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Excerpt for Night Run by , available in its entirety at Smashwords





THE RICK KELLER

PROJECT






NIGHT RUN






RACHEL A.

BRUNE


NIGHT RUN


All Rights Reserved

Copyright © 2018 by Rachel Brune

Cover Design © 2018 by Lia Rees at Free Your Words

SMASHWORDS EDITION


All rights Reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.


Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author's imagination and or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.


Published by Untold Press LLC

114 NE Estia Lane

Port St Lucie, FL 34983


www.untoldpress.com


PRODUCED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA




Large sprawls of cityscape give me the creeps. The uncanny alleys and shadows of steel and concrete stalk my calm. And yet, it seems I spend over half my life in their urban embrace.

I was tired from the flight and the time change. The tall buildings blocked my view of the sky, but the moon loomed in my peripherals. The other change was just around the corner. And I had lost my control of it.

By any standards of common sense, I should have been far away from the claustrophobic reach of downtown Manhattan, but here I was coming up from the bowels of the earth into Union Square, shaking the unique cluster of crowd scent off my person.

Her perfume reached me before she saw me. Not perfume, exactly, but the scent of soap and acrid fear that lay uncharacteristically under her demeanor.

"Rick."

I turned, feigning surprise. "I thought you were going to meet me around the corner."

"I got impatient."

"I came as fast as I could," I said. "This isn't a good time for me."

Victoria stared at me, her blue eyes not accusing, yet sharp. "You owe me."

I did, but it was still a bad time. I hadn't come down from the North in about a year, and it had been a long, cold, hungry winter indeed. "Is this about Alia?"

She shook her head, her blond hair in its ponytail brushing her shoulders. "No, she's doing fine. Still sleeps with a knife under her pillow."

That was good to hear. Alia had almost been collateral damage on a previous mission–a woman the agency we worked for was willing to use and cast off in the interest of their greater good. Just another reason I took myself off their radar and headed as far north as I could get without speaking Russian.

"You hungry?" Vick broke into my thoughts. Getting used to human conversation was going to take some time.

"Always." Now more than usual.


* * *


We walked a few blocks in silence that bordered on the uncomfortable. I didn't quite know how to start a conversation about the message that brought me down from the North. The short sentences on my voice mail had sounded carefully composed. I could tell Victoria had practiced the speech, the words flowing with military precision, free of any glottal hesitations. The message had been smooth and crisp, and devoid of any meaning except that she needed my ass in New York City–pronto.

"How was your trip?" Victoria's voice had a curious undertone, as if she wasn't really interested in my trip, but in need of comfort. Scared. And my friend wasn't the fearful type.

"Not bad." I'd spent most of the winter furry, relishing in the freedom that came with moving with a pack, the exhilaration of cold night runs under the full Arctic moon. "Airlines have gotten really stingy with the peanuts."

"They didn't make you ride under the plane?" Her breath puffed out cold in the air. I scented hints of spring under the concrete, little signs of life just waiting to break forth. But it was still freezing cold in the wind tunnels of this part of Manhattan.

"Ha, ha. So funny."

She was more right than she knew, but I wasn't going to admit that I had enlisted a friend to drop my "dog" off at the airport. Randall had taken my money and paid the ticket and voila! One round trip to New York City out of view of the probing eyes of MONIKER. The longer I stayed under that agency's radar, the better. I'd already spent more time than I desired wearing their collar, and I wasn't going back without a damn good reason.

The streets weren't too crowded, but the fact remained that this was more human beings than I had been around in several months, and it made me itchy. I needed to get whatever Vicky needed done and get the hell out of there. And then there was that other matter.

"What are you in the mood for?" she asked, breaking a silence I hadn't realized I'd lapsed into.

"Food," I said. Unhelpful, I know. But I'm not picky.

She sighed, a familiar frustrated sound she often made around me. But this time there was less of the familiar joke and more genuine anger. I had started the journey worried, but was now becoming actually concerned. I'm a crappy friend. But my friends–and I don't have many of them–sometimes need a last resort. And I'm good for that.

"How about here?" She halted by a small restaurant, half-hidden between a generic coffee shop and a 24-hour deli, the door open to the evening. It was a Middle Eastern joint, complete with a darkened dining room swathed in wall hangings and metal plates engraved with scenes of camels and palm trees. I spotted artifacts from a dozen different regions of the Arabic-speaking world and guessed that the owners were either from Poughkeepsie, or they just put up a bunch of different crap and figured that the Americans wouldn't know the difference.

"Hummus gives me heartburn," I said.

"So don't eat it," she retorted, leading the way inside.

The waiter seemed the genuine article, at least. I caught a whiff of cinnamon and cumin as he showed us to low seats around a wide table. His glance lingered appreciatively on my friend. I didn't blame him. There was a lot to appreciate. He raised his eyes at me, and I could guess his thoughts. I don't look like the sort of guy who would be with a woman like her. For one, I'm short.

Victoria took off her coat and settled into her seat, tucking her legs under her. She was dressed casually in jeans and a tank top underneath a hoodie that obscured the strength in her shoulders. This late in April, the weather swung wildly from breath-frosting cold to humid spring warmth and back again. I thought she might be packing, but since she always smelled vaguely of Hoppe's No. 9 gun oil, I couldn't tell for sure. It wouldn't surprise me. Illegal though it might be in NYC, Victoria was one of those once-and-always don't-call-us-ex-Marines, and during one of the few candid conversations we'd ever had, she'd told me she preferred to be "… judged by twelve than carried by six." She could handle herself.

