There’s a shabby motel just outside of town with a cheap nightly rate, wifi, and a desk clerk who looks more interested in his fishing magazine than whatever Stiles might be carrying in from his car. It’s perfect, provided he doesn’t accidentally get caught up in a drug bust or prostitution sting, but he’s got a scanner and a sixth sense about police activity, so he’s not too worried. He pays for the room and doesn’t bother to drop off any of his stuff—he doesn’t trust that his laptop would still be there when he gets back, and like hell is he leaving any of his weapons behind.
With a knife at his hip and another one strapped to his ankle, Stiles gets back in his car and drives the last mile and a half into the Beacon Hills city limits.
It’s taken him three days to get here, and he’s barely slept since he left Boston. Every time he closed his eyes along the way the dreams came back, the same ones that had sent him shooting out of bed in the middle of the night to throw clothes in a bag, filled with the sudden certainty that he needed to get gone. He’d left the house at just past four in the morning, a bag of weapons in the trunk of one of the sedans, and a generous helping of the household’s petty cash in his pockets. He’d left a note for Genna saying he’d call her when he got where he was going, stopped on the way out of town to pick up a couple of prepaid cell phones, and left without a backwards glance.
He’s half-surprised that they haven’t sent anyone after him. It’s a ridiculous thought, he knows; it’s not like he was a prisoner. He’s always been free to leave anytime he’d like. People do all the time. Still, he couldn’t stop looking over his shoulder at every stop, waiting to see a familiar face come to haul his ass back home.
Stiles spares a glance at the phone sitting on the passenger seat beside him, his fingers tapping idly against the steering wheel. He should call Genna, he thinks, like he promised he would. But if she knows that he’s in Beacon Hills there will be people sent to fetch him, to pull him out of harm’s way, and he can’t risk that yet. He has something he needs to do here, and while that indefinable something might currently be limited to no more than a vague conviction as long as he’s awake, that doesn’t make the certainty any easier to ignore.
There’s an uneasiness settled in his bones that goes beyond the fact that he’s headed into the heart of werewolf territory—though the fact that this particular pack is known for its maul first, ask questions later approach to hunters is certainly reason enough to be wary. The closer he gets to the center of town the stronger the feeling grows, like deja vu and yet not quite; like flashes of something from a half-forgotten dream. He did dream of this, he thinks, of quiet streets and lived-in houses, the feel of a town on the small side of things with the empty stillness of a rainy mid-week afternoon.
He passes the high school and has to pull over when he realizes that he knew what it would look like before he saw it.
Stiles scrubs his hands through his hair as he watches the drizzling rain collect on the windshield. He’s not psychic. He doesn’t think he is, at least; and if it turns out he’s wrong then quite frankly he’s going to be pissed, because he’s spent almost two years putting his life at risk, and a few helpful premonitions would’ve really been appreciated. But this doesn’t feel like being psychic, or at least not like he’d always imagined that it would. This feels like something else—like something deeper, something coming from a part of himself that he’s forgotten.
It’s ridiculous, he decides as he shifts the car back into gear. The school only looks familiar in that way that all high schools do, a well-remembered combination of vitality and oppression. He pushes it from his mind as he continues down the street.
The downtown area has the look of a hundred other small California towns that he’s seen before: a wide boulevard edged with double-story storefronts, gold-rush era architecture covered with a shiny new finish. The buildings get simultaneously newer and less well-maintained as the streets radiate out; he passes one with boarded-up windows that makes his heart beat faster, his skin prickling with the inexplicable beginnings of arousal, and for a second he thinks he tastes something thick and cloying at the back of his throat. Then he’s past and the feeling vanishes as if it never was, nothing left but a bitter aftertaste in his mouth.
“This town is fucked up,” he mutters to himself, and starts cruising for a place to park.
There’s a convenient spot with a ten-hour meter a block away from the main drag; Stiles slips the phone into his coat pocket and tugs the hood of his sweatshirt up as he jogs across the street to a bright little corner market. He takes a pack of gum and a two-liter of Coke up to the counter, handing them over along with a ten-dollar bill.
“Hey, Darcy,” Stiles grins, checking out the small bronze name tag pinned to her shirt. “Could I get a couple bucks in quarters?” he asks, nodding his head towards the windows. “Meter.”
