Wolfsbane and mistletoe, p.12
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       Wolfsbane and Mistletoe, p.12
 

          
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Chapter Twelve

  You'd Better Not Pyout

  Nancy Pickard

  Nancy Pickard is a four-time Edgar ? Award nominee, and a multiple winner of Anthony, Agatha, and Macavity awards for her novels and short stories. She has also won the Shamus and Barry awards for short fiction. One of her proudest accomplishments was seeing the first fantasy story she ever wrote selected for an anthology of the year's best fantasy and horror stories. She lives in the Kansas City area, where she was traumatized by a werewolf movie when she was a child.

  MIAMI BEACH

  "I'm telling you," Pasha argued, "it explains everything. "

  "Oh, come on," Serge scoffed.

  The two vampires sat in their favorite booth in their favorite Cuban cafe, where the fluorescent lighting gave everybody a sickly blue-white glow, and not just them. Before it was a cafe, it had been a gay bar, and before that a boutique hotel, and before that a funeral home, and before that a mansion, and before that a coconut plantation, and before that a hunting ground for crocodiles, and before that, they didn't know. The 1700s were before their time. Of all the incarnations of the property, the cafe was their favorite. It was a place to go before supper, where they could spot gluttonous humans who'd eaten so much that it made them sluggish when they departed. Pasha liked to imagine he could taste a memory of fried plantains in their fatty blood; Serge just liked it that he didn't have to work so hard for a meal. A bloated human was a slow human.

  "No, really, listen to me," Pasha urged him. "I'm telling you, Santa Claus is a vampire. It explains so much!" He snapped his fingers with both hands and then pointed his long pale forefingers at Serge. "For instance, how old is he?"

  Serge wrapped his hands around his coffee cup, which a waitress had just brought over to him. It was his third one of the evening. The waitresses all knew that "refill" meant they had to empty the mug full of cooled coffee, and bring him back a full fresh hot one. Not for the drink. He never drank any of it. For the warmth.

  "Old," he said, grudgingly.

  "Nobody really knows how old he is, yes? But definitely more than one human life span. He's ancient," Pasha reminded him excitedly. "Eternal, like us. And he only works at night!" Or "nyight," as Pasha pronounced it, having never entirely lost his Russian "y. "

  "He's not real, Pasha!"

  "Neither are we supposed to be. "

  That stopped Serge for a moment, even caused his handsome brow to crease.

  They were both exceptionally good-looking vamps, having been turned in the prime of their royal Russian twenties. Pasha had been blond as a Hollywood mink long before there was a Hollywood. Serge still had hair as thick, dark, and curly as a Russian black bear's fur. Cousins then, they were related by more kinds of blood than family now.

  In the course of Pasha's many "thyeories," over three centuries, there always came a moment that gave Serge pause until he could think his way around it. This time, he thought he had a perfect rebuttal: "But he gets into houses!"

  "Yeah, because he's invyited. "

  "Invited?" Vampires had to be invited into homes; they couldn't just barge in like unwelcome dinner guests. "They're all asleep when he arrives. It's not like they wait by the chimney and holler up, 'Come on in, Santa!'"

  Pasha smiled. He loved his theory. He always loved his theories.

  "It's the cyookies," he said, with an air of triumph.

  "The cookies?" Serge smiled at the unlikely word, then laughed out loud, which revealed his teeth.

  In the booth behind Pasha, a little boy climbed up and turned around to look at them. He saw the pointed incisors, longer than they ought to be, and stared with big eyes. Serge growled deep in his throat, loud enough for the boy to hear, low enough to keep anybody else from hearing.

  The child turned around again fast, and disappeared below the top of the booth.

  "The cookies and the milk!" Pasha exclaimed, caught up in his enthusiasm for his own brilliance. "All those glasses of myilk, all those sugar cookies with sprinkles and icing, what are they but invitations?" His eyes narrowed as he whispered in a dark and meaningful tone, "'The stockings all hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that Saint Nicholas soon will be there. '" Pasha slapped the tabletop triumphantly with the palms of his hands. Silverware jumped. Human customers stared, then looked quickly away as if unnerved by something they couldn't put their finger on. "They're for him, Serge! He knows it. They know it. "

  "He brings gifts, Pasha. "

  "So?"

  "When's the last time you gave a human anything but a real bad hickey?"

  "Yeah, but what about all those people who die right after Christmas is over?"

  "What are you talking about?"

  "Psychologists think it's because people put off dying until after big events like their birthdays, or Christmas. But that's not it. They're dying after Christmas, because he comes back. "

  "Back?"

