Field stones in the old walls winding about the property shattered with gun-shot explosions that would have startled coveys of partridge into the air, had those not been imprisoned within the frozen wickerwork of their sheltering underbrush, lucky to still be on the living side of hypothermia.
Frost Giants – immense, primordial, inhuman entities having their glacial genesis in the sub-Kelvin meat-locker of Ultimate Entropy, where time itself has to keep moving to stay warm – have been known to pack up and head for Florida when winters in Loudoun Country, Virginia, take a turn toward the antarctic.
On the other hand, Atticus Bane – intrepid inquirer into the improbable and the inexplicable – reveled in the relief that absolute zero degrees brought to his perennially precocious allergies.
Referring to the weather that had moved into the valley during the previous night as a “cold snap” was a bit like referring to the self-obliteration of Krakatoa as a “minor eruption.”
Long suffering trees surrounding the rambling farmhouse that was Runeharrow lost the tips of their branches – and then some – when those extremities simply froze solid and snapped like icicles in the howling, gale-force blast that thundered down through gaps and passes in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Field stones in the old walls winding about the property shattered with gun-shot explosions that would have startled coveys of partridge into the air, had those not been imprisoned within the frozen wickerwork of their sheltering underbrush, lucky to still be on the living side of hypothermia.
The ancient wooden outbuildings – vast, sepulchral and mystery-laden – groaned in the unremitting boreal hurricane, but refused to topple because the ground was just too bloody cold to fall on.
But the wintery drama unfolding without was not nearly as interesting as the ballet that had commenced within the venerable old manse.
Bane, his wiry body hardened by many a hike in the Himalayas, his spirit forged by the mystical disciplines of the Tibetan Bön sorcerers (clouding men’s minds was the least of Bane’s Bon-ish abilities…), gave no mind to the material effects of the intense cold: wherever he went, a little nimbus of warmth went with him.
Bane’s henchman, housemate and – all too often – handler, Cullan Finch however, shared no such resistance to these localized recurrences of the Ice Age. For the most part, the sheer size of Runeharrow permitted the two men and their respective microclimates to exist in mutual harmony, despite the ferocity of the typical Loudoun winter.
But when it turned like this, Bane tended to open windows and French doors to enjoy the “bracing chill,” then forthwith wander away, leaving the aforementioned apertures gaping wide to admit the scathing Witch of Winter. Even the cavernous labyrinth of Runeharrow couldn’t hold its warmth for long after a half dozen such perforations breached its hoary walls.
At any odd hour of the day or night, an observer at Runeharrow might have witnessed the rather unsettling apparition of Cullan Finch, wrapped in an ancient buffalo skin, loping through the corridors of the structure, seeking out open windows and doors to close again.
Physically, Finch was a throwback, but to what exactly, no one was quite certain. Both Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal denied responsibility, and more than one medico-scientific moron had speculated about alien hybrids…
Almost as wide as he was tall, his thick bones wrapped in corded, bulging muscle, Cullan Finch was reputed to have beaten a trained orangutang at arm-wrestling. While Bane didn’t doubt that Finch could do it, he rather suspected that the two had been in cahoots to clean up on the side bets.
Swathed in the musty old fur – which was not a buffalo hide, but in fact the immemorially ancient, magically preserved skin of an aurochs, the now-extinct wild oxen of ancient Europe – Cullan’s dubious claim to true human ancestry was never more in doubt.
His constant, snarling, snapping invective toward his thoughtless and absentminded charge did nothing to lessen the impression of savage, primordial sub-humanity.
When Bane’s hypothermic raptures coincided with precipitation, Finch was forced to carry a mallet or club with which to de-ice hinges and sashes, and the caveman image was complete.
Savoring the bite of the frigid air from the comfort of his warmth-bubble, Bane turned away from the French doors leading out to the deck – a recent addition to the antediluvian estate – and only just managed to avoid colliding with a heaving mass of long, brown, faintly cedar-scented fur. Growling in frustration, the Volkswagen-sized monstrosity pushed past Bane, and busied itself with closing and securing the open doors.
“Godsdammit, Atticus!” Finch croaked in his mine-shaft-deep voice. “Will you please cut this shit out! I’m freezing to death, old son!”
“Oh, Finch,” Atticus chided, moving to the huge samovar that chugged and rattled in one corner of the vast kitchen, “You do carry on so. Am I to blame if you’re too thin blooded for the Great Outdoors?”
“That’s why they call it ‘the outdoors’, Atticus,” Finch roared, causing the samovar to clatter even more violently, “Because it’s supposed to stay outdoors!”
Bane waved away Finch’s pique. “What you need is a nice hot cup of tea,” he said.
“I don’t want any tea!” Finch yelled.
“Cocoa?” Bane counter-offered.
Finch’s reply – superlative as it no doubt would have been – was intercepted by the first, iconic bars of Bach’s Toccata, emanating from one of the sagging pockets of Bane’s hemp cargo shorts.
Atticus held up an apologetic finger – as if he wanted to hear Finch’s response, but had to take this call first – and answered his cell phone.
As one might imagine, Atticus Bane belonged to more fraternal orders than an idle man could shake a stick at. Such organizations typically encouraged a certain amount of, well, fraternization; as a consequence, Bane boasted a battalion of lodge brothers scattered up and down the Eastern Seaboard, not to mention around the globe at large.
Bane recognized one such as the owner of the voice that accosted him from the speakerphone.
“Bane?” The accent teetered somewhere between Cambridge University and Bangor, Maine. “I say, Bane? Are you there? It’s Burt Wodehouse!”
Atticus blinked. “Burtie? Burtie Wodehouse?”
Finch could hear the blush-and-harumph over the voice connection. “It’s Burt now, old boy. Or Burton if you want to be all formal, what? Part of being an adult, don’t you know.”
“Of course,” Bane agreed, rolling his eyes at Finch who nodded. Wodehouse was a magical lodge brother from Bane’s University days, and Finch, who’d met this particular personification of “feckless” on a number of occasions, regarded the fellow as a lack-wit and general buffoon. Finch was not alone in the world – or the room, for that matter – in this opinion. “Good to hear from you again by whatever name,” Bane lied, always the diplomat. “However are you these days, old boy?”
