I spend most of my time as a white wolf. I don't shape shift into my human form unless there's damned good reason. I prefer wolf culture to that of people. I finish the scraps of the rabbit I caught and trot off toward my den. My mate's waiting for me, and believe me when I tell you, his noble character is a huge improvement over my human ex's. Before I reach the craggy hill, I stop. The scent of people is near. I go to the edge of the trees and cautiously survey the icy meadow, devoid of flowers or grass this time of year. A man is standing over a young woman, forcing her to her knees. His fist is raised, and he pounds her face, knocking her backward and almost unconscious. Her long, brown hair spills over the white snow, and blood trickles from her swollen lip.
I've seen enough. I've met men like Mr. Muscle before. The fur rises on my back and a growl snarls from my throat. He looks up, scans the trees, and sees me.
"Nice dog," he says.
That annoys me more. He's the same type that calls a woman a bitch. I'm pissed and step out from the shadows of the forest. I growl and bare my teeth. If he leaves now, we can call a truce. But the stupid man doesn't take a hint, and he reaches inside his heavy coat to pull out a knife. He waves it back and forth, a grim smile on his lips. "Come here, girl. I can gut two of you at a time."
Oh, joy of joys! An asshole I can tear to shreds without even pricking my conscience. My lope turns into a run. He makes quick slashes, but I zigzag. He grunts as I hit him with my full weight. The knife flies out of his hand. He shows surprise more than panic when my front paws pin him to the ground. I'm ready to tear out his throat when the girl screams and covers her eyes. Damn! What a way to spoil a good time. But if I kill the bastard, men will be out here, guns loaded, hunting for wolves, even though we live on a nature preserve. I pull back, plant my body over the man's knife, and growl. He springs to his feet, stares at me a long minute, as if weighing his odds, and then turns and runs. He'd better. If I had my way, he'd be lunch and supper for me and my family for a week.
The girl cringes as I lick her cheek. "Nice wolf," she says. At least she has more brains than Mr. Brawny.
I sit on my haunches and cock my head. What the hell was a nice-looking girl like her doing with a jerk gone wrong like him? Like I have any right to point a finger. I married Dirk, didn't I?
She studies me for a second, reaches out a shaky hand, and strokes my fur. When that's safe, she throws her arms around my neck and hugs me. "Thank you, thank you. If you hadn't come, I'd be dead, just like all the other girls. One minute, I'm walking home from work. The next minute, he's tossed me in his van."
So that's it. This wasn't by choice, meeting a guy in a bar, deciding to risk having some fun, and ending up with Mr. Psycho. This guy's a stalker. He hunts young women for some sick sport. Well, I hunt too, but I kill to eat and survive, not to feed a perverted craving.
The girl looks around the meadow and woods. She sighs. "I'm lost."
I push myself up and lope toward the south. I look back and wait for her.
"Will you take me home?"
Not home, but to the highway. She can find her way from there. I stay with her until she's a few miles from town, and then I leave her. I don't go to my den. I run to the small house on the edge of the preserve that I bought for my mother. It sits in a small grove of trees. No grass to mow or neighbors to see us. I go to the kitchen door and scratch. She looks up and motions me inside.
"Coffee?" She looks away while I change into human form. I grab the robe that's always on the hook by door, slide into it, and shiver. Even with the thick, heavy material hugged close, I'm cold. It's nothing like wearing fur.
While she adds milk to the strong brew, I go to the TV and turn it on. A newscaster is telling the remarkable story of how a girl, after being abducted, was saved by a white wolf.
"There've been other stories about the white wolf in this area," Mom says, "but people are skeptical. That's a good thing. Your dad wasn't always too careful."
"That's what drew you to him, made you childhood sweethearts. You fell for his wild side." I love the stories of Mom and Dad's youth and ask Mom to tell them over and over again. I take my first swallow from my steaming cup and groan with pleasure. There are things I miss as a wolf.
Mom smiles and sinks into an easy chair. "I wish I could have run with him. What he saw in a human is more than I can figure out."
