Murder Mittens – R. J. Blain

WHY WAS MURDERİNG İRATE, irrational, ignorant, and flat-out wrong customers illegal? The idiot on the phone rambled about how it wasn’t fair that dumping coffee on his router invalidated his warranty. I thought it wasn’t fair his stupidity might lose me IQ points, and I’d learned long ago that humans—or lycanthropes, such as myself—didn’t come with warranties or guarantees. I had bills to pay, and murdering one of the customers wouldn’t pay my bills. Then again, in prison, I wouldn’t have to pay any bills. Every day by the end of my shift, I considered incarceration as a viable option. Free board, free food, good medical care, and asshole inmates to beat on sounded a lot better than dealing with an idiot customer. “Sir,” I said in the hopes of circumventing his tirade. Mr. Edward Lavell ignored me. The idiots always ignored me. I bet my gender had something to do with it. On average, the men finished their calls five minutes faster, and every supervisor to review the situation came to the same general conclusion: customers took men in tech more seriously than women, and I, unfortunately, sounded too feminine. “Sir,” I repeated, only to be ignored again. Why couldn’t I just hang up on him? Oh, right. I valued my job.

As I valued my job, I couldn’t hang up on him, I couldn’t curse, I couldn’t threaten to rip his throat out, and I couldn’t indulge in my desire to murder him. There was a time and a place for murder, and on the job at a call center for a cable internet company was not the time nor the place. For the fourth time since calling in, Mr. Lavell explained that it really wasn’t his fault he’d dumped coffee on his router. “Sir, liquid spills are right in the contract for the router. I’m sorry, but I can’t change the rules for you. Spilling coffee on your router invalidates its warranty.” “It’s not my fault the cup holder in my computer has a mind of its own,” he complained. Wait. What? His computer’s cup holder has a mind of its own? The realization I dealt with someone far worse than just an idiot sank in.

Every call center had legends of Code Red customers, who were in an entirely different class from the standard 1D10T and the unfortunately common PEBKAC. With Mr. Lavell, I had it all. A problem certainly did exist between the keyboard and chair, and he’d definitely deserved his flag as an 1D10T. Until his call, I had remained safe from the evils of a Code Red customer. By the time I got off the phone with him, I’d need some alcohol and someone to kill. It’d be easier to find someone to kill than the alcohol; me and booze just didn’t mix, and I’d been banned out of every damned bar in town to keep the peace. Maybe I could whip on some makeup, grab a gray wig, and pass for a little old lady. With my face covered in burn scars, it wouldn’t take much to pull off some makeup artistry and transform myself into an older woman rather than a mutilated one. I could become a conventional beauty given an hour and the right products.

An old lady wasn’t an impossibility. Alternatively, I could shift, pay my family a visit, and steal a bottle of liquor from one of the cabinets. With the number of lynxes running around the place, they might not even notice me before I made off with my alcoholic prize. As sighing was not acceptable when dealing with paying customers, I took a moment to steel my nerves before saying, “Sir, computers do not include cup holders.” That caught his attention. “What?” “Sir, computers do not include cup holders,” I repeated, already dreading the moment I would have to explain what a CD was, how they were used, and what the player’s actual purpose was. Few systems still had any disc drives at all, as most companies had moved to online downloads of their programs and games. The next few minutes of my life would not be fun, and I typed a message to my supervisor warning him I had a major 1D10T on my hands, a possible Code Red situation, and to make sure he was aware I faced the demise of some IQ points, I notified him the customer had opted to use his disc drive as a coffee cup holder. “What the hell is this thing for, then?” “CDs, sir.” I closed my eyes and waited for the meltdown.

“First, you claim I invalidated my warranty, and now you’re telling me my cup holder plays music?” “As this is an internet company, sir, I can’t help you with your CD player. However, it is not a cup holder, nor should it be used as one. As for your router, you owe $35.79 on the device. Once you finish paying for the damaged equipment, I can schedule a tech to come to your home and install your new router. Since you’ve been a customer for so long, I can waive the fifty dollar installation fee. Your monthly bill will not change if you opt to pay off the damaged equipment and start a new rental.” If he gave me a hard time, I’d take my time and give him all of his options. None of them would be as good as my initial offer. I cracked open an eye and checked my messages with my boss.