  "Of course! That's the genius of it! Christmas Eve, he accepts the invitation into their homes, and creates the illusion that benevolent Santa Claus was there. That's the reason for the gifts. Duh. Then he's in. They've invited him. He can come back anytime he wants to, as often as he likes! I think what he does, see, is he feasts right after the holidays, which accounts for all those obituaries, but he doesn't kill all of them, of course - "

  "Of course," Serge said, dryly.

  " - because that would be - "

  "Self-defeating?"

  " - dangerous. And nobody could eat that much in one night anyway. So he saves most of them for return visits. I mean, why do you think he keeps a list?"

  Serge leaned forward and said with quiet clarity:

  "He. Goes. Down. Chimneys. Pasha. "

  Vampires could die in flames.

  "They're not lit! You think people leave a lighted fire for Santa Claus to come down? Even if he wasn't a vampire, they wouldn't do that! They don't want to burn him, they want those gifts. "

  Serge feigned disappointment. "But gee, all those pictures of Santa. He's in the living room, by the Christmas tree, and there's always a lighted fireplace. " He sighed as if a cherished illusion had been shattered, but then he perked up. "He leaves coal for the bad boys and girls. What's that all about?"

  "Code. "

  "Coal. "

  "Code. Like a sign to other vamps. 'Bad blood here. '"

  "What the hell is bad blood anyway?"

  "You know. Old, sour, too salty, whatever. "

  "I don't know. Seems a little thoughtful to me. When's the last time a vampire did us a favor? And Pasha, answer me this. If he got into everybody's homes the first time, then why does he keep doing it every year? And how does he get around to the whole world in one night? We may be supernatural beings, but we're not supermen who can circle the globe a hundred times in a minute. "

  "I haven't figured that out yet," Pasha admitted, looking not at all abashed. "But I'm sure there's a reason. "

  Serge sighed and dipped a finger in his coffee. "I was afraid there would be. "

  This time he was the one who snapped his translucent fingers, which made coffee fly off his wet finger. When he got the waitress's attention, he pointed down toward his cup, commanding, refill. His fingers were freezing. Even in south Florida. It was what he hated most about being undead - the chill, the everlasting chill of the damned grave, like eternal Siberia. It was what he missed the most about blood - his own blood, surging, coursing, pumping, pulsing hot corpuscles that had kept his appendages as warm as a human woman's breast, right before she died in his arms.

  "We should go," Pasha urged him.

  Pasha didn't have the same problem with being cold all the time, which didn't seem fair to Serge since, of the two of them, he thought that Pasha had by far the colder heart.

  "You slurped kids years before I did," Serge said, in an aggrieved tone.

&nbs
p; "What the hell does that have to do with going?"

  "Where?"

  "The North Pole. "

  "Are you nuts? It's cold at the North Pole. "

  "Oh, come on, admit it, you miss the furs we used to wear. "

  Serge glanced down at his cotton running suit, the warmest he could dress in south Florida without drawing too much attention to himself. He wore long underwear beneath it, where nobody could see. It was true that he did long for the fur-trimmed caps, the ermine capes, the sable robes of his human youth. What a picture they'd made dashing through the snow! How very Dr. Zhivago they'd been. How toasty warm he'd felt under all those layers of thick white wolf fur . . .

  "Where would we get the clothes?"

  "We'll stop in Lapland. "

  "How would we find him?"

  "We'll follow the red drops on the snow. "

  Pasha grinned, so that Serge couldn't tell if he meant it.

  "Let's go get us some of that endless supply of red juice," Pasha urged his cousin, finally finding an argument that convinced even Serge. Going out for groceries only once a year sounded even easier than chasing overeaters.

  THE NORTH POLE

  "Africa," Nicholas informed the children, the ones whom human beings thought were elves. "This year we're going to concentrate on Africa. We need to convert more of those heathens into believing in me. "

  One of the little tykes piped up, "I don't like Africa. "

  "Of course you don't like it," Nicholas said, heartily. He had to practice "hearty," as it didn't come naturally to his personality, which tended more toward dour and homicidal. He also had to work on "jolly. " "Old" was no problem, "fat" could be taken care of with a stuffed costume. He didn't even make a stab at "Saint," of course. Even an imitation of "Saint" was out of the question for him, like turkey and dressing and pumpkin pie with whipped cream. He made an effort to smile at the clutch of pale children sitting on the floor in front of him, but judging from the way they all scooted back, his attempt came out looking more like a maniacal grimace. "You don't like it because of what happened to Donder and Blitzen last year. "

  The little vampires shuddered.

  It took a lot, Nicholas knew, to make a baby vampire shudder.

  Thinking about the dead reindeers nearly gave him the creeps, too.

  Nearly. Because a tinge of admiration also crept into his feelings.

