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Mirror Image

51

"Jason, you're sure about this?"

I looked over at Sylvie, who was looking through one of the Florida guidebooks. "Sure I'm sure. One of my classmates back in high school used to come here every summer with her family and found at least two."

She sighed and smiled. "Okay, Jasie. We can spend a few days in the area looking."

"Hey," I said, "It's not like we weren't planning on spending weeks at the beach anyway. Venice has a really nice beach—that's where you look for the Megalodon teeth."

Sylvie put on a mock-indignant expression. "So we'll be at the beach and all you're going to look at is fossil shark teeth?"

I reached over and grabbed while keeping my eyes on the road; her sudden giggling shriek told me I'd grabbed the area I'd intended. "Not a chance."

I glanced over at her again, quickly admiring the sight of my brand-new wife in shorts and a tight shirt—a huge change from her habitual "Gypsy Princess" look, which ran to layered skirts, puffy tops, multicolored handkerchiefs, and acres of sparkling crystal necklaces, earrings, and bracelets, concealing details of her build from any prying eyes. I'd always thought she was pretty, although it was a lot more than that which had drawn us together and, a month or so ago, led to our marriage. It had been my immense delight to discover after the wedding that the gorgeous face was matched by the rest of her. Yes, as a matter of fact, I had not slept with her before marriage, not that it's any of your business. We had all our lives to make up for that lost time, after all. And I certainly intended to spend plenty of that time admiring her whenever she chose to wear something like the glittery bikini she had bought earlier today.

Venice looked much like other Florida towns—built low, no really high buildings, more recent homes and condominiums tending to follow the same vaguely Hispanic pattern while the older ones often had more individuality. It was, however, smaller than many others we'd visited, and as such was less built up and felt somewhat looser.

I chose one of the nearby hotels that had beachfront—with my current finances, I at least didn't need to worry about how much I spent on my honeymoon—and parked in a lot that was surprisingly empty of cars, only a green Ford, an orange Saturn, and a couple dully colored Hondas taking up spaces. Once more expending the effort that put the "lug" into "luggage," Syl and I dragged our stuff into the lobby.

"Reservations?" the big, cheerful-looking man behind the desk asked.

"Actually, no; I was hoping you had some openings."

"As a matter of fact, we do!" he said, grinning. "Y'all are in luck; had a small convention in here over the weekend, and as usual when they left it gave us a small hole to fill. Just the two of you? Newlyweds, I'll bet?"

"Yep," I said, answering both questions with one word. "How'd you guess?"

He chuckled. "Guess? My friend, after fifteen years in the business, there ain't no such thing. See two people walkin' in like that, draggin' a hunnert pounds o' junk without so much as a groan or a gripe, an' still tryin' to stay as close together as they know how, you know they just got hitched." He went to his computer, and glanced at another monitor near it. I knew, from its location, the glance he gave it, and the odd camera unobtrusively pointed right at the check-in desk, that it was a standard CryWolf system ($250 retail, $350 with monitor). "How many days you folks plannin' on stayin' here?"

"Two or three. Say three."

"That'd be two nights, then." A few taps on the keyboard, then, "Cash or charge?"

"Charge. Here."

I handed him my card. He turned around to his credit validation scanner, slid the card through, and sent the query through the lines which would determine whether or not my plastic was worth anything.

Had I been in a different line of business, or not been looking straight at his back, I might have missed it. But as the little credit gadget's screen lit up, I saw him stiffen, like a man opening his eyes to discover a scorpion sitting on his stomach. It was just a moment, but I was sure I'd seen it. "Anything wrong?"

He was just a hair slow in answering, and the first few words lacked the breezy, relaxed tone of our earlier conversation. "No. Not at all." His voice came back to normal. "Sorry, got distracted there, remembering something I gotta do—one of the rooms needs work and I plumb forgot. Not yours, don't worry 'bout that." He turned back, the credit slip in his hand, and gave me back the card. I signed, he did the ritual of glancing at the card and my signature, accepted that the scrawls looked similar enough, and handed me back the yellow copy. "Okay, Mr. Wood, you're all set. Here's two keys, I've given y'all one of our ocean-side rooms, that'd be number 240. Just take the elevator there—here, lemme help you with that." He hefted our bags onto a rolling cart. "There ya go. It'll be the second door to the right after y'all get off the elevator. All the rooms got cable, air conditioning, plus the doors have the new CryWolf peephole gadgets so's you can make sure any visitor is who they say they are. Pool's open from ten to ten, and we own the beach out front there. Lifeguard's around from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on the beach—after that y'all are on your own. Thanks for coming, have yourselves a great time, and if y'all need anything just call down to the desk here. My name's Vic."

"Thanks, Vic, we will," Syl said.

We wheeled our luggage to the room and got it settled into the right places. While we did so, I mentioned my little observation to Sylvie.

Syl frowned. "Hmm. I didn't see it myself, but I know how good your observation skills are. Still, Jason, I didn't feel any hostility from him. I don't feel there's any immediate danger."

"Good enough for me. Let's get down to the beach."

 

 

 

52

"This really is a pretty little town," Syl said as we walked down one of the sand-strewn sidewalks in flipflops, looking very appropriately like tourists. She glanced around at the palm trees whose sunset shadows stretched towards the other side of the street.

"It certainly is that," I agreed. "Though not nearly as pretty as you." I luxuriated in walking on a solid surface after having spent the afternoon either sifting gravelly sand for fossil shark's teeth or chasing after a certain black-haired enchantress in a bikini.

"Are you flirting with me?"

"As usual, of course." We kissed. "Hey, how about I pick you out something pretty?" I said, as we were just then passing a jewelry shop.

Syl grinned. "What girl could refuse? Even if you do have questionable taste in gems."

"I make up for it by my taste in girls."

She gave me a nudge in the ribs as we entered Marie's Jewelry Box. "That had better be girl, singular, Mr. Wood."

Even ignoring the clearly visible CryWolf camera pointing at the door, the store itself was a not-so-subtle reminder of the changes Morgantown had wrought. In the old days—barely a year distant—silver had been the most popular metal for affordable but adequate jewelry. Now there were considerably fewer silver pieces on display even in large jewelry stores, and those which remained were far more expensive, some of them even designed with an eye towards defense as much as for beauty. Silver had eclipsed gold in terms of price per ounce for a while, and even after the immediate hysteria had subsided silver's price remained far, far higher than it had been before the werewolves had made their debut.

I noted even fewer silver pieces in this store than usual—only two, in the back and not well displayed. The majority were gold and platinum. Syl and I spent quite a while looking around, comparing, arguing gently on occasion, before we finally settled on a very nice platinum-and-gold bracelet with multicolored stones making a spectrum around it.

"A lovely choice," the owner Marie said, smiling—not surprisingly, since it was also one of her most expensive pieces. "Can I wrap that for you?"

I shook my head. "No," I said, slipping it onto Sylvie's wrist and kissing her hand, "I think we've got a perfectly good way to carry it, thanks."

Smiling, Marie took my proffered credit card. Her smile momentarily seemed to freeze on her face as she glanced at it. She glanced back at me, eyes wide. "J . . . Jason Wood? As in . . . the Jason Wood?"

I sighed. I might not be at the level of a movie-star celebrity, but I was already resigned to the fact that I was no longer a completely private individual either. "Yes, I'm the Jason Wood."

She smiled—for a moment I thought it looked a bit forced, but if so it relaxed. "Well, then, welcome. Lord, what a change you brought down on us, eh?"

"Heh." I acknowledged the (unfortunately all too familiar) mildly amusing sally. "Not entirely my doing."

"Of course not," she agreed, and turned to run the card through. "Changed my own business enough, though—on that I can guarantee you. Hardly any silver jewelry any more, and the silver dust business—well, I'm sure you know all about that."

I nodded, noticing that the almost standard-issue box for silver dust packets was present but tagged "out of stock." She noticed my gaze as she handed me the slip to sign. "Oh, my suppliers ran short on everything silver this month. I'm expecting a resupply in next week, if you were needing any . . . ?"

"No, no," I said, passing her the white copy. "We won't be here more than a couple days, just driving around."

"Well, thank you very much for your patronage, Mr. Wood—and congratulations. I hope you will both be very happy together."

"Thank you," Syl replied. "So far, so good!" She giggled as we left, jangling her new bracelet against the others she already had on.

But her face grew serious after a few more paces. "Jason?"

"Hmm?" I pulled my mind from the distraction of certain parts of Sylvie's anatomy. "What?"

"She seemed friendly enough and all, but I could have sworn . . . when she first saw your name I thought I sensed fear—almost panic."

I blinked. "Why the heck would she be afraid of me?"

Syl shrugged. "I don't know. It was a momentary impression—a flash, you know—and then everything seemed perfectly normal. Just thought I should mention it."

"Great," I grunted. "Guess I'd better check our supplies tonight. Just in case."

"Really, it's probably nothing; I don't have a bad feeling about her or anything. Let's get dinner."

It was full dark when we finally left the Cactus Steakhouse (yes, I love seafood as much as anyone, but this vacation had been awfully seafood heavy and both of us decided on a change). The stars glittered overhead, at least those which could overcome the town lighting, as we walked back towards our hotel. "Oooh, that was good," I said finally.

"It had better have been, seeing as you ate so much," Syl replied indulgently. "Jason, just because we're married I don't want you trying to settle in and grow a potbelly."

"Hey! I always eat a lot. And we were doing a lot of exercise this afternoon."

She was about to reply when something caught our ears. A . . . grunt? A cough? A slight gasp or something? I couldn't quite place it, except it sounded somehow terrified. It was coming over the fence of a nearby yard. I glanced at Syl, to feel my stomach knot; her "feeling" face was on, that frighteningly intense gaze that focused on nothing, yet seemed to see beyond anything. "Be careful, Jason!" she hissed, knowing my actions even before I'd decided.

I nodded and gestured for her to stay where she was, near the fence, while I moved forward a bit to the gate set in the fence. Cautiously I pushed; it was open and swung easily. I wished I had my trusty 10mm on hand, and wondered if I was going to be one of the cats that curiosity killed.

The yard was very dark; no lights were on in the house to which it was attached, the fence was high, and my eyes were still accustomed to the streetlights. But I could make out something on the ground, about thirty or forty feet away . . . and it seemed to me that across the yard there was a movement, another gate opening, and someone going through. There was nothing I could put my finger on . . . but something about that distant, moving figure sent a sudden shiver down my spine. "Hello?" I said tentatively.

There was no answer, though I heard a faint clack noise of the other gate shutting in the distance. "Sorry to intrude, but I heard something . . . ?"

Still no answer, but no sudden attacks from darkness either. I took a deep breath and stepped inside, walking slowly towards the object lying on the ground in front of me. Even before I reached it I had a very nasty feeling I knew what it was. I pulled out my keyring and turned on the mini-flashlight, pointing it downward.

Lying on the ground before me was a dead man.

"Oh, for crissakes," I heard myself say. "I'm on vacation, dammit!"

 

 

 

53

"Well, isn't this just peachy," I said, finally stripping off the clothes that had become steadily more uncomfortable during our police interviews. "Why couldn't I have chosen somewhere else?"

As the people who found the deceased—apparently the very recently deceased—Jerry Mansfield, the police had not only needed to talk to us, but to issue the standard request to remain in the area.

Syl managed a sympathetic smile, though she couldn't have been feeling any more comfortable—probably less. "Jase, darling, I think we have to face the fact; it's your karma. You attract these kind of things. If we went somewhere else, that's where we'd find the trouble. Even before you met up with Verne, the cases you got involved with had some odd features."

I admitted that this was something I couldn't argue, loath though I was to admit that there was anything to Sylvie's "karma" theory. "Maybe this one will be resolved quickly . . ." I started, as I turned on the shower. I caught her narrowed gaze, sighed. " . . . or maybe not," I said. "That feeling wasn't just death?"

"It was very, very bad, Jason. I haven't felt anything like that since . . . since I saw Renee and knew she was going to kill you."

Renee's name sent a pang through me, despite the year that had gone by. I missed her hardcase-cop façade and quiet friendship. "Did you see his face?"

Syl nodded. "Horror."

"Well, it could have been a rictus of pain, but I agree, Syl. The first thing to come to mind when I looked at him was that he died in terror. Eyes wide open." I frowned. "Looked over the body quickly, and without touching or moving him I couldn't find any traces of injuries, either. No vampire bites, no slashes, and so on."

"A werewolf doesn't have to cut you," Sylvie reminded me.

"True," I said, stepping into the shower and letting the hot water start blasting the sand out of my bod, "but according to Verne they do have to get awfully close to you in order to suck the life out of you without physical contact. You didn't look at the area nearby, did you?"

I could just make out Syl shaking her head through the mist-fogged shower door. "Not really—we didn't want to muddle things up with more tracks."

"There was silver dust scattered over a wide arc in front of him—some of it was even on his clothes. If it had been a Wolf, I'd have expected it to either be dead next to him, or at least to have made a rather loud protest about the stuff. They never were very subtle once they got hurt. But if I actually did see the killer leaving, he or she left dead silently, smooth and without great hurry either."

"But," Syl pointed out, and it was a mark of both my worry and tiredness that observing her silhouette undressing only slightly distracted me, "the fact that there was silver at all is a pretty damning clue."

I didn't answer immediately, but lathered my hair and washed. "I dunno, Sylvie. It just doesn't quite click for me. Sure, the Wolves can kill without the slashes, if we take Verne's word for it—and I don't doubt him—but still . . . I've never actually heard of them doing it that way. And even less would they do it if the victim started showering the area with silver." I chewed it over in my mind as I ran soap over the rest of me.

"Actually, I think you're right, Jason," Sylvie said. "It didn't really feel like a Wolf to me either. But if it wasn't, why the silver?"

I'd come up with a tentative answer. "Well, if you know Wolves shapeshift, and you know someone or something is trying to kill you without touching you—and he was sure scared about something—wouldn't you think 'werewolf!' right away, no matter what the thing looked like?"

"Oh." I heard the faint sounds of Sylvie brushing her teeth. "You're right, Jason, that makes sense! Confronted by the unknown, you'll try whatever weapons you have available that might work."

"Now the real question is," I said, getting out and towelling off, "why the heck I'm spending my time trying to figure it out. Let the damn cops deal with it."

She kissed me and stepped into the shower herself. "Because you know perfectly well that they're not going to deal with this one. It's ours. Wood 'n Stake ride again."

I snorted. "Bah. I'm probably making a mountain out of a molehill. The autopsy will come back saying he died of a heart attack, and the silver dust will be glitter or something from a kid's birthday party."

Syl's outline against the glass shivered. "I hope so, Jason . . . but I don't think it's going to be that way."

When I pulled out the 10mm and loaded it, she knew I felt the same way.

 

 

 

54

Sheriff Carl Baker was a big, tired-looking man with thinning hair combed over the top of his head and a white-sprinkled mustache that also seemed to droop tiredly. "Sorry to have ta drag you back here, Mr. Wood." he said.

"It's okay," I said. "I know what it's like when you're doing an investigation."

"Guess y' do, at that. Anyways, to be honest we're kinda at a loss. Jerry may not have been the friendliest guy in town, but he sure weren't the nastiest, an' I don't have a clue about who would've killed him."

