I ran to the Jeep. Cormac steered me to the passenger door, which he opened.
Ben sat there, relaxed, head slumped to the side—unconscious. Blood streaked the right half of his shirt. The fabric was torn at the shoulder, and the skin underneath was mauled. Individual tooth marks showed where the wolf had clamped its jaw over Ben’s shoulder, and next to it a second wound—a messier, jagged chunk taken out of the flesh near his bicep—where the creature had found its grip and ripped. Ben’s forearm also showed bite marks. He must have thrown his arm up to try to protect himself. All the wounds had stopped bleeding, were clotted, and beginning to form thick, black scabs. Cormac hadn’t bandaged them, yet they were already healing.
They wouldn’t have been, if it hadn’t really been a werewolf that did this. If Ben hadn’t really been infected with lycanthropy.
I covered my mouth with my hand and just stared, unwilling to believe the scene before me.
“I didn’t know what else to do,” Cormac said. “You have to help him.”
Feeling—tingling, surreal, blood-pounding feeling—started to displace the numbness. “Let’s get him inside.”
I touched his neck—his pulse raced, like he’d been running and not slumped in the front seat for a five-hour car ride. Next, I brushed his cheek. The skin was burning, feverish. I expected that, because that was what had happened to me. He smelled sharp, salty, like illness and fear.
His head moved, his eyes crinkled. He made a sound, a half-awake grunt, turned toward my hand, and took a deep breath. His body went stiff, straightening suddenly, and as he pressed his head straight back his eyes opened.
“No,” he gasped and started fighting, shoving me away, thrashing in a panic. He was starting to develop a fine sense of smell. I smelled different and his instincts told him
I grabbed one arm, Cormac grabbed the other, and we pulled him out of the Jeep. Getting under his shoulder, I tried to support him, but he dropped his weight, yanking back to escape. I braced, holding him upright and managing to keep a grip on him. Cormac held on to him firmly, grimly dragging him toward the cabin.
Ben’s eyes were open, and he stared in a wide-eyed panic at shadows, at the memory still fueling his nerves.
Then he looked right at Cormac. “Kill me,” he said through gritted teeth. “You’re supposed to kill me.”
Cormac had Ben’s arm over his shoulder and practically hauled him off his feet as we climbed the steps to the porch.
“Cormac!” Ben hissed, his voice a rough growl. “Kill me.”
He just kept saying that.
I shoved through the open front door. “To the bedroom, in back.”
Ben was struggling less, either growing tired or losing consciousness again. We went to the bedroom and hauled him onto the bed.
Ben writhed, then let out a noise that started as a whimper and rose to a full-blown scream. His body arced and thrashed, wracked with some kind of seizure. I held down his shoulders, leaning on him with all my weight, while Cormac pinned his legs.
I shifted my hands to hold on to his face, keeping his head still and making him look at me. His face was burning up, covered with sweat.
“Ben! Sh, quiet, quiet,” I murmured, trying to be calm, trying to be soothing, but my own heart was in my throat.
Finally, I caught his gaze. He opened his eyes and looked at me, didn’t look away. He quieted. “You’re going to be okay, Ben. You’re going to be fine, just fine.”
I said the words by rote, without belief; I didn’t know why I expected them to calm him down.
“Kitty.” He grimaced, wincing, looking like he was going to scream again.
“Please, Ben, please calm down.”
He closed his eyes, turned his face away—and then he relaxed, like a wave passing through his body. He stopped struggling.
“What happened?” Cormac said.
Ben was breathing, soft, quick breaths, and his heart still raced. I smoothed away the damp hair sticking to his forehead, turned his face toward me again. He didn’t react to my touch.
“He passed out,” I said, sighing.
Slowly, Cormac let up his grip on Ben’s legs and sat back on the edge of the bed. Ben didn’t move, didn’t flinch. He looked sick, wrung out, too pale against the gray comforter, his hair damp and his shirt bloody. I was used to seeing him focused, driven, self-possessed. Not like this at all. I was always the one calling him for help.
How the hell had this happened?
I didn’t ask Cormac that, not yet. The bounty hunter looked shell-shocked, his face slack, staring at Ben’s prone form. He pressed his hands flat on his thighs. My God, were they shaking?
I unbuttoned Ben’s shirt and wrangled it off him, carefully peeling the fabric away where the blood had dried, pasting it to his skin. The adrenaline was fading, leaving my limbs weak as tissue paper. My voice cracked when I said, “What was he saying? About you killing him? Cormac?”
