Unsafe Exposure

an excerpt

Chapter 1

You're not here to look at the damned wolves. Dylan hefted the strap of his art bag higher on his shoulder, turning left on the path. Not indulging the dreams or the obsession or... He glanced to his right and was caught by those eyes. Pale, almost-silver eyes, bright as forged steel, cold as river ice, with flecks of gold like a fire shining through behind them. The wolf didn't blink, didn't move, just watched him.

Dylan froze and returned its steady gaze, his fingers itching for his brushes, or at least a pencil. The other red wolves in the zoo enclosure yawned, stretched, and wandered along the fence, waking from their daytime stupor. They were all worth drawing--lanky legs, red-gray fur and sliding muscles, pointed ears and sleepy amber eyes. But he'd resisted, until the big male focused on him. It crouched, a fierce predator behind the wire mesh, head lowered, intent, waiting for him to move and mark himself as friend or prey or foe. He eased down on the bench and slowly reached into his bag for his pencils and pad.

He'd sworn he wasn't going to draw anything realistic today. He needed to shake up his style, get looser, more impressionistic, for the book he'd been commissioned to illustrate. That story was dreamlike and fanciful. His drawings needed to be the same, changing to paler colors, softer lines, fluffy. Flamingoes and lemurs. Not the menagerie of predator and prey--glowing eyes, tight muscle under hide and skin, poised for fight or flight--that he was known for. Obsessed with.

Fairies, he needed to think about fairies. Not wolves.

But even as he reminded himself of his plans, his pencil was flying over the paper. The silver gaze mesmerized him. Maybe this time he'd catch it on paper, that elusive something that made his spine tingle and his heart race in the presence of the big predators. Because no matter how much praise his art got, no matter how his work gained a reputation for unsentimental realism, there was always something missing. In his dreams, wild creatures looked into his eyes and spoke without words. On paper, they stared back at him in silent disapproval. Yes, we're powerful and deadly, caged or free, but you're missing the point.

The wolf rose and turned away. Those light eyes stared out past him into infinity beyond the wire. Dylan was dismissed from its thoughts, beneath its notice. His sketching slowed, and then stopped. He looked down at his work. Just the eyes, over and over, framed in a nebulous halo of gray-ticked fur. Just eyes.

Dylan sighed, and stuffed his pad back into the satchel at his feet. He stood, stretched, and looked around.

It was getting close to closing time at the zoo, and the heavy sky promised rain. Lightning flashed, off in the distance, and the ominous weight of a coming storm hung in the air. The families with small children had gradually disappeared, heading home to dinner, leaving it quieter, near empty. The concession stands had been shuttered, and the smells of hotdogs and cotton candy were dissipating in the growing breeze. Dylan wrinkled his nose.

His sense of smell had always been painfully acute, so he didn't miss the burnt-junk-food miasma. But in its place he began to pick up the animals. He could tell by scent which way led to the bears, the reptiles, the sea lions with their combination of fish and fur. And the wolves. They should've smelled the same as wolves in any other zoo he'd visited, and yet it was clear they didn't--these red wolves were not timber wolves, or Mexican grays--each species had a scent as individual as a fingerprint. He sighed. Sometimes he was so freaky he couldn't stand it.

He rubbed his nose hard and rolled out his neck. He'd been sitting longer than he'd thought and his back twinged from hunching over. Leaving his bag under the bench, he strolled along the enclosure. The wolves were becoming more active as the light faded behind heavy clouds. The smallest female paced along the fence with him, mirroring his movements on the other side of the wire. Then she suddenly alerted, staring past him, her ruff erect and lips curled back.

In the same instant, he caught a flicker of movement, just at the periphery of his vision. It carried a sense of threat, of anger, and he had a flash of some predator, broken loose from its cage. But when he whirled, he was being stalked by predators of a different sort.

There were four of them, teen boys ranging from a wiry kid who was perhaps fourteen to the oldest--a stocky, heavy-muscled, Hispanic guy who might've hit twenty. They didn't dress any differently from the kids his sister brought home on dates. Nothing specific to suggest gangs and violence. But Dylan had seen some rough parts of town, growing up. He knew the difference between wannabe's and serious threats. These kids were serious.

He stopped and stared steadily at them, trying to seem relaxed, confident, and unafraid. An hour ago, there'd have been a dozen witnesses to this encounter. Even now, there should be zoo staff somewhere, cleaning up before closing. But the heavy cloud cover was making the light drop fast. He saw no one else around. The glass-walled building behind the boys was still lit inside, but he couldn't reach it. In the enclosure at his back, one of the wolves growled softly, then another snarled louder, as if they recognized the threat. Dylan kept his focus on the boys, waiting for them to make a move.

