Wolfsbane and mistletoe, p.8
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       Wolfsbane and Mistletoe, p.8

           Charlaine Harris
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Chapter Eight

  The Perfect Gift

  Dana Stabenow

  Dana Stabenow was born in Anchorage and raised on a seventy-five-foot fish tender in the Gulf of Alaska. She knew there was a warmer, drier job out there somewhere, and found it in writing. Her first science fiction novel, Second Star (1991), sank without a trace, but her first crime fiction novel, A Cold Day for Murder (1992), won an Edgar?Award, and her first thriller, Blindfold Game (2006), hit the New York Times bestseller list. Dana's second thriller, Prepared for Rage, came out in 2008, and her twenty-fifth novel (and sixteenth Kate Shugak novel), Whisper to the Blood, is due out in February 2009.

  "They're overgrazing their range. "

  "True. "

  "If we don't reduce their population, there'll be fuck all left to hunt. "

  "Also true," Neri said.

  "They savaged us the last two times we tried to establish some control over their activities, to the point that the population of the various packs is now seriously out of balance. "

  "No one is arguing with you, Lucas," Mannaro said.

  "Then why are we pussyfooting around here?" Lucas had a long, strong nose, a square jaw, and cheekbones by Praxiteles, although Mannaro thought his countenance exhibited an almost regal lack of animation. Austerity was not usually a characteristic of the young, and Mannaro thought it only made Lucas appear ever so slightly pompous. "We have to make a decision," Lucas said, "and the sooner the better. " His attitude said all too clearly that they had left it too late as it was.

  Wulver leaned forward. His broad Scots' accent would have been impossible to understand if he hadn't spoken so slowly and with such deliberation. There was no doubt the board understood the seriousness of the issue before them. "One caveat, however. Do we really want to start a shit-storm of this magnitude just before Christmas?"

  He looked at the head of the table. Mannaro, impeccably coifed and immaculately tailored, sat very much at his ease, an attitude belied by the restless brilliance of a pair of shrewd dark eyes, which lingered on Neri for a considering moment. She was worth the attention, a long- limbed blonde with creamy skin that flushed easily, heavy-lidded blue eyes, and a lush red mouth that hinted to most men of soft kisses and lazy Sunday afternoons.

  Mannaro knew his niece rather better than most men, however. There was nothing soft or lazy about Neri. "Wulver makes a good point," he said. "The last two times the Board of Game proposed a hunt, there was an outpouring of sentiment - and may I say, sentimentality - from the larger community. E-mails, letters, and phone calls poured into the commissioner's office. 'Predators are a necessary part of the food chain. ' 'Predators are a vital and beautiful part of the balance of nature. ' 'These predators cull only the weak and infirm, thereby keeping the prey herd healthy and viable, which in turn keeps the predator population healthy and viable. '"

  He held up a hand. "I know, you've heard all this before. Very well. We are agreed that action is necessary, are we not?"

  There were nods from around the table. "We are also agreed that this pack is out of control. Reluctantly, we agree that the sole action left to us is elimination. Such a draconian decision is arrived at only after repeated attempts at remedial action, all resulting in failure of effect, and after extensive deliberation over what will benefit the greater good. "

  Again, no outward dissent.

  Mannaro looked at Wulver. "But Wulver is also correct in that every time we propose controlling the population, there is a backlash of epic proportion, and as the controlling body we're left hanging out there all alone, the target of every rights group with an in-house attorney. And he makes a very good point in that the season will exacerbate reaction community-wide. "

  "But something has to be done," Lucas said. "Their actions have become too widespread to safely ignore. Any more publicity will result in full-scale vigilantism, putting the greater population at risk. It's not like it hasn't happened before. "

  "Indeed. " Mannaro inclined his head in a graceful acceptance of the challenge that Lucas' near snarl had flung down. "What we need is to turn this action into a gift. So let me put it to you. Who will this action benefit, other than ourselves?"

  He was looking at Neri as he spoke. "To whom," he said, "may we offer it as something befitting the season? As, say, the perfect gift?"

  She met his eyes for a startled moment before comprehension came.

  And then she laughed, a full-throated sound of amusement, with an underlying excitement sharp enough to cut.

  Mannaro smiled, content.

  The Alaska state troopers in Anchorage worked out of a five-story rectangular building with a dull gray exterior and an interior cut into matching gray cubicles. Littered surfaces of metal desks were lit by fluorescent tubes, every third or fourth one burned out.

  Lobison thought it worked as a metaphor for the job, although it would have been as much as his life was worth to use a word like metaphor in here. He dumped four packets of creamer and six packets of sugar into his coffee mug and went to his desk, where the stack of case files had not miraculously diminished overnight.