"Are you sure he was killed?"

Baker's moon-round face twisted in a sour grimace. "Ain't sure of anything, right now. Coroner says that so far as he's concerned, Jerry should've been gettin' up off the damn slab before the autopsy. Not a thing wrong with him—heart in great shape, brain jus' fine, everything jus' fine—'ceptin' of course that he happens to be dead." He grunted and handed me a file. "Ain't procedure, but you've got yourself a rep in more than one way—I checked out what the cops up North had to say about you. Anything in there give you an idea?"

"Well, I'll see . . ." I opened the file, started reading. Sheriff Baker, relieved of the responsibility of talking to me for the moment, went into the outer office for a while.

Baker wasn't exaggerating; while I'm no doctor, I know how to read ME reports, and this one was clearly frustrated. Jerry Mansfield, twenty-nine, had apparently been a health nut. He was in perfect shape—not too fat, not too thin, prior medical records showed wonderful cholesterol and blood pressure measurements, and so on and so forth. The coroner really truly had no idea why this man had been dead. There weren't any marks on his body anywhere, no foreign substances on his skin aside from a bit of dirt and silver dust. The latter had been found on his clothes, most heavily concentrated on the hands, head/neck area, and . . . 

Wait one minute. I thought back to last night. No, there had been the regular sea breeze, but there was no way a significant amount of that would have been getting into the high-fenced yard, and even if it had, the direction was wrong. What the hell . . . 

I flipped back to another section of the report, looking for something. It wasn't there.

"Sheriff . . ." I called.

Baker stuck his head back in. "Found something?"

"Can you have the coroner check for something specific?"

"Sure. What do you need?"

I looked back down at the report. "I want to know if Jerry Mansfield had any silver dust in his lungs. Your ME may be doing an autopsy on a former werewolf."

"That's ridiculous!" Baker burst out. "Jerry couldn't possibly have been a werewolf!"

I raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Oh?"

Baker looked nonplussed for a moment. "Well . . . look, he shopped with everyone else, didn't he? Everyone's got those things you designed—hell, there's one right over my door here. Stands to reason the man couldn't've been anything other than one of us."

I had to admit there was something to that. Unless a Wolf had replaced Jerry Mansfield very, very recently, it was hard to imagine how he could maintain the masquerade in a place like this one, which as a tourist area had apparently made it quite a point to have everything covered from the Wolf perspective. "Well, have him check it, anyway."

Baker shrugged. "I asked ya to look, I suppose I oughtta go along with it. You got any particular reason for this here idea?"

I pointed at the photos of the body and the description. "There was silver dust all over the area in front of Mansfield, but if you look at the way it's distributed, it wasn't Mansfield doing the throwing; someone threw silver dust at Mansfield. He's got it on his hands where it would be if he tried to shield himself, but mostly on his head and other areas where it would have been if someone tried to throw it at him. Now, I don't know about you, but the only good reason I can think of to throw a hundred bucks worth of silver dust over someone is if you think they're a werewolf."

Baker looked at the photos and swore mildly. "God-damn. Now that y' point it out, it's plain as day."

"The clincher, of course," I finished, "is that Mansfield didn't have silver dust on him. No pouch or dispenser or anything like it. So it had to be the other person or persons who did."

While Baker went to call the ME, I continued studying the report. Footprints and track results were very disappointing. While they could, with difficulty, make out my prints and some of Jerry Mansfield's, there were hardly any readable tracks elsewhere; one investigator said it appeared that something had been swept heavily across the area leading from the body to the other gate, which opened up into a well-paved side street which would take no tracks. If that was the case, it obviously was a murder of some kind—someone had erased the tracks. I studied the pictures for a few moments more, then put them back.

Baker hung up. "Okay, he'll take a look an' get back to me soon. I hope you're wrong, to be honest. I mean, Jerry was a friend. Not real close, but enough that it'd kinda shake me to find out he wasn't anything like he seemed."

"Not to mention the can of other worms it'd open if it did turn out he was one."

"Noticed that, did ya?" Baker grimaced again. "Oh, yeah. What do I do if he was a damn Wolf? Ain't no laws dealing with this. The man paid his taxes an' didn't cause no trouble, so on that account I oughtta treat it like any murder, but if he was really one o' these shapeshiftin' killers . . . no thanks, there's a headache I just don't need."

"Well, Sheriff, I did what I could. Sorry if it causes you more trouble."

He waved it off. "Nah, believe me, I'd rather have the answer than not. I'll let you know what the coroner says."

"Thanks. I'm afraid that aside from that one offbeat suggestion, I can't see anything else to give you. If I think if anything, I'll call." We shook hands.

 

 

 

55

A few minutes later I was letting myself back into the hotel room. Syl came out of the bathroom, gave me a hug and kiss which took a few moments in itself, and then asked, "How'd it go?"

"The sheriff was actually more interested in getting my professional advice than in raking me over the coals." I answered. "Handed me the ME report, which did tell me one interesting thing; the silver dust wasn't Mansfield's. It belonged to whoever or whatever presumably killed him."

Sylvie stared. "You know that doesn't make any sense."

"Unless Mansfield was a Wolf, and as the Sheriff pointed out, that'd be hard to manage in a town that's as Wolf-wired as this one is. Or unless . . ." I trailed off. "Doesn't quite work, dammit."

"What?"

"Well, obviously whoever threw silver dust at Mansfield at least thought he was a Wolf. And it struck me that we do know one supernatural type of creature that kills Werewolves whenever it can get away with it."

Syl's face showed enlightenment. "Vampires, of course! Verne told us about that secret war they had."

I nodded. "Problem is that there weren't even puncture marks on this guy. Werewolves can kill without touching people, according to Verne, but he never said vampires could." I turned to the phone. "I'll call Morgan and see if this kind of thing rings a bell for him."

As I reached for the handset, there was a knock at the door. "Who the heck . . . ?"

I went to the door and looked through the peephole. A well-dressed man of about my own age, black-haired and brown-eyed, stood there, waiting expectantly. "Yes? Who is it?" I called through the door.

"Sorry to disturb you—but you are Jason Wood, correct?" he answered in a tenor voice. "My name's Karl Weimar, sir. I know it's rather irregular, but I know something about Jerry Mansfield that you might like to know—but I'm not sure I want to go to the cops just now."

I closed my eyes for a moment, sighed. No rest for the suckers. "Oh, all right, hold on." I unbolted the door and slid the chain off, turning as I did so.

Syl's eyes were wide, mirroring an inner vision of disaster.

I dove away from the door, drawing the 10mm as I did so. At the same moment the door slammed open so hard it almost tore from its hinges, and the dapper young man lunged through, shapeshifting into an all-too-familiar towering mass of black-brown fur, glittering claws, diamond teeth, and glowing soulless eyes.

But Syl's unspoken warning had been enough. I had moved and was not where "Karl Weimar" expected me. It skidded to a halt, talons ripping great gouges in the carpet, and turned on me, to find itself staring down the barrel of my gun.

"Believe you me, this thing's loaded with silver. And if it weren't for two things, I'd blow you straight to hell right now."

It snarled. "And those two are . . . ?" it asked in the unearthly deep timbre of its kind.

As I glanced at Sylvie, I amended my comment. "Three things, actually. The first one being that I'm curious about what brought you here to kill me. The second being that, from what Virigar told me, not one of you would dare touch me or Sylvie, since he'd marked us for his own—and you sure as hell are not the King. The third being that my wife thinks I shouldn't shoot you right now, for some reason of her own." I had no idea what the reason was, but Syl had communicated that I was doing the right thing in talking, so I wasn't about to argue.

For the first time I saw an expression other than savage hunger or fury on a werewolf's face. It looked positively taken aback. "You think that even the King's ban would hold on one who'd already broken it and begun hunting His people?"

"What?" I must've looked even more confused. "Hunting you? Sure, I'd expect that you guys would defend yourselves if I was going around shooting, and I'd presume even Virigar himself wouldn't argue about that. But I haven't been hunting any of you. Do I look crazy? Do you furballs think I like having clawed monsters chasing me around?"

"You killed Mansfield, thinking he was one of us," it retorted sullenly.

"I killed . . . ? Do you Wolves smoke some of the same stuff we do, or what? I just found the goddamn body! If he wasn't a Wolf, and thus dead from sucking silver, I haven't a goddamn idea what the hell killed him. You think I can kill people—Wolf or otherwise—by waving my f . . . friggin' hand?"

It stared at me a moment, eyes flickering like evil lamps, then abruptly reverted to its human form. "Well, scheiss," said Karl Weimar. "Now I'm just as confused as you are."

"I doubt that." I said.

He reached into his pocket, pulled out several bills (in the back of my mind, I noted that the fact that in Wolf mode he had no clothes, let alone a wallet, raised interesting questions as to the authenticity of the cash), and dropped them on the table. "For the damage. My apologies." Weimar turned and walked towards the door.

"Hey, you bastard, you can't just pop in, scare the crap out of people, and pop out without a little explanation!" I shouted after him, ignoring the obvious fact that he was doing just that.

I closed the door, which scraped a bit from being loosened, and collapsed into an armchair. "Jesus that was close."

Syl nodded and came to me, and we hugged and got over an attack of serious shakes.

Suddenly I stood up, almost dumping Syl on the floor. "Jason, what . . . ?"

"The peephole!" I answered, digging into my larger travel bag for my kit.

"What about . . . oh, my God."

"Exactly." I said grimly. "If my CryWolf gadgets don't work, it means they've figured out a way to hide from them . . . and all the people buying them are no safer than the poor bastards who bought shark repellent and thought it would keep sharks away."

But when I started checking on the door, the results were even more disquieting.

The external shell was a CryWolf sensor, or a good replica of the usual enclosure, complete with the logo . . . but the interior was nothing but an ordinary peephole lens. There wasn't even a power lead going to it.

"That son of a bitch," I heard myself growl.

"Who? That Wolf, Karl?"

"No," I said, standing up and wrenching open the door, "Our 'cheerful host,' Vic. He's ripping off everyone in the hotel—putting fake sensors on the doors to make 'em feel comfortable, but not spending the money for the sensors themselves. Well, he's about to get a little talking-to."

Vic was at the desk; the lobby was deserted, this being a nice afternoon—too early for evening check-ins, everyone at the beach, and the season being slow. He looked up, started to smile a greeting, then stopped at the look on my face. "What's wrong, Mr. Wood?"

"I was attacked in my room just now. By a werewolf."

Vic looked horrified. "But . . ."

I tossed the dummy sensor on the desk. "And don't even try to tell me it's impossible. Give me one good reason I shouldn't call about a dozen lawyers down on your ass right now."

Vic's gaze barely flickered to the sensor; the fact of my being attacked seemed to have overwhelmed him. "But they couldn't have gotten in here . . . ?" he said, looking pathetically frightened.

Then I remembered my prior brush with death at Verne's house and how Verne had nearly died. Vic probably didn't install his own stuff any more than Verne did. "Then you got screwed by your contractors, Vic. If the one in my room's a dummy, I'll bet all of them are."

His expression went from shocked disbelief to fury. "All of them? Jesus H. Christ, sir, I'll be looking into this, you can bet on it." He frowned. "What can I do in the meantime . . . Please, don't mention this to the other guests . . . ?" he made the request a question.

I nodded. "Okay. I don't want to ruin your business, but get it fixed fast. Don't worry about my room—I have my own CryWolf gadgets, of course."

"But you don't have to . . ." he began, then realized that of course I had to do this myself, since at this point I couldn't trust his sources. "Yes, of course you do, sir. Well, I'd better get on the phone and start kicking some."

"I suppose. And get a ruglayer into my room; the Wolf tore it up something fierce."

"Yes sir."

I didn't feel like going back to the room right now, and by her expression neither did Syl. "Want to take a walk, then maybe go for dinner?"

"As long as you'll be on the lookout. I don't know what that Wolf was up to, but he may not be the only one with that idea."

"Damn straight," I said, putting on my special glasses. They were a trial version of the CryWolf technology, using some of the more advanced circuitry currently available to make a detector which would, in theory, be just as good as my original clumsy goggle-mounts, but looked just like one of those "light-adjusting" sets of sunglasses. I glanced back at Vic to offer him a stopgap solution in the form of one of the other gadgets I'd brought, but he was in the office behind the desk now, and I heard his Southern voice starting to rise, with the words lawyer and sue being audible.

We spent a couple hours wandering around on the beach, avoiding people in general. While the town was a pretty place, recent events and our forced residency were unfortunately starting to rob it of its charm. As dusk began to fall, we made our way back towards one of the restaurants. Remembering the layout of the town better now, we turned into a smaller alleyway that would take us to the next road.

In the growing shadows, I thought I saw someone coming down the alley ahead of us, and slowed to let him go around. Then I realized he or she was just standing there. "Hello?" I said to warn them someone was approaching, in case they had their back to us.

The figure didn't move or respond. As I got closer, I saw that it was all the same grayish color—a statue of some kind?

Sylvie gave a sudden gasp and stepped back; my reaction was to step forward, staring incredulously.

Gazing back at us, face frozen in an expression of terror, was Karl Weimar.

 

 

 

56

I poked at the thing several times. It was stone, all right, solid stone of a generally grayish cast—in the current light I couldn't do much to identify it. But the detail I could see was amazing. I glanced at Syl.

"It's not a statue," she said, confirming my gut intuition.

"Right," I said. Realizing I hadn't brought my cell phone with me, I headed up the alley to the nearest open store, which happened to be Marie's, the jewelry store we'd visited . . . was it only about a day ago?

"Hi," I said, walking towards the proprietor, "I was wondering if you . . ."

I'm not sure how I controlled voice or expression in the next few moments; perhaps a part of me already knew and was prepared. Because as I neared Marie, her image began to shimmer, glittering with a network of lines and sparks . . . 

Without more than a slight pause I heard myself say " . . . would show us that lovely necklace in the third cabinet again?"

Marie smiled and headed for the cabinet in question. Syl stared at me for a split second, obviously wondering what the hell had gotten into me, but she knew I must have a reason, and followed Marie over. As she reached the third cabinet, Marie entered the effective range of the CryWolf camera over the door, and I turned and studied the image on the display behind her counter. I had to crane my neck to do it.

She and Syl both showed as perfectly normal on the monitor.

In that second the oddities I'd noticed all made sense, and I think it is a great accomplishment that I did not, in fact, scream out in horror. Instead, I turned and walked to the counter next to Syl. As Marie turned with the necklace in her hands, I said casually, "So . . . is the Sheriff one of you, too?"

She blinked. "I don't quite . . ."

I tapped the glasses. "These are CryWolf—experimental model."

Syl, realizing what I was saying, stepped back and slid her hand into her purse for her gun.

Marie stood, face utterly expressionless, for a moment, then closed her eyes and sighed. "How did you guess? You weren't wearing those last time."

"Since then one of your people tried to kill me, apparently thinking I was out hunting Wolves."

"Who would possibly be insane enough to . . . oh, I know. Must have been either Kheveriast or Mokildar." She shook her head. "Children are always fools."

The full implications finally seemed to have made their way to Sylvie's consciousness. "By the Earth, you can't mean . . . Jason, the whole town can't be Wolves!"

