Wolfsbane and mistletoe, p.10
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       Wolfsbane and Mistletoe, p.10
 

           Charlaine Harris
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14
Chapter Ten

  SA

  J. A. Konrath

  J. A. Konrath's short work has appeared in over fifty magazines and anthologies. He's responsible for five books in the Lieutenant Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels thriller series, the latest of which is Fuzzy Navel. He also edited the collection of hitman stories These Guns for Hire, and penned the horror novel Afraid under the name Jack Kilborn. Visit him at www. JAKonrath. com.

  Robert Weston Smith walked across the snow-covered parking lot carrying a small plastic container of his poop.

  Weston considered himself a healthy guy. At thirty-three years old he still had a six-pack, the result of working out three times a week. He followed a strict macrobiotic diet. He practiced yoga and tai chi. The last time he ate processed sugar was during the Reagan administration.

  That's why, when odd things began appearing in his bowel movements, he became more than a little alarmed. So alarmed that he sought out his general practitioner, making an appointment after a particularly embarrassing phone call to his office secretary.

  Weston entered the office building with his head down and a blush on his ears, feeling like a kid sneaking out after curfew. He used the welcome mat to stamp the snow off his feet and walked through the lobby to the doctor's office, taking a deep breath before going in. There were six people in the waiting room, four adults and a young boy, plus a nurse in pink paisley hospital scrubs who sat behind the counter.

  Weston kept his head down and beelined for the nurse. The poop container was blue plastic, semiopaque, but it might as well have been a police siren, blinking and howling. Everyone in the room must have known what it was. And if they didn't at first, they sure knew after the nurse said in a loud voice, "Is that your stool sample?"

  He nodded, trying to hand it to the woman. She made no effort to take it, and he couldn't really blame her. He carried it, and a clipboard, over to a seat in the waiting room. Setting his poop on a table atop an ancient copy of Good Housekeeping, he got to work filling out his insurance information. When it came time to describe the nature of his ailment, he wrote down "intestinal problems. " Which was untrue - his intestines felt fine. It's what came out of his intestines that caused alarm.

  "What's in the box?"

  Weston looked up, staring into the big eyes of a child, perhaps five or six years old.

  "It's, um, something for the doctor. "

  He glanced around the room, looking for someone to claim the boy. Two people had their noses stuck in magazines, one was watching a car commercial on the TV hanging from the ceiling, and the last appeared asleep. Any of them could have been his parent.

  "Is it a cupcake?" the boy asked.

  "Uh . . . yeah, a cupcake. "

  "I like cupcakes. "

  "You wouldn't like this one. "

  The boy reached for the container.

  "Is it chocolate?"

  Weston snatched it up and set it in his lap.

  "No. It isn't chocolate. "

  "Show it to me. "

  "No. "

  The boy squinted at the sample. Weston considered putting it behind his back, out of the child's sight, but there was no place to set it other than the chair. It didn't seem wise to put it where he might lean back on it.

  "It looks like chocolate. I think I can see peanuts. "

  "Those aren't peanuts. "

  In fact, gross and disturbing as it sounded, Weston didn't know what those lumps were. Which is why he was at the doctor's office.

  He glanced again at the four adults in the waiting room, wondering why no one bothered to corral their son. Weston was single, no children. None of his friends had children. Being a mechanical engineer, he didn't encounter children at his job. Perhaps today's parents had no problems letting their kids walk up to strangers and beg for cupcakes.

  "Mr. Smith?" the pink paisley nurse said. "Please come with me. "

  Weston stood, taking his poop through the door, following the nurse down a short hallway and into an examining room.

  "Please put on the gown. I'll be back in a moment. "

  She closed the door behind him. Weston stared at the folded paper garment, sitting on the edge of a beige examination table also lined with paper. He set the container down next to a jar of cotton swabs. Then he removed his coat, shoes, jeans, boxer shorts, and polo shirt, placed them in a neat pile on the floor, and slipped his arms through the gown's sleeve holes. It felt like wearing a large, stiff napkin.

  Weston shivered. It was cold in the room; examination rooms always seemed to be several degrees too cool for comfort. He stood there in his socks, rubbing his bare arms, waiting for the nurse to come back.

  She eventually did, taking his temperature and blood pressure, then left him again with the promise that Dr. Waggoner would be there shortly.

  A minute passed. Two. Three. Weston stared at the ceiling tiles, thinking about the hours he'd spent on the Internet looking for some sort of clue as to what strange disease he had. There was plenty of disturbing content about bowel movements, including a website where people actually sent in pictures of theirs so others could rate them, but he'd found nothing even remotely close to the problem he was having.

  The door opened, derailing his train of thought.

  "Mr. Smith? I'm Dr. Waggoner. Please, sit down. "

  Weston sat on the table, the paper chilly under his buttocks. Dr. Waggoner was an older man, portly. Bald, but with enough gray hair growing out of his ears to manage a comb-over. He had on trendy round eyeglasses with a faux tortoiseshell frame, and a voice that was both deep and nasally.

  "Your blood pressure is normal, but your temperature is 100. 5 degrees. " He snapped on some latex gloves. "How are you feeling right now?"

  "Fine. "

  "Any aches, pains, problems, discomforts?"

  "No. I'm a little chilly, but that's all. "

  Dr. Waggoner removed some sort of scope and checked Weston's eyes and ears as they talked.

  "How long have you been having these intestinal problems?"

  "Um, on and off for about three months. But they aren't really intestinal problems. I'm finding, uh, strange things in my bowel movements. "

  "Can you describe them for me?"

  "Like little stones. Or things that look like strips of fabric. "

  Dr. Waggoner raised an eyebrow.

  "Well, I have to ask the obvious question first. "

  Weston waited.

  "Have you been eating little stones or strips of fabric?"

  The doctor grinned like a Halloween pumpkin. Weston managed a weak smile.

  "Not that I'm aware of, Doctor. "

  "Good to know. Tell me about your diet. Has it changed recently? Eating anything new or exotic?"

  "Not really. I eat mostly health foods, have been for the last ten years. "

  "Been out of the country in the last six months?"

  "No. "

  "Do you eat a lot of rare meat, or raw vegetables?"

  "Sometimes. But I don't think I have a tapeworm. "

  Dr. Waggoner chuckled.

  "Ah, the Internet. It gives everyone a doctorate in medicine. "

  Weston did the open his mouth and say "aaaaah" thing, then said, "I know I'm not a doctor, but I checked a lot of sites, and the things in my stool, they don't look like tapeworm segments. "

  "Stones and fabric, you said. Can you be more specific?"

  "The stones are sort of white. Some very small, like flecks. Other times bigger. "

  "How big?"

  "About the size of my thumb. "

  "And the fabric?"

  "There have been different colors. Sometimes red. Sometimes black. Sometimes blue. "

  "How closely have you examined these items?"

  Weston frowned. "Not too closely. I mean, I never took them out of the toilet and picked them up or anything. Except for that. " Weston pointed
to the stool on the table.

  "We'll have the lab take a look at that. In the meantime, I'm going to have to take a look myself. Can you bend over the table and lift up your gown, please?"

  Weston hoped it wouldn't have to come to this, but he assumed the position while Dr. Waggoner applied some chilly lubricating jelly to his hand and the point of entry.

  "Just relax. You'll feel some pressure. "

  It was a hell of a lot worse than pressure, and impossible to relax. Weston clenched his eyes shut and tried to concentrate on something, anything, other than the fat fingers going up the down staircase.

  "You said this began three months ago. Has it been nonstop? Intermittent?"

  "Only two or three days out of the month," Weston grunted. "Then it goes back to normal. "

  "When during the month?"

  "Usually the last week. "

  "Have you . . . Wait a second. Stay still for a moment. I think I feel something. "

  Which is the absolute last thing you want to hear when a doctor has his hand inside you. Weston held his breath, scrunched up his face. He didn't know which was worse, the pain or the humiliation. Blessedly, mercifully, the hand withdrew.

  "What is it, Doctor?"

