Beware the silent dog.
â€”Manâ€™s Best Friend:
An Essential Guide to Dogs
Stepping out of her car, Claire Morgan sniffed the smog-laden air warily. Locking her door, she faced the run-down apartment building and sighed. Brushing the salt of French fries off her slacksâ€”evidence of her weak-willed drive-through detourâ€”she eyed the gray building made all the more ugly by painted-on shutters framing every window. Even armed with her city map, it had taken her over an hour to find it. Apparently in this neighborhood, when street signs went missing, no one bothered to replace them.
Distracted, she failed to notice the two adolescents on skateboards launching themselves down the center of the street in her path. One of the skaters clipped her hip, nearly knocking her to the pavement.
â€œHey!â€ she cried.
One of the youths turned back and flicked her an obscene gesture.
â€œWhat am I doing here?â€ she muttered, shaking her head.
But she knew the answer to that question even as she asked it.
She was here for Lenny.
By all accounts, Lenny Alvarez had been a lost cause. Seventeen, repeating his sophomore year, heâ€™d originally sat in the back of the class with his head down, buried in his arms. Gradually, as the year progressed, heâ€™d started paying attention, even staying after class so she could tutor him for his SAT, which he was scheduled to take tomorrow. It was the one test he couldnâ€™t miss; he would be there if she had to drive him to school herself.
Squaring her shoulders, she faced Lennyâ€™s apartment building. A radio played in the distance. The Tejano music that echoed off the row of apartment buildings lining the block had a liveliness that contrasted with the eerie stillness of the neighborhood. Sweat dampened her nape and she lifted the hair off her neck to let the faint breeze cool her skin.
Normally, she would be popping in a movie right about now, a plate of pizza on her lap like most Friday nights. A Saturday of grading papers would follow, and then a Sunday of church and dinner with the parents. She shrugged one shoulder. A break from routine wouldnâ€™t hurt.
And this was Lenny.
Stepping onto the sidewalk, she prayed she wouldnâ€™t have to confront Lennyâ€™s drunken foster father.
A dog hurled itself, spitting and growling, against the filth-encrusted screen of a ground-floor apartment. Jumping back, she dubiously eyed the tiny screws holding the screen in placeâ€”the only thing preventing the animal from mauling her.
Gripping the iron railing with a clammy palm, she fled up the steps, doing her best to ignore the sudden memory of her cousinâ€™s mastiff attacking her when she was only eight.
The barking grew fainter as she neared the door of apartment 212. The sound of a television blared through the steel-framed door. She rapped on the door. No answer. She tried again, harder this time.
Suddenly a hard voice demanded, â€œWhat do you want?â€
Claire spun around, clutching the stinging knuckles of her hand. An elderly woman with sagging jowls and deeply carved wrinkles peered from a cracked door across the way.
â€œIâ€™m looking for Lenny. The boy who lives here. Do you know him?â€
Small, piercing eyes studied her above the sagging chain lock. â€œYou a social worker?â€ Before Claire could answer, the woman rushed forth with, â€œâ€™Cause you shouldâ€™ve taken that boy away a long time ago.â€
â€œIâ€™m not a social worker.â€ Claire shook her head vigorously. â€œIâ€™m his English teacher.â€
The old woman snorted. â€œWhat kinda teacher makes house calls?â€
â€œHeâ€™s been absent three days.â€ Three days. And Lenny never missed class. â€œIâ€™m worried. Tomorrowâ€™s his SAT, and I want to make sure heâ€™s there.â€ Claire didnâ€™t voice her other concernâ€”that she feared his foster father had harmed him.
The woman absorbed this. Her disdain seemed to abate, and the hard glint to her eyes softened. She peered cautiously to the left and right before undoing the chain and opening the door wider to stick her salt-and-pepper head out. â€œThe boyâ€™s gone. Forget â€™bout him.â€
â€œGone?â€ Claire frowned.
â€œYeah, gone.â€ The woman shooed Claire with her wrinkled hand. â€œNow you go on home. You shouldnâ€™t be here.â€ Her head bobbed up and down. â€œGo on now. Leave. And donâ€™t come back here again.â€
She blinked at the strange command and jabbed her thumb at the apartment behind her. â€œHas something happened to Lenny?â€
Those piercing, ancient eyes narrowed. â€œI seen the boy. These olâ€™ eyes seen a whole world of things.â€ She paused, pointing two gnarly, arthritic fingers to each of her eyes. â€œI seen the boy. And heâ€™s gone. Just forget â€™bout him.â€
Claire gave her head a small shake, suspecting the woman with her strange words wasnâ€™t quite right in the head. â€œThanks.â€
â€œYou see that boy, run the other way! Hear me? Run the other way!â€
Her smile wobbly, Claire moved toward the stairwell, pausing on the top step. â€œEr, yes, maâ€™am.â€
The dogâ€™s frenzied barks followed her as she crossed the street to her car. Disappointment squeezing her chest, she dug for her keys, noticing a figure streaking across the empty playground in front of her car. Suddenly he tripped and fell, stirring up a cloud of red sand. Resting her elbows on the roof of her car she waited, the teacher in her compelled to see the youth rise to his feet.
