(Posted for my short story archive. Previously posted in parts, now presented in full)
Ryan blinked as a woman strode by in a washed-thin black tank top, battered jeans, and laceless sneakers. Around her neck, she wore a thick chain, with a bell dangling from it, which chimed gently.
“Don’t stare at her,” Larry dug his elbow into Ryan’s side. “She’s a Bell.”
“Bell?” Ryan asked.
“A gang of werecats. Tigers, panthers, leopards… She’s a serval, smaller than most of them–but she’s mean. Really mean.”
Ryan watched out of the corner of his eye as the woman strode over to a table of people, all with bells gleaming on their chests. She shoved a man out of a seat and took it for herself. The man, who had at least six inches of height and forty pounds of muscle on her, meekly wedged himself onto the edge of the bench.
The woman leaned forward, her short cap of dark hair gleaming in the light. Her hands flashed in emphasis as she spoke, though her voice never rose above a murmur.
A blonde woman sitting across from the brunette shook her head, and slammed her hand on the table.
In a flash, the first woman pulled a knife and drove it though the blonde’s hand, pinning it to the table. No one reacted to the violence, continuing the conversation for a few more moments. Then several of them produced pieces of black cloth and tied them around the bells. The woman with the knife through her hand pulled it free, and tied a cloth around her bell, ignoring the blood welling up from the wound.
Single file, they strode out of the bar, silenced bells swinging darkly as they went. The door swung shut behind them, and the hushed crowd slowly started talking again.
“They’re going to kill someone,” Larry whispered. “We’d better stay put for a while.”
* * *
Outside the bar, six people strode down the sidewalk, all wearing bells wrapped in black cloth. The silenced bells swung as they walked at a fast, ground-eating pace. They all bore set, determined expressions, except for one of the women. A pretty blonde with her hair cut short in a wispy style that flattered her face, sadness and anger in her red-rimmed eyes and tightly clenched fists. One of her hands was smudged with blood.
The dark haired woman who had stabbed a knife through that hand prowled in front. She smiled as she ran her fingers across another, larger knife in her pants pocket. Though the smallest of the group, she carried herself with the assurance of a venomous snake, and the others gave her a careful margin of personal space.
After several minutes, they arrived at their destination, a small house wedged between two larger houses. All of the buildings on the street stood a little worn around the edges, with peeling paint, garden beds running to weeds and dying grass, and cracks spreading across sidewalks.
One of the men knocked at the door, several hard raps, and after a moment, another man opened it. A bell hung around his neck, too. His eyes traveled from one unfriendly face to another, lingering on the woman with the injured hand for a few extra heartbeats, his expression never showing surprise, only resignation.
“Did you think you would get away with it, Max?” The dark haired woman asked, tense with excitement, both hands in her pockets and clutching a knife.
It was possible to leave the Bells alive. A were had to petition the leader, and compensate for their future loss by doing the leader three favors, paying triple the tithe while they did so. In truth, this was a punishment, the favors always tasks no one else would want to do, and when they were finished, they had to fight another Were to prove they still had honor. For the Bells, that was knife-wielding Ana, who put every one of her opponents in the hospital.
So Max had found a new job and a new place in another city, and bought a plane ticket under an assumed name, precautions that hadn’t kept him from discovery.
He stepped down from his house, closing the door behind him, but not bothering to lock it. All his belongings would be sold, and someone would use his ticket, and spread a story about how he had left.
No one would find his body.
The Bells parted around him, forming a circle as they walked. Max felt Ana’s eyes on his back as they rounded a corner and approached a vacant lot, full of trash and scrubby weeds. Somewhere in the darkness where the street lights didn’t reach, the knives would finally come out.