  "Hold on. I think there's more. I'm going in again. "

  Weston groaned, hating his life and everyone in it. The doctor went back in four additional times, so often that Weston was becoming used to it, a fact that disturbed him somewhat.

  "I think that's the last of it. "

  "The last of what?"

  Weston turned around, saw the physician staring at several objects on his palm.

  Dr. Waggoner said. "A coat button, part of a zipper, and sixty-three cents in change. Apparently you're not eating as healthy as you think. "

  Weston blinked, as if the act would make the objects disappear. They remained.

  "This is going to sound like a lie," Weston said. "But I didn't eat those. "

  "I had a colleague who once examined a man who wanted to get into one of those world record books by eating a bicycle, one piece at a time. He removed a reflector from the man's rectum. "

  "I'm serious, Doctor. I'm not eating buttons or change. I certainly didn't eat a zipper. "

  "It looks like a fly from a pair of jeans. " Dr. Waggoner chuckled again. "I know an old lady who swallowed a fly. "

  "I didn't eat a fly. "

  "Okay. Then there's only one alternative. Are you sexually active?"

  Weston sighed. "I'm straight. Currently between girlfriends. And the only person who has been up there in my entire life has been you. "

  Dr. Waggoner placed the objects in a bedpan and said, "You can sit down now. "

  Weston got off all fours, but preferred to stand. He didn't think he'd ever sit again.

  "You think I'm lying to you. "

  "These things didn't just materialize inside you from another dimension, Mr. Smith. And you probably don't have a branch of the U. S. Treasury inside you, minting coins. "

  At least someone seemed to be enjoying this. Weston wondered when he'd ask him to break a dollar.

  "I'm telling the truth. "

  "Do you have a roommate? One who likes practical jokes?"

  "I live alone. "

  "Do you drink? Do any drugs?"

  "I have an occasional beer. "

  "Do you ever drink too much? Have blackouts? Periods where you don't remember what happened?"

  Weston opened his mouth to say no, but stopped himself. There were a few moments during the last few weeks that seemed sort of fuzzy, memory-wise. He wouldn't call them blackouts. But he'd go to bed, and wake up in a different part of the house. Naked.

  "I think I might sleepwalk," he admitted.

  "Now we're getting somewhere. " Dr. Waggoner pulled off his gloves, put them in the hazardous materials bin. "I'm going to refer you to a specialist. "

  Weston scratched his head. "So you think I'm eating buttons and spare change in my sleep?"

  "They're getting inside you, one way or another. Consider yourself lucky. I once had a patient who, while sleepwalking, logged on to an Internet casino and blew seventy-eight thousand dollars. "

  "So he came to see you for help with sleepwalking?"

  "He came to see me to set his broken nose, after his wife found out. Don't worry, Mr. Smith. I'm going to prescribe a sleep aid for you tonight, to help curb late-night snacking, and the specialist will get to the root of your problem. Sleepwalking is usually the result of stress, or depression. "

  Weston frowned. "This doctor you're referring me to. Is he a shrink?"

  "His name is Dr. Glendon. He's a psychiatrist. My nurse will set up an appointment for you. In the meantime, try to lock up all the small, swallowable objects in your home. "

  Weston walked home feeling like an idiot. An idiot who sat on a cactus. His apartment, only a few blocks away from the doctor's office, seemed like fifty miles because every step stung.

  The sun was starting to set, and Naperville had its holiday clothes on. Strands of white lights hung alongside fresh evergreen wreaths and bows, decorating every lamppost and storefront window. The gently falling snow added to the effect, making the street look like a Christmas card.

  None of it cheered Weston. Since his job moved him to Illinois, away from his family and friends in Asheville, North Carolina, he'd been down. But not actually depressed. All Weston knew about depression came from watching TV commercials for antidepressants. He'd never seen a commercial where the depressed person ate nickels, but maybe Dr. Waggoner was on to something.

  Fishing his keys from his jeans, he was about to stick them in the lock of the security door when it opened suddenly. Standing there, all four feet of her, was his mean next-door neighbor. Weston didn't know her name. She probably didn't know his either. She simply called him "Loud Man. " Every twenty minutes she would bang on the wall between their apartments, screaming about him making noise. If he turned on the TV, she'd bang - even when it was at its lowest setting. If the phone rang, she'd bang. When the microwave beeped, she'd bang. She even banged while he was brushing his teeth.

  He'd called the landlord about her, three times. On each occasion, Weston got the brush-off.

  "She's eccentric," he was told. "No family. You should ignore her. "

  Easy for the landlord to say. How do you ignore someone who won't let you into your own door?

  Weston tried to step around her, but the old woman folded her arms and didn't budge. She had light brown skin, and some sort of fabric tied to the top of her head. Weston couldn't help staring at her ears, which had distinctive, gypsy-like gold hoops dangling from them. The ears themselves were huge, probably larger than Weston's hands. Maybe if his ears were that big, he'd complain all the time about noise, too.

  Her dog, some sort of tiny toy breed with long fur and a mean disposition, saw Weston and began to yap at him, straining against his leash. It had a large gold tag on his collar that read ROMI.

  "Excuse me," Weston said, trying to get by.

  The old woman stayed put. So did Romi.

  "I said, excuse me. "

  She pointed a crooked old finger at him.

  "Loud Man! You keep noise down!"

  "They have these things called earplugs," Weston said. "I think they come in extra large. "

  She began to scream at him in a high-pitched native tongue that sounded a lot like "BLAAA-LAAAA-LAAAAA-LEEEE-LAAAA-BLAAA!" Romi matched her, yipping right along. Weston took it for about ten seconds, and then pushed past, heading for his apartment. The chorus followed him inside.

  Though it was early, Weston yawned, then yawned again. He hung his keys on a hook next to the door, switched the TV on to one setting above MUTE, and sat on the sofa. There was dog hair on the carpet, which made no sense, because Weston had no dog.

  But the crazy old lady
had a dog.

  Could she be getting in my apartment somehow?

  Panicked, Weston did a quick tour, looking for anything missing or out of place. He came up empty, but to his shame he realized he was picking up everything smaller than a matchbook and sticking it in his pockets. He took these items and placed them in a junk drawer in the kitchen.

  For some reason, this act drained him of his last drop of energy, and the sun had barely even gone down. He sat back down on the couch, switched to the SciFi Channel, and closed his eyes for just a few seconds.

  A ringing sound woke Weston up. He was naked on the kitchen floor, the sun streaming in through the windows. Weston automatically smacked his lips, checking to see if he could taste anything odd. Then he got to his knees and reached for the phone on the counter.

  "Mr. Smith? This is Dr. Waggoner's office calling. Please hold for the doctor. "

  Weston scratched his chest, listening to Neil Diamond singing to a chair who apparently didn't hear him.

  "Weston? This is Dr. Waggoner. How did you sleep last night?"

  "Not well," he said, noting his nude body.

  "Remember to keep your appointment with the psychiatrist today. And also, it wouldn't hurt to see a dentist as well. We got the lab report from your stool sample. It contained three molars. "

  "Teeth?"

  "Yes. Your teeth. There was also a shoelace, and a silver cross on a necklace. The lab is sending the cross over to my office later, in case you'd like to pick it up. It will be cleaned first, of course. "

  "Doctor, I . . . "

  Dr. Waggoner hung up before Weston could finish, " . . . don't own a silver cross. "

  He got to his feet and padded over to the bathroom, opening wide for the mirror. Weston wasn't missing any molars. Each of his teeth was in its proper place.

  What the hell is going on?

  His abdomen grumbled. Weston sat on the toilet and rubbed his temples, trying to make sense of any of this. How could he have swallowed teeth, or a silver cross? Why did he keep waking up naked? What was going on?

  He didn't want to look, but before he flushed he forced himself. And gasped.

  At the bottom of the toilet bowl were two distinct, unmistakable objects: a gold hoop earring, and a silver tag that said ROMI.

