YOU COULDN’T sneak up on a werewolf.
It wasn’t possible. Everyone agreed on that, from a million pop culture references to the people who actually ran ops with the real ones. Werewolves had hyperdeveloped senses, and they were incredibly protective of their territory and their pack. You could trap a werewolf, you could trick a werewolf, you might even be able to bargain with a werewolf―I was banking on that―but you couldn’t sneak up on one. They could tell where you’d stepped almost before your foot hit the ground.
So why was I standing outside a chain-link fence in the snowy twilight, slowly freezing to death while waiting for someone to notice I was there? I’d been counting on being found quickly; I really hadn’t packed for the snow. My bad―Davis had told me I needed more than a sweater and a jacket better suited to a California winter than a Colorado one, but I’d been too frantic to listen to him.
If I died clinging to a fence in the middle of nowhere, Davis might bring me back to life just so he could kill me again for being such an idiot.
“Avoid the guardian,” he’d said, thin lips terse as he’d handed me the map. An actual physical map, not GPS—nothing I could program into my phone. “You can’t take the obvious road without getting stopped, so you’ll have to hike into another part of their preserve. And burn that map when you’re done with it. I’m fuckin’ serious, Ward. If that’s found by the wrong people, it could cause a domestic terrorism incident.”
“I’ll destroy it,” I’d promised hastily, glancing at it before I stuffed it in my pocket. At that point, my daughter Ava had been gone for three months. At least she hadn’t been missing, not anymore. Davis had located the pack she’d been sent to. I’d just had to find it, get the nearest werewolf to ask questions before shooting or biting or whatever appealed most at the time, and persuade them to let me stay.
Well, at least I’d managed the first part of it.
“Don’t you people have cameras?” My lips were so cold I could barely articulate the words, but the act of speaking seemed to break through the layer of ice that had chilled my anger ever since I’d started hiking.
I’d gone seven miles through the snow after abandoning my car, the pale winter sun doing little to warm me as I trudged along, hoping against hope for a sign that I was going in the right direction. Finding the fence had felt like a godsend at the time, but I’d been there for over an hour now, waiting for anything and getting nothing at all. My breath rasped in my chest, and I’d had to stop and use my inhaler twice. Much more than that and I’d be courting real trouble, so I kept my breaths shallow and my scarf pulled across my mouth.
“Seriously,” I went on. “What wolf pack doesn’t have cameras covering every part of their territory? How can you not have seen me yet? If you’re not as goddamn paranoid as I was led to believe, I’m going to be so pissed.” Also probably deceased, but that was my problem, not theirs.
Actually, no, I was going to make it their problem too.
“I will climb this fence,” I announced to the growing darkness in front of me. “I’ll climb this fucking fence, and I’ll get all snarled in the barbed wire at the top, and then you’ll wish you’d found me while I was still alive, you assholes, because you’ll be untangling me for fucking hours!” I don’t think I’d sworn this much since my brother’s funeral.
Okay, I was angry, but I was also being serious. Someone should have seen me on camera by now. Davis had been very clear about that. Maybe the one I was closest to wasn’t transmitting—I needed to move, then. I needed to pick a path and go, because if I didn’t start walking now, I might not be able to before long. Right or left? Which direction had the road that passed the guardian been on, again? I’d already burned the map, shit, shit….
I went right. If I hit the road, at least the guardian would probably keep me alive if they found me. I wouldn’t be able to help my daughter if I was dead. My feet felt dangerously numb, and my nose might’ve been blue by now. The wind made my eyes water, and tear tracks froze on my cheeks. I clung to the fence, using it half for guidance, half for support.
“I’m gonna find you, baby.” I would. “I’ll find you.” I had to. I wasn’t going to sit back and let the government take her from me just because she’d turned out to be a werewolf.
The mutation had been around since the early forties, when a supersoldier experiment resulted in men that, instead of having all the heightened senses of wolves, actually turned into wolves. They escaped the confines of Pine Camp in northern New York, crazy with fear and adrenaline, and went on a biting spree. Most of the bitten died after turning into wolves.
A few of them managed to turn back into people, though.
The government took responsibility for their mistake and divided the surviving werewolves into packs. Hollywood loved them, scientists wanted to study them, and bigots wanted to kill them, but for the most part, real werewolves stayed firmly out of the spotlight. The only exception to that rule was when someone turned unexpectedly. Someone like my Ava.
The bite didn’t manifest in lycanthropy for everyone bitten. Some people, a tiny percentage of those exposed to the mutation, were simply immune to the shift. They could carry it, though, and they could pass it on. For Ava, the gene must have come from her mother. Carriers were almost always incredibly healthy, and I was far from a model of vitality. It was just as well I wasn’t usually attracted to people who could get pregnant.
Every now and then, maybe half a dozen times a year, a child would shift. Usually it didn’t happen until puberty, or some other time of extreme stress. For my daughter, it was her first day of preschool.
I could still hear her voice from that morning in my head. I’d been running late, stressed by the start of a new semester and the challenge of trying to get my daughter dressed, fed, and into her car seat before eight in the morning. She’d been clingy, more than usual.
“I want to stay with you!”
“But you’re a big girl now, sweetheart. Big girls go to school. You’ll have so much fun and make so many new friends.”
I’d gotten the call about her change at lunch, right after dismissing forty freshmen from my Physics 101 class at the community college where I’d taught. I hadn’t recognized the number at first―I’d almost let it ring through to my voicemail. “Hello?”
“Mr. Johannsen?” The woman’s words had been almost too warbly to make out. She’d cleared her throat. “It’s Maria Kostakis. Ava’s teacher.”
