“Fontaine, how long have we been doing this?”
I shift and press the accelerator, surging the ’67 Impala forward. The enormous redwoods lining the sides of Route 101 whip by in a blur.
“Depends when you start counting.”
“Don’t be a wise a*s, Morgana.”
I shoot a glare at the linebacker of a man sitting in the passenger seat. A long time ago a nasty supernatural experience gave me low level telepathy, but I don’t need to read his mind to know he’s using my full name just to get under my skin.
“Hell, I don’t know, Maurice. About five years.”
He nods in agreement.
“And in that time, have I ever steered you wrong?”
Grudgingly I shake my head.
“Exactly,” he crosses his arms to acknowledge his victory, “So believe me. You don’t f**k around with a wolfman.”
“Which is exactly what we’re about to do.”
He shifts uncomfortably. “Probably, yes.”
“Terrified.” His coffee colored face is deadly serious, “You should be too.”
I roll my eyes. “Wolfman. Why don’t you call it a werewolf like normal people?”
He shrugs. “Different things. Pretty wide variety of werewolves, everything from Indian skinwalkers to idiots who sell their soul to the right demon for a belt or ring.”
“But what’s the difference between that and a wolfman?”
Maurice stares ahead but his mind is far away.
“Everything. Werewolves gain a wolf’s instincts but keep their human mind. They can change back and forth, easy as taking off the magic doodad. Wolfmen are a different animal completely. They look like humans most of the time, but they ain’t.”
He turns to me, expression grave.
“Wolfmen are where the full moon comes in. Three nights a month, their human part is torn away and what’s left is the closest thing to death incarnate you’re gonna find. Silver’s the only thing can hurt ‘em, and even that barely. Try getting a kill shot with eight hundred pounds of fur, claws, and fangs trying to rip your throat out.”
“I’ve known guys torn to shreds trying to take down a wolfman. Closed casket funerals, every one. But the worst is if you somehow manage to survive an attack.”
Maurice shakes his head.
“The stories have that part right too. You get bit, scratched, it gets passed to you. Happened to a guy I partnered with a couple times, name of Pat Campbell. Found out he put a silver bullet through his skull not long after.”
“Seems a little dramatic to me.”
“Yeah?” He raises his eyebrows.
“Fontaine, wolfmen are a danger to everyone around them. The beast puts a rage in ‘em, a bloodlust. Whole lotta battered spouses out there thanks to the mutts they’re shacked up with. And that’s when the moon ain’t full. When it is, there’s always the chance their loved ones’ll accidentally stumble on ‘em in wolf mode. Imagine waking up to find the people you most care about torn to bloody pieces by your own hand. Pat had a wife, three kids. He knew what’d happen, one way or the other. Figured it’d be less painful for everyone if he just ended things before it did.”
Maurice looks at me. “That what you’d call ‘dramatic’?”
My only response is to edge the speedometer needle further to the right, the afternoon sun beginning its slow descent toward the horizon. Maurice falls silent and leans back in his seat, point made.
It’s getting on towards six o’clock when I finally feel the mental tickle I’ve been waiting for.
Maurice sits up as I guide the car to the off-ramp onto the broken asphalt of a local road. Maurice says nothing, experienced enough with my clairvoyance to trust my judgement.
The redwoods seem even taller as we continue, their gargantuan height blocking out the waning sun and trapping us in a kind of artificial twilight. After a couple miles, a worn, single-story building appears around the bend, a weather-beaten sign out front naming it “Lou’s Place”. My telepathic pings flare, so I pull into the gravel lot and kill the ignition. I close my eyes and concentrate, reading what I can from the structure.
A blood red cloud engulfs my vision as the sweet scent of prey clings to my nostrils. An orb of brilliant silver shines bright overhead. It calls to me, and I drown in its song.
Yeah, this is the place to start.
“We sure there isn’t a history around here, Maurice?”
“Nah, Morg. Not much of one at least. Past few years they’ve had a few unexplained deaths around the time of the full moon, but no pattern. Not like the last six months anyway.”
