My name’s Elizabeth Anderson. I’m a cop.
I’m also a werewolf. Long story behind that sentence, one I’d rather not get into right now. Let’s just leave it at, I can change into a furry nightmare with long fangs and sharp claws and still do algebraic equations in my head. I’m not a mindless murder beast.
My sense of smell is very good; on par with a dog’s, I guess, though I’ve never had occasion to ask one. I can smell the marijuana you smoked last week. I can smell the Cheetos you had for lunch yesterday. I can track you through a crowd in a shopping mall the day after Thanksgiving.
And right now, huddled in the storeroom of a small grocery store miles from home, I’d give up that power in a heartbeat. Because I can smell gingerbread and cinnamon, and I am so scared.
– – – – – – – – – –
Twas the night before Christmas Eve, and all through Sawyer County, deputies were patrolling.
Except for me. I’d just been handed an unwanted gift: three days off.
“I don’t want to go home, Sergeant.”
McNulty flipped through the papers on his clipboard. “You’ve worked every holiday this year, Anderson. Lieutenant just got done reaming my ass about your holiday pay. Go home.” He stopped flipping the papers and fixed me with an uncomfortably paternal look. “Unless you need the money? Look, if that’s it, there’s this lumber company needs security. I can talk to the manager–”
“I don’t need the money. I just thought, since I don’t have a family, someone else can stay home with theirs.”
“Very noble of you. And unnecessary. Heh, most of the guys with family have been begging me to work them during Christmas.”
And so, muttering all the way, I went home. I sat on the couch and flipped through the channels. How depressing this was. No close family, I was on the outs with my boyfriend again, and I’d come home just in time to see the end credits for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
“Bah humbug,” I muttered. I shut off the TV and decided to get drunk.
The next morning, after wallowing in bed two hours after the alarm went off, I decided to take a trip. Nowhere special, nowhere in particular. I’d just gas up the Mustang, toss in my iPod, and head in one direction until night fell. Then I’d turn around and come home. Maybe stop along the way and check into a motel.
It sounded like a great plan. I decided to head north, because it seemed a Christmas-y sort of direction. I downloaded Twisted Sister’s A Twisted Christmas onto my iPod and packed a bag.
I had been on the road for three hours, heading more or less north, when I saw the elderly couple on the side of the road, standing beside a 1970s-something Mercury Marquis with a flat tire.
Stupid me, I pulled over.
I was on FM 130, a state highway that would take me within spitting distance of Navasota and Brenham. This portion of the road was bordered by barbed wire fencing and cow fields. I left the car running and approached the couple. They looked to be in their seventies, but their scents were weird; according to my nose, they were way, way older than they appeared. I felt like I was smelling mummies.
“Hey,” I said, hoping I didn’t look as creeped out as I felt. “Need some help?”
The old man spoke first. “Can’t get these lug nuts off. Arthritis.” He held up his hands. They didn’t look particularly arthritic to me; the joints weren’t swollen, and the fingers weren’t deformed. But what did I know?
I smiled, careful as always to hide my teeth. They look human, if you ignore their unnatural whiteness and the unnatural sharpness of the upper and lower canines. “No problem. I’m glad to help.”
They hadn’t gotten out the jack or spare tire, so I went to the trunk. The old lady handed me the keys. They had a bright pink rabbit’s foot dangling from them. I unlocked the trunk and sighed. No spare tire. They did have a rusted jack that looked like it’d split in two if used to jack up a skateboard, though.
“Oh Weldon, there’s no spare,” the old lady said. Weldon shuffled over to see for himself.
“Well, I’ll be,” he said, running a hand over his liver-spotted forehead.
“Do you have someone you can call?”
Weldon considered me for a moment. “Don’t have no cell phone.”
“I have one.” I hooked a thumb back at my car.
“Mmm. Don’t have no one to call, besides that. Son’s in Alabama. Don’t think he can get here to pick us up!” He laughed.