"Not every single family, no," I said, "but all the key people and a bunch more residents, is my guess. Right?"

Marie nodded.

"And you make sure it looks like everything's covered with CryWolf sensors, so no one ever gets an idea to start checking around otherwise. What I don't quite get is why."

Sheriff Baker's tired baritone spoke from behind us. "You don't get why? Mr. Genius Wood? You are the reason why."

"How . . . ?" I asked, then looked at Marie. "Ah. You can communicate with each other over some distance."

He glared at me, hands on his hips, and continued as though I hadn't spoken. "Ten thousand years, Wood. For ten thousand years I have walked the face of this planet, along with all my people, and never did we have anything really to fear from you. Oh, yes, if one of us was blatant, stupid, clumsy, and unfortunate, a silver weapon could end it for him or her, but all in all, that was just as well; if you have no respect for the potential danger of the cattle, you become fat and lazy, unworthy of being one of the great ones.

"And then you come along and invent a little toy." His hand lashed out, snatched the glasses from my face and pulverized them, "A toy that gets more of us killed off in three months than in my entire lifetime. That gets our race publicized so that we actually have to deal with people knowing—not guessing, but knowing—what walks among them."

"That," I indicated the crushed glasses, "will cost you about ten grand."

His expression became a snarl and his features rippled slightly.

"Unless you either want me to blow the gaff on your cozy little tourist village here, or want to assault me against your King's command, that is."

He seemed to be considering it through the bit about his village, but when I spoke of the King he instantly backed off, clearly frightened by the mere mention of Virigar. "N . . . no. You aren't intending to tell about us?"

"That depends on how you answer my question." I let my heartbeat slow down a bit. It looked like things might not end in a blaze of claws and gunfire. "Again, why the hell are all of you down here? Or is it just to give the words 'tourist trap' new meaning?"

He chuckled humorlessly. "The temptation is certainly there. But no, we don't kill anyone here. We can feed without killing, if we must, and if we control ourselves; and control is the complete and absolute law here. If we permitted killings, no matter how subtle, your law-enforcement people would eventually notice a change in the statistics and come to look." He gritted his teeth at my inquiring look, and finally forced himself to continue. "We are . . . we are hiding here."

I couldn't restrain a guffaw. The Wolves were running scared! "So you're living like the cattle now, hoping none of the bulls with silver horns catch up with you?"

He growled, a very inhuman sound coming from an apparently human throat. "For the moment . . . until we have decided how to properly deal with this new threat. So you didn't kill Jerry Mansfield?" he said, changing to his human guise's voice.

"Nope. Had no idea there were any Wolves around here until one of them tried to kill me earlier today. Now I understand your bit about denying he was a Wolf, though; you can't have any suspicion of Wolves being present at all."

"Mansfield was human," Baker said. "Someone thought he was a Wolf, looks like, but I guarantee you he was human."

"The plot thickens," I commented. This was an interesting sidelight on the whole matter. "And since I didn't kill him, we still have a mystery on our hands. A real Wolf would have known he wasn't one. So Mansfield was killed by someone who wasn't Wolf and wasn't human either." Suddenly I remembered why we'd come here in the first place. "Hey, Sheriff, do you know a Wolf who goes by the human name Karl Weimar?"

He nodded. "That'd be young Kheveriast. What about him?"

"He tried to kill me earlier, assuming I'd been trying to hunt Wolves, but that's not the main thing. If you go down this alley at the side," I pointed, "you'll find a statue of him. Except I think it probably isn't really a statue."

Marie looked puzzled, but Baker's face was a study in dawning horror. "A . . . statue?"

For a moment I felt actually sympathetic towards Baker—but I remembered that despite his fighting to save his race, his speech had shown no remorse for his people's actions and had confirmed the usual Wolvish tendency to megalomania. "Gray stone, incredibly detailed."

He got a grip. "Mr. Wood, I have some calls to make. We will speak again. This business may concern both your people and mine."

"Maybe," I said. "Why would someone have thought Mansfield was a Wolf?"

"He worked for us," Baker answered after a moment.

I blinked. "What?"

"I said, he worked for us. While we have a fairly good grip on this town, humans who move in, or who make additions to their houses, can't be controlled easily—and if they start installing their own sensors, none of our people dare get near the house. Jerry was . . . I suppose you'd call him a special agent. He would arrange for any active CryWolf sensors to become inactive. We'd use him to meet with agents who might be carrying their own gadgetry. Another reason we have to keep things low-profile here, obviously; if the Feds come in, they might well bring CryWolf-equipped cameras, goggles, and so on, and that would ruin it all."

I was utterly floored by this revelation. "What in the name of God could convince a human being to work for things like you?"

Baker grinned. It wasn't a comforting expression. "Your people are no angels, Wood. We can offer plenty to a wise human, especially when, as is now the case, you humans have something to offer us. And we generally play fair; after all, even your people don't butcher every cow—you keep some as breeding stock, some as working animals, and even a few as pets. If you weren't associated with Domingo, I have no doubt our King would have made you an offer to switch sides."

The very thought of someone—of a human being—working for these monsters, knowing what they were, was so repellent that I simply couldn't reply for a moment. Finally, I got my voice back.

"Okay, Baker. I won't blow your cover . . . for now. But I am not working with you any more. I will give you no help, no hints, nothing. So far whatever it is has hit either at you monsters, or at someone who was working hard to give up his humanity. As far as I'm concerned, that means they're doing the world a friggin' service."

Baker stepped forward again, glaring. "Wood, you'll assist if we say so, or I'll . . ."

"You'll what? Come on, tell me." I threw my own sarcastic grin back in his face. "You can't do a god-damned thing to me, Baker, and you know it. I'm too well known to just disappear. If I get killed, your cover's blown for sure, and once the country realizes what you were up to, there won't be a safe community for you bastards anywhere on the planet. You'll have to go to ground in wilderness, away from all the comforts you've obviously come to like. Even if you somehow keep the Feds out of it, Verne Domingo will deal with you. And I don't think the King will stop him in that instance." I took Sylvie's arm and started to walk out.

"I still have an investigation ongoing, Wood," Baker said, with a cold intonation. "Leave town and I can have you brought right back here."

"Oh, I won't leave. Yet. But you finish this investigation, pin it on either the real crook, or one of your own people, I don't care which, and let me get out of this infested hellhole within the next week. Because I swear by God that if I have to hang around here any longer, I'll just phone the authorities anyway."

"You wouldn't!"

I whirled back, grabbed his collar and shoved him back against the counter. "The hell I wouldn't! Do you think I'm an idiot? That I can't do a little simple math? It's been less than a year since Morgantown, and here you are, in charge, hundreds of you furry bastards living like so many Addams-family rejects behind a coat of Brady Bunch paint. You didn't win any elections to get here—you whacked hundreds of people and took their places. The only reason I'm not blowing the whistle right now is that when your kind are cornered, you kill—and I don't want to be responsible for another bloodbath. I'll take your word—for the moment—that you're not killing any more. Maybe it's true. It had better be true from now on, believe you me." I let him go, turned back to Sylvie. "Let's go."

I ignored the crawling sensation between my shoulder blades and didn't look back as we left.

 

 

 

57

"Why the hell can't you keep your fifty thousand makeup things off the darn counter?!" I exploded as three bottles fell over.

"Probably for the same reason you can't put your stupid clothes away when you go to bed!" Syl snapped back. "Do you know how disgusting it is to leave your dirty clothes on the floor?"

I opened my mouth to fire back, saw the mingled anger and hurt in her eyes, and closed both eyes and mouth. "Jeez, I'm sorry, Syl. This thing's really getting to me."

She came over and put her arms around me. "Me too."

"Some honeymoon this is turning out to be."

Venice and Nokomis were still lovely places, but just how are you supposed to relax and enjoy your stay when you're aware that any of the nice people around you—on the beach, in the store, on the street—may be a soul-eating monstrosity just hiding out until such time as they can gain the upper hand on your own species? Baker had come through with the money for destroying my prototype, but without access to my homegrown lab and materials I wouldn't be able to duplicate the things. I was now carrying one of the commercial CryWolf goggles, but I didn't bother wearing it while out and about. I could do without drawing that much attention, and I really didn't want to know just how many Wolves were around me at any given time.

"The first part was fine. It's not your fault we've found ourselves stuck in another strange circumstance."

I took a deep breath and tried to relax into her. There was no point in letting this drive me nuts. I'd given Baker a week, and it had only been two days. If I didn't get a grip, I'd be saying something I'd never be able to make up for by the time six days were past.

There was a knock on the door. Both Syl and I jumped, showing the state of our nerves. "Who is it?" I called back.

"Sheriff Baker sent me over, Mr. Wood. Might I come in?"

I went over to the recently repaired door, put on my goggles, and opened it, keeping the chain on as I studied the man standing there. He was a tall man, over my six foot one, with thick, wavy brown hair brushed back from a high forehead, piercing blue eyes, and sharp, patrician features. He was quite slender, though apparently fit, and his clothes were of impeccable cut—clearly upper class. I glanced back at Syl to make sure she didn't have a nasty feeling about the next few seconds, then nodded, taking off the CryWolf goggles and sliding the chain to the side. "Come on in. What's this about?" I asked.

"I have a . . . business proposition to make you, Mr. Wood," he said. He bowed to Sylvie. "Lady Sylvia Stake; I have heard of you. An honor."

As he was paying his respects, Syl was checking him out. His voice had a faint English accent, but not quite—perhaps Canadian influence? "A business proposition, Mr . . . ?"

"Carruthers, sir, Alexi Carruthers," he replied, shaking my hand firmly. "Yes. I would like to see if I can persuade you to reconsider your refusal to assist investigating the current string of unusual murders."

What had been a pair was now a string. "There have been more?"

Carruthers nodded, taking a seat when I indicated that he should. "Three, two Wolf and one Human."

"Was the human another of the Wolves' allies?" I asked.

"She was," Carruthers acknowledged. "This may be coincidence, however. Of necessity as many of the townspeople who could be have been recruited. It is not improbable for a killer to run into two collaborators."

I shook my head. "What's in it for me, Mr. Carruthers? So far, as I told Baker, this whatever-it-is seems to be perfectly happy killing Wolves and traitors to humanity. Since the Wolves perpetrated mass slaughter to move here, and don't show any sign of regretting it, I'm not particularly motivated to try to save them. I'm supposed to be on my honeymoon, not working."

Carruthers smiled faintly. "I suppose monetary recompense would be foolish?"

I snorted. "I may not be the richest man in the world, but I've got tons more money than I know what to do with."

"I told Baker that myself," Carruthers admitted, "but it was the simplest offer I could make. When he called me in, I warned him you would be difficult to deal with; you have many reasons not to wish any of us well."

I studied him. "Did you say 'us,' Mr. Carruthers?"

He smiled again. "Yes, I did."

"You're a Wolf?"

"I am."

The terrible, hollow feeling I'd had for a few moments after Karl Weimar had attacked us returned. The Wolves had found a way to hide themselves from the detectors. "Shit."

He looked momentarily confused, then laughed. "Ahhh, your clever little CryWolf devices! I must compliment you on that—an inspired piece of design. One that couldn't have been done effectively even a relatively few years ago."

"Useless now though," I said, trying to keep the bitterness out of my voice.

"Oh, far from it!" Carruthers assured me earnestly. "Really. Only a very, very select few of us can pass such devices with impunity. Only those of us who are truly Elder Wolves, and of course the King himself."

"Baker isn't an Elder?"

"Baker? Little Hastrikas?" Carruther's laugh filled the room with a rich baritone sound again. "Why, he's no more than eleven millennia—barely more than an infant, really, all things considered. No, no, Mr. Wood, there aren't more than a handful of the Great Elders left alive—I, of course, am one of them." For a moment, his eyes flickered, became soulless glowing yellow orbs. "Virigan, at your service."

I think both Syl and I gasped at that—in a way, that partial, instantaneous transformation was more macabre than the usual full-scale change. "So," I said, "you're saying that the CryWolf devices are still mostly reliable?"

"In the vast, vast majority of cases, indeed."

He seemed still rather relaxed and cheerful. "You don't appear particularly disturbed by this; if you don't mind my asking, why aren't you on the warpath along with the rest of your relatives?"

The smile faded; now Carruthers looked serious. "Mr. Wood, most of our people are children by our standards. Even the older ones, like Baker, have had easy times. They need to learn that sometimes the prey can turn on you, and how to survive such times. If they cannot, they do not deserve to live; other worlds are not nearly as forgiving as this one has been. We are the greatest and most powerful of all beings that have ever lived; only those who prove their worthiness again and again should have the right to even approach that potential. So has it ever been; if they wish a different course for our people, why," he smiled coldly, "all they need do is challenge the King for rulership. And win, of course."

"But enough about us, Mr. Wood; let's talk about you." Carruthers studied me for a moment. "I actually wanted to meet you quite some months ago, after you interfered with something I'd been working on for years." He raised an elegant eyebrow, waiting for me to guess.

I didn't have to think long; there was only one really likely candidate. "So you were one of the people behind the Project—the one in Vietnam, that had Tai Lee Xiang."

"Very good. I was in fact the person behind it all, and have been for several decades now."

I thought about that for a moment. "That would mean you were working on this stuff while the OSR was still active."

"Correct."

"Now, just what would a Werewolf want with a human genetic engineering project, Mr. Carruthers?"

He waved a finger in a "no, no" gesture. "Ah, ah, Mr. Wood, we are getting sidetracked again. Such questions should remain mysteries, the better to intrigue you. We are here to discuss your employment."

I smiled back with an easy laziness I didn't feel; I was in a room with one of the most lethal creatures on Earth, and knew all too well what it would do to me if circumstances changed. "No, you are here to discuss employing me. So far, I'm here to listen to whatever interesting facts you let slip and otherwise laugh at the very idea of helping you."

Carruthers gave a heavy sigh. "Yes, I rather thought so. Let me make you a more concrete proposal. Your interference in the Project cost us immensely. There are a number of people—human, my kind, and, well, other—who feel that you would make an ideal target as an example. The game of international intelligence, on this level, is not done in the standard way, since, if we are being honest, neither side admits of this level's existence. More grim and direct methods tend to be used in our realm of business. Your termination, despite certain allies who present formidable obstacles in this area, would serve as a clear warning to others who have begun to gain an annoying brashness in their intrusions.

"I am willing to offer you amnesty—we shall write off the cost of the operation with respect to you and your lovely wife. Since the King's decree protects you from my kind, this will essentially place you back at where you were before ever you were involved in such affairs; only mortal concerns to worry you."

I nodded, considering. I hadn't forgotten the possibility that the Project would take my interference amiss, but Carruthers had now made it a concrete threat, one that I couldn't afford to ignore, especially now that I had a wife and, potentially one day, a family of my own.

"What's your angle, Carruthers?"

He raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, you're a bright guy yourself. You have the Project for resources, plus gods only know what else. Why the hell do you want me in on this? What is it that keeps you and your own furry family from solving it?"

"A matter of symmetry, you might say," Carruthers responded. "You ruined one project, now you present yourself in a perfect position to rectify another."