Which brought me to my next question. "What's going on, Vicky?"

She checked to make sure the server was out of earshot.

"We've got a problem at the Center," she said, frowning. I growled. The Center was in the basement of a church. It had been a long time since I set foot in one of those.

"What kind of problem?" I asked.

"Your kind of problem."

I stared at her. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"Don't get cute with me, Rick, I don't have time for it." She paused as the waiter approached, leaning back to let him set the hummus and cold spiced tea on the table before us. When he left, she leaned forward again and lowered her voice. "I've read Pops' old journals."


* * *


It was just another of those missions I didn't come back in one piece from. I got rolled up in some post-war Eastern European town by a unit of the same Russians the partisans and I had been terrorizing for several months. They handed me over to one of their interrogators, a man whose smile still surfaced in my nightmares. Even the men and women I was fighting with did not know exactly what I was, but Dmitri Pietrovitch Nicolaiov had figured it out very quickly. I was one long train ride away from becoming a permanent fixture of the Soviet arms race.

The Marines who found the village weren't supposed to be there, but the tall, angry gunnery sergeant who led the squad wasn't about to return to the States after his tour without at least one visit to the village his grandparents had been forced to flee fifty years before. They had had some difference of opinion with the Russians, who had left a platoon to guard Dmitri and his new pet, and I'm not sure that Gunny Wieleski's squad even broke a sweat putting them down. I don't know what story they fed headquarters when they got back, dragging me along, but later, when I officially started working for MONIKER, Gunny was still there.

I was there for the birth of his son, and then his granddaughter, Vicky. His death wasn't the only reason I eventually left the organization, but it was one of the biggest. The organization no longer attracted men of Gunny's character, and the few left who adhered to his sense of personal honor and duty were too few and far between. My most recent adventure with them included a fun scene in which they decided to sell me to the highest bidder in exchange for some research that harkened back to bad nineteen fifties science fiction. After that, I decided that it was time to quit Vermont, the lower continental United States, and most forms of technology in a bid to never get another phone call from them again.

Victoria coughed, gently. "Rick? You in there?"

"Sorry." I blinked, re-focusing my vision, hoping I hadn't been staring at anything awkward. Been spending too much time in my own head.

I hadn't realized her grandfather had left journals. He was too careful a man for Victoria to find and read them, unless he had meant her to. I cursed under my breath.

Victoria was still watching me, using pieces of toasted pita to scoop up the hummus. I can't stand the smell of the stuff. This close to the change, with all my senses clamoring for the wild run, the aroma wafting across the table made me nauseous.

Finally, the waiter re-appeared with our order. The lamb in the shish kebabs immediately set my mouth to watering and my hands shook with the effort not to cram them into my mouth as quickly as possible. I took a bite, chewed just enough to be polite, swallowed.

"I still don't understand what you want or think I can do." I grabbed another piece of meat. I don't mind vegetables, normally, but now they were a waste of time. "I used up the last walking-around cash I had in my account getting here."

"I don't need your money," Vicky said. "I need you."

I wanted to know what she knew about me, if Gunny had recorded every moment of every change, every time the organization strapped me to a lab table, every mission we almost didn't come back from. At the same time, I didn't want to know. I had once again gotten used to being by myself.

"You owe me," she said. "And you still owe Pops."

"I paid you back for that case of Abita."

"Not what I'm talking about, four-legs."

I set the kebab stick down carefully, although my stomach protested at the motion. I wiped my hands on the napkin. "Gunny's journals were pretty …"

"Informative?" she suggested. It filled in the blanks. "Yes."

I scratched the back of my neck. "Okay, you said this was a problem at the Center?"

"Yeah," she said. "It's hard to explain. There's just something really weird going on, and I couldn't think of who else to ask to come take a look."

"Same old, same old," I said. "Let's get this to go. I want to see what Gunny's gotten me into this time."


* * *


The easiest way uptown was the subway. We hopped on the N train, switching to the 1 at Times Square. I had never developed much familiarity with the system–I prefer to stay as aboveground as possible. Victoria knew the trains inside and out and didn't even look at the map as she led the way through the tunnels, carrying her leftover takeout in a plastic bag. I reached into my Styrofoam box and started eating again on the subway platform. By the time we got into the car, I was still starving but had taken a little bit of the edge off. It almost helped, until another couple got into the car and sat down next to us. They had takeout, too.

"Let me have your box," I said.

"What?" Victoria clutched her takeout, a gesture which reddened the corners of my vision.

"I need to eat something," I gritted out through clenched teeth. "I don't know if you noticed what phase the moon is, if you can even see it here, but if I don't eat your dinner, I'm going to eat the people sitting next to me."

"You're going to what?"

"They smell like Thai beef," I said.

She handed me the box and I went to town.

What I didn't tell her–what nobody knew, with the exception of the pack I ran with up north–was that MONIKER sold me to an eastern European scientist with all sorts of new and unethical toys. With the biochemicals he'd been messing around with, he'd succeeded in setting off a mutation to the change, a new Change, one that I'd thought was a myth–the Überwechsel.

Under its influence, everything was enhanced and reborn–my frame, my ability to speak, and, best of all, my ability to see the world in color. It was amazing, and as much as I hated the man who'd spurred this Change, I couldn't hate the transformation itself.

It was, however, extremely annoying that as soon as I regained control of my shifting, this new Überwechsel came along every full moon no matter how I tried to gain mastery over it. Every month, the Change ran me over like a Mack truck, and I was left eating several of my body weights in whatever meat I could find.

