Wolfsbane and Mistletoe

Chapter Five

The Night Things Changed

Dana Cameron

A professional archaeologist specializing in colonial New England, Dana Cameron is also the author of the Emma Fielding archaeology mysteries. The sixth book, Ashes and Bones, won the 2007 Anthony for Best Paperback Original. Her short story "The Lords of Misrule," featuring eighteenth-century London sleuth Margaret Chase, was also nominated for an Anthony for Best Short Story. Having once upon a time lived in Salem, Massachusetts (the setting of this story), she now lives in nearby Beverly with her husband and a demanding cat. You can learn more about Dana's work at her website, www.danacameron.com.

I pounded up the stairs to the roof and slammed open the door; the wintry air lashed my face. My sister the vampire was stretched out on her stomach, nearly naked, under the pale December sun.

She wasn't moving. I knew from her phone call the news was bad, but . . .

"Claudia?" I swallowed; my mouth was dry. "Claud?"

She stirred and opened her eyes blearily. Her face was drawn, she moved stiffly. Claudia relaxed when she saw it was me, fastened the bikini top behind her neck, then sat up.

I turned away, blushing. "Aw, jeez, Claud. Do you have to?"

"What? I'm covered. Gerry, take a pill. No one can see me up here. We picked the place for that very reason."

She was right; evergreen shrubs and dead, leafy vines - a forest of green in the summer - sheltered her place from every side, leaving the roof open to the sky. Despite the crust of snow on the ground, she wasn't even shivering.

It was such a small bikini, though. I kept quiet: she'd think I was being a prude.

"I don't even need to wear a bathing suit when I'm alone," she said, reading my face.

"Yeah, you do, as long as I'm your brother." I am a prude; sue me. No guy likes to think about his sister being ogled, especially not when she looked good enough to model that bikini. And I wished she'd cut her long dark hair. It was just too dangerous in a fight.

I changed the topic. "I got your message. I was worried."

She nodded; her shoulders sagging. "A bad one, this morning. It means work for us."

Things had been so quiet lately, it had to happen. "Tell me."

"It was in the emergency room." Claudia "happens" to go through the emergency room a lot, trolling for trouble. "This guy was in for sutures, a cut on his arm he said he got slipping on ice. He was giving Eileen a hard time, and I got a whiff of him. I asked her to send him to me for 'post-trauma assessment.'"

Claudia glanced at me; there were dark smudges under her eyes. She looked beat. "He barged into my office, got angry when I told him he had to wait his turn. Very aggressive, all id, defensive as Hell. Maybe there's a hurt little kid somewhere under all that armor, but he's being led by a really thuggish protector-self."

I hate when she talks like a shrink, but it's how she gets things straight in her own head. "Was he big?"

She nodded. "And he uses it. He doesn't mind threatening people, liked the idea he was scaring me. And then . . . when I stood up to him, he took a swing at me."

I nodded, bristling. She was obviously okay, but I hated hearing this kind of stuff. It was part of our job, and I knew Claudia could take care of herself, but it still chafed. Call me overprotective. "And?"

"He missed. That made him crazy. He tried again." She shrugged. "And then I bit him."

I nodded again; it didn't make me feel much better. If biting had cured the guy, she wouldn't have called me, just saved it for the next time we got together for dinner. "Anyone see you?"

"The door was shut. He knocked me down, then ran out of the office." She paused. "He's a really bad one - "

"We'll get him. We always get the bad guys," I said, confident.

She shook her head. "There was something weirdly, profoundly, wrong about him."

"You're just tired. We always - "

"No, Gerry!" Her sharp tone startled me. "This is different. His reaction . . . I can't get the taste out of my mouth. It's like . . . I could work on him for a year, and still not get anywhere."

Her eyes filled up, and I knew that she'd been thrown for a loop. Professionally and personally, Claudia is a proud person.

"Scootch over," I said. I didn't say any more, just sat down on the lounge and put my arm around her. I resisted the urge to take off my jacket and put it over her shoulders, because the sun was the best thing for a vampire in need of healing, even the weak sun of a Massachusetts midwinter. And besides, I needed my coat myself. I always seem to feel the cold.

Prudish. Overprotective. Chilly. In a lot of ways, we werewolves are just big pussies.

After getting Claudia's promise that she'd take it easy, I took the copy of the file she had and visited the address of "J. Smith."

J. Smith? Proof once again that evil is not creative.

I didn't need to get out of the pickup, but I did. As I figured, the place - a double-decker - was abandoned, my footprints the first breaking the new fall of snow surrounding it. As I nosed around, I picked up lots of strong residual scents, most of them unhappy: drugs and sex, pain and fear. There was something in the background, an ugly smell that made my skin crawl; I didn't know if our guy had been there, but the recognizable odor of Evil called me to Change . . .

Not here, not now. Save it for tonight, when you might be able to do something about it . . .

I reluctantly followed my tracks back to my truck and decided to pick up the trail at the hospital. Construction and early holiday mall shoppers had turned Route 128 into a slushy parking lot, but the F150 handled well with her new snow tires. I tuned the radio to the Leftover Lunch on WFNX and crept toward Union Hospital in Lynn.

I like being a werewolf for the same reasons I liked being a cop. Sure, it's a lonely job and I see life's tragedies, but then I fix them. I help people, I make the world a better place, and I'm good at it. I like being one of the good guys. I get a sense of satisfaction I bet your average CPA never gets. Or maybe they do; what do I know? I'm just Gerry Steuben, regular guy, North Shore born and bred, with a CJ degree from Salem State, recently early-retired from the Salem PD. My tax forms say I'm a PI now, but I don't do domestics, insurance fraud, or repo. I'll go to the end of the earth to find lost kids, though, and never charge a cent. But I mostly stick to the family business, which is eradicating evil from the world.

