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Dark Moon (Chapter Eighteen)

At first I thought it was Edward, and I knew I was dead. Then I saw the shoes next to my paws.

Tennies, not combat boots. Girl feet. Jessie. That didn't mean she wasn't going to blow my brains out, but she might give me a chance to explain first.

If only I could talk.

"We were looking for Sheriff Stephenson," she murmured. "Guess we found him."

"Or what's left of him."

Will. Thank God, a voice of reason.

I whimpered and lifted my head. He shined a flashlight into my eyes and blurted, "Elise?"

"Where?"

The shotgun barrel tapped my skull. I wanted to shout: "Be careful with that thing!" Instead I growled.

"Shut up. I'll deal with you in a minute."

"That's Elise," Will said. "The wolf you're about to kill."

"What?"

At least she uncocked the gun, and I breathed a little easier. But she kept the barrel tilted in my direction.

I could smell the silver shot inside. I really wished she'd aim that thing anywhere but at me.

I glanced up and she started. "People eyes always creep me out. Change back, Doc, you bother me."

I nudged the gun away with my head.

"Oh, sorry." She lifted the weapon and held it in a cradle carry across her chest. "What are you doing out here?"

Her attention went to the dead sheriff, then swiftly returned to me. Her hands tightened on the gun.

I didn't do it! I wanted to shout, but I could only shake my head.

"Right. Sure. Dead guy. Werewolf. You be the judge."

I looked at Will and he shrugged. I don't think he believed me, either. I needed words. But to speak, I had to shift, and then I'd be naked.

I'd never been easy with nudity. I always kept clothes in the forest when I changed. But tonight I hadn't had the time or the wherewithal to prepare.

Huffing, I paced, worried the ground with a paw, then glanced at Jessie mournfully.

"Take a hike, Slick," Jessie murmured.

"What? Why?"

"She's gonna be buck naked after she changes. Get my extra set of clothes and the blanket from the car."

"How about if I get the stuff, and then she changes?"

Jessie lifted a bland gaze to his. "How about I shoot you, too, if you don't move your ass?"

"Jealous?"

"You don't need to see all you're missing."

"I don't see anyone but you. Haven't for a long time now."

I snorted, and Jessie said, "Yeah, that was hokey, wasn't it?"

"I'd just like to see the change, is that too much to ask? I'm a scholar. It would be interesting."

"I bet."

"Elise would understand. Wouldn't you?"

I lifted my upper lip and showed him my teeth.

"I don't think she would." Jessie made a shooing motion. "Get going, Cadotte. I need to talk to the doc, and I'd like her on two feet when I do it."

"All right, all right." He stomped off in what I presumed was the direction of the car. "I never get to see anything good. Never get to have any fun. Never get to shoot anything, either."

"You don't like guns," Jessie shouted after him. "And you're too much of a pansy to kill anything."

"I might make an exception with you."

She laughed as he disappeared into the trees. His flashlight bobbed for a few seconds, then faded. For an instant I worried about whatever might be out there hiding, until I sniffed the breeze and got nothing but a whiff of dead sheriff, Jessie, and Will.

"He really is kind of sweet," Jessie murmured. "Never thought I'd go for a pretty boy with a gentle soul, but it takes all kinds."

She was talking to me like a friend, which was strange considering I was all fanged and furry. Maybe it was easier for her to connect when she didn't actually have to… connect.

As if realizing what she'd done, Jessie made a self-derisive sound, then yanked a smaller flashlight from her coat pocket. Turning the beam in my direction, she scowled. "You've got some explaining to do, Doc."

I'd told her to call me "Elise," but I was starting to like the way she sneered "Doc." Which only meant I must be losing my mind as well as my control.

Will returned more quickly than I would have thought. I hadn't heard a car approach earlier, but I'd been a little distracted by the dead body.

Jessie yanked the blanket from his hands and held it like a curtain. "Get going." She peeked over the top.

"We don't have all night."

The last time, changing back had taken longer than changing forward. This time, I lifted my nose to the sky, and the next instant the breeze fluttered hair instead of fur.

"What the hell?" Jessie gasped. "No one can shift that fast."

"Where's the icon?" Will asked.

"Haven't got it on me."

"Obviously." Jessie's tone was dry and I snickered.

Her eyes widened as she handed me a spare set of jeans and yet another T-shirt. "What's with you? You aren't exactly a laugh-o-rama most days."

And I shouldn't be feeling so lively now with a dead man at my feet and a shotgun filled with silver so close to my heart, not to mention Nic no doubt breaking land speed records as he drove as far away from me as he could get.

However, the strength and power I'd experienced while running as a wolf remained. For the first time, I missed being what I was, and I wanted to be that way again.

Jessie's gaze returned to the dead sheriff. "Thought you didn't need human blood."