"Hey, mutt," the oldest drawled. "What're you doing, coming to our town and not checking in? That's bad manners. What pack are you with?"

Huh? "Look," Dylan said evenly. "I'm just in Chicago visiting. I don't want trouble and I don't have much money."

The second kid, a rangy blond, spat toward his feet. "We don't want your money."

The oldest shot the kid a look, and the blond moved back a half step and ducked his head. The Hispanic boy said, "If you didn't want trouble you should've checked in. Troy doesn't like strays in his territory. Don't they teach manners in your home pack?"

"What?" That made no sense.

"Right." The kid's tone was almost a growl, echoed by snarls from the wolves in the enclosure. The boys began spreading out in a semicircle, cutting off Dylan's exits. "You're going to come with us," the leader said. "You can tell Troy what was so urgent that you didn't pay your respects first, before hanging out at the fucking zoo."

"Look." Dylan backed up a couple of steps. His satchel was under the bench behind the boys, but it had nothing irreplaceable in it, other than a few unfinished sketches. He'd have to leave it. "I think you have me mixed up with someone else."

"Oh, no." The teens stalked toward him with uncanny grace. The Hispanic boy grinned wickedly. "You can come now, or you can make us...insist. We haven't had any real fun for weeks."

Dylan pulled out his phone, fumbling to dial 911 without looking away from the boys. Not that he wanted to talk to cops here in the States, exactly. As a Canadian, he had a nervous respect for American law enforcement. But a siren might make these kids scatter. "I'll call the cops if you don't back off," he said.

"The fuck you will!" The oldest boy sprang toward him, reaching for his phone. Dylan whirled and ran.

There was a narrow space between the wolf cage and a couple of trees. Beyond that, a path led along the bear enclosure. Dylan didn't know if it would dead end, but he had no choice. He sprinted, dodging a grab from the nearest teen as he made it past, ducking behind the trees and across the grass to the pavement.

Behind him, he heard the boys laughing as they gave chase. To his left, the solid wall of the reptile house blocked him. To his right, he spotted the shaggy brown bulk of a bear behind a tall chain-link fence. The enclosure could probably be climbed, but not fast enough, and he wasn't entirely sure it would be better to face the bear. He sprinted on down the path, gaining a little ground as he ran.

Ahead, the trail branched. On the left, a loop circled back into the zoo's maze of enclosures. On the right it ran close to the outer perimeter's iron fence. The thin vertical bars and row of spikes looked tough to climb, but he'd scaled plenty of fences in his teens, and he was sure he could get over it. Beyond the fence was a park, and roads, and the open space of the city. Hopefully his lead was big enough now, and the gang would decide it was too much trouble to follow him.

He shoved his phone into his pocket as he turned right and cut across the grass. With a grunt, he leaped and grabbed the top rail between the spikes. It was high, and the prongs were rough-edged and sharp when he had to grab them, but he scrambled over, ignoring the slicing of his palms. He'd always healed fast, and he had a feeling the boys behind had worse than a few cuts planned for him. Something sharp snagged the back of his shirt as he jumped to the ground. He was jerked backward, then abruptly let go, and he landed awkwardly on hands and knees. Bolting to his feet, he took off across the grass, focused on the sounds behind him.

He thought the chase might be over. The boys snarled loud curses. But then he heard the clang and shudder of the fence as they obviously came over it. Whatever they wanted with him, they were willing to go to a surprising amount of trouble. He sprinted away across an expanse of lawn and along a park-like trail without looking back, using his ears to monitor his pursuers.

At first he ran at three-quarter speed, pacing himself. He'd always been a fast runner. Even as a child, it was the way he worked off his inner demons. Angry? Run. Scared? Run. Too fucking furious to get words out? Run until you can't do anything but gasp each breath.

All that running had made him seriously fit. In middle school, his track coach had suggested a possibility of the Olympics. Dylan wasn't the fastest in a sprint, but given any kind of distance, none of the other boys could stay with him. He was so used to counting on that, it was shock to hear all four of these teens still close on his heels as he reached the tree-lined streets.

He picked up his pace another notch, tearing along the sidewalk beside parked cars. His breath came harder now, as he put everything he had into this mad dash. Another road over, and they were approaching apartment buildings and storefronts. He tried to glance toward the windows as he passed. Surely he could run up to a door, or flag down a car for help. This wasn't the inner city.

But the boys were only a few yards behind. He wasn't sure he could make himself understood to a rescuer, before they'd be on him. And they might be willing to hurt a bystander. The feel of the chase had shifted from an almost cheerful aggression to something deadly serious.

