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Blue Moon (Chapter 12)

I opened the evidence room door and let out a yelp. Mandenauer stood on the threshold, emaciated arm raised to knock.

"Ah, Officer, good evening."

His good sounded like goot, and he drew out the word evening like a bad Dracula imitation. I would have laughed, if I hadn't been close to crying.

I stepped into the hall and slammed the door behind me. There'd already been one too many people in the evidence room in the past twenty-four hours.

"What are you doing here? This area is off-limits to civilians."

"I am not a civilian. The sheriff has given me temporary clearance."

"You have a key?"

"Certainly."

"Have you been in this room?"

He glanced at the door, his gaze flicked over the word evidence, and he shook his head. "No need."

I didn't believe him. That was going around.

"What did you want to see me about?"

"Do you have your rifle?"

"Rifle? What the hell for?"

"Tonight we hunt."

I had been heading for the front office to receive my assignment from Zee. I stopped and turned very slowly. "I'm assigned to you?"

"Yes."

"Why? Don't guys like you work alone?"

His lips twitched. "I am not a cowboy."

I looked him over from the tip of his head –  white blond hair now covered with a black skullcap –  past his camouflage jumpsuit, to the toes of his black commando boots. "No shit."

He ignored me. The man was catching on.

"Get a rifle. Follow me."

"Shouldn't you be following me? I know these woods."

"But I know wolves. Especially wolves like these. I will teach you things you never thought to learn."

There was something cryptic in that statement, but my mind was still fuddled with sex and the mystery of the missing plastic.

"Clyde's okay with this?" I asked.

"It was Clyde's idea."

I frowned. Why hadn't Clyde told me?

I moved down the back hall to the weapons room and Mandenauer followed me. The rifle I'd been assigned for use in tactical situations had never been out of the case. There weren't a helluva lot of tactical situations in Miniwa. Until lately anyway.

For long-range shooting I preferred my own rifle, but since no one had seen fit to tell me of my change in status from Three Adam One to Mandenauer's backup, my rifle was home in the gun safe. I'd have to make do with city-issue.

"What's so special about these wolves, besides what you already told me?" I pulled out my gun and checked it over. "They're overly aggressive, extremely violent, fearless."

"And smart." I glanced at him and he shrugged. "The virus appears to increase their brainpower."

"You've got to be kidding me."

"I do not kid."

I wasn't surprised. After pulling out a box of ammo, I relocked the gun cabinet. "So we've got super-pissed-off wolves that are also very smart." My gaze met his. "How smart?"

Something flickered in the depths of his eerily light eyes. Not fear but close.

"How smart, Mandenauer? What are we dealing with here?"

He sighed and glanced away. "Human-level intelligence."

I couldn't seem to find my voice, a novelty for me. When I did, all I could manage was, "That's… That's… "

What I meant to say was "impossible." Mandenauer filled in another word entirely. "Hazardous. I know. I've seen them formulate a plan, work together, and destroy those who try to destroy them. It's –  "

"Creepy."

He raised a brow. "I was going to say ' fascinating.'"

"You would," I muttered.

"Shall we go?"

"Shouldn't we have a plan of our own?"

"Oh, I do, Officer. I do."

"What is it?"

"Come with me and you'll see."

I really didn't like the sound of that.

An hour later, I didn't like the looks of the plan, either. We were deep in the forest, high up in a tree.

Not that I hadn't been in trees before; I'd just never liked it much. I preferred to hunt on the ground.

Mandenauer had vetoed that idea immediately.

"One thing these wolves cannot do, yet, is fly. The only place we are safe is in the sky."

There was one word in that statement that bugged me quite a bit. I wasn't going to let it pass. "Yet?" I repeated.

Mandenauer had spent the day scouting the woods and found a tree stand big enough for two, which he'd confiscated for our use. Since it was June, no one would care. Hunting season was still three months away.

"The virus evolves," he murmured. "It is very upsetting."

"Upsetting? Do the Centers for Disease Control know about this mutating virus? How about the president?"

"Everyone who needs to know does."

Yeah, right. Perhaps I'd make a little call to the CDC in the morning.

"Don't we need bait?" I asked. "A sheep or something?"

"No. They will come. It is only a matter of time."

The light dawned. "We're the bait."

Mandenauer didn't answer, which was answer enough.

"I don't like this."

"Do you have a better idea, Jessie?"

"We could go searching for them in the daylight, when they're sleeping."

"These animals disappear in the daylight."

"Poof! Shazam! They're invisible?"

"Hardly, Officer. But believe me, it is easier to pick them off one by one in the night than waste days trying to find an animal that isn't there."

Isn't there? The guy didn't make any sense. But he was right about one thing –  he knew more than me about these wolves –  so I'd let him be the leader. For now.

The moon was headed toward full and shiny bright. The night had a nip. Warm evenings would not come to the north woods for at least a few weeks.

I wanted to ask Mandenauer a hundred things. Where had he seen wolves like these before? Had he been able to wipe them out before they did serious harm? Where was he from? Were there others like him?

But he put his finger to his lips, then pointed to the silver-tinged forest. We had to be quiet. Wolves could hear for miles, and these could probably hear for hundreds of miles.

I settled in to wait, something I was very good at. Though patience might seem against my nature, patience was needed to hunt, and I'd been hunting over half of my life.

I'd gone along at first to be one of the guys. I'd continued to hunt, year after year, because I was good at it –  and I'd been good at precious little as a teen. I certainly had no talent for being a girl and therefore none for pleasing my mother. But I could sit in a tree and wait, then wait some more.

An hour passed, then another. Mandenauer was good at waiting, too. He didn't move; he barely breathed. A couple of times I had to fight the urge to reach over and make sure he hadn't died in that tree. Only the intermittent blinking of his eyes signaled he was alive and awake.

Around 1:00 a.m. a solitary howl split the night. It was answered by several more. Our gazes met. We sat up straighter and slid our rifles into position.

I heard them first –  a rustle to the right slinking closer, one to the left, another behind, then in front. They were approaching from every direction. Even though I was high in the sky, I was uneasy.

My ringer twitched on the trigger. Mandenauer cut a quick glance my way and frowned. He held up his free hand in a staying gesture. I scowled back. I knew what I was doing. I wouldn't fire until I had a clear shot.

When I returned my gaze to the clearing, a black wolf had appeared. He paused, half in and half out of cover, scanning the area in a wary manner.

The thing was huge –  much bigger than any wolf I'd ever seen. The average Wisconsin timber wolf runs about 80 pounds. I'd read they could weigh close to 120 in Alaska. This one had to be even larger than that.

None of the other wolves showed themselves, but I could feel them all around us, waiting for the leader'

s signal.

The wolf took one step forward, and the bushes flipped closed behind him. His entire body shone blue-black beneath the light of the moon. God, he was beautiful.

My finger hesitated on the trigger. How was I supposed to know which wolves had super-rabies and which ones did not? That would have been a good question for Mandenauer.

We weren't supposed to shoot every wolf we saw. Or were we? DNR policy on Chronic Wasting Disease was to kill as many deer as possible. Maybe the DNR had the same rules for super-rabies.

Suddenly the ruff at his neck rose, and a low growl vibrated from his throat. His head snapped upward and his eyes met mine.

"Shit!"

The word burst from my mouth as my finger clenched on the trigger. The resulting explosion was so loud my ears rang.

The wolf leaped into the air, twisted, fell. I experienced a momentary pang to have shot something so gorgeous. But at least I knew now how to tell if the animal was infected.

The wolf's eyes had been human.

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