“No problem.” She flashes him a grin in return and tucks a strand of bright red hair behind her ear as she starts to count out his change.
“So.” He casts a glance through the windows, eyes flicking quickly over the alley across the street, just behind where his car is parked. “Pretty awful thing that happened over there, huh?” When he looks back she’s holding out his money, and her easy smile has been replaced with a critical stare. “What?”
“You’re not a cop,” she says bluntly, eyes narrowed as she looks him up and down. “And you don’t really look like the sex-and-death type. What are you, then, a journalist or something?”
“No. Just, uh. Just sort of a crime buff.” He offers her a sheepish look, pocketing his change. “I’m on a road trip, and when I read about the attacks here I thought I’d just stop by . Kind of gruesome stuff.”
“I guess so.” She shrugs. “They had it cleaned up by the time I came into work. Probably nothing that would interest you, though; the cops said it looked like an animal attack. Mountain lion, maybe, or wild dogs.”
“Right.” Stiles’s grabs a red-and-black compact umbrella from the display next to the register, fishing another bill out of his wallet and sliding them both across the counter. “Sounds like a reasonable theory.”
She shoots him an annoyed look and holds up the fifty he’s handed over. “We can’t break this.”
“Really? You can’t break a ten?” Stiles asks innocently, and he grins again when her eyes go wide a split second before she rolls them dramatically. “So.” He braces a forearm on the counter and takes the five she hands back as his change while she pockets the rest. “Animal attack?”
She looks around, as if making sure that there’s no one lurking nearby to overhear. “I think,” she says quietly, “that a mountain lion and a freaking pack of wild dogs doesn’t make it all the way downtown without being seen. And what; a wild animal wandered into town, had one late-night snack and just decided never to come back?” She snorts. “Please.”
“Fair point.” He glances out the window again. “I heard there’d been a few attacks, though.”
“Three altogether, all about a month apart,” she says immediately, shrugging when his eyebrows fly up. “What?” She has a full, heavy mouth, and the smirk that tilts it up is a good look for her. “You think only guys can be crime buffs?”
“Okay then, Nancy Drew,” Stiles grins. “What else have you got for me?”
“Three attacks, once per month. And all of them just happened to fall within a day or two of the full moon.”
He laughs, and hopes it doesn’t sound as forced as it feels. “Tell me you’re not going where I think you’re going with this.”
“That depends on what you’re thinking. It’s not unheard of for a serial killer’s sprees to be tied in with the phases of the moon, you know.” She leans a little closer, her brown eyes bright as she lowers her voice. “Plus, I read once about this guy who made himself, like, these creepy-ass dentures from plaster and old animal fangs, so you know.” She leans back again, shrugging. “Who knows?”
“You think someone made themselves a pair of animal dentures and then mauled three people to death?”
“Oh, like that’s really more far-fetched than an invisible pack of wild dogs carrying out perfectly timed monthly attacks?”
“Well, when you put it like that.” Stiles shifts his weight, uneasy. If civilians are starting to notice things, the situation might actually be worse than anyone had thought. “Have you seen anyone hanging out in the area? Anyone suspicious?”
“I see lots of people; it’s a busy area. And it’s not like I have formal training or anything,” she says evasively, looking away. “All I’ve got is a stack of true-crime paperbacks at home.”
“Yeah, but you’ve got a guess, don’t you? C’mon, I can tell.” He tries a smile again. “I promise I’m not gonna rat you out.”
“I don’t want to say anything that’ll get someone else in trouble.” She meets his eyes again and sighs. “I dunno. If you did want to poke around, I guess I’d say the Full Moon Cafe’d be a good place to start. It’s a couple blocks from here, on the other side of Main.”
Stiles’s stomach clenches almost painfully at the name, but he manages to keep his voice steady as he asks, “Why there?”
“There’s just . . . I mean, it’s a nice enough place, killer coffee, but. A lot of weird people hang out there, that’s all.” She shrugs, visibly uneasy now. “Look, I’ve gotta get back to work, there’s shelves to restock and . . .” She bites back a sigh. “If you wanna play Hardy Boys, that’s where I’d start. That’s all.”
“Payback for the Nancy Drew comment?”
She grins faintly. “Sharp, aren’t you?”
“Okay. Thanks for your time.” He turns to go.
