Piscataquis County, Maine
Rusty machinery. That’s the mental image that the just-past peak foliage inspired in Morris Alcombe, IV. Old, useless, rundown metal remnants of the past. The sun was setting on the forest of dying leaves and setting on his chances for a first-day deer. His mood reflected it.
For three years running, he’d bagged a respectable deer on the first day of his annual expedition back to the interior of Maine’s wilderness. It gave him immediate bragging rights among the other hunters in camp, allowed him to kick back for the rest of the week, sleep in, and smoke cigars on the lodge’s veranda while the others all froze their asses off deep in the woods. It was the reason he paid Shorty a ridiculous bonus. And the guide had always come through. Till today. Not only had there been no bucks to select from, there hadn’t been any deer at all. Just birds—blue jays and crows mostly, as well as arrowheads of flying, honking geese, headed south for the winter. Not even the usual squirrels and chipmunks.
The day had been unseasonably cold, the sun weak, and he’d frozen his ass off from before dawn till now. His chemical pocket heaters had given out hours ago, his bag lunch had been unsatisfactory and insufficient, and the battery on his phone hadn’t taken a full charge the night before, leaving him without even electronic games to distract him. The sun winked out, dropping below the tree line, the light growing too dim for the Austrian-engineered lenses of his Swarovski Z6 riflescope as he tried a final, vain attempt to scope the edge of the forest one hundred and thirty yards away. Nothing.
He stood up, his muscles stiff and unresponsive, which made him wobble a bit. Not a good idea eight feet off the ground. Damn that Shorty. Not a damned deer all day. It would take at least another day of this. Not what he’d paid an extra thousand dollars for. Shorty would be hearing about that as soon as he arrived in the Gator to pick him up.
The early evening woods were silent, not even birdsong, and the temperature, which had stayed in the low thirties all day, now dropped steadily lower. Might as well climb down; at least get the blood flowing. The sky was clear, early stars starting to wink above him, and was lighter in the east as the moon awaited her entrance into the night sky. It would be full tonight and probably bright enough to shoot a deer by… if any still existed in this godforsaken wilderness.
He unloaded his Weatherby Mark V .300 Magnum, not even the sight of those huge brass cartridges able to buoy his mood. The rifle had been his father’s, massively expensive and massively overpowered for this type of hunting. Yet he loved the attention the classic rifle and cartridge combination evoked among his fellow hunters. The rifle had been a symbol for much of his life. Morris III had used it in Africa to bag a gemsbok, an eland, and a big male leopard whose stuffed body used to give the younger Alcombe the shivers. When he was old enough to shoot the Weatherby, the roar of the cartridge and the slam of the stock into his shoulder had made him feel older, powerful, adult. He’d inherited the rifle along with the paper mill and the two houses, and his only change had been to upgrade the rifle’s scope to the Z6. And sell the paper mill.
Tying the drop cord to the stock, he lowered the rifle carefully till the butt hit dirt. His pack normally went on his back but tonight, he just dropped it off the stand’s platform, too pissed off to care. Then he backed his middle-aged body to the ladder and gingerly stepped down the first few rungs. A rustling in the woods behind him stopped him in place. It sounded large. He pulled a small flashlight from his hunting coat and scanned the woods, holding onto the ladder with his other hand as he turned in an arc. Nothing. Yet the eerie wind ghosting through the trees and the feeling of being watched had him unsettled.
Shrugging it off, he started down the ladder. Another noise, this time from the forest on the other side of the stand. He froze. Some of the black bears in this stretch of Maine got pretty big. Everything went quiet… quieter.
“Shorty? That y—” was all he got out when a freight train hit him, ripping him from the ladder. He was aware of fur and of flying, of an irresistible tug on his arm. Then the ground stopped his motion with sudden, final brutality and he, in turn, stopped the massive form propelling him, its crushing weight blasting the air from his lungs with a crunch. Unable to breathe, his world circled down to the act of attempting to pull air into his lungs. The mass separated itself from him with a huff and a growl.
Panicked by his inability to breathe, only a small part of him focused on the beast that rose up on four thick legs. Realizing he was dying for a breath, he nonetheless noted that the animal wasn’t a bear. More wolf-like. But bigger, with longer legs and a huge bear-trap jaw, which opened right before his eyes, moving closer. As he struggled to draw another breath, the last one he had taken on the ladder ran completely out. His vision shrank, a decreasing tube of light encircled by growing darkness. The dim spot centered on the jaws, which opened wide enough to span his head. The light disappeared, either blocked by the jaws or vanishing into his dying brain, but his ears heard the snap and the melon-like thunk of his own skull cracking. He did not, however, hear the victorious howl a second later.
