THE PREY doesn’t know it’s being hunted. She stays downwind of it and steps slowly, setting each paw quietly on the forest floor, keeping her head low, ears and eyes forward. Out of her sight, more of her wolves are circling, closing in while the buck grazes, ignorant.
They’ve tracked several young males for an hour. Careless, this one has drifted away from the others. Soon, he’ll be cut off, helpless. Its fellows will run, using its misfortune as their chance to escape. They won’t even look back.
The moment of attack happens quickly. Her mate leaps from shadows. He is sleek and tawny, full of muscle and life, his gold eyes shining in the light of the fat moon. The prey bolts, spinning on its haunches to escape. But three other wolves are there to block its path. The rest of the deer run, disappearing into the woods. This one is trapped.
It spins again, toward her this time, and she snaps at its snout. Fearful eyes roll back in its head, showing white, and its nostrils turn red, heaving desperate breaths. The pack closes in, a dozen wolves surrounding the meat. Two of the males, warriors, strike at the deer’s haunches and bite, digging in with claws and teeth. Another wolf, jaw open and slavering, aims for the throat. The buck puts down its head and slashes with velvety antlers. Possessing only a couple of prongs, it’s inexperienced, but manages to clout his attacker. The wolf yelps and stumbles away.
She and her mate spring forward to take his place. She grabs hold of the prey’s muzzle, closing off its nose, digging with her teeth until blood spills onto her tongue. Her mate bites into its throat and uses his weight to twist its neck and bring the meat down. Neither lets go until the convulsions, the last desperate twitching and the last hope to escape, fall still. Even then, her mate still hangs on, teeth bared, blood flowing around his snout.
The sounds of low growls and ripping flesh rise up. She bounces forward, snarling, landing on the deer’s broad flank. The wolves who had been pulling at the meat’s hide flee, their ears flattened and tails clamped between their legs, then circle back to linger at the edges of the kill, watching. More wolves emerge from the trees and underbrush, older and weaker pack members who had not taken part in the hunt. They would have their chance; they’d feed, too, in their time. Her pack forms a circle around her, waiting for permission. One of them limps—the one the deer struck—and she flickers her ears at him, smelling. He licks his lips, bows his head. Bruised, he’ll heal. She turns her attention to the task at hand.
Her mate is chewing at the deer’s underbelly, the softest part of its gut, breaking through to offal and treasure.
They feed. They all feed.
* * *
I AWOKE to birdsong.
The sun hadn’t yet risen, but the sky was pale, waiting for the first touch of gold. The air smelled fresh, wet, woody. Overhead, the branches of conifers reached. If I lay still I could see the critters flitting among them, cheeping and trilling, full of themselves. Way too manic. I stretched, straightening legs and arms, pulling at too-tight muscles, reminding myself of the shape of my human body after a full-moon night of running as a wolf. My furless skin tingled against the morning air.
The birds weren’t the only ones having fun this morning. My movement woke Ben, who stretched beside me and groaned. Then his arms circled me, his skin warm, flush in contrast to the chill. One hand traveled down my hip, the other reached to tangle in my hair, and he pinned me to the ground, pressing against me with his lean body as my arms pulled him closer and I wrapped my legs around his.
Instead of sleeping with the pack, Ben and I had gone off by ourselves, as we did sometimes, to make love, naked in the wild, and keep the world to ourselves for a little while.
Eventually, the cool morning burned away and the air grew warm. Ben lay pillowed on my chest, arms wrapped around me. I’d been tracing his ear and winding my fingers in his hair. Finally, as much as I hated to do it, I patted his shoulder.
“I think it’s time to get moving.”
“Hmm, do we have to?” His eyes were still closed, his voice muffled.
“Theoretically, no,” I said. “But I think I’d like to go home and take a shower.”
“Maybe next time we can bring the shower out here,” he mumbled.
I furrowed my brow. “Like a camp shower? I think that’d be more trouble than it’s worth.” When I said shower I meant lots of hot water and a pressure nozzle, not just anything that happened to drip water.
He propped himself upright on one arm, keeping the other on my belly, idly tracing my rib cage, his fingertips leaving a flush behind them. “I’m thinking bigger. We could move out of Denver, get a house out here. Go out on the full moon and end up on our doorstep. I think I’m getting a little tired of that condo.”
Stalked by an unbidden memory, I froze. A house in the foothills, where the pack could gather—the idea brought back old, reflexive trauma.
“That’s what Carl and Meg did,” I said. When I took over the pack I promised I would never be like them.
Ben tilted his head to look at me. “We’re not them.” He said it with such simple, declarative finality.