“Hey.” Stiles pauses when she calls, turning around with one hand on the door, and finds her staring quizzically at him. “Do I know you from somewhere? You seem familiar.”
“I don’t think so.” He smiles. “Like I said, I’m just passing through.”
“Huh. Well.” She bends down, straightening again with a box of snack cakes propped against one hip. When she steps around the counter and down from the raised platform behind it, she proves to be a tiny pixie of a thing. If it weren’t during school hours, Stiles would guess that she was still in high school; as it is, she can’t be too long out of it. “Try not to get mauled while you’re here, I guess. Full moon’s coming up soon.”
“I’ll be careful,” he promises. “You do the same.”
Stiles stops at the car to feed a handful of quarters into the meter, trading the two-liter for his laptop while he’s there, and sets off in search of the cafe.
It’s not hard at all to find; his feet start walking there as if they already know the way, across Main Street where more and more people are braving the cold, drizzling rain in the name of mid-day shopping. He turns down the second side street he comes across and there it is—or so he assumes, in any case. There’s no name on the front of the building, just a wall of windows lit with a warm, golden glow, and a small placard painted with a blazing silver moon hung beneath a green-and-white striped awning.
For a moment Stiles simply stands, taking in the sight from beneath the thin cover of his tacky five-dollar umbrella. It feels as though there’s a hook centered just behind his navel, reeling him in whether he wants to go or not. He feels warmer just staring at the light spilling out into the grim, grey day, at the tables scattered over the small patio beneath the awning where he’d imagine that in better weather it would be pleasant to sit and enjoy the view. At the moment there’s only one person willing to brave the chill: a young man with longish hair pulled into a short tail at the back of his head, the steam from his mug mingling with the trails of smoke that drift up from the cigarette dangling lazily between two fingers. It’s not until the man looks up that Stiles realizes he’s been just standing across the street, staring.
“Hey,” he says when he’s hurried over, shaking out his umbrella as he steps beneath the awning. “I’m looking for the Full Moon Cafe. This the place?”
Up close, the guy looks to be a few years younger than Stiles. Indifferently brown eyes match his hair, and his grey wool coat looks expensive without being extraordinary. There’s something unnerving about him, something that Stiles can only qualify as dangerously mundane. His eyes travel in a quick, encompassing glance up and down Stiles’s body, lingering just long enough at his hip to have Stiles fighting back the urge to tug his own coat—an army surplus number, battered but still serviceable—more tightly around himself. Then the man stretches out his hand—black fingerless gloves, Stiles notes, as nondescript as the rest of him—and taps the ash at the end of his cigarette into an ashtray.
“Yeah, this is it.” His voice is smooth; paradoxically, it sets Stiles’s teeth on edge.
“Great.” Stiles glances at the half-empty mug on the table. “I heard they have killer coffee.”
The answering smile is sweet and endearing, bracketed by deep dimples on either side. “I’m drinking tea.”
“Right.” Stiles nods, at a loss. “Well, uh. Enjoy.”
He turns away as the man pulls out a cell phone and begins to fiddle with the screen. Resigned to turning up as an embarrassing you wouldn’t believe the guy who just tried to pick me up story on some social networking site or another, Stiles sighs and opens the cafe door.
He doesn’t know what happens, exactly, as he steps inside—only that it feels as if he’s suddenly being torn apart by warring urges. There’s a part of him—a surprisingly large part—that wants nothing more than to stretch out and settle. Inside, the cafe is all solid brick walls and softly scarred wood floors, with deep-cushioned booths lining the perimeter and a scattering of tables in the middle, all the same rich red-gold wood as the front counter. A line of coffeemakers and an espresso machine separates the register from a brightly-lit display case, stocked with pastries that have Stiles’s mouth watering as soon as he sees them, and the air is rich with the scents of coffee and what he’s guessing is the tomato soup he can see a middle-aged woman eating at a table nearby. Everything about the place feels safe and warm and welcoming, like returning to a home you didn’t even realize you were missing.
At the same time, the instincts that Stiles has built over nearly two years of hunting monsters are screaming at him, doing their best to push him into fight-or-flight right then and there. The cafe is mostly empty, but every single pair of eyes seems to have turned on him at once, and the hair on his arms and the back of his neck are standing on end as an electric buzz starts to sizzle beneath his skin. The last time he felt anything like this was a year ago, when he’d accidentally stumbled into a derelict house where a half-crazed wolf had been squatting for a month. What he’s feeling now is the same sense of invaded territory, of trespassing in the monster’s lair and oh, fuck.
