(An excerpt from the “City of Ensanitee” novel)

Chapter 1: Midnight Rendezvous

   Nine pairs of piercing eyes stared at Edward Worthington, Mayor of the City of Ensanitee.

   After 22 years, Mayor Worthington remained the top authority of all things and people residing within the Lynx Mountain valley–a sprawling municipality of urban and rural landscape that barely crossed the threshold into city population status.

   Below him ranked the other city’s leaders, who sat before him at the massive boardroom table: Six of the seven City Council members, police and fire chiefs, and chief administrative officer.

   The top-tier of government and city operations convened at 11:30 p.m. on a dark and stormy Tuesday night for a closed meeting never to be known to happen by anyone outside of the room.

   The outside world could barely be seen through the line of windows covering two of the four walls. Ensanitee was cloaked in the darkness of a moonless night. The gray, heavy clouds covered the sky and torrential rain dropped from their bottoms. An occasional flash of lightning paired with a rumble of thunder lit up the room more than the fluorescent lights and sent vibrations through the high-rise building.

   Mayor Worthington sat at the head of the table with one set of windows behind him. He was in the only tablespace without a high back leather chair, instead settled into his custom, state-of-the-art motorized wheelchair that’d served as his mobile throne for the past five years, since the illness. For others, the immobilization would have made a 60-year-old graying man look weak to his constituents. For Edward Worthington, it seemed to make the barrel-chested powerhouse stronger and more foreboding. The whirring of his tiny motor approaching sent a wave of fear to all unfortunate enough to be in his path.

   Two others were in the room with the leaders, but their eyes were not on the mayor. They were engaged in a staring contest of their own.

   To the mayor’s left, his first born and only son, Vance Worthington. To the mayor’s right, his executive director-turned-communication director, Mere Greene.

   Mere stared daggers into Vance, who at first glance, was noticeably opposite of his father.

   Vance looked more like his mother than his father with his dark, olive skin tone and thick dark hair. Traits perhaps inherited by the Greek or Spanish ancestors on the maternal branches of his family tree. Vance was closer to his father’s height, which pre-illness, was 6-feet-even. At 26 years old, Vance was abundant with youthful energy, good looks, a full head of hair, and a toned body that his father would never have again.

   One physical feature the men shared was their deep scowl. At that moment, Mayor Worthington looked gleeful compared to most days. It was Vance who silently conveyed annoyance through his facial expression and body language, which he directed at Ms. Goody Two-Shoes Greene.

   Vance kept his eyes locked with Mere’s. He slouched against the armrest of the chair. He wished he had his cell phone, so he could check the time or play a vigorous round of Candy Crush. He tugged at the tight robin’s egg blue tie around his neck and shifted from the discomfort of wearing the slightly wrinkled white button-up shirt underneath his navy suit jacket and tucked into the restricting, matching slacks. The black loafers were also about half a size too small across his size 12 feet.

   His father demanded he wear something more than pajamas to the meeting and this was the only somewhat suitable attire he still possessed in his closet.

   Little does he know, I don’t even wear pajamas, Vance smirked at the thought of alternatively strutting into the meeting stark naked.

   His change to a gleeful expression seemed to tick off Mere even more than when he frowned. But he doubted anything could ever please the cutthroat beauty who took her coffee with a double shot of ambition and a teaspoon of baby’s blood every morning, Vance surmised.

   Mere was a fierce little beast woman, standing just shy of 5’3 without her two-inch pumps. She maintained a firm, slim body, probably from all the calories she burned running after his father at his beck and call for the past three years. Her radiant skin tone reflected her Choctaw Native American ancestry, as did the raven black hair that hung straight down her back.

   Mere was a couple of years younger than Vance, but with substantial more political experience and career drive. In addition to spinning his father’s lies as communications director, she still maintained her previous duties as an executive assistant. It was a role she’d been hired for after Ms. Grady died after serving the mayor for 20 years.

   Mere straightened her back, signaling Vance to do the same. Her wide eyes stressed the importance of professional appearance. Vance met her halfway by straightening an inch, but his face remained rested in the palm of his hand. He flashed Mere his charming half-smile and winked. Her eyebrows dipped lower and she turned away from him to rest on the guests.

   Tisk, tisk. You turned away. Ten points for me, Vance thought.