Which is why I'd been avoiding cities and subways and everything else that smacked of civilization. Until Victoria's call.


* * *


The Center was in a church, which turned out to be more than a church. St. John the Divine Cathedral is an amazing piece of work that would not be out of place on some medieval European square. We walked there from the subway, the looming Gothic façade emerging from the shadows. Even the streetlights seemed dimmer here, bowing their light in respect to the old stone walls. When we were half a block away, I stopped.

"What is it now?" Victoria asked, but I think she knew that answer.

There was something not quite right, but not quite wrong, either. It was as if something out of the ordinary–something I had longed for–drifted just out of the reach of my senses. I fought the urge to turn there on the street, to see with eyes imbued with the full power of the change.

"Where is your Center?"

"We have an office in the basement of the church." Vick stopped on one of the stone steps leading to the entrance, fumbling for her keys. "We can go in through the side door."

"No." Reaching out a hand, I stopped her. "The main doors."

She shook her head. "I don't have a key."

"It's not locked to us." I didn't know how I knew that, but I jogged to the wide stairs that led to the heavy oak doors. The iron handle felt warm to my touch. I turned it and pulled the door open, leaning back from it to gain purchase against its inert weight.

The great hall of the Cathedral was dark and cool; the high ceilings loomed overhead. The vast room was empty. I expected rows of pews, but there were none to interrupt the expanse of cold stone underfoot. A few wooden folding chairs clustered around one of the pillars that stretched from the floor to the vaulted ceiling. The soaring supports drew the eye upward from the humble firmament to the great arch of the heavens. A few solitary lights illuminated the altar, a beautiful work of wood and stone, and high above a grand, crescent dome.

The chill of the stone underfoot leached through my thin sneakers. I shivered involuntarily. Weird. I never get cold.

The faint scent of incense and condensation along the stone drifted along my senses, the expected smells of old cathedrals. There were other lines mixed in–old paint, the wood of the altar, the Eucharist in its tabernacle, the modern city scents of waste and life that drifted in through the cracks in the firmament. Outside, a cohort of sirens wailed in a raucous, muted harmony, growing slowly and fading quickly as multiple emergency vehicles passed in the streets outside the closed doors of the sanctuary. Underneath these layers, I tasted something strange, uncanny and beautiful.

The air in the church had a quality to it that I had rarely imbibed outside of old-growth forests. I inhaled deeper, worried. If something out there was wrapping my senses around themselves, I was in trouble. I reached down inside and gently stretched for the change, coaxing it close to the surface, inviting it to tell me the truth of what I saw.

"You feel it?" Victoria whispered.

"Yes," I said, whispering back. It seemed like the right thing to do. "It's amazing."

"You know what it is?"

"No." It smelled of dirt and growing things and the midday August sun as it soaked into the deep forest. It called the change out of me, and here on the cusp of the moonrise, I trembled as I forced myself to stay upright.

"Can you get rid of it?" Vicky gestured vaguely at the shadows that clustered around.

"Get rid of it? Why the fu-" Vicky's sharp glance reminded me I was in a church, "heck would you want to do that?"

"Attendance at the Center has gone down and down and down, and we can't stop it," she said. "Even the regular masses have been affected."

"What? Why?"

"The kids can't explain." Victoria shrugged, a gesture she likely picked up from the cooler-than-thou adolescents she tried to ride herd on. "They just say something's creepy, and then one day they stop coming."

The Center served a lot of homeless youth in the city. I could see why Vicky wanted to get rid of anything that would keep them from coming to her for help.

Reaching out, I ran my hand against the stone of one of the supports. It should have been cold stone–instead, the rough surface warmed under my hands, like sun on the south side of a forest tree.

"How long?"

"About six months now," Victoria answered. "Like I said, the kids just kept saying something was creepy." A shadow fell across her face, even as she stood in the moonlight. "One of our regulars, Chanterey, said she kept feeling someone watching her. Even accused some of the other volunteers or kids of spying."

"What happened?" I shook myself away from the presence, trying to concentrate on what she was saying. "Spying?"

"She moved in with a boyfriend." She didn't mask the bitterness under her voice. "Pregnant in a month. Dropped out of school. Couple of other things. Things we're trying to save these kids from."

I nodded in sympathy. One thing I understood was trying and failing to save someone from the world and themselves. But I still didn't understand "creepy." The vibes I was getting vibrated from the stone into the palm of hand, up my arm, and echoed in my chest. I wanted to tear through the change and roll myself around for joy across the floor of the great Cathedral. My limbs ached to run and run and run with the moon chasing after.

I craned my neck to look up into the dark of the Cathedral. As sudden wave of need bowled me over. Curling in on myself, I tensed, trying to hold back the change. I wanted to tell Victoria to leave, to let me stay by myself, to listen and smell and sense what I could, what I thought might possibly be hiding just on the other side of the night. An anticipatory joy kindled in my limbs and swelled, and I wanted to hold that in me, selfishly, until I had rolled all the way through it.

"Rick? You still with me?"

Letting go the column, I stalked down the great, open hall, searching. I was not exactly looking so much as questing with every sense I had at my disposal, and the change burning underneath sharpened the echoing prints of what I found.

Victoria followed, her uncertainty drifting like smoke as she strained to see anything in the gloom. "Rick?"

I paused at the end of the long stone space, pivoting left to right and back again, my attention caught by the light that played gently across the mute statues along the wall. Half stepping forward, I reached out, every muscle wired with the intention and excitement for the nascent run, the energy building under my skin.