  Disemboweling a reindeer on the run! Now that took real talent. If he weren't so furious at the Wild Dogs of Africa for doing it, he'd have wanted to pat their ugly heads and praise them, "Good doggies, smart doggies!"

  "Why can't you just kill them?" a pale tyke demanded.

  "Because they're cousins to our friends the werewolves," Nicholas explained with exaggerated cheerfulness, the way he thought kindergarten teachers talked to their charges. "And you know what our friends the werewolves do when they're mad, don't you, boys and girls?"

  Again, the baby vampires shuddered.

  Baby vampires didn't like to be disemboweled any more than reindeer did.

  "But what if they kill Dasher or Prancer?" a pretty little girl asked him.

  It wasn't that the wee vampires were concerned about the fate of the animals, Nicholas well knew. They were concerned about their own fates, selfish little bloodsuckers. If he lost too many reindeer, it would take him forever to get home with their treats.

  "I won't allow that to happen," he growled.

  One brave toddler challenged, "How?"

  He didn't yet know, but he wasn't telling them that. He had to figure out a way to destroy the wild dogs without incurring the inconvenient wrath of the werewolves. They weren't numerous in Africa, but all it took was one to spread the word all over the bloody world.

  "You let me worry about the reindeer," he warned them, so sternly that they all inched back again. "You just worry about wrapping all those damned gifts. "

  The baby vampires groaned.

  ZIMBABWE, AFRICA

  Under the almost-full moon, Ingrid Andersen's long, curly red hair gleamed as if the gods themselves were shining a spotlight on her. If so, they must have had a hard time keeping up with the bouncing spot of red, because it was moving fast in the Land Rover driven by her assistant wildlife biologist, Damian Mansfeld.

  "Slow down," Ingrid commanded. Instantly obeying her, he braked, propelling both of their bodies forward until their seat belts stopped them. "There's the park entrance. "

  He couldn't even see it, but he trusted her to know.

  When she said, "Turn. Now," he turned. Now.

  She had the slightest hint of an accent that might have come from her native Sweden, though privately Damian thought it was unlike any Scandinavian accent he had ever heard. When he'd asked her about it once, she'd reeled off a slew of Swedish phrases, as if that proved something. Because she was his boss, and because she could stare with yellow eyes that looked as level and challenging as the Serengeti Plain, he didn't ask a second time.

  They bounced off the road that went from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls, and bounced onto the dirt road leading into Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park, where many of the world's endangered creatures roamed. Even in the park, the animals weren't safe. They were threatened by each other, the weather, and - the most dangerous predators - poachers and paramilitary thugs who liked to kill elephants for sport and salable body parts.

  In the endless dark of the African night, illuminated only by the eerie moon with its flat shadows, Damian worked up the courage to protest, "It's 14,600 square kilometers, Ingrid. How are we going to find them?" He didn't add his most pressing question, as he slammed down on the accelerator again: And why do we have to do this on Christmas Eve?

  In the uncanny and unnerving way she had of seeming to read his mind, his boss said, "Poachers are coming. " And then she added, "I'll find them. "

  She would, too, Damian believed.

  Somehow, through some sixth sense that he'd never witnessed in any other person, Ingrid would lash him on through the dark hours, over the primitive roads, until she located their target: a pack of wild dogs. Damian, who did not believe that all endangered species were created equal, loathed the creatures, as most sensible people did, in his opinion. They were the ugliest animals he'd ever seen. Worse, even, than hyena. They were so ugly they were scary to see. His own small son, upon first seeing one, had screamed and run to hide behind Damian's legs. They had unnaturally long legs, eyes that gleamed red in headlights, hideous coats that looked splattered with brown, black, and tan paint - giving them their other name, the Painted Wolves - and absurdly big ears. They looked as if some mad geneticist had mated a penful of hyenas, rabbits, and soldiers in camouflage gear, and these short-haired, repulsive mammals had emerged to scare the hell out of everybody who had the misfortune to watch them in action.

  Ingrid claimed they were loving, social families.

  They cared for their young and their wounded and sick, she said.

  They let the young eat first after a kill.

  The less able among them took on "jobs" like nursing and babysitting.

  Damian called it running in packs - packs that hunted in moonlight, that brought down antelopes four times their size by disemboweling them on the run. They were ruthless hunters. They were also amazing runners, he'd give them that. What he'd also like to give them was the business end of a machine gun. Rat-a-tat-tat. There were maybe only five thousand of them left in the world, and almost all of those were in southern Africa. With only a few machine gun blasts, he could wipe their blight off the earth, and hardly anybody but Ingrid Andersen - gorgeous, brilliant, crazy Ingrid - would mourn them. Then they could concentrate on protecting species who deserved saving - the rhinos and elephants, the hippos and gorillas, the beautiful and the beloved, instead of the ugly and the reviled.

