This incident got a mention in Lore and Order, and I figured it could do with fleshing out a bit. So I did. Hope you like it!
‘Go home, Michael.’
She hadn’t actually slammed the door in his face, but she may as well have done. It would have meshed nicely with his current situation: standing, aimless and forlorn, in the rain. It was all a little too cliché for him, though he should have seen it coming.
His fingers tightened around the folder he was holding, bending it slightly. The rain had made the ink run, but he could still read the title he had optimistically scrawled on it.
The question mark had been the one concession he was willing to make with regards to editorial standards. He knew not a single paper of any repute would touch the damn thing – and even the gutter-trash tabloids would be beyond hesitant – but there really was no other explanation. He’d done his due diligence, and he had had to hope that his track record would stand for something. It wasn’t as if he was known for flights of fancy.
Perhaps it would have been better if the rain had obliterated the title before he’d knocked on her door. Maybe then she would have at least heard him out.
He sighed and tilted his head back, letting the rain do its best to wash the strain from him. A cold shower to clear his mind. Remarkably effective.
If only she’d given him a chance, read the testimonies, seen the photos…
‘Are you not cold, friend?’
It took him a moment to pinpoint the voice. For a moment he thought it had come from right beside his ear, but as he spun around he noticed the owner was hunched against a wall a few feet away. A scaffold had been erected, and she was huddled underneath it, avoiding the rain.
She raised her eyebrows and continued. ‘Or are you too deep in contemplation for a little thing like the weather to bother you?’
‘I’m wallowing,’ he said. ‘It’s, like, half of my profession.’
‘And that would be?’
She snorted. ‘Sounds about right. Bit hard up for work?’
Following her example, Michael stepped under the scaffold, though didn’t close the distance. ‘Just torpedoing my career, that old chestnut.’
A light flared in front of her face as she lit a self-rolled cigarette. She looked young. Two puffs, a strained cough, and she tossed it into the rain. ‘They won’t publish your stuff?’
‘It’s a bit of a tough sell, if I’m honest.’
‘Maybe they’re not ready for the truth,’ she said. There was an accent there, or at least traces of one. Russian? ‘Start small and work up, maybe?’
Great, now he was being lectured by a child. ‘I appreciate the advice, but I think I know how to do my job. Been doing it a long time.’
‘Six years,’ she said. ‘And not a single award. No real recognition. Described as a “reliable workhorse” by most of your editors. That’s a bit disappointing, right?’
Michael blinked. ‘How did you –’
‘Oh, I don’t,’ she said, tapping her ear. ‘There’s a guy in my ear reading your file out to me, apparently this is… hang on – yes, that’s quite enough, I’ve made my point… Apparently this is supposed to be intimidating. Is it working?’
‘I… A little?’
She shrugged. ‘I’m not good at intimidation. Too little. But, then, you think werewolves are real, so I doubt you’re the sort intimidation usually works on.’
‘The voice in your ear tell you that too?’
‘Not exactly. I’ve been working this from the other end –’
‘The other end?’ Michael said. ‘So, you’re the werewolf?’
She cocked her head. ‘No. Not that end. The end of people who know what they’re doing. I sort of hunt werewolves and things. That’s my job.’
‘Werewolves, ghosts, vampires, ghouls, zombies, ancient gods with sea animals for faces…’
‘For a YouTube channel?’
‘What? No,’ she said. ‘Like, actually hunt them. For the government. And, I admit, we heard about this one pretty late, so I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at the intel you’ve so inexpertly been trying to flog to the papers.’
Michael hugged the folder to his chest. ‘Bullshit. If you’re government – which I don’t buy for a second, just so you know – you’re out to bury this story. Which means I’m right.’
‘It’s not one or the other, you know,’ she said, throwing up her hands. ‘Governments are big, plodding, dozy creatures. Its thousand hands never know what each other are doing. I’m from the hand that wants to stop a werewolf eating the students of Leamington Spa.’
‘I’m not sure I believe that.’
‘I don’t really care,’ she said, holding out a hand. ‘I’m Ania Petrova, warlock. That’s my job title.’
Hesitantly, he shook her hand. ‘Michael Upping.’
‘I know you know, but now you know the right way. Is this really a werewolf?’
Ania shrugged and gestured to the folder. ‘We’re, like, seventy percent sure. Let me have a look at that and I’ll revise that probability for you.’
