Sin Walker

“You should do a story about a werewolf!” they said.  “Where are the werewolves?”  All right, then.  Werewolves it is.  Since the full-moon-turning, silver-allergic, wolfsbane-hating werewolves we know and love only date back to the Lon Chaney Jr. movie, I decided to delve into a different mythos.  Yee naldlooshii are very rarely portrayed correctly – usually not much different than modern werewolves – and I’ve only seen their name spelled “correctly” once or twice.  But the original legends, in which they are more like shape-shifting cannibal sorcerers, are really impressive, and the elements of htis story fell into place like Tetris blocks.  Also, the Academy of Sciences is a really cool museum.

This story takes place roughly two months after the events of Blood Hound.

 

“Yeah, this looks like a werewolf,” I said to the police officer.

Instead of telling me that I was crazy, Officer Klein asked, “Are you certain?”

I nodded, and looked at the blood covering the room.  Either it was a murder scene, or somebody had very strange ideas about painting the walls.  “Pretty sure,” I said.

He followed my gaze.  “Are you going to be all right around the blood?” Klein asked.

“Yeah,” I closed my eyes.  “I’m fine.”

My name is Lucy December.  I’m a private detective and occasional supernatural consultant for the San Francisco police department.  Trenchcoat, hat, the whole nine yards.  I’m also a vampire – fangs, bats, the whole nine yards.  It’s a long story.

The victim had been found mauled to death in his penthouse apartment.  This wasn’t the first time the police had asked my help on something like this.

“Could this be anything like what happened last month?” Klein asked.

I shook my head.  Rob Klein and I had gotten to know each other fairly recently when a hellhound had rampaged through the city.  Well, not a hellhound, the hellhound.

“No, that demon’s long gone,” I said.  “And when he killed people, it was more ritualistic.  He also just materialized into a room, and this,” I gestured to the splintered door.  “This was a forced entry.  Have your forensics guys found anything?”

The officer shrugged.  “I don’t know.  They said something about animal hair, but it’ll be a few weeks before we get any definitive test results.”

“All right, then,” I said, and looked at the mess again.  My stomach rumbled a little bit.  “What was the victim’s name?” I asked.

“Malcolm Hines,” Klein said.

I recognized the name, and sucked air in through my teeth.  Malcolm Hines.  Yeah, I was definitely starting to think that this was a werewolf.

“I’ll see what I can find,” I said, and left the murder scene.

San Francisco is a crazy city.  Most people who live there notice some of the surface weirdness, but they never truly understand how deep it goes.  Monsters, demons, one of the largest vampire communities in the nation – we have a little bit of everything.  One of my closest friends was a Greek demi-deity, and that wasn’t abnormal for this town.

Hell, I wasn’t even an ordinary vampire.  Very few of us were even remotely religious, mostly because anything faith-related burns us.  As for me, I couldn’t pray, or keep kosher, or even take a holy day of rest.  But the rabbis had decided long ago that you could break any law – even Shabbat – to save or preserve your own life, so I managed.  Part-Orthodox, part-Reformed, and part-mystical-whatsit, I’ve managed to keep my beliefs and identity in a place where I could still live them.  Sort of.  Yeah, it’s rough, but it kept me human.  And no, I didn’t see any contradiction between it and my Greek friend.

But that’s all beside the point.  Back to the case at hand.  There are a lot of different kinds of werewolves out there.  Some transform at will, some during a full moon, and others every night.  A few of the at-will wolves sprang to my mind when I had heard the victim’s name.  Malcolm Hines was a radio pundit, the type whose show aired at two in the morning because ordinary people couldn’t stand listening to him.  His rhetoric was so extreme that both the left and right wings disowned him, which only made his ego bigger – “I tell the truth too much for either of ‘em” he would say, usually before starting another racist rant.