   Vance wanted nothing more but to go upstairs to curl up in his bed. Instead, he received a call from Mere an hour ago to be in the 20th floor mayoral suite at 11:30 p.m. sharp.

   No other information given, but Vance knew that when his father summoned there was no choice but to answer. Vance was convinced his father pulled stunts like calling a clandestine midnight meeting in the middle of a thunderstorm just to prove he could.

   Vance knew he wouldn’t have even been able to get half of them on the phone during business hours on a sunny day let alone at the stroke of midnight with a tornado watch in the forecast. Vance was more than half his father’s age with maybe a twelfth of his power–and that was only because he bore the Worthington name.

   Vance looked around to the guests of the impromptu gathering. They all put on airs as if they knew why they were called in Mayor, but Vance doubted any of them had a clue, besides Mere. Dad played with his cards close.

   Mayor Worthington’s deep, gruff voice finally sounded out.

   “I won’t hold you up too long, so you can get back to your families– or whatever it is you go home to, Nelson.” Mayor Worthington took his normal jab at the wiry, meek man sitting two seats to the right from Vance.

   Councilman Leonard Nelson’s frown looked tight and painful but he didn’t speak. Fire Chief Todd Elkins scoffed, as did Councilwoman Rho Ipps.

   “I need not remind you that the following information is not to be repeated,” Mayor continued. “Any evidence of this meeting ever happening is not to exist, hence Mere taking away your electronic devices before you walked, in case any of you decided to be clever and record. But I know I can trust you all even without the extra step of precaution.”

   All nodded but Mere and Vance.

   “I’ve been your Mayor for quite some time, 22 years. Ever since my father, Frank Vance Worthington III retired from this post. I was honored to be elected by these fine citizens of Ensanitee who believed and trusted me to carry on my father’s legacy. A damn fine legacy. I’ve done just that and went further to secure my own. During my terms, we’ve taken this city through some dire economic times. We’ve come out of it, largely in part of my family’s business, Hueber Minerals International and people like you all of you who help lead the citizens of Ensanitee and make our home what it is today.”

   The leaders all smiled and nodded, basking in their success.

   “Now, it’s time to look further into the future,” Mayor Worthington continued. “As you all know, my father turned 92 years old over the weekend. This brings me to the reason I called this meeting: Former Mayor Frank Vance Worthington III has died.”

   There was a collective gasp. Vance sat straight up, eyes wide, and opened his mouth to speak. The room was silenced by a single raise of the Mayor’s hand.

   “My father passed away during a nap yesterday afternoon. It was quick, painless, and peaceful. He’s at rest. His death and funeral arrangements will be announced in the morning at a press conference at 9 a.m. downstairs on the front steps of Hueber Tower. There, I will announce that in my father’s vacancy, I will step into his role as CEO of Hueber Minerals International. This will call for my full attention. The attention I can’t give if still serving as your mayor.”

   The line of questioning from the leaders ceased with another raise of the mayor’s hand.

   “Hold your comments,” He took in a deep breath before going on. “I’ve taken the liberty of finding a replacement for myself. My son, Vance Elliot Worthington will be the next mayor of Ensanitee.”

   All hell broke loose.

   “Absurd!” “Unqualified!” “Immature!” “Not ready!” “Rough around the edges!” “Hipster millennial!” “Squanderer!” Those were some of the words Vance was able to pick through the jumble of outbursts and over the roll of thunder.

   He had a few choice words of his own to share if he could ever pick his jaw up off the floor.

   Vance looked to Mere whose stare was redirected at the leaders. Her expression still stoic, she made no effort to acknowledge him. Vance gave a deer-in-headlights stare at his father who also refused to look at him.

   “Enough!” The Mayor barked. All fell silent.

   “I understand your hesitance over my decision as you do not know my son very well since he’s been abroad for several years, only to return to us this summer. However, I assure you he’s more than capable and ready to step in as the new mayor of Ensanitee.”

   “Mayor, this may be a problem since he hasn’t resided here or held political office before,” Councilman Nelson said. “Also, according to the protocol, we as City Council do not have the authority to appoint a mayor. This will have to be decided by the citizens’ votes, not us. Or you.”

   The lanky man sunk into his seat, looking to his counterparts for backup. None met his eyes.

   “My son has legally retained residency in Ensanitee during his travels. As for the election, I trust you all will provide your endorsement and woo the citizens to vote for Vance. I have devised an exit strategy with a transition period. The election for the mayor role will be in two weeks, on the first of November. My complete departure from my duties will be January 1.”