"It was your goodness," I say. I sit in the chair beside hers. Dad's energy and enthusiasm made it seem as though he'd live forever, but he died three years ago from cancer. Odd, that his human form proved his undoing. Mom always worried that he'd be shot as a wolf.
"How's Lupin?" she asks.
"Fine. He's with our cubs." None of my offspring have shown any signs of a shape shifter gene, and that's made things easier. I've often thought I'd have to mate with a human to pass on the trait. Thinking of humans reminds me. I tell Mom about the girl in the woods.
She isn't surprised. "None of the others got away," she says. "This is the fifth girl The Slasher's grabbed. Only one of the bodies was ever found—stabbed over and over again."
I think of the man's hunting knife—big with a curved blade. "There've been four more?"
"At least. He's been working the area for almost a year." She goes to the computer and pulls up old newspaper accounts. Lots of information about the missing girls, not much about the Slasher. "Maybe they'll catch him now. So far, there hasn't been anything to work with. This girl saw him, saw his car. It's a start."
We watch the news broadcast. The girl describes a standard, white van with no windows in the back. A police artist draws the features that she remembers—a tall man with a sinewy build; long, dark hair; and pale, gray eyes. I blink. Mom and I look at each other. Wolf-like. A shape shifter like me.
"You didn't notice when you saw him?" Mom asks.
"I was too busy worrying about the girl. To be honest, I thought they were a date gone bad, a ditz and a dumbbell. Then he saw me and pulled the knife, and I was just plain hustling to stay alive."
"He pulled his knife on you?" Mom gives me her look.
"Well, he didn't just hand the girl over when I growled at him." But I frown, remembering. "He must have known I was a shape shifter, though. He said he could gut two girls at a time."
Mom's silent a minute. Finally, she says, "So he doesn't hate just human women. He hates ALL women."
"And he knew I was a shifter, but he didn't change. He was so full of himself, he thought he could beat me in his human form."
"He knows you'll come for him." She takes a sip of her coffee. "He'll be ready. When he shifts, he'll be stronger than you are. You'll need to take Lupin. If you bring the cubs here, I'll watch them for you."
I smile. Memories of trying to trick Mom by changing into my wolf form flood my mind. There was no getting around her, even on four legs. My cubs will try, but they'll learn to respect their grandmother. And they'll learn to respect humans.
"Where will you start?" Mom asks.
I take a deep breath and think. "If the man drives a van, he has to make money. He doesn't just live in his wolf form and avoid people altogether."
"So he probably has a job that's flexible, like you do."
I nod. I'm lucky. I'm a wildlife photographer in my human form. I wait for the perfect lighting and the perfect shots, then send them away to make money. I've made enough to pay for this house—a sanctuary for Mom and me to meet. Mom would have moved here herself, but Dad's illness wiped out their small savings. Dad was never very good with finances. Mom pushes herself to her feet. "It's time I see those cubs. Bring them around, and you and Lupin be careful."
I go to the door. As always, Mom turns her face as I hang up my robe. When I'm a wolf again, she stoops to pet me. "I love you," she says. I nuzzle her leg. The feeling's mutual.
It's time to go. I have plenty of footwork—or paw work—to keep me busy. Mom opens the door, and I run toward the wood. I can feel her watching me. Lupin will be at our den. I'll need his help to find this killer—a shape shifter who's a bad human and a bad wolf. A disgrace to both of us.
Lupin and I start our search in the woods. We circle the city, sniffing for wolf scat. The scent of the feces of every member in our pack is familiar. This wolf is a loner. His scent will be new to us.
Lupin's the one who finds the trees marked with the Slasher's urine. Once we get his scent, we start tracking him. I find his scat near tall grasses that protrude through a patch of thin ice. Both scents are there—his human and wolf forms. We search farther and find nothing. That makes me believe that our killer lives near here and uses this area as his running grounds.
We stay in the shadows of the tree trunks to study the houses close by. In late afternoon, a school bus pulls to the curb, and two, young girls run to a long, narrow, Shotgun style home. They disappear inside, and a light turns on at the back of the house. Kitchen cupboards open and close as their mother makes an after-school snack and starts supper. I recognize the smell of Hamburger Helper. Later, a wide van pulls into the driveway. The man I met in the wood climbs out. I read the logo on the truck. The Slasher fills snack machines for a living.
