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Hunter's Moon (Chapter 2)

By the time I reached the little town in the north woods, the moon was rising. Not that I could see more than half.

But the orb was out there – waiting, breathing, growing. I knew it and so did the werewolves. Just because the sky wasn't glowing with a silver sheen didn't mean the monsters weren't changing and running and killing.

As I slowed my rental car, which I swear was the same four-cylinder piece of shit I'd turned in at the airport in Canada, a flicker of movement from an alleyway caught my attention. I coasted to a stop at the curb and got out.

The place had a deserted air that all small towns get after the supper hour. However, I wasn't sure if this was the usual "rolling up the sidewalks" tradition or the populace had started to stay indoors after dark because of the wolves.

Edward had to have a more serious motive than the common werewolf outbreak for bringing me here.

Even if I was training a new guy, there had to be a reason to do it in Shit Heel. I mean Crow Valley.

The shuffle of a shoe against concrete drifted to me from the alleyway.

"Better safe than sorry," I murmured, and reached into the car for my sidearm.

The rifle or the shotgun would be better, but as much as I might like to, I couldn't waltz along Main Street carrying a firearm as long as my leg. I might have the necessary ID, but I wasn't in uniform. Someone would stop me; then there'd be questions, answers. I didn't have time. Nevertheless, if there was a wolf in that alley, he'd be close enough to pop with my Glock.

I crept to the opening and glanced down the aisle. The single streetlight threw the silhouette of a man against the wall for just an instant before he disappeared at the far side of the building.

I'd have let it go, except for the howl that rose toward the waiting night. The hair on the back of my neck prickled and I shook my head. Once upon a time the thick braid that had reached to my waist would have waggled and rubbed away the itch. But I'd hacked off my hair long ago and now sported a near military crew cut. Life was so much easier that way.

As I was slinking along the front of the structure in the general direction of the man I'd observed, a chorus of answering howls rose from the forest that surrounded the town.

I glanced around the corner just as a wolf padded toward the trees. I let out a sigh of relief. I wouldn't have to wait around. Only an amateur would shoot a werewolf midchange. Then you're left with a half-man, half-wolf, which is a little hard to explain. Believe me. I've tried.

Though I always burned the body, I never knew who'd wander across my path while the bonfire was blazing. Always better to wait until they were complete wolves to do the deed.

But dallying can be hazardous to the health. Lucky me,

I'd come across a fast changer – either an overachiever or a very old werewolf. This one wasn't as large as the usual male but definitely a wolf and not a dog. Even huge dogs have smaller heads than timber wolves, one of the differences between Canis familiaris and Canis lupus.

The wolf loped toward the woods as the howls faded into the night. I let him get as far as the trees before I followed. The wind was in my favor, blowing across my face as I scuttled across the street. Still, wolves had excellent hearing, werewolves even better, so I didn't want to get too close, too fast.

I didn't want to get too far behind, either. I took three steps at a half-run and entered the cooler, darker arena of the forest.

Immediately the lights from Crow Valley became muted; the air cooled. I'd been born in Kansas, land of very few trees, and to this day whenever I entered woodlands I got spooked.

The evergreens were gargantuan, as ancient as some of the things I hunted, and so thick it was hard to navigate through them. Which was probably why a majority of the wolves, as well as most of the werewolves, gravitated north.

My eyes adjusted to the gloom quickly, and I hurried after the bushy gray tail, my gun ready. I'd done this enough times to know better than to put my weapon away. I wasn't Wyatt Earp, and I didn't plan to draw down on a werewolf. They were quicker than spit and twice as nasty.

A sound to the left made me freeze and spin that way. I held my breath, listened, looked. Heard nothing but the wind and saw even less. I'd stopped in a small clearing – the shadowy sheen of the moon lightened the area just a bit.

I turned back, hurried forward, blinked. Where was that tail? Nothing lay ahead of me but trees.

"Son of a – "

A low growl was my only warning before something hit me in the back and drove my face into the dirt.

My gun flew into the bushes. My heart was beating so fast I couldn't think.

Training kicked in as I grabbed the wolf by the scruff of the neck and flipped the animal over my shoulder before he could bite me. If there's one thing I'd hate more than being alive, it's being alive and furry.

He hit the ground, yelped, twisted, and bounded to his feet. I used the few seconds I had to spring to a crouch and yank the knife from my boot. There was a reason I wore them even in the heat of summer.

