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Hidden Moon (Chapter 32)

Dawn spread across Lake Bluff as I drove to Grace's house. Considering the state of my windshield, I'd backed my dad's Ford Focus out of the garage. It smelled like him – cigarettes, mint Life Savers, and Old Spice.

"Hey, Dad," I whispered, and patted the dash.

The longer I stayed here, the more our past disagreements seemed just that – the past. I could see now why he'd loved his job, this place, the people, so much, and I was sorry I hadn't stuck around and at least given the job a try. I wasn't all that bad at it. In fact, I was better at being the mayor than I'd ever been at anything else.

"I'm here now," I said, and for just a minute I felt as if he'd heard me.

Mist still shrouded the tips of the mountains, pink and gold and orange swirling through the wash of green and blue.

Grace's windows were dark; I wasn't surprised. She was the kind of person who got up at the last minute, drank a single cup of coffee in the shower, and ran out the door with wet hair.

I had an odd sense of deja vu as I climbed the porch steps, rang the bell, then waited vainly for her to answer. I glanced through the glass on each side, saw nothing, and headed around back. However, this time when I knocked, the door swung open.

"Grace?" I stepped into the kitchen. The house was as silent as a tomb.

The cliche made my skin crawl, so I hit the lights and shouted, "Grace!"

The table was covered with guns and ammo, the boxes from a specialty gun shop in Tennessee that boasted "made-to-order anything." Places like that gave me the willies, but I guess, in this case, it was lucky for us they existed.

Grace must have dropped a bundle to get this stuff here so quickly. The truly interesting thing was that they had to have had the bullets ready-made to have sent so many, so fast. Which only made me think we were a little slow on the uptake in regard to the existence of werewolves.

It wasn't like Grace to leave loaded weapons where anyone could find them, just as it wasn't like Grace to leave her back door open if she wasn't at home. It really, really wasn't like Grace to do both at the same time.

I picked up one of the guns, a pistol with a safety that I made certain was on, and slowly made my way through the house.

She wasn't on the first floor – dead or alive – so I headed up the stairs. The bathroom was empty and as dry and cool as a midwinter Sunday. Grace hadn't taken a shower and gone to work, absentmindedly leaving all her guns and ammo behind and forgetting to lock the door. Besides, the squad car was right outside.

On the one hand, the car made me relax. She'd returned here after following the mysterious shooter into the woods last night. On the other hand, the car made me really nervous. Where was she?

"Grace!" My voice was both angry and frightened – a combination that was becoming too familiar lately.

She wasn't in her bedroom; either the bed hadn't been slept in or she'd made it, rucking in the corners as anally as a sergeant major.

I remembered how I'd found her the last time and pulled out my cell, hitting the speed dial for hers. The distant brrrring drew me out of her room and toward the second flight of stairs that led to her dad's former attic lair.

Well, I had wanted to see what she'd done with the place.

I climbed the winding staircase, my eyes on the dark circle at the top. Suddenly I wasn't so sure I should go up there, but what choice did I have? Grace might be hurt, or worse.

I reached the landing. The knob turned in my hand, the door swinging open with a head-splitting shriek. I felt around for the light, flicked the switch, but nothing happened. Luckily, the sun was up just high enough to push golden tendrils through the single window and illuminate the books and the beakers, the test tubes and the toads.

Make that toad. In an aquarium. I didn't think it was a pet since it was as dead as Balthazar, though a lot less crispy.

Crystals lay scattered about; dream catchers hung from the ceiling. I didn't think they were of Cherokee origin, but whatever. The thing that bothered me the most was the swastika-marked rune atop her work-table.

"Lucy, you've got some 'splainin' to do." I scooped up the rune – I couldn't tell if it were the one I'd "lost" or another one entirely – then thundered back down two flights of stairs and out the back door to find Grace emerging once again from the forest wearing nothing but a snow-white robe. However, this time that meant a whole lot more to me than it had last time.

I lifted the gun. "Strigoi de lup, I presume?"

