Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
by Donna Marie Nowak
LONDON (Reuters) — A rash of mysterious livestock killings is terrorizing locals in the once-peaceful Shropshire countryside. Famed for its rural beauty, the area has been plagued by unexplained depredation of farm animals, including prize-winning Shropshire sheep, which some believe to be the work of alien big cats (termed “ABC”).
The slaughter bears earmarks of wolves or other large predators, but the last wolves in Britain were known to be extinct by 1680. Although there is no proof of the existence of wild cats in Britain, rumors and sightings persist, some of them proven hoaxes, the phenomena extending across Europe.
Some 2085 sightings were reported in the past year, several of them in Shropshire. After public outcry, the Royal Marines combed the countryside for signs of ABC or other large predators, but found only water voles.
Local environmentalists fear the killings will inspire a backlash against wolf reintroduction programs in other parts of the continent or mindless slaughter of a possible rare wolf population in the area. Armed farmers vow to take matters into their own hands.
* * *
Blistered and scratched raw, Cassandra Whiting tore her way blindly through the brush, trying to control shaking limbs so that her legs could carry her to safety. Hysteria ravaged her breath and her heart pounded mercilessly, her efforts to rationalize futile.
The tree fort was up ahead. She knew it, because she had discovered it on lazy, sunlit days last summer with Jeffrey when they often hiked in the forest and laid a blanket in the aromatic heather to watch the sky. Some tree forts were sinister, harboring dark secrets, but this one was a rustic dream, long abandoned, perhaps built by some Huck Finn atavist as his sanctuary.
In the distance, she heard the hiss of the overturned car, blue flames licking the horizon, and imagined the terrifying, snuffling grunt of the beast behind her, although it was hard to distinguish from her own labored sobbing. Fear overwhelmed her sanity. The screams were worst of all, shrieks mingled with the ferocious growl of the Thing that had attacked them, the Thing that sliced the metal of the car’s roof open as if it was paper.
If only she could make it to the tree fort in time! Twigs snapped as she propelled herself headlong. Was that horrific grunting and gasping behind and all around her Fiona or the beast or her imagination? And Jeffrey. What had the beast done to him? What of Ian? Or Simon? Tears coursed down her cheeks, blinding her.
The tree was ahead, the one that held the fort high atop its upper branches. From the secret shelter above, one could see forest and meres and mosses in their panoramic glory. Now the only view would be the massacre.
She found the ladder, still suspended solidly from the canopy above, and grabbed it with sweating palms. Panic made her limbs useless and her lungs ached agonizingly. Her first attempts to swing her shaking leg onto a lower rung failed as if she was greased in butter, but finally her foot took hold and she began the climb.
One sweaty hand after the next gripped leathery rungs, hand over hand. The ladder swung wildly, careening. She was hyperventilating, blood and terror coursing through her ears and lungs. She couldn’t possibly make it, but she was climbing, trembling, her feet slipping uncertainly and precariously into the rungs.
Halfway up she paused, looping her arms through the rungs to gain some control before a fatal mistake would cause her to fall to her doom. Chest heaving, she dared to look over her shoulder into the forest below. From the distance under the full moon, among the silhouettes of trees, she saw him. His fiery red eyes glistened malignantly. He was watching her.
* * *
Chief Inspector Oliver Oglethorpe bit down on his pencil, leaving a mark in the lead. No human being could possibly have shredded a car or torn apart a human body like the Beast of Shropshire, as it was being called. The girl with bedraggled blonde hair and vacant gray eyes huddled in the van, swathed in blankets, in a state of shock. She had been found in the water under a footbridge, teeth chattering, some twenty-five feet away from the scene of carnage. Fiona Pargeter was her name and she had been submerged there for untold hours until the blaze was reported by a passing lorry.
They tried to piece together what happened from the bits they were able to glean from her. She was so badly traumatized, it made difficult going. Apparently she and a few friends had gone out to dinner and a pub in Telford and were driving home on a rural and deserted road when the Beast landed on their car roof with a huge thud, sending it into a spin. He then tore off the roof with his bare claws.
Fiona managed to get out of the car and took off in a blind run. She plunged into the river under the footbridge as the only possible cover where she remained, exhausted and terror-stricken, for what felt like days. Her mental state could explain her insistence that the beast was not bear, wolf or wild cat, although the ferocity of the attack could only have been done by a very large animal — a rabid grizzly, Inspector Oglethorpe imagined.
“He stood like a man,” she insisted. “A wolf as big as a man who stood on two legs.” Her eyes pleaded in a way that pained and unsettled Oliver Oglethorpe to his marrow. Those eyes had seen unspeakable horror, permanently imprinted on her psyche. “He was a werewolf,” she whimpered, her voice hoarse.
“The ambulance will be here soon, Fiona. You rest.” A bear stood on two legs, Inspector Oglethorpe thought. But nothing more threatening than a raft spider had ever been known to inhabit Shropshire, certainly no grizzly bear or beast on two legs that stood like a man.