The sun had disappeared below the rooftops, tinting the sky a hazy purple. Visibility fast fading, she squinted across the distance, watching the boy rise. He glanced over his shoulder to check behind him.
And she saw his face.
Their eyes met across the playground. Recognition flashed in his face. He slapped a hand in the air, batting her away before sprinting off in the opposite direction.
Oh, I donâ€™t think so. She hadnâ€™t tutored him hours after school and paid his testing fee so he could blow her off and skip his exam. Stuffing her keys in her pocket, she slung her purse over her shoulder and took off after him. He was taking his SAT tomorrow. She would see to that. Few teenagers could turn their lives around so late in the game, especially at her high school, where the students were predominantly â€œat risk.â€ She wasnâ€™t going to let Lenny slip through the cracks.
Her khaki-clad legs ate up the ground, her sensible shoes pounding the earth as dusk sank into night. Darkness encroached and the shadows took on a life of their own, pressing all around her. Only streetlights kept night from swallowing her entirely. Up ahead, Lenny passed beneath one, its beam a spotlight on him as he turned and disappeared between an all-night Laundromat and a nail salon with pink blinking lights. Halting, she peered into the alleyâ€™s dark, cavernous depths.
Panting for breath, she lifted her face, watching as the clouds parted, breaking to reveal a full moon. The alley was suddenly awash in a pearly glow. A lone Dumpster sat against one wall, its putrid scent reaching her nostrils. The alley looked empty. No sign of Lenny anywhere. A dead end loomed ahead, so he couldnâ€™t have escaped. He had to be on the other side of the Dumpster.
Legs aching from her run, she moved the toe of one shoe into the alley.
â€œLenny!â€ Her voice bounced off the two buildings on either side of her. â€œItâ€™s Miss Morgan! Please come out. Youâ€™re not in trouble.â€
A low, anguished groan answered her.
â€œLenny?â€ She advanced one sliding step at a time, concern for him swelling in her heart. Had his foster father hurt him? â€œAre you okay?â€
â€œStop! Donâ€™t come any closer,â€ came his muffled voice, almost indistinguishable. â€œCanâ€™t stop it, canâ€™t helpâ€”â€ His voice faded into a moan.
Nearing the Dumpster, the soles of her shoes scraped over loose gravel, the only sound in the unnatural silence. She heard nothing beyond the rasp of her breath, and she could not help thinking the city was never this quiet.
â€œLenny? Are you hurt?â€ Her voice cracked on the air.
Shadows pressed in, closing upon her. Her nape tingled and she trembled. The world beyond vanished, the narrow space becoming a tomb, blotting out all life, trapping her within.
A desperate whisper flew through her mind. Go! Get out of here!
Her feet rooted to the ground, unable to obey the silent command. She stole another glance at the sky. Her breath caught. A red-tinged moon. No longer pearl white. Blood moon, her mother called it. Blood moon, someoneâ€™s dying soon.
As that litany echoed in her head, her feet shuffled backward. She hugged her leather purse to her chest, the strap slung limply over her shoulder.
Abruptly, the moonâ€™s glow vanished like a candle snuffed out. Darkness descended. With a shuddering breath, she searched the dark sky for a glimpse of moonlight to get her bearings. The tiny hairs at her nape tingled anew. She squinted against the murky air just as a large shape materialized in front of her.
â€œLenny? Is thatâ€”â€
Pain exploded in her face. She staggered and fell, her head hitting the ground with a sickening smack. Tears sprang to her eyes.
A massive weight fell on her, so crushing she couldnâ€™t draw air. She raised hands to push it off, encountering only fistfuls of coarse hair. Dazed, she wondered how the dog had gotten loose and followed her.
Then all thought fled.
There was only agony.
Pain ripped into her shoulder. She screamed as she was hoisted off the ground. The pain sharpened into a million pinpoints of fire as she was shaken side to side, her mouth opened wide in a silent, frozen scream.
Stop. Oh God, make it stop.
As if in answer to her prayer, the stabbing pressure in her shoulder abruptly ceased. The weight bearing her down vanished. She lifted her hand to clutch her shoulder and encountered the slippery stickiness of blood.
Using her uninjured arm, she flattened her palm against the pavement and struggled to her feet, eyes straining to see through the gloom.
She made out two figures locked in struggle moving deeper into the alley, away from her. One was definitely a man. But the other? She shook her groggy head. A dog? No. It was too large.
Whatever it wasâ€”she was leaving while she still had the chance.
She staggered off, but even numb with pain something nagged at her, niggling in the back of her mind. A memory flashed in her head with crystalline precision, like an old reel-to-reel home movie.
A blinding, bright day. The kind of hot, thick air she could grab with both hands and taste on her tongue. The prickly, sharp edges of freshly cut grass scratching her ankles as she ran, then her face as her cousinâ€™s growling and snarling mastiff tackled her to the lawn. The heavy paws on her back. The rank, hot breath on her neck. The paralyzing fear as sharp teeth sank into her flesh.