He’d come here for information, expecting to find perhaps a handful of werewolves unable to resist the irony of the place’s name. The reality, he’s realizing all at once, is so very, very much worse.
He’s just managed to stumble headlong into a freaking den.
All of this flickers through his mind in a handful of breaths, followed swiftly by the knowledge that there’s nothing to do now but brazen his way through it. He lowers his hood, shaking free some of the moisture that’s collected there, and one by one the people staring at him go back to their business, turning their attention back to their food or phones or computers.
The woman behind the counter is still watching as he walks up, deep brown eyes fixed on him in a distinctly predatory gaze. She’s gorgeous in a familiarly dangerous way: her skin is a deep, dusky bronze, the hair that’s pulled back into a ponytail black and thick, and both fairly glowing with good health. Her face is broad, with high cheekbones and a mouth that widens in a smile just a little strained around the edges.
“Welcome to to Full Moon Cafe.” Her voice is bright and friendly, with a hint of an accent that he can’t quite place. The fact that she’s still looking at him like she thinks he might make a good lunch creates a weird cognitive dissonance, leaving him briefly wrong-footed. “What can I get you?”
“I was hoping to get something to eat. Can I order here?” he asks carefully, and watches one of her eyebrows wing up.
“That’s what we’re here for.” She grabs a rag from the apron tied around her waist and starts wiping her hands with it. “Anything particular in mind?”
Stiles glances up at the menu. “Is tomato the soup of the day? It smells fantastic.”
“You want a sandwich to go with that? Can’t go wrong with grilled cheese, and ours is the best in town.”
“Sounds good. I’ll take that and a . . . what’s in an ‘Adrenaline Junkie’?”
She glances back at the menu as well. “Triple-shot of espresso and about a metric ton of sugar.”
“That’s my kind of drink. I’ll take the biggest size you’ve got.”
“Gearing up for a heart attack?” she asks dryly, but starts ringing up his order nonetheless. “Ten eighty-one. You can sit anywhere; we’ll bring it out to you.”
“Good deal. You have wifi?”
“We do.” She takes the money he hands over, eyes lingering on his fingers as she does. One last push of a button has the register chiming open. “We don’t see many hunters around here this time of year,” she says casually.
Their eyes meet again. Stiles’s heart is pounding in his chest; he knows she’ll be able to hear it, but he keeps his face as blank as possible as he takes his change.
“What makes you think I’m a hunter?”
Her eyebrows quirk again, her mouth working like she’s trying not to laugh at the question. “Your hands,” she says at last, leaning a hip against the counter. “I have a friend who likes to bow-hunt; she’s got calluses like yours. It’s the off-season now, though.” The smile fades from her face. “Nothing left to hunt here that isn’t protected.”
“Guess it’s lucky for me I like to fish, too.” Stiles hitches the strap of his laptop bag higher on his shoulder. “Sit anywhere?”
She nods tersely, pushing away from the counter again. “My name’s Kat; yell if you need anything.”
Stiles chooses a booth in the corner where he’ll be able to keep an eye on the counter and the door at once, opens his coat for swift access to his knife, and pulls out his laptop. He doesn’t know what to make of this place. What the hell kind of werewolves willingly serve food to hunters? Given the current state of things, he’d have assumed walking into a pack-run establishment would’ve been an open invitation to get his throat ripped out. A quick double-check of the files he copied from Richard’s computer show no mention of a Full Moon Cafe at all, which either means he didn’t get everything, or that the people they have gathering intel are amazingly incompetent. Much as he hopes it’s the former, he starts typing up a report just in case.
Kat has dropped off his coffee and disappeared into the back by the time he moves on to checking his email. His first sip jolts him like he’s been hit with a taser; his spine stiffens and his teeth clench involuntarily as his heart gives a hard, protesting thump in his chest.
“Awesome,” he mutters with a grin, and takes another drink.