“Well,” Wodehouse sighed heavily, “There’s the rub, as they say, old man, what? Can’t complain about things up until a couple of months ago, don’t you know, but it all went a bit off the rails just then, and it seems to keep hurtling down the side of the old chasm, as it were. Eh, what?”
Atticus recalled, with regret, that Burtie’s accent and speech patterns – annoying at the best of times – became almost incomprehensible when he was under stress.
“Go on,” Bane encouraged, ignoring a withering look from the silent Finch.
“Well, despite our time in the old lodge together, you might find it a bit hard to digest, what? Goodness knows I feel silly enough saying it. Still, the truth is, old boy, we seem to have a bit of a werewolf problem up here, don’t you know?”
As one, Bane and Finch’s eyebrows shot ceiling-ward. The two errant knights of the arcane exchanged expressions suddenly transmuted from weary, bemused distraction to keen and focused attention.
“Who is ‘we’,” Bane said, “and where is ‘up here’? It’s been a while since we caught up, Burton. Last I heard, you were in Monaco.”
“Well, dash it all, of course,” Burt chuckled, “Sorry, old boy – I’m a bit wound up, don’t you know? I’m up in north central Massachusetts now. Did well in the dot-com and got out before the bubble burst, what? Knocked around for a bit, then found this little bit of paradise up on the headwaters of a lovely old windy river, don’t you know?”
The crack of Finch and Bane’s gazes meeting once again over the speakerphone was almost audible. They’d be lucky if their eyebrows didn’t get stuck up in their hairlines. The description of Burton’s environs was hauntingly familiar, but neither man could quite yet place it.
“Do tell?” Bane continued conversationally, meanwhile making frantic scribbling motions on his palm. Finch nodded and, to no particular surprise on Bane’s part, produced a digital recorder from beneath the aurochs hide, activated it, and placed it next to the phone.
“Odd that I haven’t seen anything in the news, Burt,” Bane continued, throwing Finch a thank-you thumbs up.
“Doesn’t surprise me, old boy – I never figured you for the type to read the UFO rags, and the press is treating this, if they pay any attention at all, as just a lupine Bigfoot sighting, don’t you know?”
“But you think it’s a werewolf?”
“Oh, I don’t think, old boy,” Wodehouse hooted, “I know: I’ve seen the bloody thing!”
Bane frowned, and Finch joined him. Wodehouse might be a fop and a feeb, but he’d done his time at the lodge, had seen what most never saw, knew about the existence and omnipresence of the improbable and the inexplicable. If he said he’d seen a werewolf, the two inquirers would be fools not to take him seriously. At least until the situation could be proven or debunked.
“I take it there have been incidents?” If there had, as yet, been no fatalities, then it was likely that lesser encounters with the shape-shifter would have been explained away as more prosaic events, or perhaps even to such fanciful origins as Bigfoot, but were not likely to have generated much media coverage either way.
“So far just livestock and the odd pet, but we had a near miss last night,” Wodehouse’s accent and affectation fell away in his relief at being believed, even provisionally. “Why I decided to track you down and ring you up, old boy. I can see the signs, but I have no idea what to do about them. Not much of a man of action at the best of times, to be honest. Lucky for me the damn thing chose to run off rather than rend me where I stood. I was out walking the damned wife’s damned mutt, and saw it attack a couple sparking in the back of the old convertible. Come to think of it, it was probably more scared of the mutt than me, and I can’t say as I’d blame it. Most foul-tempered hound this side of hell.”
“Never fear, Burton,” Atticus waded in and cut off his long-lost, long-winded lodge brother. “Massachusetts, you said? Whereabouts in Massachusetts? Just the general area – we’ll make contact once we are over the state line.”
“Oh, jolly good, Bane!” Wodehouse enthused. “I knew I could count on the old lodge loyalty. I’m in an old pile of stone and timber called Blood Manor, and it’s just down the road from the most peculiar but intriguing little hamlet known as Dunwich.”
Rather than asserting that Blood Manor rested among the headwaters of the Miskatonic, it would be more accurate to say that the grounds of the Manor – past and present – gave rise to those very currents. Of the twenty-seven minor streams and springs giving perpetual birth to that most eldritch of Northeastern waterways, thirteen were located within the boundaries of the original Manor lands, and even its reduced acreage under the current ownership hosted nine.
In fact, the water table under a full third of the property was such that the estate was traditionally referred to by the locals as Bloody Marsh. Bordering a small state park opposite the Manor house, the fens were now part of a protected wetlands preserve.
Bane and Finch motored slowly down the winding, willow-shaded gravel drive, inspecting the boggy moor beyond the low, field stone fence – a boundary marker rather than an effective barrier.
The marsh, Bane decided, was more Disney than dismal: he could see water fowl paddling in the shallows; dragonflies darting like rhinestone-winged fairies in the steep rays of the evening sun; fat green bullfrogs sunning themselves on damp stones with the solemn dignity of old Tsathoggua himself; even a spotted fawn paused to dip its muzzle in the dark waters, starting away in a flash of golden spots as the rumbling Triumph Spitfire drew too near.
Still, it wouldn’t have ranked high on Bane’s list of swimming holes, even if it hadn’t been situated in the hoary wilds of the Miskatonic Valley. As it was, he wouldn’t have been surprised if the Creature from the Black Lagoon had surfaced and called for a poolside beverage.
Notorious among the locals as a hotbed of paranormal activity, especially around the perpetually crumbling village of Dunwich, an unfortunate series of events had brought the Miskatonic Valley to the attention of the authorities in 1928. A cadre of specialists, dispatched by a little-known government agency, descended on the area and by the end of the 30s, Dunwich and the upper reaches of the Miskatonic Valley were just another bucolic backwater basking in wholesale regional decadence.