  His partner was already at work, sleek head bent over a series of crime scene photographs, the graphic nature of which made the human in him wince away and gave even the cop in him pause.

  "Morning, Ben," she said.

  "How do you do that?" he said. "I didn't make a sound. You must have ears like a cat. "

  She looked up and fluttered her eyelashes. "Maybe I just have a sixth sense for big good-looking doofuses. "

  They'd been partners for a year and their working relationship had evolved into a low-key flirtatious raillery that never overstepped the rule of no departmental fraternization. Romanov was so hot she sizzled, but Lobison had too much respect for the job to hit on his partner, or that's what he told himself whenever his imagination went into overdrive.

  "I think that's doofusi," he said. He sat down across from her and pointed at the photographs. "Why are you looking at those again? It's not like the MO is going to change if you stare at them long enough. "

  "I know. " She sat back and rubbed her eyes with thumb and forefinger. "How many have there been now? Twelve?"

  "Thirteen," he said grimly, "if you count that kid in Chickaloon, and I do. "

  "Thirteen deaths by exsanguination over the past eleven months," she said, "in each case caused by massive trauma to the throat. "

  "As in they had their jugulars ripped out," Lobison said. "Don't pretty it up. The ME's considered opinion is that each victim was attacked by an animal, perhaps a dog, maybe a wolf or a bear, possibly even a wolverine. That I might actually believe, wolverines are nasty little sons of bitches. But since most of the soft parts of the bodies are missing and presumed eaten, the ME hasn't been able to get a good imprint of the teeth. "

  She leaned back in her chair and folded her arms, a quizzical look on her face. "You still don't think it is an animal, do you?"

  "Where is this alleged animal?" He waved a hand at the photographs. "We've got crime scenes ranging from Girdwood to Wasilla, including Bird Creek, Indian, Spenard, Muldoon, Mountain View, Eagle River, Peters Creek, Palmer. No one single sighting of the animal or animals in question reported by any of the witnesses interviewed. The attacks always occur at night, always on a full moon, and don't those jackals in the media just love that. " He paused. "Tonight's a full moon. "

  She glanced at him. "Yeah? So?"

  "Ask any EMT or any emergency room nurse, they'll tell you. All the stats go up during a full moon, robbery, rapes, murder, drive-bys, domestic disturbances, you name it. People get squirrelly around the full moon. "

  "You know that's just a self-perpetuating prophecy," she said in a singsong voice, as if she were reading out of a manual. "Because people say the full moon makes people squirrelly, people get squirrelly during the full moon. Ask any shrink. "

  "Yeah, y
eah. " He shifted uncomfortably, as if his jacket were suddenly too tight across the shoulders. Truth was, he was always twitchy during the full moon, and he didn't like it. He was a cop, he dealt in the real, the tangible, what he could see and hear and touch. It was humiliating, especially in front of his partner, who also happened to be an attractive member of the opposite sex, to admit to a belief in what amounted to a fairy tale.

  "It was even clear the night of the Eagle River attack," he said, bringing them firmly back to the subject. "That and the full moon made visibility so good you could read a newspaper outside. The victim was found almost immediately by a couple who were camping up the trail and who heard the attack and came to investigate, and they didn't see anything. We haven't found any tracks, no one's heard any howling or growling, there's no scat or hair. " His mouth tightened into a grim line. "And they're too much alike. "

  "The bodies?"

  "Yes. Same killing blow, or bite, at least so far as the ME is willing to commit himself. All the soft parts gone, face, throat, breasts on the women, belly, thighs. No dental impressions left in the bones. To me, that kind of similarity argues, I don't know, an intelligence, if you will, behind the killings. Which makes them murders in my book. "

  She raised a skeptical eyebrow, but before she could reply the phone on her desk rang. "Detective Romanov. Yes. Yes. " She scribbled something down. "I'm sorry, and why should we go all the way out there?" Her eyes widened and she snapped her fingers at Lobison. Line two, she mouthed at him.

  "Yes," she said into the phone, "but you have to understand, these are horrific crimes. We would require serious proof before we could make an arrest. We can't just show up and kick in the door. What makes you think these people are responsible?"

  Lobison called for a trace and then as quietly as possible switched to line two. "It's up to you now," the man was saying, his voice rough-edged and a little garbled. "I've told you who they are and where they are. They're sick, murderers, they're cannibals is what they are! You have to stop them!"

  "Yes, but sir, please, tell me your name! Sir!"