The traffic was sparse, on this darkening weekend evening. A few cars passed in either direction. No one stopped or seemed to notice anything wrong. Dylan wondered what they thought was going on. He was only a few years older than the oldest of his pursuers. Did they look like a team of athletes, out for a training run? Was his fear not visible?

He'd never run this far, this fast. The pounding of his feet on the sidewalk was almost hypnotic. He wished he knew the area. The longer the chase went on, the more he worried about its ending. What if he got trapped in a dead end? Somehow, he didn't think he'd wind up having a nice conversation with some unknown new running buddies. He dug out another spurt of speed, and gained a few more yards, before the boys kicked it up as well to stick with him.

Then a car pulled up alongside him. The passenger window rolled down. "Get in. Quickly!" a male voice said. Dylan spared a sideways glance. The driver was barely visible at this angle, just a man in a sweatshirt, keeping his car paced to Dylan's hard run.

Dylan thought about it for a second. Behind him he heard the boys curse and try to speed up. That decided him. If they didn't want him to get into that car, it was probably a good place to be. He dodged into the street.

The driver skillfully held his speed steady while Dylan reached over and yanked open the door. For a moment Dylan panicked, as the tug of the door handle pulled him off-balance. He almost stumbled. Then the car slowed just a fraction, and he was able to reach the grab bar above the door and swing himself in. It took a nerve-wracking lean, reaching out over rushing pavement to grab the inside handle, but he managed to swing the door shut. With a satisfying rumble of power, the car sped up, leaving the four boys behind.

Dylan sat back in his seat and sucked air through his open mouth. He was more winded than he'd ever been in his life. He closed his eyes, feeling the rush of adrenaline still driving his heart. His muscles twitched uncontrollably. It took a couple of minutes for his shaking to ease, then he turned to look over at his rescuer.

The guy appeared to be a few years older than him. Late twenties, maybe. He was a tall, wiry man, with red-blond hair and fair, freckled skin. His face was narrow, with hollow cheeks and a strong nose that'd probably seemed oversized when he was a kid. His eyes were shadowed, a light color behind tinted, wire-rimmed glasses.

"So," the man said. "What did you do to get on the wrong side of those guys?"

"I don't know! I think they...confused me with...someone else." He took a couple of deeper breaths, until the words came more easily. "They kept asking what gang I was with. I don't even live here. I'm just visiting."

"But you did check in?" the driver said. "With Rick Brown, at least?"

Dylan stared at him. More gibberish? "The only place I checked in was a motel. What is it with Chicago? Do tourists have to register with the local Mafia?"

The man shook his head slowly. "Don't you require visitors to your home town to check in with the pack?"

"I don't know any freaking pack," Dylan said. "Or gang or tong or whatever. Hell, I wasn't even in the Boy Scouts. Is this a US thing? Post 9-11? Because I'm from Montreal, and where I come from, tourists are allowed to go to the freaking zoo without asking permission first."

The driver was silent a long time. Finally he said, "You really don't know why those boys were chasing you?"

"I really don't," Dylan snapped.

"That's not good."

"Hopefully it won't matter," Dylan said. "I'm not going to call the cops. I doubt I'd recognize them in mug shots. And there's no reason I should see them again. I'm only here for a week."

The other man nodded slowly, as if doubtful. But then he shook off the mood, and gave Dylan a friendly smile. "So, is there somewhere I can take you? I'm Alex, by the way."

"Dylan." He thought about it. "You could just drop me somewhere I can catch the El-train. I'm staying all the way up in Evanston. I rode the transit down here."

"Evanston's fine for me," Alex said. "I'm working at Northwestern so I'm staying up there myself."

"Really?" Dylan turned to look at the man with new interest. "My little sister's starting at Northwestern as an undergraduate."

Alex said, "I'm actually from Seattle, at the U. Dub. medical school, but I'm here to help with a new cancer drug trial. Luckily, they decided to consult a statistician before starting. We're almost done with improving the design, and it'll be a lot more robust."

"Um, I guess that's good," Dylan said.

Alex laughed. He had a great laugh, warm and open even though he was laughing at himself. "Yeah, I guess that was a little obscure. What do you do, Dylan?"

"I'm an artist. Mostly book illustrations, but my wildlife paintings and line drawings are starting to sell too." He paused. "Shit."


"I left my bag at the zoo, when those kids started chasing me. I forgot it has a bunch my good pens in there. Fuck!"

"Valuable stuff?"

"Yeah. I wasn't worried about a pad and a few pencils, but those pens cost a couple hundred dollars." He looked at his watch. "They'll be closed now. I'll have to go get it tomorrow. Hopefully it'll still be under the bench, or turned in to Lost and Found."

Alex sounded startled. "You're going back there?"

"Why not?" He looked at Alex sharply. "You can't think those guys'll come after me again?"