Dunwich saw an unexpected renaissance in the 60s, when the burgeoning New Age Movement caught wind of the district’s somewhat checkered metaphysical past, and christened it the newest in a long line of New Age Meccas. The tall circles of standing stones that crowned the domed hills dotting the upper reaches of the “Ol’ Misk,” the great table-like rock on Sentinel Hill and the bleak, blasted hillside of the Devil’s Hopyard were the destinations of choice for Aquarian adventurers who couldn’t afford the airfare to Stonehenge or Aylesbury. Or Sedona, for that matter.
The commerce of the valley had matured somewhat since the heady days of the Summer of Love, and now hosted a number of spas, retreats, mediation centers, festival grounds, Wiccan summer covensteads and year-round Druid groves. For those who preferred a less crowded, more rural Hallowmass, Dunwich soon eclipsed Salem as All Hallows Party Central.
The resident “Dun-witches” reveled, if not in the name, then certainly in the money that it brought to the still-isolated whistle-stop. They had seen the likes of Wilbur Whately (and his nameless twin brother), Yog-Sothoth, Henry Armitage (A.M. Miskatonic, Ph. D. Princeton, Litt. D. Johns Hopkins) and even Mick Jagger (a paranormal event in its own right and still in the nation’s Top Five) come and go, and they turned up their armigerous noses at the paranormal aspirations of the tourists, even as they took their money. That, the natives of the upper Miskatonic assured each other in private, was the real black magic of the Valley.
“Not what you’d call werewolf country at first blush,” Finch rumbled in his basso profundo. “You’d think there’d be a bit more, well, thick, ominous, curling mist for one thing.”
“Always the traditionalist,” Atticus smiled at his companion. “I rather fancy the gnarled oaks scratching at the sky with their black, skeletal branches. And the marsh there, while I wouldn’t go so far as to call it threatening or foreboding, is certainly a touch off-putting, especially now at twilight.”
“Well, there is that,” Finch conceded, guiding the Spit into the looping roundabout that would take them to the front steps of the Manor.
While younger than Runeharrow – few extant structures in the former Thirteen Colonies were older – Blood Manor was three centuries if it was a day, and certainly befitting the hedonistic glory that had been Rome.
Bane recalled touring reconstructed Roman fortifications along Hadrian’s Wall, and thought they bore a striking resemblance to Blood Manor.
“Crom’s Balls!” Finch swore softly. “I thought it was just the sunset but…”
“It’s built out of blood-red stone!” Bane finished for him, in awe and incredulity.
Indeed, the facade of Blood Manor glowed sanguinely in the last rays of the sunset, but the light added no color, merely fired what was there with an unearthly radiance. It must be, Bane decided, a particularly translucent species of basalt, perhaps having properties more akin to volcanic glass than igneous rock.
For a moment, it looked as if the Manor had been constructed of congealed blood, rather than worked stone. But that moment was enough to register with both Bane and Finch.
“Well,” Atticus said into the strained silence, in eerily accurate imitation of Burtie, “He might have said something by way of warning. Don’t you know?”
It would be trite and not wholly accurate to say that, were one to consult an encyclopedia reference for “twit”, one would likely find a portrait of Burton Wodehouse adorning the page. On the other hand, no one who knew him would have been surprised to find that it was so.
That’s not to say that Burton was in any way a small-minded or mean-spirited person. In fact, a profound sense of his own fundamental helplessness and vulnerability led him to be a genuinely caring and well-meaning individual.
Nonetheless, he was an old-school twit of the fist magnitude, and despite his pretensions and desires, no one – not even complete strangers making his acquaintance for the first time – could ever think of him as anything but Burtie.
Burtie was in a flap when his guests arrived, and it took a considerable amount of coaxing from all concerned, including a very distraught and confused Mrs. Wodehouse, to spin him down sufficiently to extract a coherent story.
Atticus and Finch had departed Runeharrow as soon as they hung up on Wodehouse’s gushing thanks. Just over six hours later – thanks to modifications made by Finch to both the Triumph and its radar detector – they learned that another attack had occurred the night before. Burtie himself had been informed of the event whilst his acquaintances were on the road, and in his agitation, Burtie had neglected to call and inform them.
It soon emerged, to the travelers’ dismay, that a young woman had been attacked early that morning, just after midnight, in fact. She had been badly mauled in what the police were calling a wild animal or feral dog attack, but Burtie was adamant: the real culprit was a werewolf, and it had to be stopped soon, before it finally killed one of its victims. The girl injured the previous night would recover, but would also wear the memories of that night on her face for many years to come. They could not trust that the next victim might be as “lucky.”
Amongst the bulk of his fellow arcane-ologists, Atticus possessed a somewhat quaint reputation as the chap who greeted every crisis, no matter how dire, with a cup of tea. The more observant among his colleagues, however, noted that Bane invariably used the tea as a delivery system for one or the other of his “special mixtures,” a dizzying array of herbal powders, potions and poultices, many of which were quite efficacious, and that under the influence of his calming conglomerations, many crises promptly resolved themselves.
After his second cup, Burtie was a bit more in hand, and once again effusive in his thanks for the rescue expedition from the Old Dominion. Bane waved away the man’s courtesy.
“Think nothing of it, Burtie,” Atticus said. Wodehouse had accepted the return of his old moniker as a small price to pay for the support from Bane and his squat, hulking sidekick. After the shock and anxiety of the day, he felt more like a Burtie than he had in decades.
Bane, in contrast, was optimistic, even excited.
“Regrettable as last night’s assault may be, we may yet be able to wrest some value from it, for the good of all. When can we see the crime scene, Burtie?”
“The sheriff contacted me as soon as he got the call from Washington with your bona fides. We just need to call the station, and we’ve been promised access night or day, rain or shine. But…” Burtie faltered, and looked down at his feet with a wistful, sheepish expression. Then he shrugged and raised a crooked, resigned grin to Atticus. “I just don’t think I’m up to going tonight, old boy. I’m a bit wrung out by the day’s events, don’t you know.”
Atticus nodded, exchanged glances and head-shrugs with Finch.
“I should think we all need a good night’s rest,” Atticus said. “We’re playing catch-up, no doubt about it, so we aren’t in any position tonight to prevent anything that might occur. We have to trust to the rule of law and common sense to keep people safe tonight, and hope that the domestic animals can fend for themselves. Tomorrow,” he nodded again, this time with grave emphasis, “we will begin to hunt the hunter.”