  When he stopped running around in a blind panic (which took the good part of twenty minutes), Weston forced himself to the computer and Googled "eating+disorder+neighbor. " This led him to sites about anorexia, which certainly wasn't his problem. Next he tried "cannibal" and got hits for bad Italian horror movies and death metal rock bands. "Sleep+eating+people" produced articles about sleeping pills, and "I ate human beings" led to a YouTube video of some drunk Klan member who kept saying "I hate human beings" and apparently posted the video so wasted he misspelled the title of his own rant.

  Various other word combinations produced pages about Hannibal Lector, Alfred Packer, Sawney Bean, and ultimately Hansel and Gretel.

  While on the site about fairy tales, Weston clicked from the old witch who wanted to eat children to the big bad wolf who wanted to eat children. This took him to a site about the history of lycanthropy, which featured several old paintings of wolf people running off with screaming babies in their mouths. Soon Weston was looking up "clinical lycanthropy," which was a real psychiatric term that pretty much meant "batshit crazy. "

  Could I really be crazy? he thought. Do I subconsciously think I'm a werewolf?

  A quick click on a lunar calendar confirmed Weston's fears: The only time he'd had blackouts and found weird things in his poop was during the full moon.

  Weston sat back, slack-jawed. He wondered if he should call someone. His parents? A doctor? The cops?

  He searched his soul for remorse for eating his mean neighbor and her nasty dog, but couldn't find any.

  But he must have killed other, nicer people. Right?

  Weston slipped on some shorts and attacked the Internet again, looking through back issues of the local newspaper for accounts of murders or disappearances. He found five.

  The first was from yesterday. A hand and partial skeleton found near the River Walk, a popular woodsy trail in Naperville. The prints on the hand belonged to Leon Corledo. His death was attributed to the Naperville Ripper.

  How could I have missed hearing about that? Weston wondered. Too much work, probably. And the fact that the news depressed him, so he avoided it. Not to mention the fact that every time he turned on his TV, his recently digested neighbor banged.

  Weston read on, found that Mr. Corledo was a registered sex offender. No big loss there. Weston followed the links to articles about the Ripper's other known victims. They included:

  Waldemar Daminsky, 66, a local businessman with known ties to Polish organized crime.

  Tony Rivers, 17, who was decapitated after robbing a liquor store and beating the owner unconscious.

  Ginger Fitzgerald, who had recently lost custody of her daughter for locking her in a closet for a week without food or water.

  And Marty Coslaw, a lawyer.

  Weston felt zero guilt, and breathed a bit easier. But how many criminals and lawyers did Naperville have? Eventually, he'd run out of scumbags to eat. Then what?

  He tried the search term "help for real lycanthropy" and, incredibly, got a hit. A single hit, for a website called Shapeshifters Anonymous.

  Weston went to the site, and found it to be a home for werewolf jokes. After suffering through a spate of awful puns (Where do werewolves go on vacation? A Howliday Inn!), he had about given up when he noticed a tiny hotlink at the bottom of the page that read, "Real therianthropes click here. "

  He knew from his lycanthropy reading that therianthropes were humans who morphed into animals. He clicked.

  The page took him to another site, which had a black background and only five large cryptic words on it.

  THERIANTHROPES MUST VIEW THE SOURCE

  Weston stared, wondering what it meant. Which source? The source of their affliction? The source of their food?

  On a whim, he Googled "view the source" and came up with a bunch of websites about HTML programming. Then he got it.

  View the webpage source.

  He went back to the werewolf page, opened his Internet Explorer toolbar, and under the PAGE menu clicked VIEW SOURCE. The HTML and jаvascript appeared in a new window. Weston read through the computer language gobbledygook until he came to this:

  &ei=xY0_R6 - CZXcigGGoPmBCA"+g}return true};window. gbar ={};(function(){;var g=window. gbar,a,f,h;functionm(b,e,d){b. display=b. display=="block"?"none":"block";b. left=e+"px";b. top=d+"px"}g. tg= function(b){real therianthropes call 1-800-209-7219}

  Weston grabbed his phone and dialed with trembling hands.

  "Therianthrope hotline, Zela speaking, may I help you?"

  "I . . . uh . . . is this for real?"

  "Are you a therianthrope, sir?"

  "I think so. Is this really a werewolf hotline?"

  "Is that what you turn into, sir? A wolf?"

  "I have no idea. I black out beforehand, can't remember anything. "

  "Why do you think you're a therianthrope, sir?"

  "I'm finding, um, things, in my, uh, toilet. "

  "Things like bone fragments, jewelry, eyeglasses, bits of clothing, coins, watches, and keys?"

  "How did you know?"

  "I'm a therianthrope myself, sir. Can I ask where you currently reside?"

  "Naperville. Illinois. "

  "So I'm assuming you just realized you're the Naperville Ripper we've been hearing about?"

  "They were all bad people," Weston said quickly. "I'm not sure about the lawyer, but I can make assumptions. "

  "We've been following the news. He was a defense attorney, defended child molesters. When given a choice, therianthropes usually prefer the wicked over the good. The creatures inside us find evil tastier. "


  "That's, uh, good to know. So . . . what are you, exactly? Are you a werewolf, too?"

  "I'm a weresquirrel, sir. "

  "When the full moon rises, you turn into a squirrel?"

  "Yes. "

  "A squirrel with buck teeth with a big fluffy tail?"

  "That's the one. "

  Weston wasn't sure if he was supposed to laugh or not.

  "Do you shrink? Or stay full size?"

  "Full size. "

  "And you eat people?"

  "No, sir. Not all therianthropes are carnivores. "

  "So, if you don't mind me asking, what do you do when you change?"

  "I hoard nuts. "

  Weston chose his next words carefully.

  "Are they . . . evil nuts?"

  "Sir, I'm going to put your sarcasm down to you being on the edge of a nervous breakdown, so I'll ignore it. Are you interested in getting help for your therianthropy?"

  "Yes, please. Thank you, Zela. "

  "Let me check the meeting schedule. Okay, today, at noon, there's an SA meeting at Saint Lucian's church in Schaumburg, approximately ten miles northwest of you. The secret word to gain entry is Talbot. "

  "What's SA?"

  "Shapeshifters Anonymous. "

  "So I just go there, and they'll let me join them?"

  "If you give the secret word. Yes. "

  "Do I have to bring anything?"

  "Donuts are always nice. "

  "Donuts. I could bring donuts. Will you be there tonight, Zela? I can bring some with peanuts on them. "

  "That's very thoughtful of you, sir, but I live in New Jersey. And I also think you're kind of a schmuck. Is there anything else I can help you with today?"

  "No. Thanks, Zela. "

  "Thanks for calling the hotline. "

  Weston hung up, ending what was easily the most surreal conversation he ever had in his life. An hour ago, he'd been a normal guy with some odd bowel movements. Now, he was 99 percent sure he was some sort of therianthrope.

  But what kind?

  He went back to the sofa, picked up some of the hair. Long, grayish, fluffy.

  Was he a weresheep?

  No. He ate people. Had to be a carnivore of some sort.

  So what gray animals ate other animals?

  Wolves, obviously. Coyotes. Dogs. Cats. Were elephants carnivores?

  The Internet told him they were herbivores, which was a relief. But then Weston thought of another gray carnivore.

  Rats.

  Weston didn't want to be a wererat. He hated rats. Hoarding nuts was one thing. Swimming in the sewers, eating garbage and feces and dead animals, that was awful. He held his armpit up to his face and sniffed, seeing if he could detect any sort of sewage smell. It seemed okay. Then he checked the time and saw he had two hours to get to the SA meeting. So he hopped in the shower, dressed, and got on his way.

  It had snowed during the night, making Naperville seem even more Winter-Wonderlandish. The cold felt good on Weston's bare face. He attributed the slight fever to his condition: Google told him wolves had an average body temperature of 100. 5.

  His first stop was Dr. Waggoner's, to pick up the silver cross. Weston didn't want to keep it for himself, but it was evidence of a murder, so it was best to get rid of it.

  The nurse handed it to him in an envelope.

  "Are you going to put it on?" she asked, eyes twinkling.