He goes into the house, but doesn’t join his family in the kitchen. A light flicks on in the front room and a TV show is reflected on the window's glass. Lupin and I hunker down and wait, but the Slasher doesn't shape shift for an evening run. Long after all the lights go out in the house, we return to our den.
We don't wake until early afternoon. We trot to my mother's cabin, and Lupin stays with our cubs while Mom and I take her car to drive to the man's address. Then we go to the post office and cross reference his house numbers to find his name.
"Bay Anders," Mom reads. She rubs a hand over her forehead. "Anders, that sounds familiar."
Miriam Bowers, one of Mom's old acquaintances, is working the counter. "That's the name of the boy who was accidentally killed by a hunter last year."
Mom nods. "Of course. He was only twelve years old."
"My niece was in seventh grade with him," Miriam says. "The whole class went to his funeral. The father could hardly function. It was one of the saddest things I've ever seen."
"And the mother?" I ask.
Miriam shakes her head. "My niece told me that his parents were having problems. The mother dotes on the two girls, had trouble controlling her son. But the dad favored the boy."
Mom closes the book and returns it to her. "Thanks."
"Everyone says that the first year is the worst," Miriam says. "That family's had a tough year, but I bet the second isn't a whole lot better."
When we leave the post office, I say, "The killings started a year ago, didn't they?"
"After the death of his son." Mom starts the car and turns right at the next light, in the opposite direction of her home. I don't have to ask her where she's going. Another old friend, Lucia Richards, lives on this street. Lucia taught school for forty years before she retired and is active in church and volunteer organizations. If anyone knows anything about Bay Anders, she'd be the one.
When Lucia sees Mom and me, a wide smile spreads across her face. "It's been almost a month since you've stopped by to see me."
"I've come a few times," Mom says, "but you were gone."
"Things have been a bit crazy lately. I was in charge of the artists and hors d'oeuvres for the civic center's open house. Fancy, little things like that are such a bother." She beams, belying her words. She clearly enjoyed herself. "But you two look serious, like you came here for a reason, not just to chat. How can I help you?"
Mom gets straight to business. "I've recently met a man that makes me uneasy—Bay Anders. I don't know whether I should try to help him or stay as far away from him as possible. I thought you might be able to help me decide."
Lucia's expression grows serious. "I taught that boy two times in high school, in freshman English and in sophomore History. A fast learner, like you, Alina, but always restless. Kept to himself most of the time."
I shake my head. "You're the only person who never uses my nickname, Ali."
"The name Alina means bright and beautiful. Both suit you."
"What about Bay's family?" Mom asks, returning to the reason for our visit. "What were his parents like?"
"They seemed to be gone a lot, or too busy to pay him much mind. They let him run free. Too much freedom, if you ask me. The summer after he graduated, he got a girl pregnant right before she started her senior year." Lucia pinches her lips tight. "Not the best sort of girl. I wouldn't be surprised if she didn't try to get pregnant. Bay's a good looking young man, and he had a decent job. She had their baby boy a month before she got her diploma. The child looked just like Bay. After that, I heard they had two girls. Whenever I saw Bay, he seemed to be struggling. I got the feeling that he wasn't happy, but that he was determined to do the right thing."
I nod. A wolf mates for life and would never leave its cubs until they were full grown.
Lucia gives a long sigh. "After his boy's death, I saw Bay at the library. He was restocking one of their snack machines. I commented on how haggard he looked. He stopped and gave me a long stare. Then he said that I'd look haggard too if I had to live with a woman who didn't love me and pay for two girls who didn't appreciate me." She’s silent a moment, then says, "You know, there are times when divorce is better than a bad marriage, for the kids as well as the grownups."
I have to agree. If I'd stayed with Dirk, I'd have murderous thoughts toward all men by now.
Lucia leans forward and pats Mom's hand. "I'm not sure I've answered your question. You have reason to feel uneasy around Bay Anders, though. He's an unhappy man."
Mom sighs. "Thank you. You've given me lots to think about."