  "Can't you go any faster?" Ingrid screamed above the roar of t
he motor.

  Damian made a show of quickly lifting his right foot and then slamming it down again, but his real answer was: no. They couldn't drive any faster without killing themselves, and he was damned if he'd die in pursuit of the Wild Dogs of Africa. Especially not on the night before Christmas. He wanted to get home to watch his children open their gifts from Santa Claus.

  THE NORTH POLE

  "We have visitors, Nick!"

  Santa looked up from his pleasant task of decorating a tree with little glass ornaments filled with sparkling blood. This century's wife, the eternally beautiful Victoria, stood in the doorway looking more excited than mere tree decorations should warrant - which told Nicholas who his unexpected guests must be.

  "Vamps, Vikki? Handsome ones?"

  She sidled into the room, her long red velvet gown sweeping the floor.

  "Don't touch my ornaments," he snapped, as her right hand sneaked gracefully out of a velvet pocket to do just that. "They aren't snacks. "

  "I don't want to touch your ornaments," she sniffed, and turned to leave.

  "Or theirs, either," he warned her.

  "At least you're dressed for it," Nick observed to his two visitors, who were all done up like dead Romanovs. He eyed the one who called himself Serge and whose teeth were chattering so hard that Nick thought it was a wonder he didn't set the glass balls on the tree to clinking. "I hope you won't think me rude, but you don't seem cut out for the job. "

  "J-j-job?"

  "Of being dead. "

  "H-hate c-cold," Serge admitted.

  "Then why are you here, of all places?"

  Nick's tone was gracious, or at least he thought it was, his manner was open, and the goblets of crimson that he had offered them were warm enough to remove the chill from a vampire's heart.

  The other one, the one called Pasha, spoke for both of them.

  "Wanna hep. "

  His lips were blue and still frosty from being outside. Even after a few sips from the goblet, the blond vampire could barely get his mouth to move enough for him to speak.

  "Really," said Nick. "How kind. You want to help how, exactly?"

  "Big wor," Pasha mumbled.

  "Ah, you're saying it's a great big world, and I must have my hands full trying to get around to every home on just one night. "

  "Thas w'sayin. "

  "Yes, well, since you have only my best interests in mind, you'll be glad to hear that I don't actually visit every home on Christmas Eve. I learned long ago that all I have to do is a few of them on any given holiday. The legend spreads from there. Word of mouth, don't you know. Still the best advertising. "

  He smiled widely, showing incisors so old they were hideously long and yellow.

  He suspected these young vampires had never before seen fangs that looked like his, because they had never before met a vampire as old as he. Young vampires thought him doddering in his silly red fat suit - until they saw his yellow fangs.

  The chattering one's frosty blue eyes widened.

  The other one, who had cast Victoria a smoldering glance when she left the chamber, stepped back.

  Apparently they weren't entirely stupid, Nick thought, laying a finger against the side of his nose.

  Perhaps he could make use of them.

  "So there's no job opportunity for you in that regard," he said with gentle regret on their behalf. "Neither paid, nor volunteer. " He paused. Picked at something caught between a fang and a bicuspid, drew it out, and stared at it before flicking it - a bit of flesh? - away. Then he smiled his frighteningly gracious smile at them again. "What can you do for me?"

  "Pasha," Serge whispered. Sufficient grog had warmed them up enough so that their limbs and lips worked again. "Except for Santa and his wife, there aren't any other grown-up vampires here. It's just those creepy kids. Why are we the only other grown-ups?"

  Victoria had shown them the workshops and the dorms, and now she was taking them to the stables. Ahead of them, her red velvet butt swayed enticingly. Pasha was far too distracted to care about Serge's worries. "Because we're the only ones who've ever been smart enough to figure it out," he whispered back.

  Victoria turned long enough to flash a toothy smile at him.

  All other thoughts melted from Pasha's mind as they followed her into the warmest area in the castle. Serge nearly wept with relief when he felt the heat. But Victoria didn't stop there, to his dismay. She led them through the stable with its huge, empty, immaculate stalls, and back outside again, onto an enormous ice field.

  "There they are," she said, and pointed toward the distance.

  Her guests huddled together against the frigid wind, and squinted into it.

  "Reindeer," Pasha muttered, sounding bored.

  Serge said nothing. Opening his mouth to speak made his teeth hurt.