Tonight marked the second time in her life a dog had attacked her. Except tonight the animal had been silent. No barking. No growling. Not a single sound to warn of its attack.
As if it had been lying in wait.
Gideon March had killed before. Heâ€™d faced stronger than the one before him and come out on top. Tonight marked another victory.
Squatting, he inspected it with clinical dispassion, one hand braced on a hard, denim-clad knee. He pulled the nine-millimeter from its holster and with a few deft twists screwed on the silencer. The silver-bladed knife protruding from the creatureâ€™s burly chest would only impede it temporarily. There was just enough time to finish the job before it was on its feet again.
Pointing the gun, he fired. The eyes widened, transforming from icy silver to dark brown as the bullet penetrated a thick pelt of hair, muscle, and bone. Sitting back on his heels, he waited, observing his quarry thoughtfully as the creature shifted one final time.
This one had been alone. The older and more experienced never left themselves open to ambush, but Gideon had spotted him a mile away. The instant heâ€™d entered the pool hall, Gideon had marked him. His eyes stood out, a beacon among mortals. No colored contacts to camouflage his silver eyes from hunters.
Gideon glanced over his shoulder to verify they were still alone. Just as he thoughtâ€”the woman was long gone. Turning, he watched the shifting complete. The dark fur disappeared and the musculature shrank, revealing a scrawny adolescent body clinging to the last moments of life.
â€œAh, hell.â€ He ran a hand over his face, suddenly feeling older than his thirty-two years. His dispassion slipped a notch as he suffered a stab of regret. In the smoky pool hall, he had appeared young, and now Gideon saw he was just a kid. No more than eighteen. The naked body lying on the pavement looked barely out of puberty. This did not bode well. He knew the nature and habits of lycans well, had spent half his life making it his business to know. They would never bring someone so young into their fold and then leave him to roam alone.
Had he been accidentally infected?
The kid coughed, trying to speak, but blood gurgled in the back of his throat. Too bad. Gideon wished he could press him for information. Instead, he placed his hand over the kidâ€™s brow, compelled to end his suffering.
â€œDonâ€™t talk. Itâ€™ll pass soon.â€ He pressed the barrel to the kidâ€™s forehead.
A hand shot out, circling Gideonâ€™s wrist in a hold surprisingly firm for one weakening in death.
His finger stilled on the trigger. They never lingered like this. The kid was a fighter.
â€œIâ€”I didnâ€™t mean to hurt her.â€ The boy coughed violently, blood spattering from his lips and spraying Gideonâ€™s hand.
Gideon reasoned that he referred to the woman whoâ€™d run off. Damn fool. She had signed her own death warrant. Even if she didnâ€™t believe in things that went bump in the night, basic self-preservation would keep a lone woman from strolling down an alley in the Fifth Ward.
The fact that the kid was sorry didnâ€™t change a damn thing. It was done.
And the woman would have to pay.
â€œI know,â€ he murmured.
And they werenâ€™t just words. He did know. Better than anyone. It was never intentional. The bloodlust simply overpowered the will. It corrupted the soul, stealing both conscience and free will. To kill was inescapable.
Which was why he had to find the woman.
â€œMiss Morgan. Help her.â€ The boy squeezed Gideonâ€™s wrist in a final surge of strength, lifting his head to glare at him fiercely. â€œBefore she changes. Save her.â€
His fingers slipped from Gideonâ€™s wrist, and his head fell back to the pavement. â€œFinish it.â€ The kidâ€™s voice was hollow as his gaze lifted to the sky.
Gideon complied. With another muffled zing, the kid lay dead. He stood and looked down at the wasted life. Although he had delivered the fatal blow, he suffered no guilt. Gideon had destroyed him, but the kid had been murdered some other time, in some other place, by an embodiment of evil that walked the earth even now, hunting its prey.
He unscrewed the silencer and holstered the gun. Then he pulled free the knife and wiped it clean before returning it to the sheath beneath his jacket. Flipping open his cell phone, he dialed. One ring and a brusque voice picked up.
â€œMarch here. Got another one. Holcomb and Delcorte. Between a Laundromat and a nail salon.â€ Without waiting for a reply, he clapped his cell shut and snapped it back on his belt. Those terse words sufficed. The body would be disposed of without sending the local police into a frenzied search for a mad gunman.
As he walked out of the alley, a small bundle caught his eye. He bent and picked up the handbag and rummaged through it. Flipping open the wallet, he quickly scanned the driverâ€™s license behind the protective plastic cover. A piece of cake. His hunt just got easy.
Claire Elizabeth Morgan stared back at him, a plain face framed by hair so neat and perfect it could have been a plastic wig. Frigid, he couldnâ€™t help thinking, suddenly reminded of the nuns at St. Ignatius, where he had attended school until his parentsâ€™ deaths.
He scanned the rest of the information at a glance. Age: thirty-one. Hair: brown. Eyes: brown. The address was clear across town, in the burbs. What the hell had she been doing here? He snapped the wallet shut and stuffed it into the purse. The night was still young.
Might as well get it over with.
Marked by Moonlight
- Gallery Books |
- 368 pages |
- ISBN 9781451691474 |
- April 2012