   “Sir, with all due respect, I don’t know how we can convince the citizens to trust someone they don’t know,” Nelson said, immediately regretting saying anymore.

   “Trust?” the Mayor shifted in his seat to lean forward with his hands clasped together on top of the table. “Nelson, I have a question for you. More like, I want to share a memory with you. Do you recall your days before being elected by these same citizens? They had some trust issues with you in your district, did they not? They saw you as inexperienced, incompetent, and weak. Your opponent was much more decorated, beloved, and deserving of the position. So, what happened during that election period that swayed the voters to your side, Nelson?”

   Nelson shifted uncomfortably. “Sir, I don’t think this is the place to discuss those details.”

   “What better place than among friends?” Mayor continued. “I remember you approaching me asking for my assistance. My endorsement, you called it. I gave it to you and more.”

   Nelson turned bright red. A mix of emotions flashed across the others’ faces.

   “Your opponent, Travis Kent. He was a local hero and role model to adults and children. A volunteer, an advocate, a friend to all. He was also a drug addict who’d been clean for 15 years, until what happened, Nelson?”

   “Please, sir–”

   “What happened, Nelson?”

   Nelson sighed. Tears welled up in his eyes turning them red. “He overdosed.”

   “Oh, you’re skipping all the good parts! I’ll tell this one. Travis Kent did his nightly routine of drinking his meal supplement smoothie but that night he was to speak at a town hall meeting. After hid liquid dinner, he got in his car and wasn’t even two blocks from his house when he got a flat tire. A police officer happened to be nearby and stopped to assist this motorist. That’s when he noticed this opponent acting a little strange. ‘Tweaky,’ he called it. There was erratic behavior and yelling and backup was called. Travis Kent was subdued, and his car checked, and lo and behold. A little package of meth joy found in that briefcase. But I think I left out another detail. Nelson, if Travis Kent didn’t know about the meth, as he then claimed, why was he so tweaky?”

   “Sir! Please!”

   “Damn it, Nelson, you will answer me!” Mayor slammed his palm down on the oak table.

   Nelson was a sniveling, red-faced mess. He choked out, “I put meth in his smoothie.”

   “You did what?”

   Nelson straightened his back, accepting his fate. “I laced his meal replacement smoothie with meth when I was in the house! I knew he drank them every night. He had them labeled in his refrigerator for which one he would drink that night.”

   “Yes! Yes, you did! And how did you know he drank those nighttime smoothies, Nelson? Ah, this is getting good!”

   Nelson sobbed and wiped at his face. “Because I’d been to his house before. At night. We hooked up once a while back.”

   “So, let’s sum this up for the audience. You planted drugs, punctured a tire, laced a smoothie, and had a secret, perverted affair with your opponent– all during an election year. You sent that promising young man spiraling out on a meth rage leading to a near death-by-overdose then a good beating by Ensanitee’s finest in blue. Let’s top this off, Nelson. Where is he now?”

   Nelson’s face leaked with snot and tears. “At Hueber Memorial Hospital. In rehabilitation.”

   “Yes, Nelson. He needs a good, long recovery after crossing your path,” Mayor sat back in his wheelchair. A flash of lightning illuminated the room and cast shadows across his face.

   “So, ladies and gentlemen, you see my point about trust?” He went on, his voice steady and cool. “You can’t always trust the citizens to do the right thing or make the right decisions. Sometimes, you must take matters into your own hands. Not everyone is ready for their job before they get it. You weren’t, Nelson, but since you’ve taken your place on the Council I’ve been very impressed with your work. Your votes have greenlighted a lot of progress here in Ensanitee. Your constituents now love you or at least can tolerate you. You’ve proven you were the right choice for the job. You just needed a little support from friends. Now, back to what I was previously saying. Vance will be your new mayor. I’m looking at each and every one of you to make that happen. I know he’s got Nelson’s support. Does he have everyone else’s endorsement, or shall we continue around the table for more story time?”

Chapter 2: Father to Son

   Mere stood outside of the boardroom door handing each guest’s device to them as they exited. How she knew which belonged to whom, Vance didn’t want to know.

   Vance stood by the front reception desk robotically shaking everyone’s hand as they left. There were no happy expressions on anyone’s face. Vance felt as if he was on autopilot.