  There was a click. She looked at Lobison, who switched lines again and spoke briefly. He hung up and shook his head. "Not long enough to find a location, other than in state. And he was using a voice disguiser, I'm betting. What did he give you?"

  She ripped the note from the pad and handed it across the desk. "Get your boots and parka. He says the so-called Wolf Murders are the work of a family in the Valley named Vilkachek. "

  The Vilkachek homestead was down a snow-covered, one-lane gravel road that wound back into the Chugach foothills. It was large, two stories, and old enough to be one of the houses built by one of the farm families who came to the Valley in 1936 as part of the WPA project to settle the territory. It had a wraparound porch with a broad set of steps leading up to it, and it was set in a grove of black spruce that had been encouraged to creep right up to the windows, obscuring the view within. Deliberately? This far out in the boonies, there was no need for a privacy screen. The nearest neighbor was five miles away.

  Lobison spoke softly into the mike clipped to his vest. "Ferguson, all set around back?"

  Two clicks replied in the affirmative. He drew his weapon and looked at Romanov. "Back me up?"

  She already had the silver nine-millimeter automatic in a business-like grip. "Go," she said.

  The wind came up and the trees sighed and creaked in response, sifting through the light of the moon just cresting Pioneer Peak. Even on the crusty snow, Romanov moved so silently behind him that he was compelled to look around once to see if she was still there. Her face moved into the shadow as he turned, so that for a fanciful moment he thought he saw her eyes gleam and her hair coarsen from its usual sleek knot into a ruffled pelt, and then the wind moved the boughs aside and she was once again Romanov, the partner who had his back.

  They approached the front of the house, the snow frozen hard underfoot so that there was no postholing to give them away. There was a light in one of the front rooms upstairs, and the reflected glow of another somewhere at the back of the first floor.

  Lobison set one tentative foot on the bottom stair.

  As if it were a signal, someone fired from the house, a shot he first felt as a burning past his cheek. Immediately afterward he heard the instantaneous report, so close it sounded like cannon fire.

  Lobison fell into an instinctive pe and rolled, coming to his feet again behind the trunk of a tree, shaking snow from his eyes. Romanov shouted something, and almost simultaneously there was a crash of glass and breaking wood from the back of the house. There were yells and screams and more shots.

  "Ben! Are you all right!"

  "I'm okay, you?"

  "I'm good!"

  And that was all the time they had for conversation as another shot hit the tree he was standing behind. It tore away a chunk of bark and he flinched away, and in that same instant the house exploded with a thunderous roar, blowing out the walls and bursting into an immense ball of flame. The wind whipped up and fanned the flames higher and the heat was so intense that even from behind the tree the force of it pushed him into retreat, hands half raised in a futile effort to ward it off. His heel caught on a thick root and he fell hard and clumsily.

  As he fell, the wind tossed the branches between him and the burning house. Shadows cast by the moon formed and broke and formed again. For just an instant he thought he saw a four-legged form, dark and somehow elegant, leaping through a top-floor window to the roof of the porch. From the porch it leapt in a dark, fluid continuation of movement to the ground, and melted into the trees as if it had never been.

  "A stray bullet hit the propane tank at the back of the house," the chief of detectives said. "Kaboom. "

  "Jesus," Lobison said. "Our bullet, or theirs?"

  "Don't know," the chief said firmly, "and don't want to know, so don't ask again. "

  Lobison felt dizzy, disoriented, and generally pissed off. It was, he felt, a reasonable response to nearly being blown up. Romanov, by contrast, looked barely ruffled, the moonlight giving her an ethereal, other-worldly glow. God, she was so gorgeous it made him want to bite.

  Her eyes widened as if she could hear his thoughts, and he looked away and cleared his throat. "How many bodies?"

  "Eight," the chief said, "but they're still counting crispy critters in there, and they will be for a while. It was a pretty efficient explosion. If anyone was in the house, they're dead. "

  Next to him Romanov said quietly, "The local cops say there were twenty-three family members spread over three generations, all residing at this address. "

  "Three generations?" Lobison said.

  "No children," Romanov said, answering what he'd meant rather than what he'd said. "The youngest of them was twenty-three. They evidently . . . " She hesitated, seeming to search for the correct word. "It appears that each generation evidently married early and had children very young. "

  In some distant part of his brain Lobison was relieved at the news, but it felt as if he had received it at a distance, one step removed from himself. He shook his head again, not in disbelief but in an attempt to shake off his disorientation. His stomach growled, loud enough for Romanov and the chief both to hear. That was nuts, he'd had a Pop All-Dark at the Lucky Wishbone just before they'd headed out, he couldn't possibly be hungry.