  "Not right now. "

  But when he stepped outside, he did open the envelope to take a look. It was, indeed, silver. But all of the movies, all the books, said silver killed werewolves. Weston took a deep breath and dumped it into his palm. It didn't burn his skin. Or was that only with vampires?

  He was bringing it up to his face, ready to touch it to his tongue, when he remembered where it had been. Besides, it had already passed through his system without killing him. Obviously the legends were wrong.

  He tucked the cross into his coat pocket and walked into town, toward the bakery. On his way, he passed a man dressed as Santa Claus, ringing a bell for some charity. Thinking of the cross, Weston approached and dropped it in the steel collection pot.

  "Beware," Santa muttered, voice low and sinister.

  Weston wasn't sure he heard correctly. "Excuse me?"

  "There's a killer on the loose in Naperville. " Weston could smell the NyQuil on Santa's breath. "Not an ordinary killer either. Only comes out when the moon is full. "

  "Uh, thanks for the warning. "

  Weston began to walk away, but Santa's hand reached out and snatched his wrist, pinching like a lobster claw.

  "Naughty boys get what they deserve," Santa intoned.

  "Okay . . . "

  Santa's eyes suddenly lit up, burning with some internal fire.

  "They will be torn limb from limb! Their heads severed from their unholy bodies! Burned to ash on sacred ground! BURNED! BUR-RRRRRRRRNED!!!!! "

  Weston pulled free, then walked briskly to the other side of the street, badly shaken. What kind of charity allowed cough syrup-crazed psychotics out in public? Wasn't there some kind of screening process for volunteers?

  He glanced once over his shoulder, and Psycho Santa was talking on a cell phone, still pointing at him like Donald Sutherland at the end of the first Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake. It gave Weston the chills.

  The uneasy feeling stayed with him all the way up to Russoff's Bakery, where he bought a dozen assorted donuts and a black coffee. When he stepped back onto the street, Weston considered taking another route home so he wouldn't have to see Looney Claus again, then chided himself for being afraid. After all, he was a werecreature. What did he have to fear? If that Santa was really a bad person, chances were good that Weston's inner therianthrope would eat him tonight during the full moon. Weston allowed himself a small smile at the thought of seeing a white beard in his toilet tomorrow morning.

  So he steeled himself, and walked the regular path home. But when he passed the spot where Psycho Santa had been, he saw the volunteer was no longer there. Crazy Kringle had packed up his charity pot and left.

  Weston walked to his apartment parking lot, hopped into his car, spent a minute programming his GPS, and headed for the suburb of Schaumburg. During the drive, he tried to get his mind around the events of the past twenty-four hours. But he wasn't able to focus. He kept seeing Santa's face. Kept hearing his threats. Once, in the rearview mirror, he swore he saw someone several car lengths behind him in a pointy red hat.

  "You're being paranoid," he said to himself, refusing to drink any more coffee.

  Just the same, he drove a little faster.

  Ten minutes later he was at Saint Lucian's, an unassuming Catholic church with a 1970s vibe to the architecture. It was orange with a black shingle roof, shaped like an upside-down V. Two large stained glass windows flanked the double entry doors, and a statue of someone, possibly Jesus, perched atop the steeple. There were only six cars in the parking lot, which Weston appreciated because he wasn't good at remembering names, and no one would be short a donut. He parked behind an SUV and took a deep breath to calm his nerves. It was 11:46.

  "Here goes nothing. "

  Bakery goods in hand, he approached the double doors and let himself into Saint Lucian's.

  The church was dark, quiet. It smelled of scented candles, many of which were burning on a stand next to a charity box. Weston looked down the aisle, to the altar, seeing no one. Then he caught a handwritten sign taped to the back of a pew that read, SA MEETING IN BASEMENT.

  He did a 360, opened a storage closet, then a confessional booth, before finding the door to the stairs next to a baptismal font. The concrete staircase wasn't lit, but at the bottom he heard voices. Weston descended, the temperature getting warmer the lower he went. At the bottom he walked past a large furnace, down a short hall, and over to a meeting room.

  A bored-looking
man whose gray hair and loose skin put him somewhere in the sixties, peered at Weston through thick glasses. He wore jeans and a faded turtleneck sweater. From his stance, and his severe haircut, Weston guessed he was ex-military. He stood guard over the doorway, preventing Weston from seeing inside.

  "Sorry, sir. This is a private meeting. "

  The conversation in the room stopped.

  "This is SA, right?"

  "Yeah. But it's invitation only. "

  Weston was momentarily confused, until he remembered the hotline conversation.

  "Talbot," he said.

  "Tall what?"

  "Talbot. Isn't that the password?"

  "No. "

  "It's last week's password," someone from in the room said.

  "Sorry, buddy. " Old Guy folded his arms. "That was last week's password. "

  "That's the one I was told to use. "

  "By whom?"

  "The SA hotline woman. Tina or Lena or someone. "

  "Sorry. Can't let you in. "

  "I brought you donuts. " He meekly held up the box.

  Old Guy took them.

  "Thanks. "

  "So I can come in?"

  "No. "

  Weston didn't know what to do. He could call the hotline back, but he didn't have the number handy. He'd have to find Internet access, find the website, and by then the meeting could be over.

  "Listen. " Weston lowered his voice. "You have to let me in. I'm a thespianthrope. "

  Several snickers from inside the room.

  "Does that mean when the moon rises you start doing Shakespeare?" someone asked.

  More laughs. Weston realized what he said.

  "A therianthrope," he corrected. "I'm the Naperville Ripper. "

  "I don't care if you're Mother Theresa. You don't get in without the correct password. "

  Weston snapped his fingers. "Zela. Her name was Zela. She liked to grab people's nuts. "

  Old Guy remained impassive.

  "I mean, she said she was a weresquirrel. She hoarded nuts. "

  "I'll call Zela. " It was a woman's voice. Weston waited, wondering what he would do if they turned him away. For all of his Googling, he'd found precious little information about his condition. He needed to talk to these people, to understand what was going on. And to learn how to deal with it.

  "He's okay," the woman said. "Zela gave him the wrong password. Said he's kind of a schmuck, though. "

  Old Guy stared hard at Weston. "We don't allow for schmuckiness at SA meetings. Got it?"

  Weston nodded.

  "Oh, lighten up, Scott. " The woman again. "Let the poor guy in. " Scott stepped to the side. Weston took his donuts back and entered the room. A standard church basement. Low ceiling. Damp smell. Fluorescent lights. Old-fashioned coffee percolator bubbling on a stand in the corner, next to a trunk. A long, cafeteria-style table dominated the center, surrounded by orange plastic chairs. In the chairs were five people, three men and two women. One of the women, a striking blonde, stood up and extended her hand. She had apple cheeks, a tiny upturned nose, and Angelina Jolie lips.

  "Welcome to Shapeshifters Anonymous. I'm Irena Reed, chapter president. "

  The one who called Zela. Weston reached his hand out to shake hers, but she bypassed it, grabbing the donuts. She brought them to the table, and everyone gathered round, picking and choosing. Irena selected a jelly filled and bit into it, soft and slow. Weston found it incredibly erotic.

  "So what's your name?" she purred, mouth dusted with powdered sugar.

  "I thought this was anonymous. "

  Irena motioned for him to come closer, and they walked over to the coffee stand while everyone else ate.

  "The founders thought Shapeshifters Anonymous had gravitas. "

  "Gravitas?"

  "You know. Depth. Sorry, I'm a schoolteacher. That's one of our current vocab words. When this group was created, they thought Shapeshifters Anonymous sounded better than the other potential names. We were this close to calling ourselves Shapeshifters 'R' Us. "

  "Oh. Okay then. " He looked at the group and waved. "My name is Weston. "

  Weston waited for them all to reply in unison, "Hi, Weston. " They didn't.

  "You're welcome," Weston tried.

  Still no greeting.

  "They aren't very social when there's food in front of them," Irena said.

  "I guess not. So . . . you're a therianthrope?"

  "A werecheetah. Which is kind of ironic, being a teacher. "

  He stared blankly, not getting it.

  "We expel cheetahs. " Irena put a hand to her mouth and giggled.