There are five emails from Genna waiting in his inbox, and he winces. He feels like an ass for leaving without saying goodbye, but there’s not a doubt in his mind that she would’ve talked him out of it if he’d waited. Skipping over the first “Where are you??” and the subsequent three with subject lines that are nothing but increasingly inventive strings of profanities, he clicks on the most recent. The subject line is ominously blank for that one, and he knows Genna well enough to recognize that as a fairly dire sign. The body of the email is only six words long:
Amanda wants to talk to you.
He’s gearing up to send a response when he catches movement out of the corner of his eye, and Stiles looks up in time to see a mountain of a man come through from the kitchen. Well over six feet tall, he moves with a grace that belies his size; the overhead lights gleam over the dark, close-shaved skin on top of his head as he moves around the counter, freezing for a moment when he catches sight of Stiles. The man starts drifting closer, and Stiles’s hand drops to rest against his thigh, fingers just brushing the handle of his knife. Not that it’ll probably do much good against a werewolf this massive if it comes down to fang versus blade, but Stiles has to hope that the guy knows better than to shift in public, in full daylight and in front of a solid wall of windows.
The giant’s nostrils flare as he steps within reach of the table; whether his lack of pretense as he takes in Stiles’s scent is a good or bad sign he can’t decide, but he watches the man breathe deeply and doesn’t move a muscle. Then a heavy shudder shakes the massive frame, and despite eyes that are wide and confused where they’re resting on Stiles, the voice that comes out is deep, steady, and entirely normal.
“You had the soup and grilled cheese?”
“Yeah.” Stiles finally notices the plate that the guy is carrying and drags his hand back up to the table, closing his laptop and sliding it aside. “It, uh. Smells great.”
“Sure.” The man sets the plate down, nudging it across to Stiles. He opens his mouth like he’s preparing to say something, breathes deeply once again, and shakes his head. “You need anything else?”
“I think I’m good, thanks.” He picks up the sandwich—which looks amazing: thick, lightly-toasted bread with at least three kinds of cheese spilling out the sides, and god, he’s starving—and shoves nearly half of it in his mouth in one bite. “Oh m’ g’d,” he moans a moment later, fighting the urge to let his eyes roll back in his head. “Th’s’s incr’dble.” The guy’s still staring at him like Stiles might vanish if he’s not properly attended. “So, um.” Stiles washes the bite down with another nerve-sizzling gulp of coffee. “Do you two own this place?”
“It’s—” His eyes flick over Stiles again and he takes a step back, jaw clenching. “It’s a family business. If you need anything else, holler for Kat.” He moves back towards the counter, restrained determination in every step.
“How late are you open?” Stiles calls after him.
“Kitchen closes at six.”
It’s not exactly an answer, but it’s not like it really matters. It’ll be dark by then anyway, and Stiles isn’t crazy about the idea of wandering around town after nightfall; especially not when he’s been made as a hunter by at least two of the local wolves. He’ll go back to the motel, he thinks, and give Genna the call he promised her. Probably get his ass chewed out by Amanda, too, he thinks with a wince. It’s possible that taking one of the cars was a step too far.
He’s picking up his spoon, hoping that the soup is even half as good as the sandwich, when he hears raised voices coming from the back.
“—from that one picture, which doesn’t—”
“Just call Scott! He doesn’t smell right, but he’ll be able to tell if . . . shit—”
They quiet almost immediately, as if they’ve just remembered that their voices carry, and no matter how Stiles strains to hear he can’t make out so much as a whisper. The name Scott sounds vaguely familiar; he shoots a glance towards his laptop. Part of the pack, certainly, but beyond that he’s having trouble remembering. There’s a frustrating lack of information available on even any of the confirmed pack members. Stiles spent most of his nights on the trip here poking around online instead of sleeping, and there’s just . . . nothing. Like someone has gone through the internet with a fine-toothed comb and erased everything they could find.
He’ll look the name up again after he eats, and then he’ll take a walk around downtown. Maybe check out the attack scene more closely, see if there’s any evidence that the police might’ve overlooked—hardly outside the realm of possibility if their main suspect is some sort of wild animal.
He still has half of his soup left when he starts eyeing the cinnamon rolls in the display case. Running low on cash or not, he’s getting some of those to go. He’s pretty sure that he can talk Amanda into wiring him more money, provided she doesn’t put a hit out on him first.
Food, investigation, contact, Stiles tells himself. And then, maybe, he can finally try to get some sleep.