I smiled politely back. He had bad teeth and worse breath. I wanted to retreat to the heated comfort of my car and zip out of here.
Shit. The Emily Post side of me started jabbering. “Well, can I call y’all a tow truck?”
Weldon thrust his jaw forward. He rubbed his forehead again. Finally, he said, “Don’t know that we have the money for one. Don’t know the closest one, besides.”
Oh my shit, I will call around and I will pay for it, just don’t ask what you’re going to ask next, I thought.
The old lady said, “Any way you can give us a ride home? Our neighbor can bring us back.”
Damn it. The thought of those two with their strange, wrong smells inside my car made my skin crawl. I could ditch them. I hadn’t introduced myself. I was pretty sure their eyes weren’t good enough to get my license plate. I could run to my car and tear past them, leave them stranded out here with the smells of cowshit and roadkill.
On Christmas Eve.
A gust of cold air blew my red hair into my eyes. A front had come through a couple of days ago. It was at least forty-five degrees out here. Weldon and his wife shivered.
“Sure,” I said.
We piled into my car. The wife took the back seat. It took her a few moments to squeeze back there, and a few more to get situated. The back seat of a Mustang isn’t particularly accommodating.
I asked for directions. Weldon said to keep heading north for about two miles. There would be a road on my left. Take that, and it would be another mile to their house.
Three miles sounded doable. I put the car in drive and got back on the road.
Two miles later, I turned left onto a narrow road that could barely be called paved. I dropped my speed to twenty, to give myself a chance to avoid the potholes when I wasn’t eyeing the tripometer. The road curved sharply to the right. I followed it, then hit the brake.
“What the hell?” I muttered.
Weldon chuckled. “Just smoke. Fella burnin’ some stumps. He does it all the time. Just drive on through.”
Whatever was across the road, it wasn’t smoke. It was some kind of thick, yellow-gray haze that cut visibility to zero. It laid across the road like a snake. I looked to my left. Then my right. I couldn’t see the trees that had started hugging the highway about a mile back, the pines and pin oaks that this skinny little path did its best to chop through. Godzilla could be waiting for us in that smoke, and I would never know it.
Also, it didn’t smell like smoke. It smelled like fresh-baked cookies.
“Go on,” Weldon said.
I turned on the fog lights and crept forward. After about a car length, the not-smoke thinned. Two car lengths, and it was gone. I checked the rearview. “That was odd,” I said.
“Happens every time this year,” Weldon said, and because I still had eyes on the rearview, I caught the dirty look his wife gave him.
Eyes back on the road. Get these old farts out of the car, get through that . . . whatever that was, and get back on 130. Definitely get a motel room tonight.
There was a building coming up on my right. A diner, according to the roadside sign. It was small, constructed of bright red corrugated metal. It had Christmas lights strung along its roof and around its two large plate-glass windows. Its double doors were made of shiny chrome. The parking lot was gravel. It looked big enough for six semi trucks and trailers. Right now, it held five vehicles.
Weldon asked me to turn in. “We want to buy you lunch,” he said. “For bein’ so helpful.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “I’m happy to help.”
“Please, it’s the least we can do. Anyways, that’s our neighbor’s truck.” He rapped a knuckle against the door glass. “Drop us off here, you don’t have to go all the way to our house.”
Actually, that sounded like a very good idea. I turned into the lot. There was an open space near the front door. I took it. We piled out. The elderly couple motioned for me to go ahead of them. I did.
I was maybe five steps from the front door when I saw the faces behind the plate-glass windows. They all looked panicked, scared. A man in a John Deere hat started mouthing something at me.
Run, I think.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I’ve come to think of it as my werewolf danger sense. Usually, it does an excellent job of warning me when I’m about to step into an ambush.
I smelled cordite and Hoppe’s No. 9 oil.
Something cold and hard pressed against the back of my neck. A gun.