"Bullshit." I glanced at Syl, who nodded, glaring at our visitor. "Don't even try lying to me about stuff like that, Carruthers, or you can go sit on a silver spike and spin. Try again, the truth this time, or you can kiss any chance for a deal good-bye."

Carruthers' eyes narrowed, and for an instant the typical Wolf looked out, hungry, furious at being balked by this lesser creature; then the urbane mask was back. "As you will, Mr. Wood.

"Certain . . . features of this case are disquieting to my people. There are a few possible causes of the, um, particular condition of the corpses, but all of them imply a form of death which our people fear above all others. At least one of the possible causes would make us more, rather than less, vulnerable to this attacker than human beings, and in most cases the attacker will be growing stronger with each kill. None of my people want to be involved—not only is the death involved truly hideous, especially to a race that is by all rights immortal, but if the one explanation proves correct, those investigating would be potentially supplying our enemy with ever greater power. A human being will be at once somewhat less vulnerable and, if he fails, will not provide much of a boost to our adversary."

I snorted. "So you need an intelligent but dispensable agent who won't prove to be a battery for this bozo."

"Succinctly put."

"You're being awfully low on the details here. If you expect me to look into anything, you'd have to be a bit more forthcoming on them."

A nod acknowledged my point. "Indeed, but you have not yet agreed to the position, Mr. Wood. The more you learn, the more dangerous you could become to us, true?"

"True enough." I thought for a moment. "I'll make you a counter-offer, Mr. Carruthers. You will arrange the same immunity for all those associated with me—specifically, you give up on Tai Lee Xiang and all his relatives. If you have his wife or daughter still in your possession, or that of anyone you have influence over, you'll hand them back. Verne Domingo, myself, Sylvie, and to be blunt my whole damn hometown is off-limits to you and your gene-twiddled friends."

"Have you completely taken leave of your senses, Wood?" Carruthers stared at me. I couldn't completely blame him, I had upped the ante a bit, specifically in his own project's area.

"Hey, you're the one who came here. Take it or leave it. I'm not interested in just personal immunity—that's not enough to make it worth playing this game with you. I'll trust in Verne and Tai Lee to whip the crap out of any of your assassins that happen to wander through." I turned my back on him and got myself a ginger beer out of the fridge and congratulated myself that my hands shook hardly at all.

I turned back to face Carruthers' silent glare. I returned it with a raised eyebrow and sat back down.

Silence. None of us moved.

After what seemed an hour but was probably only a minute, Carruthers broke into a smile and spread his hands. "You have my measure, Mr. Wood. It is, indeed, that important to me. I accept your terms, with a single exception: Jeri Winthrope. While she is not, at present, high on our list of targets, she is connected to an organization which is in an adversarial position to us, and I will not agree to something which would potentially leave me bound to permit an enemy to strike at me without my own freedom to strike them as I saw fit."

I didn't like the exception, but I also knew what "organization" he had to be referring to, and whoever they were, they played their own brand of deadly hardball. A warning to the Jammer would suffice to make sure they kept their eyes open.

"Agreed."

"Excellent!" Carruthers stood to go.

"Whoa, there," I said. "I want you to swear to this agreement."

"Certainly," he began, but I held up my hand.

"In the name of the King himself."

His mouth tightened, then relaxed. "Yes, I suppose you would guess that one. So be it. I, Virigan, one of the Eldest Five, swear, by the name of our Father and King, the Final Devourer, Virigar, that from this day forth no forces under my control, or under the control of any I influence, involved with the Project or of our people, shall seek to harm, kill, interfere with, or otherwise inconvenience Jason Wood or any of the people associated with him as follows: V'ierna Dhomienkha, known as Verne Domingo; Tai Lee Xiang and any of his family; Sylvia Stake; and any and all residents of the community of Morgantown, New York, current or future, with the sole exception of Agent Jeri Winthrope and any that she recruits or imports to the area, aside from those already mentioned. In addition, I swear that if any of the family of the previously mentioned Tai Lee Xiang remain in the custody of any I control or influence, they will be returned to Tai Lee Xiang and will enjoy the same status of protection.

"In return, Jason Wood, you swear that you will undertake the investigation of these killings in Venice and environs, and will devote the same ingenuity and effort that you have to prior investigations, ignoring considerations of our races' differences in the pursuit of the perpetrator. Have I your word?"

"You have my word of honor, yes. I'll do the best I can."

Carruthers bowed. "Then it is agreed and sworn to. I would suggest you call the Sh'ekatha; he will be able to tell you many things about what you may be facing. In the meantime, I will be instructing my people to cooperate with you fully—including giving you information on ourselves and our enemies which we would otherwise never reveal. I shall not be available—I must return to my own duties elsewhere." He extended his hand, which I shook reflexively, a shiver going up my spine. "Good-bye, Mr. Wood. I doubt we shall meet again."

The door closed behind him. I looked at Sylvie. "Why do I have a feeling that despite having him over a barrel, I still got the short end of the stick in this one?

 

 

 

58

"You may have been tricked, Master Jason."

I closed my eyes for a moment. "Why, thank you, Morgan. Just what I needed to hear."

Sylvie and I had just finished filling Morgan in on the details; after I had called Verne and started to tell him the situation, he had cut me off, not wanting to discuss things by phone, and sent Morgan down by chartered jet. Another peculiarity of Verne's existence that I hadn't known until now was that he could not travel a great distance from home, or stay away for any length of time, without significant preparations. Therefore he had sent Morgan—his oldest living friend and retainer—to be his right arm.

"Would you mind at least filling that in?" Sylvie asked. "Exactly how we were tricked, I mean."

Morgan smiled slightly. "Perhaps 'tricked' is too harsh a word, but slightly misled, certainly. While it is, technically, true that there are several ways to produce the effects that you have described, only one seems to me and Master Verne at all likely—and even that one is so unlikely that only the very existence of these crimes would make us consider the possibility at all."

"I see." I said. "What you mean is that he made it look like the thing they were afraid of wasn't necessarily here, while in fact he was pretty darn sure that it was, right?"

"Essentially true, yes, sir. In our opinion, you are dealing with a Maelkodan."

I typed the word into my laptop and frowned. "That one does not come up in the little database I made a while ago, Morgan."

"Master Verne realizes this and sends his apologies, sir. The creatures were rare even before the disaster, and mostly not found on Earth in any case; it did not occur to him that any such could have survived until now."

I noted the word down. "And just what is a . . . Maelkodan?"

"As the Werewolf is the origin of several legends—that of the lycanthrope, several demons, and so on—the Maelkodan is the original source from which the legends of Medusa, the basilisk, the catoblepas, and so on have derived. They are monstrous creatures, intelligent and devious, of vast mystical potential.

"As were so many monsters, they were created by sorcerous experimentation. In the case of the Maelkodan, a misguided attempt to create a creature capable of hunting down Werewolves produced a monster with the requisite abilities, but with its own agenda. As nearly as Master Verne can determine, this was due either to a genuine mistake by the wizards doing the design, or possibly due to deliberate interference by someone—perhaps Virigar, perhaps one of the magicians themselves playing a deeper game. The Maelkodan was created from a combination of Werewolf, Human, and Teranahm souls and bodies."

"So," I said, "a group of powerful but possibly not very forward-thinking wizards went ahead and made this weird crossbreed. Um, what was that last species? Tera . . ."

"Teranahm," Morgan repeated. "The translation would be 'Great Dragon.' "

"Ooog." It wasn't the brightest-sounding rejoinder, but I wasn't able to think of appropriate words.

"Indeed, sir. The resulting creature lacked the fluid shapeshifting ability of the Wolf, but as both Wolf and Teranahm have this as an inherent ability, a Maelkodan nonetheless has three forms. The first is its true form, which from the fragmentary descriptions available would be something akin to a slender lizardlike body with a vaguely humanoid torso rising, centaurlike, in the front. It has Wolf-like claws and teeth, and the scales are excellent armor. Unlike the Werewolf, it is in fact not vulnerable to silver, but on the much brighter side is vulnerable to ordinary weapons, as a general rule, though if they become powerful enough their armor will withstand blows from swords and so on wielded by mortal strength. Master Verne and I are of the opinion that bullets will remain effective."

"Well, praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, will wonders never cease; a horror from beyond time that I really can just shoot dead." I said. "By the fact that the Wolves are scared of this thing, though, I guess it must have something to make up for the fact that it can be killed conventionally."

"Indeed, sir. Several." Morgan paused, knowing I liked to work things out myself if possible.

I considered what he'd said so far. "Okay. Given what you say it originated in the way of legends, it has a death gaze. If it looks at you, you die. I'd guess that you have to also be looking at it—not only is that what the legends say, but if it could just kill by looking around, the thing would be virtually impossible to beat by anyone, and I presume the things did get killed on occasion."

"Scoring pretty well so far, Wood," Baker said from the doorway, carrying a box of papers, presumably the records I needed.

"What I don't get is the different methodologies; why did Mansfield end up just plain dead and Karl playing statue?"

Baker shook his head. "Not different methods, Wood. Different kinds of beings are affected by the Mirrorkiller differently."

"Um, 'Mirrorkiller'?"

"It's what we call the things. For what it's worth, the damn things fulfilled their design purpose. They like hunting us. They just like hunting everything else, too."

"Quite so," Morgan said. "They were supposed to inherit some human behavioral traits, but instead apparently became mostly Wolfish in their outlook."

"Enough," I said, as I realized Baker was taking it personally as a snipe—which it may have been, but with Morgan's English-butler reserve there was no way to tell. "Three forms, you said. What are the others?"

"One is human," Baker said after a moment. "A secondary shape it can assume while hunting. The third shape is the shape of the last person it killed. So when first hatched, it's only got two forms until it succeeds at killing."

"Why does it just cause humans, for instance, to drop dead, and Wolves to turn to stone?"

"That has to do with the difference in the essential nature of human versus Wolf," Morgan answered. "Correct, Mr. Baker?"

"Yeah," Baker said. "Ya figured out our basic nature when ya made that gadget, right?"

I nodded. I thought I was starting to get the picture. "You're really energy matrices inhabiting a physical form. That's why you can perfectly duplicate a human being without becoming the human being."

"Right. Now, the Mirrorkiller, it eats the soul—the essential energy of any living thing. Being related to us, it's basically the same kind of thing."

"Now I understand. Since it was made using part of your essence, that's why your people can't just sense it, either—it can hide from you just as well as you can from us."

Baker grimaced. "Uh-huh. Now, when it gets you in its sights, it tries to eat your essence. But a human being, he's tied to that body. The body and the soul, they're just part of the same thing for you people. So it's got to rip the energy out of you, bit by bit, until the meat that's left falls over." Baker gave a shiver, a genuine sign of fear. "With us . . . it establishes, um, whattyacallit, a resonance, two similar patterns, and it damps part of ours out—negates part of the will to move, to fight. The resonance makes it take on the shape of the one it's killing."

"Thus 'Mirrorkiller.' "

"And then it moves to the target body, eating directly, leaving its own behind and taking over the shell."

I blinked. "So it's not really Karl's body out there carved in stone?"

"Not really, no. That's the mass which the Mirrorkiller was using beforehand. The next victim we found, well, that was Karl's body after the Mirrorkiller was done with it."

I had to admit, that was a pretty creepy picture. "But then Mansfield's body . . ."

"Well, of course that was the real body," Baker said. "The Mirrorkiller doesn't waste energy forcing its body to maintain a biological structure when it's moving to a new one. And it can't move into a human body the same way—it needs a soul connection to do the move, and it has to rip the soul out of a human first, rather than being able to move in via the resonance. It can use the resonance to paralyze the same way for a human, but that's the most it can manage."

"Okay, so it killed Mansfield. Then, as itself or Mansfield, it could –"

"No, not as Mansfield—where'd you get that idea?"

I looked at Baker. "You said its third form is the last person it . . . oh, I see, the usual Wolf attitude. We're not people. It only takes the form of people whose bodies it's taken over."

"Right."

"In the legends," I said, "basilisks could be killed with mirrors. Is this true?"

"As it so happens, yes," Morgan answered, consulting some notes. "The Maelkodan retain some tendencies of physical creatures; they must see their target with physical sight first, before their soulsense can engage. For them, the eyes are indeed the window to the soul. The mystical connection between sight and soul is exceedingly deep for them; therefore, when they are engaged in the hunt, seeing themselves in a mirror—in attack mode only, mind you—triggers an attack upon their own soul."

I nodded slowly. "I see . . . yes, that makes perfect sense. The energy matrix is of course its own, and by trying to establish a suppressive phase shift, it's going to in essence cancel itself out."

Morgan blinked, as did Baker. "If you say so, sir."

"You emphasized 'in attack mode only,' Morgan. I suppose that means that we can't track down the Maelkodan by looking to see who might have no mirrors in their houses, or by lining the streets with reflective glass?"

Baker chuckled. "Sorry, nope. Only when it's chasing prey is it using the death-stare, focusing its own soul to attack. And they're all pretty well aware of the Perseus dodge, so it ain't easy to catch one off-guard." His tone became more serious. "And a Wolf don't have much chance of getting away with it. A human, he can catch a glimpse, get a jolt but maybe stumble on, break eye contact and keep going. One of us, once the lock starts . . . it's over."

"So there's two things you're more vulnerable to than us," I said, musing.

"Mr. Carruthers mentioned that these creatures gain in power as they kill," Sylvie said. "Can you clarify that, Mr. Baker? Do they have other abilities besides this death-gaze?"

"Ayup," Baker said dismally. "Humans ain't got much, for the most part, on the power scale. Oh, there's a few what have trained in certain disciplines whose souls burn more bright, but for the Mirrorkiller they're strictly potato chips—you gotta eat a whole bag to get much out of 'em. One Wolf, even one of the puppies around here, gives 'em a kick like fifty or sixty mortals. As they get more soul energy, they get stronger. More powerful energy matrix, in your terms—they can do a lot more with it. Physically they get more powerful, no doubt—by now, the bastard we're up against could probably toss a small car with effort. And at some point they'll be able to access the Draconic heritage those damn-fool wizards mixed in. That means magical effects. What with the pathetic magic ratio on Earth these days, at least we don't need to worry much about 'em casting spells, but inherent magical effects ain't out of the question. Poltergeist stuff, at least."

"Moving things by sheer will? Telekinesis?"

Morgan responded. "Yes, sir. Now, it's tied to the spiritual side, which means that it cannot directly affect people—of any sort—but other objects are fair game."

"What about the cosmic mind-woogie?" Sylvia asked.

"Beg pardon, Lady Sylvia?"

"I mean, both the Wolves and the vampires can mess with people's heads. How about these things?"

"Ah. Yes, well, they apparently have some small ability to do this, but it is more along the lines of standard hypnosis—anyone who is aware of what they are facing is really in no danger."

I noted that down, looked at the rather intimidating summary. "That about it?"

"Think so," Baker said.

"Okay. So let me summarize. The thing kills by mutual sight—even a glance is enough to lock down a Wolf, but a human has a chance to break eye contact if he's lucky, but a few seconds will finish anyone. It has three forms—one a lizardy centaur kind of thing, one a base human form—that's a preset, right? I mean, it's born able to turn into some specific human appearance?"

"Right."