Sounds like I'm full of myself, doesn't it? Not if you know the truth about my type. Our type. The Fangborn, Pandora's Orphans, the ones the ancients called "Hope," supposedly trapped at the bottom of the box. But according to our legends, the First Fangborn got out, and it's a good thing they did, too, for when evil was released into the world, so was the means of destroying it. Vampires and werewolves, the first to clean the blood and ease the pain, the second to remove irredeemable evil when we find it. Our instincts are infallible, our senses attuned to evil. True evil - not the idiot who cuts you off in traffic or steals your newspaper - exists, and we're here to fight it. We're the ones evil can't touch, the superheroes you never see, if we do our jobs right. I believe that to the core of my soul, and it's the best feeling in the world.

Imagine the world today if we didn't put the brakes on evil. Funny, since the Fangborn have always been depicted as the most depraved killers in every mythology. My kind aren't the most fertile in the world - there are less than one thousand of us in the United States - and when you normals turned from hunting to agriculture, you started popping out kids like it was going out of style. But we're the children of Hope, so we do what we can, and every bit helps.

As for those myths: It's not the turn of the moon but the call of evil that makes us Change, though I can manage it if I'm pissed off enough. I don't have hair on the palms of my hands, though for a while when I turned thirteen, I was afraid of that happening for other reasons. Claudia says I obsess about anyone touching my stuff, but can you name one guy who isn't territorial? When we order pizza, Claudia always asks for roasted garlic. She relies on the mirror by her front door to remind her to dress like other people when it's cold. She also claims she's allergic to silver, but that's because she thinks it looks tacky against her skin.

In reality, we're big on family and secrecy. Me and Claud live in Salem because eastern Massachusetts was where our family was needed, back in the day. Grandpa had a sense of humor about it: "Ven ve move from de old country, I tink, 'Here, dey like tings dat go bump in de night, so ve vill giff dem bumps in de night!'" he'd cackle. I miss the old guy like crazy, but our presence has nothing to do with the witchcraft trials; it was just easier to hide a bunch of Germans with funny habits among the Polish and Russian immigrants in nineteenth-century Salem. Protective coloring is all-important. Around here, not only do you have tales of witchcraft, but there are rumors of a sea monster (a nineteenth-century gimmick concocted by ferry owners and innkeepers), pirate treasures, and haunted houses. What's the occasional sighting of a big dog by moonlight against all that?

The traffic finally nudged its way to my exit and I pulled into the hospital parking lot. Many Fangborn are nurses, doctors, shrinks, cops, even clergy. Any job that gets us close to the public, the people who need protection, is a good job for us.

I didn't even have to roll down the window. The stench hit me from outside the cab of the truck. It was all I could do to keep my hands from turning to claws on the wheel and my human brain focused on parking. I killed the engine as soon as I could, clutching the Saint Christopher medal that's been on my neck since my first Communion. I don't care whether he's a saint; I'm not that religious. My mother gave it to me, and it helps to have something to focus on when resisting the Change. Claudia was right: this guy was a bad one. Smith had escaped her - which was saying something - and then left a trail that a normal could follow, if he'd understood why he was suddenly feeling queasy and irritable. There wasn't a sound of bird or beast anywhere nearby, not even a seagull.

True evil has the smell of rotting meat, sewer filth, sickrooms. Add the feeling you get when you realize something life-alteringly bad is happening, something you can't do anything about, and you'll get close to what I felt. But my senses are a hundred times sharper than yours.

The good thing is that smell brings on the Change and that brings power.

I opened the door cautiously. The wind shifted and I found I could manage without going furry, so I visited the ER. The nurses told me the doc who'd treated "J. Smith" was gone.

I thanked them, then tried Claudia's office. The scent was stronger here, possibly because of his attack on Claudia, but there was something else I couldn't place: it set my teeth on edge. The assistant Claudia shared with the other shrinks told me I'd just missed my sister, that she'd been really shook up by a patient. I feigned surprise - Claudia could get into a lot of trouble for talking about the case with me, much less giving me the file - and said I'd check on her.

I tracked the scent back to the parking lot, where the guys at the valet stand said that a guy had caught a cab dropping someone off, a local company.

Just then Eileen came out, a tart little nurse who'd always had a cup of coffee and a kind word for me when I'd been on the force. Claudia'd said she was the nurse handling Smith's case. We exchanged hellos.

"You heard about Claudia?"

"Yeah." I exhaled, whistling.

"She's okay. Guy was a bruiser. Came in to get stitched up, said it was a slip, but I know a bottle-slash when I see one. Street fight, probably."

I nodded.

"Claudia gave me the high sign, so I sent him along to her. A post-trauma chat, I told him. Oh!" Eileen said, remembering. "It gets better. Weems brought him in. Said he found him in the middle of the street, and hauled him in to get him patched up. Too bad you missed him, you guys could have caught up on old times." She grinned a mean grin; everyone knew Weems and I hated each other.

"My bad luck," I said. I stuck my hands in my pockets. "Apart from this guy, you been busy?"

She shook her head. "Not the past two days. Not even a bumsicle." She glanced at the steely sky. "That'll change. Snow tonight."

I nodded; I could smell that, too. We both knew that between the cold, the holidays, and the law of averages, soon enough there'd be accidents, drunk drivers, domestic disputes, and the homeless who'd freeze to death. The usual.

"Well, the kids will like it." She zipped herself up. "They're out of school after today. Jumping out of their little skins already, the little monsters."

"Oh, come on," I said. "Kids should be excited about Christmas." I like Christmas. I like the effort people make. I like presents. I like the hope. Like I said, we Fangborn are all about Hope.

"Yeah, I guess." Eileen looked uneasy, though. "I've got this feeling, Gerry. Everyone's on edge. Maybe it's the low pressure or the full moon, but there's something up. Watch yourself out there."

The ER was always hopping during the full moon. My people aren't the only ones who feel its power.

"I will, thanks. And you take care. Keep up with the patch."

Eileen was startled. "How did you - ?"

I grinned. "You've been out here for five minutes and didn't light up." I didn't tell her I could smell the difference in her clothing, see the slight weight gain, feel her nerves humming with the strain of not reaching for that crumpled box of relief . . .