"What do you see?" Victoria dogged my footsteps, shouldering her way into my personal space. "Is there something? Can you see it?"

See? No. But that didn't mean I didn't know it was there.

Up ahead, nestled in a riot of stone oak and ivy, I found it. He was hiding in the shadows on the capitals–a face in the spandrel, the space where two arches met, joining two Gothic stone pillars that stood sentry over the empty cathedral. The moon outside, rising hesitantly over the jagged buildings of the Upper East Side, pierced his shroud of gloom with a single beam.

"Rick, answer me!" Victoria reached out, grabbing for my arm, her senses small and finite, unaware.

I shook her off. "You don't see that?"

"See what?" Victoria's cheeks reddened, blotchy. A bad sign. She was near the end of her patience.

"He's–" I started to say, and then the change came rushing in. A curious gusting nipped at my body, dark energies emerging from the walls to play, their advance both darting and dodging in a courtship dance. The eyes in the stone face seemed to squint in their leafy mask, and then smiled in uncanny anticipation. I stepped forward again, and then one more step, my arms extended in a gesture of half-remembered obeisance. The first reaching tendril brushed my hand and I grasped it, reflexively.

My time with the wolf pack took its tribute as the billion tiny transformations hit all at once in a simultaneous, rushing change. I braced myself for the bone-crunching pain, bowing before the shadow. The figure grew, looming high above. I waited for the agony. Any second now.

The expected pain never materialized. Instead, my muscles and sinews melted like warming fire in the cold stone walls. Finally, fully wolf, I sat back on my haunches and howled for pure joy and wonder.

The world exploded across my vision, not just in the plain sight of my eyes, but in all of my senses, washing over them, the small buds of sensation blooming under the night. I howled again, muscles tensed, torn between the mystery of the cathedral and the need for the joy of the chase.

A metallic clicking sound interrupted me, mid-howl. Victoria stood by my side, a serious piece of business in her hands, the spotlight from the altar casting a penumbra across the .45 caliber Kimber she held in the stance of an experienced shooter. I had no idea what she was aiming at. All I could smell was forest floor. And that seemed right and natural to me.

"Stay there." Victoria's voice wasn't panicky–though deeper than usual, firm and controlled.

I circled her, sniffing, wondering what had alarmed my military friend badly enough to trigger her instinct to respond with violence. I nudged her with my nose playfully, distracting, but she ignored me, pivoting at one shadow, then another.

At first, I thought the sound was another curious artifact of the city, maybe the wind groaning around the unyielding limbs of the concrete forest, winding its way through the unmoving beasts that made up the nightscape. But no, this was the sound of something older and deeper, something that brushed over my fur like young leaves and morning frost.

"Ich … habe dich gerufen."

The rumble of his voice vibrated through the pads of my feet, thrilling through me. Briefly, I thought of my grandfather, his gray muzzle flashing across my vision, supplanted by the living stone that awoke to our presence.

He stepped out of the shadows. Or rather, he stepped forward from the darkness and brought the shadows with him.

Victoria's muscles tensed; the strain emanating off her reached me, sour and sweet. Only years of training kept her from putting a bullet in the smooth stone of the pillar.

He extended his hand, and I threw myself on the floor, rolling to my side, baring my throat, old rusty gestures I had not indulged in since I was a pup. And that was a really long time ago.

From my vantage point of obeisance on the floor, he loomed over me, a figure of warmth. The heat spread out from under his steps, reaching toward us, conducted by the stone, lifting itself through our bodies like a live thing. I rolled to my paws, jumping up, running in circles. I hurtled myself against Victoria's side, playfully.

Electricity arced out of my touch and into her, pulsing through her body. In the split second it reached her skin, her eyes glowed a preternatural green–not just the irises, but the whole orb. Her breath hitched as whatever she saw in that backlit vision unnerved and elated her.

Victoria threw her head back and laughed. I shoulder-checked her, tackling her around the knees, and then we were wrestling on the ground, bodies entwining and pushing and pulling like two pups under their dad's watchful eye. The Kimber was gone, vanished without a trace. I didn't stop to think or ask why, just basked in a moment of pure, unadulterated joy, there on the empty, vast floor of the church.

We finally sprawled, panting. The figure watched us still, faint light playing off the crags and angles of his foliate head. One vine twined and writhed around his mossy crown, shadowing his eyes that glistened like deep water in a dark pool. I threw myself down next to Victoria who crouched, one knee on the floor, a posture of respect if not obedience. But then, this was not her divinity.

The Green Man was tall. A trick of the light clothed him as much as the leaves that passed along his skin. They shifted in shadows across his body like branches waving in the forest, patterns of light and dark. A crown of holly and hawthorn encircled his brow. I knew–felt–that I was in the presence of someone much older than myself. Not just myself, but the line of my ancestry that reached back even before we came down from the Northern Forests.

"Oh," Victoria breathed. "Do you see … she is so beautiful." Did she and I bow before the same Divine? She folded her hands, her lips moving in a silent, matriarchal prayer, and I chuffed at this curious, placid method of showing one's devotion.

My mother once taught me to worship a new Christian god and His Saints, but the Green Man was in this church, too, and he was our Waldherrchen who changed and renewed life under the shifting light of the full moon.

A great tolling sound echoed through the magnificent space. We sat, frozen in tableaux, until the echoes of the twelfth peal faded back into the dark. The energy around the figure intensified, saturating my vision. I couldn't help myself, I was vibrating with the need to run with the change.