  Weston realized he was already in love with her. "So who is everyone here?"

  "The ex-marine, Scott Howard, he's a weretortoise. "

  Weston appraised the man anew. Long wrinkled neck. Bowed back. "It suits him. "

  "The small guy with the big head, that's David Kessler. He's a werecoral. "

  Weston blinked. "He turns into coral?"

  "Yeah. "

  "Like a coral reef?"

  "Shh. He's sensitive about it. "

  "How about that older woman?" Weston indicated a portly figure with a huge mess of curly black hair.

  "Phyllis Allenby. She's a furry. "

  "What's that?"

  "Furries dress up in animal costumes. Like baseball team mascots. "

  Weston was confused. "Why?"

  "I'm not sure. Might be some sort of weird sex thing. "

  "So she's not a therianthrope?"

  "No. She likes to wear a hippo outfit and dance around. Personally, I don't get it. "

  "Why is she allowed into meetings?"

  "We all kind of feel sorry for her. "

  A tall man with his mouth around something covered in sprinkles called over to them.

  "You two talking about us?"

  Irena shot him with her thumb and index finger. "Got it in one, Andy. "

  Andy strutted over, his grin smeared with chocolate. He shook Weston's hand, pumping enthusiastically.

  "Andy McDerrmott, wereboar. "

  "You . . . become a pig?" Weston guessed.

  "Actually, when the full moon rises, I change into someone vastly self-interested, and I talk incessantly about worthless minutiae going on in my life. "

  Weston wasn't sure how to answer. Andy slapped him on the shoulder, hard enough to rock him.

  "A bore! Get it? Were-bore!" Andy laughed, flecking Weston with sprinkles. "Actually, kidding, I turn into a pig. "

  "You mean a bigger pig, right, Andy?"

  Andy shot Irena a look that was pure letch.

  "God, you're so hot, Irena. When are we going to get together, have ourselves a litter of little kiggens?"

  "On the first of never, Andy. And they wouldn't be kiggens. They'd be pities. "

  "Snap," Phyllis said. "Shoot that pig down, girl. "

  "So who's the last guy?" Weston asked. "The big one?"

  The trio glanced at the heavily muscled man sitting at the end of the table, staring off into space.

  "That's Ryan. "

  "Just Ryan?"

  Andy wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his sports jacket. "That's all he's ever told us. Never talks. Never says a word. Comes to every meeting, but just sits there, looking like the Terminator. "

  "What does he change into?"

  "No one knows. Has to be something, though, or Zela wouldn't have sent him here. " Andy faced Weston. "So you're the Naperville Ripper, huh? What kind of therianthrope are you? Wererat?"

  Andy frowned. "I'm not sure. I think I'm a werewolf. "

  This provoked laughter from the group.

  "What's funny?"

  "Everyone thinks they're a werewolf at first," Irena explained, patting him on the arm. "
It's because werewolves are the most popular therianthropes. "

  "They get all the good press," Andy said. "All the books. All the movies. Never gonna see a flick called An American Wereboar in London. "

  "Or The Oinking," Phyllis added.

  Furry or not, Weston was starting to like Phyllis.

  Irena's hand moved up Weston's arm, making him feel a little light-headed.

  "Because we can't remember what we do when we've changed, we all first assume we're werewolves. "

  "So how can I find out what I change into?"

  "I set up a video camera and recorded myself. " Andy reached into his jacket, took out a CD. "We can pop it in the DVD if you want. "

  "Don't say yes," Phyllis warned. "The last time he put in a tape of himself and some woman doing the nasty. And it was real nasty. "

  "An honest mistake. " Andy leaned closer to Weston and whispered, "She was a college cheerleader, studying massage therapy. I was bow-legged for a week afterward. "

  "She was an elderly woman," Phyllis said. "With a walker. "

  "Mind your own business, you furvert. You're not even a real therianthrope. "

  Phyllis stuck out her jaw. "I am in my heart. "

  "When there's a full moon, you don't turn into a hippo. You turn into an idiot who puts on a hippo outfit and skips around like a retarded children's show host. "

  Phyllis stood up, fists clenched.

  "I'm 'bout to stick an apple in your talk-hole and roast you on a spit, Ham Boy. "

  "Enough. " Irena raised her hands. "We're adults. Let's act like it. "

  "Does anyone want the last donut?" It was David, the werecoral, talking. "Weston? You haven't had one yet. "

  Weston patted his stomach. "No thanks. I just ate my neighbor and her dog. "

  "I ate a Fuller Brush Salesman once," Andy said.

  "Did not," Phyllis countered. "You ate your own toilet brush. And a pack of them Ty-D-Bowl tablets. That's why your poo was blue. "

  "So I can have the last donut?" David had already taken a bite out of it.

  Weston looked at Irena, felt his heart flutter.

  "Other than video, is there another way to find out what I am?"

  Irena's eyes sparkled. "Yes. In fact, there is. "

  The group, except for Ryan, gathered in front of the chest sitting in the corner of the room.

  "Testing equipment. " Irena twisted an old-fashioned key in the lock and opened the lid.

  Weston expected some sort of medical supplies, or maybe a chemistry set. Instead, the trunk was filled with dried plants, broken antiques, and assorted worthless-looking junk.

  "Hold out your hand. "

  Weston did as told. Irena held his wrist, and then ran a twig lightly across his palm.

  "Feel anything?"

  Other than getting a little aroused, Weston felt nothing. He shook his head.

  "Catnip," Irena said. "It's a shame. You would have made a cute kitty. "

  She brought the branch to her lips, sniffed it, and a tiny moan escaped her throat. Andy took it away from her and tossed it back in the trunk.

  "If we let her, she'll play with that all day, and the meeting starts in five minutes. Here, touch this. "

  Andy handed him a longer, darker twig. Weston touched it, and immediately felt like his entire arm had caught on fire. There was a puff of smoke, and a crackling sound. He recoiled.

  "Jesus! What the hell was that, a burning bush?"

  Andy cocked his head to the side. "It was wolfsbane. I'll be damned. You are a lycanthrope. "

  Everyone's expressions changed from surprise to awe, and Weston swore that Irena's pupils got wider. He shrugged.

  "Okay, so I'm a werewolf. "

  "We've never had a werewolf in the group," David said. "How did you become a werewolf?"

  "I have no idea. "

  Weston recalled the masturbation scare tales from his youth, many of which involved hairy palms. He almost asked if that may have caused it, but looked at Irena and decided to keep it to himself.

  "Is your mother or father a werewolf?" Scott, the weretortoise, asked. "I inherited a recessive gene from my mother, Shelly. Been a therianthrope since birth. "

  "No. This only started three months ago. "

  "Were you bitten by a therianthrope?" David asked. "That's how they got me. "

  Weston didn't think that coral could actually bite, but he didn't mention it. Instead he shook his head.

  "How about a curse?" Irena asked. "Were you cursed by a gypsy recently?"

  "No, I . . . " Then Weston remembered his evil next-door neighbor. He'd been wondering about her ethnic background, and now it seemed obvious. Of course she was a gypsy. How could he have missed the signs? His shoulders slumped.

  "Oh, boy. I think maybe I was cursed, for brushing my teeth too loudly. "

  "You're lucky. " David smiled. "That's the easiest type of therianthropy to cure. "

  "Who wants to be cured?" Scott's eyes narrowed. "I like being a weretortoise. "

  "That's because when you change, all you do is eat salad and swim around in your bathtub," Andy said. "I root through the garbage and eat aluminum cans. You ever try to crap out a six-pack of Budweiser tall boys?"

  David put his hands on his hips. "I'm saying that Weston's a carnivore, like Irena. They eat people. It has to weigh heavy on the conscience. "

  "Do you feel guilty about it?" Weston asked Irena.

  "Nope. " Irena smiled. "And I have the added benefit of not having to put up with any bad kids in my class for more than a month. "

  Weston wondered if it was too soon to propose marriage. He squelched the thought and turned to David.

  "So, assuming I want to go back to normal, how do I do it?"

  "Just go back to the gypsy that cursed you and pay her to take the curse off. "

  Oops.