Atticus was uncomfortable with the gratitude in Mrs. Wodehouse’s eyes for her husband’s sake, but forced himself to meet her gaze and return a slight but gracious nod and smile.
Uncharacteristically speechless, Burtie shook hands warmly with each of the arcane-ologists, took his wife tenderly by the arm, and bid them a good night.
When their hosts had disappeared in the gloom, even their footfalls fading away at last, Bane and Finch retreated to the sitting room, lit now only by the flickering, hypnotic bed of coals in the wide fireplace. Here they spoke together in hushed tones, discussing what might take place upon the morrow, what responses they might reasonably be expected to make, and any useful contingencies they could think of.
Along about midnight, when the coals had grown dark, they too adjourned to their bedchambers.
Burtie was, to Finch’s dismay, more his old self at breakfast the next morning: the more Wodehouse nattered and tittered, the farther into his eggs Finch pressed his nose and his attention.
Between strategy sessions the night before, Bane had regaled Finch with the tale of how Burtie had acquired his eccentric and rather anachronistic manner of speech. Despite himself, Finch was now feeling a little sorry for their host. Some burdens look deceptively light, until one knows the whole story…
As it so happened, during his co-tenure with Bane at their alma mater’s on-campus magical lodge, Burtie had demonstrated something of a gift for mediumship and channeling. But he somehow ran afoul of a discarnated wizard who also chanced to be a die-hard fan of the late author P. G. Wodehouse. Bane had always been a little fuzzy on the exact nature of the affront given to that worthy wraith by his colleague, but it was apparently severe enough to warrant a parting curse from the disembodied hex-slinger. The old comedian added insult to injury and played off the mutual surnames of his nemesis and his literary hero: he cursed Burtie to forever after mimic the speech patterns of one of the elder Wodehouse’s “idle rich” idiot characters.
As inane and droll as the substance of the curse sounded, it had an unexpected and far-reaching side-effect: the spirits no longer took Burtie seriously, or worse, believed he was making fun of them. Either way, the result was the same: Burtie could no longer communicate with spirits, and his budding career as a medium slammed into a metaphysical bridge abutment.
Over the years, the speech patterns had fostered and brought out the archetypal twit in Burtie, although to the best of Bane’s memory, Burtie had always shown a certain tendency in that direction, all on his own.
Even twit-dom has its advantages, however: Burtie was not hounded, as others were, by imaginative and overly speculative nightmares of the future; his good humor rose again, literally, with the sun. Wodehouse’s morning mood was further buoyed by the latest report from the sheriff’s department: so far, no incidents had been reported from the previous evening; it appeared that the upper Miskatonic Valley had passed the night in blessed peace.
To ensure that said peace continued into the foreseeable future, the three stalwarts now girded themselves, and prepared to assay true site of the most recent assault.
As Finch and Bane tidied up the dishes, the sharp blurp! of a police siren from the front drive signaled the arrival of their escort. Burtie exchanged a kiss for a bag lunch, and patted the Mrs. on her rose-bloom cheek. She pressed additional lunches into the hands of the visitors, thanking them again for coming to the aid of her somewhat scatter-brained spouse.
A young female deputy, tall and rangy but still dwarfed by the massive SUV she leaned on, greeted them with cool formality. She eyed Finch with minute, professional appraisal, which he noted and acknowledged with a brief nod. She returned the gesture, sashayed around the vehicle and climbed up behind the wheel. The passenger doors being open already, her erstwhile excursionists hastened to join her.
For a young woman cultivating a career in criminal justice, Bane found Deputy Felicity Armitage to be refreshingly at ease in the company of what she had been told were senior agents of some alphabet agency or other. Rather than trying to impress them with her grasp of forensics or the thickness of her hide, she was content to chat about the weather, the local gossip, farming or pretty much anything else…
Except the mauling attack that had left a young woman in the hospital, wounded gravely in both body and mind.
Bane had no need to dip into his bag of arcane tools to make an educated guess:
“You knew the young woman who was attacked, Deputy?” he asked gently.
She blinked, took a deeper breath to replace the one that had just hitched in her chest, and nodded. “Yessir. We went to high school together, and palled around for a few years after that. We haven’t really been close for a while. It’s more the way she was attacked…”
“We’ve read the reports,” Finch rumbled from the back seat. He and Bane had digested and discussed the details of the attack while en route to Massachusetts. “What are your personal impressions? What’s the local scuttlebutt?”
For a moment, Bane thought she might demur, and deflect the question to a superior. But she nodded thoughtfully, and considered the question.
“Well,” she said at last, “there are a number of things about the forensic evidence at the crime scene that don’t add up. If, that is, you make the assumption that it was a wild animal or a human criminal.”
The deliberate exclusion of the only quotidian explanations that made any sense at all was not lost on the three passengers: Burtie choked on his Life Saver and Finch lost count of the rounds he was sliding into the magazine of his pistol.
Bane’s eyes twinkled, and a slight, secret smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
“Why, Deputy,” he said, not even trying to keep the mischief out of his voice, “What else could it possibly be?”
Deputy Bishop spared a glance from the winding road, her expression as relaxed and innocent as it had been when she was enumerating the latest 4H scandals.
“If you ask me,” she said with bland certainty, “I’d say it was a werewolf.”
“Of course!” Atticus exclaimed into the stunned silence, smacking himself gently on the forehead. “Bishop. As in the oldest lineage in the Miskatonic Valley. Doubtless you have a few shape-shifters in your own family tree, eh my dear?”
That garnered Bane a sharper sidelong glance than the first. But the look softened at once, and she returned Bane’s Mona Lisa smile.
“Well,” she said, in a coy voice, “not for a few generations now, anyway. We do keep an eye out for the odd lost lamb, however. The Valley seems to call to certain folks with our blood, and they find themselves ending up here, trying to answer that call. Most of the time we can pick them out because strangers still stand out around here. But every couple of generations, we get an especially feral one that slips in and starts acting out before we can track it down.”
