Always Gray in Winter
by Mark J. Engels
Banner Art by Amy Sun Hee
A distant daughter. A peculiar device. A family lineage full of secrets. When werecat Pawlina Katczynski finally resurfaces, her location previously unknown to anyone close to her, the reunion is short of welcomed. Instead, she finds herself thrust tooth and nail—tooth and claw—into a feud between opposing werecat clans as her family and their enemies reignite a battle that has raged for years. Always Gray in Winter invites the reader to join the feud and see if blood is truly thicker than water…
Pawly balanced herself atop the fire escape handrail and stared up into the night sky. The Transamerica Pyramid towered over the thick fog bank enveloping the vacant warehouses and run-down tenements stretching out around her in every direction. She glanced out over the harbor after a ship somewhere out in the soup blew its foghorn. Though radar, GPS, and dynamic positioning instruments had long made their use unnecessary, she knew first hand ship captains from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Oman were sticklers for tradition. Likewise among her own family of seafarers, especially at Christmastime.
She twiddled at the tuft of fur atop one ear and took in the sight of the Crown Jewel shining brilliantly atop the Pyramid, a grim reminder of the half continent separating her and her loved ones. This year’s rapidly approaching holiday marked the first time since Navy boot camp they would have been able to celebrate together like normal people. Lenny had been anxious to meet her family, staunch Blackhawks fans all, surely to talk up his beloved Bruins. Though grateful having been spared any drama after Boston thrashed Chicago in the Stanley Cup playoffs this past summer, her heart ached at the thought of missing them all this Christmas. And for untold more to come.
An approaching vehicle’s rumbling engine helped squelch her dark thoughts. Pawly looked down to the alleyway beneath her feet to find a black late-model muscle car rolling toward a sharp corner between two buildings. She tugged at the strap of her bracer covering her watch and set her jaw. Right on time.
The driver stopped short of the turn and killed the lights. Sobs of the girls tied up in the back seat echoed upwards as the driver and his passenger climbed out. One manhandled the girls out of the car while the other yanked a massive cooler free from behind his seat with a grunt. It landed on its side, spilling ice cubes and soda cans all over the pavement at his feet. The man pulled the cooler’s false bottom free and tossed one of the sawed-off shotguns to his partner. One by one, the girls emerged from the back seat blindfolded, gagged, and bound. Their captors forced the three of them to sit down on the car’s rear bumper dressed in only halter tops, hot pants and stiletto heels. Their long, black hair had been pulled into fat pigtails draped behind each shoulder; none could have been a day over fifteen. And they were shivering.
Her fangs bit into the fur below her lower lip. Pawly fell forward and thrust out her legs against the railing. Claws sprouted forth from the tips of her fingers with a flick of each wrist. She dove toward the car and yowled to goad the driver into turning her way. Her claws sank into the skin above the bridge of his nose as she slid across the car’s hood on her butt. With a grunt she yanked her hand free, tearing both of the man’s eyes free from their sockets. He screamed and crumpled to the pavement, cradling his ruined face, weapon all but forgotten. His partner whirled around with his shotgun in one hand, leaving his chest wide open. Before reaching the wall, Pawly raked the toe claws on both feet across the man’s abdomen. She pushed off with her legs and landed past the front bumper. When she spun around, the wide-eyed man stood before her, trembling as he stuffed his entrails back inside him with both hands. Pawly responded to his horrified whimper with but a shrug before he collapsed.
She reached into her pocket and pulled forth a rust-colored handkerchief. Pawly darted her eyes from one dying man to the other to ensure their weapons lay well outside of their reach. Wiping their blood from her fingers and claws, she cocked her head to listen. Only the soft sobbing of the terrified girls, still seated on the car’s bumper, remained once their death throes subsided.
Pawly stuffed the handkerchief back into her pocket and stepped over to the girl nearest her. She drew one claw across the rope binding the first girl’s wrists together, tearing it neatly in two. Likewise, she cut through the cloth holding the gag in the girl’s mouth. After wrapping the teen’s trembling wrist in a piece of the tattered fabric, Pawly gently guided her toward the alley entrance. “No, no. Not yet,” she said in Korean as the girl reached up toward the blindfold tied behind her head. “Can’t risk anyone seeing what I look like if I’m to help more kids like you.”
The girl nodded and said nothing while Pawly removed her companion’s bindings and gags. “You three take one another’s hands and follow me,” she continued in a firm tone and lined the girls up shoulder-to-shoulder next to the alley wall, careful not to let any part of her fur brush against their bare skin. “When I tell you, pull off your blindfolds and run as fast as you can away from the car toward the street. Turn right and go two blocks until you see a big neon cross on the left above a shelter for runaways and battered women. Someone who speaks your language will get you a shower, a hot meal and a place to sleep. You’ll be safe there until the staffers can get you back to your–”
“What the fuck? We had a deal!”
