Wolfsbane and mistletoe, p.2
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       Wolfsbane and Mistletoe, p.2

           Charlaine Harris
 
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Chapter Two

  "I most certainly did," she said. "There was a light on, but no one answered the door. "

  "I may have dozed off," he said. "I'm surprised Carson didn't start barking. He must have known it was you. "

  "You know," she drawled. "I bet if Carson could speak, he could tell a lie way better than any drinking buddy ever could. "

  "I don't have drinking buddies," he said.

  "You going to tell me what's going on?" she asked.

  "Why are you doing this tonight of all nights?"

  "Because I am tired of being with a man who won't be with me, Sam Lehrmann," she said. "I am tired of you keeping secrets from me. I can't live with a man who keeps secrets. "

  "Everyone has secrets. "

  "That is true. But I want you to trust me with yours, Sam. I want to know that you trust me. "

  He took his hands and placed them on her shoulders.

  "There are things about me that no one can know about," he said.

  "I do understand the concept of secrets, Sam," she said sharply. "I don't care if you're an escaped convict, or practice vivisection on hitchhikers, or you're a Mets fan. I just want to know the truth. "

  "I'm not a Mets fan," he said. "I'm not a convict, and I almost never practice vivisection on hitchhikers. "

  "Tuesday night, Sam. I want to know where you were. "

  "I was at the warehouse, Mona, and that's God's own truth for you. "

  "Alone?"

  "Just me and the dogs. Not another human being around. "

  "And what were you doing there?"

  "Nothing that concerns you," he said.

  "You concern me," she said.

  "I love you and I trust you," he said. "Now, I am asking you to trust me when I tell you that there is something about me that I cannot possibly talk about with you, or with anyone else. But it doesn't affect how I feel toward you, or - "

  "Get out," she said wearily.

  "What?"

  "Get out, go away, don't come back," she said. "Get out of my house, get out of my life. I don't have many good years left, Sam, and I am sure as hell not going to waste them on you. Get out. "

  "It's Christmas Eve, Mona," he protested.

  "There is no more room at this inn, Sam," she said. "And there ain't no manger waiting for you in back. Get out. And if you run into the Three Wise Men, ask them why they think they're so smart when they ain't got any women in their lives. "

  He stood up, walked to the door, then looked back at the woman and the dog on the couch. The dog was looking at him. The woman wasn't.

  "You take good care of her, Nicky," he said.

  The dog nodded. He left.

  It was just as well, he thought. Stupid of him to even try. But it had lasted longer than he could have hoped, and he was beginning to dream of having . . .

  Having what? A normal life?

  Sure. That could happen.

  The watcher met his men in front of the warehouse. Edwards waddled forward, his hands now encased in a pair of thick leather gloves. Hidalgo punched in the security code on the keypad while Kenner stood with his gun at the ready. The light on the keypad turned from red to green. Edwards took a deep breath, turned the knob, and went through the door.

  Carson was on him before he had gone two steps, ripping through the padding on his right leg like it was made of crepe paper. Kenner leaned through the door, sighted carefully, and pulled the trigger once. Carson whined for a second, then went limp.

  Edwards looked down at his leg. Blood was seeping through it.

  "Damn," he said admiringly. "That's one sumbitch of a dog. "

  The watcher came in as the others fanned out around him, weapons at the ready. He nodded in satisfaction.

  "Let's go," he said.

  Arnie, the dachshund at the end, sensed them first, and let out a furious bark that set off those dogs that were awake and woke the ones that weren't. The combined bays, howls, yips, and snarls echoed off the metal roof of the warehouse at a deafening level.

  Lehrmann was on his feet, his paws clapped over his ears.

  "Everyone be quiet!" he roared.

  The dogs ceased immediately, except for the dachshund.

  "Arnie, will you please shut up?" said Lehrmann.

  Arnie trailed off after one last token woof of protest.

  "Thank you, Mister Lehrmann," said the watcher, strolling into view. His men spread out behind him, their guns pointed at Lehrmann's cage.

  "What did you do to Carson?" asked Lehrmann.

  "He's asleep," said the watcher. "Unharmed, but asleep. Unlike my man, who is somewhat harmed but very much awake. I trust that Carson had all of his shots?"

  "Yeah," said Lehrmann. "I'm gonna have to get him more if he bit one of you guys. "

  "Cute," said the watcher. "Why do you call him Carson?"

  "I named him for Johnny," said Lehrmann, standing toward the rear of his cage with his arms folded. "He's my late-night dog. "

  "How do you do it?" asked the man. "How do you get through the change so calmly?"

  "What's it to you?" asked Lehrmann.

  "Curiosity," said the man. "Werewolves are a hobby of mine. "

  "Meditation, relaxation techniques," said Lehrmann. "Nothing fancy. You just set your mind to it. "

  "Yet you keep yourself caged. Why?"

  "First hour is always rough," said Lehrmann. "Just a precaution. "

  "Yes, I've watched you go through it for a couple of months, now," said the man, pulling out a small notebook. "The timer is set to release you at precisely one hour after sunset. Then you usually watch television until midnight, then go to sleep. Fascinating life you lead. "

  "Keeps me out of trouble," said Lehrmann, glancing through the bars at the watch on the table.

  "Don't bother," said the man. "You still have half an hour until the lock opens. I'm surprised you don't have a backup switch for emergencies. "

  "That's Carson's job," said Lehrmann.

  "Unfortunate," said the man.

  "Yeah, I've got to figure out something better," said Lehrmann. "Never figured on the backup needing a backup. So, you gonna tell me who you are?"

  The watcher smiled.

  "I'm the Bogeyman," he said.

  A German shepherd named Max was making the rounds at the factory where he lived. He looked up suddenly, then loped to a small hole in the chain-link fence that only he knew about. He wriggled through quickly, then galloped off into the night.

  Sally and Waldo were three blocks from her house when he became agitated and strained against the leash, nearly pulling her off her feet.

  "Waldo, come!" she said.

  He looked at her resentfully.

  "What's wrong?" she asked.

  He whined. She squatted to look into his eyes. She studied them for a long time, then reached down to unclip his leash.

  "All right, but you have to come back soon," she said. "I don't want either of us to get into trouble. "

  Mona stood at the doorway of her town house, a tumbler in her hand and Nicky by her side. She looked up at the full moon and shivered.

  "Go to him," she whispered to Nicky, and the dog took off down the street.

  "You got a name, Bogeyman?" asked Lehrmann.

  "That's Mister Bogeyman to you," said the watcher. "Or you can call me Taylor. "

  "That your real name, Taylor?"

  "It is. "

  "Well, Mister Taylor, how about you letting me know what you're doing here. I am assuming this isn't a social call. "

  "I have come to kill you, Sam," said Taylor, taking a tranquilizer gun handed to him by Hidalgo.

  "Then I would prefer you call me Mister Lehrmann," said Lehrmann. "I don't fancy being on a first name basis with you at the moment. "

  "
Fair enough," said Taylor.

  "There is the question of why," said Lehrmann. "You one of those guys who is sexually impotent and only gets off on killing werewolves?"

  "Are there many of those?" asked Taylor curiously.

  "You hear things," said Lehrmann.

  "No doubt," said Taylor. "No, this is a little tradition of mine this time of year. The last full moon before Christmas, I hunt and kill one werewolf. "

  "Wouldn't it be more fun if you stuck with the mistletoe and a little caroling?" suggested Lehrmann. "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and all that?"

  "My sister was killed by a werewolf," said Taylor. "Christmas Eve, twenty-two years ago. "

  "I'm sorry," said Lehrmann. "You know it wasn't me. "

  "But I don't know that," said Taylor. "Not that it matters, not that I care. Even if you're not the one who killed my sister, you probably got some blood on your paws somewhere along the line, even with your nifty little yoga techniques. "

  "Most of us don't kill humans," said Lehrmann. "Unlike humans. "

  "Nevertheless, one of you did," said Taylor. "And she was very dear to me. "

  "I'm sorry for your loss, I truly am," said Lehrmann.

  "Are you about to beg for your life?" asked Taylor.

  "Would it do me any good?" asked Lehrmann. "Has it ever done anyone any good?"

  "Not so far," said Taylor. "But there's always a first time. "

  "Yeah, well, in that case, fuck you," said Lehrmann.

  Taylor pointed the tranquilizer gun through the bars and shot him in the leg.

  "Ow," said Lehrmann, staring down at the dart. He pulled it out and threw it on the floor. "So the plan is you tranquilize me and then hunt me down?"

  "No, the plan is I kill you slowly," said Taylor. "How does the leg feel?"

  "Like it has a needle stuck in it, you fuck," said Lehrmann. "You better hope that shit works fast, because if I'm - "

  He stopped as the burning sensation kicked in.

  "Hurts, doesn't it?" observed Taylor. "At least, I hope it does. "

  "What was in the needle?" asked Lehrmann, his heart racing.

  "A sizable dose of aconite," said Taylor. "The pain is nasty, but then comes the numbness. "

  "Aconite," repeated Lehrmann.

  "From the plant Aconitum vulparia," said Taylor, watching him intently. "Commonly known as - "

  "Yellow wolfsbane," said Lehrmann.

  "Of course you would be familiar with it," continued Taylor. "Folklore says that it's fatal to werewolves. The truth is, it's fatal to pretty much everybody. Nasty little neurotoxin in a pretty yellow flower that will kill you even if you only pick it up barehanded. I grow my own. Very carefully. "

  "How long does it take?" asked Lehrmann.

  "The amount you just absorbed will kill a man in about an hour," said Taylor. "From my experience, and I can't say that I have a large enough sample to conclude this scientifically, about ninety minutes to two hours to kill a werewolf, depending on the strength of the werewolf. "

  "That gate opens long before that," said Lehrmann. "And I am pretty damn strong. "

  "A daunting prospect if you could walk," said Taylor.

  The werewolf sagged to one knee.

  "The literature describes the sensation as numbness spreading through the body, eventually stopping the heart," said Taylor. "The symptoms are said to be fairly unpleasant. Again, in my experience, that is a gross understatement. Werewolves seem to be particularly susceptible to it. And the best part - do you want to know the best part?"

  "Not really," said Lehrmann.

  "The best part is that you will be conscious until the very end. "

  "You bastard," muttered Lehrmann, trying to stand and failing.

  "What is lovely about this particular kill is that the full moon fell on Christmas Eve again," said Taylor. "Only the second time that's happened since my sister's death, given the vagaries of the lunar cycle and the solar calendar. In honor of the holiday, I thought I should make this one special. "

  "Lucky me," said Lehrmann.

  "No doubt, the irony of being helpless in a building full of guard dogs has already struck you," said Taylor.

  "Sure has," said Lehrmann.

  "Such beautiful animals," said Taylor. "And you treat them so well. I thought that we would give them a little Christmas treat. "

  Hidalgo and Edwards carried in the butcher's block and the electric saw. They placed it by Taylor, then stood back, weapons at the ready.

  "Once you are sufficiently paralyzed," said Taylor, "I am going to take this dandy little saw of yours and chop you into dog food, piece by piece. And you will be conscious until the moment your heart stops. You had better pray that it stops quickly. Then I am going to feed you to your own dogs. Mind you, the aconite in your bloodstream isn't going to do them any good, but that's the risk with fresh meat. "

  "You sick fuck!" shouted Lehrmann.

  "You are going to be the death of the creatures you love most dearly in the world," said Taylor, squatting to see him better. "More than that pathetic lush who wasted herself on you. "

  Boss?

  Lehrmann almost didn't sense it.

  Boss?

  Nicky? he thought.

  There was a dissonance of thoughts, then Nicky hushed the others.

  Me, Max, and some new dog, says he just got placed today.

  Waldo.

  "Mister Lehrmann, are you still with us?" asked Taylor.

  Lehrmann moaned in pain.

  "Not as strong as he thought," commented Edwards.

  Boss, how many are there?

  Four, thought Lehrmann.

  We can take them. They left the door open.

  No. They're armed.

  Others will be here. One hour, maybe less.

  I don't have an hour, thought Lehrmann.

  The lock beeped and clicked, and the gate swung open. He tried to lurch forward, but neither leg was working.

  "It's reached the lower spine, and it's working its way up," said Taylor. "Give him a few minutes. He can still swing those arms. "

  "Suits me fine," said Edwards. "I already got one bite tonight. "

  Too bad the gate was working so well, thought Lehrmann. If it had jammed, at least the other dogs would have been spared their last meal.

  The other dogs.

  Nicky, do you know where the switch to the cages is?

  No. That was put in after I left.

  I do, thought Waldo.