A rash of killings have attracted us out west. Over the last half year every full moon has brought more bodies, every one horrifically flayed, mauled, partially eaten, violated; almost fifty spread over as many square miles of Humboldt county. The local authorities don’t know what to think, but Maurice and I have a pretty good idea.
“Well, let’s see what ‘Lou’ can tell us.”
I step out of the car, my heavy boots crunching in the gravel, dark hair rippling in a light breeze that carries the invitingly earthy smell of the surrounding forest. Maurice follows close behind, his large frame an imposing presence. I don’t need him, but it’s nice to have backup when the going gets crazy.
Maurice places a hand on my arm as I reach out to touch the door.
“Remember, Morgan. No matter what we get here, tonight is strictly recon. It’s a full moon and if it is a wolfman, anything more’d be suicide.”
“Got it, ya big baby. Now stop worrying and let’s get to work.”
I shove past him and push my way inside. The taproom is as dingy as I’d expect, and completely lifeless save for the old man tending the bar, absently wiping its chipped surface with a stained rag. I saunter up and perch on one of the stools, Maurice lowering his bulk beside me. The bartender gives us a look, first of surprise, then concern, before quickly hiding it behind a mask of seeming nonchalance.
“What’ll it be, darlin’?”
I resist the urge to roll my eyes and glance over the unimpressive line of half empty bottles behind him.
“Bourbon. Double. Rocks. Whatever’s cheap.”
“And you, big fella?”
“Just seltzer, lime if you’ve got it.”
The man moves to fetch the drinks. He’s nervous about something, anxiety practically sweating off of him. I lean into the bar.
“Lou is it?”
He nods almost imperceptibly, ice clinking softly in the glass as he pours.
“Been here a while?”
“Ayup. Goin’ on about twenty-five years now.”
“Huh, long time. So, what do you know about wolfmen, Lou?”
I mentally pick up a shot of sheer panic rip through the man an instant before the glass shatters on the floor. I’m actually surprised how well he keeps his composure as he turns back to us.
“You need to leave.”
I throw him a winning smile. “Lou, my man, you leave all the ladies this unsatisfied?”
“Get out.” His face cracks, the fear behind his eyes pouring through. “Please. You don’t know what you’re walking into, darlin’.”
I open my mouth to respond. “Oh, I think I do…”
“Come on.” Maurice stands and hauls me to my feet, pulling me towards the door.
I awkwardly stumble outside, even the pre-twilight intense after the dim recesses of the bar.
“What the f**k, Maurice?”
“Real subtle, Morgana.”
“Whatever, man. Get off me, I’m going back.”
He lets me go.
“Nah, I’m pulling seniority.”
“What. The. F**K!”
Maurice shakes his head.
“No point, we know enough. The guy is obviously involved with whatever’s going on. You picked that much up from your first vision, yeah?”
I nod reluctantly.
“Ok. Now, his reaction tells us that we’re right on about a wolfman. We stick here trying to get more info, he might give it to us, sure. Or…,” his eyes shift to the full moon slowly beginning to rise above the treetops, “it could throw a wrench in things. So instead we’re gonna go ditch the car, get loaded up, and come back to see what happens. If nothing goes down because you already messed it up, we can always question him later.” His brow shifts. “Any objections?”
I respond with a sneer, but stay silent. I know he’s right.
He smiles. “Glad you’re on board.”
We get in the Impala and I crank the ignition. The car sends up a spray of gravel as I throw it in reverse and peel out onto the road. After about a quarter mile I spot a worn deer trail and turn into the woodline. Wordlessly I exit the car. Maurice joins me at the trunk and we go about readying our weapons.
Two silver coated knives clip onto my belt, six inches long and carrying a serrated edge. I pull my long duster back to seat a Smith and Wesson in the holster I’m wearing, the revolver loaded with .38 silver bullets I cast myself. Maurice has donned a custom leather bandolier. He situates a machete over one shoulder, the blade specially treated with silver the same as my knives, and a double barreled shotgun over the other. Extra silver slugs line the crossed belts wrapped across his chest. We exchange a nod and slip into the trees back toward Lou’s. Once we get in sight of the building we hunker down and wait for something interesting to happen. It doesn’t take long.