“Yeah, bring back those girls!”
Pawly whirled around and saw another pair of thugs running toward them from up the alley through the fog, each toting a shotgun. She glanced down at her watch and swore. Rival gang’s mooks arriving for their pickup just had to be early, didn’t they?
The men raised their shotguns and took aim at Pawly. She glimpsed her reflection in the car’s rear window and turned back toward the deserted street beyond the alley. Though the fog had grown thicker as the night drew on, it didn’t camouflage the gray-and-white fur covering her face and hands nearly as much as she would have liked. But there was no time left.
“Now run! And don’t look back!”
Pawly turned and broke into a sprint. She leapt for the fire escape an instant before the first shotgun blast. Two more followed, eliciting screams from the teens as they ran. But each pinged harmlessly off metal and brick behind the spot Pawly had occupied an instant before. In three bounds, she was on top of them. She dove for the pavement with arm outstretched to catch one of the thugs in his neck. Gritting her teeth, she rolled through her rough landing and jumped back up to find the man thrashing about on the now-slippery concrete all around him. He grabbed at his neck with both hands to staunch a torrent of blood gushing from where his Adam’s apple had been.
The second man let go of his shotgun and raised his trembling hands in front of him. Pawly closed the distance between them in a heartbeat’s time and kicked the weapon beneath a nearby dumpster. She pursed her lips and fixed him with a searing glare while he dropped to his knees, begging for his life in both Korean and English. “I don’t play around,” she whispered in kind. “Especially not with rats like you.”
Pawly slashed upwards and flipped the man head over heels into the trash cans behind him. With a pained shriek, he clutched his now useless arm to his chest. Blood from gashes cut clean to the bone quickly stained his white shirt red. She stepped calmly over to him and hauled him up by the knot in his tie, bringing his nose to within an inch of her muzzle. A smile spread across her face after glancing down at a dark area growing around the groin of the man’s light-colored khakis.
She snarled and bore her fangs. “You chose to pimp little girls,” she said in even tones, brandishing the claws on her free hand beside his face where she knew he could see them. “Now I’ll choose which part of you to slice off and cram down your…”
Her ears pricked up as she glanced around, trying to pinpoint from where the familiar sound had come. Thirty yards away–no, twenty-five–shit! He’s within range already!
Her brain barely registered the shrill hiss approaching before instinct took over. Pawly dropped to all fours and pulled the man’s body over hers the instant before the fleshy thwack. The man moaned and clutched at the blaze orange fletchings of a tranquilizer dart sticking out of his back, unable to reach them.
The muscles in her neck tensed. She knew the company he kept would have used bullets if he had been their intended target. Someone wanted her. Alive.
She tossed him into the side of a dumpster and ran. After nearly a year, hostiles from Chah Bahar had at last tracked her down. Pawly had dreaded this very moment since stepping aboard the train at Union Station. Would she ever be able to return to Chicago and her family without fearing for their safety? And would she–could she–ever tell Lenny the truth about them? The truth about her?
Catch me if you can, motherfuckers!
She sprang atop a trash compactor after another brightly colored tranquilizer whizzed past her ear. It struck the utility pole behind her as she landed in a wide stance.
The tip of her short tail swished back and forth while she scanned the rooftops. Pawly lunged to her right and glimpsed another dart fly over her shoulder.
She executed a tuck and roll and coiled into a crouch. With a grunt, she jumped for the rungs of the fire escape ladder stowed overhead. It couldn’t end like this. Not before she saw Lenny again. Not before he knew.
One hand over the other, she made her way along, eyes focused on the roofline opposite her. Perhaps her pursuers had done her a favor by tracking her down. She had run to protect her family, run to protect that idiot Lenny from himself. Forcing herself to satiate her bloodlust month in and month out had done little to make her longing for him every moment in between any less unbearable. But now she would fight, fight them head-on. She wouldn’t have to run anymore.
Pawly grinned. With the shooter’s second adjustment of his weapon’s firing pressure, she could now confirm both bearing and range. Only twenty yards away…
She made out a trace of movement in the murky darkness. Though the fog would have surely obscured the shooter’s ducking behind the parapet high above the alley opposite her from a normal human, it was all she needed. By muscle memory developed from years of her mother’s punishing instruction, she swung up onto the landing and launched herself toward the next flight. On the other side of the alley.
Pawly shot out her legs as she drew near the fire escape and pushed off. She flew back in the direction she had jumped from, now two stories higher. Over her shoulder she glimpsed a hooded man stand and take aim. She slapped the bottom of the platform with her hands to thrust herself downward, landing on all fours on the grating below. A dart lodged itself into the wooden window casing above.