  Pasha's boredom didn't last long. Even from so far away, the vampires could detect that there was something about the reindeer that was not like any other animal, not deer, nor elk, nor even moose. And then they found out what it was. At one moment Pasha and Serge were squinting at a herd far out in a frozen pasture, and in the next moment, all of the animals were standing in front of them, terrifyingly large, shaking their antlers, snorting and pawing the ground as if eager to get going.

  "My god. Do they really fly?" Pasha asked Victoria.

  "They do. "

  "How?"

  "Research and development. Nick has the most incredible R&D department in the world. " She giggled. "Literally, in the world. You'll have to meet Rudolph. "

  "There's really a Rudolph!"

  "Oh, yes. "

  "Does he have a red nose?"

  The lowered lashes rose, allowing Pasha to see the deliciously evil glint in her cobalt-blue eyes, and the flirtatiousness in them. "Yes, but Nick is trying to fix that. It was a mistake in the breeding. "

  "Mistake? But everybody loves Rudolph's red nose!"

  "They wouldn't," she purred, "if they knew it came from heavy drinking. "

  It took a moment, but then Pasha burst out laughing, followed a moment later by frozen Serge, who quickly closed his mouth again for fear his tonsils would freeze.

  Blood, she meant.

  Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer had a very shiny red nose because he drank blood.

  "Are you saying that Rudolph is a vampire reindeer?"

  "A prototype," she whispered. "Priceless. Nick's never been able to repeat that one success. Don't mention it to him. It makes him cranky to be reminded of it. " She smiled, showing neat pointed incisors. "And we don't want to make Santa Claus cranky, do we, boys?"

  "Noooo," agreed Pasha, fervently.

  Serge shivered at the thought.

  "Come on," Victoria urged them. "I'll show you our private quarters. "

  "I have just the job for you two," were the first words they heard when they entered the plush red chambers. Nicholas stood in the center of the room, dominating all he surveyed. "How would you like to accompany me on my Christmas Eve travels, as bodyguards?"

  "Great!" Pasha forced his gaze toward the husband.

  Serge felt such a rush of relief that for a moment he almost thought he was warm. He'd been convinced they were going to die, joining all the other adult vampires who were not there.

  "You do know what tonight is?" Nick inquired of them.

  Both of the visitors looked confused. There was something about the atmosphere that made people who were not accustomed to it lose all track of space and time.

  "It's Christmas Eve," Nick told them, gently. "We leave in an hour. "

  ZIMBABWE, AFRICA

  "Go," Ingrid instructed Damian.

  "I can't just leave you out here by yourself!"

  He sat behind the wheel of the Land Rover, staring out in disbelief at where she stood alone in the moonlight. There was nothing around th
em. Nothing visible, that is. He knew - as she must - that the deceptively empty landscape teemed with animals, most of which could kill a human who made such an inviting target.

  Ingrid raised her cell phone in one hand and her rifle in the other. "I'm not alone. "

  "A lot of good those are going to do you against the whole pack of those damned dogs. Not to mention lions, or hyena. "

  "Go," she repeated, calmly. "Drive to the park station. See if anybody's left us any tips about the poachers. I'll be fine. "

  "You'll be meat," he said, bitterly.

  As Damian peeled furiously away from his lunatic boss, he thought, And I'll be blamed.

  Ingrid waited in the tall grass, watching the headlights vanish.

  That will keep him busy.

  Quickly, because the dogs had never before faced a predator as wicked and vindictive as the one they would face tonight, she shed her clothes, including her socks and shoes. Without even pausing to fold them neatly as she usually did, she stuffed them into the knapsack she always kept with her. Tossed in her cell phone. Zipped the bag. Slung it onto her back. Dug a long hole in the dirt with her bare hands and buried the gun there. Sniffed the air, listened to it, tasted it, and then started running. By the time she had gone ten steps, she was racing on all fours, her feet and hands protected by the thick pads that had grown there, her breasts drawn back into her chest, her long red hair turned to thick white fur that streamed behind her as she sped through the night. She had been born a werewolf. Her parents had put her out in the mountains to die. Instead, while she was still fur-covered and smelling of canine, a family of wild dogs had sniffed around her, nudged her up, taken her along with them, nursed her, raised her, even through the transformations, which came unpredictably and frighteningly until she learned conscious control of them.

  When she was a child, she had longed to be only wolf.

  Now that she was an adult, she still wished her life could be that simple.

  Every few kilometers, Ingrid howled, sounding frantic to her own acute hearing, praying there would be no answer.

  Finally, off in the distance, a chorus howled back at her.

  Oh, my God! I was right! Dammit, dammit!

  The dogs were returning to where they had so successfully killed the strange beasts the previous year. They were so smart! Their group brain knew it would be tonight. Knew where to go back to. They must be excited, anticipating another glorious kill unlike any kills they had ever made before, except for last Christmas Eve.