He handed her the folder and she practically snatched it from his fingers. She flipped through the papers in silence, giving the photos the greatest degree of scrutiny. Looking at her now, he had to reassess his view of her. Young, yes, but old at the same time. The seriousness of experiences beyond her years. Gave her story a certain degree of credibility.
Not that he was capable of accepting warlock as an actual job title.
After a minute or two, Ania bit her lip and handed the folder back. ‘Yeah… That’s a werewolf.’
‘You sound very sure. Took me weeks of looking at this evidence before I even began to start considering that option.’
‘Because you didn’t think they existed. I know differently, so I don’t have that cognitive block getting in the way. Thanks for the help.’
With a business-like wave, she turned and stepped out into the rain. She was at the corner of the alley before Michael could respond, around it and out of view before he could think of a worthwhile response.
The cogs started turning far too slowly, perhaps delayed from the shock of someone just lying in wait to give his mad theories some credibility. Provided she wasn’t the mad one here. She didn’t seem eccentric, though, and if he was going to finally land a home for this article then he would need more. More proof, more evidence, more of everything.
Because no-one ever disputed photographic evidence of weird shit, now, did they?
Tucking the file into his coat, he ran, near sprinted, to the end of the alley. He had to catch up with her, follow her. She’d lead him to the stuff that could truly make this story.
She was waiting for him, just around the corner. The shock of it sent his legs out from under him, unable to find enough purchase on the wet pavement to stop at such short notice. He could hear her giggling and he hit the concrete hard. She offered him a hand and pulled him back to his feet.
‘Ow,’ he said.
‘Sorry,’ she said, holding back another giggle. ‘I couldn’t help it. I was supposed to wait until you got home before I approached you, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do the spooky back-alley rendezvous. For what it’s worth, my home office encouraged me to bring you along. Consider it a reward for all your hard work. I just wanted to make sure you’ve got the spark, you know?’
Michael dusted himself off. ‘Great, humoured by a child.’
‘I’m not a child,’ she said, expression darkening. ‘Don’t do that.’
‘Sorry, I didn’t mean –’
‘Just… Don’t be reductive,’ she said. Then she took a breath, some of the light returning to her face. ‘Anyway, we better get to work. Tell me about the first scene you found. The one that had you start to consider the outlandish notion of werewolves.’
Michael thought for a moment. It was hard to pinpoint the first site that had allowed him to think outside the box. That was a fault of his own, having chosen to visit three different sites in one day, all of them horrific. He produced the folder again and perused his own photos.
He plucked one out and showed it to her. ‘This one. I think. It’s the one I took the most photos of, so I think that’s when I started to take notice.’
She took it from him and nodded. ‘Where was this?’
‘An abandoned mall, not too far from here. Never officially opened, so no-one thought to check the place out for a while. There was a lot of… um… a lot of…’
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Viscera. The prevailing theory had been a brutal serial killer, but the sheer amount of carnage at this site had me wondering. It was too savage for human, but too intelligent for an animal.’
‘How do you mean?’ she said, turning the picture sideways.
‘It’s easier if you see it, I think. The photos don’t do it justice. I snapped those for shock value, not investigative purposes. I’ll take you there.’
If the police had ever found this site, they hadn’t done a good job of cleaning it up. Dried blood, brown with age, almost painted the floor, walls, even the ceiling. Chunks of indeterminate flesh scattered about liberally, rotting away to paste. In the corners, shards of bone piled into mounds.
Ania was no zoologist, but it looked a hell of a lot like a lair to her.
It was well hidden, too. All outward appearances said the mall was as abandoned as everyone believed, and once inside there was little evidence to the contrary. But Michael led her deeper, into the hallways between what would have been shops, the staff corridors that linked them all together like some great nest. The killing room was in a place where a number of these corridors came together, perhaps into what was meant to be a joint staff room of some sort.
Ania took some rubber gloves from a pocket, put them on, and started to examine the carnage.
‘Yeah, I can see why this got you thinking laterally about the killer,’ she said. ‘I’ve not seen one like this before.’
Michael was still milling around the entrance, steering clear of the walls. ‘What do you mean?’