   Mayor was the last to leave the boardroom. He rolled out in his motorized chair down the hall to his office. Vance hung back and whispered to Mere, “Is this how he operates? Is this how he treats people?”

   “When necessary,” she said coldly.

   “Why do they let him?”

   “You know your father. He doesn’t give options.”

   “This meeting was against protocol. It was illegal. Not to mention the other stuff said. How can he get away with this?”

   “He’s a snake. Ruthless. Fierce. Vicious. He has a clad iron reputation of not making threats but taking action. Bite first, never ask questions later. You ask these things as if you haven’t known him all your life,” Mere scoffed.

   “I didn’t know it was like this. I’ve never been on the inside of it,” Vance focused on a spot on the floor, trying to process the events.

   “Well, welcome to the big leagues, Junior.”

   Mere handed Vance his confiscated phone and walked into her office to the right of the lobby. 

Vance walked past her door to his father’s. He burst into the open doorway and took a stand in front of the large mahogany desk. His father was rolled up to his desk looking over what looked like a contract of some kind.

   “So, you’re not going to talk to me about this?” Vance started. “I was completely blindsided in there! Me as mayor? Come on!” He threw his arms up in disbelief.

  “Why does this come as a surprise to you? You knew when you came home this would happen,” Mayor said, even-toned and barely looking up from the papers he was reading.

   “At some point down the road! At least 10 years, maybe. Not now! I’m not ready. They know I’m not ready.”

   “You had 26 years to find yourself or whatever the hell you were doing out there on my dime. Saving whales, feeding children, and smoking opium in the Himalayas. Now it’s time for you to take over the family business just like I did and your grandfather and every Worthington before.”

   “What was all that stuff in there with Nelson?” Vance paced in front of the desk.  


   “Did all of that stuff happen? Did you really plant drugs on a guy?” Vance whispered.

   “No. Nelson did.”

   “But you knew about it.”

   “I know a lot of things. Doesn’t mean I did it.”

   “Doesn’t mean you’re innocent, either. He needs to be locked up!”

   “He’s a damn good Councilman. A good person to have in the pocket.”

   “Who says he won’t retaliate and have implicated you in all that?”

   “Don’t worry about Nelson. He’ll be fine.”

   “Let’s talk about gramps,” Vance said. “Why didn’t you tell me he died? I had to find out like that, in front of everyone.”

   “Because look at you. You’re emotional like your mother. You would’ve sulked the whole day and night if I told you before.”

   “What’s wrong with that? I should mourn my grandfather. His death shouldn’t be some political play for you. You can’t make these major life decisions for me and withhold things from me. I have a say so in all of this. You know, I can just leave again.”

   “You’d leave penniless and disinherited,” Edward Worthington looked up from the papers and stared his son down, challenging him.

   Vance held back from calling his bluff. His dad didn’t bluff.

   Vance paced in front of the large desk. His tie felt tighter. The fabric of his shirt was still itchy.

   His father watched him, his eyes not leaving him.

   “Dad, I don’t know if I can do this. You’ve done this for more than 20 years.”

   “And I was your age when I did it. My father was a ruthless prick who took no mercy. I’ve been given you too much mercy over the years. That’s my fault. I should’ve kept you here, made you learn from me. But don’t think that just because you didn’t work politics in this city that you can’t. You are a Worthington. Ensanitee was built by your ancestors. It’s been carried on by each generation. It will continue that way with you. I’ll get you into shape by January.”

   Vance stopped pacing. “What will I have to do to get it? Kidnap the wife of whoever runs against me? Get a private investigator to dig up dirt about my opponents’ mother’s sexual perversions?”

   “No, but I like the way you think. Keep that creativity.”

   “I don’t even know if you’re joking!” Vance doubled over. He felt feverish.

   “Son, you’re tired. It’s after midnight and this is all coming at you at once. Go get some sleep. Mere will prep you before the press conference. And wear a different suit.”

   “I don’t have a different suit,” Vance mumbled. Still struggling to control his breathing but anxious to get away from his father, he left the office. He took the quiet, empty hallway to the freight elevator. He heard the wind whip around outside and walking past the kitchen, he saw the streams of rain coming down at an angle, though much slower than before.