Time expanded in the silence and then exploded.

"Komm, Herr Wolf."

I leapt to my feet.

"Wir rennen."


* * *


And then we were running, pale with joy, through a cityscape grown exquisite with the night. High above us, a moment of conception in a barren woman's emptiness; before us, leaves twined the path as midnight lilies bloomed under the wide, full moon. Behind us, in darkness, a man with no shoes pulled the trigger of a gun.

Colors exploded across my vision. I couldn't put names to them–couldn't call what I had never seen before. They threatened to swallow me up in their sheer number, millions of shades of light and dark in the New York City night.

His name was Green Jack, although we also called him Jack-in-the-Green, and I howled after him as we chased the dawn like we had done so many years ago through the paths of the Schwarzwald.

I ran, exultant, dancing after him, grinning, hunting the small prey that felt our wind on their heels; we laughed and set them on their way. Their release satisfied the familiar hunger that came with the change. Paths of the city opened like deep forest trails–we climbed the rocks by the great castle in the park. I sang from the top of the behemoth stones, a song that called to all the crevices of the city that spawned and teemed with the weird cacophony of life.

Deep in the tunnels below, I felt it call–a judgment that buzzed and writhed as we drew near on our wild run–the sudden rush and scratching of life. Something sinister lurked underneath our quick pattering steps, as if some notorious sprite would loose his pranks in ill-tempered jest upon a world grown impatient with the spirit.

What is now blessed, where his shadow falls, sometimes grows in destruction; we drifted, spinning and twirling in the early spring night.

His steps carried us through hidden places, past the forbidden boundaries of locked doors and closed windows, through another space drifting time. The city spread its secrets before us.

In a small apartment, the smell of turpentine and oil, body sweat and two-day-old take out–a portrait before a young artist. He felt our passing, reaching out towards us for the energy that sang in his ears. We responded, casting a mad whirlwind dance over him, the movement and sound overwhelming him as he reached for the Divine. The crazy energy exploded his heart within his chest, paint on brush spattering a mad, wild death struggle across the canvas memorial.

But I was Wolf–life is simply thus, and you run until the night is done for the joy of it, knowing one day you will no longer be able to run, and the moon will move on in its perpetual cycle while you seek out the shadows.

I basked in the dark nature of Green Man even as the subterranean chill crept through my bones. I, too, was one of those renewed, but also one in need of redemption. I chased the Divine, and felt them snapping at my heels–the teeth of small, uncanny creatures that scurried to follow in the wild, frenetic wake of our folly. We ran and ran until the night threatened to fade into the morning that comes in this city so much earlier than any others.

I don't know why I was chosen; maybe he had sensed my presence as he passed through the city. Maybe the spirit imbued in the stone had taken the century to awaken, hibernating as it absorbed the life of the city. I didn't know why it had chosen now to emerge, to renew and redeem the myriad of life he found spread before him. My ancestors hadn't made the run in a long time, but now I was here, and I felt the resurgence of a sense of duty, my family's onus to worship, as the memory sped our steps of time.


* * *


The light had not even started to creep above the skyline in the hints of false dawn before we turned our steps to the cathedral, running before the sun. I had been running for a long time and it felt good to slow my stride as I trod the threshold of the ancient stones. There was peace in the quiet of the Cathedral, a tranquility that had not been there before – or at least I had been unable to sense it. The energies were more settled now, the face of the Green Man now simply a curious carving upon the capital, high above us.

I padded up to Victoria, stretching deep and long, feeling the pleasant exertions and soreness throughout my sinews. She was praying, kneeling on the bare stone before the altar, beatific expression on her face. The Virgin contemplated her with blank granite eyes.

"Do you feel that?" she asked.

I plopped down, panting, tongue lolling. Colors were fading to my familiar silent movie monochrome. Although my street clothes lay in a pile close beside her, I stayed furry. The cool stone against my side felt delicious.

She sat back, dropped her hand to my shoulders, absently scratching the scruff of my neck. I leaned into the caress, which would normally leave me cringing and snapping. But now it gave me only a sense of comfort from her touch. I felt it–a warmth, love–green and spry.

I stayed by her side, the two of us lost in contemplation of the wild, fierce dance of renewal and resurrection, in whatever guise it might come. My heartbeat slowed. My breath evened. As the adrenaline wore off, my eyelids drooped.

The sun sent its slanting rays through the patterned glass of the high Gothic window. The light scattered across the chancel, brushing Victoria's hair with its caress.

And although my words were silent, I thought I might try a little prayer, too.


* * *


I wasn't ready to head back up north just yet, and Victoria was still trying to process everything that had happened in the night. When I suggested we go grab a bagel and a coffee, she didn't turn me down, even though she'd be paying for it.

I'd lost a few articles of clothing when the change overtook me, but luckily the last traces of winter had vanished in the night, and May 1st dawned warm and even slightly muggy.

The heat rose from the concrete as we made our way south, the raucous, vivid aromas vying for attention with the earthy loam scent that wafted from my companion. She'd ditched the coat, tying it around her waist, and unzipped the hoodie.

This close to the full moon, I should have been sweating, distracted, chomping at the bit to get back to the pack, but the night run had tamed the change. It pushed against the edges of my awareness, letting me know it was still there, but it wasn't pressing the issue for the time being. Which was good, because there's not much I'd hate to miss more than a New York City everything bagel with schmear.