"One base human form, and one form that changes with each kill of a Wolf or similar, um, energy-matrix being. So if it kills Joe Wolf, it can then be either its default form or Joe Wolf until it kills Jack Wolf, at which point it loses the option of looking like Joe, but gains the ability to look like Jack. Can these things kill each other?"

"Probably," Baker said. "They don't seem to hunt each other down much, though. There never were many of them, thank the King."

I nodded. "Okay, then we've got several possible investigative avenues for us. First, where'd the thing come from? Your people seem to keep fair contact with each other, at least for big important stuff, and I'd guess you'd have known if there were statues turning up before now. Besides that, I've been doing a search through police files across the country and even in other countries I've gotten access to, and there doesn't seem to be any pattern of a bunch of people being found dead without marks on them. So as a first guess, this thing just recently became active. How and why, and from where?

"Second, we follow the movements, as best we can, of the victims, see if we can come up with anything in common that might lead us to the killer's home. It's a damn shame about the statue trick; it doesn't give us much info on time of death, and that means that since the killer can take on the appearance of its last Wolf victim, sightings of the victim at any time during the day preceding the statue's discovery could actually have been the Maelkodan using the victim's shape.

"Third, we remember that the creature has to be living here somewhere. Probably as a human being. If that's so, it must be using its default form. So you want to look for people who have arrived here only recently and have been here since the first killing. Aside from myself and Sylvie, of course. "

"You I'll grant," Baker said. "But just out of sheer cussedness, why can't she be the one?"

I stared at him, speechless for a moment.

"Y'all gotta admit, the timing fits. And I hear tell she can sense us coming. That's impossible for a human. Nothing can find us except our own kind, and even that depends on how strong the other one is and how bad they want to hide. So just how can she sense us . . . unless she's either one of us, or a Mirrorkiller?" Baker's gun was out now, pointed straight at Sylvie . . . but his head was turned sideways, keeping him from looking at Syl's face.

"That would be extremely good evidence," Morgan said quickly, "were your statements entirely accurate. They are, however, not quite correct. It is true, sir, that there are very few things capable of sensing the Wolves, but as Master Jason's device demonstrates, it is not entirely impossible. In point of fact, there are a few examples in Master Verne's experience of human beings and others who had the true Sight—they were not seeing through the disguise, so much as sensing an outcome of events, watching the very flow of time in the short term. From my experience with Lady Sylvia, I am convinced that this is, in fact, how she senses your people."

Baker's gun hand wavered slightly. He was listening.

"And also," I said, "Syl's been living in Morgantown for years. No such killings ever took place there, and hell, during Virigar's visit there were so many Wolves around that I just can't imagine one of these Maelkodan things being able to restrain itself; instead of Verne killing Wolves in a warehouse, he would've gotten there to find a wonderful display gallery of statues and a Maelkodan so juiced up it'd be telekinesing city blocks for fun."

Slowly, Baker lowered the gun and raised his head cautiously. Looking at Syl, I saw what he did in her eyes; mild amusement, relief, and a trace of sympathy. "Well, even a Mirrorkiller would've thought two or three times about trying that with the King nearby, but I guess y'all have a point." He sighed. "Damn, but it would've been a simple solution."

"The simple solutions rarely work out," I said, relaxing. "Now that we've got an idea of what we're up against, let's get to work finding the damn thing before it kills anyone else."

 

 

 

59

"Baker, what do you think about this?"

He looked up from his desk and took the sheet of paper from me. "Hmm. Ayup, I was wondering about that."

"Three disappearances in the same general time period. One of them from your department. Think maybe the Maelkodan might be responsible?"

He frowned. "Problem is . . . why the hell are these guys disappearing, but the others standing out in plain sight? It ain't like hiding just some of its victims is going to put us off the trail, the thing'd have to hide all of 'em. Or at least all the Wolf victims, anyways."

I nodded. "It's a puzzler, that. But I'm still putting these guys down as possible victims. Are these people all Wolves?"

He glanced at the names again. "Yep. All of 'em."

"I'll make that 'probable' victims, then. In this town you've made clear you people work together and talk to each other, and so they wouldn't go running off without a word to anyone . . . and I can't offhand think of easy accidental ways to kill you people off."

"S'trewth," he agreed.

"Any progress on movements?"

"Damn little," he growled, obviously frustrated. "Karl Weimar, easy enough—we know he busted in on you, then left, talked with a couple others, then said he was heading back to talk to you people again. Timing makes it likely he got nailed at that point. Mansfield, well, he was all over town the last few days, bein' one of our contact men and all. Since he was killed at home, though, that don't tell us much. Same for the other victims—looks to me like the killer's picking vulnerable times and places, not waitin' to ambush a sucker who gets close."

"Which means we'll need to trace movements of people who might be the killer, rather than tracing the victims' movements."

He nodded. "O'course, without some decent suspects, that'll be a mite difficult. Can't run a trace on everyone."

"How about the correlation with recent arrivals?"

"Aside from you and your wife, you mean? Ain't looking very promising neither. If I give it about a month for new arrivals—assuming the thing decided to take a couple weeks to settle in an' decide how it wanted to start the killing—we've got about eight possibles. Problem is that so far it looks like at least half of 'em have ironclad alibis for Mansfield's murder, an' the rest might be a problem for some o' the others."

"Damn." It was starting to look like the creature might be hiding somewhere in its actual guise, not living among the regular citizens. While in theory that might make it easier to find because of the limitation of how many isolated, hidden areas there might be, in practice the thing could just pop out in its unknown "default" guise whenever it needed something, and since that default still wasn't known, no one would think twice about its appearance. Baker and I agreed that we might get somewhere by seeing if a stranger had been seen in the general area often enough—that is, if our monster was at all interested in living the civilized life, it had to be picking up its cokes and chips somewhere, and even if it varied the routine, after a few weeks it had to be repeating locations. If we were lucky, someone would remember that. If it wasn't into the comforts of the twentieth century, we might be in for a long, hard search.

"How about your end?"

I shrugged. "Depends on how the thing got here. So far we haven't found any probable entry times or points, but hell, we don't know if it slithered here under its own power, walked in as a human being, or got shipped here as a Ronco Peel-O-Matic in a little cardboard box."

"Maybe not, Wood, but ya are missing the point."

I was always open to suggestions. "And the point being . . . ?"

"Well, if'n we're right about this thing not bein' active until now, that means someone basically woke it up—either it just hatched, or someone found it trapped somewhere and let it out."

Maybe it was all the paper-pushing, but I didn't quite see what he meant. "So?"

He gave me a "stupid human" look. "So, big shot, there's damn few places you'd be able to have a Mirrorkiller—egg or suspended—hangin' around to be found. It'd have to be some place where the coverup job on the Old Civilization wasn't quite complete—real heavily defended vaults, places like that. Now, I ain't up on the geography of that time, but you got friends who are. I'd ask them."

I smacked my forehead. "Okay, thanks, I deserved that. Of course. I suppose the Greek legends came from one that was released in a similar fashion?"

Baker shrugged. "Probably. I don't know firsthand, but makes sense; seem to remember something of an alert on one of the things being on the loose 'bout two, three millennia back or so, but I was in Asia most o' that time. Ask your friends, they oughtta know."

I gave a tiny shiver. Just when I was half-forgetting what he was, something would happen to bring it home. Verne always had that otherworldly air about him, courtesy of the movie-vampire image which he happened to fit and his own immense dignity; Baker, on the other hand, was as down-to-business a Southern cop as you could imagine, and hearing that drawling voice casually mentioning a memory from before the time of Christ was still unnerving. "Okay, I'll get on it. Add in those disappearances and see if it gets anything new on the timing end."

"Will do."

 

 

 

60

"That few?"

Morgan nodded. "Ten is the largest number of reasonable sites that Master Verne can think of. You have been told the power involved, Master Jason. You must understand, the demonic forces did their very best—at the direction of their ruler—to eradicate every trace of the original civilization, and Atla'a Alandar apparently suffered a similar fate." He unrolled a set of maps and began to lay them out on the floor of our hotel room. "Seven of them are, of course, at the locations of the Seven Towers; these were the bulwarks of Atlantaea's defenses, and even in destruction may have continued to defend at least something in their immediate area from complete eradication."

"Odd," I said. "I'd have expected that such areas would have been the focus of specific clean-up efforts."

"They most likely were, sir. However, according to Master Verne, the Towers' very nature made them difficult to completely destroy; even in destruction, it seems, they might have cloaked some material from detection."

I studied the maps and started marking off the locations on the globe. It was a bit of a jolt to notice that instead of all exotic, faraway places, one of them appeared to be somewhere in the vicinity of Cape Cod. The rest of the ten locales were scattered around the globe, ranging from somewhere out in the middle of the South Atlantic ocean to Germany.

"Now that you have this information, sir, do you have any idea what you will do with it?"

"Yep. That much I knew as soon as I asked. Obviously this Maelkodan thing wasn't mobile on its own before now, and I'll bet money that even immobile it wasn't anywhere with easy access." I was using my laptop to access my home machine and set up the search criteria, tapping in the commands and specs. "So someone just dug it up, or in the case of the ones in the ocean, maybe dredged it up."

I waited for that set of commands to be acknowledged, entered the next. "So what I'm doing is setting up a bunch of search parameters to locate, first, any expeditions or events that might have uncovered something unusual in the ten areas you've given me. In the case of deep-ocean sites, that'd have to be major scientific expeditions—no one goes down fifteen thousand feet in a casual dive, let me tell you. In land or shallow-water situations, there's more potential for casual digs and dives that might happen to turn up something that Man Was Not Meant to Know."

"I see," said Morgan. "And after that?"

"Then I tie this in with law enforcement files."

"Why law enforcement, Jason?" Sylvie asked, looking over my shoulder.

"Think about the scenario. By far the most likely is this: Jane Doe finds something unusual—maybe it looks like an artifact, a fossil egg, whatever—on a dive or a dig. So the Maelkodan either wakes up right then, or it wakes up after she's brought the thing home or to the university or on board the ship. In any case, when it wakes up, what does it do? Barring some ridiculous coincidence involving its default human form looking just like one of the people present, it can't just slip out unnoticed, even assuming no one was looking when it woke up, hatched, whatever. Even if it does slip out, the finders are now missing part or all of their interesting find."

"Very clever, sir."

"Yes, I see, Jason. Either you'll have someone who disappeared, someone who got killed, or some item or artifact stolen or disappeared."

"Right. Now, if it was incredibly lucky, there might have been a Werewolf available when it popped out, and it then could have assumed a known form to the people there. But even so, that person would have had to leave the area and end up here—or rather, it would likely have said it was going to some particular locale but ended up coming here to lose possible pursuit. Either way, it's likely that someone would be looking for them by now unless the person in question was in the habit of just dropping out of sight for weeks at a time."

"How long do you think it will take to do this?"

"Now that I've put in the parameters? A few hours, maybe, depending on how much stuff there is that makes a close fit."

Morgan shook his head in amazement. "I still find myself shocked at the speed of such things, Master Jason. However, are you not making a bit of an assumption that what you are looking for is indeed online?"

"To an extent, certainly, but news services generally carry most of the kind of thing I'm looking for. If we come up completely dry, we'll have to try something else, but let me give my machines a chance." I pulled out a deck of cards. "Anyone for a game?"

A couple hours later, I was glad we were playing for pennies. I'm not a complete putz at cards, but I'd forgotten that Morgan was probably older than the Sheriff. He was clearly trouncing both of us. "I should've suggested a game of Magic," I muttered as I shuffled and began to deal. "One-eyed jacks and the suicide king are wild."

"My geeky husband, you forget that you'd be the only one with a deck," Syl said, checking the cards as I dealt them.

"Couldn't lose then, could I?"

"Actually, Lady Sylvia, I happen to have a very nice red-black deck," Morgan said, causing Sylvia to boggle and me to chortle. "Although I confess to not going by tournament rules and hardly being up-to-date on my cards."

"No problem, Morgan, it's not like I'm a fanatic who has time to keep up—" my laptop played a small fanfare. "Oh, goody—I mean, oh, darn, I guess I'll have to sit this one out," I said, dropping my cards on the table.

The others dropped theirs, too and Morgan collected his small but significant winnings. I keyed in my go-ahead and data began to scroll across the screen.

"Anything?" Syl asked.

"Excavation in Chile . . . nope, nothing there . . . dredging . . . possible, but . . . digging for old Indian relics in New York, nothing promising there . . . well, well, what have we here?"

I highlighted the article and brought it up. "Doctor J. I. O'Connell of the University of Oxford Archaeology Department led a team of researchers in the past few months on a survey of supposed underwater ruins off the coast of Cuba and other Caribbean islands. Their purpose was to find an accessible site and see if they could uncover anything in these ruins which would verify their age and origin."

"Looks quite promising, Master Jason."

I grinned. "Yep. And the physical nearness is encouraging. I mean, if you're in Mongolia and are looking for some Wolves for lunch, I'd presume it'd be a lot easier to head for somewhere in China. But if you're in the Caribbean, you head for the good old USA." I keyed in a request for a search on more information on O'Connell, this recent expedition, where he might be presenting the results, and so on.

A few seconds later the results popped up. One carried the red flag signifying it was a law-enforcement file. "I'll be damned." I said. "Look at this."

Syl read aloud. "Missing Persons report: James I. O'Connell."

"I believe we have a winner," I said grimly.

"Even more so, sir," Morgan said, pointing to the bottom of the list.

From the screen, I read: "Underwater archaeology team hopes to present results at conference in Florida."

A double-click brought up the entire article, which was an interview with Dr. O'Connell and a few of his students. In it, O'Connell indicated that he hoped to present at least a preliminary review of the results at the UAR (Underwater Archaeological Researchers) local conference in Florida. " 'This is all very tentative,' O'Connell said with a grin, 'since we don't know our exact timetable yet, let alone if we're going to have any decent results to present. Still, I've given them tentative notification so they'll be ready.' " I read from the article. I looked up at the others. "Bingo. A few calls, and we'll know exactly how and when our little friend entered the country."

A quick Web search found the UAR page (I had to go back and specify, after encountering the acronym in use by things as diverse as a Mac networking program, a UK asset recovery agency, and Russian architects) and a listing of their event schedule. A chill went down my spine as I read:

"Local Archaeology Conference: September 22–25, Venice, Florida."

 

 

 

61

I listened to the ring tone. Again. Again.

"Hello?"

The London-accented voice was that of a young woman.

"Could I speak to Mandy Gennaro, please?" I said, making sure I was reading the right name.

"Speaking. Who is this?"

"Ms. Gennaro, my name is Jason Wood."

"Not the—"

"Yes, the," I said. I revised my estimate of how many people knew my name; given how much the Morgantown event had forced the revision of people's security systems, it might be that I was currently a household name in the civilized world. I wasn't sure what to think about that. "I'd like to ask you a few questions, if you have a few minutes."

"Hold on!" I heard footsteps hurry away, a clatter, then footsteps returning. "Sorry, had something on to cook. Is this about the Professor?"

"In part, certainly. I know the police have already gone over everything with you, so I'll try to make it quick."

"How are you involved, Mr. Wood?"

"It's rather complicated to explain. In a nutshell, I've gotten involved in an investigation here in the States which may be connected with Dr. O'Connell's disappearance in some way."