  A second kill would never be allowed.

  She had to arrive before they did. Their lives depended on it.

  I'm coming, I'm coming, my dear ones!

  "We thought you meant bodyguard you!" Pasha protested.

  They had glided to an astonishingly silent and smooth stop on the empty, dusty street of an African village. Once out of the sleigh and on the ground, Nicholas turned with a merry wink and said, "If you let anything happen to any of these reindeer, I will dress you in suits of silver crosses, set you on fire, and dump your ashes in a holy water pool. "

  "You want us to guard the reindeer?" Serge said, dumbfounded.

  He was also nauseous, having discovered that moving at supersonic speeds didn't sit well with a stomach full of "Blood, Yugoslavia, Christmas, 1242. " Either it hadn't been properly stored, or else it hadn't been a very good year.

  Nick laughed at the looks of outraged pride on their faces.

  "Fancy yourself too good for this job, eh?"

  When neither dared give him a truthful answer - Yes! Duh! - he leaned close enough for them to learn that yellowed teeth didn't smell good. "Any one of my reindeer is worth a thousand of your sorry dead carcasses. " Then, laying a finger upside of his nose again, he pushed into the front door of the first hut, and said over his shoulder, "Watch out for the wild dogs. They'll disembowel you faster than my sled can fly. " And with that he was gone . . . only to pop his head back out again. "You do see the problem, don't you? These huts don't have what you could call a proper roof, so I can't land up there. I have to park in the street. Which leaves my reindeer vulnerable to attack. That's why you're here. It's the only reason you're here. It's the only reason you're still alive. Protect them. " He didn't mention they were there to be convenient scapegoats if killing the dogs got any werewolves riled up. "I had nothing to do with it!" he could claim. "It was those damned heartless young ones. "

  Then he was gone into the hut again.

  "Why do I ever listen to you?" Serge wailed.

  "Shyut up. At least it's warmer here. "

  They took up positions at either end of the sleigh with its huge harnessed animals: Serge took the Rudolph end, because the red nose gave off a rosy glow that he could read by - he was on War and Peace, in the original Russian, for the eighth time. Pasha hopped up to sit on the back of the sleigh while they waited for Nick to pop in and out of the huts that had put refreshments out for him.

  Rudolph heard it first: the howling.

  The big beast's ears perked up.

  His red nose quivered. He snorted. He stamped the ground. Behind him, the other reindeer moved restlessly in their bridles and harnesses.

  Serge stepped back and called quietly to his cousin, "What in the name of all that's holy was that?"

  She was triangulating: her howl, their howls and barking, and the village where she knew it was all converging. If she hadn't been so frightened for them, she'd have been excited beyond words. Beyond words. That had been her life with them. Feeling loved, taken care of, taught, trained, encouraged, protected . . . and then nudged out on her own. She had to leave, because she was a female. In a wild dog family, only the dominant pair mated - the Alpha male and Alpha female - so the other females had to go off in search of their own new band, which would be made up of brothers who had broken away from a different parent pack.

  That wasn't possible for her, of course.

  She wasn't dog, she wasn't wolf, she wasn't human.

  She was mutant, hybrid, half-breed, monster.

  She'd been unbearably lonely without them.

  Slowly, over the years, she'd grown accustomed to living as a human who rarely shape-shifted, and then only to protect the endangered. Now they were endangered. Beyond words. That was also why she couldn't have warned them ahead of time. In their brains, there was memory and there was now, but there was no future. There was no way for her to say, Don't go there.

  North of the village the dogs came . . . running, running, howling . . .

  Close enough to see their quarry - the huge succulent beasts so conveniently tethered and tied down - the dogs slowed, scattered, circling the village, surrounding it, crouching low as they secured their positions, hair rising on their necks, primed for attack, listening for signals, for danger, for the moment when they would all rush forward . . .

  Silently, they moved, and then, muscles bunched, they waited until . . .

  As one, as if the pack were one body with one brain, the dogs attacked from every direction, muzzles back, teeth bared, lunging toward their kill.

  The reindeer, restrained by forces stronger than leather, shuddered in their halters and yokes, but they were not helpless. They were enormous, with murderous hooves and teeth, and jaws that could grab a dog and crack its head even as it was flung to the side. Between them and the dogs, on either side, Pasha and Serge were the ones who looked helpless, until their eyes glittered and their teeth showed. They, too, could grab and tear; they, too, had superhuman strength beyond anything the wild dogs possessed, the two vampires making up in strength and viciousness what they lacked in numbers.

  The townspeople slumbered under the spell of Christmas Eve.