There weren't too many people out on the street this early. Wealthy upper east siders out jogging, not-so-wealthy service and tradespeople getting to whatever job kept them in rent and rations.

"So … deli?" I suggested as we hit Columbus Avenue, heading for the Park.

She didn't answer, just made a floaty little "hmmhmm" sound. Me too, Vick. Me, too.

We hit the perimeter of Central Park and kept walking until we came up on a breakfast cart. It was parked next to a news stand, the type that had financial papers from London displayed next to the garish New York tabloids, trumpeting the latest dish of Washington shenanigans. Giving them a quick overview, I guessed nothing much had changed since I'd gone north. Just another reason why I got out of government service.

The thought didn't contain its usual bitterness. It was as if the night's ordeal had left me open and empty. You might say, it was close to enlightenment, if you were a yoga instructor with a fancy studio on the Upper East, like the two women who passed us were clearly headed to. Man. Yoga pants.

"Thanks, keep the change."

Vicky's words startled me. She was generous to a fault, but at the same time, she pinched every penny until it screamed, and I had never heard her invite anyone to keep any sort of change.

"What kind of bagel you want?" she asked. "My treat."

Stranger and stranger.

"Everything, with a schmear," I told her. I love saying the word "schmear." It helps me pretend like I know what I'm talking about, even if all it means is I want cream cheese.

Victoria rolled her eyes. The strain and tension she'd been carrying in her shoulders appeared to have melted away. "Coffee?"

"Dear sweet Gods of the North, yes." Funny. I should definitely be hungrier. Starving. Maybe the change was going to give me a break. Maybe I had accidentally eaten someone last night. I decided not to mention that last possibility.

Noshes in hand, Victoria led the way into the park. I followed her down the path as the sun rose higher, brightening the shadows and shedding its morning softness.


* * *


"I didn't know you smoked." My mouth was crammed with bagel and cream cheese, but I'm pretty sure she knew what I meant.

Victoria spread a copy of the tabloid she'd bought at the newsstand out on the bench we were sitting on. She opened the new pack, as well as a new lighter. Huh. Tapping out a cigarette, she lit up, inhaling deeply.

"Well." She ignored my statement. "Pops never put anything like that in his journal."

"Your grandfather was a smart guy," I offered.

"Yeah, he was." Her voice was thoughtful. She held the cigarette with one hand; with the other, she traced the outline of the portrait on the front page of the tabloid.

"When did he pass?"

"About a year ago." Victoria coughed. I tried not to breathe in too deep. The smoke was playing havoc with my senses. "Cancer. Fast. Went to the VA on Monday complaining of indigestion, they did some tests, made a diagnosis, but it was too late. He lasted about a month."

"Damn." I wished I would have known. That was a goodbye I would have wanted to make in person. Perhaps he would then have told me about certain journals.

Victoria smoothed the edge of the newspaper where it had crumpled. "He talked about you at the end."

"Told you all about my good looks and charming personality?"

"Actually, he said you were an asshole." She looked up, staring me straight in the eye. "But one of the good guys."

Gunny wasn't wrong. Especially at that time in my life. I'd left–defected–deserted, and even though I turned my back on the worst evils men could do to each other, it didn't mean I hadn't felt like a traitor.

I should have known when MONIKER came calling that there are no pure chances for redemption.

Vicky shrugged and put out the cigarette before she had smoked it down to the filter. She stowed the rest of the pack in the pocket of her hoodie, then crossed her arms and leaned back against the bench.

The day grew warmer, and the urgency to flee back to the north country faded under the sun. For a moment, surrounded by an oasis of green, I considered staying in the city. MONIKER had probably given up by now, and I could escape to the Catskills every full moon. Easy as strudel.

"What did you see?" Victoria broke the silence. "In the church. What did she look like to you?"

I closed my eyes and rubbed them with my palms, then stretched, twisting out the kinks. The words I sought turned in on themselves, slipping from my tongue every time I tried to capture them. Everything I tried to think of to say–all I could think of was the German.

"Als ich ein Kind war, hab' ich in the north country gewohnt," I started. As I went along, luckily the English started to come back to me. This trip was all sorts of weird.

"Anyway," I continued, "my pack ran in the north for almost a century, before I was born. Grandfather had brought them to the Schwarzwald, the Black Forest, a few years before my mother was born."

"When was that?" Victoria interrupted.

"About fifty years before the Reformation." I paused to enjoy the look that spread across her face. Her eyes widened, and her jaw actually dropped. I didn't know that was a thing. "By the time I came along, our pack wasn't as large as it had been. Europe was repopulating. Booming. It was harder for a family to disappear into the woods without anyone remarking on the fact."

My older sister had indeed been pursued by members of the Church who had bound her in rope, set her aflame, then cut off her head and pierced her heart with a silver blade. We had visited revenge on that particular Monsignor, and you would have thought that would be the last we'd deal with the Church. But you would be wrong.

"My mother and father were good German bourgeois." Blank look from my companion. "They were the new middle class. We had what you might call … longstanding connections that allowed us to run a trade business."

In the eighteenth century, it also gave my family an excuse to disappear when convenient and reappear in another location with another first name, so no one would get suspicious, like what happened to my poor sister. But that was another story for another time.

"What does this have to do with the Church?" Victoria tucked one leg under her, turning to face me more directly. Her fingers played an impatient rhythm against the back of the park bench.

"My mother's conversion." I tried not to flinch at the mention of my mater. That was another long story I had no intention of telling anyone. "Before I was born, she decided to follow the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and give up the forest revels for the Green Man."