"Right, then. Go ahead."

I ran through a short list of questions, establishing that she knew O'Connell quite well, having had him as her advisor for the past three years, and that she had been his right-hand person on the expedition.

"So you were very familiar with the sites, then?"

She had a nice laugh. "No, no. I was in charge because I'd done underwater investigations before—in the Mediterranean, an old Greek merchantman. So I understood a lot more of the limitations and requirements than most of the students. You don't really grasp the dangers unless you've been down in the muck yourself, you see."

"Was all the equipment yours? The University's, I mean?"

"Oh, lordy no. 'Twas a joint project, you understand—your own National Geographic Society helped sponsor it, and we had a few others to help. Submersibles and so on, they aren't cheap, not even for a big university."

"I understand that Dr. O'Connell vanished at the airport."

She hesitated. "It did seem that way . . ."

It was an obvious opening. " . . . but?"

"Is this confidential?" she asked suddenly.

"Well, I'm not a lawyer or priest—I can't be protected under law against talking—but I won't say anything about this conversation that I don't have to legally to anyone not directly involved in the investigation I'm doing," I answered. "If you want to verify that I am who I say I am, I can give you some numbers to call to verify my bona fides."

"Oh, no, no. It's just that the issue's a bit touchy now, and the police are still being a bit hush-hush about it all," she answered. "Here it is. The night he disappeared, he left in a bit of a hurry—left some last-minute notes about how he wanted the materials handled and so on, but that he'd had a sudden personal emergency and had to leave immediately. Now, he got himself plane tickets out, right there at the airport, but he never actually left."

I nodded, then remembered she couldn't see it. "I get you. No one who knew him actually saw him from any point after . . . when?"

"Dinnertime. He went off to the lab to finish some notework on our finds, and since we were already getting ready to pull out, the rest of us were more into relaxing a bit."

"So if someone got to him on board your ship, they could've just left the notes and then used his card to buy the tickets."

"Right."

"Were the notes in his handwriting?"

I could almost hear a shrug in her tone. "Could've been. I wasn't studying them hard then. Since, well, they don't look quite right, but then if he was in a hurry and upset . . . anyway, the police will probably be able to say for sure."

"Anything else odd?"

Again, she hesitated. "Not at the time. But . . . well, we brought our finds to RLAHA when we arrived—"

" 'RLAHA'?"

"Sorry, the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art." Mandy clarified. "And just the other day they found something very odd. We'd uncovered this thing—some of us think it was a sarcophagus, others that it was a vault box, others some kind of storage chest for holy relics—but whatever it was, it was big, had a lid, and seemed hollow. Anyway, RLAHA and our team start going over it so we can date it, open it properly and all, and what do we find? It's apparently already been opened—in the air."

"Dr. O'Connell wouldn't have done that on his own, maybe out of curiosity?"

Her voice was somewhat offended, somewhat tolerant of my ignorance (partial ignorance, actually—I thought I knew the answer, but it didn't hurt to ask). "Mr. Wood, no archaeologist worth his or her degree would even think of it. We're not playing Indiana Jones up here. Such an object is like a time capsule, but a very, very delicate one. Open it under the wrong conditions and you destroy more than half of what it can tell you."

"I understand. Was this sarcophagus, or whatever, one of the things you discussed at the UAR conference in Florida?"

There was a long pause. "I'm a bit confused, Mr. Wood. I wasn't at the UAR conference—Dr. O'Connell intended to go himself. He was going to confirm his travel plans with them either the night he disappeared or the next night, in fact. Naturally, that never happened . . ." Her voice trailed off, then came back, " . . . but it is a bit odd . . . I did get a letter a few days ago from Dr. Rodriguez of the UAR which was discussing some of our finds. I thought it a bit odd, but I hadn't really read it carefully yet."

"You didn't attend the UAR conference in Venice, Florida?" I repeated.

"No, I did not, Mr. Wood. Why?"

I looked down at the flyer in my hand, printed up from the UAR site. "Because, according to the UAR, not only were you there, you, not Dr. O'Connell, presented a quick but fascinating overview of what you had found," I answered. "Ms. Gennaro, would you do me a favor? Fax me a picture of yourself, so I can show it to some of the attendees?"

She was silent a moment, apparently still trying to absorb what I'd said. Then, "What . . . ? Yes, yes, of course. If someone's running around pretending to be me . . . well, I don't know what to think. Your number?"

I gave her my fax number—actually an e-fax number, one that would send the fax as an e-mail so I could retrieve it anywhere.

"Will there be anything else?"

"No, not at the moment. You've been immensely helpful, Ms. Gennaro."

"You're welcome. Could I trouble you to at least let me know what you find out?"

I hesitated. What the hell, I could certainly figure out a bowdlerized version which would be close enough for her to hear. "I certainly will."

I hung up the phone and turned to Morgan, Baker, and Sylvie, all of whom were waiting. "We have our smoking gun."

"The damn thing came to the conference?"

"Right here in this hotel," I said, enjoying Baker's expression. "And apparently wowed them with the presentation, too. It must've absconded with some of his notes and slides."

"Slides, yeah, but it wouldn't need the notes," Baker said, looking chagrined. "Assume it killed O'Connell, then it knew pretty much what O'Connell knew—about recent events, leastwise. Dunno just how extensive it is, but they sure steal enough to be able to get by. Probably just grabbed some rolls of film an' chose some good shots."

"And then, finding that the conference just happened to be in Wolf City, it decided there was no reason at all for it to move on."

"Ayup," Baker said dismally. "When's that girl going to send her pic, so we can go around and trace her movements?"

I grinned. "Receiving it now, but I'm willing to bet half of what I own that not one person will recognize her."

"What? Oh, damn. It booked it under her name because its default human form is female, but no way it looks like her, right?"

"Maybe close in the written essentials, but not close enough to fool anyone, unless it's so lucky that it oughtta be playing the lottery every day." A photo-quality print came out of my little inkjet. "There you go."

Mandy wasn't bad-looking—cute, mainly, with a fairly round face, dark hair in a sort of pixieish cut, and a reasonably trim body as you'd expect from someone fit enough to do diving archaeological work. "There you go, Baker."

"Nope, rather it was you. Remember, more contact I have with the outside, more likely I run into some paranoid who finds out what I am."

I sighed. "Fine, fine, look, you do the hotel staff anyway, will you? I'll handle talking to the UAR people."

"No need to bother," Syl's voice broke in.

Baker and I looked at her. "Why?"

"Tsk, tsk, Mr. Information Man. While you were talking, I did a few searches under the members' names, and looky what I found on Dr. Jesus Rodriguez' web page."

On the screen was a large photo of a tall, slender, dark-skinned girl of long hair and exotic beauty, pointing at a slide image showing a large stone object. The caption read, "Mandy Gennaro showing some of the spectacular finds from the University of Oxford's Caribbean excavations."

Syl smiled at me smugly. "I think you get to keep everything, Jason."

 

 

 

62

I looked at the stony face and sighed. "Another one, I see."

"Fourth, or if we're right about the disappearances, seventh of us." Baker grimaced. "I swear, the thing's probably out there laughing."

I shrugged. "Maybe. We certainly aren't having luck catching it yet. The question is where the hell did it go after the convention? Plenty of people saw her there, but afterwards?"

Baker shook his head. "Nothing. We've been around with photos, checkin' the stores all through the area. Couple people saw her during the convention, but not afterwards."

I turned away from the statue of the late Deputy Arnaud and headed up the stairs to Baker's office. He shut the door behind us and followed. "So she went into hiding. But that's not a nondescript appearance; she's going to be noticed if she was looking like that."

"Ayup. But . . ." Baker's eyes narrowed; for a moment I almost thought I saw a yellow gleam. "Now there's an interesting possibility. Look here; it's hard to tell, but it looks to me, if we take best guesses, that we end up with a new statue around the time we get a new missing person's report. There's been a lot of events in the past couple weeks, so I dunno if we can say it's a real pattern, but . . . what if she's killin' people, takin' their place for a while, then shifting to someone else? The people who been disappearin', she actually killed 'em days before. Then she hits someone else for a quick fix, uses them that day to scout out a new sucker, an' takes them. An' a few days later, it starts again."

I sucked in a breath. That theory made sense. "I see. Yeah, quite a bit. If that's so, then she's got to be either hiding the statues near the kill sites, or she's got herself a good storage spot for a bunch of statues . . ." I smacked my forehead. "Duh! She's not keeping the statues. She's pulverizing them." I gestured out the window, where you could occasionally get a glimpse of blue ocean. "Your habeas corpii are probably out there on the beach."

Baker looked like he wanted to kick himself as well. "Right, right, Wood. Shoulda thought of that. Ya must've hit it on the head. Damn."

"Around here, it's easy to get rid of something like that. Getting rid of a body like Mansfield's, that's harder. Unless this thing eats flesh too, and lots of it."

"Nope. They can eat—an' some do, overall, just like we do—but they ain't like us in that area. Me, I could've polished off Mansfield in eight or nine bites, bones an' all, but the Mirrorkillers don't do that."

"But then why the hell is it leaving any of the statues?"

Baker pursed his lips, thinking. "Well, I'm thinkin' it's like running a business. Location, location, location. Even at night, if you're out in the middle of town like she was with Weimar, it's gonna draw attention if someone sees ya lugging a statue down to wherever it is ya plan to do the rock-crushing. Sure, by now she can probably do it with her bare hands, but it's still gonna be noisy."

"Right," I said. "So the ones we find are just stopgaps—she takes the form like you said, uses it to find someone she can nail in a more private location and then replace them for a while. You people all work together, and once she killed a couple of you she'd know everything about who she could and couldn't talk to about what was going on—from your point of view, I mean. So I'd guess it wouldn't be hard for her, as one of you, to talk to the right people and get them into a convenient locale."

"Nope," Baker agreed. "We gotta be ready to cooperate with each other here, especially in shifting people around. The humans that work with us sometimes'll have to be in two places at once, so to speak, and it's our job to cooperate with 'em to that extent."

"Oh? Why do they have to do that?"

"People in any business that's got a lot o' contact with outsiders. Either the people doing the interaction have to be human, or we at least have to have humans who can do their jobs that we can swap places with. You have no idea how complicated this can get. So any of us can call on the others to help out—moving bodies, switching places, whatever."

I nodded my understanding. "So it would in fact be very easy for her, in the guise of her stopgap body, to get someone else to accompany her, or let her inside their house, or whatever."

"Ayup," he agreed.

"Then we've got her. Just make it so that people can't do it that easily—they have to coordinate it with you, or some other central group. Next time she tries it, bang, she's finished."

"Can't be done," he said heavily. "The masquerade can break with just one bad run o' luck, and my people've gotta be able to respond to an emergency right away. Besides, ya don't realize just how hard it is gettin' Wolves to work together this way if'n you ain't the King. They hate bein' shoved into coordinated slots, an' it's takin' me just about everything I got to keep this thing workin' as it is."

"Well, we've got a chance now, anyway. Look, she can't be sure of exactly when the statues of her quick kills are going to be found, so she's got to move fairly quickly. So somewhere around the area should be the place where she found her new longer-term host, so to speak."

"And how does that help us?"

"I think there might be a way to test it. The Maelkodan isn't vulnerable to silver. So if we can check all the Wolves in the area, you just need to find one that doesn't react. Wear a glove or something with a little silver on it and shake hands; anyone who doesn't get burned or whatever is your monster."

Baker gave me a respectful look. "Y'know, that might just work. I'll get my people on it right now . . . after I give 'em a handshake m'self."

 

 

 

63

I put down the phone, sighed, and sank into one of the chairs, toying with my just-finished duplicates of my CryWolf glasses. One advantage of working for the Wolves was that I wasn't actually restricted in movements if I stayed on the case, so I'd ordered the custom parts, then taken a day, flown up, and assembled the things. At least now I could be subtle. I put them on, adjusted the fit.

"Bad news?" Syl said, sympathetically.

"My bright idea was a bust. All we've got now is a bunch of werewolves with itchy palms, and I don't mean that they're looking for tips." I chewed my lower lip idly. "Now, this could mean Baker's idea still works, but she's going farther afield than we thought looking for her replacement."

"Why does she have to switch so often, though?"

"Remember her basic limitation, Syl. Every time she whacks a Wolf, she gets a brand-new face. She doesn't keep a record of the old ones in her matrix, so she can't just go back to where she was . . ."

I saw it then; it was, in its way, sheer genius. It wouldn't work forever, but certainly for longer than it had already gone. And I could confirm it so easily . . . 

Picking up the phone, I called Baker and asked him a few questions, as though I was clarifying something. Then I hung up. Sylvie watched as I checked my gun once more. "What are you going to do?"

"The rest of my job. But I'll do it my way, not Carruthers' or Baker's way."

She nodded, serious. I started to say something else, as she began to put on her own gun, but stopped. She knew what I was going to do before I did it, there was no arguing with her when she decided what part she was going to play.

Besides, I needed her to play that part.

I went down to the lobby, where Vic glanced up. "Hey, Mr. Wood! Need anything?"

"Actually, yes, Vic. But it's kinda private . . . ?"

He nodded his understanding—certain business, after all, not being something you wanted to discuss in non-secured public areas. Even though it was late at night, there was always the possibility of an uninvolved traveller dropping by at the wrong moment. He hung a "back in 15 minutes" sign up and we went into one of the back rooms. "Okay, how can I help?"

I studied him. "First, let me congratulate you," I said, to his sparkling image in the glasses. "I almost didn't figure out how you were doing it, and without that, we'd never have caught you."

He froze for a moment, just as he had the night we checked in, then sighed. "God-damn. If you don't mind my asking, how'd you figure it?"

"Partly the timing of the killings, partly luck, and just a few little things that nagged at me," I said, making sure I was not blocked in and had at least two ways to run. "Baker's theory on what you were doing wasn't bad—and it was actually close, in some ways—but when we came up with nothing on that, I started thinking it was a complete bust. But then there had to be some explanation for the pattern. So I was thinking . . . why? If you're not moving from life to life, what's the point of the pattern of one person disappearing, one person being found?"

He nodded, sitting down on a crate some distance away. Apparently he really did want to hear the explanation. "Go on."

I was careful to avoid staring directly into his eyes; despite assurances that an alert human could probably break contact fast enough, I wasn't taking any more risks. "Then there was the whole Jerry Mansfield episode. It didn't quite fit with the others. Especially the silver dust bit.

"But it did make sense if I assumed someone got a little panicky. The Wolves certainly did. Mansfield was a quick and dirty attempt to get rid of me; it made it look like someone was out hunting Wolves, in the conventional way. Once I'd clearly weathered that threat—when Karl Weimar left my room with me still alive, in short—it was clear the quick impulse had failed. You knew who I was when I registered, and it flustered you. Here you were, still adjusting to the way this world works—and even with your ability to grab people's knowledge, I'll bet that still takes some getting used to, the changes in the world since you were last out and about—and along comes this guy with a reputation for dealing with Weird Shit. No warning. You knew you'd killed a fairly important guy already, the cops were looking for him, and if they'd gotten a whiff of the weird, well, who would they call? Jason Wood, of course.