If I separated myself from the memories, could I imagine walking out of my own front porch to a view like this every day? Yeah, maybe. “You sure you want to take the step away from civilization?”
“Ask yourself this: If you weren’t a werewolf, what would you want? Where would you want to live?”
I couldn’t trust my answer, because Wolf was always on the edges, nudging, pointing to certain preferences over others. I’d never eaten rare steak before becoming a werewolf; now, it was my dinner of choice.
“I used to want a nice house somewhere,” I said. “Probably in the suburbs. Big yard. Good shopping. But now? A house out of the city sounds awfully nice.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I grew up in the middle of nowhere, that’s half the reason I moved to Denver in the first place. But I don’t think I want to live in the city forever.”
“So you can see us living in a house out of town? Even without our wolves talking?”
“Yeah, I can,” he said. His smile was thin and wistful. I brushed his hair back from his face, an excuse to touch that expression, that little bit of his soul. He caught my hand and kissed the inside of my wrist.
“Hey, you guys fall into a ditch or something?” Shaun’s voice carried from the next cluster of trees.
“If I say yes will he go away?” Ben said.
We could only avoid the inevitable for so long. I held Ben’s face and kissed him, lips firmly planted against lips that melted against mine.
“Time to go?” he asked when we finally parted. I nodded.
Hand in hand we made our way to the den where the rest of the pack bedded down. Human shapes stretched in strangely canine manners, backs arched and limbs straight, or scratched heads of tangled hair. Some were far enough along to be pulling on shirts and jeans that had been stashed under trees and shrubs the night before. Already dressed and keeping watch toward the road, where our half dozen cars were parked, Shaun waved at me.
“Tom, you okay?” Ben asked. “You took a pretty good hit there.”
Tom was in his early thirties, with dark hair that reached his shoulders and a shadowed expression. He seemed to be moving a little slower than the others, sitting up and catching his breath.
“Yeah, I’ll be feeling that for a little while.” Wincing, he rolled his shoulder, where a bruise, splotching purple and gray, colored the skin. It was mostly healed. If he’d been a wild wolf, that hit might have killed him, or at least broken bone, which would have been the same thing in the wild.
“That’ll teach you to look before leaping,” Shaun said, laughing. Some of the others joined in, chuckling and teasing him. Tom blushed and gritted his teeth.
“Hey, it could have happened to anyone,” I said, and they quieted. Tom ducked his gaze when I glanced at him.
One big happy wolf family, that was us. And I was Mom. It still weirded me out sometimes.
The sun was up and the spring chill starting to fade when we divided ourselves among the cars to head back to Denver and its suburbs. A couple members of the pack had to rush home to showers and clean clothes before going to jobs and pretending to be human for another day. I thought again about what Ben had said about a shower, a home base—maybe it would make things easier for everyone.
Shaun called out a question before climbing into his car, “Hey—when are you leaving for London again?”
“Two weeks,” I said. “They were kind enough to schedule the conference over the new moon ‘to make our lycanthrope guests more comfortable.’”
“Nice of them,” he said. “You know what you’re going to say in your speech yet?”
I was giving the keynote address for the First International Conference on Paranatural Studies. I figured if I didn’t think about it too much I wouldn’t get nervous. “That would be no,” I said, with more of a wince than a smile. Shaun just laughed.
Ben and I were the last to leave. We made sure everyone else was safe and happy, keeping it together, before we took one last look around our wild refuge, gave each other another kiss, got in the car, and headed out to the rest of our day.
There it was. Full moon over for another month. We traveled back to reality, such as it was.
* * *
A FEW days later found me deeply embroiled in the act of making my living.
I was trying to do meaty on the show tonight. Meaty was good. And not just rare steaks or fresh kill for the Wolf. Meat—real topical substance—gave me credibility. Sometimes, it even gave me answers.
“All right, we’re back from the break and station ID. This is Kitty Norville and The Midnight Hour coming to you from KNOB in Denver, Colorado. Unlike next week when I’ll be prerecording a show for you in London, England, where I’ll be attending the First International Conference on Paranatural Studies. This will be the first time that scientists, academics, policy makers, and pundits like me from all over the world will gather to discuss the topics that are so near and dear to my heart: vampires, werewolves, magic, what science has to say about it, what’s their place in the world. As you know I’m a werewolf and have a vested interest in some of those answers. I’m hoping to line up some really slam-bang interviews, because when else am I going to have this many victims all in one place? In case you haven’t figured it out, I’m very excited about the trip.
“Now I want to hear from you—once I get these scientists and diplomats where I want them, what questions should I ask? What would you want to learn at the conference? The lines are open.” I checked the monitor and hit a line at random. “Hello, you’re on the air.”