“Oh, boy.” I’d sighed and sunk down into my chair. “Is she okay? She’s not sick, is she? She was pretty unhappy this morning, but she wasn’t running a temperature back at the house.”
“She’s….” I’d never had a professional trail off like that with me. It made my heart beat harder in my chest.
“She’s what?” I’d snapped. “What?”
“She’s turning.” Those words seemed hard to get out, but once she’d managed them, Ms. Kostakis had continued faster and faster. “She told me at snack time that her hands hurt, and when I looked at them, I saw—there were claws coming out the end of her fingers, and her palms were changing color. I got her to the nurse’s office before things got much worse, but our school doesn’t have the sort of containment facilities needed to handle a shift, so—”
“It’s standard procedure, Mr. Johannsen. If a child shifts in a public environment, they have to be contained immediately so they can’t infect others. The nurse called the police, and when the SWAT team arrived—”
“A SWAT team? She’s four years old!” I knew the basics of dealing with an unexpected shift—I worked in public education—but SWAT seemed excessive.
“A four-year-old werewolf. The danger she put our entire school in, I just….”
“She’s a kid, not a bomb!”
“She might as well be a bomb!” Ms. Kostakis had shrieked at me.
It had taken longer than I’d wanted to get the rest of the chain of events out of her. SWAT had come, ushered my baby girl into a cage, and taken her to the nearest government facility equipped to deal with werewolves. By the time I’d gotten there, Ava had already been transported again. And this time—
“We can’t tell you where she’s gone, Mr. Johannsen.”
“The hell you can’t.” I’d never been so angry in all my life. Never: not when I’d been laid up in the hospital for weeks at a time, not when Rick and Davis had enlisted, not when Ava’s mother left us. “She’s my daughter. I’m her parent, her legal guardian. You can’t just take my child from me.”
The state official behind the bulletproof glass had weathered my outrage without batting an eye. “Actually, under the Safety in Isolation Act of 1946, we can. Your child is a member of a protected but dangerous species, and the best place for her is in a pack where she’ll get proper care and oversight. Werewolves need to be in packs in order to be mentally and emotionally stable.”
“How will ripping her away from everything she’s always known make her emotionally stable?” I’d demanded. “Ava is an only child―she just started school this morning! I’m all she knows, and she needs me. We need to be together.”
“Werewolves adapt differently to change than humans, and Ava is very young. She’ll do better in her new situation than you’re giving her credit for. Regardless, Mr. Johannsen, you’re not going to be allowed to see her.” Cool eyes had regarded me dispassionately. “It’s best if you accept the government’s transition payment and forget you ever had a child.”
“I refuse.” I’d stood, furious enough that I barely had any energy left for standing. My breaths had been so shallow I was light-headed, but I’d be damned if I showed any weakness in front of a soulless bureaucrat. “You can expect to hear from my lawyer.”
“If that’s how you want things to go. You won’t get anywhere with it, though.”
I’d left full of righteous indignation, enough to drown out my fear. Eventually the tables had turned, though, and fear replaced confidence as I learned that the official was right. No lawyer would take my case. The law was ironclad: werewolves weren’t classified as human. They were a dangerous subspecies, and they were the property of the government. Any attempt to locate my daughter would result in my imprisonment, which I’d have risked if I could have gotten anywhere, with anyone.
In the end, the only person who would help me was Davis, and I still didn’t know everything he’d had to do to get the information he did. I’d asked, but he wasn’t sharing his sources. I didn’t care as long as he was right. His information had led me here, to Middle Of Nowhere, Colorado, where he said I’d find Ava.
God, I was so cold. And when had my feet stopped moving? I glared down at them through my frozen lashes, willing them to get going again, but they refused. How far had I come from where I’d first found the fence? Was there another camera? My arm felt as heavy as an anvil, and it was so hard to keep holding on to the fence when all I wanted to do was rest. Just for a moment. Just….
Pressure so light I barely felt it against my hand made me turn. There was someone on the other side of the fence—an actual person. Hallucinations might be able to talk, but I wouldn’t feel them, right? She was mostly concealed by a hooded fur-lined parka, but I could see the top half of her face. Her eyes looked worried.
“Please,” I croaked. The cold had ripped my voice to shreds. “Let me see her. I need to see my baby.”
“Who are you talking about? How did you get here?”
“Ava. My kid. She―I know I’m not supposed to be here; they told me to just forget about her, but she’s all I have. Please. I’ll do anything to see her.” Anything at all.
Her mittened hand gripped mine harder. “What’s your name?”
“How did you find us?”
“Please.” I was so cold, and my hand was so heavy. It fell from the fence, even though she was trying to hold on to it. My knees collapsed, and I heard the woman cry out. “P-please.” I leaned my head against the unforgiving metal links, the only things that were keeping me from pitching into the snow. She knelt down on the other side of the fence and stared at me.
“Mr. Johannsen. Mr. Johannsen! Ward!”
I blinked at her.
“Shit.” She glanced away for a moment. “Henry’s going to kill me.” She looked back at me. “Fuck it. I’ll be to you in two minutes, Ward. Do you understand? Don’t lie down.” She shook the fence for emphasis. “Do not lie down! Say you understand me.”
“If you lie down, you’re not going to get to see Ava. You hear me? Ava needs you to stay awake!”
My baby needed me. “I’ll stay awake.”
“Good.” She pushed to her feet. “Two minutes, Ward. I’ll be right back.” I heard the crunch of her footsteps vanishing into the dark, and I pressed my forehead hard to the fence.
Two minutes. I could do that.
As long as I didn’t die first.