We wished each other Merry Christmas and I left. The trail from the taxi was blasted by the mall traffic and the nearby landfill, so I headed to Ziggy's Donuts in Salem, where the cabbies hung out. It didn't hurt that Annie worked there, a girl I'd been kinda hung up on for a while.

I ordered a jelly-filled because Annie was on the counter. I had been trying to get up my nerve to ask her out on a date. It was one of my New Year's resolutions - from this year. But we chatted while she got my donut, and I didn't say anything dumb, so I counted it a success. Maybe even a sign. I found a seat before I did something impetuous and stupid. I'd have to soon: time was almost running out on my resolution, and I keep my promises.

It's hard, when you're a guy, to ask out a cute girl. I'm okay, I'm not hideous, though personally I think I look better as a wolf. I built my own house when our folks died, I have a decent income and a boat that's paid for, and my place is spotless because I don't like surprises.

But it's even harder, when you're Fangborn, to ask a normal out. The two species can mate, though most of us Fangborn prefer to keep to our own kind. A mixed mating has a lower chance of producing a were or vamp than two Fangborn, but that's pretty low odds, too; how my parents lucked out and got two, one of each, I don't know. As far as I understand, it's all about recessive genes, but it doesn't make the initial discussion any easier. "Hey, sweetie? When I said my family was strange, I didn't mean regular, dysfunctional-strange . . ."

My cabbie came in then, sweating profusely, probably thinking he was coming down with the flu; I could smell Smith on him, even though they'd probably only brushed fingers when Smith paid. I waited until the cabbie ordered his coffee - even Annie's smile didn't help him - and then I approached him. He wasn't supposed to tell me where he took his fare, but I slid a twenty across the table and got the address of a no-tell motel on the edge of town. Then I asked to check his cab, to see whether Smith had dropped anything, I said.

"Help yourself," he said, shivering around his coffee cup. "It's open."

I was feeling pleased with myself when Weems pulled up alongside me in the parking lot. As he locked up the cruiser, he didn't speak, but gave me a nod along with the hairy eyeball. I nodded back, and kept moving.

We had never liked each other, and now he harbors the deep suspicion most cops have for PIs. He's always made my hackles rise. I couldn't put my finger on the reason, so I did the best I could to avoid him.

Annie knew him, too. Well enough to know that she could look forward to a full six-percent tip.

I waited until Weems was tearing into his bear claw, then opened the door to the cab -

. . . the screech of brakes before a crash . . . a phone ringing at 3:30 in the morning . . . the gush of blood from a wound that is deeper than you thought . . .

I could barely keep myself standing. I slammed the door, and stumbled back to my truck, not even waiting to calm myself before I fled into the traffic and away from that cab.

"What's next?" Claudia said, when I returned to her condo two hours later. She looked a little better and was now dressed in shorts and a T-shirt that said, I ? SPIKE. She was barefoot, making us coffee. I still felt sick and I was freezing just looking at her. Her place is all white wood and glass and bare surfaces, which she calls "clean lines." The Christmas tree and lights looked out of place there, but I was glad of them.

I tried to get myself together. "After I left Ziggy's, I checked the motel. He paid cash, left no forwarding address. No luck at the other fleabags, either. I cast around for a while, but he wasn't doing any walking and I couldn't get anything from car tracks." I didn't tell her I'd driven halfway to New Hampshire before I'd gotten hold of myself, and used my work to keep from spinning into another panic. I wrapped my arms around myself, trying to feel less hollow, trying not to puke watching the cream swirl around the top of the coffee.

She saw me hesitate. "Gerry, what's wrong? You look like seven kinds of Hell."

I pushed the coffee away from me. "Every time I've caught a noseful of Smith, it's almost knocked me off my feet. You were right, he's bad."

"Yeah, bad. But why did I take so long to bounce back after I saw him? And you, you're always psyched up, all bloodlusty and rarin' to go, when you find a bad guy. What's different about Smith?"

"I dunno." I shrunk down into myself, not wanting to talk.

"That's not helpful." She went into psychiatrist mode. "Okay, you can't say what's wrong with Smith. What do you feel?"

"Claudia - "

"Humor me."

I shivered. She was right, but I really didn't want to discuss it. "Every time I think about Smith, I get sick, I feel confused. It's like the world's upside down, like I'm chasing my own tail - "

I shoved the chair back and bolted for the sink. I made it, just before the donut made a repeat appearance, and turned on the tap while I retched. Much as I wanted it to, the sound of running water didn't block out Claudia's exclamation.

"Oh, my God, Gerry. He's one of us."

"He can't be." I wiped off my mouth and turned to her.

"That's got to be it. It explains so much - our reactions, his, the way he went berserk in the office - "

"He's just a psycho," I said. But I knew she was right.

"No, Gerry." She took a deep breath. "He's evil. And he's one of us!"

"There's no such thing as an evil Fangborn, Claudia," I said. "Not in all our history."

"Maybe not in our history, but what about our future? I've got to check in with the family, let them know what's going on. Maybe the oracles will have something for us. This is amazing - "

A sudden, childish urge hit me. "Claud, don't."

"Don't tell the family?"

I nodded. I just didn't want any of this to be true.

"Gotta do it, Gerry. We can't let Smith get away, and if he's what we think he is, they all need to know. This is big."

I shrugged miserably.

She put her hand on my shoulder. "It's scary, yes, the idea of evil appearing in our form, with our powers. It's also a tremendous revelation. Gerry, it can tell us a lot about who we are, maybe more than the geneticists or the oracles can, and it can tell us about the nature of evil. It may even foretell the final battle against evil, Gerry. The one where we win. Who wouldn't want to be present for that?" Her eyes were alight and her fangs peeked out with her excitement.

I hated her for being excited, but at least that helped shake off the overwhelming emptiness I felt. Time to man up, Gerry. We're still the good guys -

It's just that the bad guys had never looked like us before.