  "That might be a problem, seeing as how I ate her. "

  Andy slapped him on the shoulder. "Tough break, man. But you'll get used to it. Until then, it's probably a good idea to get yourself a nice, sturdy leash. "

  "It's time to begin the meeting. Let's get started. " Irena leaned into Weston and softly said, "We can talk more later. "

  Weston sincerely hoped so.

  "Let's begin by joining hands and saying the Shapeshifters Anonymous Credo. "

  Everyone around the table joined hands, including the silent Ryan. Weston noted that Irena's hand was soft and warm, and she played her index finger along the top of his as she talked. So did Phyllis.

  Irena began.

  "I, state your name, agree to abide by the rules of ethics as set forth by Shapeshifters Anonymous. "

  Everyone, including Weston, repeated it.

  "I promise to do my best to use my abilities for the good of man and therianthrope kind. "

  They repeated it.

  "I promise to do my best to help any therianthrope who comes to me in need. "

  They repeated it. Weston thought it a lot like being in church. Which, technically, they were.

  "I promise to do my best not to devour any nice people. "

  Weston repeated this verse with extra emphasis.

  "I promise to avoid Kris Kringle, the dreaded Santa Claus, and his many evil helpers. "

  "Hold on," Weston interrupted. "What the hell does that mean?"

  "Santa Claus is a therianthrope hunter," David said. "He kills shapeshifters. "

  "You're kidding. Right?"

  An uncomfortable silence ensued. Everyone stopped holding hands. Scott cleared his throat, then pushed away from the table and stood up.

  "No one is sure how our kind got started. Some say black magic. Some say interspecies breeding, though I don't buy into that malarkey. Some say therianthropes date back to the very beginning, the Garden of Eden, where man and wer
ebeast lived in harmony. But the Bible doesn't tell the whole story. Certain religious leaders over the years have edited it as they see fit. Entire books were taken out. Like the Book of Bob. "

  Weston looked around to see if anyone was smiling. All faces were serious.

  "The Book of Bob?"

  "The Book of Bob is a lost chapter of the Old Testament, dating back to the Hellenistic period. It tells the story of God's prophet, Bob, son of Jakeh, who is the first werewolf mentioned in the Bible. "

  "The first? There aren't any. "

  "They were edited out. Pay attention, son. You'll learn something. See, Bob was a werewolf, blessed by the Lord with the gift of lycanthropy to do His work by eating evildoers. But after eating his one-thousandth sinner, Bob became prideful of his accomplishments, and that angered God. "

  "Why would that anger God?"

  "This was the Old Testament. God got pissed off a lot. Didn't you ever read Job?"

  "I'm just saying - "

  Irena shushed him. Scott continued.

  "So to put Bob in his place, God granted one of Bob's enemies - Christopher, son of Cringle - a red suit of impenetrable armor, and ordered him to smite all therianthropes. God also blessed domesticated beasts with the power to fly through the sky, to pull Christopher's warship of destruction throughout the world. "

  Weston again looked around the room. Andy was examining his fingernails. Ryan was staring off into space. But David looked like a child listening to his favorite bedtime story.

  "Bob and Christopher fought, and Bob proved victorious. Upon triumphing, he begged God to forgive his pridefulness, and God agreed. But Christopher, God's chosen avenger, felt betrayed. So he turned to the other side, begging for assistance. "

  "The devil?"

  "Lucifer himself, the Son of the Morning Star. Lucifer gave Christopher a fearsome weapon, shaped like the talons of an eagle, forged in the fires of hell. He called the weapon Satan's Claws. And Christopher recruited an army of helpers to rid the world of Bob and his kind, claiming he was bringing about salvation. "

  "Let me see if I got this right," Weston said. "Kris Kringle and his magic red suit are using Satan's Claws - which I'm guessing became Santa Claus over time - to kill therianthropes with the help of . . . the Salvation Army?"

  Everyone nodded. Weston laughed in disbelief.

  "So how did this whole toy thing get started?"

  "Kringle has killed millions of therianthropes, leaving many children orphans. He began to feel some remorse, so after he slaughtered their parents he began to leave toys behind, to take away some of the sting. "

  "And this is for real?"

  Scott reached up and pulled down his collar, exposing a terrible scar along his neck.

  "Kringle gave this to me when I was seven years old, right after murdering my parents. "

  "I thought he gave orphans toys. "

  "He also gave me a train set. "

  Weston shook his head. "Look, I can accept this whole shapeshifting thing. And touching the wolfsbane, that was creepy. But you want me to believe that every volunteer on a street corner with a bell and a Santa suit is out to murder us? I just saw one of those guys this morning, and while he was kind of odd - "

  Scott reached across the table, grabbing Weston by the shirt. His face was pure panic.

  "You saw one! Where?"

  "Back in Naperville. "

  "What did he say to you?"

  "Something about naughty boys and being beheaded and burned on sacred ground. He was obviously out of his mind. "

  Irena clutched Weston's hand. "The only way we can die is old age or beheading. "

  "Think carefully, Weston. " Scott actually looked frightened. So did everyone else. "Were you followed here?"

  "I don't think so. I mean, maybe I saw him talking on a cell phone. And maybe there was someone in a Santa suit a few cars behind me on the expressway - "

  A shrill whistle cut Weston off. It sounded like a teapot.

  But it wasn't a teapot. It was an alarm.

  "They've found us. " David's voice was quavering. "They're here. "

  "Battle stations!" Irena cried, causing everyone to scurry off in different directions.

  Scott hurried to the coffee table, pushed the machine aside, and pressed a red button on the wall. An iron gate slammed closed across the entry door, and three TV monitors rose up on pedestals from hidden panels in the floor.

  "Jesus. " Phyllis squinted at one of the screens. "There have to be forty of them. "

  Weston looked, watching as the cameras switched from one view to another around the church. Santa's helpers, dozens of Santa's helpers. Wielding bats and axes and swords. They had the place surrounded.

  "We need to call the police. " David's voice had gone up an octave.

  Irena already had the phone in her hand. "Line's been cut. "

  "Cell phones?"

  "We're in a basement. No signals. "

  Scott knelt before the trunk, removing the top section and revealing a cache of handguns underneath. He tossed one to Weston, along with an extra clip.

  "Are guns safe to throw?"

  "Safety is on. Ever used a nine millimeter before?"

  "No. "

  "Thumb off the safety on the side. Then pull back the top part. That's the slide, loads the bullet into the chamber. Now all you have to do is pull the trigger. Those red suits they're wearing are Kevlar, so aim for the face. "

  Weston had more questions, but Scott was too busy distributing the guns.

  "Place your shots carefully, people. We don't have a lot of ammo. Ryan! Can you fire a weapon?"

  Ryan remained sitting, staring into space.

  "Dammit, man! We need you!"

  Ryan didn't move.

  "Can't we escape?" Weston asked Irena.

  Irena worked her slide, jacking in a round.

  "That's the only door. "

  "But those are steel bars. They can't get through it. "

  "They'll get through. " Phyllis pointed. "See?"

  Weston checked out the monitor, saw a group of Santa's storming down the stairs with a battering ram. The first CLANG! made everyone in the room jump.

  "The table! Move!"

  Weston helped Andy and Scott push the cafeteria table in front of the door. Then the group, except for Ryan, huddled together in the back of the room, guns pointed forward.

  "I hope we live through this," Weston told Irena, "because I'd really like to ask you out. "

  "I'd like that, too. "

  "Living through this, or going out with me?"

  "Both. "

  Another CLANG! accompanied by a CREAK! which shook the table.

  "Wait until you see the whites of their beards, people. "

  CLANG!

  CLANG!

  The table lurched forward.

  CLANG!

  They were in.

  The room erupted in gunfire. It was louder than anything Weston had heard in his life, and he'd seen Iron Maiden in concert when he was seventeen. The kick of the gun surprised him, throwing off his aim, but Weston kept his head, kept sighting the targets, kept pulling the trigger.

  The first Santa only made it a step inside.

  The next three only made it two steps.

