Good. Dead people do not snort. That was my qualified medical opinion.
“Hey, big guy?” I said loudly, shaking his shoulder. “Mister?”
He snorted again but did not wake up. I laughed, practically crying with relief. I gently shook my . . . passenger? Patient? Hostage? What was I going to do with him? He didn’t want a doctor, he said. But as much as I needed a vehicle, I didn’t have it in me to just leave him on the side of the road somewhere and drive off.
Just over the next rise in the road, I saw a sign for the Last Chance Motel, which seemed both ominous and appropriate. I took a deep breath through my nose and let it slowly expand my lungs. By the time I exhaled, I’d already formed my plan. At the faded pink motel sign, I turned into the lot and parked in front of the squat, dilapidated building. There were two cars in the lot, including the one in front of the office, which seemed to double as the manager’s quarters.
I reached toward the passenger seat and gently shook the big guy’s shoulder. His breathing was deep and even. As carefully as I could, I raised the hem of his bloodied shirt and gasped. The bullet wound, just under his ribs on his left side, seemed too small for such a recent injury. The edges of the wound were a healthy pink. And the bullet seemed to be lodged there in his skin.
I pulled away, scooting across the bench seat. That . . . wasn’t normal.
Calm down, I ordered myself. There’s no reason to panic. This is good news.
Maybe some weird act of physics had kept the bullet from penetrating deeply in the first place, I reasoned. I hadn’t gotten a good look at the wound while I was playing action hero in the dark parking lot. In my panic, it must have looked much worse than it was. Either way, the wound looked almost manageable now.
“Just hold on tight,” I told him, placing my hand on his shoulder again. He leaned into my touch, trying to nuzzle his cheek against my fingers. “Uh, I’ll be right back.”
It would appear that I was footing the bill for this little slice of heaven. I couldn’t reach his wallet, as it was in his pocket, firmly situated under his butt. I had just enough cash in my purse (a twenty and a few lonely singles) to cover one night. After that, I was dead in the water. The rest of my cash had been stashed behind a dresser in my motel room near Emerson’s.
I jumped out of the truck and tried to look calm and normal as I walked into the motel’s dingy little office and saw its creepy-as-hell occupant. The hotel seemed to have run a bizarrely specific Internet ad that read, “Wanted: semiskilled applicant with off-putting sex-predator vibe and lax standards in personal hygiene.”
And this guy was no exception. It took no less than three refusals of a “room tour” from the night manager before I was permitted to trade a portion of my precious cash supply for a little plastic tag attached to the oldest freaking room key I had ever seen.
“Two beds, right?” I asked, taking the key.
He shook his head, leering at me. “Single rooms only. We like to stay cozy here.”
“Is there a pharmacy anywhere around here?” I asked.
“In town, about four miles down the road. Opens in the morning, around eight,” he said. “But if you’re feeling poorly, I have something in my room that might perk you up.”
I turned on my heel and made a mental note to prop a chair against the outside door once I got to the room.
I opened up the passenger-side door and saw that the big guy had managed to sit up and had his head resting on the seat back. He was snoring steadily. I spotted a bulky duffel bag in the backseat of the cab and threw it over my shoulder. I unlocked the room door, tossed the bag inside, and steeled myself for the task of hauling his unconscious ass into the room. Careful to keep his bloodied side away from the manager’s window, I hoisted his arm over my shoulder in a sort of ill-advised fireman’s carry and took slow, deliberate steps toward the open door. The movement seemed to reopen the wound, and I could feel blood seeping through my shirt. We made it through the door.
I heard a distinct metallic plink. I looked down and saw that the bullet had rolled across the filthy carpet and hit the wall.
I meant to set him gently on the bed but ended up flopping him across the bedspread. The rickety bed squealed in protest as he bounced, but he didn’t bat an eyelash. I huffed, leaning against the yellowed floral wallpaper to catch my breath. “Sorry. You’re heavier than you look.”
