face. The other were-fox attempts to pull off Nikki, but Nikki twists around to face her without letting go of Sylvie and shoves her away with one arm. The were-fox crashes into the far wall, leaving a woman-sized dent, and slides to the ground.
The fog inside my brain clears and my larynx returns to working order. "Nikki, no!"
"Leave." Punch. "My best friend." Punch. "Alone."
I bolt out of my chair, but Olive clotheslines me with a stiff, lean arm, forcing me back down.
Sylvie struggles to lift her head and pries open a bloodshot eye which is already swelling up like tenderized meat. "I don't know what you're talking about." She coughs and sprays a mouthful of blood and saliva onto Nikki's face. "Bitch." She hammers her forehead forward and slams it into Nikki's nose. It explodes in a fountain of blood.
Nikki screams and puts up both hands to her nose to stem the flow. While she is distracted, Sylvie swings her knee upward towards Nikki's head, catching her in the jaw. As soon as Nikki is on her back, Sylvie gets on top of her, knees her in the abdomen, and traps her in a headlock, yanking and twisting as though she means to pull off Nikki's head.
Nikki is stronger, but Sylvie is a dirty fighter. A trained dirty fighter. I see a flash of metal zip over Nikki's head and realize too late that the other were-fox has thrown a knife toward the two weres which Sylvie plucks easily in the air. She lifts the hand holding the knife and slams it down. I shriek. Luckily, Nikki manages to turn her head to the side before Sylvie can connect. With a cry of pure fury, my best friend bucks upward, dislodging the were-fox. Catching Sylvie's neck in the crook of her elbow, she jumps up and lands soundly on the ground, her knee colliding solidly with Sylvie's cheek.
The doors to the back room swing wide open and a tall black woman as solid and wide as a tank comes out of the kitchen wearing a red ankle-length dashiki splashed with yellow and lilac flowers. On her head is a yellow turban that only statuesque black women can pull off with style. Her skin is the color of rich mahogany and her lips are blood-red. With a look of intent on her face, she strides over to the two weres. She takes hold of Sylvie with one hand and grabs a fistful of Nikki's mane in the other, yanking them upward and off their feet so they hang helplessly like marionettes.
Holy crap, the Queen can kick ass. I look at Olive to see if she knew the diner owner could lay the smack-down like that and based on the mystified awe in her wide sky-blue eyes, I would guess she had no idea, either. What the hell kind of creature is the Queen that she can easily take down two angry were-animals like they were nothing more than mosquitoes?
"Nikita, what is this foolishness? Your father taught you better than to scrap in public like a wild animal." Nikki struggles to escape her hold, but the Queen's grip is unbreakable. Her red mouth tightens in contempt as she stares down Nikki into submission. She shifts her wrath to Sylvie whose neck she has encompassed in one large hand. "And what about you, young fox? What makes you think you can bring this garbage into my territory and get away with it?"
Sylvie, who is rapidly turning purple, coughs and wheezes. The Queen eases her hold a bit, but doesn't let go. "She started it," Sylvie gasps. She works up a mouthful of spit and blood and aims it at Nikki, nailing the tip of her black ballet shoes. "She attacked me."
"Is this true, Nikita?"
"She was doing some hoodoo shit to Lottie." Nikki points a finger in my direction. "Girlfriend is itching like a crackhead and turned all zombified. I think this bitch hexed her or something."
"Impossible. She doesn't have that kind of power." The Queen lowers the two females to the ground, but retains a grip on their shoulders. She gives Sylvie a shake. "You know anything about this, fox?"
Sylvie's denial is vehement. "No way. My beef is with this psycho bitch, not her human pet."
Her speech is a little garbled since she must have lost a tooth or four, but I understand her well enough. I glare at her and she glares right back. It's the one of the biggest things that bug me about being friends with a supe: folks always assume you're that supe's pet. If I weren't feeling like somebody scrubbed me raw with sandpaper and didn't possess the strength of a five-year-old girl, I would totally jump on that bitchy fox and yank her scalp off.
"And what is this 'beef' you're talking about?" the Queen asks Sylvie.
"That crazy ho is mad at me because Antwan prefers me over her. It's not my fault she can't keep a man."
Nikki growls and tries to reach the were-fox over the Queen's body. The Queen responds by tightening her grip on Nikki's shoulder causing her to yelp. "At least I'm not built like a ten-year-old boy!"cries Nikki.