That was a very noncommittal sound. "I can't imagine young punks like that would hang around the zoo. Surely they'll go mug people somewhere else tomorrow?"

"Maybe. I wouldn't bet on it though. Kids like that, they often have preferred territory, you know?"

"Yeah, but the zoo? Now a skate park or a shopping mall..." Dylan trailed off, as Alex continued to look concerned. "You're really worried about them?"

"Is there anything in that bag that can identify you? Does it have your address?"

"Well, my home address and my name," Dylan said. "Not my motel or anything. My cell number..." He reached for his pocket. "Double shit!"

Alex cocked an eyebrow.

"I lost my phone. Damn it!" He patted all his pockets, just in case, and slid forward in his seat to stick his hand into each of them, but no fucking luck. At least it was just a prepaid with about twenty bucks left on it. "It must've fallen out."

"Any chance the guys will find it?" Alex said. "Can they look at your call log and find your motel or your sister?"

"My sister?" Dylan frowned. "Why would they care about Frankie? What the hell's going on?"

Alex shifted uncomfortably. "I'm not sure. I just...they seemed really determined to catch you."

Dylan nodded. "I thought the fence would stop them, but they came right over it." He glanced at his palms, slowly bleeding onto the knees of his jeans. "Those spikes were nasty. You wouldn't think it'd be worth tearing up their own clothes to steal the twenty-five bucks I have on me."

"I doubt it was the money." Alex appeared to notice Dylan's hands for the first time. "Are those hands as beat up as they...look?"

"They're fine." Dylan would have tucked them under his arms to hide them, but that would've ruined his shirt too. He hadn't brought that many clothes.

"Do you have a first aid kit in your motel?" Alex asked. "Or I could take you to a drugstore?"

Dylan shrugged. "Don't want to be that much bother."

"It's not a bother." Alex nodded at the glove compartment. "There's a towel in there. Wrap it around those cuts before you totally ruin your jeans."

Dylan fumbled the compartment open and pulled out a small blue towel, marked with a couple of dry beige stains. "This?"

"It's clean enough. That's just coffee."

"Ah." He awkwardly wound an end around each hand and clamped down, trying to staunch the flow. "I probably got blood on your car." He looked sideways. Yep. The doorframe and handle. "Sorry. I promise, no infectious diseases."

"Of course not," Alex said absently. "Listen, why don't we stop off at my place? I have first aid stuff there. Let me wrap those hands for you, before I take you back to the motel. That way you don't have to bleed all over a Walgreens."

Dylan was going to protest, but he held the words back. There was something off here, something odd about Alex's original intensity and now his bland casualness. He clearly knew, or guessed, more about the boys than he was sharing. Dylan flicked another look his way, but Alex just stared ahead calmly, as if Dylan's answer didn't matter.

Dylan wished his clothes didn't still hold the smell of the wolves and the zoo. That predator scent was setting his teeth on edge. He had a second's worry that this might be a setup. What if the boys' real intention had been to drive him to the road for Alex to pick him up? But he didn't believe it. Their rage at his escape had sounded too real, and Alex's worry about the cell phone too believable, to make that theory work.

Remembering the cell phone thing made up his mind. If there was any chance that Frankie might get involved, he was going to stick to Alex like glue until he found out what the hell was going on. Alex wasn't much bigger than him, and a childhood on tough streets had taught Dylan how to fight. He would let himself be half kidnapped, for now.

Glancing at Alex sideways, he tried to imagine what the guy might want from him. Not money, he didn't think. Those were perfectly fitting and pricey brand-name jeans, and although the sweatshirt was old, the car was luxurious and new. Dylan had no rich family behind him, no big bank account for a ransom. As for...other forms of payment for a ride, Dylan just couldn't tell.

His intuition was for shit tonight. Usually he got something, a vibe, almost a smell of intent from guys, but Alex gave him nothing. He seemed like a helpful, nice-looking, ordinary man--he might be a gay rapist or a straight axe murderer or a delusional alien, and Dylan had no clue. Odds were against all of those, though. He'd go with the odds. For now.

"Thank you," he said. "I'd appreciate it."

"No problem. I was expecting a boring evening with my beer and seventy-two channels of nothing worth watching. You'll be a change of pace."

"Well, you're totally making me think better of Chicago. Except you're not from Chicago. Where'd you say was home?"

"Seattle. Washington."

"Pretty part of the country."

"Yeah. It is. Very."

Dylan picked up a deep thread of longing behind the words, surprisingly intense. No doubt even a young rich guy could get homesick. How that fit with recognizing a pack of violent local teens was anyone's guess. He didn't comment, just settled himself in the seat, tried not to speculate ahead of his facts, and watched unfamiliar scenery go by.