He wished me the best of luck and promised to send flowers to my funeral. He also begged me not to tell my brothers about the menace wasting my time. If any one of my forty-seven brothers found out I dealt with customers screaming at me five days a week, they’d go on a rampage. They wrongly assumed working in customer service meant the customers treated me with respect. That my boss knew my family drove me crazy on a good day. I figured my idiot family had gone on a hunt to meet my boss, and because we were all infected with lycanthropy, my boss wouldn’t have thought twice about their behavior. Lycanthropes had a reputation. Most days, it wasn’t a good one. Only an idiot would piss off a bunch of male lycanthropes out to protect their precious little sister. Unfortunately for me, I counted as an endangered species, as the odds of a lycanthrope having daughters in the first place fell somewhere in around ten thousand to one.

I needed to notify my mother she needed to have more daughters. While she was at it, she needed to give me a new name, because nobody ever believed Harri was a woman’s name. I figured she’d meant to name me Harry because she’d expected yet another boy, swapping out the ‘y’ for an ‘i’ to make things easier on her. When on the job, I went by Christine because Christine seemed gloriously feminine and nobody on the team used their real names. Technically, I was supposed to change my name every day, but I went by Christine for all new callers, and I only rotated through when I knew I was dealing with someone who gave me issues. My method worked well enough, so my boss didn’t complain. While Mr. Lavell spluttered and began the tedious process of mulling over his options, I made plans for after work—assuming I escaped from my job without succumbing to the temptation of informing the customer he was most definitely wrong, he needed to go back to school to join the modern world, and it wouldn’t hurt if he learned to be civil. I had to explain his options four times before he finally conceded he should stick with his old plan, pay for the damaged router, and move on with life. It took an extra ten minutes of listening to him whine before he finally hung up.

Above all, I hated the rule that we were not supposed to hang up on clients. It wasted time. Had I been allowed to just hang up, I would have wished him a good day, disconnected the call, and began the tedious process of adding notes to his file so the next customer service representatives stuck with him knew they had trouble on their hands. My phone rang, but instead of a customer, my phone reported my boss wanted to speak with me. With slumped shoulders, I accepted his call and answered, “Sir?” “I listened in on your Code Red.” I hated when my boss actively monitored my calls; thanks to how the system worked, he could listen in on me at any time. But, a job was a job, and with my scarred face, finding a job became troublesome at best—and nobody in the call center knew or cared what I looked like. Oh, well. Before I jumped to conclusions, I’d ask. “What’s my grade, sir?” “You did fine.

You stayed professional, you didn’t come across as too condescending, and frankly, there’s no sane tech on this planet who stays totally cool during a Code Red. It could have been much worse.” I checked the clock, breathing a sigh of relief that I’d hit the end of my shift and wouldn’t have to take any more calls. “What do you need?” “I had a question about your schedule. You’re off for the next week, correct?” “Yes, sir.” I had plans, and they involved the International Most Wanted List along with every legal bounty list I had managed to get my hands on in the past month. If my boss tried to put an end to my hard-earned vacation, I’d finally do what I should have done months ago, snap, and quit. I wanted him to cross my last line so badly. “Ted wants an extra shift. How would you feel about an unpaid day added to your vacation? I’ve already gotten approval if you’d like to claim the unpaid day.

” Score. I’d bid for time off almost a year ago, but sick days were the bare minimum the state allowed, which accounted to five for the entire year. An extra day tacked onto my vacation might let me bag an extra bounty. Any day I bagged an extra bounty was a good day in my opinion. “I can take an unpaid day, sir. That’s fine. Can you send me an email confirming the unpaid day off?” “It’ll be in your inbox within the next ten minutes, and I’ll CC human resources notifying them you’re excused for that day.” “Okay. Will the rest of my schedule remain the same once I’m back from vacation?” “Yes. Ted just asked for extra hours, and the others with seniority declined the day off.

” I bet; on our income, every hour mattered. Most who worked for the call center had seen better days. I lived like I’d seen better days and looked like I’d seen better days, but appearances lied. I only worked at the call center to maintain appearances. Thanks to depression in my teens and therapy that hadn’t gone like my parents had wanted, my entire family demanded I check in at least three times a week to ensure I remained human. They believed if they took their eyes off me, I might shift into a lynx and never come back. Two years ago, they wouldn’t have been wrong, but I’d found a new purpose in life. Not a single one of my brothers would approve, my mother would have yet another litter of kittens, and my father would be so disappointed. Personally, I thought it was obvious. I worked in customer service.

