Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
by Donna Marie Nowak
It was so simple actually. Fiona had gone into one of her black trances, the thing that had been inflicting her since the tragedy. After remaining cloistered in her room and dreaming fitfully, she rose, pulled by a ray of early moonlight sifting through the curtains. Slipping on a sweatshirt, she unfastened her bedroom door and crept noiselessly down the stairs, moving like an automaton, her gray eyes glazed. She took the key on a ribbon from the hook by the door, unlocked the door and fastened it behind her, slipping the ribbon around her neck. Then she walked purposefully towards the woods, unbeknownst to anyone in her family.
* * *
Oliver sat in his deep armchair, listening to Chopin sonata no. 1 when he deciphered the front doorbell through the piano chords. Grunting, he rose, turned off the music, peered out his side window, and opened the front door in surprise. “Octavia!”
His sister smiled and gestured with her baguette. “I was in the area and thought I’d drop by. I took the express to do some shopping in Old Market Hall and cut through the woods to see you. Quite a strenuous walk.”
“You’re not at the conference then?”
“The conference was canceled. Not that I was going to have a welcome parade there. As one of the pioneering female bishops, you know the opposition I face. I wanted some exercise to clear my head. Did you have a fruitful talk with Tristam, our young expert?”
“Just what I wanted to talk with you about, Octavia.” Oliver relayed his story about the girl in the tree fort.
“Well, of course, now we do know the news about the girl, Cassandra, being found. She is working at Ogden’s shop. He told me about her last night, but I didn’t know then about it. I don’t know where Tristam got that idea or why he named me as the source. He’s a bright child, but lonely. His father Terrence is distant, I gather, and his mother Brig frowns on his ideas. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was psychic, had the gift.”
When Octavia left, Oliver called Ogden and discovered the calamity going on at the shop. Something had been outside, battering the casements. They were sequestered inside with the sheep knocking Phoebe’s china about, all quiet now. Phoebe truly believed there was a creature out there in the full moon, as Cassandra insisted. The girl had remembered something, too, something odd, from the night of the murders. “Let me talk with her,” Oliver said.
Hanging up, Inspector Oglethorpe felt the hairs on his neck standing on end, musing over the implications, if any, of this new information. “Octavia is in the forest,” he whispered and raced out the door, letting it bang shut unfastened.
* * *
Angus Dunsany was halfway down the road from the butcher’s shop with his leg of mutton in tow when he stopped to light a cigarette, cupping his hands against the wind. In the brief illumination from the flame, he saw it, his heart tightening. It was a hulking shape at the corner of the building, a hairy beast with a simian gait unlike anything he’d known. The figure was regarding him, making the blood in his ears pound with fear. Its snout was raised to the wind as if catching his scent, its eyes long cold slits, red in a refractory way. Evil.
Angus tried to calculate how many yards away it was, tried to hold onto reason. Turning, he walked at a clip, noting from the corner of his eye the figure breaking into a gallop. At that point, he began to run for his life. Crashing through the brush, he realized his folly too late. He couldn’t possibly escape, hampered as he was by nettle and branches and roots. With all his might he threw the mutton, listening in terror to the beast’s ferocious hunger.
Seizing on its being temporarily distracted, he tried frantically to gain ground, but he moved like one under water, ensnared by brush. In agony, he heard the beast turn again, running preternaturally fast and felt the fetid heat of its body. It was going to pounce and he was unable to prevent it. He gave one last cry and shut his eyes. A shot rang out.
With a wolf’s howl, the beast scampered off through the forest, evidently wounded. Angus turned to see who had fired and his mouth gaped open in surprise as the figure moved from the shadows of the trees.
* * *
Oliver’s thoughts raced as he thrashed through the woods, his impressions as tangled and wild as the brush. Why would Octavia go on foot at night through such forest? Branches snapped behind him and he stopped, heart palpitating. It was a light step in his wake, but werewolves were hunters, weren’t they? They would stalk prey with that sixth sense and cunning Tristam alluded to.
He whirled, damning himself for not carrying a torch. For some time, he strained through the darkness where a figure was etched among the trees. He almost dared not to breathe. Features emerged as the shape came towards him — tangled hair and torn clothes. “Fiona! What are you doing here?” His voice cracked with alarm and shock.
She looked up at him, dazed, and unconscious of the branches that scratched her cruelly. “I don’t know. I don’t remember,” she said, dully. Her teeth were chattering and he immediately threw his coat around her.
“Come back to the house with me. I’m looking for my sister. She’s probably more fit than I am and covered more ground.”
They made their way through the entanglement of trees, Oliver puzzling over the meaning of Fiona’s presence in the forest. Why had she come out in the first place while still in recovery? At the door to the thatched cottage, he hesitated. It had been left unlocked, his oversight. Twigs crackled nearby and before he could react, Octavia stepped towards him with Angus Dunsany, a local keymaker, in tow. “Thank God you’re alright, Octavia. What’s happened?”
“We must come inside. I shot the beast. It was about to attack Mr. Dunsany. Is the girl okay?”
“I don’t know. She’s terribly shocked.”
Oliver ushered Fiona inside, followed by Octavia and Angus. He examined Fiona more closely, turning her gently towards him by her shoulders. She was still bewildered, her eyes glazed but was fully aware now and basically unhurt. “Her face is cut. Get her a wash cloth from the bathroom,” he instructed Octavia and Octavia immediately went to the task. Fiona’s luck echoed her earlier fortune of surviving under a footbridge as her mates perished.
“It’s an evil thing, I tell you, uncanny,” Angus raved. His hands shook uncontrollably. “Would have killed me if not for the Bishop’s marksmanship.”
“I think we all need some tea or brandy,” Oliver suggested.
“It’s so peaceful here,” Fiona whispered through chattering teeth. “So quiet. I’d like tea.”
Octavia returned with the wash rag and began to sponge Fiona’s face. She looked at her brother in dismay. He had an odd, frozen look on his face. “What’s the matter?”
Inspector Oglethorpe put up his finger to his lip, motioning for silence. “There’s no sound,” he said in barely a whisper. “That’s what’s wrong. It’s too quiet.” He looked now at his dark carpet, his eyes widening and following a pattern. “The clock has stopped,” he announced fervently.
With quick movements, he strode to the tall grandfather clock and threw open the door. A man with the extended jaw of a wolf, his body still half-covered in hair, his teeth as sharp and lethal as talons, tumbled out, hissing sibilantly. He was badly wounded, his strength diminished.
“It’s Terrence Maxwell, Tristam’s father!” Octavia exclaimed. “Mother of God!” She crossed herself. “I had a terrible feeling it was something like this. That’s why I carried this gun. Tristam told me about the secret to killing a werewolf.” She lifted the gun which glinted in a ray of light from the window. “A silver bullet.” The final shot was discharged.
The moon had fallen beyond the clouds, cloaking the forest in blackness. Inspector Oglethorpe wondered at the terrible, contorted way Terrence Maxwell, the Beast of Shropshire, was expiring, writhing into bones and ashes. His reign of terror was at an end. His face, half-man, half-wolf, was a mask of agony, its humanity incongruous.
It was his white car Cassandra saw on Knolton Lane that night, parked on the edge of the forest on a deserted road — odd but not then remarkable to her. Who would tell Tristam, Terrence’s son who uncannily, perhaps prophetically, was drawn to lycanthropy? Oliver thought of that boy with his dirty child’s hands, piercing eyes and those ears — the funny pointed ears covered in down.
Copyright © 2013 by Donna Marie Nowak