Outfoxed – R. J. Blain

I’D BEEN in the Alley long enough to understand only one thing mattered when faced with yet another twister: survival. The swarm of them headed for Tulsa roared, warning all of their impending arrival. The incessant crash of thunder accompanied the lightning, which struck with such frequency the dark clouds glowed white. I decided to stop counting after five funnels; one, five, ten—it didn’t matter how many of them snaked down from the sky. If one of them got a hold of me, I’d just be another corpse strewn over the Alley. A day didn’t go by when I didn’t cross a new skeleton in the outskirts. Death was a way of life outside of the safety of Inner Tulsa. Another twister joined the party, bringing a cascade of hail with it. Great. Just great. What was one more? Hadn’t Mother Nature figured out she didn’t need to fling everything she had at Tulsa? A single tornado would’ve done the job just fine. A few minutes too late to do me any good, the lightning-lit clouds turned a putrid shade of green, a promise that Mother Nature wasn’t screwing around this time. Green meant go, and if I’d had any sense in my head at all, I wouldn’t have left shelter at sunrise; I would’ve stayed in hiding until right before work. Everything would’ve been different if I’d just slept in rather than explore the ruins of Tulsa’s outskirts for salvage. If I hadn’t been looking for salvage, I wouldn’t have been spotted by the tall, dark, and handsome hot on my heels and determined to ruin my day if he caught up with me.

The swarm would cause me enough problems, but if the bounty hunter caught me, I’d be in worse shape. Some choices in life were tough, and I hated myself for even contemplating taking my chances with the bounty hunter. Losing my freedom for profit could be reversed. Nothing could reverse death. I flattened my ears, and I lashed my tail back and forth, the rain whipping off it. While I was part fox, I’d adopted more feline tendencies than canine ones. And according to the tail and ears I couldn’t banish with any amount of magic, I was definitely a cat trapped in a partly canine body. I could shift into a full fox, a secret I held close to my chest. The instant anyone learned the truth, I’d go from a common annoyance to a desirable. Nobody cared about powerless hybrids.

Everybody wanted full shapeshifters in their bloodlines, and I had enough trouble without every wealthy single man on the planet wanting to claim me as his wife. Since six twisters wasn’t enough, the churning clouds spawned two more, and with unerring accuracy, they surged towards the city in a wall of churning wind, rain, and hail. Tornado season had come, and it looked like it was going to open with a bang. I skidded around a corner of a destroyed home, a victim of a twister a few months back, before the sky had opted to give us a break for a change. Shacks had sprouted like persistent little weeds, but I expected none of them would survive the storm. I worried for their inhabitants, but if they had half a brain, they’d take shelter in a cellar. If they didn’t, they’d add to the bodies littering the dying suburban streets. While I had the advantage of knowledge, the bounty hunter had me beat everywhere else, and he snagged the back of my shirt, yanked hard enough to cut off my breath, and slammed me into the broken brick of the trashed house. “Are you insane?” he screamed over the wind. “You’re not supposed to run towards tornadoes, you little idiot!” I blinked, checked where I’d been running, and sure enough, Mother Nature had truly tired of my shit, opting to dump another handful of twisters directly into my path.

When the twisters converged, probably where we were standing, it’d puree the neighborhood and leave matchsticks in their wake. Stuck between a rock, a hard place, and a bounty hunter, I had few options if I wanted to keep my head long enough to figure out if death beat being picked up by some fortune seeker. Fortunately, the sensible had left the area anticipating the weather to sour, leaving their storm cellars open for my use—our use, as I wouldn’t leave him behind despite wishing I could ditch him. Sometimes, I really questioned why I tried to meet society’s standards of being a good person. Being a good person was a pain in the ass. As Mother Nature was a bitch on a mission of destruction, the twisters barreled our way. I cursed myself, cursed the hunk of a bounty hunter making a mess of my morning, and cursed my choice of moving to the Alley in the first place. “There’s a cellar nearby.” I pointed down the street in the general direction of my favorite bolt hole, which I’d have to abandon once I shared it with the man out to profit from my head—my living head, at least. The bounty hunters wanting my living head in their possession was looking to be the bright part of my morning.