"Wasn't me."

"Like I haven't heard that a thousand times before."

Suddenly I was staring down the barrel of a shotgun again.

"If you're going to keep threatening to kill me, we'll never get anywhere."

"If you're going to keep lying, I don't have much choice."

"Edward sent me to find you."

"I haven't needed a babysitter for a long time now."

"It was more of a test." I sighed. "For me."

She frowned. "We came back earlier, but you were sleeping. Then the deputy called and –  What the hell happened that Mandenauer felt the need to test you?"

I glanced at Will, then back at Jessie. I didn't want to tell them, but better me than Edward.

Quickly I related the events of a few hours past –  glossing over the experience with Nic as best I could.

"So you gave it up, huh?" Jessie smirked. "G-man any good?"

"Jess," Will murmured. "Not your business."

Jessie lifted a brow and I couldn't help but smile.

"That's what I thought," she said. "Guys like him almost make getting blown to hell by a silver bullet worthwhile."

A tug of camaraderie surprised me. One minute I was tempted to become a werewolf and run with the pack. The next I was pulled toward the sort of friendship I'd always longed for and never had. My dual nature had never before seemed so divided,

"How did the sheriff die?" Jessie peered at the body with the aid of her flashlight.

I guess bonding time was over.

"I didn't get a good look," I said.

"Seemed like you were looking pretty closely when we got here."

"Smelling."

"Gag," Jessie muttered.

"For a rough-and-tough, kick-ass J��ger-Sucher, you're awfully squeamish about details."

"Sue me." Jessie shined the beam across the sheriff's neck. "I'm not a medical examiner, but I'm pretty sure that was sliced neatly instead of torn by teeth."

I frowned at the mess. "That's neat?"

"For this kind of murder. Knife wound." She looked me up and down. "Which leaves you off the hook."

"I could have thrown the weapon into the bushes."

"With your paws? Besides, a wound like that, you'd be covered in blood."

"Ew."

"Now who's squeamish?"

"You're saying we got a plain, old, everyday murderer on the loose?" I asked. "No funny stuff?"

"Seems that way."

"Which means there's no reason for us to stay." Although where I was going to go, I had no idea.

Jessie's cell phone rang. Still staring at the body, she answered.

"Jessie."

I heard Edward's voice clearly, even though the phone was pressed to Jessie's ear. My transformation ability wasn't the only thing that was getting better.

"Is Elise with you?"

Jessie glanced at me. "Yes."

"Has she exhibited any odd behavior?"

"Not unless you count changing from werewolf to woman in the blink of an eye."

I stuck out my tongue, and she grinned. But her smile faded as Edward continued to speak. "There is a serious werewolf outbreak I need you to attend to."

She paced to the far side of the clearing, and though I tried to hear what Edward was telling her, I no longer could.

"Where?" she asked. "Okay. But we've got a little problem with Sheriff Stephenson. He's dead." Pause.

"Throat slit."

A garbled stream of words, most likely curses, erupted, but I couldn't make any sense of them.

"Tell Basil." Jessie sighed. "Fine. Have him bring the ME."

"Who's Basil?" I asked when she'd disconnected the call.

"The deputy." Her eyes drifted back to the body. "Make that the sheriff. Major pain in the ass."

I waited, and when she didn't explain, glanced at Will, who did.

"He's one of those who still think Indians aren't worth the bullet it takes to shoot them."

"Is he lost in a John Wayne movie?"

Will's lips twitched. "Maybe."

"Basil's bringing the ME?" I asked.

"No," Jessie said. "G-man is."

I gaped. "Nic's still here?"

"Apparently, and this is now his problem."

"Huh?"

"Try to keep up, Doc. Dead by knife wound." She indicated the body with the tip of her shotgun. "No werewolves but you, and you're off the hook. G-man's here, and he isn't in any hurry to leave."

Which was almost as big of a shock as the murder itself.

"He may as well make himself useful." Jessie looked me up and down. "To someone other than you."

"We're just going to leave and let the FBI handle this?"

"We are; you aren't."

"Huh?" I said again. I was so witty lately.

"Slick and I need to hightail it north." She lifted a brow in Will's direction. "Werewolf outbreak in upper Minnesota."

"What a shock," he muttered.

"And Edward?"

"He's going to retrieve your research."

"Where?"

"Got me. You're supposed to wait here for the ME and G-man, then get out of Fairhaven."

"But – "

Jessie and Will had already started for the car. Jessie turned back. "But what?"

"Where am I going to go?"

Jessie opened her mouth, then shut it again. "Mandenauer didn't say. Call him when you're done with the body."

Without another word, she and Will disappeared into the trees. Seconds later the sound of their car starting, then leaving, drifted on the breeze.

Within half an hour, another car arrived. Moments later Nic and a second man broke through the trees and into the clearing.