“I want to know if it’s true that vampires are going to lobby for a seat at the United Nations.” The caller was male and enthusiastic, a fast talker.
“Where did you hear that?” I asked.
“On the Internet,” he said, with a tone of duh.
“I’ll certainly keep my highly sensitive ears open for rumors on that topic, but I don’t think it’s a real possibility, because I don’t think vampires have any interest in deferring to human authority on anything. They’ve got their own systems of organization and haven’t felt much of a need to take part in ours over the centuries. At least that’s my impression. Next call, please. Hello, talk to me.”
“Hi, Kitty, thanks for taking my call!” The woman sounded bubbly and nice. Maybe she wouldn’t be crazy. “I was wondering, do you think you could give us a sneak preview of your keynote address for the conference?”
Well, no, because I hadn’t written it yet, but I wasn’t going to admit that. “I’m afraid I’m keeping that firmly under wraps until I actually give the speech. More fun that way, don’t you think?”
“Well, I can’t wait to hear it!”
Neither could I … “Thank you. I’m going to take another call now.” I punched another line, glancing at the screener info on the monitor. “Jane from Houston, what’s your question?”
“Hi, Kitty, big fan here, thanks for taking my call. I’ve been listening to you for years and you’ve been talking around these questions that whole time. For all the so-called scientists you’ve interviewed and research you’ve talked about, nobody seems to have any answers. I have to tell you, I’m shocked there’s even anything like a conference happening. Does that mean there are finally going to be some answers? Have scientists finally been able to figure out where vampires and lycanthropes came from? Are they actually going to tell us it’s a mutation or a disease?” She sounded genuinely frustrated.
I said, “Science isn’t like an Internet search. You don’t just stick a question in one end of a machine and have the answer pop out the other side. I don’t see the conference as a sign that scientists have finally found answers so much as it’s proof that there’s now a critical mass of researchers even asking these questions, that they can benefit from this kind of gathering.”
“Or maybe the conference is so they can get their stories straight about the cover-up.”
“Excuse me?” I said. I heard a new one every show, it seemed like.
“You don’t really think anybody actually wants answers, do you?” my caller said brusquely. Here was someone so wrapped up in her conspiracy-laden worldview that the truth was obvious to her. “These ‘researchers’ are only pretending to be researching anything. They can keep putting out half-baked theories forever. In the meantime, anything they discover they can keep to themselves and use against the rest of us.”
“Anything like what?” I said, truly curious.
“The secrets of mind control, of immortality. The rest is a smoke screen. That’s what they’re looking for, and they’re not going to tell the rest of us when they find it. They don’t even care about the real questions, like where we came from.”
We—she was some brand of lycanthrope, I guessed. Vampires didn’t tend to get this intense about anything—they were used to sitting back and watching events take their course. Whatever she was, she was feeling lost and helpless in a world gone out of control. I could understand her position.
“I know some of these scientists personally,” I said in what I hoped was a soothing voice. “Most of them are more worried about their funding than about taking part in any kind of cover-up. But I’ll tell you what—I’ll ask as many people as many questions as I can about the origins of vampires and lycanthropes. I’ll bring the answers back to the show. How does that sound?”
“You say that now, but they’ll rope you in,” she said, as if I’d already personally betrayed her. “They’ll get to you, threaten you or bribe you, and then you’ll be in on it, too. Just watch.”
“So little faith,” I said, put out. If she could act like she’d been betrayed, I could act offended. “You said it yourself, I’ve been doing this for years, and no one’s stopped me yet. I don’t see this conference changing that, no matter how weird things get. Moving on.”
I clicked off Jane’s call and punched up the next. The caller didn’t waste time with so much as a hello.
“There’s no mystery where you all come from,” said a flat male voice. “It’s not even a question.”
“Oh? And where do we come from?”
“The devil! You’re all from the devil!”
I fielded one of these calls about every fourth show. The fanatics had learned to say what they needed to say to scam the screening process, and when they finally got on the air they’d give The Speech—the supernatural was the spawn of Satan and the world was racing toward Armageddon on our backs. Blah blah blah. Sometimes, we’d let the calls through on purpose, because the best way to counter these jokers was to let them keep talking.
“You can dress it up in all that science double-talk, but science is the devil’s tool! This conference is another sign of the End Times, the new world order. There’s a reason it’s called the number of the beast. That’s the best thing about this, once you’re there you’ll all be stamped with the number, so the rest of us can see you, and you won’t be able to hide anymore.”
I leaned into the microphone and used my sultry voice. “I wasn’t aware I’d been hiding.”
