Blue Moon (Chapter 7)
"What kind of problem?"
His gaze scanned the tree line surrounding the town. He held himself as still as a deer who had just heard the footfall of man. A statue poised for flight the instant the scent of danger wafted past a twitching nostril.
Except Mandenauer would never be so gauche as to twitch.
I couldn't help myself. Even though I knew a wolf would never come this close to town, I followed his gaze. Despite the summer sunshine, the thickness of the forest meant that light did not penetrate past the first few rows of trees. Anything could be hiding in there, during the day as well as the night.
When I glanced at Mandenauer again, he was watching me. "Rabies spreads like the plague, Officer, which will be quite a problem. Shall we?"
He stepped onto the sidewalk and waited gallantly for me to join him. I stayed right where I was.
"This isn't rabies."
His frown was quickly suppressed behind a stoic mask. "And you would know that how?"
"By researching rabies on the Internet. It isn't hard."
"Of course not. All the knowledge of the universe is now on the Internet."
I suspected he was being sarcastic – I ought to know – however, his face revealed nothing of the sort.
"The medical examiner?" he pressed.
Together we walked through the unusually deserted streets of Miniwa. It was three o'clock in the afternoon. Where was everybody?
As we passed the Clip and Curl, Tina Wilson stuck out her silky auburn head. "Jessie." She motioned for me to come closer. "What's this I hear about a mad wolf?"
Tina had been two years ahead of me at Miniwa High. She'd been popular, pretty, petite. Since I was none of the above, I was surprised she knew my name.
She owned the Clip and Curl and spent her days making everyone else beautiful – or at least trying. For reasons that should be obvious, I'd never set foot in the place.
"There isn't a mad wolf," I soothed.
What there was I had no idea, but I didn't need to tell her that. We were supposed to be keeping things quiet. Obviously that wasn't going so well. In small towns like Miniwa, a secret was damn near impossible to maintain. But I'd hoped we'd have more than a day of peace.
Tina's gaze shot to Mandenauer. "Who's he?"
Mandenauer bowed. "Madam, I am the hunter-searcher hired by your Department of Natural Resources to kill the wolves."
"Wolves?" she squeaked. "You mean there's more than one?"
"There are plenty of wolves, Tina. You know that. But they don't come into town. They're more afraid of us than we are of them."
"That's what I always hear after there's an attack or a mauling. Doesn't help Karen Larson though, does it?" Tina snapped, and slammed the door in my face.
I rubbed the back of my neck. I hadn't done a very good job of calming the populace. I started to have an inkling of how ugly things could get.
"Rabid wolves are aggressive," Mandenauer murmured. "They will come into town. They will attack people. They will attack anything."
"I thought we'd established that this wasn't rabies?"
"You established that, Officer, but if we aren't dealing with rabies, then what are we dealing with?"
I had no answer for that.
Mandenauer gave a sharp nod and allowed me to precede him around the corner, down the street, and into the office of the medical examiner. Clyde, Bozeman, and his secretary were still there. When we walked in, every single one of them frowned.
For whatever reason, Clyde no longer had his chew, which explained why he was crankier than usual. "I thought I told you to take him to the scene."
"And he told me to bring him here."
Clyde's eyes narrowed. "Who's your boss, Officer?"
That tore it.
"You know what?" I threw up my hands and headed for the door. "Take it up with Lurch. I've got work to do."
Mandenauer placed his hand on my arm again, the second time he'd done so in less than half an hour. I'm not big on touching. It makes me uncomfortable. Am I supposed to touch back? Let it happen? Move away?
"Stay, Miss McQuade. Please. I have much to ask you."
"Miss?" The itty-bitty secretary snorted.
Well, that just made me want to stay.
"All right." I shrugged and his hand slipped off my arm. "Sure."
Mandenauer's lips twitched. Had that been a smile? Nah, probably just gas.
"Now, Sheriff." He turned to Clyde. "I hear there are no bodies for me to look over."
Clyde frowned. "Why do you need to see them? Go shoot the wolf."
"All in good time. I like to know every little thing about my quarry."
"It's a wolf. What's to know?"
Mandenauer ignored him and turned to Bozeman. "What did you find when you examined the bodies?"
Bozeman colored. "I, uh, well – "
"He didn't." The words escaped my mouth before I could stop them. Honest.
Mandenauer turned. "Did not find anything?"
"Didn't examine them. It was his day off."
Bozeman glared at me behind Mandenauer's back. Nothing I hadn't seen before.