Three quarters of a mile away, Shorty Kane took his foot off the accelerator of the John Deere Gator and listened for the sound that had penetrated the thrum of the engine.
The four-wheeled UTV coasted to a stop as the guide strained his ears for whatever had raised the hair on the back of his neck.
Only the idling engine filled the quiet. Still the woodsman listened, hard-learned instinct telling him to wait. The sound came again, but now the engine wasn’t racing and he could hear it way too well. A howl, deep and angry, like a hound of Hell, full of hate and power, victory and awful promise.
Shorty Kane almost shit himself where he sat.
He froze completely for a second, then his hand went to the holstered revolver resting between the yellow seats. His thumb trembled as he pulled the Smith and Wesson model 657 .41 Magnum Mountain gun from its leather scabbard.
He didn’t need to check if it was loaded—it was always loaded, stuffed full of heavy weight, hard-cast bullets. He did need to get his suddenly racing heart under control. The howl had been close—less than a mile. About where his hunter should be. Sudden fear for his client overrode his fear for himself and his foot stamped down on the gas, big revolver still clutched in his hand.
Less than five minutes later, he pulled the Gator to a stop, headlights pointed into the side trail that went ninety yards to the stand. Morris Alcombe hated walking, so his watches were always close to the main trail. The primitive part of Shorty’s brain, the part that had kept his ancestors alive long enough to pass on their genetic material, told him to leave the engine running. His logic-based modern brain directed his hand to shut it off so he could listen. The primitive part bludgeoned the modern part into submission. The engine stayed on.
Hearing nothing, Shorty unlimbered the big rechargeable flashlight that he kept in the Gator. Shaped like a pistol, it projected a beam about like the headlight of a Mini-Cooper. With his real gun in his right hand and the hefty flashlight in his left, he slid out of the Gator and headed into the woods.
Less then five minutes later, he stumbled back out, somehow staying upright. He’d tripped at the stand as well, but that had been on a leg instead of a tree root. A human leg. His heavy camo jacket was stained with vomit and all five-foot, five inches of experienced guide shook with adrenaline and terror.
Shorty had, in his forty-eight years, gutted or helped field dress over thirty moose, nineteen bears, almost a hundred deer, and countless rabbits, squirrels, partridge, and geese. He had seen ten or more coyote kills, a first-year moose killed by a bear, and even the horror of a fisher that slaughtered an entire hen house.
None of that was sufficient preparation for the abattoir of Morris Alcombe’s final deer watch.
Eyes darting in every direction, Shorty slammed his small frame into the UTV’s cockpit and sent the powerful little vehicle careening down the trail.
Two hours and fifty-one minutes later, he was back, leading three ATVs and with a deputy sheriff, Sergeant Buck Thompson, riding shotgun next to him. He pulled to a stop at the same spot as before.
“This the way, Shorty?” the deputy asked. He was tall where his guide was short. Tall and lean, but with wide shoulders. Black hair and black beard, brown eyes. Young for his position at thirty-two, he efficiently wrangled the other guides who had ridden the four-wheelers, at least one of whom was older then him.
“LeClair and Olson, you need to be our security. A bear might guard its kill. Stay sharp. Cort, you’re carrying the camera stuff. Shorty, lead the way. Shorty!” he spoke sharply at the last, breaking through the little guide’s distracted focus on the dark woods.
“This way, Buck,” Shorty said in his trademark raspy voice, reluctantly getting out of the UTV. This time, he carried a short pump shotgun with a barrel-mounted light. His revolver was belted to his waist. Turning on both the gun light and a headlamp, the tough little guide led the sergeant and his fellow guides down the narrow footpath toward the deer stand. Head light and shotgun light swung about constantly as he moved cautiously through the thick woods.
Buck Thompson had known Shorty Kane his entire life. He and his father had hunted with the man for years, and Buck had brought Shorty in to help track down missing hunters on several occasions. The compact woodsman was generally more comfortable in the woods than he was in town. Except tonight.
“Hell of a shock, Short,” Buck said as they moved through the woods, watching the guide as the guide watched the woods. Behind them, the three other woodsmen also kept a close eye on the forest, the last man turning every few seconds to watch their back trail.
Shorty stayed silent, his attention focused on the trees, his breath puffing fast in the cold light of his own headlamp. Just when Buck decided he wasn’t going to answer, he did. “Never seen anything like it, Buck. Never. It’s just up here. He’s just up here,” he said, slowing down and letting the others go by him.