The Queen looks at one female after the other with disgust, grunts, and unceremoniously drops them both on the ground. "This bullshit is over a male? I ought to kick you both in the teeth, that's what I should do. Look, I don't care what flavor of animal y'all are, you are sisters. You should be backing each other up, not tearing each other down." She places her hands on her hips, shaking her head. "If you bring this bullshit to my fine dining establishment again, both your clans will hear about this. Just try me. I will ban the both of you and you won't ever get to taste my hot wings ever again."
Nikki whimpers. She loves the Queen's hot wings. Not a day goes by that she doesn't whine about craving for the damn things.
"Never brawl again in my presence or you will both forever be banned from my establishment. I have spoken."
We all watch in awe as the Queen, having said her piece, thrusts her chin upward, steps over the two fallen females like they were garbage, and sashays back to the kitchen. With the Queen gone, the diners switch their attention to Nikki and Sylvie as though greedily anticipating what they would do next. The females painstakingly avoid looking at each other, tending to themselves and straightening their clothing. Olive approaches Nikki and pulls her up from the ground, while Sylvie's were-fox buddy gets the brush-off when she attempts to do the same for Sylvie. The fox manages to get herself up and sneers triumphantly at Nikki. She hobbles a few steps forward and promptly falls on her face.
Somehow Nikki, ever the soul of discretion, manages not to laugh herself breathless. She indulges herself with a snicker, however.
To Sylvie's credit, she manages to rise with all the grace that Mother Nature has given were-animals and pulls back her shoulders. She sweeps her hair out of her face, takes the tissue offered to her by her friend so she can blot the blood from her nose, and exits the restaurant without taking a last look at any of us. Once she is gone, the diners glance at the door, at Nikki, back at the door, then at Nikki again. Having decided there is no more drama forthcoming, they return collectively to their meals and the hum of conversation once again fills the diner.
"Ugh." Nikki wraps her fingers around her nose and yanks it back into place. "You all right?" she asks, looking at me. "Did that fix it?"
I glare and punch her in the shoulder. "What the fuck was that?" With only the slightest wince, I give my hand a shake. The girl is made of steel. "You're picking fights in public now?"
Her hazel eyes widen in disbelief. "Back up, sister. I fought that skank because I thought she was hexing you and this is the thanks I get? Unbelievable."
I snort. "Bullshit, Nikita. That's such crap. You were just looking for an excuse to scrap with her because you're still pissed about Antwan."
Nikki's nostrils flare in response. Her nose, thankfully, is already healing. She opens her mouth to give me a talking-to that is sure to make my ears fall off, but Olive smoothly sticks herself between us and prods me back to my seat. She takes the chair previously occupied by Nikki and pushes a glass of water in front of me. "Drink that up. You're still looking a little green around the gills. Maybe you should go home instead of going back to work after this, eh?"
I must look pretty bad if Olive has managed to work up some concern for me. Vampires are characteristically narcissistic and Olive, even though she's one of my best friends, is no exception. If something doesn't directly involve her, she doesn't usually expend the energy to care about it. I am touched by her concern and express it by patting her hand, which she pulls away in discomfort. I sip the water and choke, sputtering all over myself. I attempt to mop up the wet spot on my shirt, realize it's a lost cause, and give up, dropping the crumpled napkin on my plate. "No, I have to get back to work. My boss is useless without me. Can't operate a computer to save his life."
Nikki rolls her eyes. "It's not like your own dad will fire you." She smiles graciously at the purple-haired waitress who sets down a tray full of food in front of her and waits until her back is turned before digging in. She picks up a clump of fries clumped together with cheese and offers it to me as a conciliatory gesture. "You're cheap labor."
I cover my mouth and dry-heave, turning my head away. The adrenaline brought about by the excitement of the last several minutes is starting to fade and that skin-too-tight feeling is coming back. The air surrounding my skin seems to crackle with static electricity and the little hairs on my arm are standing on end. Instead of itchiness this time, it's heat. Sharp, stinging, unrelenting heat that feels like sunburn times twenty. In my hysteria, I ask myself if this is how a vampire would feel like before she bursts into flames. I reach for the glass of water and for the sake of scientific experiment, pour it over my skin. I gasp as the droplets of water sizzle and steam rises from the area.
"Holy shit," Nikki whispers.
I bring up my arm closer to my face and stare at it as if I've never seen it before.
That's about the time a master vampire called Marcus Hollister walks in and I slide out of my chair, unconscious.