“There’s a war coming, a real war! You may sound all nice and sweet, you may have brainwashed thousands of people, but it’s a disguise, a deception, and when the trumpet sounds, Lucifer will call his own to him, even you.”
“I like to think I’ll be judged by my deeds rather than what some crazy person says about me.”
“All your good deeds are a trick to hide your true nature. I’ve listened to you, I know!”
“So what does that make you? A media consumer of the beast?”
The caller hung up before I did, which was a pretty good trick. The game of “who gets the last word” meant that no matter how badly I mocked them, no matter how agitated they got, they kept on the line, thinking I’d somehow, eventually, admit that they were right. They always seemed to think that they were different than the last guy I hung up on. Suckers.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if I’m the spawn of Satan someone sure forgot to tell me about it. And I believe we have time for one more call. Hello, you’re on.”
“Uh, hi, Kitty. Thanks.” He was male, laid back. He sounded kind of stoned, actually.
“You have a question or comment?”
“Yeah. So, this thing’s in London, right? You’re going to London?”
“I think that’s what I’ve said about a dozen times over the last hour in a shameless bid for self-promotion.”
“Right.” He sniggered, like he was suppressing giggles. “So, that’ll make you”—more sniggering—“an American werewolf in—”
I cut him off. “I’m sorry, I seem to have lost that call. And I’d better not hear any Warren Zevon references, either. Sheesh, people. Let’s break for station ID.”
I had a feeling I was going to be hearing a lot of cracks like that over the next few weeks, I didn’t need to start now.
* * *
THE BIGGEST issue about me attending the conference wasn’t time, expense, or inclination. It certainly wasn’t whether or not the conference wanted me there—they’d invited me, after all. The problem was whether or not Ben and I, as werewolves prone to a bit of claustrophobia, could reasonably survive the flight to London, sealed in a metal tube with a few hundred people our lupine selves classified as prey, and no escape route. My longest flight since becoming a werewolf had been to Montana, an hour or so away. Ben hadn’t been on an airplane at all since becoming a werewolf.
I called a friend for advice.
The last time I’d talked with Joseph Tyler, formerly of the U.S. Army, he’d become part of the Seattle werewolf pack and was rooming with a couple of the other bachelor werewolves. I liked the idea of him having people to look after him—he suffered from post-traumatic stress related to his service in Afghanistan in addition to being a relatively new werewolf.
So I was a little surprised when a woman answered his phone. “Hello?”
“Um, hi. May I speak to Joseph Tyler?”
“Yeah, just a minute,” she said, and a rustling signaled her handing over the phone.
“Yeah?” came Tyler’s familiar, curt voice.
“Hey, it’s Kitty.” His enthusiastic greeting followed. “So who’s the girl?” I asked.
I could almost see him blushing over the phone line. “Um, yeah … that’s Susan. She’s … I guess she’s my girlfriend.” He said it wonderingly, like he was amazed by the situation.
“Is she a werewolf?”
“Yeah—I met her just a little while after I moved here. And, well, we hit it off. She … she’s been really good for me.”
I grinned like a mad thing. “That’s so cool. I’m really happy for you—and her.”
“Not to distract from the much more interesting topic of your relationship status, but I have a question for you. Really long trans-Atlantic flights—how do you do it without going crazy?”
He chuckled. “I’m about to find out—I’m headed to London for the Paranatural Conference, too. Dr. Shumacher asked me to be there for her presentation on werewolves in the military.”
The conference was sounding better and better. “Oh, that’s great! But wait a minute, you flew to Afghanistan—”
“On military transports, with no civilians around.”
“I don’t think I can get a military transport to London,” I said, frowning. “I don’t suppose it’s realistic for us to see about chartering a private jet, just for werewolves?”
“Shumacher’s springing for first-class tickets,” he said. “That and a sleeping pill to take the edge off should do it.”
First-class tickets—what an elegant solution. More space and free cocktails. I wondered who I could convince to spring for first-class tickets of my very own. “You’re sure it’ll work? It’d suck getting a couple of hours into the flight and finding out the sleeping pills don’t work.”
“I don’t expect them to work—it takes a lot of drugs to knock one of us out. But it should help. It’s like you’re always saying—you just work on keeping it together. I really want to go to London. This’ll work.”
If Tyler could do it, we had to try. I thanked him for the advice and congratulated him again on Susan. I wanted pictures. I wanted to fawn over them. It was adorable.
Then I called my producer, Ozzie, to ask how we could foot the bill for a first-class upgrade.
Copyright © 2012 by Carrie Vaughn, LLC