‘So comfortable. In my experience, they move from lair to lair regularly. Rarely do they use the same location for more than one transformation cycle. That’s the technical term for a full moon. This one got a couple of months out of this one. In fact…’
She crossed to one of the corners and started sweeping aside loose bones from one of the mounds. The top layer came away easily, but the one underneath was mired in a thick goo that held it in place.
‘What the hell is that?’ Michael said. Less hesitant now, he was hovering over Ania’s shoulder as she worked. ‘A paste?’
‘Something like that,’ she said, eyes fixed firmly on the bones. ‘Thing is with werewolves is that even when they’re in wolf form, they have that spark of humanity. They can create things, build. That’s what this is.’
Michael leant in closer. ‘It’s not a very impressive construction.’
‘Don’t be too hard on him, he’s still a wolf. Takes a long time of getting used to the transformations for the wolf mind to really harness that creative spark. This is still the early days, and yet says that this wolf is a lot further along the timeline than most manage to get.’
She stood up and took off her gloves, launching them across the room thoughtlessly. Her fingers drumming on her temple, she started to pace.
‘What will you do,’ Michael said. ‘When you find it? Kill it, or…?’
She stopped. ‘That’s not up to me. There’s a cure, a pretty simple one, but it requires a… A special ingredient, let’s say. One my bosses are reluctant to let people have access to. Standing order is to kill them.’
‘Seems a bit harsh, especially if there’s a cure.’
‘Nine times out of ten, the wolf did it to themselves. Dabbling in forbidden knowledge, getting cursed, messing around with weird furry belts. Don’t get them confused with the Hollywood rendition of some poor soul unduly cursed by a random wolf bite. Almost never happens.’
‘How many werewolves have you put down?’
Ania thought for a moment. ‘Tracked a couple. Never had to put one down myself, though. I’ve assisted, though, so don’t worry. There’s never been many in the UK anyway, so chances to practice have always been somewhat limited.’
‘I think that makes me feel better.’
‘Yeah, well, we haven’t gotten to the scary part yet,’ she said, pulling a pouch from her belt.
From the pouch, she retrieved a small bottle of iron filings, which she uncorked and began to pour onto the floor, moving as she did so. With deft movements, Ania began to drawn designs in the blood with the filings, great swooping and beautiful shapes that Michael was unfamiliar with. He watched silently as she managed to cover most of the floor with these designs, despite never seemingly emptying the bottle at all.
When she was done, the designs on the floor fit together almost perfectly. It reminded him of those exquisite and intricate Persian rugs, though with a lot more blood.
Ania was standing near the centre of the room now, isolated in a small island free of the designs. They all seemed to point to that one location.
‘Don’t move, please,’ she said. ‘This is going to be a bit delicate.’
With the flick of her wrist, an extendable metal pointer slid out of her sleeve and into her hand. She pulled it to its full length, then squatted down and tapped a design on each of the cardinal directions. A faint glow sprang up with each tap, then slowly spread and crept through the other designs, worming its way along the floor until all of them shared the same faint glow.
‘What the hell?’
Ania held up a hand, silencing him. ‘Don’t. Speak. Either.’
He held his tongue.
With a flash, the filings burned away, leaving the designs scorched into the floor. It did little to detract from the brutal décor, but it was still a beautiful thing to see. Ania tapped her pointer on the back of her wrist and walked over to Michael.
‘Sorry. Stored magic makes spells a bit skittish sometimes. Doesn’t really know who to listen to, and the wrong word with the wrong emotion behind it can mess something right up.’
Michael raised an eyebrow. ‘Seriously?’
‘Is it that much of a stretch, considering werewolves?’ she said. ‘Anyway, point is, that was a sort of proximity sensor. Temporally speaking. Let’s me know the last time our wolf was here.’
She held up her wrist for him, the spot where she had tapped the pointer. Her skin had taken on a fiery red colour.
‘Is that bad? I’m guessing red is probably bad.’
She shrugged. ‘Means our wolf probably still uses this place as his primary dining area. Which I think means he sleeps nearby, too.’
‘All that from a red spot on your wrist?’
‘Yes. You wouldn’t understand why.’
She gave him a look. ‘Not an insult, just a fact. Was there anywhere else here you saw that might have looked a bit wolfy?’
Michael shook his head. ‘This was the only one I saw.’
‘Hmm,’ she said. ‘Guess we need to do this the old-fashioned way.’