  Romanov looked at him and he felt the weight of her considering gaze. He shook his head a third time, almost angrily. The scent of her perfume seemed to increase in intensity, so that he could smell nothing but her.

  The chief took Lobison's demeanor as remorse over the slaughter. "I wouldn't weep any real tears one way or another," he said. "We found this. " He held out a dented metal box. "Explosion blew it out one of the windows. Looks like trophies from all thirteen victims. Your partner's already ID'd some of them. "

  Lobison took the box
automatically, looking inside it, recognizing a ponytail holder, an earring, a pitiful jumble of personal objects that held no meaning except to the loved ones left behind.

  "One for the books," the chief said. "A whole family of serial killers. I put it in NCIC and the Feebs are practically pissing in their pants. They're sending up a profiler from Quantico on the red-eye. A whole family," he said again, marveling, and then brightened. "I guess the family that preys together stays together. " He laughed at his own joke and elbowed Lobison. "'Preys together?' Get it?"

  "Jesus," Lobison said again, only this time it was a whisper. "The guy who called. He was telling the truth. It was them. "

  "Damn straight it was," the chief said. "The way I see it, we're damn lucky that stray bullet caught the propane tank and fried the whole bunch of them. This way we've got the perpetrators of thirteen bloodthirsty murders dead to rights - " He laughed again. "And we don't even have to bring them to trial. Not to mention, you both get gold shields. " He grinned. "It's the gift that keeps on giving, Sergeants. Merry Christmas. " He looked over Lobison's shoulder. "Oh, crap. "

  "What?" Romanov followed his gaze. A Channel 2 truck was pulling into the yard.

  "Who called us?" Lobison said. "Who tipped us off?"

  "Who cares?" the chief said, straightening his tie. "I'll take these assholes for you. " He winked at them. "You two head on home. Sleep in, come in late. Reports on my desk tomorrow by end of shift. "

  "Yes, sir," Romanov said.

  The chief headed for the television crew, and Lobison registered the logo on the side of the van for the first time. "Shit," he said, and pulled out his cell. "I've got to call my family before this hits the news. They're always expecting to see me dead or dying on film at ten. "

  Romanov was amused. "Your family worries about you on the job?"

  "You have no idea. Especially my brothers. " He hit the speed dial and held the phone to his ear. "All six of them. "

  He didn't notice how still she went at his words. "You have six brothers?"

  "Yep," he said grimly, "and it doesn't help that I'm the youngest. "

  Romanov drifted closer to him, too close. Her arm brushed his and that scent, floral deepening to musk, grew even stronger, to the point that he could smell nothing but her. Over the increasing roar in his ears he heard her say, almost dreamily, "You never told me you were a seventh son. "

  He forced a laugh, at the same time contriving to take a small step away from her. He was startled and embarrassed to find that he was abruptly, rudely, achingly hard. "Everyone bursts into song when I do, so I don't much. Hey. What're you doing?"

  This as she reached for his cell phone and closed it. He sensed a presence at his shoulder and his head snapped around. A dark man in a very sharp suit that looked very much out of place on a back road in the Valley seemed to coalesce out of the forest. There was nothing in his appearance to alarm Lobison, but when he found himself backing away, head down, rolling his shoulders, he realized that he was, in fact, alarmed. There was something menacing, something even threatening about the stranger, he didn't know what, but he hadn't survived this long as a cop by ignoring the heebie-jeebies when they announced themselves at this volume. He pressed his arm against the comforting weight of the nine millimeter in the shoulder holster. "Who are you?" he said brusquely. "What do you want?"

  "It's okay," Romanov said, her voice soothing. "This is my uncle. This is my partner, Uncle Mannaro, Ben Lobison. "

  "Sir," Lobison said, with a quick, unfriendly nod. He could feel the hair on his neck standing straight up. "No offense, Romanov, but what the hell is your uncle doing at a crime scene?"

  "Detective Lobison," the uncle said in greeting, with what would have been a charming smile if his canines had been a little shorter. As it was, it looked as if he was about to bite into something. And was looking forward to it.

  "Did you hear?" Romanov said to her uncle, her voice very soft. "He's a seventh son. "

  "I heard. "

  "What the hell does my being a seventh son have to do with anything?" Lobison said.

  She licked her lips, lips that looked fuller, almost swollen, over white, sharp teeth that looked suddenly as sharp as her uncle's. Her lids drooped over heavy eyes, her gaze fixed on his face. Lobison felt heat begin low in his belly and radiate up and out over his whole body. He pulled open the front of his parka, the crisp, cold air welcome against his skin.