Four down. She sniffed at the air, recognizing a familiar stink. Worry. One to go, I’ll bet!
She hopped atop the third story railing with an indulgent chuckle and leapt across the alley. Body tight to the building beneath the shooter’s position, her wannabe captor would have to lean over the edge to sight her in. That would take time, more than she planned to give him. This would end. Now.
Pawly took hold of the railing and twirled her body upward to close the gap between them. The weathered metal creaked in response to her acrobatics before it failed spectacularly with a tinny ping. She cursed and catapulted herself away from the wall with her legs. Forty feet above ground and losing altitude fast. Along with her confidence.
“Everyone around you will die, Pawlina,” boomed Blaznikov’s mocking voice in her mind. It had done so every day since her and Lenny’s detachment was torn to shreds. “Just like when you–”
A sharp pain accompanied the explosion from her memory while the sniper’s dart bored into the base of her neck. Pawly bit her lip to stifle a squeal and reached out toward a downspout an instant too late. She slammed headlong into the brick wall and tumbled like a rag doll to the concrete below. Cats fled in all directions from the stand of trash cans she upended, screeching in anger at having had their late-night snack so rudely interrupted.
With a long groan, she propped herself up to one knee. The damned streetlight at the end of the alley taunted her, spinning no matter how much she squinted.
No! Gotta keep moving! Mom, Tommy…Lenny…
Her arms hung from her torso as if made of lead. Gravity soon won out, and Pawly collapsed into a pile of refuse face first. She turned her head and smirked toward the hissing cat closest to her. “Thorry ta crath yer party, cuth,” she said before passing out.
You can purchase Always Gray in Winter here. Read more about Author Mark Engels below.
Enjoyed this excerpt? Check out what Mark has to say about Finding Your “Why” or read my interview with him, On Fandoms and Storytelling: An Interview with Author Mark Engels.
Meet the Author:
Boyhood interests in trains and electronics fostered Mark’s career as an electrical engineer, designing and commissioning signal and communications systems for railroads and rail transit agencies across the United States. Along the way Mark indulged his writing desire by authoring articles for rail and transit industry trade magazines. Coupled with Mark’s long-time membership in anime, manga and anthropomorphic fandoms, he took up writing genre fiction. Growing up in Michigan, never far from his beloved Great Lakes, Mark and his wife today make their home in Wisconsin with their son and a dog who naps beside him as he writes.
Mark is a member of Allied Authors of Wisconsin, one of the state’s oldest writing collectives. He also belongs to the Furry Writers’ Guild, dedicated to supporting, informing, elevating, and promoting quality anthropomorphic fiction and its creators.
Connect with Mark:
Check out Mark’s website, https://www.mark-engels.com/, for more on his writing, upcoming events, and to subscribe to his email list.
You can also connect with him on your favorite social media platform:
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mark.engels.39
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/mj_engels
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mjengels/
Don’t forget to check out Always Gray in Winter!
“Part covert ops thriller, part werecat sci-fi, part Polish cultural heritage. This indie book is unique and a stellar read!”
— Mica Scotti Kole, book blogger and Free Writing Events organizer
“An intriguing tale of werecats and military operations that balances action with a well-rounded cast of characters. Buy if you like a touch of the paranormal with your military Sci-Fi.”
— Matt Doyle, author of ADDICT and Matt Doyle Media principal
“The most impressive debut novel I can remember! Mark Engels writes with a sure voice that’s witty, poignant, and just plain fun. I love this book!”
— William Allan Webb (member SFWA), author of STANDING THE FINAL WATCH and STANDING IN THE STORM
“ALWAYS GRAY IN WINTER is an action-driven furpunk military thriller with strong characters and great plot twists.”
— M. Crane Hana, author of MORO’S PRICE
“A great debut…something big waiting for Engels in his career.”
— Brett Brooks, author of THE DEVIL WAS GREEN
The modern day remnant of an ancient clan of werecats is torn apart by militaries on three continents vying to exploit their deadly talents. Born in an ethnic Chicago neighborhood following her family’s escape from Cold War-era Poland, were-lynx Pawly flees underground to protect her loved ones after genetically-enhanced soldiers led by rogue scientist and rival werecat Mawro overrun her Navy unit in the Gulf of Oman. Pawly’s family seeks her out in a desperate gambit to return their ancestral homeland and reconcile with their estranged kinsmen. But when her human lover arrives to thwart Mawro’s plan to weaponize their feral bloodlust, Pawly must face a daunting choice: preserve her family secrets and risk her lover’s life or chance her true nature driving him away forever.
Buy it here: