Wolfsbane and mistletoe, p.3
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       Wolfsbane and Mistletoe, p.3
 

           Charlaine Harris
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Chapter Three

  The Haire of the Beast

  Donna Andrews

  Like Meg Langslow, the ornamental blacksmith heroine of her humorous mystery series from St. Martin's Press, Donna Andrews was born and raised in Yorktown, Virginia. These days she spends almost as much time in cyberspace as Turing Hopper, the Artificial Intelligence Personality who appears in her technocozy series from Berkley Prime Crime.

  Although Andrews has loved fantasy and science fiction since childhood, during her years at the University of Virginia she grew fond of reading mysteries - particularly when she should have been studying for exams. After graduation, she moved to the Washington, D. C. , area and joined the communications staff of a large financial organization, where for two decades she honed her writing skills on nonfiction and developed a profound understanding of the criminal mind through her observation of interdepartmental politics.

  Among her less savory hobbies is toxic horticulture, or gardening with poisonous plants. Last year's crop of wolfsbane was particularly fine.

  "Why on earth would you want to be a werewolf?" I asked.

  "Why not?" Tom said. "I mean, don't you think it would be cool?"

  "Cool?" I repeated. I tried to keep my tone neutral, but brothers and sisters learn to read each other.

  "Okay, maybe you wouldn't, but I'd love it," he said, through another mouthful of spaghetti. "Imagine being able to turn into a wolf, and run free through the forest. Having a sense of smell a thousand times keener than we do. Night vision. Wolves are cool. "

  He was waving his beer in his enthusiasm, and spilling rather a lot of it.

  "Wolves don't run free anywhere closer than Canada," I said, as I tried to mop up behind him. "Here in Virginia, if you see a wolf, it's either in a cage or a rug in front of someone's fireplace. They probably get shot at a lot, those free-range wolves. And unless it works way different than in the movies, it's not that you can turn into a wolf - you can't help it at the full moon. Take it from me, unavoidable monthly biological transformations are no picnic. "

  "I knew you wouldn't understand," he said, sounding a little sulky. "You have no sense of adventure. "

  "You're really going to try this?" I said, gesturing at the battered old book that lay on the table between us. "And what do you need my help for?"

  "The spell's written in this really antique language," he said. "I thought you could help me figure it out. "

  I shook my head - in exasperation, not refusal. I pulled the book closer to my side of the table and wrinkled my nose. It smelled musty, with faint undertones of matches and rotten eggs.

  "Don't get spaghetti sauce on it," he warned. "Professor Wilmarth would kill me if I messed it up. "

  "I'm surprised he let you borrow it," I said. "Or did he?"

  Tom managed to have a really big mouth of spaghetti when he heard my question, and took his time chewing.

  "You stole it," I said. "Tom!"

  "I borrowed it," he said finally. "He's got a million of these old grimoires; he won't miss this one for a few days. I figured you could help me translate it. I mean, you did live with a leading medievalist for five years. "

  I bit back a sarcastic comment. I'd learned the hard way that telling the truth about Phil, my ex, only sounded like sour grapes. So when people mentioned how brilliant he was, how well his career was going, how happy he was with his new girlfriend, I just nodded and smiled. No one would believe me if I told them how much of the research for Phil's dissertation I'd done. I wasn't the same book-smart-but-street-stupid kid who'd agreed to support him while he got his Ph. D. , only to get dumped when it was time for me to start mine. The new girlfriend could have him, whoever she was - and my money was on a bright young graduate student who could replace me as his researcher.

  "I'm surprised you didn't ask Phil to help you with this," I said aloud. "Since he's such a leading medievalist and all. "

  "If I was still talking to him, maybe I would," he said. "I told you - after what he did to you, I try not to have anything to do with him. "

  Yes, he'd told me, but I hadn't necessarily believed it. Though if he brought this crazy idea to me instead of Phil, perhaps I should.

  "Besides, Phil would just laugh and tell me not to meddle with forces beyond my comprehension," Tom added.

  Now that sounded like something Phil would say. In fact, I was almost certain Tom was quoting him. And it explained one thing that had been puzzling me - how Tom had found a grimoire with a werewolf spell in the first place. Phil. The son of a bitch had probably dangled the grimoire in front of Tom's nose, translated just enough to get him really hooked on the idea, and then refused to help him. Phil had always known just how to play Tom.

  "Look, if you can't figure it out - " Tom began.

  "I can figure it out," I said. "But I can't do it tonight - in case you freshmen haven't noticed, first semester grades are supposed to come out Monday, and I have papers to read and grades to turn in if I want to keep my TA assignment. "

  "But you'll do it," he said.

  "I'll try. "

  Tom's good humor returned. I brought out the plate of brownies - one of his favorites - and we talked about other things for the rest of the meal.

  "Don't forget about the spell," he said, as he was putting on his coat. "I don't suppose you could just photocopy the right page so I can take the book back now?"

  Back to Professor Wilmarth? Or back to Phil?

  "No," I said. "I might need the rest of the book. What if when I finally translate the spell it says, 'Then add a pinch of bat powder - see recipe on page forty-three. '"

  "Yeah, right. "

  "Seriously, with something like this, you sometimes have to study a word or phrase in context. A whole book is a lot more context than a couple of pages. I need the whole book. "

  "Okay," he said. "But be careful with it. "

  "I will," I said. "See you Thursday. "

  "Thursday?"

  "Christmas dinner? Turkey and trimmings?"

  "Oh, right," he said. "I almost forgot it was so close. Thursday, then. "

  Had he really forgotten it was so close to Christmas? Or was he deliberately ignoring the approach of what would be only the second holiday without our parents?

  Of course, knowing Tom, maybe he was just laying the grounds for pretending he'd forgotten to shop for my present.

  I watched as he strolled down the driveway from my garage apartment back to the street. In the main house, Mrs. Grogran's evil little Lhasa Apso - the Lhasa Raptor, as we called him - heard Tom's footsteps and barked furiously for at least fifteen minutes. I hoped Mrs. Grogan had peeked out and seen it was only my brother leaving. I didn't think my lease would really let her turn me out for having late-night male visitors, but she could make my life a living hell while we fought it out.

  I returned to grading the student papers. Not my favorite way to spend a Friday night, but at least if I got them out of the way, I could enjoy the rest of the weekend. I polished the last one off by eleven, finished the data entry into the departmental grading system a little before midnight, and went to bed.

  But not, alas, to sleep. The moon was still almost a week from full, but it shone straight through my window, and when I finally got up to pull the shade down and block it out, I realized even that wouldn't help my insomnia.

  I went back out to the kitchen and opened Professor Wilmarth's grimoire again. I felt a curious reluctance to touch the stained leather cover, and my stomach turned slightly at the faint smell of sulfur.

  I remembered that the archaic name for sulfur was brimstone. Maybe I should have photocopied the relevant pages after all and made Tom take the nasty thing away.

  Nonsense. I made myself turn to the werewolf spell, and as so often happens, I got caught up in the project. I looked up after what I thought was only a few minutes of reading and realized
that day was breaking.

  Just as well. I had to look up a few things in the university library.

  By Saturday evening, I was pretty sure I'd puzzled out the werewolf spell. In fact, I'd puzzled out nearly all the spells in the book, some of them a lot more useful sounding.

  Mixing up the powder needed for the werewolf spell would be challenging, since most of the ingredients weren't FDA approved. I'd figured out that djinn's eggs were mandrake roots. The devil's trumpet was datura, or jimson weed. And I was reasonably sure that when the werewolf spell called for "the haire of the beast," it wasn't some archaic equivalent of "hair of the dog. " It meant real wolf hair.

  The herbs were bad enough, but grinding up wolf hair and eating it? Yuck.

  Tom could probably dig up a wolf pelt somewhere, but what if hair from a dead wolf didn't work? Worse, what if it turned him into a dead wolf at moonrise?

  Not that I necessarily believed the spell would work. At least half the herbs needed for the powder were strong hallucinogens. A few sprinkles of the stuff and you wouldn't need to be a werewolf to howl at the moon.

  Too many sprinkles would kill you. And annoying as he could be, I didn't really want Tom dead.

  Phil, now.

  Okay, it was a crazy idea, but I decided to take Phil as my guinea pig. I'd use a nonlethal dose of the various toxins, so if the spell didn't work, the powder would give him only a few stomach cramps, and I could tell Tom I told you so.

  And if it did work, it wouldn't be Tom hauled in by Animal Control and maybe waking up in a cage.

  Sunday afternoon I gathered my ingredients. Most of them I had to get from a pair of ex-students who'd dropped out during the sixties and now ran a highly unconventional herb farm out in the mountains twenty miles from town.

  Sunday evening I mixed the powder and baked it into some brownies - one of Phil's favorites as well as Tom's. Mixed up a few other useful-sounding concoctions from the grimoire while I was at it. If the werewolf spell worked, I'd give some of them a try.

  Once the brownies had cooled, I wrapped them up in some paper with jolly Santa Clauses all over it and attached a gift tag that said, "Merry Christmas, Professor Phil!" I made the dots over the i's into hearts. He'd probably think some lovestruck coed had left them on his porch in the middle of the night.

  When I got back from my late-night delivery, I cleaned up all my herbs and tools and hid them in Mrs. Grogan's garage. In her late husband's fishing box, which hadn't been opened in a decade.

  I kept the radio on nonstop for the next few days, so I'd hear right away if the campus station reported a popular young medieval history professor succumbing to food poisoning. But all I heard was the usual endless carol marathon.

  Christmas Day arrived, and with it the full moon. Though moonrise wasn't until 4:52 P. M. I'd checked. The hours crawled by.

  At least I had some distraction. I'd invited Tom for dinner. I fixed the traditional spread - turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, the works. I was hoping Tom would be too focused on the food to nag me about whether I'd made progress on his spell. But if not, I'd tell him what I'd done. Maybe enlist him to go over with me to Phil's neighborhood later, to see if the spell worked.

  But Tom was strangely distracted. Twitchy. He kept shifting in his chair and scratching his arms and legs. He wasn't even eating much.

  "What's wrong with you anyway?" I finally asked.

  He shrugged.

  "Don't feel so great," he said.

  "Do you want a beer?" I asked. "Or a Coke?"

  "Maybe some water?"

  If Tom turned down both hops and cola, he really must be ill. I went out to the kitchen and filled a glass with ice and water.

  When I came back, Tom was writhing on the floor.

  And howling. The pieces fell into place.

  "You've been visiting Phil, haven't you?" I said. "You went over there and ate some of the brownies. "

  He must have felt really awful. He didn't try to lie - just nodded, and clutched his stomach.

  "It serves you right," I said. "I was going to test your stupid spell on Phil, to see if it worked before letting you try it. "

  Even through his pain, I could see his face brighten.

  "Is that what this is?" he gasped. "I'm turning into a wolf?"

  "Not exactly. "

  He convulsed one more time, then screamed as his body contracted and flowed in strange ways. I winced and closed my eyes for a second.

  When I opened them again, I saw a rather bedraggled Lhasa Apso quivering on the floor, with Tom's abandoned clothes scattered around him.

  "I couldn't really scare up wolf hair on such short notice," I said. "I figured dog hair would work for the test. "

  Tom opened one eye to glare at me. Then he curled his lip and growled feebly. Even in dog form, he was pretty easy to read.

  "Don't give me that," I said. "This wouldn't have happened if you'd stayed away from Phil. "

  He whimpered. He got up, a little shaky on his feet, and turned around in a half circle as if trying to get a better look at his tail. Then he looked up at me and whined.

  "Oh, don't worry," I said. "I can fix it. "

  He wagged his tail slightly, and cocked his head to one side as if asking how.

  "I found a recipe for a potion that makes whatever state you're in permanent. So all we have to do is wait till the moon sets. About seven tomorrow morning. You'll be human again, you can drink the potion, and you won't have to worry about changing into a furball next month. "

  He wagged his tail with enthusiasm.

  "So you stay here for a while," I said. "Finish your dinner and get some sleep. "

  I threw a couple of pillows on the floor, and put a plate of turkey beside them.

  "I'll be back as soon as I can," I added.

  He yelped slightly, and tried to grab the leg of my jeans.

  "Sorry," I said, pushing him away as gently as I could. "You'll be fine here. Just don't bark, or Mrs. Grogan will call Animal Control. Keep quiet, lie low, and we'll fix you up tomorrow morning. "

  He whined and cocked his head to the side again.

  "Me?" I said. "I'm going over to Phil's house. He'll be getting his dose of the permanence potion a little earlier than you will. "

  On my way out, I stepped into the garage and snagged an old dog lead. Mrs. Grogan was going to love her Christmas present.

 
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