Wolfsbane and mistletoe, p.1
Alan is the author of the Fools' Guild Mysteries, published by St. Martin's Minotaur Books, continuing the adventures of Theophilos, a thirteenth-century jester. Titles in the series include Thirteenth Night (now available from Crum Creek Press), Jester Leaps In, A Death in the Venetian uarter, The Widow of Jerusalem, An Antic Disposition, The Lark's Lament, The Moneylender of Toulouse, and the upcoming The Parisian Prodigal. Alan sold his first short story to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in 1990. Since then, he's had numerous mystery, fantasy, and science fiction stories in Hitchcock, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine , Asimov's Science Fiction, and several anthologies. By day, Alan is a criminal defense attorney with the Legal Aid Society of New York, with over a hundred trials to his credit. He lives in New York City with his wife, Judy Downer, an editor, and son, Robert. He is a graduate of Swarthmore College, where he received the William Plumer Potter Award for Fiction, and the University of Chicago Law School.
"Your order's ready, Mister Lehrmann," called Bert, emerging from the back room wiping his hands on a bloody towel. "Two sides of beef, so fresh they were mooing yesterday. "
"Thanks, Bert," said Lehrmann. "That should keep us through the twenty-sixth. Okay if I bring the van around back?"
"No problem, Mister L," said Bert. "What are you doing for Christmas? Family coming over?"
"I'm expecting some tonight. Maybe. "
"That's nice," said Bert. "Nothing like having family on Christmas Eve. Let's see, you just paid me for the month, so we'll put this on your tab for January, okay?"
"Works for me," said Lehrmann, signing the proffered receipt. His nose crinkled happily as he scanned the display case.
"Those lamb chops look good," he said. "Maybe I should get the dogs a treat for Christmas. Got a lamb you haven't cut up yet?"
"Sure thing," said Bert, adding it to the invoice.
Lehrmann stepped outside to where the cargo van was parked, the LEHRMANN'S GUARD DOGS ad on both sides. He pulled it around to the loading dock where Bert was already waiting with the beef and lamb on a dolly.
"Those dogs eat better than most people," commented Bert as Lehrmann hauled the meat into the van. "Not that I'm complaining to my best customer. You really think they should get fresh, raw meat every day?"
"Part of their training," said Lehrmann. "The bloodier, the better. Brings out the hunter in them. "
"Sure wouldn't want to run into one of your puppies on the job," said Bert.
"You really wouldn't," said Lehrmann, slamming the rear doors shut. "See you Monday, Bert. Have a good Christmas. "
Lehrmann raised and trained his dogs in a converted warehouse ten miles out of town, not far from the woods. A large, white sign marked the turnoff onto the farm road that led to it. The Spinellis came in at two for their last training session with Waldo. They were a family of four, living in one of the McMansions in the new development. The Doberman sensed them before he could even see them, and started baying a greeting.
"Waldo, hush," Lehrmann said to the dog, and he quieted down immediately. Lehrmann opened the cage and attached the lead to Waldo's collar, then brought him out to the training pit while the other dogs watched with professional interest.
"Afternoon, folks," he said. "Everyone ready?"
"Ready as I'll ever be," said Mr. Spinelli nervously.
"Hi, Waldo," said Sally, the fearless eleven-year-old, and Waldo wagged his tail. Sandy, her little brother, watched from behind her, his thumb in his mouth.
"You can hang out for a few minutes while I get my padding on," said Lehrmann. "Here. "
He tossed the reward bag to Mr. Spinelli, and the lead to Mrs. Spinelli, who gave a quick whistle. Waldo immediately sat at her feet.
"Good dog," she said, patting his head.
Lehrmann strapped the quilted padding over his arms and torso, then faced them.
"Any time," he said.
"Waldo, come," commanded Mr. Spinelli, unclipping the lead from the dog's collar, and the dog followed him as he walked around. "Good dog. Waldo, perimeter. "
Waldo ran around the edge of the pit.
"Waldo, here," said Mrs. Spinelli. The dog made a beeline for her. She looked at Lehrmann. "Are you sure about this?"
"Go ahead," smiled Lehrmann.
"Waldo, arm," she said, pointing at Lehrmann.
Waldo turned into a snarling, speeding set of teeth, hurtling toward Lehrmann. The dog leapt, and his jaws closed around the padding on the trainer's shoulder.
"Waldo, here," said Mr, Spinelli.
The dog relinquished his hold immediately and returned to the family.