Then she quirked another wry smile and shrugged. “At least that’s what the family says.”
After his initial start, Finch had gone back to his weapon maintenance meditation. Burtie, however, thrust his head between the front seats like a good-natured but unruly dog, hanging on every word.
“How can you be certain the individual isn’t a local?” Bane probed.
Felicity gave him an arch look, as if to say, please… we aren’t exactly amateurs at this.
“We aren’t exactly amateurs at this,” she said. “As you might imagine, Mr. Bane, the old families of the Valley are well represented in local law enforcement and government. If this was a local, it would have set off all manner of alarms, and I’m not talking about lights and sirens.”
“No,” Bane smiled broadly, “I’m sure you’re not. Well, I for one am glad that we don’t have to worry about talking around you. I always find that so distracting. Now, since your extended family and its contemporaries run such a tight ship here abouts, how is it that this one has continued to elude you thus far, do you think?”
“Culling certain…traits from the bloodline does have its downside,” she said. “To be blunt, we’ve bred for more humanity for so long, we don’t have access – at least not easy access – to that inner beast. I don’t know of anyone in the families who can shift anymore. We still have some advantages, but when it comes to meeting a wolfling on its own terms, we aren’t much better off than the average Joe.”
“In other words,” Finch opined, “you can’t wolf out and track this one through the woods.”
Deputy Bishop nodded, flicked the left turn signal into staccato life, and turned across the opposite lane and onto a matted swatch of ruts and rocks that could only with the greatest of charity be called a road.
If any of the outsiders had been feeling drowsy as the result of a big breakfast and a long drive, their rocking, jouncing, bucking progress along the disused side road brought them to complete wakefulness, if only to prevent their brains being dashed out against their respective windows. When they finally eased to a mushy stop in a small glade, Atticus had difficulty prying his fingers from the handhold above the front passenger door.
Flexing his fingers to restore circulation, Bane stepped blithely out his door, and promptly lost his balance as his foot sank a good foot into the muck that was even now attempting to pull the huge police vehicle to an unpleasant doom. Fortunately, the good Mrs. Wodehouse had made sure they were all wearing Wellingtons, so Atticus’ near prat fall was not punctuated by the further indignity of having his shoe sucked off by the frigid morass.
He righted himself quickly enough: unpleasant and inconvenient as they were, these conditions were nothing compared to what Bane and Finch had encountered during their expedition to the site of the Tunguska Event. Now that, Bane reflected, was a marsh!
The investigators – and Burtie – soon got their legs under them, and followed the deputy further into the gloomy fen; Deputy Felicity veritably walked on water compared to the visitors. Bane noted that she, too, wore calf-high waterproofs, so he felt a bit less awkward. At least she wasn’t dancing across the mud on her bare toes.
Another twenty yards brought them to the circle of police tape. Bane turned and looked back toward their vehicle from the edge of the bounded area, noting that it was difficult to see the hulking thing even in the light of mid-morning.
Finch slipped under the tape – not much of a trick for the stubby arcanologist – and began to poke about for clues that just might have been overlooked by the exhaustive and microscopic examinations of the various forensic teams that had already processed the scene. But Finch was not looking for clues… not in the sense that CSI Arkham had been. Even if that office had access to eldritch and arcane tools, it was still doubtful that they could surpass Finch’s native abilities. His position as Bane’s henchman was his by merit, not favor.
Bane turned once again to the young deputy.
“It’s rather foreboding here by day,” he remarked. “I can’t imagine what it’s like in the dead of night. Whatever was that young woman doing in this swamp after midnight?”
“We’re in a low area here,” the deputy said, “between the bed of the road and a ridge over yonder.” She gestured into what appeared to be even thicker woods. “There’s a bike path just beyond that next copse of trees. Annie was biking home late from a friend’s when she was attacked, and ran this way in random panic.”
Bane nodded, then spun as Finch called out: “Eureka!”
Finch was some distance to one side of the taped-off area, squatting near a tangle of underbrush, reaching into it with a a set of long, thin forceps. He now wore a pair of peculiar spectacles that gave him the appearance of a steampunk mad scientist, but Bane knew these were simply high-magnification watch-maker’s goggles. The tiny LEDs that glowed with an odd, unpalatable color at the temples, however, we anything but quotidian.
Like a deranged mime, Finch withdrew the apparently empty forceps with exaggerated care, and held his prize up to Bane with a triumphant, sibilant “Yes!”
Even Burtie and Felicity could now see that a tiny thread of silver glowed in the eldritch light of the goggles, tuned as they were to that peculiar band of the electromagnetic spectrum known to some as the Ibn Ghazi frequencies. Bane made the kind of cooing sound usually produced by an eccentric lepidopterist upon netting a particularly rare and desirable specimen, and whipped out a plastic evidence bag. Finch placed his acquisition into the bag with the exaggerated care of an anarchist arming a bomb.
Sealing the bag, Bane held it up in the eldritch light of Finch’s goggles, turning it this way and that, so that minute rivulets of unplaceable color ran up and down the truncated filament.
“Eureka indeed, old scout!” Bane declared as Finch rose and removed his spectacles.
Burtie and Felicity moved closer to peer at the minute object.
“I say,” Wodehouse said, “what the deuce is it? What?”
“That,” Bane replied, “remains to be seen. To the Batmobile!”
With that cry, Bane would have turned and loped briskly back to the deputy’s SUV, had loping not been physically impossible in the sucking mire of the crime scene. As he began to slog toward his destination, Burtie glopping along behind, Felicity arched one eyebrow at Finch.
“Batmobile?” she asked.
Finch rolled his eyes. “Just call me Robin,” he said with long-suffering resignation, gallantly waving her to proceed him to back to their vehicle.
Snatching an olive green canvas satchel from the front floorboards, Bane opened the rear hatch and began to assemble an impromptu field lab.
To Finch’s great surprise, Burtie seemed to have lost his normal dizzy, distracted demeanor, and seemed to have reverted to an earlier incarnation as a competent and efficient magical laboratory assistant. Bane had but to murmur a request for this or that odd bit of paraphernalia from his kit bag, and Burtie was slapping it into his hand like a senior scrub nurse.