Instead of being concerned, she snorted and strode toward me. "Gibberish will get you a smack in the head before I've had coffee."

"Grace." I put both palms around the grip of the gun to steady it. "You're a werewolf."

"Am not," she returned, then stopped, contemplating my face. "But you think I am. Tell me this, genius. If I'm a werewolf, how did I manage to toss a silver bullet at fifty Gypsies, or load the damn guns without frying my fingers off?"

"I only have Doc's word that silver causes burns in human form."

"You'll just have to trust me."

"What the hell are you up to, Grace?"

"Nothing that affects this."

"No?" I displayed the rune between my thumb and forefinger.

She growled with annoyance and snatched the gun out of my hand. Lucky for her I hadn't removed the safety.

"Don't be an ass." She stalked into the house, calling over her shoulder, "Come on. We need to talk."

Since she was right, I followed her inside.

"You first," she said, as she measured coffee grounds into the basket. "What are you doing here at this time of the morning, and why do you think I'm a werewolf?"

I handed her the copy of the anthropologist's e-mail. We sat at the table, and when she was done reading, she handed it to me. "I'm not Romanian."

"I've seen you coming out of the woods twice dressed in a white robe and nothing else."

"I'm Cherokee. I like to commune with nature."

"Why don't I believe that?"

Her lips tilted. "Yesterday you were arguing with me about the existence of werewolves, today you think I am one?"

"I saw that wolf with Balthazar's eyes. Seeing goes a long way toward believing."

"Well, until you see me sprout a tail and fangs, would you mind not shooting me?"

"I wouldn't have shot you," I said.

"Damn straight, with the safety on."

I should have known she'd notice that.

"What's with the dead toad?" I asked.

"He was Gramma's."

"How old is that thing?"

Her green eyes met mine over her second cup of coffee. "You don't want to know." She took a sip, then set the mug down, revealing a slash of dirt across her wrist.

"What happened?"

She turned her hand over; it was filthy. "I fell."

Grace had been voted least likely to fall in high school. Grace was… graceful, almost freakishly so.

She lifted one foot onto her knee. The sole was scratched. "I should know better than to walk around in the woods barefoot. Stepped on a stone. Winced, tripped. Bam." She spread her hands. Both of them were in need of a good scrubbing.

"You should get cleaned up."

"I will. Then we'll head to the camp." She studied me for a minute. "I've been thinking that maybe silver doesn't hurt them at all."

"Sure hurt Balthazar."

"If that was a silver bullet."

"From Doc's eyewitness testimony, I'd say that was a silver bullet."

"What if silver doesn't hurt them in human form?"

I thought about Mal's earring, the testing Grace had done of the Gypsies. "That could be a problem."

"Or maybe our culprit is superwerewolf," Grace continued. "Able to resist silver, wolfsbane, and pentagrams."

At my curious glance she continued. "I did a little research, too. Wolfsbane, or monskshood, is said to drive off werewolves. Which makes sense because it's extremely poisonous."

"And the pentagram?"

"There are quite a few different beliefs about those. A few state that the symbol will repel a werewolf like a crucifix repels a vampire."

"And the others?"

"That a pentagram is actually the mark of a werewolf. You didn't happen to see a tattoo on Cartwright's chest or his palm or any other part of his body?"

"Why are you so set on believing the werewolf is a Gypsy?"

"Our troubles started when they showed up. They travel with animals. Who's to say they don't have one more than they're admitting – one that isn't an animal all the time? The rune was found near their camp. They insisted on complete privacy on 'their land' in the days leading up to the appearance of said wolf. And that the Gypsies were in the camps where Mengele made werewolves is just too big of a coincidence to ignore."

"Not these Gypsies."

"Not necessarily." Grace shrugged. "If they're werewolves, they live forever."

"You've been thinking about this a lot."

"It's what I do. So, any pentagram on Cartwright?"

"No. And I saw pretty much all of him."

Grace lifted her brows. "Is he as good as he looks?"