"Naturally, you knew who and what everyone in the town was, and Mansfield made a perfect target—almost vital to the town's functioning, but wouldn't die in that all-too-telltale stony way. By the time the Wolves stopped panicking at my presence and the silver evidence, I'd be dead. Maybe. You didn't have that much to lose, since you planned on settling down here to eat anyway."

He hung his head. "I'm sorry about that. Really. But you're right, I just . . . what's your idiom? Freaked, that's it. After uncounted thousands of years, I was finally, finally free, and suddenly there you were."

"The first 'disappearance' was about due to be reported, anyway; Karl Weimar gave you the perfect chance to start confusing the trail," I continued. "Your first victim had been expected to be away for some time, so you'd had latitude. And you'd already gotten it figured out. Everyone knew you couldn't go back to the same form you had already had. And you couldn't take the form of human beings, only Wolves. So Victor Spangler, long-time resident, and well-known human collaborator, was a doubly safe identity.

"I didn't get all the keys to unravelling this puzzle until recently, or I might have caught on sooner. Certainly if I'd just been going by your movements en route here, Vic would have been high on the suspect list; you're in a fairly central location, you have contact with everyone, and so on.

"The key, of course, is the masquerade. The Wolves have to cooperate in order to keep the secret from being blown, and they especially have to do so with their human collaborators—the ones that sometimes have to be quickly moved around so as to be the interfaces with humans that might possibly be carting around CryWolf gadgets. These collaborators are of prime importance in all areas that have high contact with outsiders: convenience stores, gas stations, restaurants . . . and hotels."

He chuckled and nodded. "Right, right."

"I found out that the day the conference ended—that is, the day before I arrived—Vic had to go out and be counterman at one of the other hotels. Someone, of course, had to take his place here—a Wolf who had changed himself to look just like Vic! You, of course, noticed the substitution, and that was when the whole idea hit you. You immediately killed him and took his place, now having the guise of Vic the Human to work from. Now that you were 'in,' you could use that cooperative requirement to get other Wolves to take on Vic's form—on the excuse that you were needed elsewhere. That's why you had to destroy the other bodies, to hide the fact that otherwise there'd be quite a collection of Vic Spangler statues around. Once I had the idea, all I had to do was ask Baker if you were a collaborator—I said it as though I assumed you were a Wolf, he corrected me—and check a couple timing issues with your assumed ID."

He spread his hands. "You got me, all right. Had to kill the real Vic, too. So now what?"

I frowned. "Aye, there's the rub, as Hamlet put it. On paper, you're a murderer, or a dangerous animal, depending on who you ask. And I can't say I'm comfortable with the whole idea of what you are, or of letting you go after you killed off a harmless archaeologist. On the other hand, I also really hate being strung over a barrel by the Wolves. Their King's put me on reserve as a personal chew-toy for later, but they've basically bargained me to solve this problem in exchange for my friends being kept out of a bunch of other things. I wanted to see if there was a chance we can find a resolution for this that doesn't include my using this," I pushed my sport jacket aside and eased the gun out, "to turn you into a colander. And I'm also a bit of a conservationist, I suppose; killing off the entirety of a species doesn't sit well with me."

Vic sparkled; the shimmer intensified. It wasn't like a Werewolf's change, but more like watching clouds of sunshine-touched mist dissolve and then reform. The Maelkodan had taken her more natural, default-human form—and again I admired its tactical sense; if it wanted to play any sympathy cards, it knew perfectly well that a beautiful woman would have a better chance with me than even a nice cheerful hotel proprietor. "As I see it, the problem is that I need to eat."

"Not nearly as much as you have been," I pointed out. "They already told me just how much power you gain; by now you're getting quite a ways up there."

"And you believe everything they say?" she challenged.

It was my turn to chuckle. "Not at all. Unfortunately for you, Morgan was the source of confirmation on the information."

Her lips moved in a pout or a tightening; I couldn't be quite sure which without studying the eye area. "Ah. The one who feels like something from home. But, really, Mr. Wood, does it matter? Aside from poor Dr. O'Connell, who just happened to be the one present when I finally broke free and acted on my instincts, the only people I've killed have been either Wolves or their friends. Do you really care what I do to them?"

I acknowledged the point. "In truth, not really. I think the world's better off without them. But there's the issue of my own word versus theirs. I did promise to investigate this fully and track down the killer. Now, I could weasel some technicalities around, but I do have to solve the problem for which I'm hired, and saying 'Well, I did find the killer, but too bad, I'm not doing anything about it' really violates the spirit of the contract. The very last thing I want to do is encourage them to start playing technicality games with me."

She nodded. "I could just move on."

"And—be honest now, because if you lie about it and it comes out later, I will beyond any shadow of a doubt come after your ass—would you be able to keep from killing?"

For a long, long moment she paused.

Finally, "No. No, I could not. It is what I was created to do. I am a hunter. I hunt everything, especially the Wolves, but even your people. The hunt is part of my life. They made me that way. You would eventually hear of the deaths. And they would continue, so long as I live."

My heart pounded painfully against my chest. "Then let's at least settle it here."

"You have not called the Wolves?"

"No. I wanted to find out if there was a chance. And if not, at least deprive them of the pleasure."

She stood up, slowly, and shimmered again, holding her hands up in a "hold a moment" gesture. Rainbow-shimmering clouds formed, dissolved, coalesced, solidified.

Before me stood the Maelkodan.

The centauroid torso and head were just about my height; the body itself, perhaps three to four feet at the hip. It was twelve feet long, covered with iridescent scales in beautiful geometric patterns of green, black, red, silver, and gold. The legs, three-taloned affairs like a Jurassic Park raptor's (minus the one huge claw) moved smoothly, shifting back and forth nervously. The arms were edged, with wicked spikes at the elbows, and I could see the glitter of diamondlike teeth in the mouth. The head I couldn't focus on, without risking eye contact, but it seemed to be crested and fluted and spiked, as though wearing an elaborate helm.

It bowed low from the waist. "You risk your life and honor me. I shall cherish your soul."

"I don't intend to die."

"No more did any of the others." The eyes glowed suddenly, an iridescent flame that I glanced towards reflexively, eyes drawn by the sudden moving change.

It was like being hit by a mallet on the side of the head, combined with the utter fascination of every forbidden pleasure ever imagined. I knew—knew with absolute truth—that if I didn't look away, I would die, yet for a frozen instant of time I couldn't do it; I yearned to do nothing more than stare more deeply into those windows of horrid revelation.

But memory, duty, and the face of Sylvie warred against that lure, forced my eyes shut against the terrible siren call. Still, being blind is a bad combat situation, and I heard it starting forward.

Right on cue, Syl kicked open the door from the hotel. I went out the back way, as I'd intended all along. Sylvia's gunshots, unexpected as they were, convinced the Maelkodan to head out into the street with me, even though public locations were hardly where it wanted to be caught.

I sprinted out the door and down the alleyway. Behind me, I heard the swift scuttling of taloned feet; I whirled, keeping my eyes low, and snapped off two shots; the Maelkodan writhed sideways, behind a Dumpster, giving me back a lead and allowing me to round the corner ahead of it.

More gunshots, from Syl's Smith & Wesson, sounded out; I kept running, knowing I'd hear the creature on my tail in moments. It wouldn't try to charge Syl who was in the cover of the doorway and who was, I felt sure, firing with accuracy while her eyes were squeezed shut. Her Talent had many uses.

Skittering rhythm of claws on pavement behind me—and then a screeching of tires. I spun around, just in time to see one of the police cars slide to a halt right next to the Maelkodan. It flowed up and to the other side of the car, and I heard a suddenly-cut-off shriek. There was a metallic ripping sound, and I saw the passenger-side door fly out onto the street, followed by a statue that crumbled on impact with the pavement.

Then the whole car was hefted into the air.

I almost made eye contact again, goggling at the scene. The creature had its legs splayed wide and dug into the street, tail counterbalancing, performing a comic-book feat of strength with a wide grin on its fanged mouth. With an effort that sent it skidding backwards, tearing grooves through the blacktop, it hurled the cop car straight towards me.

I ran and dove aside at the last second; the impact was so close that it sounded like the crack of doom. Jesus Christ, the thing was strong! Maybe as strong as Verne! 

As I rolled to my feet, I emptied the clip in its direction to slow it down and ran through another alleyway, slamming in another clip. I'd heard one squealing roar of pain—must have at least nicked the thing. I realized I'd been subconsciously underestimating the creature; our estimates of its capabilities had been based on it having killed three Wolves; by current estimate, that was off by at least a factor of two, maybe more if it had gotten lucky and caught a few others we hadn't noticed yet. I exited the alley, turned down the street. I was, naturally, cursing myself for having these ideas of fair play and justice when dealing with monstrosities from beyond time, and promising myself I'd change my ways if I could just live through this.

A shadow within the darkness was my only warning, as the Maelkodan dropped to the street fifty feet ahead of me, having apparently run and jumped along the tops of buildings to do so. However, in the landing it did pause slightly, perhaps enjoying the effect and the power, and I took full advantage to center my 10mm on the torso and fire three times.

The thing's eyes flared just as I did that, and I saw three sparks of light in line with my aim. In the streetlights, I could just barely make out three tiny objects, floating in the air scant feet from the thing. Telekinesis.

"I should have known, I should have known, you can never kill a monster with bullets, never, it's in the friggin' Monster Union Rules!" I heard myself half-wail as I turned and dashed inside the supermarket, which was mostly empty. The gunshots had drawn the attention of the proprietor, who had unlimbered a quite impressive-looking shotgun. He never had a chance to use it, however. With a roar like a jet engine going into overload, the Maelkodan demonstrated its newfound power by blowing the entire glass storefront inwards, blasting both of us off our feet, sending racks of candy, magazines, sunglasses, and other sundries tumbling end-over-end. I took advantage of the impetus to skid and roll down one of the aisles. Its shape and size would give me a slight edge in narrower spaces, although the convenience of customers of course dictated that the aisles weren't really narrow enough to restrict it.

"Let us prolong this no longer, Mr. Wood!" the Maelkodan called, its voice oddly human; perhaps it, like the Wolves, could shift parts of itself while in motion. "I will still try to kill no innocent human during our hunt, but the more you resist, the more the chance that one such will get in the way!" It sounded sincere, and oddly enough I believed it. The creature was, perhaps, as soulless a killer in its own way as the Wolves, but even some Wolves seemed to take pleasure—perhaps honest pleasure, perhaps merely the pleasure of a properly played game, but pleasure nonetheless—in following through on a commitment. I had shown the Maelkodan more consideration than it might have expected; it was trying to live up to the standard I'd set.

"It's not in my nature to stand still and die," I shouted back, moving down another aisle. "Being honest, I doubt we'll get out of this store with both of us still moving."

"True enough," it said. I felt a wave of force ripple past me . . . and then the shelves, the whole aisle's worth of shelves and products, were moving, toppling towards me.

But I was close enough to my goal, slamming my way through the door and finding it was just large enough for my purpose.

There was a pause, one in which I recalled all too well a similar moment, waiting behind a door to see if the King of Wolves would take the bait or not.

I heard a genuine laugh from the Maelkodan, something like a steamkettle rattling. "The men's room? How clever." The door burst open. "But did you forget—"

"That you could turn off the killing mode and thus enter mirrored rooms safely?" I said from my position on the other side of the door. As it turned its startled, momentarily harmless gaze on me, I pressed the button. "I counted on it!"

There are commercial versions of that gadget, but I like making my own. The Dazzler detonated like a magnesium flare in that enclosed space, leaving a spotty afterimage on my eyes even through closed lids. I was diving back through the door even as I triggered it.

The Maelkodan shrieked; it felt like my ears had spikes being driven through them, and its tail gave a convulsive movement that whipped me fifteen feet across fallen cans and shelves. No telekinetic shield could have protected it from that blazing luminescence scarcely a foot and a half from its eyes. And as Morgan and Baker had both said . . . it had to be able to see its prey to use those eyes. It cursed and shouted in a language so ancient that only Verne and Kafan might have understood it.

For at least a few minutes, it was much less dangerous. But that trick had been meant as a last-ditch effort, we'd expected to kill it long before this. Once it recovered, I'd be meat. Even if it kept playing relatively fair, it was clearly going to wear me out, and then it would all be over. I picked myself up groggily, staring across at the scattered wreckage, candies, displays . . . 

"Smarter . . . than I thought . . . Mr. Wood," it gasped, backing out of the bathroom clumsily. "Much smarter. I've been far too long without a decent opponent, and it shows, does it not?" It rubbed fiercely at its eyes. "Alas, my eyesight shall recover momentarily, and I am hardly harmless!"

Canned goods began floating into the air. I muttered another curse of my own; it was going to play Darth Vader, and I was no Luke Skywalker. I threw myself flat, ignoring the increase in bruises, and slid towards the front of the store as a hurricane of metal cylinders started streaking randomly around the enclosed space, ricocheting off of the remaining shelves, walls, support columns, an occasional one bouncing off the floor or me. I restrained the grunts and groans of pain—I didn't need to give it any help in targetting. Somehow I'd lost the CryWolf glasses, despite being better anchored. I was going to put in a hell of an expense account to Baker . . . 

Lost my . . . 

I somersaulted forward and moved into one of the remaining aisles, hunkering down. My gaze roved frantically, searching.

"Ah . . . there . . . starting to come back . . ." I heard it mutter. The cans stopped moving, and I could picture it standing there, listening. I knew I couldn't be noiseless, not in all this destruction. Despite my attempts, there were rustlings, cracklings, clanks of cans rolling. In the distance I heard sirens, but they wouldn't be here in time . . . assuming any Wolf was brave enough to enter the Maelkodan's range.

Clawed feet rattled through the supermarket stock, making a beeline for my aisle.

Where, dammit, where—ah-HA! I grabbed, then dove for the end of the aisle away from the creature—but my foot slipped on a can.

As I came down hard, jarring my chin so much that I bit my tongue and tasted blood, I thought to myself that at the least I'd managed to be convincing in that slippage; next time, perhaps, I might consider learning how to do it without hurting myself. Behind me, the Maelkodan scuttled at lightning speed. Taloned hands grasped me, and rolled me over, the sculpted head bending to deliver an unavoidable stare . . . 

It had time for a single horrified "NO!!"

In a blaze of rainbow-clouded energy, the creature neutralized its own matrix, leaving a bending statue. With difficulty I wiggled free of the stony grip, and slowly hobbled away. Then I lowered my right hand, which had been pressed tight against my temple, and extended it towards the shaking, wide-eyed clerk who had just risen from the wrecked counter.

"I'll take these," I said, placing the mirrored sunglasses in front of him. "And most of your stock of Band-Aids."

 

 

 

64

Baker stood staring at the statue. "I can't believe it," he repeated for the fourth time. "You beat the thing."

"What you hired me for, isn't it?" I said, rather gratified by the reaction; it was nice to know that the Wolves were honest-to-God terrified of something and that it hadn't just been a matter of trying to make the human do their dirty work. "One Mirrorkiller, packaged for transport."

Baker finally got a hold of himself, and turned to face me. "So we're square up, then?"