I nodded. "Okay, you contact the family, and I'll hit the Internet. Smith's out there, and until we get a clue or a scent, we're just gonna have to wait."

We exchanged a look. Sensing the presence of evil is one thing. Being able to find it before it acts is quite another. And the idea of evil in the form of a Fangborn was just plain terrifying.

I went home, and no sooner opened the door than I was attacked by a mass of muscle and fur.

"Beemer, get off!" I peeled the big, brown-striped tom off my shoulder and dumped him on the couch. As a kitten, Beemer jumping from the staircase railing onto me was impressive and cute as Hell. Now that he was in the fifteen-pound class, it was less amusing. To me, anyway. Beemer still thought it was a riot. But even he couldn't cheer me up tonight.

As I heated a shepherd's pie I got over at Henry's Market, I listened to the police scanner, but didn't hear anything that would help. As Beemer washed himself on the leather couch next to me, I drank too much and flipped around the TV - a beaut, 40' plasma, with controls to put the Enterprise to shame - but there was nothing to keep my attention. Ditto the Internet and the new issue of Maxim. If you wanted proof that my kind are born, not made, just do the math: if we could turn normals, not a single lingerie model would be left unbitten. Trust me.

Frustrated in every sense of the word, I didn't drift off until just before the alarm rang.

Groaning, I got up, dumped kibble into Beemer's bowl, and hit the bricks, not because I had a lead, but because I had a headache worse than any hangover. The memory of evil left unchecked is one of the downsides of the job, and I didn't even want to think about what Smith meant.

I walked by Ziggy's, but Annie wasn't working. The day outside matched my insides: granite gray, cold, depressing. Even the telephone poles were decorated to suit my mood: the neighborhood was papered with missing pet flyers. I knew how I'd feel if Beemer ever went missing: it'd be a crappy Christmas for the kids worrying about Kitty-Cakes or Bongo or Maxie . . .

Focus on the job, Gerry. Keep it together.

Down by the Willows, I caught a faint scent. The Salem Willows is an amusement park, very small and dated. It's mostly Whack-a-Mole and fried dough stands and rackety rides during the summer. In the winter, it's a wasteland, boarded up and abandoned.

It wasn't abandoned now: Salem PD, state police, and the ME vans were there. My vision and hearing sharpened, and my olfactory nerves went crazy. Smith had been here, not long ago.

Weems was also there. This time, he came right over to me.

"Steuben. Been seeing a lot of you lately." He only reaches my chin, and he's kinda pudgy, so short-man syndrome never helped things between us.

That's why werewolves and vamps have such crappy reputations. The local authorities always notice us sniffing around crime scenes and figure we're the bad guys.

I sipped my coffee. "Been seeing a lot of you, too, Weems. Funny, huh?"

"I ain't laughing." He crossed his arms. "What're you doing here?"

"I'm looking for the guy at the hospital who knocked my sister around."

His face softened, just a little. "Your sister, she's okay."

Suggesting I was not. "C'mon, Weems. I'm trying to catch an asshole here."

"And what're we doing?" For an instant, I thought he'd either hit me or have a heart attack. He balled up his fists and turned a shade of red that would have made Santa's tailors envious.

"You know what I mean." I tried to look desperate, no stretch, under the circumstances. "Man, come on. It's Claudia."

The stories would have you believe that vampires are incredibly alluring. It's true, they produce a pheromone that seems to make people around them comfortable, which helps vamps in their healing work. Add a good dose of empathy, and yes, vampires hold a definite attraction for normals, who think of it as sexual.

Something about Claudia had long ago hit Weems hard, right between the eyes. She'd hate me throwing her under the bus like that, but if it got me past his defensiveness . . .

I could see that Weems was torn, but he wasn't going to pass up anything that made him look good in front of Claudia. "We got one vic, and it's a wet one. Or it was, a couple of days ago: it's pretty dried up now." Weems looked greenish; he never could stand the sight of blood. "Chest sliced open . . . and the heart removed."

"Jesus." I swallowed. "Got an ID?"

"Homeless guy. My guess, he was either flopping in the shed over there, or he was lured in."

"You said sliced open?"

"You're a ghoul, Steuben." He sighed. "ME says a big knife, it looks like. They need more tests."

I nodded. If there was one thing we could agree on, it was the reluctance of the ME to spill details.

He hesitated. "The chest was opened up like . . . ah, jeez. It reminded me of one of those Advent calendars. The skin pulled back square, and the ribs broken to get the heart out."

Maybe he didn't like me seeing him queasy, maybe he just regretted telling me as much as he did, but Weems's face hardened. "Get lost, Steuben. I find you nosing around, you'll be sorry."

"Merry Christmas to you, too, Weems." I left.

"They found a body," I said, after I let myself into Claudia's condo.

Claudia was excited. "Yeah, I know, I just heard it on the news."

It was her day off and while Claud was waiting to hear something solid back from the family - who were going crazy over the news - she was trying to work out a profile for Smith. Maybe she was doing rote work for the same reason I was: to keep from thinking about our world being turned inside out. I still felt like I had the pins knocked out from under me and I hated that uncertainty.

"Down the Willows?" I said, surprised. That was quick.

"No, pulled from the harbor." She frowned. "The woman had been in there about a week. They said 'mutilated,' which usually means something worse."

"So was mine." I told her what I'd just learned from Weems. "They know who she was?"

"A local prostitute, was all they said."

"There's a chance it's not the same guy, not our guy - " I said.

"I'm not willing to bet on that."

"Me, neither."

"He's selecting people on the periphery of society," she said. "Going for those who live under the radar."

I considered where the trail had led me: the abandoned drug den, the dry spell in the emergency room, and - oh, Hell. Three missing cats in one neighborhood was just too much coincidence. I told Claudia. "I guess he's been doing this for a while."