Cormac spoke softly, in a strange, emotionless monotone. “We made a deal. When we were kids. It was stupid, the only reason we did it is because it was the kind of thing that would never happen. If either of us got bitten, got infected, the other was supposed to kill him. The thing is—” Cormac laughed, a harsh chuckle. “I knew if it happened to me Ben would never be able to go through with it. I wasn’t worried, because I knew I could shoot myself just fine. But Ben—it was for him. Because he wouldn’t have the guts to shoot himself, either. If it happened to him, I was supposed to take care of it. I’m the tough one. I’m the shooter. But I couldn’t do it. I had my rifle right up against his skull and I couldn’t do it. By that time he was screaming his head off and I had to knock him out to get him to stay in the Jeep.”
I could picture it, too, Cormac’s finger on the trigger, tensing, tensing again, then him turning away, a snarl on his lips. He was grimacing now.
Even at a whisper, my voice was shaking. “I’m glad you didn’t shoot him.”
“He will be.”
“I brought him to you because I thought, you’re a werewolf and you get along all right, and if he could be like you—he’d be okay. Maybe he’d be okay.”
“He’ll be okay, Cormac.”
With his shirt off, Ben looked even more pale, more vulnerable. Half his arm was chewed up and scabbed over. His chest moved too rapidly, with short, gasping breaths.
“We should clean this up,” I said. “He’ll be out of it for a while. Maybe a couple of days.”
“How do you know?” Cormac said.
“Because that’s how it was with me. I was sick for days. Cormac…” I stood and moved next to him, reaching out, tentative because he looked like he might break, explode, or tear the room apart. He was the same kind of tense as a cat about to spring on a mouse. He still had the handgun in his belt holster. I had to make him look away from Ben. I touched his shoulder. When he didn’t jump, flinch, or punch me, I lay my hand on his shoulder and squeezed.
He put his hand over mine, squeezed back, then stood and left the room, disappearing into the front of the house. I didn’t hear the front door open, so he didn’t leave. I didn’t have time to worry about him right now.
Armed with a soaked washcloth and dry towel, I cleaned up the blood. The wounds, the bite marks and tears in his skin, had all closed over. They looked like week-old scabs, dried and ringed with pink. His skin was slick with sweat; I dried him off as well as I could. Within half an hour, Ben’s breathing slowed, and he seemed to slip into a normal sleep. If he’d been in shock, the shock had faded. Nothing looked infected. The lycanthropy wouldn’t let him sicken. It wouldn’t let him die, at least not from a few bites.
I took off his shoes and covered him with a spare blanket. Smoothed his hair back one more time. For now, he was settled.
I found Cormac in the kitchen, leaning on the counter and staring out the window over the sink. The sun had risen since we’d brought Ben inside. The outline of the trees showed clear against a pale sky. I didn’t think Cormac was really looking at any of that.
I started setting up the coffeemaker, being louder than I needed to be.
The strangeness was too much. Cormac gave me this image of him and Ben as kids, talking about werewolves—that wasn’t exactly a kid thing to do. At least, not for real. Not meaning it. I’d always suspected Cormac was edging psychotic, but Ben was the levelheaded one, the lawyer. I’d always wondered how he took this world—lycanthropes, vampires, this B-grade horror film life I lived—in such stride, not even blinking. I’d been grateful for it, but I wondered. How long had
I didn’t know a damn thing about either of them.
I pushed the button, the light lit up, and the coffee-maker started burbling happily. I leaned back on the counter, watching Cormac, who hadn’t moved. A minute later, the smell of fresh coffee hit with a jolt.
“Are you hungry?” I said finally. “I have some cereal, I think. A couple of eggs, bacon.”
“Have you gotten any sleep?”
He shook his head.
“You think maybe you should?”
Again, he shook his head. Too bad. My day would be a lot easier if he’d just collapse on the sofa and sleep for the next twelve hours.
The coffee finished brewing. I poured two mugs and set one on the counter next to him. I held mine in both hands, feeling the warmth from it, not drinking. My stomach hurt too much to drink anything.
I had to say something. “How did it happen? How did you let him get—how did he get in a position to be bitten by a werewolf?”
He turned away from the window, crossed his arms, stared across the kitchen. I got my first good look at him since he arrived. He looked gaunt, caved in and exhausted, with shadows under his eyes. He hadn’t shaved in days and was developing a beard to go along with his mustache. Dried blood flaked off his hands and spotted his shirt. He smelled of dirt, sweat, and blood. He needed a shower, though somehow I doubted that I could talk him into it.