   In the elevator, Vance hit the ‘up’ button. After a minute, it opened, and he stepped in. He swiped the access card he kept in his pocket before pushing the button for the private 22nd-floor penthouse suite, the only one in the business tower. The loft was secluded and very few people knew existed.

   He stepped out of the elevator and crossed to the main door and unlocked it. He closed the door and locked it behind him, glad to be alone, finally, to think.

   The tightness of his clothing hit him again. He felt the heat rise. He hadn’t had a panic attack for years but in one night it all came slamming back down on him.

   He needed to cool down, breathe–

Chapter 3: Roof with a View

   “Air! I need air!” he gasped out, crossing the living room and clambering to unlatch one of the elongated windows that pushed out like a door. Vance stumbled out into the makeshift rooftop terrace. The faux grass patch he’d had installed after moving in was soaked through, but the rain had lightened to a sprinkle. According to local meteorologists in reports Vance watched earlier in the evening, the worst was to come well after Midnight.

   Thunder rolled in the distance. His heart raced and the hairs on his cold and clammy skin stood on end. The panic attack was the worst he could recall in a long time. It came over him in waves with one topping the other. He used to get panic attacks relatively often during adolescence. He thought he was over them.

   Vance attempted to slow time down and find a slow rhythm to control the pace of his heart. The more he heard himself gasp, the more freaked out he became. Maybe this was the end for him. Maybe he would die on the rooftop alone and in the godawful tight suit he hated.

   Vance clutched the tie in his hand. He clumsily ripped at the tight and suffocating knot. The noose his father forced him to wear. A leash to control him.

   Once undone, he threw the tie over the edge and let it float down to the wet, empty street.

   He felt some relief from the freedom of the material and the cool perspiration hitting his face, but it was short-lived. The night’s events rushed through his mind. The thought of him ruling over Ensanitee. Another wave of anxiety crushed him.

   The mix of light rain and sweat caused the suit and shirt to stick to him. He stripped off the jacket and flung it over the ledge. If it was up to Vance, he’d go without clothes and spend all day out on the lake. Better yet, he’d spend hours hang gliding over Lynx Canyon, hiking through the mountains, fishing in the streams, and sleeping in a hammock high up in the trees where he could see the moon and endless skies until he fell asleep like he did when he was a teenager.

   Yet, all of that was far away from where he stood at the hilt of the steel tower.

   Vance ripped off the white shirt and buttons popped and flew every which way. He sent it flying over the ledge, like the jack and tie. He slipped out of the tight leather shoes and threw them over the edge, only briefly hoping he hadn’t hit someone or something below. He felt freer though still gasping and feeling heat surge through him.

   He unbuckled his belt, unbuttoned and unzipped his trousers, and dropped them to his feet. The pants went over next. Then the socks and the undershirt. He stood alone in his charcoal gray boxer briefs. The only thing left standing between him and total freedom of earthly constraints.

   He shed the thin material that enclosed his bulge, balled it into his strong hands, and launched the boxer briefs off the roof. Completely naked, Vance closed his eyes and lifted his arms over his head. If only he could leave everyone and everything behind. Just be done. Just go and never return to Ensanitee.

   He breathed in and out, his breath finally slowing and becoming more controlled. He welcomed the unseasonably warm wind that grazed his face and neck, bare legs and arms and through his feathers–

   “Feathers?” Vance opened his eyes and looked at his left arm. Feathers had poked through his hair follicles and were steadily growing longer and fuller across from his wrist to his shoulder– on his right arm.

   Yes, there were unmistakably large, white, gray, and brown feathers sprouting from his torso.

   He gasped and stumbled sideways when he saw his legs were quickly growing feathers, too.

   Trying to escape himself, Vance stumbled backward and fell on his back. It was nicely cushioned by the new, soft plumes that’d emerged down his spine. The impact was further softened by his flat, feathery tail.

   “Tail?!” Vance yelled right before his mouth sprouted a hard, large, yellow beak. He reached toward his face but pulled back once seeing his hands were now curved sharp talons.

   Vance jumped up from the ground and ran in circles, catching glimpses of the wide tail take shape. His taloned feet caught the turf patio surface upon its sharp, pointy tips causing him to trip and stumble. Panicked, he flapped to balance himself and attempted to scream out, but it came out as squawks. The more he fanned his arms–now wings– the more he felt himself lifting off the ground.