She nodded. "And is escalating. He's refining his ritual, getting bolder, going for less vulnerable, more public targets. It's typical that he started with animals." The look on her face didn't bode well for Smith when we caught him. "Gerry, it's only going to get worse from here. I'm guessing that he's attributing some special significance to the date - the full moon, Christmas . . ."

Suddenly, I knew. "It is Christmas," I said. I told her Weems's description of the corpse, what he'd said about Advent calendars. "Doesn't that sound like what you're talking about? Little, uh, treats leading up to the big day?"

She nodded. "Right. Christmas. Good eyes on Weems."

I snorted. "He's my hero." But Christmas was just two days away. "My question is, Why did Smith have to call a cab?"

"He didn't have a car," she answered promptly. "Weems brought him in, right?"

I made a face at her. "But if Smith is responsible for the murders, he must have a car."

"He can't afford to let it go out in public. Too many people could see . . . what?"

"Bloodstains? Cracked window?"

"Too recognizable," she said. "A truck with a business logo on it, contractors, deliveries - "

"Right, it's got to blend in, but not the sort of thing you'd drive for private stuff." I thought a minute, then an idea hit me. "Like a police car. Maybe it isn't Smith! Maybe it's Weems!"

"Gerry. Get real. Weems is your bete noir, and he's a dickhead, but he's not our guy."

"He was at the hospital." I ticked off my reasons on my fingers, loving that Smith might just be a garden-variety psycho, his trail confused by Weems. "He was at the donut shop. He's been dogging my tracks all day, and every time I saw him, I felt the call to Change."

"All places you'd expect to see a cop investigating the same case as we are. Have you ever wanted to Change because of Weems before now?" She put her hand on mine; it was warm as toast. "I know you don't like him, but you're getting distracted by this. You've always been so damned sure about everything - "

That was the problem: I couldn't be sure about anything anymore if Smith was Fangborn.

I pulled away. "I don't think so. I think you were picking up on his vibes, the same time you were dealing with some ordinary, run-of-the-mill loony, and that's why you thought it was Smith."

"You're wrong," she said. "Weems has nothing to do with this. I think you want it to be Weems so you don't have to consider that there might be an evil out there we haven't seen before. I get it, Ger: you want things to be cut-and-dried. But now we know . . . it can't be like that."

"Whatever." I turned away.

"Don't dismiss me, Gerry."

You know about that traditional conflict between werewolves and vampires? It's really just a sibling thing.

"Claudia, just because - "

"Sssh!" Claudia was pointing to the TV.

The news was on. A school bus, its driver, and six kids were missing from their daycare center.

"Okay," I said, "we've got the fake address at the Point, a murder at the Willows, a body in the harbor. Throw in the missing pets, and we have someone with a familiarity with the waterfront. That's a couple of big neighborhoods to cover."

"He needs space, and he needs a place where people won't hear . . . screams." Claudia was looking at the map spread out in front of us. "He's sticking with what's familiar to him, which is good for us, but he's also an organized psychopath, which is bad."

"The houses are too close together, here and here," I said, pointing out two neighborhoods. "That leaves the warehouses in the industrial park down at the Point and the coal plant down here." I pointed to a neighborhood that was near, by water, but on the other side of town, by land.

"A school bus is going to stick out in either place," Claudia said. "Is he going to take them out to sea?"

"If he is, we're pretty well screwed," I said. "Protective coloring - where can you take six crying kids and a school bus where no one will notice?"

We looked at each other, then simultaneously at one of the neighborhoods we had just rejected. A short distance from my own house, separated by large parking lots and a playing field, was the middle school, now empty for the holidays.

It's not that we need the moon to shift, though that helps. It's easier to run around as a wolf when there aren't many people around. It's easier to pick up a faint trail with the dust settled from the day. It's not that we need the moon, but somehow, it makes it easier for me, the same way the sun takes the poison out of vamps like Claudia. You'd have to talk to our scientists who are working out exactly how we Fangborn work, but if you think of it like a vulture's bare head helping to kill the bacteria they pick up, or photosynthesis, taking nutrients from the sunlight, that's probably close. All I know is that Claudia couldn't taste the blood and clean it, cauterize the wound, and numb the memory without sunlight to charge her up. And in the same way - don't ask me how, I'm not one of the geeks - I get recharged by the moon.

Plus, lots of bad guys also wait for night to work. Makes it easier on us all.

The moon was full and low on the horizon as we parked down the street from the school. We ran down the plan again: check the school and then call the cops if we find anything.

Simple, if we were right. If we weren't already too late.

"Got the gear?" I asked Claudia.

She nodded, held up the leash - her excuse for being out with a very large dog - and a charged cell phone. As for me, while I hate what people inflict on their pets - birthday parties, pedicures, Halloween costumes - I will always be grateful for the dog-clothing craze. And grateful to the guy who invented stretch fabrics: my Lycra doggie track suit makes it a heck of a lot easier if I have to Change back to human and don't want to be buck-naked.

Claudia doubled the knots on her bootlaces, tied her hair back, and we went into the schoolyard.

The bus was there, all right, on the side, cold and silent as an empty grave. Sure, school was out and it was night, but who notices a school bus outside a school? The schoolyard had been badly plowed, so there were no clear tracks, but it only took me a minute to find the basement door they'd used, the lock broken.

The reek hit me as soon as we got the door open. This time, I didn't resist the Change.

The rush of adrenaline and endorphins and other hormones blotted out whatever pain shrieking bones forced through evolutionary growth in an instant might bring. Nature wouldn't be so cruel as to put this burden on us without compensation. The bloodlust didn't hurt, either, and it was only Claud's warning hand on my back that reminded me not to howl with the delight of it. Smith's spoor was worse than any I'd ever smelled, overwhelming the traces of new linoleum, old wax, and textbooks. It was nearly unbearable to my vulpine nose, but one thought, a bloodthirsty, simple joy, cleared of all human doubt and fear, overwhelmed even that:

It was time to track and to tear.