“There were two of them,” he said. “I knew there were two of them. That’s why I called Ben, so he could watch my back. But the whole thing was messed up, right from the start. They were killing flocks of sheep, but nobody ever heard anything. I saw a whole field covered with dead sheep, all of them torn to pieces, and the herders sitting in their trailer a hundred feet away didn’t hear a thing. Their dogs didn’t hear a thing.”
“How do you know werewolves did it?”
“Because the family hired me to kill the first one. They told me.”
I shook my head. “Whoa, what?”
“The parents, the kid’s parents.”
“The wolf was a
“No, he was twenty years old! This is all coming out wrong.”
“Then calm down. Start over.” I held my coffee mug to my face and breathed in the steam. I had to calm down as well, if I expected Cormac to be civil. He was right on the edge.
“They knew he’d gone wolf, knew he was killing sheep, and they were afraid he’d start in on people. Nobody could control him so they called me.”
“They just gave up on him? Their own son and they wanted him dead?”
“It’s a different world there. Out in the desert, on the edge of Navajo Country. Shit like this happens and they look at it as evil. Pure evil, and the only thing to do with it is kill it. You’ve seen this kind of thing, you know they’re right.”
I had, and I did. I just hated to admit it. “What happened?”
“I knew his territory, knew how to find him, because he was going after livestock. But I got out there and found two sets of tracks. Werewolves are tough, but one of them couldn’t have done that much damage on his own. His family didn’t know there were two of them.”
“Him, and the wolf who turned him?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. They had no idea who the second one was. Or they wouldn’t tell me. That was when I called Ben. The whole job was a mess, I should have just walked away. Too many details didn’t fit—like the noise. These two had slaughtered three flocks by the time I got out there. Somebody should have heard something.”
“How did you find them?”
“I left Ben by the Jeep, with a gun. He was on the hood, keeping a look out while I went to set bait.”
I almost interrupted again. Bait? Is that how he hunted werewolves, with b
“I found them right away. One of them. I shouldn’t have, it was too easy. And it still wasn’t right—the wolf had red eyes. I’ve seen plenty of wolves, wild ones and lycanthropes, and none of them have red eyes. But this thing—if it wasn’t a werewolf I don’t know what it was. I sure as hell didn’t like it. I aimed my rifle at it—and then I couldn’t move. I tried to shout to Ben, and I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even breathe. I’ve stared down werewolves before. I’ve never frozen up like that.
“I’d be dead, I’m sure that thing would have ripped out my throat if Ben hadn’t fired just then. Then it was like somebody flipped a switch and I could move. And there was Ben, on the hood of the Jeep, with a wolf on top of him. I don’t know if he shot at the thing and missed, or if it was just too fast for him. But it got him. He didn’t even scream.”
Sunlight covered the clearing outside my house, but Cormac, turned away from the window, was still gray with shadows.
“What did you do?” I whispered. I almost didn’t dare breathe.
“I shot the wolf. It was a lucky shot, one in a million. I could have hit Ben instead.”
“Then what happened?”
“The other wolf—the one in front of me—screamed. Not howled, not barked. Screamed like a human. Like a woman. I turned back and was going to kill it next, but it was already running. I shot at the thing but it got away.”
“And the wolf you did hit?”
“It was the kid, the one I’d been hired to get. The shot knocked him right off the Jeep. When I got to him he was dying. I put a bullet in his head. He turned back to human. Just like he was supposed to.”
He was right to do it. A cold, rational part of myself knew that a werewolf who couldn’t control himself, who killed indiscriminately, was too dangerous, impossible to control within the legal system. What are you going to do, call the cops and stick him in jail? Strangely enough, that rational part of myself included a little bit of the Wolf, who knew exacdy what to do when one of our kind got out of line. Only one thing
“I brought him here. That’s the whole story.” He drew in a slow breath and let it out with a sigh. “He’s not cut out for this shit. He never was.”
“Then why did you drag him into it?” My voice was stiff with anger.
For the first time, Cormac looked at me. “He’s the only one in the world I trust.” He walked to the doorway to the bedroom, leaned on the frame, and stared in.
It wasn’t true, that Ben was the only one he trusted. If that were true he wouldn’t have brought Ben here. But I didn’t say that.
Cormac straightened from the door. “You mind if I crash out on the sofa?”
“Be my guest,” I said, trying to smile like a gracious hostess.
“I’ll get my bedroll out of the Jeep.” He went to the front door and opened it.
Then he stopped. He stared for a long time, holding the knob, not moving.
“What?” I set down my coffee and went to look out the door.
There on the porch lay another dead rabbit, gutted like the first. I wasn’t surprised when I looked at the outside of the door and found a cross made of smeared blood, fresh blood covering the stained outlines of the old cross. It hadn’t been there when Cormac got here with Ben. They hadn’t been here that long, maybe an hour. So this had happened within the hour, and this time I hadn’t heard a thing. Of course, I’d been a little preoccupied.