On our drive home, Mom cranks up the car's heater. A bitter wind lifts drifts of snow and swirls them across the road. "Looks like another storm's on its way," she says. "You and your family might want to stay at my place a while."
When I bought Mom's house, I added a heated, three-season room onto the back. Perfect for canine visits. I glance at the dark clouds overhead. "If the cubs can't make it to our den, we might have to."
Mom's voice grows sad. "Bay's son was a shape shifter, don't you think?"
I nod. "Both of his parents were too. His boy must have been playing in the wood as a wolf. The hunter shot him, and he lived long enough to change back into his human form."
"Bay's wife must not have liked having a child who was a shape shifter. She seemed to hold it against him, didn't try to control him."
"I'd guess her daughters didn't get the gene. She dotes on them."
"And keeps them away from Bay. She treats him like he's some sort of monster." "He is a monster now," I say. "He kills helpless women."
Mom frowns. "How can you loathe someone and feel sorry for him at the same time?"
"It's part of the human condition." A wolf's life is much simpler. I look out the window as the houses stretch farther and farther apart. Mom's cabin is the last residence before the preserve. She parks her car in the garage, and we go to the back yard. An evergreen hedge borders the entire perimeter, shielding it from prying eyes. Lupin and the cubs are curled together in the over-sized dog house in the corner. When they hear our approach, they come running. The cubs jump on Mom's legs, and she bends to pet them. Lupin comes to my side and licks my hand. He loves me, even in my human form.
Icy snow stings my face and coats the cubs' fur. We're heading to the porch when a growl makes the fur on Lupin's neck rise. A black wolf pushes through the bushes and bares its teeth. Before it can lunge for our cubs, I change into a white wolf to join Lupin. We leap forward together. Lupin sinks his fangs into Bay's neck, and I grab his back paw, pulling his leg out from under him. Bay twists and struggles, shaking off both of us. He springs to his feet and hurtles toward our only female cub. Mom cries and steps between them. I jump at the same time, knocking him to the ground. He coils and turns. Fangs rip a chunk of flesh from my flank. I yip, and Lupin throws himself on top of him. They roll in the snow, biting and snapping. When Lupin gets to his feet, Bay lies still. Blood spills from the tear in his throat. Bay whimpers softly. He lifts his head to look at us. He stretches out his paw to my mother, and she hurries to kneel beside him, petting his head. He licks her hand and whines.
"You chose this end, didn't you?" she asks. "You came here to die as a wolf." He nods his sleek head, but refuses to change back into a human.
Mom stays with him, and Lupin and I go to her. We each take a side, trying to keep her warm. Our cubs huddle close. Lupin and I lick and nuzzle them, letting them know that they're safe. Mom brushes away tears when Bay shudders and takes his last breath. "He must have known that he'd be caught soon, that his picture was in the papers, and someone would put things together. He came here to force a battle with you two, knowing that he'd lose."
More than that, I realize. He respected his wolf form. Bay didn't shape shift. Lupin and I wouldn't be hunted down for killing him.
"We can't just leave his body here," Mom says. "He deserves a decent burial."
The ground's frozen. We can't even dig through the thick layer of snow with our paws. Then Mom answers her own question. "We'll wrap him in a blanket and bury him in the root cellar. The ground's still soft there."
Lupin and I dig a deep hole in the root cellar's earth floor. I change back into my human form, and Mom and I carry Bay to his final resting place. Mom sprinkles dried rose petals over his grave. He'll be honored by her every time she comes here.
The snow blows, and Lupin and I stay on Mom's porch with our cubs until the weather clears. When we wake to a blue sky, it's time for us to return to our den. Mom waves us off as we lope home. There will be no more young women killed in the preserve. Bay's wife and children will go on without him. Mom read in the newspaper that Bay left a note that simply said "Goodbye" on their kitchen table when he left. Balance is restored once more, for a while. But life never stays in balance. Man and wolf know that. The natural state is to enjoy each moment of happiness, but to always stay on guard.
When the moon shines, Lupin and I trot to an icy crest and howl. Other howls greet us. For this night, our pack is safe.