I stepped out of my boots and glanced up at Claud, who was down on one knee; the reek was hitting her just as badly. It was always harder for her; vamps don't have the same chemical buffer that protects wolves. Her skin took on a violet cast visible even in the shadows, and her eyes were wide and bright. Her facial features broadened, her nose receded, and her fingers lengthened.

She stood up, shook herself, and nodded. As she packed my boots into her backpack, I saw the gleam of her viperish fangs extending, the glint of a streetlight on the fine pattern of snakescale, an armor of supple, thickened skin. Snakes have always been associated with healing and transformation - there's a reason they're on the staff of Asclepius - but they've got a rep for danger, too.

I whined and stared at her neck. Her hand went up, and she found the pearls she'd forgotten to take off.

"Thankths," she said, with a slight hiss. Still largely humanoid, fangs and a forked-tongue make speech awkward, but not impossible. She stowed the necklace in her bag, and nodded.

I led the way, as stealthy as a shadow. I cast around, stopped, panted, and tried again, but with no luck. There was no one single track to pick up. Smith'd been here long enough for the basement to be so saturated with his stench that I could barely breathe.

I couldn't detect the children. I hoped we weren't too late.

Claudia nodded. She pointed at the first door, and we both listened. Nothing.

She tried it; locked solid.

The next was an unlocked closet. The stink was there, too, but less. The bus driver was stashed in there. There was a pulse, faint and fading.

Claudia fanged down, called 911. We continued.

The next door opened silently; I could smell WD-40 recently applied to the hinges. No way to tell Claud, but she pointed to the duct tape across the lock, and I nodded. We went in.

The children were there. Even under Smith's foulness, I could tell they were alive. I felt a surge of delight.

They were drugged, only half-awake; a light on the playground offered just enough illumination for a normal to see forms without detail. My nose told me of full diapers, fear, and baby shampoo.

Smith was nowhere around. We went quietly, just in case.

"Hang on," Claudia said. She Changed back about halfway, just enough to keep her powers on deck, but not so far that the first thing the kids saw was a pale purple lady with no nose and very big teeth.

She went over to them quickly. "Hey, you guys? Let's get you fixed up and we'll get you home, okay? My dog Chewie is going to do some tricks for you. He's really big, but he's really, really friendly. Chewie, come!"

That was my cue. I knew to play it dumb and sweet over in the faint light so the kids would focus on me. That way, they'd be less afraid and they wouldn't notice Claudia practicing her leech-craft. I spend my time fighting evil, not practicing party tricks, but whenever I fell over, the kids laughed, so it was okay. And as soon as Claudia got one kid untied, her razor nails dancing scalpels over the duct tape, I was there, his new best friend, and they were so busy patting me they forgot to be afraid. Under the guise of inspecting their wounded hands, she got to work, biting their wrists, narcotizing the pain, neutralizing their terror, sucking out Smith's drugs, dimming their memories. I could sense her body reacting to the blood and emotion she was taking in, her muscles rippling, nearly all trace of humanity lost from her features even as she healed the little ones.

She'd just finished the last one when he was on her. Even as I picked up on the fresh scent - snow mixed with spoiled milk and rotting fish heads - Smith rocketed from the shadows, moving faster than anything human.

If I knew he was there, it meant Claudia knew, too. She shoved the kid toward me as Smith landed on her. She rolled with him as far away from us as she could.

In spite of Claudia's ministrations, the kids whimpered. I grabbed the last one by the hood of her jacket and gently pulled her the rest of the way to the group. I stood between them and the brawl, nudging the kids to stand behind me, thankful Disney had removed their fear of large wild animals.

It took everything I had to keep from jumping in and ripping Smith apart, but I had to keep the children safe. And there's not much that can stop my sister when she's pissed and Changed; for all her tweedy skirts and bookishness, she's as much a warrior as I am.

Smith was putting up a pretty good fight and the sonofabitch knew how to use a knife: Claudia would need a week on the roof to recover from this. I was glad of the dark, that the children's eyes weren't as sharp as mine, that they couldn't see the amount of blood that Claudia was letting.

She was winning. Maybe Smith wasn't Fangborn, maybe just some kind of freak human genetic anomaly -

You could practically feel the energy she expended fill the room, almost blotting out the horror of Smith. Righteous violence in the cause of justice -

I let out a low growl; there was too much energy, the air was sizzling as if every Fangborn in New England was Changing next to me.

Claudia screamed.

Smith had Changed. An unholy transformation, something never before seen in the world as I knew it: evil taking on the shape of a werewolf.

If I'd had time for rational, human thought, I would have been slowed by what shouldn't have been happening, by what was impossible, but the pull to attack was so strong I almost burst out of my skin. I bunched up and launched myself at Smith.

Claudia threw herself out of the way as I bowled the other wolf out of the room. We skidded into the hallway, unable to get a purchase on the cold, polished cement floor. With a scrabble of claws, I was up, but he was just a second faster and knocked me down again, snapping at my eyes. I slashed at his gut and jerked my head out of the way, feeling his hot breath and drool on my ears. I whipped around and grabbed at his muzzle; I was bigger than he was and he almost pulled away before I closed my teeth. I caught him, barely, by the tender tip of his nose and the soft skin under his jaw. Teeth slid through flesh and I held on; he tried to push me away with his front paws, but was more effective with his rear claws, raking across my belly.

I smelled my own blood, but held on for dear life. He couldn't pull out of my grasp without tearing himself and I couldn't let him go.

The door opened and cold air washed over us. I heard a shout and recognized Weems.

He shouted again. I could smell Weems's fear.

Weems drew his pistol. He was going to shoot.

Well, I couldn't let him shoot me. I let go and Smith hurled himself at the doorway and Weems.

Thoughts flashed through my head: If Smith landed on Weems, I could grab him before he did much damage. If he knocked Weems out of the way, or took a bullet or six, so much the better for me.

Damn. He bolted right past Weems. He couldn't afford to get caught as a werewolf any more than I could. The prospect of decades of lab experiments made a life sentence at Cedar Junction look like a week at Sandals.