I groaned. “Not again.”
Cormac glanced at me. “Again? How many times have you been animal sacrifice central?”
I went outside, smelling the air, staring at the ground, looking for footprints, for anything that showed someone had been here, how this had happened. But the blood and guts might have appeared out of thin air, for all the evidence I saw. I stood on the porch, circling, studying the clearing, the house, everything, which even in the morning light had taken on a sinister cast. The place didn’t feel cozy anymore.
The scene seemed to pull him out of his recent trauma-He sounded genuinely fascinated when he said, “I don’t know. If I had to guess I’d say you’ve been cursed.”
In more ways than I cared to count. I went back inside. “I’m going to call the sheriff.”
He moved out to the porch, stepping carefully around the rabbit corpse, and said, “Let me hide my guns someplace first.”
Cursed. Right. Cursed didn’t begin to describe my life at the moment.
I had to explain Cormac to Sheriff Marks. “He’s a friend. Just visiting,” I said. Marks gave me that look, the judgmental
Marks and Deputy Ted repeated their search and found just as little as they had the first time.
“Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll post a deputy out here for a couple nights,” Marks said, after he’d wrapped up. “I’ll also put a call in to somebody I know in the Colorado Springs PD. He’s a specialist in satanism and cult behavior. Maybe he’ll know if any groups operate in this area.”
“If it were Satanists, wouldn’t the cross be upside down or something?”
His expression of frowning disapproval turned even more disapproving.
“Sheriff, don’t you think I’m being targeted because of who I am?”
“That’s a possibility. We’ll have to take all the facts into account.”
Suddenly I felt like the bad guy. It was that part of being a victim that made a person ask, what did I do to bring this on myself?
“We’ll start our stakeout tonight. Have a better morning, ma’am.” Marks and Ted headed back to their car and drove away, leaving me with another mess on my porch.
Cormac nodded toward the departing car. “Small-town cop like him don’t know anything about this.”
“It’s blood magic.”
“Well, yeah. What kind? Who’s doing it?”
“Who’ve you pissed off lately?” He had the gall to smile at me.
I leaned on the porch railing and sighed. “I have no idea.”
“We’ll figure it out. You got a shovel and garden hose? I’ll take care of this.”
That was something, anyway. “Thanks.”
When I looked in on Ben again, he’d rolled to his side and curled up, pulling the blankets tightly over his shoulder. Color was coming back into his skin, and the scabs on his wounds were healing. I touched his forehead; he still had a fever. He was still shivering.
The room smelled strange. It was filled with the scents of sweat and illness, with Ben’s own particular smell that included hints of the clothes he wore, his aftershave and toothpaste. And something else. His smell was changing, something wild and musky creeping into the mundane smells of civilization. I’d always thought of it as fur under the skin—the scent of another lycanthrope. Right here in the room with me. My lycanthropic self, my own Wolf, perked up, shifted within my senses, curious. She wanted the measure of him:
Friend. I hoped he was still a friend when he woke up.
I made him drink some water. With Cormac’s help I lifted his shoulders, held his head up, and tipped a glass to his mouth. As much spilled out as went in, but his throat moved, and he drank a little. He didn’t wake up, but he stirred, squeezing his eyes shut and groaning a little. I shushed him, hoping he stayed asleep. He needed to rest while his body sorted itself out.
Then I made Cormac eat something. He wouldn’t tell me when he’d last eaten, when he’d last slept. It might have been days. I made bacon and eggs. I hadn’t yet met a meat eater who could resist bacon and eggs. Whatever else he was, Cormac was a meat eater.
After breakfast, he spread his sleeping bag on the sofa and lay down. Broad daylight outside, and he rolled over on his side and fell asleep instantly, his breathing turning deep and regular. I envied that ability to sleep anywhere, anytime.
I sat at my desk, because I didn’t have anywhere else to sit, but I didn’t turn on the computer. I rubbed my face, hugged my head, and leaned on the table.
I didn’t think I could take it anymore. I’d reached my limit. If ever there was a time when turning wolf and running away sounded like a good idea, this was it.
Startled, I straightened, looked. Cormac wasn’t asleep after all. He’d propped himself on one elbow.
“Thank you,” he said.
I stared back, meeting his gaze. I saw exhaustion there. Hopelessness. I’d told him Ben would be okay, but I wondered if he’d believed it.
“You’re welcome.” What else could I say?
He rolled over, putting his back to me, and went to sleep.