A few moments later, Buck Thompson came to a stop and studied the scene before him. He decided that Shorty had a point… and a talent for understatement.
Buck had done two tours in Iraq with Uncle Sam in a military police unit. He had seen horrific things: men exploded by IEDs, women and children decapitated by terrorists, bodies that had fallen from helicopters at great height. This was different.
The deer stand was a three-legged, metal, self-supporting model that occupied a little natural clearing at the crest of a ravine. Looking out over the tiny valley, it had maybe ten feet of cleared space around it. That space gleamed wetly in the light of the full moon, covered in black fluid that turned dark red when his high-powered LED flashlight beam hit it.
Morris Alcombe had been pretty much a giant douche bag for most of his fifty years, and Buck was not a fan of the man who had sold the family’s paper mill to a conglomerate that shut it down a year later. But nobody short of a child molester or rapist deserved to die like this.
Behind him, Scott Olson made a retching sound and turned away from the grisly scene to throw up.
“Eyes on the woods, Olson. You too, LeClair. Security, remember?”
His lifelong friend, Cortney Brower, who guided for another camp, handed him the camera, already turned on and with the flash warmed up. Buck started to snap pictures of the scene, moving carefully through the woods on the edge of the clearing to avoid touching anything, face wearing a professional mask.
Buck let his eyes roam over the remains, forcing his mind to catalogue the scene in a detached manner. It wasn’t easy. Morris’s leg, possibly the left one, was lying just across the trail two feet from Buck. An arm was dangling from the ladder, its fist still clutching the upper rung, like it had been torn off the man as he was ripped from his position six feet up. The torso was lying on the left side of the clearing, split wide open like a flattened cardboard box. A wet, mushy cardboard box with splintered ribs.
“What the hell kind of bear does this to a man?” Buck wondered out loud.
“Weren’t no bear,” Shorty answered, eyes and gun still focused on the woods.
“Had to be a bear, Short. Nothing else up here could do that to a man,” Buck said.
The other three guides said nothing, but their body language indicated they were listening as much to the discussion as to the woods around them.
“Look at him, Buck. Poor son-of-a-bitch got taken clean off the ladder. Hit ‘em so hard, it yanked his arm right out of the socket. Landed on him over there, nine, ten feet away. Likely broke his back or crushed his ribs or both. Then it cracked his head like a walnut,” the guide said, taking his eyes away from the woods long enough to point at a flattened black mound by the edge of the woods. When the young sheriff’s deputy put his light on it, a single hazel eye gleamed back at him from the broken mess that used to be the richest man in this part of the county. “I’ve been thinking about it since I found him. Couldn’t think of nothing else. See that leg. I think it stood on him and kicked each of its hind legs, ripping his legs off and flinging them over here by the trail and the other one under the stand, kinda like a dog on a stinky roadkill.”
Buck’s light illuminated the darkness under the stand along with a camouflage-clothed leg and booted foot.
“I think maybe it stuck its snout into his chest and ripped out his heart, ‘cause I don’t see it in there,” Shorty said, turning his head and spitting a wad of tobacco juice into the woods. Buck seemed to recall Shorty had quit that habit.
“No animal does all that,” the big deputy said.
“Well now, no natural animal that I’ve come across, but you all watch any of that stuff what happened down in Washington? Remember that big white wolf-creature and that other bear-wolf thing? Them news folks said the white one was a werewolf. A real, honest to God werewolf,” Shorty said.
“You can’t be serious. You think the White Werewolf came up here and killed Morris fucking Alcombe the fucking Fourth?” Olson asked, glancing back at the guide.
“No you fuckwit,” the little guide snarled, too stressed and scared to be worried how the much bigger man might take his words. “What I think is that if there’s one werewolf, there are others. And I think a God-almighty big-assed monster of a wolf tore old Morris all to shit,” Shorty said. “Which is why my gun is packing silver buckshot.”
“Werewolf? He’s joking, right, Buck?” Olson asked, his nervous tone demanding the sergeant’s reassurance. But instead of disagreeing, the young deputy was studying the scene with a new look in his eye, one that was rapidly approaching something like alarm.
“Right. We’re out of here. LeClair, you got point. Shorty, you back him up. Cort, you’re with me, and Olson, watch our six,” Buck said.
“Just as soon as these three replace their chamber rounds with these extra silver ones I got in my pocket,” Shorty said. Sergeant Thompson was the only man not carrying a 12-gauge shotgun.