Sweat-soaked polyester, terror, boiled coffee, and roast beef: Weems had had dinner at Big Freddy's. If I planted a dirty, doggy paw in his face as I chased after Smith, I'm sure it was an accident.

Smith was nowhere to be seen as I raced down the street away from the school, but it didn't matter: he was leaving a trail of blood that any Cub Scout could have followed, and his scent was so strong there might as well have been a spotlight on him.

I cut through snowy backyards and vaulted a chain-link fence: Christmas lights lit the snow and the smell of cooking meats and seafood wasn't even a momentary distraction. Another burst of speed brought me down to the historic district on the waterfront, the eighteenth-century houses decorated with candles and garlands.

The tear in my belly was bad; I could feel the shock of the cold air through fur even as my muscle re-knit itself. There was a sharp pain whenever I moved my left hind leg. The icy snow, dirty with sand and road salt, packed itself in between the pads of my paws, slowing me down and throwing off my gait. Blood - mine and Smith's - was matted in my fur, and my jaw ached.

The trail of blood was getting heavier, though: Smith was also slowing down. In spite of my wounds, I sped up, eager to end this.

But part of me hoped Smith would never stop. If he stopped, I'd kill him, and my job would be finished. Then I'd have to think about what was happening. I wasn't sure if my frail human brain could deal with it.

I leapt onto a back porch, tensed, then sailed over the back of the deck onto the sidewalk of Derby Street. I skidded on the icy bricks of the crosswalk, and barely missed getting hit by an Escalade. I yelped, feeling the breeze as the SUV swerved past.

The waterfront opened up in front of me. The heavy clouds parted for an instant and the full moon shone down on the blood that led straight down Derby Wharf, which stretched out a quarter of a mile into the harbor.

Unless Smith wanted to swim in life-sucking cold water toward the winking lights of Marblehead, he had nowhere to go except back to me. I grinned, as only a wolf drunk on power can.

There was no one out, and I was glad; it was usually a place for evening strolls, the marks of lesser canines blazoned against the snow-banks. I padded down the wide gravel path, catching my breath, preparing myself for the last fight.

Smith was smarter than I gave him credit for. He timed his attack for the instant the lighthouse lamp whirled toward me, washing the shadows together and reducing my field of vision.

Keeping my eyes lowered and narrowed, my ears back, I made myself wait until the last moment. Then I sprang at him, just as hard as I could. I caught Smith with his head still up, and seized him by the throat, biting down with every bit of strength I had. His momentum carried him over me, and as he fell, his own weight tore his flesh off in my mouth. Hot blood poured and he dropped dead at my feet.

He might have been a predator with a hero's weapons, but I was a hero with true purpose.

I spat out the fur and gore as the moonlight flooded the wharf and harbor. Steam rose from the wounds of the dead wolf, blood black on the snow. Power from the kill, from having slain one of my own kind, almost knocked me off my feet, and it was possible I was the first one ever in history to have experienced it.

Evil just doesn't exist in the Fangborn. At least, it hadn't before now.

I threw my head back and howled, my inhuman blood singing, the completeness and rightness of my triumph dizzying.

But somewhere in the back of my brain, the part that stays human, I knew it was the last time I'd feel that way.

On Christmas Eve, Claudia found me down in the basement of my house. It's finished with mats on the floors and walls so we can train in private.

"That's some sweat you're working up there," she yelled. She was wearing her T-shirt with the bull's-eye printed over her heart, the one that says, GO AHEAD AND TRY IT, BUFFY.

I was flaked out on the floor in three layers of sweats, my headphones on, music turned to eleven. I considered her statement, then showed her a finger.

She came over to the stereo, cranked it up to fourteen or twenty so I had to pull the headphones off, then she switched off the CD. She glanced at the player.

"Disintegration. Nice. And have you been down here since yesterday, moping out to The Cure? I'm going to take my old CDs away from you if you're going to behave like an adolescent."

"I am an adolescent." And I am, by my people's standards. Just a pup.

"I get that. Gerry, you peed on Weems's car!"

I shrugged. It seemed like the thing to do at the time.

After I'd returned, still wolfself, to the school, Claudia had sold most of the story to a suspicious Weems. She was out walking her dog when she saw the school bus. Not wanting to feel like a fool if it wasn't the missing children, she'd explored, then found the kids. The kids, still under her chemical thrall, had confirmed it: the scary man's dog had attacked the nice lady's doggie, who chased both the bad guys away. Weems later found Smith's body at the wharf, dead, without a mark on him save for his stitched-up arm.

She knelt beside me. "Gerry, Smith is a shock; I buy that. I was rattled, too. It's scary as Hell. The family computer lists have been lighting up with the discussion, and none of the historians have anything like this. Ever."

"I'm not scared, Claud," I said. "And I get that this is major. It's just that . . ."

I took a breath; it was even harder to say out loud than it was to admit to myself. "I liked knowing that we Fangborn were the righteous ones, and that whatever we hunted was always wrong. No doubts, never. I always thought it was the payoff for the work we do." It also meant, no matter what my opinion, that Weems was at least nominally on our side.

She cocked her head. "You mean, in addition to the super-strength, healing, and longevity?"


"And the rush that comes after the Change?"

"Well . . . yeah."

She frowned. "You're young and you're being greedy and you're forgetting the First Lesson."

I scowled. "'The work is the reward.' You sound like Grandpa."

"There's a good reason for that. He was right." She hunkered down against the wall next to me. "Look, everyone reaches a crisis of faith at some point in his life. For me, it was trying to figure out if we had the right to live outside human law, learning the difference between law and justice. It's part of the life. It makes us understand what it is to be human, why that's precious and to be protected. Normals never get half of what we have, and go through life in doubt."

"We're not human, Claud. Never will be. And now we get the doubt, too."

She shook her head. "We're closer to them than anything else. Biologically and spiritually. We need that connection. And you know that killing Smith was right, even if he was one of us."