  "No!" Ingrid cried, as she raced toward the village.

  Massacre seemed laid out in front of her. Her family wouldn't stand a chance, mere natural predators against unnatural ones. Long, thick white wolf fur
streaming behind her, she thundered into the midst of them, snarling, growling, pushing her own family out of the way so she could protect them from this force they could never understand.

  She hurled herself toward the vampires at the heart of the fight.

  Blood and fur flew all around her.

  There were cries of pain, roars of fury.

  And then a space cleared, and two bloodied but unbeaten vampires stared at this new attacker who was like none of the pack they had seen yet.

  "What the . . . " exclaimed Pasha.

  "Werewolf!" screamed Serge.

  She pulled back into her haunches, primed herself to launch at them, pushed off with her great strength, and was airborne when the door of the nearest village hut flew open and the Old One stepped outside. He yelled at Serge and Pasha in a voice that quaked the ground around them, "Forget the dogs, you idiots! Don't let the werewolf get Rudolph!"

  Ingrid shape-shifted while in mid-lunge.

  Before their eyes, the white wolf changed into a nude and shapely young woman with red hair instead of white fur. The shift altered her speed, allowing her to hit the ground with her bare feet, right in front of the astonished vampires. As they lunged toward her throat, she crouched to pick up her knapsack that had fallen. With it in hand, she shoved between them, and then ran alongside the reindeer before the vampires could recover in time to keep her from going where she was aiming. The Unsaint figured it out first and screamed at Pasha and Serge to catch her, but they were all too late. Ingrid grabbed the reindeer halter she was seeking and with one great burst of strictly human power hauled herself up and astride of . . . Rudolph.

  "Get off of him!" she heard the Old One yell.

  Her answer was to pull her silver hunting dagger from her knapsack and to point it toward the jugular vein in the reindeer's neck. Rudolph, raised with vampires, barely registered the light weight of the woman on his back, and merely shook his reins a bit. Ingrid did not know why her foe was so determined to protect this particular reindeer out of all of them; she just knew that whatever the reason, it might be the leverage to rescue her family from him.

  Her family!

  The dogs had pulled back, at first frightened by the huge new fighter who had appeared, and then nearly hysterical with excitement as they recognized her. Out of respect for her greater size and power, all of them, including the female and male heads of the family, remained standing where they were, waiting, allowing her to take the lead. Their wounded crawled toward them, bleeding into the dust, whining with the pain of their terrible injuries.

  A silence descended on the strange scene.

  The Old Vampire didn't move from where he stood near the sleigh, but just quietly asked her in his deep voice, "How did you know?"

  He sounded genuinely curious.

  He also sounded as if he were humoring her, trying to calm her down so that she wouldn't use her knife.

  "Dead reindeer," Ingrid said, wryly, from high on Rudolph's back, "don't show up in Africa all that often, Santa Claus. " She pronounced his name with scathing sarcasm. "And reindeer this size don't show up anywhere unless they're supernatural. Besides, I'd always suspected - "

  "Don't tell me. Because I work nights and live forever?"

  "That, and your red suit. " Ingrid pointed to it with her knife, then quickly pointed back at Rudolph. "That was a stroke of genius. "

  The Old One smiled, a facial change that made the dogs quiver with the desire to lunge and kill. Ingrid looked into the eyes of the dominant male dog and then the dominant female dog to tell them to control their pack.

  They understood her.

  Young dogs who needed nipping got nipped.

  Nobody charged anybody. They stood in a standoff while young werewolf and ancient vampire confronted each other. Slowly, he took a few steps toward her. Careful steps, barely perceptible steps that a human with normal senses and eyesight might not have noticed.

  "Yes, I thought it was inspired," Nicholas agreed, with no modesty.

  "But why the white beard and white trim?"

  He sighed. "I know. So stupid. Easy to hide blood on red, impossible to hide - much less get out! - on white. It was all red to start with. My hair, my beard, the fur trim. All red. Then the damned illustrators got hold of the legend, and turned me into a fat, ermine-trimmed fop. "

  Ingrid straightened her posture, and looked at him: yellow wolf eyes staring their challenge into old, cold vampire eyes.

  "I'm not going to let you kill my family," she said.

  "Your family?" He laughed, sounding nothing like the merry old elf of lore. Like her, he was suddenly alert, all banter gone. "So that's it. So that's why you defend them like this. You warm-blooded monsters! You should take a hint from those of us with nothing left to lose. "

  "Except - "

  "My life?" He laughed again. "You think I'd be sorry to lose that?"