Kind of hard to conceal a knife in a sneaker.

I'd yanked out tufts of gray fur when I flipped the wolf, and they fluttered in the breeze. The animal growled. Eyes pale blue and far too human narrowed. He was pissed and because of that didn't think before leaping.

The beast knocked me to the ground. As I fell, I shoved the weapon into the wolf's chest to the hilt, then twisted.

Flames burst from the wound. Silver did that to a werewolf, one of the reasons I preferred killing them from a distance.

The animal snarled in my face. I held on to the knife despite the heat, despite the blood, and as the thing died in my arms I watched his eyes shift from human to wolf. It was an oddity I'd never get over, that change at the end.

Legend says that werewolves return to their human form in death, but that isn't true. Not only do they remain wolves, but they also lose their last remnant of humanity as they go straight to hell – or at least I hope that's where they go.

When the fire was gone and the wolf stopped squirm-ing, I shoved the body off me and yanked out my knife. Then I saw something disturbing.

The wolf I'd killed was female.

I scanned the area, searching for the male I'd expected. I was certain the shadow I'd observed in the alley had been a man's. I'd followed the wolf that had come out the other side. Hadn't I?

This one? Or had the male from town been following her as I had? If so, he would have attacked when she did. They couldn't help themselves.

Another mystery. Why wasn't I surprised?

I retrieved the gun, cleaned off my knife in the grass, then stuck it back in my boot. I wiped my bloody hands on my jeans – they were already stained, as was my shirt, but at least the dark material of both, combined with the less than bright sky, helped disguise what was staining them.

My palms tingled. A quick examination proved they were sore but not blistered, so I ignored them, following standard J-S procedure as I made a wolf bonfire to get rid of the evidence.

After sprinkling the body with a special accelerant – a new invention courtesy of the scientific division of the J-S society – I threw on a match. The flames shot past my head. Hot, strong, fiery red. Just what I needed to get my job done quickly.

Until recently, burning wolves took a long, long time. In order to remain secret and undetected, Jdger-Suchers needed to do their jobs and dispose of the evidence before anyone was the wiser. The new accelerant was a big help in that direction.

I thought to check in with Edward while I waited for the flames to abate. Unfortunately, I'd left my cell phone in the car. Oh well, if I woke him it would be payback for his waking me. And I liked payback –

almost as much as I liked killing things.

"Isn't that illegal?"

The voice, coming from behind me without warning, had me pulling my gun as I spun around. The man stared at my Glock without blinking.

I frowned. Most people flinched when you stuck a gun in their face. And mine was in his face. He'd gotten so close I had nearly clocked him in the nose with the barrel.

How had he snuck up on me like that?

Narrowing my eyes, I gave him the once-over. This was fairly easy, since he wasn't wearing any shirt.

The veins in his arms stood out, as if he'd been lifting – reps for definition rather than weight for strength.

His chest was smooth yet defined, with flat, brown nipples that only accentuated the pale perfection.

I'd never been much for beefcake. Hell, be honest, I'd never been much for men. Seeing your fiance torn into bloody pieces in your dining room did that to a girl.

However, I found myself staring at this one, fascinated with the taut, ridged muscle at his abdomen. Even his shaggy brown hair was interesting, as were his oddly light brown eyes, which shone almost yellow in the wavering light of the moon. I figured in the daytime they'd be plain old hazel.

His cheekbones were sharp, his face craggy. As if he hadn't been eating well or sleeping any better. And despite the pale shade of his eyes, there was a darkness to them that went deeper than the surface. Still, he was handsome in a way that went beyond pretty and stopped just short of stunning.

He had managed to pull on some black pants, though the button hung open, and his shoes must be with his shirt. Which explained how he'd gotten so close without me hearing him.

Suspicious, I kept my Glock pointed at his left nostril. "Who are you?"

"Who are you?" he countered.

"I asked you first."

He raised a brow at my juvenile retort. He was awfully calm for a guy who had a gun staring him in the face. Maybe he didn't think I had silver bullets inside.

The thought made my hand tighten on the weapon. Was this the man I'd seen in the alley? The one I'd thought had become a wolf, then run into the woods.

"You mind?" He grabbed the barrel, shoving it out of his face, then twisting the gun from my hand in a single motion.

I tensed, expecting an attack. Instead, he handed it back to me butt first. I'd never seen anyone move that quickly. Anyone human, that is.