While the pair of old lodge brothers worked intently, Finch and Felicity hovered with patient expectation.
After what seemed an interminable period of intense concentration and muttered conversation by the two schoolmates, Bane finally turned and said, “We can’t be sure without my reference books, I’m afraid. As much as I hate to delay the investigation any further, we have to return to Blood Manor so that Burtie and I can do a final bit of research.”
“If it helps to solve this case,” Deputy Bishop said as she squelched back to the driver’s door, “I’ll drive you two all the way back to Virginia.”
As a concession to Bane’s sudden sense of urgency, and to the great delight of Mr. Wodehouse, Felicity hit the lights and sirens, and they flaunted the speed limit on their return trip.
Burtie had the presence of mind, despite his childlike delight at racing along in the howling, strobing police vehicle, to phone ahead to the Mrs., and let her know that the whole crowd was returning just in time for lunch. While excitement over the new clue ran high, no one was adverse to a little nosh in between evidentiary revelations. Mucking through the soggy byways of the Miskatonic Valley was hard work for a winter’s morning.
Bane and Finch had arrived at Blood Manor the evening before from the southeast. Now, they approached it in the clear, vertical sunlight of midday, from the higher elevation and clearer view of the northeast. While it did not glow with the fierce, lambent, blood-red hue it had in the slanted rays of the setting sun, its unusual color was still quite marked, especially in the thin foliage of the season.
Felicity chuckled at Bane’s question regarding the antecedents of the striking structure.
“Now that,” she said, “is a classic Miskatonic tale. You mentioned earlier that Bishop was the oldest lineage in the Valley. That’s true only because two even older bloodlines died out completely before the Civil War. One of them was the Norwich clan. They had the good fortune to find a huge vein of that blood-red stone when they moved into the Valley a few years ahead of the Bishops and the Thorns – the other extinct lineage – and made their fortune quarrying it over the next couple of centuries.”
As she spoke, she navigated the winding backroads with reassuring competence and confidence. In the back seat, Finch scratched notes in a leather-bound journal, eschewing his usual digital recorder in deference to Felicity’s narration.
“As you can see, the stone has a unique refractive index. What you see there on the Manor is actually a facade only eight inches or so thick. The original building is plain dark gray granite. The family harvested the best output of the quarry over the decades, adding to the facade in stages, unit it was fully covered just after the War of 1812. There’s quite a bit of the stone to be seen around the valley, but it’s mostly indoors. It’s not really as uncommon as it might first seem.”
Felicity continued, the dark red cube of the manor disappearing again as the road dipped.
“It was christened Norwich Manor, of course. But as the population in the Valley increased, and unpleasant things began to occur over the years, it came to be referred to more and more by the locals as Blood Manor. Typical Massachusetts understatement, there. That was actively squelched in the 30s when the government moved in, and in a moment of true bureaucratic non-creativity, it was renamed Roman Manor. At least on the books.”
Mrs. Wodehouse greeted them in the drive, and collected the bagged lunches she had distributed earlier. Adding the contents of these to an assortment of dishes she had assembled ad hoc, she presented the famished investigators with a smorgasbord that admirably suited the hectic state of their inquiries.
Plates in hands, the five adjourned to the vast library, where Bane’s reference books were arranged on the dark teak tabletop. He and Burtie began straightaway to flip through the hoary old tomes, while the others relaxed near the fire, another much-appreciated gift from their hostess. Although the Miskatonic Valley winter was mild compared to what Bane and Finch were used to in Loudoun, it was still damned cold.
The last crumbs and sips were just disappearing when a rather animated debate broke out between Bane and Burtie. Ears perked up, and while the two men still kept their heads together and averted from the others, their tones, at least, were clear enough.
At last, the two stood, and Burtie shrugged, putting a comradely arm around his old school chum. “Well, dash it all, Atticus, it sounds a rum deal to me, what? But who am I to challenge you in these matters, eh? If you say it’s so, old boy, then dash it all, it must be so. Eh, what?”
Bane chuckled, and gave his old pal a brief hug, which brought a glow to Burtie’s face not unlike the red stone of his residence.
Bane turned to their breathless audience, and said with both gravity and relief:
“Burtie has some reservations, as you can see,” he said, “But to me the answer is clear. It’s not a lycanthrope, per se, that’s the cause of these recent incidents in the Valley.” He frowned. “I’m afraid that would actually be preferable to the situation we find ourselves in.”
Felicity stood in genuine alarm at his words. “Then just what the hell are we dealing with, Mr. Bane?”
Atticus’ frowned deepened.
“I’m afraid, my dear deputy,” he said ominously, “that what we are dealing with is not a werewolf, but something much more sinister: a wear-wolf!”
And then his frowning mask fell away, and he broke into gales of self-satisfied, if unaccompanied, laughter.
“I say, Atticus old boy,” he said in a stage whisper, “I don’t think they twigged to the difference in spelling, eh what?”
“How’s that? Oh!” Bane said, wiping at the corner of one eye, but taking himself in hand nonetheless. “Of course. That’s W-E-A-R-wolf, and not the typical W-E-R-E, etc.” He grinned broadly at his colleagues, confident that this clarification would result in the anticipated group guffaws.
Once again, he was to be disappointed.
“Stop screwing around, you two,” Finch growled. “This is no damn time for a latter-day fraternity prank.”
Looking vaguely hurt at Finch’s use of the term prank, Bane waved a dismissive hand.
“I assure you, I’m absolutely serious about this. Here, come gather round.”
So saying, he swept his arm to encompass them all, then turned back to the tableful of musty grimoires.
It should perhaps be mentioned here – again, to quell any possible anxiety on the part of the reader – that all magical grimoires, or books of ghastly and forbidden knowledge, are not created equal, in terms of eldritch portent and all that. As it is with many such academic specialties, there are technical terms, differentiations and gradations known to the earnest scholar, but to most of us, a grimoire is a grimoire is a grimoire.
And all of them, common sense would dictate, are bad news on an order of magnitude that not only boggles the mind, but threatens to rob it of its very sanity.