   The same wind he’d welcomed before was helping to lift and carry him over the edge of the roof. He saw with a bird’s eye vision his clothes scattered along the street and sidewalk 22 floors below.

More squawking, flapping, fighting the change. The more he fought, the higher he was lifted. Vance spun around in the air in circles, trying to figure out how his new appendages worked so he could get himself back to the safety of the terrace. Instead, he began to plummet several floors straight down the side of the high-rise building past the darkened windows. He expanded his wings and rode a stream of air. He was getting further from Hueber Tower and getting closer to the ground, though at a less rapid pace.

   Vance flapped his wings several times, as he’d seen birds do and it took him forward and upward. He felt the warm air and raindrops cut through his plume. It felt…good.

   He dropped and lifted several more times before starting to get the hang of it.

   He circled high above the downtown buildings. He flapped more and practiced how to change directions. He swooped through a row of buildings, then back up.

   He felt–for the first time– comfortable in this new, foreign form.

Chapter 4: Rolling

Yes! This isn’t bad at all! He was surprised to hear his thoughts still coming through in English. He attempted to speak a word again, but it came out as a bird call.

   He wasn’t sure how long he had been flying over the city but, at some point, he noticed the air change and a new line of low, dark clouds barreling down from the north and toward downtown.

   Vance headed northeast, flying along the outskirts of the shelf clouds barreling down from the north from Brixton and through Lynx Canyon. If the widespread storm stayed its course, it’d hit Ensanitee full-on.

   Vance effortlessly dodged small bits of debris as he flew further from town and deeper into Red Oak Forest. He took shelter on a thick branch inside one of the tall trees standing outside of the storm’s path. His talons wrapped around the branch and he felt secure and balanced perched some 100 feet above the ground. He had the perfect view of the incoming storm. He was fascinated to see how it formed and moved from a new perspective.

   Vance felt the energy of the system and of the forest around him. He realized he wasn’t alone, not in the way he’d have thought in his human form. Any human out in the forest at that time was a fool, perhaps soon to be a dead fool. Yet, the animals burrowing in their nests and running through the sprawl of trees away from the storm had no choice but to face it head-on. As many times as Vance had been camping, he’d never been so attuned and empathic to the wildlife. Now, he was one of them.

   The thought brought him crashing back to reality. He was a bird. He couldn’t fully see himself but concluded he was some sort of hawk. He couldn’t understand what had happened or how. He could chalk it up to stress and exhaustion.

   The panic attacks! Of course, he’d simply hyperventilated and lost consciousness. This was a hallucination or a dream. He was really back on the roof, passed out and naked.

   Or he was drunk or high. Did he drink that night? No. He wished he had before his father’s meeting, but he was completely sober going into it.

   Or maybe Nelson drugged him. Clearly, he was up to the task. The problem with that theory was that Vance didn’t have any beverage or food for Nelson to roofie. And when would he have had the opportunity? Plus, Vance knew what it was like to be on drugs thanks to college parties and Burning Man. This was different.

   He couldn’t come up with any plausible reason for why he was having the out-of-body experience. But that was just it. It wasn’t an out-of-body experience. The form he took was comfortable and familiar. It felt the most real and he felt the most alive than ever.

   Vance cocked his head from one side to the other. He heard the frantic chirping, squeaks, chippers, and other sounds from the nervous creatures hidden in the trees, shrubs, and around him. He listened closer. He began to translate what they were saying–not like a human conversation, but he knew all the same.

   They weren’t talking about the storm as much as they were talking about…him. They were afraid of him. They didn’t know him but knew his place on the food chain. It was a strange version of respect.

   Vance looked over the thousands of acres of forest and toward the mountains and valley hidden by the tornadic system. He knew this was all his domain. This was his new kingdom and he knew he ruled as far as his hawk eyes could see.

   He felt the rumble in his stomach again. He felt the hunger and the animal instinct taking over. He pushed off the branch and spread his wings to full span. He flew up into the pitch-black sky and gave in to that instinct to hunt and conquer.

Chapter 5: Wake Up Call

   Vance woke up to see a very pissed-off Mere staring down at him.

   “Oh, shit!” he said, sitting up. “What are you doing here?”

   “What in the hell did you do last night? Are you drunk? I’ve been trying to wake you for 10 minutes.” Mere was silhouetted by the light in the hallway, but he saw her gesture to the mess in his dim bedroom.