  Can you reach it?

  Outside the door, the Rottweiler and the German shepherd looked at the Doberman. He bared his teeth.

  Taylor looked at his watch.

  "We should start now," he said. "I don't want him to die without feeling it. "

  He looked down at the werewolf, who was breathing hard.

  "Mister Lehrmann," he called. "Please don't struggle when we pick you up. You may be strong, but we outnumber you. "

  "Other way around," gasped Lehrmann.

  Waldo shot across the arena, gathered himself, and leapt, crashing into the switch on the wall, then falling in a heap on the floor. The doors to the cages sprung open. There was a brief moment while everyone was silent and looking at each other.

  "Playtime," said Lehrmann.

  For all the pent-up rage and primal savagery of the pack, it was Arnie the dachshund who was the first out of his cage, baying and scampering on his short legs as hard as he could. The others took his cue and crashed into the room ahead of him. Of the four men, only Hidalgo managed to get a shot off before a pit bull clamped down on his wrist. The gun fell from his hand as he screamed.

  A minute later, the hand fell from his arm.

  The dogs piled on top of the four men, clawing and gouging whatever they could reach. Arnie, the last in, jumped
as high as he could and sank his teeth into Taylor's thigh. The watcher, staggering under the weight of five dogs, uttered a piercing shriek, then fell.

  Nicky came in, surveyed the scene, then came over to where Lehrmann lay on the floor. She looked into his eyes, then licked his paw.

  "Nice to see you, too," he said. "Is everyone okay?"

  Waldo's a little woozy from jumping into the wall. He's a good dog. I like him.

  "Tell Max to get him home," he said. "Then help me get to the tool room. "

  She ran off, and he started to drag himself across the floor with his arms. Nicky came back, saw him, and gave a quick bark. Several of the larger dogs separated themselves from the carnage and ran to help. Together, they pushed the werewolf along the floor until he was inside the tool room. He tried to pull himself up, then collapsed.

  Mona drove her Prius extremely carefully. She worried that she might be driving too carefully, a sure tip-off to any patrolling cop that she was anything but sober.

  Somehow, she made it to the farm road without inflicting any damage. As she turned on to it, her headlights picked up a pair of dogs loping toward her. She stopped the car and stared. A German shepherd and a somewhat dazed Doberman looked back at her. The Doberman bared his teeth. Then she could have sworn that the German shepherd recognized her. He growled softly, and the two dogs resumed their journey past her.

  She drove on until she reached the warehouse. The front door was open. A strange cargo van was parked in front. She reached under her glove compartment and grabbed her gun. She got out of her car and walked quietly to the door. She listened for a moment, then stepped inside.

  Immediately she was ringed by a pack of snarling dogs, many with their teeth and muzzles bloody, but before any of them could make a move, a familiar bark greeted her.

  "Nicky!" she cried, and the Rottweiler bounded up to her.

  The rest of the pack ceased their menacing and trotted back into the other room.

  "Nicky, where's Sam?" she asked.

  The dog whined and ran to the entrance to the tool room. She ran after her, looked inside, and screamed.

  There was a wolf lying on the floor - no, larger than a wolf, larger than the biggest wolf who ever lived, with fangs that were bared and claws that could slice through tree trunks, and she raised her gun and was about to shoot when it rolled its eyes in her direction and whimpered.

  "Sam," she cried out, dropping the gun and throwing herself down to hold him tight.

  "Mona," he breathed hoarsely. "Medicine cabinet. Box labeled ATROPINE. "

  She leapt to her feet and flung open the cabinet. The box was on the lower shelf. She opened it and saw three syringes, their needles capped.

  "How many and where?" she asked, kneeling to hear him.

  "Two," he gasped. "Right in the heart. Then wait five minutes and give me the third if there's no response. "

  "Your heart," she said, feeling the matted fur on his chest.

  "Same place it always was," he said. "Don't hit a rib. "

  She pulled the cap off the first needle and felt along his ribs under the chest until she located the gap. She took a breath, then jabbed the needle deep into his chest and pressed the plunger until it could go no farther. He grunted with pain. She removed it, repeated the process with the second, then leaned down and wrapped her arms around him.

  "What if the third one doesn't work?" she asked.

  "Then I'm dead," he whispered.

