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Hidden Moon (Chapter 13)

I wasn't sure what I expected to find at the Lake Bluff Community Hospital. Certainly not Grace sitting quietly in an empty room, staring at her hands.

"Where's the fire?" I asked.

She glanced up. "He's gone."

"He, who?"

"Ryan Freestone." At my blank expression she elaborated. "The tourist who was attacked by the wolf."

"So?"

"Gone as in disappeared and can't find a trace of him anywhere."

I sat, too. "You'd better start from the beginning."

Grace spread her hands. In one she held the swastika-marred slice of wood. "I came here to ask him about this. He was gone. No one's seen him since last night."

"He got sick of the place and left. I know I would."

"He didn't return to his hotel. His car's still in the lot."

"He's enjoying the festival."

"Maybe. I have my people keeping an eye out. But so far no one's seen him."

"He'll show up."

"Maybe," she repeated, turning the wood over and over in her hand like a worry stone.

"What's the matter with you?"

"I watched the security tape."

A prickle of unease washed over me. "And?"

She picked up the controller for the VCR and pointed it at the television mounted on the wall opposite the bed. A low thunk and flickering images appeared.

A dimly lit hall. The tiny clock in the corner of the tape read 3:23 a.m. A door opened and a man stepped out.

A completely naked man.

"That him?"

"Mmm."

"Guess he didn't care for the hospital gown."

Grace didn't bother to comment.

He crept toward the front entrance, cringing back when the image of a nurse moved to and fro behind the desk. He turned toward the camera, and I got a good glimpse of his face – awfully hairy, with wild, burning eyes that brought to mind a zealot or a crazy person. Because the film was black-and-white, I couldn't distinguish the color of his hair beyond lighter than black, nor the color of his eyes beyond lighter than dark.

"Not the most attractive guy in the world," I murmured.

"He had a fever, a bad one according to the nurses. He was saying all sorts of weird things."

On the tape, Freestone caught sight of an open window. He sprinted toward it with an odd, loping shuffle, then sprang onto the sill and went through.

"We're on the second floor," I said.

"No moss on you."

"What did you find under that window?"

"Footprints leading into the woods."

"Usually a fever makes you weak."

"Usually." Grace hit the off button, then pressed rewind, waiting several seconds before choosing pause.

"Take a look." She lifted a pile of white tape from the bed and held it out to me.

I made a face. "Do I have to?"

She quirked a brow, and I took the offering gingerly. The tape and gauze were wrinkled and torn, but there was no blood – or anything else I didn't want to see.

"I don't understand." I handed them back to her.

"Freestone had extreme throat trauma. Defensive wounds on the hands and arms, but watch this." She hit play.

I observed again Freestone creeping out of this room, seeing the nurse, turning back; then Grace froze the image.

He'd lifted his hands to smooth his hair out of his face. There wasn't a mark on them.

I stood and moved in closer, staring at his smooth, unmarred throat. "You're sure this is the same guy?"

"Yep."

"What did the doctor say?"

"He didn't have a clue. Since I couldn't find the wolf, they were going to start rabies shots today."

"Those are painful, right?"

"Better than they used to be, but I doubt treatment for rabies is anything you want to do if you don't have to."

"You think that's why Freestone pulled a Houdini?"

"Maybe." Grace ejected the tape. "Hell, I don't know what to think anymore."

Neither did I.

"I so don't need this right now," she muttered.

With the festival in full swing, Grace and her minions had their hands full. Even with the rent-a-cops she'd hired – retired officers from Lake Bluff and surrounding areas – they had to be swamped.

"I've got to find him," she said.

"What happens if he's got rabies and he doesn't receive the shots?"

"You don't want to know."

"I don't want to, but I think I have to."

She tilted her head, studied me, then nodded. "Pretty much what you've seen in the movies – extreme thirst, foaming at the mouth, inclination to bite everyone you meet, spread the wealth."

I cringed at the idea of the guy loping down Center Street at the height of the festival. That would kill the fun for everyone.

"The incubation period in humans is one to three months," Grace continued.