"Better."

"Just your luck he could be a murderous, blood-drinking beast."

"Yeah, wouldn't that figure. But…" I paused, biting my lip.

"You don't think he is."

"Doc said once humans are infected they become different. Evil. Mal's one of the kindest men I've ever known."

"Unless he's breaking someone's nose."

He had seemed pretty different while dealing with Josh, as well as Balthazar. But I still couldn't resolve "murderous beast" with Malachi Cartwright.

"Getting back to pentagrams," Grace continued, "they can be used to conjure good or evil. One point ascendant for good, two points up welcomes the devil."

"If I ever see one, I'll be sure and remember that little cheat. Now, as long as we're talking about symbols, why don't you tell me how you got your hands on this one?" I tapped the rune that lay between us on the table.

"I found it in the woods last night."

"In the dark, with all the prehistoric trees and creepy crawlies, you happened to stumble upon this little ole thing."

Her eyes narrowed. "You say that as if you don't believe me."

"I don't."

"You think I stole this from you and… what? Turned myself into a strig de whatever?"

"It's just weird, is all."

"What isn't lately?"

"You know you could tell me anything and it wouldn't matter," I said.

"I could tell you I'm a ravening beast under the moon? That I killed Balthazar, Josh, and tourist man, and it wouldn't matter to you?"

"Well, maybe it would matter, but I'd still love you, and I'd still be your friend."

"But you wouldn't turn your back on me."

"Hell, Grace, I don't do that now."

Suddenly we were grinning at each other like fools.

"Well, thanks," she said. "That's probably the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me."

She definitely needed to meet more people.

"Why don't you tell me exactly what happened last night?"

"Okay." Grace thought for a minute. "After you called, I went to the scene, found the stirred dirt and ashes, and followed an iffy trail."

"What kind of trail?"

Her eyes met mine. "Wolf tracks only."

"No shoes?"

"No."

"Weird." Last time I checked, wolves couldn't fire guns. So who had shot Balthazar and why hadn't they left any tracks?

"Very," Grace agreed. "It took me several hours to finish because it was dark and the signs weren't strong, but eventually the pitter-patter of wolfy feet led me back to the camp."

"What camp?"

"What camp do you think?"

"Summer camp?" I offered hopefully. Grace stared at me until I was forced to admit, "Balthazar, the wolf, headed out from the Gypsy camp."

"As near as I can tell."

"And the rune?"

"Underneath the same tree as last time, which, by the way, is exactly where his trail ended."

"There's something hinky about that tree."

"You think?" Grace asked. "Even if lover boy isn't the original source of the werewolf, he knows more than he's saying."

Malachi had lied; I don't know why I was disappointed. I'd thought he was different, but he was still a man. Maybe.

"We searched that place from top to bottom yesterday," I pointed out. "Not a wolf in sight."

"That was before the show. Everyone and their kid sister was out there last night."

"Which means anyone could have done whatever it takes to create a werewolf out in those woods, and it wasn't necessarily a Gypsy."

"Theoretically, yes."

"But you don't think it was just anyone."

"We've got a lot of circumstantial evidence, but it all points to the Gypsies. Which just makes me suspicious as hell of a frame job, but who'd want to frame them? The two main suspects on my 'pissed off at the Gypsy king' list are dead."

"Which brings us right back to the Gypsies."

"Exactly. So let's head out there." Grace stood. "I'll be ready in a few minutes."

Grace was true to her word, returning ten minutes later in her uniform, with her hair braided into a long, wet tail down the center of her back.

"Ever hear of a hair dryer?" I asked.

"They give me split ends."

"Running around with wet hair is going to give you pneumonia."

"You know darn well wet hair has nothing to do with getting sick."

"So they say." But I'd never been convinced.

The drive to the lake passed in silence until Grace turned onto a narrow hunting trail a good half mile from the Gypsy camp.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"We wanna find out anything, we need to go about this a little quieter than usual."

"Sneak up and spy on them you mean?"