"Pops' journal mentioned you said something about the Church executing your sister." Vicky frowned. "Your mother converted even after that?"

"Let me tell you about my mother–" I stopped myself. Shook my head. "Actually, no. I don't want to give you nightmares."

When I'd been captured by Dmitri's soldiers, and they brought me to him, I'd been … unnerved. The man had physically reminded me of my old grandfather–but in his intensity and his psychic presence, I had seen my mother. And almost crapped my pants.

"My grandfather and my mother fought for years," I said. "And we live a long time. This fight lasted through the Enlightenment and almost up to the Industrial Revolution."

She stared at me.

"Werewolves rejuvenate with the change," I deadpanned. "Come on Vicky, get with the program."

My friend slowly extended her arm, then her hand, then her middle finger. "Keep going."

I kept going. I told her how my grandfather had never truly given up the old ways, and his stubborn insistence that "die Gedanken sind frei" and every wolf must set his or her own path, meant that he wouldn't force religion or philosophy or anything on anyone.

For me, who never found much comfort in stone walls and icons with blank eyes, grandfather's stories were the best. From the moment I shed my puppy claws and took my human form, I padded after him as fast as I could toddle. I changed with him under the moon, and I chased and hunted with him as he told me all the stories and lore of the old packs from the north.

The Green Man. When I was old enough, grandfather told me of ancient hunts that ran with the Jack in the Green, hunting mythic white stags, or young, foolish archers who sought to take his power for their own. None of them had succeeded. The Green Man and his wolves had run down and bled out any challenger.

Every moon, we ran together. Every hunt, I hoped we, too, would be chosen for glorious battle.

We wolves are long-lived, but immortality is only a legend. Grandfather passed a scant few years before Germany unified into one nation state, and shortly thereafter, my mother and I had parted ways.

Forsaking my mother had meant giving up the pack, as there was no question who the others would follow. Instead, I took my human form to the nearest depot, was fitted for a uniform, and I've been wearing the flag of one country or another ever since.

My mother had not believed in the myth of the Green Man. She believed in candles and catechisms, and kneeling on your knees until they bled.

But in that church, Victoria and I had come into that presence. It wasn't a myth. He had been borne of the energies that gathered in that place, and he had chosen me to lead his hunt through the wild paths of the city.

"Damn." Victoria blinked. We'd been sitting on the bench some time now. The spell we seemed to be under had started to wear off–just the slightest tinge. My stomach growled. I thought she might light up another smoke, but she just breathed out slowly. "Damn."

"So?"

"Yes?" She wasn't giving me much in return.

"What did you see?"

Victoria turned to me, shifting her posture on the bench, her eyes sliding right by me without making contact. Instead, her view focused on the field behind us where a group of kids had started up a game of football–soccer–running around and screaming as they passed and kicked a half-deflated ball.

"I was born Catholic," she said. "Raised Catholic. Made all the sacraments. Went to church every Sunday. Even took the class to be a Catholic rep when we deployed–basically someone who leads the parts of the service that a layperson can perform, in case there's no access to a priest."

Learn something new every day.

"I switched over to the Anglican Church when my sister came out," she continued. "My parents accused me of shopping for a religion. But I was stuck. I had–have faith. I also have love–for my sister." She paused. Tiny frown lines appeared across her forehead and at the corners of her eyes. "Ever since then, I've been going to mass at St. John's, and running the outreach program. I've gotten involved in the church until I have no social life and all my Facebook friends are my fellow parishioners, but never–not once–did my faith, did my conversion feel real, like I belonged."

Now she looked me dead in the eye. "Until this night." She didn't blink, although the sun glared in her face harshly. "While your Green Man led you on his hunt, I saw a woman, in blue, and she reached for me and called me her sister."

My friend–the tough, Semper Fi Marine–choked back a sudden sob. Her voice wavered. "She gave me her hand, and when I took it, I just felt at peace. Like something had fallen into place that I didn't even know was missing."

She blinked back tears, angrily wiping at her face. I'm not going to pretend to be some tough guy. The Green Man was still churning me up inside. I knew how she felt.

"Is it gone?"

Her question caught me with my mouth full. I chewed and swallowed the last of my bagel. "Is what gone?"

"Whatever it was. Whatever made that vision."

I stared at her. "Don't punk out on me, Victoria," I growled. "If you can believe in werewolves, you can have some faith in other things as well."

She coughed and pulled herself together. "I know. I just–I thought I was prepared, after reading Pops' journals. But man. I don't think anything could have prepared me for something like that."

I agreed with her.

"But still, has it–she–gone?"

"I don't think so," I answered as thoughtfully as I could. My stomach punctuated my statement with a loud gurgle. "That energy–that created presence–it's part of the stone. It's alive, but it's not a haunting or a stalking type of energy." I searched for the right words. "It's what makes you feel at home.


* * *


Victoria dropped me off at the airport later that night, paying for my ticket back to obscurity. We were both still coasting along on the mellow vibe that the previous night had soaked us in.

I had a couple bucks on me, but she insisted I take the five crisp twenties she pressed into my palm. For the trip. Apparently, airlines really had gotten super stingy with the peanuts. Next time I was definitely flying as my furry alter ego.

We exchanged a quick hug and promises of catching up once I extracted myself completely from MONIKER. She waved at me until I was deep into the screening line. I bent down to take my shoes off, stood back up, and she had gone.