If he was a werewolf, he'd have shot me already or attacked along with his girlfriend. I relaxed, but only a little. He was still a stranger, and Lord knows what he was up to in the woods, in the dark, without his shoes.

"Who are you?" I repeated.

"Damien Fitzgerald."

Damien?  Wasn't that the name of a demon? Or at least it had been in some 1970s horror movie I'd refused to see. I'd never been much for gore, even before such unpleas-antries entered my life on a daily basis.

The name Fitzgerald explained the pale skin and dark hair, even the auburn streaks placed there by the sun. But the eyes were wrong. They should be blue as the Irish Sea.

Their hue bothered me almost as much as their soul-deep sadness, the flicker of guilt. I'd seen that expression a thousand times before.

In the mirror.

He folded his incredible arms across his smooth chest and stared down at me. He wasn't truly tall, maybe six feet if that, but I was five-four in my shoes.

I hated being short, petite, almost blond. But I'd learned that guns were a great equalizer. It didn't matter if I weighed a hundred pounds; I could still pull a trigger. A few years of judo hadn't hurt, either.

Back in my Miss Tyler days, I'd highlighted my hair, worn pink lipstick and high heels. I stifled my gagging reflex.

Look what that had gotten me. Scars both inside and out.

"What's with the dead wolf bonfire?" he asked.

I glanced at my handiwork. It was hard to tell what I'd been burning, but maybe he'd been hanging around longer than I realized. So I gave him the same song and dance I used with every civilian.

"I'm with the DNR."

He made a face, the usual reaction to the Department of Natural Resources, I'd discovered. But he didn't behave like most people did when I introduced myself – getting away as quickly as possible and never looking back. Instead he stared at me with a question in his eyes.

Finally I asked, "What?"

"Why are you burning a wolf? I thought they were endangered."

"Threatened."

His blank stare revealed he had no idea of the technicalities that surrounded the wolf population.

Threatened meant wolves could be killed under certain circumstances by certain people. Namely me. As to the circumstances…

"There's an itsy-bitsy rabies problem in the wolves here," I lied.

One eyebrow shot up. "Really?"

He didn't believe me? That was new. I was a very, very good liar.

"Really."

My voice was firm. I didn't want any more questions. Especially questions I'd have a hard time answering. Like how did we know the difference between a rabid animal and one sick with something else?

In truth, we wouldn't without testing at the Madison Health Lab. Standard DNR procedure was to contact the local wildlife manager, then APHIS – the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a federal agency that deals with nuisance animals.

Thankfully the common man didn't know government procedure, so my lies usually worked. It helped that the word rabies freaked everyone out. People wanted the virus obliterated, preferably yesterday, and if someone with a uniform or an ID was willing to do that, they didn't ask too many questions. They just got out of my way.

Too bad Damien wasn't like everyone else. He tilted his head, and his unkempt brown hair slid across his cheek. "Rabies? How come I haven't heard about it?"

I'd fed this lie a hundred times before, and it tripped off my tongue without any thought at all.

"The news isn't for public consumption. We'd have a panic."

"Ah." He nodded. "That's why you aren't wearing your uniform."

"Right. No sense upsetting people. I'm taking care of things. So you can go back to… wherever it is you came from." I frowned. "Where did you come from?"

"New York."

"Just now?"

His lips twisted in what should have been a smile but wasn't. "No, originally."

Which explained the slight accent – the Bronx maybe, I wasn't sure. A Kansas girl who'd spent the last few years in the forest chasing werewolves didn't have too many opportunities to check out the accents of hot Irish men from New York City.

"Have you lived here long?" I turned away, using a hefty stick to poke up the fire.

"You never told me your name," he countered. "Do you have some kind of ID?"

I continued to stir the fire, considering what I should say. It wouldn't hurt to give him my name. I had DNR ID in my back pocket. The resources of the J-S society were far-reaching, even downright amazing in some cases. But why was he so interested?

"What are you?" I countered. "A cop?"

"Actually, yes."

I let out a yelp and spun around. Damien Fitzgerald had disappeared as if he'd never been.

The woman who stepped into the clearing wore a sheriff's uniform. She was both tall and voluptuous, which annoyed me on sight, and she walked with a confidence that bespoke someone who could take care of herself, even without the gun. Her dark hair had been cut short to frame an attractive, though not exactly pretty, face.

Her gaze took in the wolf pyre, then lifted to mine. "You must be the Juger-Sucher."

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