"Yep. If you've had an attack of conscience, you can wait here."

I didn't like the idea of spying, but since I liked the idea of marauding werewolves even less, I followed Grace into the woods.

A heavy bank of clouds drifted over the sun. Shadows danced through the leaves, making me glance to the right, then the left, on more than one occasion, fearing I'd seen something more solid than a flicker flitting between the trees.

"I'm getting a bad feeling," Grace murmured.

I had the same feeling, but I kept it to myself. What good would talking about it do? I'd only become more spooked.

We reached a slight incline. Grace dropped to her stomach and peered over the edge. I did the same. We lay on a rise that sloped down into the trampled, grassy area used for parking. Not a soul was in sight there or near the surrounding wagons.

I consulted my watch. Early, but there should still be someone hanging about.

"Bad feeling getting badder," Grace said.

We waited a few more seconds; then Grace got to her feet and headed down, hand on her weapon – one of those I'd seen on the kitchen table, loaded with silver.

When we reached the edge of the camp Grace paused, putting her finger to her lips. Then she closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and held it as she cocked her head.

Moments later she released the breath and opened her eyes. As always, the flash of green against her dusky cheekbones surprised me. "No one's here."

I tended to agree with her, but – "How do you know?"

"Deserted places have a… well…" She looked away. "An aura."

"An aura," I repeated. "Is that like a musty smell?"

"Hell!" She stalked toward the animal wagons. I hurried after.

We rounded the corner at the same time, then stared at a whole lot of empty.

"This is not good," Grace said.

"Understatement. Where could they be?"

"Where do you think?" She swept her arm toward the trees and nearly clocked me in the nose. "We're going to need Animal Control." She began to pace, thinking out loud. "Tranquilizer guns. If that grizzly or that cougar gets near town – "

She didn't have to finish. She didn't have to tell me to hurry. I headed back the way we'd come, scrambling up the incline and over the top with Grace on my heels.

As if by mutual agreement, we stopped, turned – and hit the dirt as if our legs had been swept out from under us.

Animals slipped from the trees and into the Gypsy camp.

Grace drew her weapon, but there were too many of them for it to do us any good if they suddenly heard or smelled or sensed us up here and decided to attack. In fact, there were a lot more of them than there should be.

Grace flicked a glance at me, eyebrows furrowed. She was having the same double-vision problem that I was.

Out of the trees lumbered two grizzlies, two cougars, two zebras – was there an ark around here we weren't aware of?

Multiple animals continued to appear. More than two of each in the categories of monkeys, snakes, and birds but also more than what I'd tallied the first day.

To my amazement, the cougars weren't tearing apart the zebras. The grizzlies weren't eating everything. They appeared to be one big, happy family, and they all seemed to be waiting for something. Then Malachi stepped out of the trees.

I tensed. Just because the grizzlies were trained, or at least one of them was, didn't mean Malachi might not be mistaken for breakfast.

But he walked among them unafraid, touching certain animals on the head, the shoulder, the tail. He even leaned down and brushed his fingers across the back of a snake. Straightening, Malachi opened his arms as if welcoming them.

Mist spread from his fingertips, swirling across the assembled throng. Clouds formed above those he'd touched, and the sun sparkled through the haze, seeming to rain diamonds onto the backs of the chosen ones.

They shimmered, and then they shifted.

One second a great lumbering grizzly bear gaped at the sky; the next a naked Hogarth straightened from four legs to two. A cougar became Molly; a zebra turned into the lithe young woman with the streak of white through her dark, dark hair. Two monkeys morphed into slightly hairy older men – one I recognized as the snarly ticket taker. Another became Edana, the fortune-teller, which kind of explained her joke with the paw. The snake grew and grew, writhing, expanding; then, in the blink of an eye, Sabina stood in its place.

"Oh boy," Grace breathed.

I couldn't speak at all. I could only stare at Malachi while the mist swirled around him.

The good news? He wasn't an animal.

The bad news? I doubted he was entirely human, either.

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