"Oh." A trickle of relief flowed through me. "That's good."

"As long as he doesn't leave town or disappear into the mountains. Freestone was a hiker and, according to his family, a good one. Been known to stay in the wilderness for weeks on his own. He knows the out-of-doors."

"Crap." The guy could survive indefinitely.

"There's also the chance that the virus has mutated."

"Which would mean?"

"A much faster incubation period."

"Like one to three days instead of one to three months?"

She shrugged. "Viruses are wonky that way."

"I have to call the CDC."

"Already done."

"And?"

"They'll get back to us."

I rolled my eyes, and Grace's lips tightened. "I can't wait around for them. Once the disease starts to exhibit symptoms, the vaccine is useless."

"We do not need a death associated with this town, or the festival."

"We don't need a rabies outbreak ever."

"Right. Do rabies victims usually take off like this?" I asked.

"I've never dealt with a rabies victim."

"Never?"

"According to the doctor, human infection is rare. I don't think he's seen it before, either."

"Swell."

"In my experience, normal people want to be cured. ASAP."

"So what's wrong with Freestone?"

"Normal people don't heal traumatic throat wounds in less than twenty-four hours."

I contemplated Grace's worried face. "What are you trying to say?"

"He might seem normal, but he isn't."

"What is he?"

"That's what we have to find out. But I'm not going to have time to trace down similar instances of miraculous healing. I'm assigning that task to you."

"Me?"

"You're research girl, right?" Grace didn't wait for me to answer. "And while you're boning up on miraculous healing, find out if there have been a lot of wolves appearing in places where there aren't supposed to be any."

"Okay."

"Anything turn up on this?" She wiggled the talisman.

I filled her in on the origin of the swastika.

"Protection and rebirth," she murmured. "Interesting."

I hadn't found it that interesting, but whatever. "Did it belong to our missing hiker?"

Grace shook her head. "I had to call his family to tell them he was gone. His wife said she'd never known him to carry a charm, amulet, or talisman, and she doubted he'd carry anything with a swastika on it."

"Because?"

"His mother's maiden name was Wasserstein."

"Oh."

"Yeah."

"I don't like this one bit."

"What 'this' are you talking about?" Grace asked. "The part where we have reports of a wolf where there hasn't been a wolf for a century? Or the part where the wolf that shouldn't be here mauls a tourist? Or maybe the part where the tourist miraculously heals, then disappears before he can be treated for a potential epidemic-producing disease?"

"I was talking about the part where we find a swastika where a person with a Jewish background was attacked in a part of the forest where Gypsies are camped."

"Ah, hell." Grace kicked the bed. "I hadn't thought of that."

"What now?"

"I'm going to get a search party together to find this guy."

"I'll help."

Grace laughed. "Have you ever been in the mountains?"

"I live in the mountains, Grace, same as you."

"Not same as me. I went into these hills with my father when I was four. He left me out there and made me find my way home."

I frowned. "You never told me that."

"It was… private."

"It was child abuse."

"What?" Grace appeared genuinely shocked by my comment.

"If someone called you and said a four-year-old girl had been left in the woods alone, on purpose, what would you do, Sheriff McDaniel?"

"Find the kid."

"And then? Would you give that kid back to the people who'd abandoned her at an age when she should be watching Big Bird instead of dodging his relatives as they swoop down and try to eat her eyes for breakfast?"

"You've been watching too much Hitchcock. Birds don't usually do that."

"I might not be 'heap big hunter' like you, but I know what vultures do, and scavengers of any type prey on the weak." Boy did I know that. "You could have died out there, Grace. I would have been really pissed off."

She smiled. "Thanks."

"So what else did your dad do in the name of tradition?"

She shot me a look that had me tightening my lips over any further questions. I guess we'd shared all we were going to for one day.

"I'll let you know what I find out there," she said. "Meanwhile you can search for that info."

"I'll need the talisman."

She reached into her pocket and slapped the icon into my palm. "Don't lose it."

"Have I ever lost anything?"

"Your mind," she muttered as she walked out of the room.

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