It was as if when she left, she took with her the final remnants of the strange state we'd basked in all day. The urgency and need of the change, with the promise of the Überwechsel overlain, rushed back in on me, and I visibly trembled trying to hold myself together as that first wave passed.

The agents screening my line gave me a few extra mean glances. Apparently traveling without luggage makes you look suspicious. MONIKER had put me on a no-fly list years ago. I held my breath all the way until I got through security. Looked like the agency made good on their promise to take me off of it.

Briefly, I considered buying a book for the plane ride. On the one hand, it would help pass the time. On the other hand, I planned to head right back to the pack upon my return. Whatever. I decided to get the book. I could always stash it in my storage locker.

A few hours later, we were airborne and climbing. A curious feeling had me in its grip–almost a whisper of a touch that stretched and stretched as the plane climbed, taking us farther from the borders of the east. It was only as we passed over the Mississippi River that the last tendril finally gave up its grasp.

I breathed a sigh and opened my book. I had achieved a mythic dream–to run with the Green Man–and it had honored, fulfilled, chastened, and thoroughly terrified me.

And yet, even in the metal tube full of humanity that vibrated and hummed around me, I caught the scent of another energy, just as old, but different in that it sat on my tongue like fresh cold snow.

It was the energy of the pack I had made my own. And I was on my own way home.


THE END

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Read on for more Rick with an excerpt of Cold Run!


Cold Run


Chapter 1


The phone rang when I was already into the twelfth beer of the night. My head throbbed with the beginnings of an epic hangover. I considered ignoring the ringing, but the first time hitting "ignore," the asshole called back. The second time, my fumbling fingers accidentally answered the phone instead of turning it off. I hate cell phones.

On the other end of the line, a series of numbers repeated, spoken mechanically, followed by a beep and a pause.

I belched, not bothering to cover the receiver.

"Wolfhound?" The voice on the other end sounded almost familiar.

One of these phone calls hadn’t come through in a long time, and I’d been hoping never to get another one.

"Saturday morning." A sharp rasp to the man's tenor voice kept it just shy of feminine.

I finished the beer, opened the back door, and threw the empty bottle into the darkness. It sailed off the porch, chunking into a tree on the wood-line and falling into the snow. Might be a new record.

"There will be a ticket reserved for you out of BTV."

"I'm on the no-fly list."

"Not a problem."

"Where am I supposed to be going?"

"New York."

I popped the cap from another beer and took a sip before my system thought I should stop for the night and proceeded into the hangover stage full speed ahead. The beer was one of the few remaining of a batch brewed last month, potent as I could make it, and definitely not the canned piss Americans try to sell on television commercials about football.

"Address?"

The man on the other end cleared his throat. "You got a pen?"

"Just give me the damn address."

He rattled off a series of numbers and letters.

"I'll have a car meet you at the airport."

"Uh huh." I closed up the phone and took out the battery, just in case anyone tried to call me back. I knew one thing for certain. Any car waiting for me at the airport would be waiting for a long time.

Tossing the phone on the counter, I walked barefoot out onto the back porch. The cold didn't bother me. In fact, the phone call ignited an adrenaline burn that, I had to admit, I almost missed.

The night smelled clear and cold as only New England in early November can be, the air so raw it burned going down. The beer felt good following it. A half-inch of snow had fallen over the leaves I never bothered to rake, and they patched the ground in mottled shadows.

The neighbor's cat paused at the edge of my property. He's a big gray tom, and I often catch him trying to sneak through the backyard in search of the moles I can't seem to kill off. I would invite him over the property line, but I imagine he'd get offended if the sneaking were allowed. Out of principle, I growled at him. He snarled at me, and then, happy our mutual understanding remained intact, he slunk off into the undergrowth.

I drained the bottle and tossed it after the others. The beer must have been affecting my aim–it barely made it to the end of the property. I'd have to find it in the morning and kick it into the woods proper. Truth be told, it would cost me less to save the bottles and reuse them, but there’s a certain juvenile satisfaction you get out of flinging them through the air.

"The hell with it."

I shrugged and went back inside to search out the last of the bottles. If they wanted me so badly, they could come and find me, and good luck to them.


* * *


I woke up on the couch with the sun turning my eyelids raw. I had forgotten to close the curtains–and also to go to bed. My eyes were so dry, trying to open them against the grit gluing them shut sent sharp pains across my eyeballs.

From the queasy feeling in my stomach, I could tell I was going to spend the rest of the day regretting the night before. I picked my phone up off of the counter and popped the battery back in. It rebooted and started blinking to indicate a new message. Flipping it open, I saw someone tried to text me a link to something. Too bad. My phone is a phone, not a laptop, and all I get on it are calls and the occasional failed text message.

Actually, to be honest, all I usually use it for is speed dialing takeout. Nobody's called me in a long time.

With some supermarket brand coffee brewing as black and oily as I could get it, I splashed some water on my face and put on a fresh T-shirt. Slipping the Smith and Wesson .38 Special, snug in its leather holster, into the waistband of my work pants, I pulled the hem of the shirt over it. I tugged on an old pair of boots and grabbed my gloves.

I labored under no illusions. They would be able to find me. But I was going to make it as hard for them as I could.


* * *


Something lived in the shed, taking up residence a few months before winter. I could smell it when I opened the sliding door and thought I could hear it moving around. There wasn't much for a creature to feast on in the shed, unless you count toxic chemicals and rusting steel parts a decent meal. I pulled on the gloves and grabbed a pair of thick shears, pliers, and a roll of concertina wire.


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