“Go,” he ordered, giving me a shove to make it clear he was the boss. Any other day, I would’ve fought him on principle, but the hail came down harder, hammering the broken streets as though determined to flatten the neighborhood without needing the help of a tornado to do it. I ran for it, my worn shoes slipping on the ice-slicked road. Once again, the bounty hunter snatched my arm, holding me upright until I regained my balance. Fortunately for us, the cellar wasn’t far. While I wanted to sprint for the opening, I shuffled along so I wouldn’t fall on my ass and need even more help from the man determined to make a profit off me. Once upon a time, a wooden door had covered the entry into the storm cellar, but the last twister to pass through had torn it off. The sensible never checked it as an option, but I’d learned to leave no stone—or hole—unturned since moving into the Alley. I jumped into the hole, grunted as I splashed into the mud below, and waded through the standing water to the slight rise that led to the second door. I shoved that open, gesturing for the bounty hunter to hurry his hot ass up.

He joined me in the mud, looking less than impressed with my choice of cellars. “Aren’t storm cellars supposed to have doors?” I pointed deeper into the cellar. “There are two more ahead.” “I stand corrected. Lead on, Miss Tamrin.” Yep, the bounty hunter knew exactly who I was, although I would’ve preferred if he’d addressed me as Jade. What sort of bounty hunter addressed their victim so formally, anyway? If I had to share a cellar with someone out for my head, living or otherwise, I was of the opinion we needed to be on a first-name basis. “Got a name, or am I going to have to give you one?” “More leading, less talking,” he ordered. He cast a glance over his shoulder up at the entry for the cellar, which would be a bitch to escape from after we rode out the storm. “They’re coming.

” I could tell; the ground shook, the wind screamed, and the hail graduated to chunks of ice capable of slamming through someone’s skull with terrifying ease. I shouldered open the door, grimacing at the creaking wood. I gave it another storm or two before it gave up the ghost, too. Fortunately for me, the slope on the other side made it hard for water to penetrate the cellar, and the third door was crafted of good steel. I scrambled up the incline, waiting long enough for the bounty hunter to follow me through. “Close it,” I ordered. He did as told, and the tunnel fell into darkness. The wood did little to buffer us from the sounds of the storm tearing through the neighborhood above. I made my way to the crest of the incline by feel, patting until I located the top concrete step. “There’s a set of concrete steps at the top.

If you’re not careful, you’ll crack your forehead in the ceiling and fall. It’s a long way down.” I already regretted my decision to be a good person, as it would lose me access to the best storm cellar I’d found in Tulsa. I’d have to search for a new hiding place and hope it was half as secure and safe from the weather. Then again, I had to get away from my new unwanted friend first, which would be a challenge considering we’d have to share space until the storm ended. It could take minutes, hours, or days. I’d only stashed enough food and water for one person for one week, so if it took days, we’d be in trouble. The bounty hunter joined me, and I eased down the steps once certain he wouldn’t take a lethal tumble to the steel door below. At the bottom, I felt around for the hatch wheel, grabbed hold, and turned until the door popped open. Light spilled into the staircase from the luminescent moss I’d cultivated on the walls, barely bright enough to guide my way to the crank-powered lamp.

I sat on the concrete floor and went to work charging the device. It’d only last for a few hours before I’d have to charge it again, but it would give me a chance to set up my home away from home. The bounty hunter entered, closed the steel door, and whistled at my shelter. “I definitely stand corrected. Your file didn’t mention you have a good cellar. You’re listed as a vagrant.” I scowled. Unless rich, wealthy, or a hell of a lot braver than I was, everyone in the Alley counted as a vagrant. We went where the storms were least likely to strike, although there were few places left safe from the weather’s fury. If I’d been thinking, I would’ve taken him an extra block down the road to a shallower cellar, although I had no idea if it would survive through an entire swarm of twisters.

Sighing, I kept cranking on the lamp. “Who isn’t a vagrant here?” I finally asked, aware of him waiting for an answer. “Those who live in Asylum.” Asylum. The rich, the famous, and the powerful received invitations from its lord and master, Benedict Mansfield. He’d bought the land rights beneath Tulsa’s city center, digging deep and converting the sandstone and the underlying limestone into habitable space. I’d given up figuring out how people could live underground long ago. They did, and everyone with a grain of sense and a desire to survive wanted to live in Asylum. Hell would freeze over before average folks like me were welcomed down there. I figured Mansfield had the right idea—as long as I ignored how many people would die without access to the underground sanctuary.