"Good dog," said Mr. Spinelli.
"Don't forget the meat, Daddy," said Sally.
"Good dog," repeated Mr. Spinelli, handing him a chunk of beef from the reward bag.
Waldo wolfed it down.
"Dog biscuits won't do?" asked Spinelli as Lehrmann stripped off the padding.
"You want to keep him on your side, make it fresh meat," said Lehrmann. "You do want to keep him on your side, don't you?"
"Oh, yes," said Mrs. Spinelli.
"You've invested time and money to get not just a guardian, but a companion and a friend," said Lehrmann, coming forward to rub Waldo's neck. "A long time ago, dogs found us, and learned how to protect us. In exchange, we learned how to feed them, and we fed them well. Co-evolution. Any dog can be trained to attack strangers, but a great dog, like Waldo here, won't be attacking strangers. He will be defending you, because you're his family and he loves you. Remember that. "
"We will," promised Mr. Spinelli.
"Let me get him his new collar," said Lehrmann. "Waldo, come. "
Waldo swallowed the last of his food, and followed Lehrmann to his office in back. The trainer took out a thick, black leather collar and put it around the dog's neck. Waldo looked at him attentively.
"Sorry you can't be here for Christmas, Waldo," said Lehrmann. "But you get to spend it with your new family. They are good people, and they will treat you well. Make me proud. "
The dog nodded, and Lehrmann planted a quick kiss on the top of his head.
"Here's your Christmas dog," Lehrmann said as he brought Waldo back out.
"And here you are," said Mr. Spinelli, handing him a check.
"We'll bring him back for visits," said Mrs. Spinelli.
"I'd like that," said Lehrmann. "It's been a pleasure. "
Waldo woofed at him once as they took him to their car.
"Merry Christmas!" cried the children.
Lehrmann waved, then closed the door and turned back to the rest of the dogs. They looked at him in anticipation.
"Playtime," he called, pressing a switch on the wall, and the doors all swung open at once.
The dogs burst out of the cages and charged madly into the pit, racing and colliding with each other. There was a mad pileup at one end as several skidded into the padding on the curve, launching a number of wrestling matches. As they played, Lehrmann went methodically through the cages, cleaning each thoroughly. Then he went into the walk-in refrigerator and hauled out one of the sides of beef. Using an electric butcher's saw, he hacked it into dog-sized portions. He laid them out in inpidual bowls, then came back out to the arena.
"Chow!" he called, and the dogs abandoned their melee and raced to their cages. He closed the doors, then began distributing the bowls.
While the dogs ate, Lehrmann hauled out an artificial Christmas tree and began stringing lights over its branches.
"Very festive," muttered the man.
He was wearing a ribbed black sweater that was fine for the Georgia winter, along with black jeans and boots. A ski cap covered his hair, but his chin and jaw were covered with a matted, gray beard. His legs were thick and powerful.
He had been keeping his vigil from the woods the entire day, making sure that Lehrmann would be alone tonight. He had watched the Spinellis leave, knowing they were the last customers before Christmas, and smiled. His palms itched. He wiped them briefly on his sweater, then scratched the right one with the corner of his belt buckle. He looked through the binoculars again. Lehrmann was hanging a wreath on each of the dogs' cages.
"Very festive indeed," said the man.
The dogs made this one a challenge. He couldn't risk breaking into the warehouse and planting any bugs. He had used a combination of a long-range listening device that bounced an infrared beam off the windows, and a monitor that picked up any nearby cell phone signals. The arrangement still left gaps in the sound. And any time one of the damn dogs started barking, the infrared could have been a flashlight for all the dialogue he was picking up.
Lehrmann was unfolding a six-foot cardboard Santa Claus and hanging it on a wall.
"Now, that one is just plain tacky," said the watcher.
The cell phone monitor chirped. He squatted down and turned the volume up.
Lehrmann picked up his cell phone from his desk.
"Lehrmann's Guard Dogs," he said.
"Hi, Sam," said a familiar voice, and he clutched the phone hard for a moment. "You still there?"
"Hello, Mona," he said.
"It's Christmas Eve, Sam," she said. "I thought you might like some company. "
"I've got company," he said.
"You know what I mean," said Mona. "Dogs don't count. "
"Man's best friend," said Lehrmann. "Didn't you know that?"
"Only when the man has no woman," said Mona. "You're in Georgia, Sam. Not Alaska. Georgia. A man in Georgia doesn't need to spend the only Christmas Eve of the year with a bunch of dogs. "
"You been drinking, Mona?"