Nic's gaze widened at the sight of me. Either he hadn't expected to find me here at all, or he'd expected to find me furry. His face hardened, his eyes cooled; his only greeting was a nod.

I swallowed the thickness at the back of my throat. How could he act as if we'd shared nothing, as if we barely knew each other at all?

And they called me a beast.

I forced my attention to Nic's companion, an elderly man, at least seventy-five, perhaps more, who peered at me with eyes both dark and sad enough to belong on a basset hound.

His hair was snow white – but at least he had some –  his face weathered from age and the elements. He appeared as if he spent hours on various lakes pulling fish from both warm water and ice. Lord knows why.

"Hello," he greeted. "I'm Dr. Watchry."

"Sir, I'm with the – "

I broke off. I'd almost said J��ger-Suchers, but how much did the man know?

Dr. Watchry glanced at Nic, then back at me. "FBI?"

I merely smiled, unable to give voice to that lie. Nic didn't correct me, instead introducing me. "This is Dr.

Hanover. Research scientist."

"How interesting," Dr. Watchry murmured. "I've always been fascinated with research, but I haven't had time to pursue any. I've been the only physician in

Fairhaven for nearly fifty years. Also the medical examiner for this county."

Whoa! No wonder he was sad.

"Shouldn't you have retired by now?"

"If there'd been anyone willing to take my place, I would have."

"No one wants the job? Seems like a nice enough place."

Hey, I'd seen worse.

"Sweet child." He patted my arm. "To me it is. But to a youngster, fresh out of college, with a spanking new degree and money at last, the appeal of work, work, and then some fishing isn't very appealing.

Now, what do we have here?"

I was still stuck on sweet child. No one had ever called me that before. I liked it.

Nic cleared his throat.

"Oh! The sheriff. We found him like this."

Dr. Watchry tsk-tsked as he stood over the body. "There's never been a murder in Fairhaven."

"Never?"

I might live in the wilderness, but I watched television. Even I knew the lack of murder was a big lack – and an extremely pleasant one.

"Not here. I did investigate a few in my tenure, but nothing on this scale. Hunting 'accident.'" He made quotes around the word with his fingers. "Happens a lot. People hold grudges, then they're set free in the woods with guns. Usually the alcohol consumed before the season opens – as well as during – is the culprit."

"And the other incidents?" Nic asked.

"Crimes of passion mostly. Husband. Wife. A lover or two."

"Happens."

"Not here."

"What about the disappearances?" I asked, and Nic cut me a sharp glance.

I fought the urge to smack myself in the head. He didn't know about the people who had gone missing.

Now I'd have to tell him.

"No bodies, no crime," the ME answered, then got out his equipment: gloves, a mask, disposable tools.

The man knew his job.

"The coroner's van will be here shortly," he continued. "Of course, we don't have a coroner, just me. I'll do some preliminary testing, then have the attendants take the body to my clinic."

"Not the morgue?"

"We don't have one of those, either. With most deaths, the corpse is delivered directly to the funeral home. But if there's a need for further investigation, my clinic has to suffice. I've been provided with equipment and a storage facility."

Nic tugged a portable spotlight out of a case, setting it up so the doctor could see. The garish beam lit not only the sheriff's body but half the forest.

Then we stood around helplessly as he gathered evidence. Since the possibility of contamination was high, we kept back and let Dr. Watchry work.

"What disappearances?" Nic whispered.

Quickly I explained why the J��ger-Suchers had been called to Fairhaven.

"But you found no evidence of…"

Nic paused and glanced at the doctor, but he was well occupied and too far away to hear us, even if he'd been a spring chicken.

"Paranormal activity?" he finished.

I snorted at the euphemism. "As far as we can tell we've got standard disappearances and plain old-fashioned murder. Otherwise, they wouldn't have left an amateur like me behind."

"Something weird's going on. Blood but no bodies is not a good thing."

Since he was right, I didn't bother to comment.

"Where's the deputy?" I asked.

"Wasn't in. I left a message at the station."

"No dispatcher? No radio? No cell phone?"

"No. Maybe. I don't have the number," he snapped. "This isn't New York, Elise. Around here, decades go by without the slightest need for emergency services."

"Huh,"' the doctor murmured. "That's odd."

Both Nic's and my ears perked up. We moved forward.

"What?" Nic asked.

"There's a bite mark."

I stiffened, my gaze automatically going to the forest, searching for the telltale shine of werewolf eyes.

"Where?" Nic leaned closer.

"Back of the arm, under the shirt. Didn't see it at first. Barely broke the skin. But as the blood settles, the bruise becomes livid."

The doctor shifted the sheriff and tugged up his left sleeve. A strangled sound escaped my lips.

The bite had been made by human teeth.

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