I was a prime candidate to become a murderous asshole. I did so legally, on behalf of the government and other legal entities, and I did so for a filthy amount of money. Smiling stretched my scars, but I did it anyway. “If anyone needs any extra hours, I can afford another day or two off,” I offered. “I can take up to a week unpaid. I’ve been saving up to take some time off if any opportunities allowed.” It would delay paying for the expensive procedure required to piece my face back together and remove the evidence of the fire that’d almost killed me as a child. It took a lot of magic to convince the lycanthropy virus I wasn’t supposed to be a scarred wreck. A lot of magic cost a lot of money, and I figured I might have the several million dollars needed within five years if I landed a bounty every weekend and took on some of the more dangerous jobs. While I waited for my boss to mull over my offer, I considered the various jobs on offer.

I liked hunting other lycanthropes. Unmated males were easy catches, and the fugitives usually brought in a pretty penny. The last one I’d bagged as a live capture had added fifty thousand to my bank account. Then again, if I landed an entire extra week, I’d make up the lost hours with a single small bounty, and anything else would be extra cash in my savings account. My boss grunted, signaling he’d come to a decision. “I’ll keep that in mind and pitch the offer. I’ll email your personal and work addresses if there are any takers plus text your phone.” “Thanks, sir. Have a good evening.” “You, too.

” He hung up, and before something could go wrong, I clocked out, filed my paperwork for my final call, and logged out of the system so I couldn’t be sucked back into doing even more work. If all went well, I’d be a hundred grand richer by the end of the week and that much closer to being able to look in the mirror without wincing. TO KEEP MY BROTHERS STRAIGHT, I kept a list of them by litter, and I even made special notes to help me identify the identical twins, triplets, quadruplets, and quintuplets, of which there were twelve sets across my parents’ fifteen litters. I belonged to litter number eight, and my identical twin brothers, Hugh and Harvey, had been born almost an hour before me. I’d hated the idea of eviction into the real world. In reality, I’d been a complication from start to finish, and not much had changed since birth. My parents viewed me as a miracle. Unlike my healthier-than-ox brothers, I’d been conceived several weeks after them, which had put me into the premature category while my brothers had barely squeaked to term. Superfetation didn’t happen often, and my existence had startled everyone. I’d been missed on the first two ultrasounds, and by the time I’d been spotted, my mother refused to accept anything other than welcoming me into the world along with my brothers, despite the problems associated with the gap between our conceptions.

To add to the fun, my twin brothers couldn’t look more alike if they tried. The only way for me to tell them apart was to grimace. Hugh tensed while Harvey growled, sprouted lynx ears, and prepared to rampage. Even if Harvey kept his temper, he still sprouted the ears, the first sign he would one day gain control over the prized hybrid form. Hugh had picked up the ability to sprout ears, too, and my entire family kept a close eye on me to see if I’d follow the trend. In reality, thanks to some close calls and more desperation than one single lycanthrope woman needed in life, I could mostly control my hybrid form, which classified as borderline. I could exchange my weak, human legs for a modified version of a lynx’s, including huge paws tipped with lethal claws. With a little work, I could transform my forearms and hands, too. Sometimes I sprouted ears, sometimes I didn’t, and sometimes a tail made an appearance, too. On a good day, I grew in a plush, fur coat.

I never hunted as a hybrid; it was bad enough when a male lycanthrope sniffed me out as a human, when my virus tended to be somewhat dormant. If anyone found out I could control partial shifts, I’d be the one hunted by every damned infected male in the country. The hybrid form alone would make me a prize. Add in my species, a member of one of twenty lynx clans scattered across North America, South America, and Europe, and I’d never hear the end of it. According to my nose, as of last week, there were twenty single lycanthrope males, three of which were felines of some sort, sniffing around my turf trying to identify who the single lycanthrope female in the small town was. Damned determined males, making a mess of my weekends and forcing me to sneak around to keep from drawing their attention. Hissing at my shit luck, as I’d scare off any suitors the instant they caught sight of my disaster of a face, I put away my work headset, shut down the computer, and began preparing my home for a week or two away. I really hoped someone else wanted my hours. An extra week might land me enough to put down a deposit to remove the scars that’d haunted me since childhood, the result of a fire at a camp for girls, the first and last time I’d gone away for the summer. I’d spent a month in the hospital, and the night that had almost ended my life had dumped me into a living hell I would soon be able to escape.