The truth, however, is that there are any number of magical tomes – thousands, if not tens of thousands, actually – that are little more than highly-specialized reference works, with no attendant curses, counter-spells, guardian demons or the like.
The half dozen volumes that Bane had brought from Runeharrow were of the latter genus, and could be approached, handled and read by the uninitiated in perfect safety, if not in perfect comprehension.
Bane tapped the topmost of two books which lay one upon the other, so that illustrations in each could be compared side-by-side.
“These are Medieval woodcuts depicting alleged werewolves, one in the act of attacking a victim, and the other – at least so the story goes – confessing his sins to a sympathetic priest. Notice any similarities?”
Atticus stepped out of the way so that Finch, Felicity and Mrs. Wodehouse could draw nearer to the table. They huddled together, peering at the books like a strange, three-headed bird. It was their soft-spoken hostess who spoke first.
“Well,” she said, “it seems almost comical, but it looks like they’re both wearing coats of some kind. I mean, this fellow here obviously is. But if you look at this other chap and squint a little, it looks like he’s also wearing a coat, smock or tunic of fur.”
“Exactly, my dear!” Bane said, his eyes flashing with excitement.
“Of course!” Finch tisked himself severely for being so slow on the up-take. “A wolf-pelt belt!”
“A what?” Felicity said suspiciously, beginning to suspect she was the butt of an elaborate Virginia-bred practical joke.
“You and your extended family doubtless know it as a girdle of the Volsungs, or something of that sort,” Bane told her.
“Girdle,” Finch agreed, gesturing at Mrs. Wodehouse to acknowledge her original deduction. “Or coat, tunic, cloak or damn near any other piece of clothing.”
“There are many variations on the basic theme,” Bane said to Mrs. Wodehouse, but addressing the entire assemblage. “The most common is a belt of wolf-skin ensorcelled to transform the wearer into a wolf-human gestalt, more like the bipedal Hollywood incarnation of the lycanthrope than the real thing. Such artifacts often became heirlooms in bloodlines where shape-shifting ability is strong.”
“But,” the Mrs. frowned, trying to puzzle it out, “If the families could shape-shift already, why make an artificial aid?”
“Because,” Felicity said, her voice heavy with sudden realization and sadness, “the ‘gift of the shift’ as some of us call it, rarely manifests in an entire generation, and those who can shift are always a volatile minority among kith and kin who cannot. When magical technology had finally advanced to the point where it could produce something of that power and complexity, people naturally applied it to level the playing field between cans and cannots.”
Comprehension dawned all around, but Bane noted the sudden gloom that had come over the deputy.
“You don’t seem pleased, Felicity,” Bane said gently, “at this particular revelation. At the risk of speaking in cliche, is there something you want to tell us?”
The deputy looked at Bane, her eyes bright with tears – bright, but far yet from over-brimming – and gave him a grudging chuckle in response.
“Yep,” she said, with equal softness and solemnity, “I guess I do at that…”
Old Maemy Bishop tottered into the front hall to answer the delicate triple chime of the doorbell. She put her rheumy eye to the peephole – lowered to a height more comfortable and convenient for her by that nice your Toby Whateley – and peered through it for a long, considering moment. Then she sighed in heavy resignation, and opened the thick oaken door on the crowd of deputies and strangers that occupied her porch, steps and front lawn.
“Whadda you want, Liam?” she snapped at Sheriff Liam Bishop, her nephew some number or other removed, as if he were a wee lad of nine, rather than a looming, fifty-year-old golem of gray granite. Without waiting for an answer, she leaned to one side to glare past his holstered gun, and hollered at the deputies littering her property. Noting with no particular gratitude that they were assorted Bishops, Whateleys or Osborns – Valley blood all – she lashed them with her gravelly, serrated voice: “Tarn them damned lights off, you kids. That’s my front lawn, not a goddamned disco!”
She returned her withering gaze to the Sheriff. The jig might be up, but she wasn’t going to act repentant, because she didn’t feel that way in the least.
Well, she corrected herself, except for that poor girl…
And for the sake of that young woman, the ferocious, bloodthirsty wear-wolf stood back, motioning Liam and his entourage to enter, rather than slamming the door in their long, mopey faces.
She did slam it on the remainder outside, after the last of the Sheriff’s little group had trooped past, even as the strobing cop-lights began to wink off, one vehicle at a time.
Maemy herded her unexpected and unwelcome into a large drawing room, where strained introductions were made by Sheriff Bishop. She gave Bane and Finch what the latter might have called the hairy eyeball, but motioned them all to sit on various pieces of mismatched, over-stuffed furniture.
“Well?” she rasped, once all were settled. She still had no inclination to take it easy on Liam – she was going to make him smack her in the teeth with the truth – in front of outsiders, to boot! – before she gave up her “Precious.” That analogy had barely registered in her awareness before she winced at its aptness.
But the Sheriff was in no mood to waltz. “We’er here for the Sash, Aunt Maemy.”
Briefly, she considered making one, last, ornery stand, then just flat gave up. It had been fun… up until the incident. Now, the memory of that fun was tainted with regret and tragedy – she didn’t want to pollute it any further with needless bitterness and acrimony.
Without a flicker of expression, she reached into her knitting basket, drew forth a roll of dark blue velvet, and tossed it with surprising vigor into the wide, waiting hand of her nephew.
Weighing the package for a moment on his broad, upturned palm, the Sheriff loosened the braided velvet ties, and unrolled it on a nearby coffee table.
Within the outer wrapper of padded velvet was revealed a long band of dark grey wolfskin, about six inches wide, lined on the inner side with black silk, its length extended twice over by additional bands of silver-stitched black silk attached to either end. It was obviously centuries – perhaps even millennia – old, and yet did not convey a sense of fragility or deterioration. Quite the contrary – it exuded a palpable aura of primordial strength and the hoary, instinctual wisdom of unfathomable antiquity.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Bane said lightly, despite a crippling glare from Maemy, “I give you the Ottoman Sash of the Westvale Bishops.”
