Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
by Donna Marie Nowak
Inspector Oglethorpe felt conspicuously ridiculous, the words, “Glad to meet you, Mr. Maxwell” dying on his lips as the leading authority on lycanthropy and assorted monsters entered the Hounds and Hooves Pub in Shrewsbury. He arrived on a bicycle, wearing a peaked cap under his helmet, and a white woolen sweater. He had a round freckled face, black cropped hair and amazingly penetrating hazel eyes.
Oliver overlooked him at first, glancing out the window and sipping a pint of bitters. Octavia had only told him he would be met at the pub by his guest who was attending a “Wildlife at Our Back Door” lecture at Shire Hall, nothing else. So like her to be enigmatic and close-lipped, the woman of few words.
But then the cyclist strode up to Oliver at his table and introduced himself. Tristam Maxwell’s smile revealed a mouth of metal braces. His book bag had the insignia of Packwood Haugh, an Anglican primary school. He was approximately eleven years old.
“So you can tell me everything I need to know about werewolves, can you?”
“And large carnivores. My favorite topic is wolves and werewolves, but I’ve read a lot about all kinds of shape-shifters, leprechauns, shamans, doppelgangers, and the common house fairy. I’ve been doing lots of research on the alien big cats for school and working with a group ‘Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing’ about the idea of repopulating Britain with natural carnivores.”
“Natural carnivores? So that the sheep population can be culled and the farmers can lose their livelihood? Would you know anything about an unidentified wild beast here in the Shropshire area? A group of kids — young adults, I mean — encountered this thing. Only one girl survived. Is that the handiwork of an introduced wild animal that no one told the general population about?”
“No.” Tristam’s face whitened guiltily. “We’re just talking about it. So that the wild can become the wild again. So there is respect for—”
“Respect for what? For the people who live in these areas and have to cope with fierce animals in their backyards that haven’t lived there for hundreds of years? I’m familiar with some of the ideas floating about, son. No more ‘nice and neat’ wild parks — replace them with vast wild spaces full of wild beasts like Africa. I know the concept of ‘rewilding’ places.
“The question is why do we want to decivilize civilization? Hasn’t it eroded enough? Having some kind of containment to wildness is a good thing. Should we reintroduce tsetse flies and the deadly diseases they carry, like sleeping sickness? How far should this experiment go?”
Oliver thought of the decapitated head he’d seen by the car. It was Jeffrey Bowen’s remains, a young man who used to help out at his brother Ogden’s woolens shop as a child. His voice had risen and he came back to himself, startled.
“The brown bear was returned to the Alps.”
“What happens when a hiker is killed by the bear? I believe in making room for animals to roam freely and live, too, but living side by side with humans doesn’t work. You can’t just throw out a dangerous predator into an area that has already been populated with humans and not expect trouble.
“Yes, people continue to encroach on habitat that should be left to animals. Preserve the wild places. Expand the parks if you must, but to throw wild, dangerous bears and beasts into a populated area, areas that attract lots of tourists, areas that have not seen large predators in hundreds of years, is foolhardy.” He moved his pint of bitters around nervously. “Besides, no wolf or bear could do what I’d seen. I’m looking at something else.”
The boy stared at him impassively, his eyes alert and intelligent. “Like a werewolf? Isn’t that what you mean? That’s why Bishop Octavia wanted you to talk with me.”
“Something that could be mistaken for a werewolf.” His tone was defensive and sharp. Frayed nerves, that’s what. He tried to keep his hands and tone steady. “There are no such things as werewolves. What about a hybrid wolf and bear, something that could stand on two legs?”
“I don’t know of any hybrids. There are tiger-lion hybrids, not bears and wolves. Werewolves were known to exist in many corners of the world under different names. They’re real. What about the Abominable Snowman? Few have seen it, but—”
“And there’s no concrete proof of that, is there?” Inspector Oglethorpe sighed, running his hands over his face. He was arguing with someone who probably hadn’t even hit puberty. Still, the kid likely knew his trivia on large predators and mythic creatures. “No one seems to be able to find anything. If it was a big cat, of course, it could climb a tree and maybe elude a superficial scouring of the countryside that way. Maybe a wolf hybrid could climb a tree like some bears do.”
“Black bears, you mean. They can climb trees. Wolves and werewolves can’t. That’s why the girl was safe in the tree fort.”
“What girl in the tree fort?”
For a minute, Tristam whitened again. “The girl you found,” he stammered. “The one in the tree fort. The only survivor, you said. Bishop Octavia told me you found her in the tree fort. Werewolves can’t climb trees, so she was safe.” His eyes widened. “I hope it’s not classified information. I wouldn’t want to get her in trouble. Bishop Octavia and I are great mates.”
Oliver burst into laughter, watching Tristam’s ears slightly redden — pointed tips, he noticed. So he was only eleven years old. “Don’t worry. There was no girl found in a tree fort.”
Tristam’s brows pinched together and then he began to drum his fingers on the table. His nails were ragged and dirty, a child’s hands. Noting this, Oliver began to feel slightly ridiculous again. “So you know nothing about predators reintroduced to this area by your group? Maybe I should talk to your group. Who heads it?”
“I do. Philip Hoadly is Vice-President. He’s my best mate at school.”
Oliver shut his eyes. “You mean the group is — all children your age?”
“Yes, but we talk to lots of bigger organizations.”
“What about clinical lycanthropy? My sister — Bishop Octavia told me you’d know something about that.”