Unfortunately for me, I’d been too young for my lycanthropy virus to do me any good, and by the time it kicked into high gear, it believed my scars were natural and went out of its damned way to preserve them. Sometimes, surgeons—or even the CDC—would accept a payment plan with a sufficient deposit for the work. It wouldn’t take much to convince someone my scars prevented me from leading a normal life. Then they’d have a challenge kicking my virus to the curb long enough to tear into my face, do a skin graft, and convince my body to avoid scarring. Assuming my virus could be contained, the procedure took an hour or two. Had I not been infected with lycanthropy, it would have cost me a few hundred dollars and a day off work. Sometimes, life just wasn’t fair. To my disgust, my surgeon thought he might cut the costs down to five hundred thousand or less, which I could afford, if I found myself a lycanthrope male willing to put up with me for life. After laying claim to a male, my virus would go into remission for a while to recover, which would allow the team needed to do the operation with minimal risk to them while also requiring less heavy-duty magic. Or something like that.

I’d tuned out most of the specifics about what a man might do to help with the procedure, as I had no intention of claiming a mate for such a reason. It seemed wrong to use a man to fix my face, so I dodged that whole problem by avoiding the males of my kind and making sure they didn’t get too close while sniffing around my territory. In the wee hours of the morning, twenty minutes after I’d started tidying my home and packing my bags for the week, my cell rang. I checked the device to discover my father’s number. Drawing a deep, steadying breath, I answered, “Hi, Daddy.” Calling him my daddy calmed him and his damned, overprotective virus—and tricked him into believing there wasn’t anything amiss. With how my life tended to go, if he’d rubbed his damned brain cells together with even a hint of vigor, he’d see through my bullshit. My daddy was an idiot sometimes, but I loved him anyway. “How is my little kitten this morning? I hope I didn’t wake you, but I wanted to catch you before you leave for your trip.” “Pretty good,” I lied, grateful my father couldn’t sniff out the truth over the phone.

“The boss is happy with me because I performed well on the phones today. I got an extra unpaid day tacked onto my vacation, too, so I’ll be out of town a little longer than planned. Please don’t panic while I’m enjoying my stay out of town.” “I’ll keep that in mind, and I’ll make sure all of your brothers are aware. Will you be visiting us before you head off to your resort?” I’d given myself two days to get to my destination, which I intended to use on scouting, as I had three good targets not far from the resort deep in the heart of Cincinnati, Ohio. “I could be talked into visiting, I suppose. Delaying for a few hours won’t change my drive much.” “Your brothers have been whining.” “Which ones? There are a lot of whiners in the family, Dad. Some days, you happen to be one of them.

” “Pretty much all of them. I’m definitely one of the whiners, and I’ll be very happy if my little kitten comes home for a visit. It’s been over a month.” For fuck’s sake. In my planning, I hadn’t anticipated my entire family melting down because I dared to take a week off to go to a luxury spa—on my family’s dime, as a customer service representative couldn’t afford a stay at a resort or spa, let alone a luxury one. My father, through careful conning of my herd of brothers, had made them all contribute to my vacation, thus resulting in me staying somewhere nice rather than my initial plan to stay out on the streets while a lynx when I wasn’t doing my work. My stay at the resort pleased them—and gave me a good cover for being in Cincinnati for so long. “Which one hasn’t been whining? Put that one on the phone, please.” “I suppose Jace has been whining the least. Hold on.

” My father drew in a breath, and I held my cell away from my ear while he screeched for my younger brother. While I waited for the yowling to quiet, I checked my list of brothers. Ah, right. Jace counted as the clan’s keeper of the peace, as nobody was brave enough to piss off the attorney who enjoyed making certain hardened criminals remained behind bars. Of my brothers, Jace would freak the most if he discovered his little kitten of a sister killed people for a living. It didn’t matter I’d been born three years before him. As the only girl of the lot, I would forever be the little kitten of the family. Mom and Dad needed to have a litter with at least one girl so I wouldn’t be stuck as the little kitten forever. The yowling stopped, and I returned the phone to my ear. “Hey, Harri,” my brother greeted.

“Looking forward to your vacation?” “Yes, I am. For the record, I will resent if anyone prevents me from going on vacation.” I needed an escape from customer service. I needed the money to fix my face. Another bad call at work would break me if I didn’t get out of town for a while. The first kill bounty I got my grubby paws on would be performed mercifully but with excessive force. My virus needed an outlet before I went mad. After I had the scars removed, I’d worry about my other problems, which involved men. My virus wanted to open hunting season. If my virus had its way, the first poor bastard to turn my head would be stuck with me permanently.

If my brothers and father had their way, I would die a virgin. If I ever got around to finding a mate, the battle between him and my family would be worth televising as a pay-per-view event. The poor man would need therapy upon learning how many brothers I had, who were all determined to keep me as safe as possible. I didn’t make things easy on them. Jace made a thoughtful sound in his throat. “We’re concerned.”

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