"It's going to be a beautiful night," she continued. "Crisp and clear, with a full moon. A full moon on Christmas Eve, Sam. That doesn't happen that often. Maybe we'll see Santa's sleigh flying across it. Yes, I have been drinking, Sam. I'm alone in Georgia on Christmas Eve, and I'm drinking. Can't I come over? You shouldn't be alone with a bunch of dogs. "
"Dogs are loyal, Mona," he said. He wished immediately that he hadn't.
She was silent. He thought for a moment that she had broken the connection, but then he heard her crying.
"How's Nicky?" he asked, awkwardly changing the subject.
"Nicky's a great, big, warm, wonderful pal," she said. "I am going to cuddle with Nicky tonight. I could be with you, roasting marshmallows in the fire . . . "
"I don't have a fireplace," he said.
"Please let me back into your life, Sam," she said softly. "You can't shut me out forever. "
"Good night, Mona," he said. "Merry Christmas. "
He broke the connection.
The man in the woods checked his watch, then glanced up at the sky. The sun was nearing the horizon. It would be an hour until nightfall. He looked through his binoculars to see Lehrmann sitting disconsolately at the desk, staring at his cell phone, then turning it off.
"Poor Sam," said the watcher. "Full moon and empty arms. "
An alarm signal went off, and Carson, a five-year-old German shepherd, looked up.
"Easy, boy," said Lehrmann. "Still got an hour. Plenty of time. Finish your dinner. "
The dog went back to his meal, but kept glancing up at the windows.
She was drinking early today, thought Lehrmann. God knows that the holidays will do that to a person. Hell, he was all shook up from a two-minute conversation with her, and he was the sober one.
"Hell of a time to call, Carson," he said, and the dog grimaced sympathetically.
Lehrmann thought back to when she'd first walked through his front door. What was it, three years ago? Three and a month. It was mid-November, and he was training a Rottweiler, a ten-month-old female.
The woman was slim, brunette, and built like a runner. Her clothes were carefully casual in a way only large amounts of money could accomplish. She had ruby drops dangling from each ear, with more strung along a gold necklace that plunged between her breasts.
He was playing tug-of-war with the Rottweiler, using a broomstick wrapped in several layers of cloth. The dog had clamped on tight, and was digging its claws into the mat, trying to pull the broomstick out of Lehrmann's hands. She looked like she might succeed. The woman leaned forward, resting her hands on the wall of the pit, and watched.
"Here!" Lehrmann said suddenly.
The Rottweiler looked up at him, but refused to relinquish the broomstick.
"Here!" Lehrmann commanded her again.
The dog reluctantly let go, and moved to sit by Lehrmann's right foot. She stayed there, a resentful glare on her face.
"Good girl," Lehrmann praised her, and he handed her a small piece of beef. "Can I help you, ma'am?"
"If I'm not interrupting," said the woman, smiling. "Is that raw beef?"
"It is," said Lehrmann.
"Then you won't mind if I don't shake hands just yet," she said.
"I have been known to wash them on occasion," said Lehrmann. "Give me a minute. You could shake the dog's paw while you're waiting. "
"Will she do that without attacking me?" asked the woman.
"She won't attack unless she's told to," said Lehrmann. "At least, that's how it's supposed to work. "
"I'll chance it," said the woman, coming into the pit. She squatted down to face the dog. "Hello. My name is Mona Havelka. What's yours?"
"This is Nicky," said Lehrmann. "Nicky, shake. "
The Rottweiler immediately held out a paw, and Mona shook it.
"Very pleased to meet you, Nicky," she said.
"Here, give her this," said Lehrmann, holding up a piece of beef.
Mona took it and held it out for Nicky, who took it carefully from her, then licked her hand.
"No point in standing on ceremony now," said Mona, holding her hand out to Lehrmann. "Are you the owner?"
"Sam Lehrmann," he said, shaking it. "Pleased to meet you. Let me show you where to wash up. "
He escorted her to a washbasin in a tool room in back and tossed her a bar of soap.
"Guests first," he said, turning on the taps. "Hope you don't mind sharing. "
"A gentleman," she said, scrubbing her hands thoroughly. "And such a romantic spot, too. "
"You'd be surprised," he grinned as she handed him the soap. "So, how may I help you?"
"I came to see a man about a dog," she said as he washed up.