But when I thought about it, I loathed the man for choosing who got to live and who got to die. One day, I, along with everyone else uninvited to Asylum, would die to the swarms that grew in number and intensity each passing year. “They can kiss my ass,” I announced, flipping the switch to turn on the lamp and properly illuminate the cellar. A mess of storage boxes and plastic water bottles littered the floor, and I regretted showing him my disorganized tendencies. “So, are you going to give me your name, or am I going to have to give you one?” “I’m tempted to find out what sort of name a smart-assed woman like you would give me,” he replied. The lamp offered enough light for me to get a good look at his face. His mouth curved into a grin. It’d been so long since I’d gotten any action that a hot ass bounty hunter out for my head was giving me bad ideas. Damn it. I should’ve taken my chances with the swarm.

At least I would’ve emerged from the storm either dead or with my sanity intact. There was nothing sane about what I desired to do with the man who wanted to turn me in for some quick cash. It involved a complete removal of our clothes and a good time. Neither the clothing removal or the good time were on the agenda. Unfortunately for me, the cellar, for all it was deep and safe from even the angriest of twisters, didn’t come with a cold shower. I really needed a cold shower and a stiff drink. I blamed my unreasonable interest in the man on adrenaline, the aftermath of pure terror, and his sun-kissed skin, too dark to be American Caucasian but light enough I pegged him as an Italian, Greek, or some other flavor of Mediterranean European. “I’ll just call you Idiot for testing your luck with a swarm on the way, Idiot.” “Sandro is preferable to Idiot, but I’ll give you that. It’s pretty idiotic to be outside during a swarm.

Should I call you Queen Idiot? I wouldn’t have been out at all if you didn’t insist on taking morning strolls through the hot zone. Did you not pay attention to the forecast?” His question pegged him as someone from Inner Tulsa or Asylum; nowhere else still had electricity enough to watch tv, use the internet, or otherwise pay attention to the forecast. I hadn’t touched a computer since I’d left the East and run to the Alley to avoid an arranged marriage. Had I known the Alley was just as bad as the rumors claimed, I might’ve thought twice about whatever asshole my parents wanted me to marry to meet their standards rather than mine. With my luck, Sandro had been paid off by my parental assholes to drag me back to Buffalo, New York to do their bidding through marrying some twerp with better genes than personality. “You think someone like me is welcome in Inner Tulsa?” I laughed at him, hung the lamp from the chain dangling from the ceiling, and went to work checking over the supplies. Everything was as I’d left it a few weeks prior when I’d prepared for the start of the tornado season. The steel door and thick concrete walls dulled the storm’s fury to an unsettling rumble. Within an hour, if the swarm persisted, I’d feel the sound in my teeth and be headed straight for madness. If it continued on for longer than that, I’d be tempted to smack my skull into the wall to make the sounds filtering down from above go away.

“Your work history is good and you’re reliable. You could find work in Inner Tulsa easily.” He looked me over, raising a brow. “All you’d have to do to be hired at a strip club is show up.” “I’ll tell you what. You keep your bounty to yourself until the storm clears, and I won’t bust your balls for implying I’d make a good stripper.” “I’m not implying. I’m telling you. You’d make one hell of a good stripper. A natural auburn vixen with a good complexion doesn’t come around every day.

Hell, now that I’ve gotten my first real look at you, it’s no wonder you’re worth so much. You’re enough to tempt a man to forgo the cash to keep you.” Had we been in the South, we’d both be at risk of spontaneous combustion. Then again, I wasn’t an elementalist. I’d be a lot better off if I could convince metal to bend to my will. In a city in constant need of repair, everyone wanted a metal elementalist. Then again, I didn’t want anyone knowing just what I could do, especially the hot ass bounty hunter ready to take me into his custody. If he found out I was a witch on top of being a fully fledged shapeshifter, he’d be drooling all over me like I was a fresh bone up for grabs. I’d also crank his profits through the roof, as being a fully fledged shapeshifter would easily triple my bounty value, whatever it was. Being a witch on top of that?

.

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