And she was off, leading the charge, storming through the corridors without care or caution. Just following behind her, Michael could see a thousand articles he could pitch about her, several of which might even be sellable. He wondered if he could get her to sit down to an interview after this was all said and done. Even if he couldn’t get that published, he really did want to know what the hell was going on.
She led him deeper into the next of corridors, and down a level into the basement. She might not have known where she was going exactly, but it was clear she had an idea of roughly where she wanted to be. It was a stride of purpose, and it was difficult for him to keep up.
Ania stopped when she reached the boiler room door.
‘I bet you fifty quid that this is where our wolf sleeps,’ she said. ‘Deal?’
‘That doesn’t seem like a fair bet, especially with an expert in tracking the things.’
‘Okay,’ she said. ‘And don’t worry, it’s not a full moon. It’s highly unlikely there’s a wolf in there now.’
She seemed confident, but Michael couldn’t help but notice her grip her pointer even tighter as she gently swung the door open.
It was dark inside, but a few red emergency lamps hadn’t managed to drain the reserve batteries just yet. They did little to make the construction look any less horrifying.
In the centre of the room, the wolf had built something that did not look entirely unlike a tent. It was, technically, a den, but tent was the first word that came to mind. Sheets of canvas, hanging down from anchor points on the ceiling, with a discrete opening among the loose folds.
Ania swallowed loudly. ‘Suka, blyad… That’s inventive.’
‘I’ve never seen one so in touch with its human spark that it’s been able to personalise its den! Another month or two and this one would be sapient.’
Michael fumbled around in his pocket for his phone. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Werewolves aren’t rational creatures when they’re in wolf form. They still have a human brain, and the human brain can’t deal with wolf senses. So, they get aggressive and primal, feral. But like with that creative spark, the more exposure they have of wolf form, the more the brain learns to cope. The more of their humanity can assert itself.’
‘And as the brain adjusts,’ Michael said, producing his phone. ‘The less they have to work on instinct, and the more control they have of their actions?’
Ania snatched the phone from his hand and started searching for the torch app. ‘And the more dangerous they become, yeah. Animals kill to eat, obviously. Animals that can think – properly think – start killing for sport. They get… creative.’
She snapped on the torch, and Michael’s stomach turned immediately.
Not canvas, skin. Human skin. Ripped and torn and slashed and then stitched back together.
She handed back the phone. ‘Yeah, I know. But it’s worth remembering that most werewolves don’t remember their time as a wolf. Sure, most are wolves from their own actions, but they don’t control the wolf. They’re only partly to blame.’
‘They stitched flayed skin into a tent.’
‘Like I’ve mentioned, creative,’ she said. She was wrestling with a keychain now, found in one of the pockets on her jeans, trying to detach one key from the bunch. Eventually, she managed it, closing her fist around it. ‘But it’s important you accept that this weird shit doesn’t come from the human part of their mind. You’re not to blame here.’
Michael blinked. ‘Well, obviously. What are you talking about?’
She stared back, her big blue eyes somehow even bigger now they were turning sympathetic.
He didn’t even see her throw the punch.
‘The home office pick some of the oddest shit to enchant, I swear… Yeah, it worked, but I’m not… Fine.’
Michael groaned and pried his eyes open. He’d been punched before – peril of the job – but never that hard, and certainly not by someone so wee. It felt like he’d been smacked in the head with a hammer.
His eyes focused on Ania pacing back and forth in front of him, one finger pressed against her ear as she talked.
‘No, I don’t think so,’ she continued. ‘No. There’s no sign of a deal, cursed object, anything… Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. He was just unlucky. We can’t… Thank you. Just please tell them okay? Special circumstances… Thank you, Paul.’
The pain in his head flared and Michael winced. Now was his chance, while she was distracted. If he could just get up…
He strained against something. Chains. Where had she gotten chains from, and what were they odds that they were silver? She couldn’t have taken him far – the surroundings still had that dismal concrete aesthetic of the hive corridors of the mall – so had she brought the chains with her somehow?
She spotted that he was awake, flashing him a sad smile. Slowly, she approached and knelt in front of him. ‘Did you not see this coming? It was pretty obvious, right?’
‘Let me go,’ he said. He was going for angry, though he was all but certain it came out pathetic. ‘This is ridiculous.’