  Then it got bad. A dozen of Santa's helpers burst into the room, swinging their weapons, their HO HO HO! war cries cutting through the cacophony of gunfire.

  Weston fired until his pistol was empty. He tried to tug the empty clip out of the bottom of the gun, but it didn't budge. He wasted valuable seconds looking for the button or switch to release it, and then a helper tackled him.

  His eyes were crazed, and his breath smelled like cough syrup, and Weston knew that this was the Santa who'd threatened him on the street corner in Naperville.

  "Naughty boy! Naughty boy!" he screamed, both
hands clasped on a curved dagger poised above Weston's eye.

  Weston blocked with his elbows, trying to keep the knife away, but the crazy old elf possessed some sort of supernatural strength, and the knife inched closer and closer no matter how hard he resisted. Weston saw his terrified expression reflected in the polished steel blade as the tip tickled his eyelashes.

  "Hey! Santa! Got some cookies for you!"

  Weston watched, amazed, as someone jammed a gun into the Santa's snarling mouth and pulled the trigger. Psycho Santa's hat lifted up off his head, did a pirouette in the air, and fell down onto his limp body.

  Weston followed the hand that held the gun, saw Irena staring down at him. She helped him to his feet.

  "Thanks. "

  She nodded, taking his pistol and showing him the button to release the empty clip.

  "Where did you learn how to shoot?" he asked.

  "I teach high school. "

  Weston slammed the spare clip home and pulled the slide, firing six times at a Santa's helper swinging, of all things, a Grim Reaper scythe. The neck shot did him in.

  "Hold your fire! They're retreating!"

  As quickly as it began, the attack stopped. The gun smoke cleared. Weston winced when he saw the piles of dead Santa's helpers strewn around the room. At least two dozen of them. A Norman Rockwell painting it was not.

  "Everyone okay?" Scott asked.

  Everyone said yes except for Ryan, who remained sitting in the same chair, and David, who had a nasty gash on his shoulder that Phyllis was bandaging with duct tape and paper towels.

  "Well, we sure kicked some Santa ass. " Andy walked next to one of the fallen helpers and nudged him with his foot. "Try climbing down a chimney now, shithead. "

  "It's not over. "

  Everyone turned to look at Ryan.

  "Did you see something, Ryan?" Irena asked.

  Ryan pointed to the monitor.

  They all stared at a wide-angle shot of the parking lot and watched eight reindeer racing down from the sky and using the blacktop like a landing strip. Behind them, a massive sleigh. It skidded to a stop, and a hulking figure, dressed in red, climbed out and stared up at the camera.

  "It's Santa Claus," Ryan whispered. "He's come to town. "

  Weston watched, horrified, as Santa headed for the church entrance, his remaining helpers scurrying around him.

  "My God," Phyllis gasped. "He's huge. "

  Weston couldn't really judge perspective, but it seemed like Santa stood at least a foot taller than any of the Salvation Army volunteers.

  "Who has ammo left?" Scott yelled.

  "I'm out. "

  "Me, too. "

  "So am I. "

  Weston checked his clip. "I've got two bullets. "

  It got very quiet. Scott rubbed his neck.

  "Okay. We'll have to make do. Everyone grab a weapon. Kris Kringle is a lot more powerful than his helpers. Maybe, if we all strike at once, we'll have a chance. "

  From the sound of Scott's voice, he didn't believe his own words.

  Andy didn't buy it either. "David is wounded. Ryan is sitting there like a pud. You think three men and two women can fend off Kringle and his Satan's Claws? He's going to cut us into pieces!"

  "We don't have a choice. "

  "But I don't want to get sliced up!" Andy said. "I'm too pretty to die like that!"

  "Calm down, son. You're not helping the situation. "

  Andy knelt next to one of the helpers and began undressing him.

  "You guys fight. I'm going to put on a red suit and pretend to be dead. "

  Weston locked eyes with Irena, saw fear, wondered if she saw the same in him.

  "There's a way. "

  It was Ryan again, still staring off into space.

  "You actually going to get up off your ass and help?" Phyllis asked.

  Ryan slowly reached into his pants pocket, pulling out five tiny vials of liquid.

  "I've been saving these. "

  Andy grabbed one, unscrewed the top. "Is it cyanide? Tell me it's cyanide, because I'm so drinking it. "

  "It's a metamorphosis potion. It will allow you to change into your therianthrope forms, while still retaining your human intellect. "

  Scott took a vial, squinting at it.

  "Where did you get these?"

  "I've had them for a long time. "

  "How do you know they work?"

  "I know. "

  "Guess it can't hurt to try. " Irena grabbed the remaining vials. She handed one to Weston, and one to David. She also held one out for Phyllis.

  "But I'm not a therianthrope," Phyllis said. "I'm just a furry. "

  "You're one of us," Irena told her.

  Phyllis nodded, and took the vial.

  "Are you taking one?" Scott asked Ryan.

  Ryan shook his head.

  Scott shrugged. "Okay. Here goes nothing. "

  He downed the liquid. Everyone watched.

  At first, nothing happened. Then Scott twitched. The twitching became faster, and faster, until he looked like a blurry photograph. Scott made a small sound, like a sigh, dropped his gun, and fell to all fours.

  He'd changed into a turtle. A giant turtle, with vaguely human features. His face, now green and scaled, looked similar to his human face. And his body retained a roughly humanoid shape; so much so that he was able to push off the ground and stand on two stubby legs.

  "I'll be damned. " Scott reached up and tapped the top of his shell. "And I can still think. Hell, I can even talk. "

  Irena had already drunk her vial, and her clothes ripped, exposing the spots underneath. While in final werecheetah form she retained her long blond hair, and - Weston could appreciate this - her breasts. He could suddenly understand the appeal furries saw in anthropomorphic costumes.

  "You look great," Weston told her.

  Her whiskers twitched, and she licked her arm and rubbed it over her face.

  An oink, from behind, and Andy the wereboar was standing next to the overturned table, chewing on the cardboard donut box.

  "What?" he said. "There's still some frosting inside. "

  "This sucks. "

  Weston turned to David, who had become a greenish, roundish ball of coral. Weston could make out his face underneath a row of tiny, undulating tentacles.

  "I think you're adorable," Irena told him. "Like Humpty Dumpty. "

  "I don't have arms or legs! How am I supposed to fight Santa?"

  "Try rolling on him," Andy said, his snout stuck in the garbage can.

  "I guess it's my turn. " Phyllis drank the potion.

  Everyone waited.

  Nothing happened.

  "Well, shit," Phyllis said. "And I don't even have my hippo suit here. At least give me the damn gun. "

  Weston handed it to her, then looked at his vial.

  "You'll be fine," Irena said.

  She walked a circle around him, then nuzzled against his chest. Weston stroked her chin, and she purred.

  "Better hurry. " Scott was eyeing the monitor. "Here comes Santa Claus. "

  Weston closed his eyes and lifted the vial to his lips.

  It was kind of like being born. Darkness. Warmth. Then turmoil, sensory overload, a thousand things happening at once. It didn't hurt, but it didn't tickle either. Weston coughed, but it came out harsh. A bark. He looked down at his arms and noted they were covered with long, gray fur. His pants stayed on, but his clawed feet burst through the tops of his shoes.

  "Hello, sexy. "

  Weston stared at Irena and had an overpowering, irrational urge to bark at her. He managed to keep it in check.

  "Remember," Scott said. "He's wearing armor. It's claw-proof. Go for his head and neck, or use blunt force. "

  They formed a semicircle around the door, except for the immobile
David and the still-seated Ryan. Then they waited. Weston heard a licking sound, traced it to Andy, who had his nose buried between his own legs.

  "Andy," he growled. "Quit it. "

  "Are you kidding? I don't think I'm ever going to stop. "

  Then the crazed Santa's helpers burst into the room, screaming and swinging weapons. Weston recoiled at first, remembered what he was, and then lashed out with a claw. It caught the helper in the side of the head, snapping his neck like a candy cane.