  "Your birthday's on the twenty-fourth of December, isn't it, Ben?" she said.

  "Really," her uncle said, and gave Lobison an appraising look. "Well, well. Why didn't you tell us, Neri?"

  "I didn't know he was a seventh son," she said, without taking her eyes from Lobison. "The birthday by itself didn't seem worth mentioning. "

  "You think that old wives' tale is true?"

  "I think," Romanov said, her head tilting back, a slow smile spreading across her face, "that all we have to do is wait. "

  They were both looking at him with the same narrow-eyed intensity, Romanov still too close, her nearness making Lobison want to pace. The wind increased, the boughs creaked, the moon was bright enough to cast shadows. Lobison was uncomfortably aware that he was still hard. He hoped Romanov's uncle didn't know, but come to think of it he didn't really care that much if Mannaro did. His clothes felt too tight, and he felt too hot in them, too hot in his skin. He glanced at the moon, and away, the light too bright for his eyes.

  "Why now?" the uncle said. "Why tonight? He's, what, late thirties? Why hasn't he changed before?"

  "The first time we change with our pack. Maybe he needed a pack to change. " Romanov shrugged without taking her eyes from Lobison's. "There'll be time to figure that out. Later. "

  "Detective," Mannaro said, "just as a matter of curiosity, are your parents still living?"

  "Look," Lobison said, "I'm not exactly in the mood for twenty questions. I'm tired and I'm filthy and my ears are still ringing from the explosion and I'm hungry - "

  "You're not just hungry," Mannaro said, his voice understanding, almost caressing. "You're ravenous. "

  Lobison felt his stomach rumble again, this time as if in response to the words. He stared from Mannaro to Romanov. "What's going on?" he said, and he could barely recognize his own voice in what growled out of his throat. "What the hell is happening to me?"

  "Uuuuuuuncle," Romanov said, and without warning Lobison knew that she wanted him as badly as he wanted her. He wanted to jump on her, tear her clothes from her body, feast on her flesh. The saliva flooded his mouth, he had never been so hungry, so edgy, so needy.

  The uncle glanced up at the full moon, and back at Romanov. "Soon, Neri. "

  "Noooooow," she said. It was almost a howl, and Lobison felt that howl in the very marrow of his bones. He could smell her, her arousal, her need, he wanted to feed, to sate this abrupt, pounding need, he wanted to take. She was his, this night she was only his. He would take, he had to, it was no longer a choice, if indeed it ever had been one. He took a step forward, breath coming fast now, close enough to nuzzle her throat, close enough to smell the blood pounding beneath her skin, close enough to bite.

  Mannaro looked at the two of them standing so close to each other, and laughed, a knowing sound, an invitation into the dark. "The tribe increases. Who knew? The gift that keeps on giving. " He looked at the chief of detectives, who had intercepted the Channel 2 reporter and was leading her in the opposite direction. "All right," he said. "Now. "

  The three of them melted into the trees, Lobison joining the others as if by instinct. His eyesight was suddenly so acute that impressions rushed in to overwhelm him. An owl perched on the branch of a tree blinking its knowing eyes. A hare crouched in a hollow, its white coat almost indistinguishable from the surrounding snow but he could see every twitch of a whisker, hear every flick of an ear,
taste the rich, red blood, feel the crunch of bones between his teeth.

  Once among the trees it seemed natural to strip the clothes from his body, to drop to his hands and knees, only they were paws now, paws with long, sharp claws that dug strongly into the snow, that claimed the earth and made the wild his own.

  Mannaro put his nose in the air and howled. Now an elegant black wolf, his call was deep, mellow and compelling. It reverberated inside Lobison's skull, swamping every other sound and sense, an imperative call he could not ignore.

  Mannaro was answered immediately by Romanov, on four legs long and slender, white fur silver in the moonlight. The howl tore apart everything Lobison thought he was and the moonlight rebuilt him into something else, an untamed being of beauty and grace and hunger.

  Romanov howled once more, a long, drawn-out call of yearning. Her head dropped and she looked at him, blue eyes unblinking.

  He looked back, feeling that howl in every sinew and bone, in every hair of the thick gray pelt that now covered his body. He could smell her, almost taste her, the seductive, singing scent of her musk. He wanted her in a way he had never wanted her before, had never wanted anything ever before, wanted with a savage need that rode him like a demon, relentless, unmerciful, inevitable, undeniable.

  She sprang at him, nipping at his shoulder, her teeth stinging, and vanished into the trees.

  The smell of his own blood flooded his nostrils. In the next instant he was after her.

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