  "No. " She pricked the reindeer's neck, enough to draw blood, and yet no blood ran from him. At the prick, the beast flicked his monstrous head back toward her, displaying a gleam of a tooth like a rapier. Suddenly, at the sight of it, and no sight of blood from the wound, Ingrid understood the importance of this animal. "Not your life. "

  "No!" Nicholas roared. "Not Rudolph!"

  "You fly away," Ingrid threatened him, "or I kill him. "

  "I've spent a bloody fortune on that reindeer!" And then his eyes turned crafty. Proudly, he thumped his red and white furry chest. "You can't kill him. You don't have any holy water or a wooden stake or a silver bullet. "

  Ingrid slid down off the opposite side of Rudolph and came up under his massive chest. With her hand that didn't hold her knife, she felt the sleek hide, gauging where a dead reindeer's heart must be. She peered out from underneath, at Nicholas. "Ah, but I have a dagger made out of silver bullets. "

  "No!" The old vampire's cry seemed truly anguished, but then his eyes turned sly again. "Even that won't do you any good. I can't leave without Rudolph. He guides my sleigh tonight. "

  "You have plenty of horsepower without him. "

  She moved the silver dagger closer to the reindeer's chest.

  "All right, all right, but I want him back!"

  "I'll let him go when I know you're far enough away. "

  "And how will you know that, little werewolf?"

  In a mocking voice, Ingrid sang, "Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way . . . "

  "He left us!" Pasha cried, in astonishment, as they watched the sleigh fly off.

  Briefly, the whole sleigh - minus its lead reindeer - was silhouetted against the full moon. And then it disappeared into the Milky Way.

  "He left us in Africa!" Serge screamed, and then he started stamping his own feet, just as the remaining reindeer had done before taking off. "What are we supposed to do in Africa?"

  "You can be useful," Ingrid told them.

  She slid down off Rudolph and gave him a mighty slap on his rump.

  The great beast started running down the dirt road, and in only a few yards, he was airborne.

  "Useful?" Pasha said it as if it were a bad taste in his mouth.

  "Come on, boys," she encouraged them, as she donned her clothing again. "Someday, you'll thank me. "

  Before she showed them the better way, she got down on her haunches to say both hello and goodbye to her family. There was whimpering on both sides, from her and from them. There were licks and nuzzles, sniffing and pawing, but none of them lingered, not Ingrid, and not the dogs. For her, it was too painful to go through a farewell a second time. For them, there was hunting to do, to compensate for the loss of the splendid feast they had missed.

  When she rose to her feet, Ingrid slapped off the dust.

  She didn't glance behind her to see the dogs go, but she could hear them, could feel the pounding they made on the earth. If she looked, she thought her heart might brea
k again.

  "Follow me. " She started to walk but then stopped. "No, on second thought, I'll follow you. Go that way. "

  When they got back to where her gun was buried, she used her cell phone to call her assistant. "Damian. Yes, I'm fine. No, I didn't locate them. What do you know about the poachers?" She listened for a few moments, then said, "Come get me. "

  Under the full moon, she pointed the vampire cousins toward the south.

  "Keep walking. In about twenty-five miles, you'll come upon a band of soldiers. Paramilitary. They're awful people. They force young boys to join them. They rape women, cut off limbs, kill everything in their path. Last month, they murdered a lowland gorilla. They're all yours, boys. "

  "Twenty-five myiles?" Pasha whined.

  "To a smorgasbyord," Ingrid reminded him, with a wicked smile.

  When she could barely see the vampires in the distance, her assistant screeched to an angry stop beside her. Ingrid opened the door of the jeep, climbed in. Her face still held a remnant of the smile she had given the vampires. When her assistant got a glimpse of it, he caught his breath. Her face reminded him of how wolves looked after they had triumphed in a hunt and kill.

  Damian, having nursed grievances all night and having intended to complain about them, felt the hairs rise on the backs of his arms. Instead of speaking, he shut his mouth, and drove home.

  "Let's be Santa Helpers," Serge mocked bitterly as they trudged in the darkness. "Let's go join up with dear old Santa Claus and get ourselves a lifetime's supply of blood bank. "

  "Okay, so maybe my plan didn't work out perfectly. "

  "Perfectly! How about not at all?! How about nearly getting us killed by wild dogs and a werewolf, not to mention the world's oldest vampire?"

  Their supernatural vision picked out a campfire in the distance.

  "I think," Pasha said, soothingly, "that this night is not over yet. "

  "It better not be. I'm starved. " As the cousins started to run, covering yards where humans could have covered only inches, Serge turned his pale, handsome, hungry face toward Pasha and yelled into the African night, "And don't you ever try to talk to me about the Easter Bunny!"

  At the campfire, hearing something strange, men reached for guns that were not armed with silver bullets.

 
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