  Andy quit grooming - if you could call it that - long enough to gore a helper between his red shirt and pants, right in the belly. What came out looked a lot like a bowlful of jelly.

  Phyllis fired twice, then picked up the scythe and started swinging it like a madwoman and swearing like a truck driver with a toothache.

  Scott had two helpers backed up against the wall, using his enormous shell to squeeze the life out of them.

  Even David had managed to get into the act, snaring a helper with his tiny, translucent tentacles. Judging from the screams, those tentacles had stingers on them.

  Weston searched for Irena, and saw her hanging on to a helper's back, biting at his neck.

  Two more Santa's helpers rushed in, and Weston lunged at them, surprised by his speed. He kept his arms spread out and caught each one under the chin. His canine muscles flexed, tightened, and their heads came off like Barbie dolls.

  And then, there he was.

  Kris Kringle was even bigger up close than he was on the TV monitors. So huge he had to duck down to fit through the doorway. When he entered the room and reared up, he must have been eight feet tall. And wide, with a chest like a whiskey barrel, arms like tree trunks. His long white beard was flecked with blood, and his tiny dark eyes twinkled with malevolent glee.

  But the worst thing were his hands. They ended in horrible metal claws, each blade the length of a samurai sword. One of his helpers, the one Irena had bitten, staggered over to Kringle, clutching his bleeding neck. Kringle lashed out, severing the man into three large pieces, even with the Kevlar suit on.

  It was so horrible, so outrageously demonic, that Weston had to laugh when he saw it. In spite of himself.

  Scott waddled over to Kringle and pointed his stubby fingers at him.

  "Your reign of evil ends today, Kringle. "

  Kringle laughed, a deep, resonating croak that sounded like thunder. Then his huge black boot shot out, kicking Scott in the chest, knocking him across the room and into the back wall. Scott crashed through it like a turtle-shaped meteor.

  Andy said, "Holy shit," then tore ass through the hole in the wall after Scott.

  Kringle took a step forward, and Weston had an urge to pee; an urge so strong he actually lifted a leg. There was no way they could defeat Santa Claus. He was a monster. He'd tear through them like tissue paper.

  Kringle appraised Weston, eyeing him head to toe, and said, "Robert Weston Smith. Werewolf. You're on my list. "

  Then he looked at Irena, who'd come to Weston's side, clutching his paw.

  "Irena Reed. Werecheetah. You're on my list, too. Want to sit on Santa's lap, little girl?"

  Irena hissed at him. Kringle's eyes fell upon David next.

  "And what the hell are you? A were-onion?"

  David released the dead helper. "I'm David Kessler. Werecoral. "

  "David Kessler. Yes. You're also on my list. Now who is this crazy bitch?"

  Phyllis put her hands on her hips and stuck out her jaw. "Phyllis Lawanda Marisha Taleena Allenby. Am I on your stupid-ass list, too?"

  "No. "

  "No? You sure 'bout that, fat man?"

  Kringle smiled.

  "I checked it twice. "

  Phyllis's eyes went mean.

  "You saying I'm not one of them? I'm one of them. I'm one of them in my heart, you giant sack of - "

  "Enough!"

  Ryan stood up and walked over to Kringle.

  "And who are you, little human?"

  "I'm tired of running, Christopher. I've been running for too long. "

  Kringle's brow furrowed.

  "That voice. I know that voice. "

  "I had some work done. Changed my human face. But I'm sure you'll recognize this one. "

  Ryan's body shook, and then he transformed into a werewolf. A giant werewolf, several feet taller than Weston.

  Kringle took a step back, his face awash with fear.

  "Bob. "

  Weston watched, awestruck, as this millennia-old battle played out before him.

  Kringle snarled, raising up his awful Satan Claws.

  Bob bared his teeth and howled, a gut-churning cry that reverberated to the core of Weston's very soul.

  But before either of them attacked, before either of them even moved, Kris Kringle's head rolled off his shoulders and onto the floor by Bob's feet.

  Phyllis Lawanda Marisha Taleena Allenby, scythe in hand, brought the blade down and speared the tip into Kringle's decapitated head, holding it up so it faced her.

  "Am I on your list now, muthafucker?"

  Bob peered down at Phyllis, his lupine jaw hanging open.

  "You just killed Kris Kringle. "

  "Damn easy, too. Why the hell didn't you do that five thousand years ago?"

  Scott, a round green hand pressed to his wrinkled old head, stumbled back into the room.

  "What happened?"

  "Phyllis killed Kris Kringle," Irena said.

  "You go, girl. "

  Scott gave Phyllis a high five.

  "You all fought bravely. " Bob stood tall, addressing the group. "Except for the pig. For your courage, you'll now have full control over your therianthrope powers. You can change at will, and will retain control of your inner creatures. "

  "So how do we turn back?" Irena asked.

  "Concentrate. "

  Scott went first, morphing back into his human form.

  Weston and Irena changed while holding hands.

  David's face scrunched up, but nothing happened.

  "It's not working," he said. "I'm still coral. "

  "How about me?" Phyllis asked. "I'm the one that killed that jolly old bastard. "

  "I can turn you into a werewolf, if you so desire. "

  "These guys offered me that before. But I don't want to be no wolf, or no cheetah, or no turtle, or no dumb-ass coral. No offense, David. "

  "None taken. I'm concentrating, but nothing's happening. "

  Phyllis folded her arms. "My inner animal is a hippopotamus. That's what I want to be. "

  Bob's shoulders slumped. "I'm sorry, Phyllis. That's the extent of my power. But . . . maybe . . . just maybe . . . "

  "Maybe what?"

  "I don't know if this will work, because he's dead. "

  "Just spill the beans, Lon Chaney. "

  "Try sitting on Santa's lap. "

  Phyllis raised a drawn-on eyebrow. "You serious?"

  "He might still have some magic left. Try it. "

  Phyllis walked over to the fallen Kringle and sat on one of his massive thighs.

  "Now what?"

  "Make a Christmas wish, Phyllis. Make your most heartfelt Christmas wish ever. "

  She closed her eyes, and her lips whispered something Weston couldn't hear.

  And then Weston felt something. Kind of like a breeze. A breeze made of Christmas magic. It swirled around the room, touching each of them, and then coming to rest on Phyllis.

  But nothing happened. She didn't morph into a hippo. She didn't morph into anything. A minute passed, and she was still the same old Phyllis.

  "I'm sorry, Phyllis. " Bob helped her up. "I wish there was something else I could do. "

  A sad silence blanketed the room.

  Then bad-boy rapper LL Cool J strutted into the basement, sans shirt. He took Phyllis's hand, gave her a deeply passio
nate kiss, and cupped her butt.

  "Gonna take you back to the crib and make love to you all night, girl. But first we gonna stop by the bank, get your hundred million dollars. "

  LL picked her up and carried her out.

  "See you guys next week," Phyllis called after them.

  "Someone push me over to Santa's lap," David said. "This coral wants a house in Hawaii. "

  "What about all of these corpses?" Scott made a sweeping gesture with his hands. "The police are gonna have a field day. "

  "I'll take care of it. " Bob rubbed his stomach. "I didn't have any of the donuts. "

  "Little help here. " David wiggled in place.

  Weston felt a tug on his hand. He stared into Irena's eyes.

  "Want to, maybe, grab some coffee?" he asked.

  "No. "

  Weston died a little inside. Irena's nose twitched, showing him a brief glimpse of her inner cheetah.

  "Instead of coffee, I want you to come to my place. I've got a leash and a king-size bed. "

  God bless us, everyone, Weston thought as they walked hand in hand out the door.

  AUTHOR'S NOTES

  The Salvation Army is a wonderful organization with over 3. 5 million volunteers, and I'm pretty sure none of them are cough syrup- swilling psychotics.

  The names used in this story are all names of characters from famous werewolf movies. Unless someone tries to sue me, in which case I made all of them up. LL Cool J also did a rocking version of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf. "

  While the modern Bible is missing many of its original passages, the Book of Bob isn't one of them. You're probably getting it confused with the lost Book of Fred.

  Other than that, everything in this story is 100 percent true.

 
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