After maybe twenty minutes an old junker screams down the road, pulls into the lot and practically runs into the wall of the bar. An unremarkable looking man jumps out, stopping briefly to untangle himself from the seatbelt, before ducking inside. I close my eyes and extend my senses.
It’s hard to pick up any precise thoughts from the man, he’s so blinded by fear and rage. I do manage to capture the image of a woman, blond hair in snarls, face red and ugly from crying, but nothing more. The man stays inside for maybe three minutes, muffled sounds of shouting reaching us even as far away as we are, before he stumbles outside to the car and roars off, back the way he came.
I raise my eyebrows at Maurice who shrugs. “Come on.”
I pull my pistol free as we cautiously make our way to the bar entrance. Maurice rests his hand on the machete handle and steps inside as I follow close behind. Lou is sprawled on one of the barstools, several of the formerly half empty bottles now completely drained and littered about him. I move to the old man.
“I never did get my bourbon.”
His quiet laugh does little to cover a sob.
“Sorry, darlin’, I went an’ drank it all. Knew the jig was up when ya started asking questions.”
“What’s going on, Lou?”
“Suppose it doesn’t matter now. Reckon you were probably watching the place, saw my buddy, Larry. Tried ta call, tell him not to come, but he was already on his way here early on account’a those bastards.”
He stops, finds a not quite empty bottle, takes a drink.
“Biker gang, call themselves Sons of Romulus operate outta an abandoned pot grow a bit north of here. Outlaws, no regard for anythin’. Always been a little off, but last few months they’ve been downright sadistic, abducting people left and right. Everyone knows, everybody’s too scared ta do anything. Well, earlier today they took Larry’s ex-wife right outta her kitchen. Neighbor’s in her seventies, saw the whole thing, called Larry. Wish she hadn’t.”
He takes another drink, kills the bottle, drops it.
“He came here hopin’ I’d help get her back. I feel for her. Lacey’s a sweet gal and God only knows what those fucks’re doin’ to her, though I can probably imagine. Enough bodies’ve been piling up.”
“But even if I weren’t so f****d up I still wouldn’t go. The Sons, they’re unnatural. Got… abilities. But even that ain’t it. It’s…” he trails off, his eyes flicking to the pale moon shining brightly through the dirty bar window.
“The wolf.” Maurice’s voice is quiet, practically a whisper. Lou doesn’t speak, but the abject terror on his face is answer enough.
Maurice moves to the door. “Let’s go.”
I rush to catch my partner as he steps outside.
“Hey!” Lou calls after us, “Hey wait!” I ignore the old man, Maurice’s long strides practically forcing me to jog as he walks back toward the stashed car.
“What the hell are we doing, Maurice?”
“Going to help that woman, and this Larry guy. Obviously. One of those bikers must be a wolfman, maybe more than one. We know the direction of their headquarters, with luck your talent’ll be able to guide us in.”
“Yeah? What happened to ‘just recon tonight, anything else is suicide’, huh?”
“Morgan.” His look is pained. “You know better than anyone what it’s like to be helpless and trapped with monsters in the dark.”
Past terrors flash through my mind. Cold red eyes burn into my soul as I’m lost in a living fog. Memory shifts and I’m lying paralyzed in a room of white, the sounds of choked screams echoing nearby.
“Fine. In and out. Assuming Lacey isn’t dead already, we get her, and get gone.”
“And for the record, I think this is a stupid idea, and it’s your fault if it blows up in our faces.”
“You can say ‘I told you so.’”
“That’ll make me feel so much better when we’re dead.”
Maurice smiles lightly.
“As long as you’re happy.”
I only sneer in response.
We reach the Impala and are back on the road in short order, moving in the direction we saw Larry fly off. We drive for a couple miles, just enough for me to start hoping my telepathy won’t pick anything up, when I catch the barest whiff of the oily, mental stench I’ve come to associate with malignant supernatural entities. With a curse under my breath I shove down my better judgment and follow.