  Sally was standing on the spot where Waldo left her, his lead in her hand. She gave a cry of relief when she saw him, then stopped when she saw the German shepherd by his side. Waldo came up and sat by her feet.

  "Are you all right?" she asked.

  He nodded, still groggy. She looked at the other dog.

  "Are you a friend of his?" she asked.

  The dog nodded.

  "Did Mister Lehrmann train you?" she asked.

  The dog nodded again.

  "My name is Sally," she said. "Very nice to meet you. "

  The dog nodded once more, looked at Waldo, then ran off.

  "Merry Christmas!" she called after him. She clipped the lead onto the Doberman's collar and went home.

  "Ahh!" he cried.

  "Sam, do you need the third injection?" she asked.

  "Just pain," he gasped. "Pain's a good sign. Means the nerves are coming back. "

  He made a fist several times.

  "Help me sit up," he asked.

  She reached her arms around his body and pulled.

  "God, you're heavy," she said, wrestling him to a sitting position against the wall.

  "I think it's going to be okay," he said. "My heartbeat sounds good. "

  "But you're a werewolf," she said.

  "Atropine doesn't cure that. "

  "But you're a werewolf," she repeated.

  "Yes. "

  "What the hell just happened? What was the atropine for?"

  "Antidote for aconite," he said. "I always keep it around for special occasions like this. "

  "What the hell is aconite?"

  "It's a poison," he said. "Word got around that someone's been going after us - "

  "Us? There are more?"

  "You'd be surprised. "

  "You got that right. "

  "So anyway, I got some atropine just in case some nut job decided to throw some wolfsbane in my direction. And that's pretty much what happened. "

  "Wolfsbane," she said, confused. "Wait. Where is the nut job? There's a van outside - "

  She jumped up, grabbed her gun, and charged back out.

  "Mona!" he called after her. "Don't go in there!"

  She appeared in the doorway a minute later, the blood draining from her face, the gun dangling limply at her side.

  "I'm going to go outside and be sick for a while," she said numbly. "You wait here. "

  By the time she came back, he was breathing easily and bending his knees.

  "I brought some eggnog," she said. "And some marshmallows. Do werewolves eat marshmallows?"

  "Don't see why not," he said.

  He pulled himself to his feet and staggered a little.

  "How did you know I was in trouble?" he asked.

  "I didn't," she said. "Nicky knew somehow. Dog telegraph, I suppose. "

  "How did you know to let her go to me?" he asked.

  She looked into his eyes. Still Sam's eyes.

  "I guess I responded to her auditory cues," said Mona. "That happens in a close relationship. "

  He took her hand between his paws and pressed it to his chest.

  "So, this is the big secret," she said as they walked together out of the tool room. "All those nights you avoided me were when the moon was full. I never picked up on the pattern. "

  "Didn't see any way of telling you," he said.

  "All things considered, that's understandable," she said. "I'm sorry I didn't understand it at the time. "

  "It's Christmas Eve," he said. "I think a little forgiveness is in order. Both ways. "

  "Okay," she said.

  "Dogs, playtime's over!" he called.

  They came up to him, and he knelt before them.

  "Thank you," he said. "Thank you all. "

  Tails thumped on the floor.

  "Dogs, cages," he said, and they turned and went to their beds. He pressed the switch, and the cages closed.

  "What are you going to do about those men?" she asked, rubbing Nicky's neck.

  "I'll put what's left of them into their van, and drive it down to the old quarry pond," he said. "I should be able to sink it in there. "

  "Won't you be leaving fingerprints?"

  He held up his paws.

  "I don't have fingerprints right now," he said. "And if they find a hair, they'll just think it was a
wolf. "

  "Want me to mop up while you're gone?"

  "No," he said. "I'll do that tomorrow. "

  "Hell of a way to spend Christmas Day. "

  "Could have been a whole lot worse," he said. "You get a fire going outside. "

  "A fire?"

  "For the marshmallows. "

  "Hey, Mister Lehrmann," said Bert as Sam came in. "How was your Christmas? Did your family make it over?"

  "Yes, they did, Bert," said Lehrmann. "Everything worked out fine. "

  "And did the dogs enjoy their Christmas lamb?"

  "They did," said Lehrmann. "I'm sure they would thank you if they knew how. It's like I said, Bert. There's nothing like fresh meat for a dog. "

 
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