The girl would be taken to hospital and treated for possible hypothermia and shock. She had been very fortunate to have escaped the creature, whatever it was. Distractedly Oglethorpe fingered his red pencil moustache, his mouth set in a grim line. The others were far less fortunate.
* * *
Octavia Oglethorpe regarded her older brother with her disconcerting and striking eyes. They were steel-blue like his own, but flecked with amber, their intensity like fire. She listened to his account of the Beast of Shropshire as her knitting needles clacked steadily, weaving the rose red shawl with white piping.
They sat under the thatched roof of Oliver’s cottage, quiet save for her needles and the steady tick of the grandfather clock. The yarn originated from the fine wool of Shropshire sheep sold in “Baa Baa Black Sheep” in nearby Shrewsbury, a woolens shop that had been in the Oglethorpe family for generations.
She rode over on the Wolverhampton rail, bringing her customary gingerbread from Market Drayton. He knew she wouldn’t ridicule his forebodings, being an unconventional soul herself. One of the first female bishops in the Anglican Church, she had already traveled the globe and encountered nearly every malady and pestilence known to man.
“This seems hardly in your line, does it?” she remarked when he finished. “If it’s a hoax, there’s a psychopath behind it, and if it’s a beast, surely it would leave scat. Can the Royal Marines be called in again to search for its lair?”
“But it had to have arrived fairly recently. I never put much stock in all these sightings of big cats and that rubbish. Figured the public just likes its toast buttered. Dismissed it — until the sheep. It’s conceivable, of course, that a pregnant panther might have escaped from a traveling circus ages ago and sired these ongoing generations of mystery cats that people insist exist. At least, it’s about as likely as a Loch Ness monster surviving for hundreds of years in Scotland undetected by scientists. But then this thing, whatever it is, only recently migrated to our area through some unknown corridor. What could it be? From where? The girl insisted she saw a wolf.”
“A werewolf,” Octavia calmly corrected.
“A huge werewolf that stood on two legs.” Oliver bit into a piece of gingerbread and sipped his tea. His eyes darted like fireflies. “You don’t think it’s possible, do you? Some hybrid wolf and grizzly? Something not of this world?”
“Everything that is here is of this world,” Octavia smiled. “I can put you in touch with the leading authority on lycanthropy in these parts. Knows a lot about predators of all sorts.”
“Yes. Lycanthropes are werewolves, humans with the ability to shapeshift into wolves or wolf-like creatures, either from being bitten by a werewolf or through a curse. Gervase of Tilbury, a medieval canon lawyer, believed the transformation took place during the full moon. But the theory might have originated much earlier in ancient Greece. According to legend, werewolves have extra-human strength and senses far beyond the ordinary.”
“It sounds like you know quite a bit about werewolves yourself, Octavia.”
Octavia chuckled, dunking her gingerbread into her cup. “All I know I learned from my teacher, whom you’ll meet. There’s also clinical lycanthropy, which you might find interesting. Anyway, Tristam Maxwell, our lycanthropy guide, can tell you about both. He lives in Shrewsbury. Helped me on a bake sale for Christ Church a few months ago after I returned from Romania.”
“One of the strongholds for the European wolf population, eh?”
“Romania? Wolves, yes, and in the popular imagination, superstition.”
* * *
Cassandra wasn’t sure where she was when she first awakened. She was cold, her body stiff and wracked with chills, her chestnut brown curls matted. It was as if she had blacked out. Bewildered, she sat up on one elbow, her nostrils pricked by the smell of moldy blankets, heather, conifers and lavender more intoxicating than any perfume. A tainted paradise.
She lay on a dirty woolen blanket that had been left in the tree fort, scratchy and dotted with insects, but a source of warmth. Her knapsack had been left at the car, dropped somewhere on the ground the way you try to distract grizzlies. She remembered dully the insects in the blackness, the cold, the terrifying creak of branches, small noises, a nightmare night, bats etched against the sky.
Once she sat up, heart hammering, to find a tawny owl staring in the primitive window of the fort with glittering green eyes, its head rotated almost backwards. For some minutes, she remained stricken, thinking it was the Thing suspended outside on a branch. Her body ached as the horror came back. Not only a bad dream. Real. The road with nothing for miles around and the full moon riding in the sky above.
Something lurked on the periphery of her consciousness, but she was too weary to remember. Was she in shock? She could recall very little of that tragic ride, only the man-beast and Jeffrey and Ian screaming, her pell-mell flight through the brush. Simon with his shattered glasses. The bloodcurdling screams. Were they all dead? Was she the only survivor?
She began to shake again, her thoughts tortured and jumbled and confused. The forest was alive with magnified sound even now. It was as if a thousand men-beasts were coming in pursuit of her, the noise emanating from below. No, she would not escape alive.
Dragging her limbs like a slug, she writhed to the window and peered out. Her raw fingers clenched and unclenched with anxiety. Figures clad in red were moving through the forest, twigs crackling beneath their feet. Men. In a voice she didn’t recognize as her own, strained and anguished, she began to yell for help.
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Donna Marie Nowak