“There’s a theory now about werewolf episodes in Europe in the 18th and 19th century, that they were caused by a food-borne fungus called ergot. It happened in the poorer towns and created mass hysteria and hallucinations. Some people believed they could morph into werewolves. LSD can come from ergot. But even someone who believed they were a wolf couldn’t do what a werewolf can. Clinical lycanthropy is rare and people with it believe they can morph into an animal, not necessarily a werewolf or wolf, but sometimes that.”
Before the afternoon was over, they had gone through every last carnivore known to man and exhausted most of the supernatural creatures. Tristam was just getting into the possibility of the lynx being reintroduced to parts of Shropshire, which again would conflict with sheep farming, when a white car rode up and a pretty blonde woman in tweeds and a knitted red beret poked her head out. With a smile, she waved to Tristam and called that he must be getting home for supper.
Flushing in embarrassment as if childhood was his cross to bear, Tristam shook Oliver’s hand goodbye and promptly left the pub. Oliver watched as the woman loaded the boy’s bicycle on the top of the car and drove off, her small and now surly son in back. It seemed to put things in perspective for him.
He sat musing for a bit, wondering how Tristam got on in school. Odd duck, that kid. Too old for his britches, yet kind of charming. Precocious. Why were children especially drawn to nightmarish things as in every Grimm’s fairy tale? Octavia had kept dewinged flies and beetles in a jar and now she was a bishop. She had been a bloodthirsty bugger, but she became a religious leader and he went into homicide.
His reveries were interrupted by the ring of his cell phone. “We found another one. She survived the massacre of the other night out on Knolton Lane. Talks about a werewolf, too — a wolf-creature on two legs with red eyes. Spent the night up a tree about sixty yards from where the others were killed. We just informed her parents.”
Inspector Oglethorpe started. “In a tree fort?” he asked hollowly. “Is that where you found her?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“I didn’t. When did you find her? Seems to have got about already to the public.”
“But it couldn’t have. We only found Cassandra Whiting about two hours ago, so no one knows about it.”
Oliver looked out at the bend in the road, around which the white car had disappeared, and wondered how in blazes Octavia found out so quickly. He would have to ask her. She was due to be at the Global Anglican Future Conference in Wales for the week and he would have a devilish time getting hold of her, so it might have to wait.
* * *
It was the first time Cassandra had dared to go out since the tragedy but it was a terrible mistake. She knew it now. Her stomach twisted in knots and she could barely concentrate on the job of sorting sweaters onto the shelves. Fiona hadn’t left her room since being released from hospital and barely spoke to her friends now. She was smart. Cassandra made a terrible mistake by coming out. She wasn’t at all ready.
She glanced nervously at the tree line outside the window of the shop. “Baa Baa Black Sheep” was due to close in one hour and she only had a part-time shift, but working had not taken her mind off of anything, as her parents had hoped. Repeatedly her eyes strayed to the window and the medieval town square, a fine sweat beading her forehead.
Suddenly she was dizzy with terror. The full moon! Tonight was going to be a full moon. How on earth could she have forgotten? Her hands went involuntarily to her mouth, stifling a whimper. The full moon riding across the sky as the car barreled down the open road and then that — that — she shivered involuntarily. Oh, my God. When would the shop close? She couldn’t remain one more second. She had to tell Phoebe Oglethorpe, proprietress and wife of co-owner Ogden, that she had to leave immediately.
As she turned to the stock room where Phoebe had disappeared, her attention was caught by a little boy with black hair and intense eyes approaching the pen outside the shop where four sheep were kept. His striking eyes lit up with pleasure and catching up a fistful of weeds from outside the pen, he offered them through the slats to the clamorous animals.
Catching her eye, he smiled and skipped off and she saw a handsome, black-haired man with sharply chiseled features, clad in a gray jumper and black trousers, and an equally attractive blonde woman in a red knitted beret crossing the parking lot diagonally. They motioned for him to join them and the trio disappeared out of view momentarily. A few minutes later, a white car pulled out from a space beyond Cassandra’s line of vision with the three inside, the black-haired man behind the wheel.
As the car made its turn and cut across the parking lot again, Cassandra noticed Bishop Octavia walking in front of Old Market Hall with a baguette under her arm. She waved heartily to the people in the car. The wind lifted the edge of her cassock and she started across the square.
“It seemed so insignificant at the time,” Cassandra whispered to herself, her heart pumping ice water. “But it was odd. Now I remember.” She let out a short cry as Phoebe laid a hand on her shoulder.
“Poor darling. I know it’s difficult for you,” Phoebe began, her dark gypsy’s eyes soft. She then glanced out the window in consternation. The sheep were visibly agitated and frantically darting around in their pen, bleating.
“It’s the full moon,” Cassandra breathed, barely able to speak the words through lips clenched in terror. “Tonight is the full moon, the way it was.”
Phoebe shook her head of black ringlets and squeezed Cassandra’s shoulder. “Help me get them inside,” she said. “We’ll close now. I’ll not have my sheep murdered. Lord knows what this creature is, but three boys are dead and we’ve seen no end to the danger.”
Before Cassandra could answer, she found herself in the yard with Phoebe, the wind getting chill, corralling the frightened animals into the side door leading to the stock room. They darted this way and that into Cassandra’s parlor off the stock room with its abundance of knitted doilies and sheep-themed china, setting the tiny tables laden with trinkets clattering. Cassandra slid to the floor, wheezing in panic.
Dusk was now falling rapidly and the moon began to rise, as full as a golden cheese, visible outside the window just before Phoebe slammed and bolted the shutters.
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Donna Marie Nowak