But no Fangborn had ever killed Fangborn before. No Fangborn had ever manifested pure evil before . . . I couldn't turn off the voice in my head.

Claudia talked for a long time about the community of the Fangborn, duty, honor, and all that crap. I listened. A lot of it made sense.

I nodded. "You're right. I need time, that's all. Thanks."

"No problem. I'm just glad I got here before you got into the Nine Inch Nails." Relief flooded her features, which told me exactly how rocky she thought I looked. "So. You packed?"

"No. It won't take me long." This year, our Christmas present to each other was tickets to Aruba. Expensive, but we both needed the sunshine right now.

She nodded, then eyed me sternly. "But you're gonna go to midnight Mass, right?"

"Probably. I gotta go for a walk, first. Clear my head." I hauled myself up, muscles stiff not from the fight, but from lying around. Any harm I take while wolfself heals rapidly, as long as I remain wolfy, but any hurt I get while in human form reappears when I revert back to human form.

"Good. I'll see you there. And Gerry?"

"Yeah, Claud?"

She wrinkled her nose. "Take a shower, would you?"

I flipped her the bird again, and got my jacket. She smiled as she left, and I knew I had her convinced. That's the good thing about having a shrink for a sister: you learn what they look for and you can give it to them.

Yes, her words made sense. They just did nothing to take away my pain.

I pulled on my duck boots, hat, scarf, and gloves. I probably didn't need so much - it was over thirty degrees - but ever since the fight, I just couldn't get warm.

I walked a long time and found myself at the foot of Derby Wharf. I went out far enough to let the holiday lights of the street fall behind me, until I was alone in the frigid dark. Bloodstains blurred the snow, which had been trampled by the locals looking for the serial killer's savage dog. A fierce hellhound roaming Salem, one more myth in the making.

I watched the lighthouse beam skim the surface of the dark water. Listened to the soft slap of waves against the stone wharf. Anyone with a lick of insight could feel the remnants of the power that had been expended here.

In our family's annals, there was nothing like this, but now I had to wonder: Who else had we missed? Or if this was a really new development, what did it mean? The only thing I knew was that my certainty about my place in the world - my armor and my sword - was shattered.

I felt the silence all around me, city noises muffled by the snow, and tried to find the bottom of the sea of pain I felt. The uncertainty was crushing, the loss of faith like the loss of a limb. I felt broken and made a fool of, mocked by the universe for my belief.

I took a deep breath, the kind you take at the crossroads when the dark man shows up and offers you the world in exchange for your grubby soul. As I watched the obsidian water, I took another breath and realized that if I couldn't manage the leap of faith that Claudia described, then I had to make a leap of another kind.

Down the street from Derby Wharf is a little bar called In a Pig's Eye. It's a local joint; there's no television and they pull the best pints in town.

Annie works there nights.

It was about half full, the folks who were getting one more drink in before Mass and the ones whose family were the other strangers on bar stools.

"Jeez, Gerry, you been sick or something? You look kinda peaky." She set down a coaster in front of me. "Winter Warmer?"

"Thanks. Just . . . out of it, I guess." I suddenly remembered my rank-smelling sweats and two days' growth of beard, and kept my jacket zipped. Hell.

"I bet. I read about Claudia in the paper. You must have freaked."

One of the things I've learned to live with is the fact that I'll never get credit for being on the scene, for doing the job. "I worry about her, but she's good at taking care of herself." Then I couldn't resist, sweats or no. "And besides. Chewie wouldn't let anything happen to her."

She put the dark beer down in front of me, a perfect half inch of froth at the top. "No. He's a sweetie."

I felt myself flush, remembering the perfume of Annie's ankles, her hand on the back of my neck as she talked to Claudia one summer night. We'd been coming home from work and I'd still been intoxicated by the kill when we ran into Annie. It's one of my fondest memories. "You like dogs?"

She shrugged. "Depends. Like people, really. You gotta take them one at a time, you know?"

Ask her out, I told myself, ask her out right now, coffee, a drink, anything, or so help me, I'll - "How do you feel about Aruba?" I felt myself go red again: that was not what I meant to say. It was too much, too soon, too pimp, oh shit -

Annie stopped wiping down the bar.

Suddenly, the bottomless water seemed a better choice.

"I'd prefer to start with a drink, maybe dinner," she said slowly. "That is, if you're really, actually, finally getting the guts to ask me out?"

"Uh . . . yeah." I swallowed. "That okay?"

"Yeah. But it took you long enough." She glanced at me. "You tough guys, you're all just pussycats. You aren't always a big pussycat, are you, Gerry?"

Mostly I'm a big wolf, I thought giddily. "Never again," I vowed. "How's tomorrow night?"

"Can't." She looked at me funny. "It's Christmas tomorrow, remember? I'm going snowshoeing at Bradley Palmer State Park in the morning."

I wrinkled my brow. An odd tradition, but nice, I s'pose . . .

She blew out her cheeks. "You know I'm Wiccan, right? I like Christmas, but I observe the Solstice."

She looked a little defensive, but I could barely contain myself. I forced myself to take a deep breath. "Trust me when I say that mixed relationships are not a problem for me."

She relaxed, then gave me a look that warmed me instantly, straight through. "If you invite me over for breakfast, I'll ditch the snowshoeing. But I have to leave by noon, because I promised Kelly I'd take her shift at the shelter so she can be with her family."

"Breakfast is at nine o'clock!" I could barely get the words out fast enough.

"Claudia won't mind?"

"Nah. I'll call her when I get home." Claudia had been pushing me to ask Annie out from the first time I'd mentioned her. "She's good people, not an evil bone in her body," Claudia'd said. And Claudia knows bones, good and evil.

"I'll be there." Annie smiled, so sexy I felt my knees go to jelly. "I made a batch of my famous chocolate-chip muffins; I'll bring them."

Into nature, civic-minded, and a cook? I realized I was grinning like an idiot, so I drank the rest of my beer, to keep from proposing to her right then and there, my head ringing with every Christmas carol ever written.

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