"I'm the man," he said. "What kind of dog have you got in mind?"
"Someone to protect me when I'm sleeping. "
"Apartment or house?"
"A town house," she said. "In town. "
"You looking for something with more bark or more bite?" he asked as they walked back into the main room.
She looked at him, and the smile left her eyes.
"I want a bark that will put the fear of God into anyone stupid enough to break in," she said. "And a bite that will send anyone stupid enough to ignore the bark straight to Hell. "
He rested his chin between his thumb and forefinger, and pondered her request for a moment.
"I have this really vicious dachshund that might fit the bill," he said.
She stared at him in disbel
"No, seriously, I've been trying to get rid of the little bastard for years," he continued, his nose crinkling for an instant.
"An attack dachshund," she said, starting to laugh.
"Well, pretty much an ankle biter," he conceded. "But let him get a running start, and that baby will take out a decent chunk of thigh. "
"Really," she said. "I had no idea. "
"It's the element of surprise," he explained. "Gets them every time. "
"Be serious now," she said.
"All right," he said, opening the gate to the pit. "Nicky, here. "
The Rottweiler bounded up and sat before them expectantly. Lehrmann looked into the dog's eyes, then back at Mona's.
"This one," he said. "This one is your dog. "
Lehrmann went back into the refrigerator, removed the lamb, and placed it on the butcher block. Then he took the saw and simply cut it in half. He put one part back in the refrigerator, then carried the other to a large empty cage set back from the others and placed it inside. He made sure there was plenty of water, then went back to his office, where Carson was waiting, idly scratching his ear with his hind paw.
"You done?" Lehrmann asked.
The dog nodded. Lehrmann let the dog out of the office, then went around the building, checking the locks.
"How did you get to be so good with dogs?" she asked him one night as they lay in bed together. Nicky was downstairs, exiled to her dog bed as usual when he stayed the night.
"I grew up with them," he said. "And when I started raising them, they grew up with me. We just got to know each other better than most humans and dogs do. "
"But the training," she persisted. "They respond to you like nothing I've ever seen. "
"Something in my voice, I guess," he said. "I probably have all these auditory cues I use without even being aware of it. "
"And they pick up on them," she said. "Maybe you've gotten it all wrong. Maybe the dogs are the ones who trained you, not the other way around. "
"Could be," he said, letting his fingers trail gently down the curve of her body. "I never thought of it like that before. "
He let his hand wander and explore, and she arched her back.
"How did you get to be so good with me?" she gasped, and he drew her to him in response.
"We're tight," he said to Carson as he punched in the numbers on the last lock and pulled the door shut. "Carson, patrol. "
The dog began loping about the building.
The watcher pulled out his cell phone and pressed a single button.
"Did you get the security code?" he asked quietly.
"Good," said the watcher.
He broke the connection and waited impatiently. He had been spending the day in a state of forced calm, but now, with the moment so close, he was nervous, jumpy. You would think that the killing urge would die out over the years, he thought. That the rage would gradually fade given time. Time that heals all wounds. A laughable notion in his case. With each kill, the wound seemed to rip open more, the bloodlust increased, and the only thing he could think about was the next one. Maybe Lehrmann would satisfy the urge for a while. He thought he might. Lehrmann was going to be a good one. Lehrmann was his Christmas gift to himself.
Edwards lay prone in a cornfield, watching the front of the warehouse until he saw Lehrmann go back inside. Then he crawled backward through the dried stalks until he could get to a crouching position unobserved. Still staying low, he scuttled to the rear of a barn where the surveillance van was parked. He tapped twice, then three times, on the side door. It slid open, and he clambered inside.
Kenner was behind the wheel. Hidalgo was in the back, monitoring the police radio.
"Any of that coffee left?" asked Edwards.
"In the pot," said Hidalgo. "Make it quick. It's almost time. "
Edwards poured himself a cup, threw in three sugars and some creamer, and stirred it. He drank it in two gulps, then began putting on the padding.
"Did you guys ever feel like we work for a crazy person?" he asked.
"Sometimes," said Kenner. "Then I see my paycheck and the feeling goes away. "
"And he's not so crazy," said Hidalgo.
"What makes you think so?" asked Edwards, tightening the straps to make sure nothing crucial was exposed.
"Because he's making you go in first," explained Hidalgo.
"You got a point," said Edwards. "Ever feel like I've become a crazy person?"
"That we do," said Kenner, checking his watch, then his gun.