I locked the door and wedged the desk chair against the knob. The room was so outdated it was almost in style again but the dirt and neglect screamed “dingy,” not “kitschy.” The carpet was a dank greenish-brown color that could only be described as phlegm. The bedspread, threadbare and nearly transparent in places, matched the shade.
I shook off the Norman Bates flashbacks and told myself it was just like any of the other crappy indigent motels I’d stayed at in any number of cities, and I hadn’t been stabbed in the shower yet.
I turned back to the sleeping giant on the bed. The flannel shirt made an unpleasant ripping noise as I peeled it away, the dried blood causing the stiff material to adhere to his skin. The wound seemed even smaller now, the area around it a perfectly normal, healthy color. I pushed back from him, away from the bed, staring at the minuscule hole in his flesh.
This couldn’t be right.
Taking a step back, I knocked over his duffel and saw a bottle of Bactine spray sticking out of the partially opened zipper. I arched an eyebrow and pulled the bag open. “What the—?”
Never mind having to run to a pharmacy. The bag was filled to the brim with well-used first-aid supplies—mostly peroxide and heavy-duty tweezers. And several different types of exotic jerky. But not much in the way of clothes.
I glanced from the shrinking bullet hole to the enormous bag of meat treats with its distinct lack of clothes . . . and back to the bullet hole.
Oh, holy hell, this guy was a werewolf.
This Is What Happens When You Roughhouse
I dropped my butt on the bed, staring down at the unconscious shape-shifter and feeling very stupid. I’d spent the last few years as the family physician for a large pack of werewolves in the Crescent Valley, several hundred miles away in southwestern Alaska. I’d recently resigned my position, if one could consider sneaking away in the dead of night a resignation.
Yes, werewolves were real. They walked among us humans, living relatively normal lives, working normal jobs, and occasionally shifting into enormous wolves and hunting down defenseless woodland creatures. They weren’t alone in the shape-shifting animal kingdom. In my time with the valley pack, I’d met were-horses, were-bears, and even a tragically less cool were-skunk named Harold. If it was a mammal, there was a group of people out there somewhere who could shift into it. (Fish and reptiles were problematic, for some reason.) Presided over by an alpha male—or in the Crescent Valley pack’s case, an alpha female—a pack usually lived “packed together” in a limited amount of space, such as a single apartment building or a trailer park, depending on the clan’s resources.
All major life decisions had to be approved by the alpha, from mate selection to college enrollment. Everything had to be deemed for the good of the pack.
Accepting that (a) these creatures existed and (b) they were now my patients was a strange adjustment for me. I’d had a complete Maggie must have slipped me special mushrooms breakdown the first time she shifted in front of me.
The scientist in me still had problems accepting the paranormal element of werewolves. I tended to think of their abilities as a genetic bonus, which was easier to accept than magic exists, but you just weren’t lucky enough to have any in your life until you stumbled upon a pack full of eccentric shape-shifters in your late twenties. But after a while, I realized that compared with living with someone whose moods shifted from moment to moment, living with people who had exclusively unstable physical forms was practically a vacation.
I flopped back onto the bed, noting with a frown that my weight didn’t even jostle the wolf-man. Of course. Of course I would walk away from one of the largest werewolf pack settlements in North America, only to end up trapped in a run-down motel room with a wounded one. Only someone with my logic-defying bad luck could possibly defeat the unlikeliness of those odds. I was the ass-backward Red Riding Hood.
Had Maggie Graham, my former boss, sent this guy to search for me? The big guy did have the look of the Graham family—dark, rough-hewn, and handsome, not to mention bigger than a barn door, as my gramma would say. But I’d cared for every single member of that pack, treating everything from swine flu to suspicious puncture wounds brought on by “scuffling” with porcupines. I didn’t recognize him, and I certainly would have remembered someone who looked like him.
Not to mention that werewolves rarely strayed this far from their territory. They were genetically programmed to protect their packlands, to crave hunting within their family’s territory with an ache that went way beyond homesickness and edged into crippling obsession. The chances of some distant Graham cousin venturing this far from the valley for such an extended period of time that I hadn’t met him in the four years I lived there? Not possible.