As quick as they arrived, the five men moved back out of the deep forest and back to the vehicles. White clouds of frozen breath puffed from the seriously spooked men. All of them were thoroughly experienced. All of them hovered on the edge of true terror at the thought of what might be lurking in the darkness just out of sight, their ancestral instincts screaming danger.
Nothing jumped out at them. The vehicles started smoothly, and then they were gone.
“Where the hell did you get silver buckshot, Short?” Buck asked as they bounced down the trail.
“Made ‘em up right after that Washington shit. Melted down a bunch of coins and dropped ‘em through a screen into a bucket of cold water. Silver don’t cast bullets for shit, too damned finicky, temperature-wise. Need special molds and shit. Seen some companies are making full-fledged silver ammo, though. You’re gonna need to order up some of that, Buck.”
“That’s the very least of what I’ve got to do,” Sergeant Thompson said. “I think I’ve got to make a whole bunch of phone calls first.”
“Who do you call for shit like this?” Shorty asked.
“Well, Sheriff Grable in Dover-Foxcroft first. Then maybe some guys I know in New York. Figured I’d start with them.”
“They know about werewolves in the crabby Apple?” Short asked.
“The guys I’m thinking of do, or at least they say they do. We’ll see,” Buck said, already making plans to return at first light.
Thirty-six hours later
The Jeep alone would have drawn attention. A late model four-door Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon dressed with top of the line off-road accessories: a winch, big knobby tires, extra lighting, and a dark aftermarket paint job that the manufacturer called Kevlar Slate.
In a town whose economic engines had gone mostly quiet, a town just like Fetter, Maine, an expensive rig like that would draw attention. So would the New York plates.
It made sense then that more than a few pairs of eyes followed its progress down the main road till it stopped in front of the county sheriff’s substation.
If the Jeep was interesting, the young woman who climbed out of it was even more so. Young and dressed in outdoor gear, she was an attractive brunette, maybe five-seven, perhaps in her early twenties. She was dressed in khaki hiking pants, tan boots, and an electric blue short-sleeve t-shirt that she quickly covered with a light plaid shirt. The plaid shirt was new, a bit loose fitting, yet unable to hide the figure it enclosed. She turned hazel eyes on the substation as her fingers automatically clicked the lock button on her key fob. Hers was now the only locked vehicle on the street. An inch-long scar on her right cheek marred an otherwise unblemished face.
Looking up the street, she took in the details. Two blocks back was the only gas station, a Mobil with a small, run-down convenience store. Across from that was a bar named the Bitter Bear. Probably a story there. Old houses and the Post Office lay between the gas station and the old storefront now occupied by the sheriff’s substation. Other stores lay empty, the young woman spotting a closed florist, a boarded-up deli and several shuttered restaurants. Looming behind Main Street was a long, high-industrial building that looked barren and empty. Not much else.
Entering the sheriff’s substation, she found a tiny office, the desk manned by a young woman maybe a half-dozen or so years her senior. Light brown hair and light brown eyes. The woman raised an eyebrow while her eyes scanned the newcomer from head to toe, flicking to the scarred cheek before landing on her eyes.
“The Sergeant isn’t seeing reporters at this time,” she said, her expression flashing a micro-expression of disdain.
The newcomer could see a doorway to another office in back, two chairs and a corner of a metal desk visible. Her sensitive ears picked up the sound of the office’s occupant shifting slightly at the receptionist ’s words.
“I’m not a reporter. I’m here to see a Sergeant Buck Thompson.”
“He’s pretty busy,” the gatekeeper said, her tone conveying her lack of belief in the non-reporter statement.
“Could you tell him that Detective Eddie Bellini sends his regards? Asked me to drive up here and pay a call on your sergeant,” she said, eyes on the receptionist, ears on the far office.
The receptionist frowned, realizing that her initial perception of the situation was off.
A chair scraped in the back office and then she heard the sound of boots hitting the floor. Both women looked back at the doorway as a large male figure filled the frame.
“Bellini sent you?”
The young woman studied the sergeant, taking in his height, shoulder width, and bushy black beard in a practiced glance. Hmm, not bad. No wonder little miss secretary is territorial, she mused. Not her type exactly, but not bad on the eyes. In the past, he might have been of more interest, but not now. Still, better then a fat, balding, near-retirement has-been.
“Nice to meet you too, Sergeant Thompson. Lisa Renault. Eddie didn’t send me. He said you had a problem up here… an unusual kind of problem. Suggested it might be my kind of problem,” she said, letting his condescension roll off her.