‘No, it’s not,’ she said. ‘We’ve known it was you for months. Well, not known, but you were the only likely suspect. All the black spots in your social calendar, your alibis, all match up perfectly. We’ve been doing a lot of research about you when you weren’t looking. Well, I say we. I mean me.’
‘But I’d remember. I’d have gaps in my memory at least!’
She shook her head. ‘You’d think, but it doesn’t work that way. Like I told you, there’s not space in a human head for the wolf.’
Michael sighed. ‘How long?’
‘Six months,’ she said. ‘We think. The alarm bells went off after the first month, and we were all but certain it was you by the end of the second –’
‘Then why wait the other four? If you were that certain, why not just get it over with?’
There had to be a way out of the chains. If he could keep her talking long enough to find it then maybe, just maybe…
‘My bosses wanted the file closed as soon as a positive ID was made, but I wasn’t done. I needed to know how this happened to you.’
‘Because I don’t want to kill you, not if I don’t have to.’
‘You don’t have to.’
Ania dropped her head and spoke slowly. ‘Ninety nine percent of the time, a werewolf has done it to themselves. Greed or desperation or whatever, doesn’t matter, they made a choice to become a monster. They get put down. But I wasn’t convinced you were one of the ninety nine percent. I couldn’t see a means, a motive, anything. I had to be sure before I put you down.’
‘You could have asked.’
‘What do you think I was doing tonight?’ she said. ‘I’m not friendly enough to just invite you along on an adventure. You trying to out yourself to the press forced my hand, and I needed one final read on you before I put myself on the line to save your life.’
‘But you said –’
‘I also said there’s a cure, just one that isn’t often explored. The home office doesn’t see the point when it’s for a greedy shit, but for an unfortunate innocent… I have to believe they’d make an exception. Look at the floor.’
Michael craned his head to get a good look. She had daubed something onto the ground around his chair, more of those weird designs. Not iron filings this time, but what seemed to be chalk. An outer circle, a band of complex and intricate designs, then an inner circle around his chair.
She nodded. ‘Hopefully. All I need is the go ahead from them and I can get you cured within the hour. It might hurt, but hopefully not too much. Better than dying, am I right?’
‘It’s definitely the option I’d pick.’
‘We just need to wait for them to call back. Won’t be long now.’
She stood up and retreated to the far wall. Michael hadn’t been prepared for her to be more scared than he was. After all, she wasn’t just in control of the situation, apparently, she had been since before he knew a situation even existed. But he felt surprisingly calm, and she was very clearly not. Odd, that the prospect of a literal life or death decision made by someone else would be a calming thing for him. The simplicity of it, perhaps? What did that mean for her, he wondered.
There was a padlock fastening the chains. His hands had found it now, hanging by his lower back. Not that it was pickable with his bare hands, but it was a start.
Ania waved at him, panicked, and put her finger against her ear again. ‘Paul? Yes, yes, I’m here! Did they… But I explained… Did you… Paul. Paul! Did you explain it to them? That he’s… But… He’s not a danger! He didn’t choose this… No… No, I understand! Okay? Just… Tell them to go fuck themselves. I’ll finish the job.’
Her eyes never left his the entire time, and he could see the optimism drain from them second by second. And yet, it did nothing to damage his calm. ‘Bad news then?’
‘Bad news,’ she said. Her voice cracked, but she locked it down quickly. Right back to professional and serious. ‘I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I thought they’d go for it. I thought they might understand.’
Michael strained against the chains. Not scared, but not stupid either. ‘They didn’t want you investigating the origin or whatever either, did they? And you did it anyway. Can’t you just –’
‘No,’ she said. ‘No, I can’t. It’s not the same thing.’
‘You wouldn’t understand.’
‘Then help me understand! It’s the least you could do!’
Ania closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths. When they opened again, she had a look of determination on her face and a glimmering knife in her hand. ‘No more delays. No point explaining things to a dead man. I’ll make it quick, and painless. I promise.’
She stepped around him and out of sight. Instantly, he was sure he could feel the point of the blade resting against the base of his skull, her breath on his ear. Then, for certain, her cheek brushed against his.
‘Please,’ he said.
Her voice was a whisper. ‘This isn’t about you. It’s about them. Things have to change. I’m sorry I couldn’t get them to see it in time for you.’
She lied. It wasn’t painless.