   The sun wasn’t up yet. Vance guessed it was about 6:30 a.m. No, he knew, internally, it was 6:38 a.m., to be exact.

   “No. Go away,” Vance groaned. His voice was scratchy. He cleared it and felt grit in his teeth and on his tongue. He rolled out of bed to head to the attached master bathroom.

   “Geez! Put some pants on!” Mere turned away, but Vance caught her sneak a second look at his naked body.

   “I sleep naked. You mean the know-it-all didn’t know that? Not in your notes?”

   Facing the wall, Mere responded, “No. I will add it as a precaution for next time, however.”

   Vance smiled and continued to the bathroom, flipping the light switch on. The brightness of the overhead light nearly blinded him. He caught his reflection in the mirror. “Holy fuck!”

   Mere rushed into the bathroom, “What?”

   She gasped. In the brightness of the lights, they could see Vance was smeared with dirt, twig fragments, and a dark red substance across his chest and around his mouth.

   “Junior…” Mere said, slowly and carefully. “What did you do?”

   Vance looked in the mirror again. The memories from the night came flooding back. The change, the flight, the storm, the hunt. He realized how bad it must have looked to Mere.

   “I, um, went hunting last night.”

   “Hunting? You left your father’s office close to 1 a.m. Who goes hunting at that time of night and during a tornado? And what kind of hunting would leave you looking like that?”

   She motioned her hands to his filth-covered body. Her eyes dropped again, and she brought them back to eye level and huffed in frustration.

   “I like to use my bare hands. I had to blow off some steam. I went away from the storm,” Vance stumbled on the words. The truth, kind of.

   “Whatever you did isn’t the priority right now. Not only do you have to prepare for the press conference concerning the change in guard, but there’s also now the issue of tornado damage to address. Get showered and dressed and meet me in the kitchen. You have 10 minutes.”

   Mere turned, and her jet-black hair swung behind her. Vance caught a whiff of her floral and herbal scented shampoo. He noticed how her hair cascaded down her red wine-colored dress stopping just between the blades of her shoulders. She was fully covered by the cotton material until getting to the back of her thighs. Her toned legs were covered by the thin silk of skin-toned pantyhose which tucked into a pair of dark red pumps.

   Mere left Vance alone in the bathroom, pulling the door shut behind her. And good thing. Vance felt the carnal throb. The wooden door between them was the only thing stopping him from pursuing Mere and taking her in his grasp.

   Vance never looked at Mere lustfully before. Sure, she was pretty. That was obvious. But she was too hard and cold for him to see her as anything soft and warm he’d want to wrap around. This morning, it was a different story.

   Vance shook his head free of the rising thoughts and tried to switch his focus on making himself somewhat presentable to the public eye.

   He threw his toothbrush away after brushing his teeth free of meat and fur bits. He shaved the stubble that was coming in along his jawline. He turned on the shower and let it steam up the bathroom before he stepped in. The hot water felt amazing on his skin. Yes, skin. No feathers.

   He thought back over the last hours. He vaguely remembered landing back on his rooftop, feeling drunk on adrenaline. He couldn’t remember how he got back to his human form or how he got back to his bed. He knew he should be exhausted but he was too exhilarated.

   Once accepting what was happening to him he was able to enjoy his new hawk-like form. He wasn’t sure what he was exactly. Whatever it was, it made him feel large and strong and confident, yet light and majestic. Beautiful.

   He had many questions regarding the ordeal but didn’t know where to begin or to whom to ask. Certainly not Mere. She’d have him committed or put in rehab.

   All the questions would have to wait. He wanted to revel at the moment a bit more before overanalyzing everything to shreds.

   Vance completed his bathroom routine that included combing his dark coif and dabbing on cologne and aftershave. He returned to his bedroom with a towel wrapped around his waist. He flipped on the overhead light. Mere wasn’t in the room and the door to the living room was closed. His new charcoal gray suit, stark white shirt, red tie, black belt were hanging on the hook on the back of the closet door and the box of new black dress shoes nearby.

   Vance put them on and felt like a million bucks. They were tailored perfectly to his measurements.

   He adjusted his tie knot and accented it with a tie pin sporting his family crest. He added a pair of cufflinks. He took a final look in the full-length mirror on his closet door. The clothes looked good on him. A perfect fit.

   Yes, he was ready.

   He felt like a new man. A new beast.