Ten miles and several turns later, the scent is so strong it’s nauseating. I pull to the side of the road and look to my partner.
“We’re close. This is your circus, chum. What’s the plan?”
Maurice pauses for a moment, considering.
“Lou mentioned an old grow plant which means structures. Let’s get eyes on and go from there.”
I nod in agreement.
We exit the car and move into the brush. Continuing toward the source, the emissions are so overpowering I’m forced to stop and collect my bearings more than once.
God, it’s like… someone opened a doorway to hell. There’s so much pain here.
I think of the mutilated bodies that have been turning up and shudder.
We come to a break in the treeline overlooking a clearing that houses two buildings, one significantly larger than the other.
“Huh. No sign of Larry. You get a read on anything, Morg?”
I shake my head. “No. Too much negative energy from this far out.”
Maurice grunts, understanding. “You up to search?”
I nod. “Yeah. Should be able to manage a basic mental cloak. Besides, if you found Lacey she’d probably freak at your ugly mug.”
He smiles. “Fair. I’d check the smaller one first, looks like it’s got a padlock. Might be where they keep captives.”
I close my eyes and, concentrating at the space in the center of my forehead, take several long breaths.
“Is it working?”
“Can barely see you, just a ripple in the air.”
“Good. Watch my back.”
I move from the foliage and start cautiously toward the structures; the Sons may not be able to see me, but who knows if they have alarms or booby traps rigged. To my surprise I reach the smaller building without any sign of enemies. Maurice was right about it having a padlock. I’ve got a set of picks I’m decently handy with but those’ll take time. Better to determine if Lacey’s inside before circumventing the lock, but even this close I still can’t get a read on the damned thing. I move to the side of the building and spy a small, dirt encrusted window. Taking the corner of my coat sleeve I wipe away some of the grime to peer inside and immediately wish I hadn’t. The light of the full moon shines just enough to reveal the interior of the shed: dozens of human skins, dried and hanging like leather.
Stifling the urge to vomit, I turn away and, hands only shaking slightly, move to the larger building that must have once been the grow house. Reaching it, I try the front door and find it unlocked. I pause to draw my pistol, take a steadying breath, and softly push my way inside. The interior darkness swallows me alive, waves of malignant energy clutching and cloying.
I take a moment to let my eyes adjust and my breath catches in my throat. The inside of the grow house is one large room. Bikers lay sprawled asleep seemingly everywhere, on tables and chairs and even passed out in the middle of the floor. The mixed stench of blood and sweat and booze combined with the hostile mental energy assaults me and it’s all I can do not to choke.
Which one’s the wolfman? Shouldn’t he have turned by now? Can’t tell, everyone here looks human…more or less. Count my blessings.
Cautiously, ever so quietly, I pick my way through the drunken mass to the back of the grow house. There, separated from the main area I find another small room containing a large locked cage, five feet in all dimensions. The lone occupant silently weeping in the corner is a match for the image I pulled earlier from Larry’s mind: Lacey.
I set down my pistol and ease the picks from my pocket, select one and a torque bar. So far luck is with me: the lock is easy to trip and no one seems the wiser. I replace the tools and pick my gun back up, easing the door open. I grit my teeth at the slight squeak of metal, but the only response from any of the Sons in the other room is a loud snore.
Lacey sits up confused and I can see she’s been stripped naked. “Wh… who’s there?” Her voice drops to a terrified whisper, “P-please don’t hurt me anymore.”
I consider for a moment.
“Look, don’t freak out.”
I drop my mental veil. To her credit she manages only a stifled gasp as I shuck out of my duster.
“Lacey, my name is Morgan. My partner and I are here to help.” I’m close enough to sense her emotions now, a sliver of hope cutting through the stink of fear. “Here.” I pass her the coat and she wraps it around herself.
“Oh thank God! They’re monsters! They change…”
“Ssssh. I know. Quiet. We aren’t anywhere close to being out of here.”