And frankly, none of this mattered, because I wasn’t planning on sticking around long enough for getting to know you conversations.
I sighed. Werewolf or not, I couldn’t let him sleep with bloody, unclean wounds. I searched through the bag and found bandages, tape, Bactine, and hydrogen peroxide. The bathroom was surprisingly clean, which, sadly, was turning out to be the highlight of my day. I ran a washcloth under a warm tap and used it to wipe away the brownish blood from his skin, noting the wound was now about the size of a dime. Worried that it was too deep to use the Bactine, I irrigated it with the peroxide, catching the runoff with a towel. He hissed, arching off the bed, but he ultimately slumped back into unconsciousness. Just to be safe, I sprayed the wound with Bactine and bandaged him up.
It had taken me some time to get used to werewolf physiology and adjust my medical training to it. While the spontaneous-healing thing made my position as pack doctor easier, it also meant that untreated broken bones could set in bad positions. Wounded skin could heal over foreign matter and dirt, which led to infections.
Beyond wound care, my chief responsibility had been monitoring and faking state-sanctioned paperwork for as many as a dozen pregnancies at a time. Werewolves were ridiculously fertile. Maggie also appointed me the “supervisor” of the pack’s seniors, who, although they aged a bit more slowly than the average human, were just as susceptible to the typical blood-pressure and joint problems associated with getting old. But they were far less open to accepting these issues, considering them “human problems.” For one thing, werewolf metabolism burned through calories so quickly that it was damn near impossible to monitor their diets, cholesterol, or salt. Try telling a seventy-year-old who can eat three whole fried chickens in one sitting that he needs to watch his triglycerides. The reaction will be swift and hilarious, and then he will go fetch his friends to tell them what the funny new doctor said.
The first time there was an emergency with the pack, I’d panicked. It was just claw marks from an unfriendly interaction between Maggie’s lovable idiot cousin Samson and a grizzly. Frankly, he could have healed up on his own within twenty-four hours, but a few stitches moved the process along faster. Samson’s back looked as if he’d made out with Freddy Krueger, and the injuries were so extensive I froze. I couldn’t seem to pick a location to insert the suture needle in his skin.
And then, of course, Samson was himself.
“Hey, Doc, stop staring at my ass and stitch me up,” he’d called over his shoulder.
That had broken the ice and allowed me to relax and make the first stitch.
Being able to practice again was a gift I couldn’t quite fathom. Before the valley, medicine had been something I’d had a certain knack for but not something I cared for passionately. I made a healthy salary, which I appreciated. I was good at putting patients at ease and had a talent for sorting through the mysteries of diagnostics. But I didn’t wake up in the morning and think, Oh, what a lucky girl am I!
In the valley, I rejoiced in the birth of every cub, mourned every death, and felt fortunate to help my patients through every stage in between. Through the pack, I found my purpose. I was able to feel like myself again, without the risk of being discovered. I could feel as if I was putting the very expensive education my parents had helped fund to good use. I had a place of my own making, a community that I’d earned. I built a calm, competent exterior that didn’t garner me any close friendships but kept me on good terms with my neighbors. While the people who greeted me so cheerily each morning may not have known the real me, they appreciated the me they did know.
Now that my time in the valley was over, I wondered if I would ever find that again. I would likely spend the rest of my life working at places like Emerson’s, where the people were friendly and the work was dull. I supposed I should be grateful for the time I’d had to use my education.
The big guy would be right as rain in a few hours. I, on the other hand, stood a really good chance of pulling a muscle trying to haul his enormous frame into a comfortable position on the bed. It took a couple of tries, but I managed to pull him by the shoulders until his head was near a pillow. Standing there, watching his chest rise and fall, I was suddenly very tired. I looked down and saw the fist-sized rusty-red splotch on the shoulder of my shirt.
Damn it. I only had one clean shirt left in my bag. And since I’d left behind everything I owned, I would probably be wearing that shirt for a while. I went into the bathroom, throwing the bloodied towels into a far corner. I dragged my stained shirt carefully over my head, rinsed it as best I could, and hung it over the shower-curtain rod to dry.