"I see," Mandenauer said, though I could tell that he didn't. Laziness was no doubt as abhorrent to him as it was to the rest of the population raised during the Great Depression. "If the bodies are found, they should be burned without further ado."
"Burned?" Clyde asked at the same time Bozeman said, "What about the autopsy?"
"The autopsy would be useless with the decay that will no doubt have taken place in the summer heat."
Everyone winced at the thought.
"It is best to bum them before the disease spreads."
"Since when does rabies spread through the air?" Clyde demanded.
"Who is talking about rabies?"
Clyde blinked. "Us?"
Mandenauer shook his head and stared at Bozeman with exaggerated disappointment. "Doctor, haven't you told the good sheriff what our dear Officer McQuade already knows?"
The ME spread his hands and shrugged. Everyone looked at me.
"Jessie?" Clyde's voice held a note of warning. "What the hell is he talking about?"
I hadn't had a chance to tell Clyde everything I'd discovered – about rabies and totems and manitous.
I'd left the theories out of my report.
"Rabies has an incubation period of one to three months in humans."
"What?" Clyde shouted.
Bozeman flinched. To be honest, so did I.
"What kind of idiot are you?" Thankfully he was talking to Bozeman and not to me. "Here I am thinking we've got rabies on the loose and it can't be, can it? You're a goddamned doctor. You should know this."
"In my defense, Sheriff, rabies isn't a common occurrence in humans these days. And when it does occur, the virus rarely results in death any longer."
"Tell it to Karen Larson," I muttered.
Bozeman's glare was a replica of the first one. The man had no originality.
"What are we dealing with then?" Clyde asked.
"Kind of hard to tell without the bodies." I batted my eyelashes at Bozeman and his itty-bitty secretary.
She seemed to have nothing to say at last. In fact, she appeared a bit guilty. I guess I would, too, if dead bodies had gone missing on my watch.
Bozeman shrugged. Clyde made a disgusted sound.
Mandenauer cleared his throat. "I have an idea."
"Let's hear it."
Everyone in the room gaped. I wondered if Manden-auer had all his eggs in the carton, his beans in a bag, his wheels going round and round.
"Sir – " I began.
He held up one pale, slim hand and I shut my mouth.
"It would be better if there were bodies. For proof. But based on what you've told me, I will make an educated guess on what we have here."
"Educated?" Bozeman sneered. "What kind of education do you have?"
"Shut the hell up, Prescott." Clyde rounded on him and the ME stumbled back, knocking into his secretary and sending her skinny ass flying about two feet. While the two of them got untangled, Clyde and I listened to Mandenauer.
"I do not have the education of the good doctor."
"Lucky for us," I said.
This time Mandenauer smiled. I was sure of it. However, Clyde didn't, so I zipped my lip. Again.
"This is not for public knowledge, you understand. There would be a panic."
"Something I'd like to avoid," Clyde mumbled.
"Therefore, what I am about to say must stay in this room until we have the problem under control."
Mandenauer glanced at each of us in turn, and we nodded.
"There is a new strain of rabies that matches what you seem to have here. The incubation period is hours instead of months. The level of aggression is intense, and the spread of the infection is beyond anything we have ever known."
"I've never heard of this," Bozeman interjected.
"Why am I not surprised?" I murmured; then a sud-den chill rode my spine. "Was this genetically engineered?"
Mandenauer turned to me and in his usually distant gaze I saw a spark of interest. "Perhaps."
Clyde cursed. He was spending way too much time with Zee. Weren't we all?
"You're saying that terrorists have infected the wolf population with genetically engineered rabies?"
"Did I say that? I do not think so."
Clyde scrubbed a hand through his short, dark hair. "Then what are you saying?"
"Evil has come to your town."
"How can a virus be evil?" I asked.
Mandenauer glanced at me. "How indeed?"
"Do you always answer a question with a question?"
Clyde, who must have sensed I was near my boiling point, stepped between the two of us. "What should we do?"
"Exactly what has been done. You have the best hunter there is." Mandenauer slapped his chest with his palms. "I will kill anything that looks at me crosswise. Once ail the infected animals are dead, there will be nothing more to worry about."
"Except the people," I muttered.
Mandenauer let his hands fall slowly back to his sides and gazed at me with a curious expression. "What about the people?"
"If someone gets infected, are you going to shoot them, too?"
"No, they will use the rabies vaccine."
"It cannot hurt."
In my experience, whenever someone said that, it hurt.