Lehrmann went back to the large cage and checked his watch. Fifteen minutes. He stripped off his clothes and hung them from a pair of hooks. Then he took off his watch and placed it on a table so that it faced the cage. He checked the timer on the lock, then stepped inside and pulled the door shut. The lock engaged.
Carson came by and sat in front of the cage.
"It's locked," said Lehrmann, shaking the bars to prove it. "Thanks for checking, buddy. I'm good. "
The dog woofed once, then resumed his patrolling.
The clanging of the cage echoed through the watcher's earpiece. He smiled.
"Next," he said softly.
At the Spinelli house, Waldo made a thorough inspection of every room. Then he heard a whistle, and galloped down the stairs to the front hallway.
Sally was waiting for him with his leash.
"Time for your walk, Waldo," she said, clipping it to his collar. "Mom? I'm taking Waldo for a walk around the block. "
"Sweetie, it's getting dark," called her mother from the kitchen. "Don't be too long. "
"Ah, come on, hon," said her husband. "Think who's with her. She'll be the safest girl in the neighborhood. Take your time, kiddo. Show Waldo who's friendly and where the weirdos are. "
"'Kay, 'bye," she called, leading him out the front door.
Lehrmann looked through the bars at his watch. Five minutes. He sat cross-legged in the middle of the cage and took deep slow breaths. He held his hands out at his sides, palms up.
Outside the windows, the sky turned to night.
"Om," he chanted. "Om. "
The change always started inside his chest as his rib cage expanded. The surrounding muscles resisted for a moment, then began to stretch and re-form to accommodate the larger shape.
"Om," he continued. "Om. "
It spread up through his shoulders and neck, and down through his pelvis as the bones shifted, making crackling noises like twigs popping on a fire. The hair was sprouting now, thick, coarse, and gray.
"Om," he said, clinging to the sound, concentrating all of his being in the chant.
The arms and legs were at it now, the claws bursting through his fingers and toes. That pain was always the worst. The chant was coming out hoarsely. He was choking on it, but forced it out. Then came the jaws thrusting forward, the teeth, the fangs.
"Om," he whimpered.
He wanted to howl.
Just one howl.
What harm could one little howl do?
Let it out.
"Om!" he shouted.
He took a deep breath.
"Om," he chanted. "Om. "
He sensed the other dogs watching him down the row of cages. Fascinated. Envious.
His heartbeat slowed back to normal. Whatever the hell that was.
Carson came by and sat, looking at him.
"I'm good, buddy," said Lehrmann. "Want to hand me the remote? Let's see what's on cable tonight. "
Carson went over to the table where the remote control sat next to the watch. He picked it up gently with his teeth and brought it over to the cage where the werewolf sat, scratching his back. He put it on the floor, then nudged it between the bars with his nose.
"Thanks, buddy," sa
The usual Christmas fare. Repeats of specials he had seen dozens of times before. He flipped through them. There was the Island of Misfit Toys, and Linus wrapping his blanket to shore up that pathetic little tree. He growled with displeasure and turned it off.
"Oh, I love this one!" she cried. "Best 'Christmas Carol' ever!"
They were cuddling on the couch downstairs, a bowl of popcorn and a pitcher of bourbon-laced eggnog on the coffee table. Nicky was curled up on the far end, forcing them together. He wondered if that was her intent.
"The Mister Magoo one was the best," said Lehrmann.
"Never saw that one," she said.
"They used to show it when I was a kid," he said. "The Ghost of Christmas Future scared the crap out of me. "
"That's no surprise," she said. "The future always scares you. "
He looked at her.
"Where did that come from?" he asked.
"Oh, come off it, Sam," she said. "It's Christmas Eve. Our third together. Only we're not completely together, are we?"
"I'm over here most nights, aren't I?"
"Yes, but I'm a greedy little bitch, Sam," she said. "I want them all. Where were you Tuesday night?"
"I was home. "
"Now, that's simply a lie," she said. "I called you at home, and you didn't answer. And when I drove by, no one was there. "
"Wait, Tuesday. You're right, I wasn't home. I was at the warehouse most of the night. Waldo wasn't feeling well. He's this new Doberman puppy, and - "
"I called your cell, Sam. "
"Battery was dead. I forgot to recharge it. "
"And I went by the warehouse, Sam. "
He was silent for a moment.
"You did," he said.
Wolfsbane and Mistletoe by Charlaine Harris / Fantasy / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on36 votes