"You make sure Carruthers understands that I carried through on the spirit as well as the letter of our agreement," I said. "No trouble from any of his people or yours, you won't have trouble from me. And two other things—one I just want to reinforce, since I warned you before, and one new one."

He looked at me suspiciously. "And those would be . . . ?"

"First, no more killings. I've got a good idea how many you had to do to take over here, and it's sickening, but we've gone into that. You just make damn sure no more people get killed—either natives or visitors—by your people, or under their orders."

Baker glowered at me. "We have to protect—"

"That isn't my problem." I cut him off with a cold glance. "You work your masquerade without killing people, at least until you're ready to take us all on, or you will be taking us all on. If you think someone's getting too close to your secret, you either figure a way to mislead them, or get ready to pull up stakes and move on. It's your call, but if you push me into blowing the whistle, I think you can bet that not one out of every ten of you will get out of Florida alive."

Baker spat on the ground, looking like he yearned to do something else to me, but we both knew I was off-limits. "Fine, fine. I got your message. What's the other thing?"

I pointed. "The statue. I want it carefully packed up and shipped to me."

Baker looked startled. "Oookay, if ya say so. I cain't say anyone in this here town's likely to want it for a decoration. I'll spring for that." We shook hands on the bargain, my skin only slightly crawling from the idea since at this point I was the one with the whip hand. "So, you know y'all are welcome to stay here for free—I know you were on your honeymoon, an' the beaches here are . . ."

I couldn't restrain a laugh. "Baker, it's a lovely town, but there's no way in hell we're staying here any longer. Right, Syl?" I said, as Sylvie finally crossed over the hastily erected yellow tape barrier and grabbed me in a hug that nearly cracked my sore ribs. "Ouch, watch it!"

"Sorry—I'm just sooo glad you're alive, Jason. I thought you would be, but you can never be sure." She glanced at Baker. "And he's right. We're out of here as soon as we can get packed." She looked up at me. "So, Romeo, wherefore art thou taking thy wife for the rest of the honeymoon?"

I winced at her mangled semi-Shakespeare, but smiled back. "Home to Morgantown, Syl. I think we've had enough adventure for now. Maybe we can go on another trip later."

She snuggled into me. "Sounds perfect to me."

 

 

 

65

"Oh, I had a king-sized attack of the shakes after it was all over," I admitted, leaning back in the comfortable, oversized recliner near Verne's fireplace and hugging Syl to me. "More than one. Cursing myself for giving it any chances at all, and so on."

"No, no, Jason. All in all, I think you did precisely the right thing," Verne said. "Perhaps it is merely that I am a relic myself, but I feel that there is such a thing as respecting one's opponent, and part of that respect is, in fact, giving him or her . . . or it . . . the chance to not be your enemy. It is evident that the Maelkodan shared that respect for you. It could have attempted to kill you much earlier, and even later in the combat there were tactics it might have used to kill you more efficiently. But just as you hadn't arranged for a multiple crossfire or something of similarly lethal nature, it did not attempt to use—how would you put it?—ah, cheesy tricks to finish the chase."

I chuckled, then sobered somewhat. "On that note, what do you think of this guy Carruthers' offer? Is he going to play fair on the deal, since I delivered the goods?"

"I would say without any shadow of a doubt, my friend—and I thank both your good fortune and good business sense for that bargain. Yes, he will abide by those terms; while some of the young Wolves may sneer at such commitments, a true Elder knows better than to even contemplate breaking a bargain sworn to in the King's name. And if Carruthers' name is truly Virigan . . . well, then he is more than merely Elder; he is one of the only surviving Firstborn." He frowned, swirling his usual drink in its crystal glass. "I must admit, Jason, that I am as mystified—and concerned—with his outré interest in human genetic engineering as you. Such a thing would not, as far as I can tell, enhance the spiritual power or aspect of humanity—which is what they consume, as you know. Thus it cannot, at least directly, be concerned with improving their food supply. Indeed, tampering which interferes too much with certain aspects of humanity could actually damage humanity's usefulness to them, so Virigan must be interested in . . . something else."

I shrugged. "No hurry, I think. We'll keep looking—or rather, Jeri's outfit will, right?"

Jeri, still looking somewhat uptight at being in a meeting that so casually discussed burn-before-reading Secret material, nodded. "You can bet on it. Since we're not excluded from their hit list, unlike the rest of you, we also have no reason to hold back. I might note that when I gave my interim report on this incident, my boss did something I've never seen him do in all the years I've known him; give vent to an utterly spontaneous curse."

"Why?"

"It seems," Jeri answered, "that Mr. Carruthers was, in a way, sending us a message just by appearing to you in that guise. Obviously as a Wolf he could have chosen any shape he wanted. You see, Alexi Carruthers was, as far as we knew, killed off a number of years ago in a manner that remains classified. By showing us what he really is, he is basically telling Pantheon, and through Pantheon all of ISIS, that we're dealing with something much nastier than we'd yet suspected . . . and you can rest assured, we already suspected some seriously nasty things."

"Well, Miss Winthrope," Morgan said courteously, "I am sure I speak for us all when I say that you can count on our assistance if it could ever be of service."

I glanced at Syl with a raised eyebrow. She gave a secretive smile. Morgan did seem to like Jeri—how very strange, since I would never have thought she was his type. Whether Jeri had any interests outside of her job, of course, was something none of us would ever know unless she decided to tell us. "I have to give Ms. Gennaro a callback—it's been several days already. I'm just trying to decide what to tell her."

Kafan growled something, then sighed. "Twisty problem. Can't just tell her to stop poking around in those things—it's her job."

"Besides that, trying to shove her out might cause talk by itself, and certainly wouldn't keep someone else from going to the sites," I pointed out.

Verne nodded. "I am afraid, Jason, that you will simply have to use your own judgement. You and I are in essence safe—at least until that day when the King decides to try us again—but if she or her people learn too much, there will be more disappearances, regardless of whether they discover another monster or not. I would, in fact, judge it unlikely they will find anything of that magnitude again, but even a few more artifacts whose age they can accurately measure would be greatly troubling to certain people. The Demons cannot rework the face of a planet now, not with the changes wrought on Earth since those days, but the few of their agents who remain are more than strong enough to obliterate prying scientists."

"If it will help, I can always throw an international security umbrella over the work," Jeri offered.

"No!" Kafan snapped, jumping to his feet.

Jeri looked uncertainly at him, aware of his capabilities. "Why the panic?"

"Control yourself, Raiakafan," Verne said.

He closed his eyes, opened them again. "Because any such move would make it look like the governments are getting interested directly. The very last thing any of them want is for humanity, or its governments, really taking a deep look into these things. That's why you and your agency are all going to be dead sometime soon." He said the last line in the same way I might have said "I'll be ordering pizza for dinner tomorrow"—a casual statement of fact, impersonal but inarguable. "Your people ride the edge, and Carruthers' signal just means that he's marked you down as needing his attention, or that of some of the other surviving forces. If you start doing things officially, you could end up with them deciding that maybe the whole world's getting too close to the truth, and then they'd have to start a war or something."

"A nuclear war would definitely be interfering with my life," I pointed out, half-joking. I really didn't like considering this entire shadow war thing right now.

To my surprise, Kafan and Verne seemed to take the idea at least somewhat seriously. "You may have something of a point, jesting aside," Verne said. "Carruthers' own projects would be unlikely to survive an extreme sanction against the world order, and so he would have a vested interest in promoting maximum tolerance. Still, I agree with Kafan that unless there is no other choice, overt involvement of any intelligence agencies in such matters would be playing with fire."

"Hey, just offering," said Jeri. "And unless these Demon thingies do still have the power to reshape the world, don't be counting us out, Mr. Raiakafan Tai Lee Ularion Xiang. If someone does come gunning for us, you can bet they'll know they've been in a fight."

Kafan nodded to her, a mark of respect if not agreement.

I got up, leaving Syl on the recliner, and picked up the phone.

This time I had to contact her at the University, but she was available—preparing a paper on some of the finds.

"Mr. Wood!"

"Yes. Nice to speak to you again, Ms. Gennaro. Your information was invaluable."

Her voice was just slightly tense—she was trying to be relaxed, but not quite succeeding. "Please call me Mandy. So what exactly happened?"

"You can call me Jason, then. There was a series of murders happening in Florida . . ." I gave an expurgated version of events, leaving out things like werewolves, my bargain, and so on. " . . . And so I was finally able to kill it off. Some of this you might see on the news soon, even though there was a heavy lid clamped on it at first."

She was silent for a few moments. "So . . . you're saying that this 'Maelkodan' was inside that casket we brought aboard?"

"Yes," I answered. "And you were right, of course; Dr. O'Connell never left your ship. The Maelkodan killed him when it emerged. It, like the Wolves, gains a great deal of the knowledge of its victims, at least temporarily, so it was able to figure out a way to at least temporarily leave a false trail."

"How horrid." I could almost hear a little shiver in her voice. "If it weren't for the Morgantown material, I'd think this was insanity. But . . . when we opened the casket there were some odd traces that we didn't quite know what to make of. Any dating we do on the casket is of course questionable at this point, it having been out of controlled conditions when it was opened. We have a few other items from the same dig, however, so we are hopeful that we may be able to date it, at any rate—the results on the casket aren't reasonable."

I took a deep breath. "Mandy, I also have to give you a warning."

"A . . . warning, Mr. . . . Jason?"

"I can't—nor would I—try to tell you not to continue your line of research. However, I do have to caution you; you've heard the old expression 'Things Man Was Not Meant To Know,' of course?"

She gave an uncertain chuckle. "Um, yes . . . ?"

"I never gave much credence to that idea myself, but as it turns out, there are some things that . . . well, not to go into detail, but Things That Put Man Or Woman In Real Danger If They Know. Your research has just uncorked one nasty genie from a bottle; there are worse genies—some of them forces that just don't want certain things known. Think paranoid. Then think worse. I'm already in the soup, so to speak—there's no way for me to reduce my danger."

"And is there for me—aside from abandoning these sites, which I really cannot imagine doing?"

"I'm not sure. Legitimate archaeological work can't be stopped, after all, and even if you did stop on my vague say-so, someone else would surely try their hand."

She was quiet for a moment. "Is the danger in question other things like this Maelkodan, or are you more referring to just the fact of our knowing and publishing certain things?"

"The latter more than the former, although as we have both discovered, the former isn't to be discounted."

She thought for another few moments. "Mr. Wood, could you, personally, recognize these dangerous elements if you saw them?"

"I think so," I answered cautiously. In point of fact, I could probably recognize most dangerous subjects, and with Verne and Raiakafan to back me up . . . "Yes, I could."

"Then perhaps this would at least minimize the risk; in view of this bizarre discovery, I could recommend to the Board that you be hired—if willing—as a consultant, who will examine finds for potential risks that lie outside of our normal expertise. In this way we would be able to pass material found at the sites in question to you for advice on how best to handle it, and you would be able to determine what time bombs—informational or actual—we may have unearthed."

I felt my interior tension ease some. Mandy Gennaro was clearly a smart cookie, and willing to listen. "That sounds excellent, Mandy. You can count on me. Obviously I'd try to reject as little as possible—and the final call would still be yours. I'll work on getting together a risk assessment methodology, so that you can make informed risk decisions."

"Right, then. I'll contact the Board immediately, in view of what happened to Dr. O'Connell. You have told the police about this?"

"I will be informing them shortly after I hang up with you. I felt you deserved to get the news first and directly."

"I truly appreciate that, Jason. Now let me get the ball rolling here; I'd like to be able to run all the discoveries past you pronto so that we can get publishing soon."

"By all means. Thank you, Mandy. Take care."

"Ta." She hung up.

"Smarter than many," Kafan said. "I guess she decided if she was going to trust you at all, she had to figure you knew what you were talking about."

"It is rude to eavesdrop, Kafan," Verne said mildly.

"You heard it too," Kafan retorted.

"Well, yes, but a gentleman doesn't admit to overhearing things not meant for his own ears. I agree with your assessment; a woman of uncommon good sense. She recognized Jason as trustworthy, and thus no matter how outrageous the subject area, he was worth paying heed to."

"So you people think this will work?" I asked.

Verne gave a seesawing motion of his hand. "It is far better than nothing. She will still be running grave risks, but this approach may keep her and her people alive, or at least give them sufficient warning to know when they are, in fact, at risk of death or worse. And it is a far, far better thing that we have direct contact with those who may be uncovering traces of the past than that someone we know nothing of be doing the digging."

"Well then," Jeri said, getting up, "since that's pretty much taken care of, I'll be off to file a report and recommend that it be marked closed on our files."

"I shall show you out, Lady Jeri," Morgan said, and the two left.

"So, will you continue your honeymoon?" Verne asked.

We laughed. "Eventually, sure," I said. "Not that being home means it has to stop." I grinned lecherously at Syl, who poked me in one of my still very sore ribs. "Ow! In any case, there's lots for me to do here."

"And we can do it with less to fear, now," Syl said.

"Indeed. Again, Jason, I thank you. By good fortune and wise choices, you have lifted what was in truth a burden of worry and fear from us all."

I grinned and blushed. "Aw shucks, weren't nothin'."

"Do not sell yourself short, my friend."

I nodded, still smiling. "Okay, okay. You're welcome. I guess we're safe now. Well, except for the Demons."

"Perhaps even from them, at least for now," Verne said, lifting his glass. "As you deduced in that adventure which nearly killed me in my own home, the Project certainly must have connections of some sort to the remnants of those who caused the fall of Atlantaea originally. Given that, they will know that we are endeavoring to keep the number who know certain facts low, and, more importantly, that you, Lady Sylvia, and myself are explicitly reserved for Virigar's attention."

"Oh?" I said, skeptically. "Even if they do, so what? I mean, Virigar's the Big Bad Wolf, no doubt about it, but these guys obliterated cities, rewrote the surface of a planet to fit their own schemes—and didn't destroy it only because of some mystical connection that they wouldn't want to risk. What's to stop them from laughing in Virigar's face?"

Verne stared at me, then gave a faint, hollow laugh. "My friend, there is nothing I have seen in all my hundreds of thousands of years that I fear more than the Werewolf King. And I tell you, in all earnestness, that there is no being I have ever known—man or dragon, vampire or demon, ghost or living god—which would dare to laugh at him, if they knew what they faced. No, my friend, while the Great Demons might, under the right circumstances, disregard the Werewolf King's claims on someone, even they shall never do so lightly. I believe that if we continue to keep this knowledge limited, if we make any struggles against them a secret war, then they shall be willing to leave us alone when we move not against them; they do not want to borrow trouble they could easily avoid."

I stared at him for a while, realizing that he meant every word. I shrugged. "I don't know if I should consider this comforting or not. Okay, the big Demons will leave me alone, but any day now I could be a Wolf appetizer."

"Unlikely in the extreme, sir," Morgan said, returning. "Uncertainty and fear are part of his stock in trade. It will suit him far better to wait several years—and with the disruption to his people you have caused, he will have many better things to do with his time for many years. Both Master Verne and I are of the opinion that the Werewolf King will trouble us no more for quite some time to come."

I did relax at that. Something about Morgan's calm, English voice was infinitely reassuring. "In that case, I say we should celebrate."

"An excellent suggestion, sir!"

The party went on for a long time.

 

THE END

 

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