Keeping one hand on Lacey, the other on my gun, I guide her out into the room of sleeping Sons that seems to have somehow grown three sizes in length.
This is gonna be a miracle if we get out…
No sooner has the thought passed than a biker rolls over in his sleep, tripping Lacey. With a shriek of surprise she falls into a table, knocking several glass beakers to the ground, shattering. Pandemonium breaks loose.
I grab Lacey by the arm and sprint towards the door. The bikers rouse from their drunken stupor more quickly than I’d have hoped, hooting and hollering as they chase after us.
A gorilla of a man steps into my path and I shoot him in the head, brain and bone exploding out the back of his skull. I shift my aim and fire off two more shots, dropping a pair of Sons.
The group’s mocking turns angry and several pull rings from pockets and slip them onto fingers, their forms shifting. In moments the men are replaced by snarling wolves the size of malamutes. They flow in a pack formation around Lacey and I, yipping and barking as I waste the rest of my ammo trying to hit them. I drop the gun and draw my knives, crouching in a defensive posture, doing my best to keep Lacey behind me. The wolves circle in, snapping and snarling.
One of the still human bikers steps forward.
“Man, babe. You killed some’a my crew, and yer gonna pay fer that.” He grins. “Hope ya like d*********e.”
The others laugh and howl in approval.
The spoken word is quiet, and calm, but nevertheless reaches the whole room. All of us, human and wolf alike, look to the door. Whatever we expect to find there, it isn’t Larry, his slight, naked frame standing in the entrance.
“That’s my wife, you f**k sticks.”
Beside me, I feel fear explode from Lacey at the sight of her ex-husband. The light of the full moon shining on him, the pieces suddenly fall into place.
Where the werewolves changed seamlessly, Larry’s transformation is the stuff of nightmares. He screams as bones crack and rearrange, his face elongating into a fang filled cavern of razor sharp teeth. We watch as one, mouths agape, as the change completes. The beast stands to his full height, towering above us, yellow eyes emitting nothing but hunger and rage. And then the killing starts.
The wolfman flies into the bikers as they try to escape, his claws opening flesh with every thrust of his massive paws. One of the werewolves leaps at the monster’s throat, but Larry turns and catches the attacker’s head in his enormous jaws, its skull popping like a grape. It’s over in an instant. It takes me a moment to realize that, besides the bikers already dead and those quickly bleeding out, somehow Lacey and I are the only ones left with the creature.
With a snarl Larry leaps at us. Too stunned to move herself, I tackle Lacey to the ground in a panic, a glancing blow from the wolf sending us spinning across the floor. Desperately, I throw myself on top of her and try to pull a mental veil over us, unsuccessfully. I scream in defiance, brandishing the knife I’ve managed to keep hold of as Larry regains his balance and charges with a roar.
The gun blast behind me is deafening, the silver slug punching through the wolfman’s chest and dropping him to the ground with a whimper. The beast tries to regain his feet but Maurice calmly steps past me, points the barrel at the monster’s head and puts a second round through his eye.
I gingerly push myself to my feet, examine the carnage around me.
“Nice shot.” I pause. “Thanks.”
Maurice nods in acknowledgment as he reloads.
I spy my dropped revolver and retrieve it, taking my partner’s cue and reloading.
Maurice moves to Lacey where she lies unconscious. I hear him inhale sharply.
I look where he’s pointing, see the deep furrows ripped into her shoulder by Larry’s claws. Sorrow, quickly followed by an icy rage, fills my chest.
I only consider a moment before taking my revolver and putting it in her limp hand.
“Morgan what’re you doing?”
“Giving her an option.” I indicate the massacre around us. “You didn’t feel it. She was terrified, Maurice. It’s like you said. You don’t f**k around with a wolfman.”
I stand and move to the door.
“Come on, let’s get out of here before Lou finds the balls to call the cops. And oh,” I look at my partner over my shoulder, “I told you so, a*****e.”
Without another word I walk out into the night, the light of the full moon guiding my way.