Such had Felicity named it earlier in the day, at Blood Manor, when Bane’s description of similar artifacts and heirlooms had suddenly connected her headful of dots.
The exact provenance of the Sash was unknown, save that it first came to the attention of the West during the incursions of the Ottoman Empire into Eastern Europe. It was rumored to have been seized as war-booty by none other than Vlad the Impaler, and migrated slowly westward for the next two or three hundred years, until it came into possession of the Bishops of the British Isles in the 1700s.
It was long assumed to have been lost with the redoubtable Teddy Roosevelt Bishop during an ill-fated expedition into the Sumatran interior in 1938, in search of giant rats to hunt in wolf-form.
By sheer chance, Felicity had recalled Dunwich Postmaster Hirem Bishop mentioning, in passing, that Maemy had received a “large and mysterious” package from some obscure city in Southeast Asia, a little over six months past.
The rest, Bane insisted on saying aloud, despite the strenuous objections of Finch, was elementary.
After an appreciative moment – for it was as much a work of art as an object of arcane potency – all eyes lifted to regard the pugnacious Mrs. Bishop.
“What?” she carped under that massed and focused expectation. “Is this where I’m supposed to spill my guts, and reveal the details of my villainous acts?”
“If you’d like,” Bane said without rancor or sarcasm. “I for one would be very interested in the story. I assume that you either commissioned someone to locate the Sash, or you were contacted by someone who came into possession of it: it doesn’t matter either way, really. Whatever its launch point and trajectory, the Sash made its way to you, and…?”
Bane let the question hang in the air, and Maemy didn’t seem all that excited about un-hanging it. But, she reasoned correctly, she wouldn’t get any peace tonight – even if it was that of a jail cell – until this lot was satisfied.
“You youngsters will find out soon enough,” she began, “that getting old gets old real fast.” And she told them the simple, uncomplicated, even boring story of her piecemeal efforts over the years to obtain the Sash; how those efforts kicked into high gear when her aging body was overrun with arthritis; and how, in the end, they yielded exactly what she sought.
“That first night I wore it,” Maemy told them, making no effort to mask or minimize the rapture of the memory, “I ran! I ran and ran, like I used to when I was a young gal. I loved to run, back then…”
She smiled, dreamily. “And there wasn’t any pain. Not a bit. After twenty years and more, I didn’t feel the pain anymore…”
She was kneading her swollen knuckles now, and the dreaminess in her eyes was beginning to dim under a returning tide of misery, emotional as well as physical.
“I didn’t mean for that gal to get hurt, Liam. I was just so excited, so full of joy and wildness. And so free of pain. Free of p…” Her voice hitched, and she looked down at her gnarled joints to hide the sudden liquid brightness in her proud old eyes.
“But it’s an unpardonable sin,” she said, regaining some of her spit and vinegar, “For someone, no matter her age, to have to eat her steak with store-bought teeth!”
Bane coughed gently, after a moment of unimaginably strained silence, and turned to Sheriff Bishop.
“I know that Finch and I are outsiders here, Sheriff,” Atticus said evenly, “in more ways than one. But may I be so bold as to offer a solution to this situation which might benefit any number of us, as well as relieving the Valley of its newest vexation?”
Bishop gave this the unhurried consideration one naturally expected of him, then said: “If that means what I think it means, Mr. Bane, I’m all ears.”
“Will you stop grousing?” Atticus pleaded. “This is a mother-beautiful Mercedes! How can you possibly find fault with it?”
Finch’s grumbled reply was, Bane suspected, deliberately unintelligible. Bane further suspected that his partner was in fact enjoying the drive immensely, but felt the need to irritate Atticus with an apparently-endless session of griping and complaining.
The sum of which, as far as Bane could calculate, totaled to nothing more than that the vehicle was a) not a Spitfire and b) not blue. Beyond that, Bane failed to decipher any specific deficiencies in the automobile from Finch’s jeremiad.
They arrowed through the growing light, racing away from the dawn and a bit to the south, heading home from the swampy excitement of their Miskatonic Valley adventure. The Spit remained in the vigilant care of the Wodehouses, and Finch would be flying back to Boston to ferry that back home as well, after he’d had a chance to rest up.
Bane was not remiss in pointing out this benefit to his hulking henchman. Finch merely grumbled the more, evoking quiet laughter from Bane.
For his part, Bane was…content. The situation in the Miskatonic Valley had been resolved – or rather, resolved itself – with elegant smoothness, and all parties in the know agreed that it was a decent and livable compromise.
Bane glanced toward the rearview mirror, but it was of course angled toward Finch, and Bane could see nothing of the back seat.
“How’s our passenger doing?” he asked Finch. Bane could just as easily have turned and found out for himself, but he wanted to drag the big galoot out of his sulk somehow. It was still a long way to Loudoun County.
Finch begrudged a flick of his eyes to the mirror, and a little smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, quite despite himself, Bane decided. Big softy.
“Are you sure about this, Atticus?” he said, the directness of the question catching Bane off-guard as much as the fact that Finch had initiated the conversation. After a moment’s consideration, Bane shrugged.
“Sure that there won’t be speed-bumps and potholes along the way? Maybe even a few fender-benders?” Bane said. “No, I’m not sure of that by any means, mon ami. That would require prognosticative abilities beyond my poor toolkit. Rather, I can assert in the immediate that the chance to study – and study with – an actual shape-shifter, albeit of the magically-made variety, is an opportunity that does not come along every day. I can further assert that, unlike the bulk of the Miskatonic Valley, our Loudoun preserve boasts sufficient magical wards and dampers to ensure that the mistakes of said shape-shifter in Massachusetts will not be repeated in our environs.”
He paused for a moment, then grinned and said, “And finally, my friend, I can assert that it is an unpardonable sin for someone, no matter her age, to have to eat her steak with store-bought teeth. Eh, what?”
And the two broke into mutual, silent laughter, so as not to rouse their passenger, sleeping in the back seat.
As the black Mercedes AMD hurtled toward the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, old Maemy Bishop snored softly in the pungent embrace of the rich leather upholstery, a roll of dark blue velvet in the crook of one bony arm.