Now he was frowning, which looked a bit threatening, what with the beard and the dark eyes. Part of her took it for aggression. That part knew how to handle aggression. The rest of her reined the first part back. She gave herself a mental pat on the back for maintaining her calm. What was that called? Oh yeah. Positive reinforcement.
For his part, the Sergeant saw an attractive young woman whose casual stance implied complete confidence. He revised the attractive bit to very attractive even as his eyes picked out other details, including the scar. Her plaid shirt looked brand new, but her khaki pants were comfortably worn. And on closer inspection, he noted the pants were more covert tactical than outdoorsy, with reinforced knees and concealed cargo pockets. In fact, he would bet money he had seen the same model pants in one of his law enforcement catalogues.
Likewise, her boots were desert-toned combat models instead of name-brand hikers. The clothes weren’t tight, but in the few places they clung, they outlined a fit, muscular physique that made him wonder how she would look in a bikini. Brown hair in a ponytail and amused hazel eyes studied him right back. Oddly, she wasn’t wearing a belt. He’d have pegged her for definite law enforcement if she’d been wearing a belt.
“Cop?” he asked.
“Consultant,” she answered.
“ID,” he requested.
Now she frowned, but without answering pulled a plastic driver’s license from a small bundle of cash and credit cards that came from her front pocket. Most women carried a purse and internal wallet. Women cops would have had a credential case.
“I’m going to call Eddie,” the young sergeant said.
“Knock yourself out,” Lisa Renault said. He turned back into his office and simultaneously heard the front door shut. Spinning around, he was just fast enough to see the young woman walking past the window in the direction of the Mobil station. A new model Jeep was sitting at the curb. He looked at Claire, but she just shrugged and rolled her eyes, so he went back into his office to call his NYPD contact. His gut had wanted him to go rushing out the front door in suspicion.
“Bellini, NYPD,” a voice he recognized from his military days answered.
“Ziti, it’s Thompson.”
“The Big Buck himself? How’s your problem going?”
“You sent me a girl named Renault to handle my, er, problem?”
“Renault? Oh. She’s there already? Must have headed right up,” Bellini said.
“What’s her story?”
“Nope. You asked for an expert on werewolves and I was able to get you the one we rely on. And she got up there in record time. You don’t get more than that, Buck. Her story is her own, and I ain’t gonna be the one to tell it,” the New York cop said. His voice held a measure of respect and perhaps just a tiny bit of trepidation, at least at the last sentence.
“Eddie, this crime scene was like nothing I’ve ever seen. I gotta know if this girl is up for it,” Thompson said.
“Just worry about yourself, Buck. Don’t be fooled by the good looks and don’t go trying to impress her or protect her, and for God’s sakes, don’t be hitting on her, wife or no wife. She’s not like anyone you’ve ever met, but she’s exactly the one for your problem. Now, I gotta go. The full moon’s got the wackos coming out of the woodwork. The regular wackos. Not the furry kind,” Bellini said.
“All right, Ziti. Thanks, I guess.”
“ You guess? Shit, Buck, you owe me big for this one. Like moose lottery big, get it?”
“Yeah, I’ll see what I can do to draw a tag.”
“Hmpf. Like I don’t believe you can’t get a moose tag anytime you want. It’s me you’re talking to, Buck. I know what a wheeler-dealer you are. But do me and you a favor and treat that young lady with respect. Got it?” the detective said, hanging up without waiting for an answer.
Buck Thompson had gone through hell with the city-bred Bellini and trusted him implicitly. That said, Morris Alcombe’s death was far outside anything they had faced in the Sandbox, and the young sergeant was having trouble reconciling the death scene with the young woman his old army buddy had sent to help him. Still, there had been a large portion of respect in the detective’s voice when he spoke about her and maybe even the tiniest amount of fear.
He woke up his computer and typed her name and driver’s license number into the National Crime Information Center site and hit enter. His computer went a little wonky.
First a photo of a blonde woman a good fifteen years or so older popped up, but the open window instantly closed and then almost as quickly reopened with a picture that matched the young woman outside. Frowning, Buck hit the back button but the damned machine just took him back to the data entry view. He reentered the information and the software delivered him the smiling picture of the brunette he’d just met. The photo looked like it had been taken recently. Like yesterday. And who the hell smiles for a license photo? No matter what he tried, he couldn’t get the blonde picture back.
Her record was clean and her address matched the license, listing her as a resident of Manhattan. The plastic on her license was hardly scuffed, yet the issue date was over a year ago. Something odd here. Time to go to the source.
Copyright John Conroe