I heard one of Hines’s diatribes against the Jews once, and it made me want to hit him with a chair.  But his biggest rants were all about the Native Americans.  Whether it was casinos, reservations, or baseball teams, he had always sided against them – and not in a reasonable way, as if racism could be reasonable.  He hated the Washington Redskins because he thought the mascot was too positive.  He believed that the casinos should be confiscated, the reservations annexed, and the people shoved off a cliff.  He criticized the Founding Fathers for “not wiping them out when we had the chance.”  With those beliefs, Hines couldn’t even get airtime on Fox News.  So yes, he was an ass, but just because someone was an ass didn’t mean that he deserved to die.

I knocked on John Renar’s door.  He was an at-will shifter wolf, and although he never called his people a “pack,” they all lived in the same house in an empty part of town and listened to what he told them.  His kind and mine rarely got along, so I didn’t spend much time around them.  But I knew him a little bit, and he had been one of Hines’s most vocal enemies.

The door opened, and I put on my best Harmless Lucy smile.  I’m about five-foot-nuthin’, and “cute” usually worked better than any attempt to be intimidating.  Renar stood there, leaning one elbow against the doorjamb, his other hand in his pocket.  I’d call him rugged, but that wasn’t the right word.  He was like his own mini-Chuck Norris, even without a beard.  His shirt hung mostly open, and a silver chain dangled from his neck.  It was almost impossible to see his native heritage, but it was there, mostly around the eyes.  He was John Renar, not Rainbird or Redcorn or whatever else.  People don’t always line up with stereotypes

“It’s you.  December,” he said.  “Do you want something?”

“Hey John,” I smiled.  “What’s up?”

“Cut the small talk,” Renar said.  Something or somebody moved around in the house behind him.  I tried to look over his shoulder.  No dice.

“All right,” I said.  “Are you familiar with a man named Malcolm Hines?”

John Renar spat.

“Well, that answers my first question,” I said.  “And now for the second.  Can you account for your whereabouts earlier today?”

“Yeah, I can,” he said, and folded his arms.  I got a brief glimpse of a beautiful dark-haired woman watching us from the back of the room.  Really beautiful.  Gorgeous enough to make me jealous, for one thing.  And even from this distance, I could see the look in her eyes, filled with a barely-repressed feral freedom.  The same look that was in John Renar’s, if you ignored his barely-repressed annoyance.

“Why, did something happen to him?” Renar asked.  The lady moved out of sight.

I looked him in the eyes.  “Yeah, something did,” I said.  “He was mauled to death in his own home earlier today.  Looks like a wild animal did it.  John, we both know each other.  You’re a heavy activist, and Hines was your worst enemy.  Couldn’t keep his mouth shut, either.  It’s only a matter of time before the police come sniffing around here unless they have a better lead, so be honest, doggie to bloodsucker:  Do you know anything about this?”

“No, I don’t,” he said.  Was it just me, or did I detect his eyes twitching a little bit to the left?  Did that mean he was lying?  Or was it to the right?  Or was the whole shifty-eye theory a fraud?

“John,” I said.  “This is very important.”

“I don’t know anything,” he repeated.  “And that bastard got what he deserved.”

I sighed.  “That’s like the worst thing you could have said,” I said. “Look, I get it, but bastard or not, murder is murder.”

“Just what do you know?” he asked.  “What the hell do you know about a man like that?  What do you know about how much harm people like him can do?  What do you know about oppression?  Displacement?  Pain?”

“Hello,” I said.  “Ovens.  In Germany.

“Were you even in Germany when that happened, or safe over here?” he snapped back.

I clenched my teeth.  “Safe?  Father Coughlin was screaming his support for Hitler on the radio, and Charles Lindbergh praised him.  Henry Ford called us a stain on the human race.  The only reason we stayed safe was because the bad guys attacked America first.  You wanna talk history, I’ve been kicked all around Europe since before Columbus’s grandfather popped out of his mom.  But we’re not going to compare oppression stories right now, because it’s really pointless, and really dumb.  Malcolm Hines was a worthless piece of trash, but he was human trash, and humans don’t deserve to get torn apart like that.  So let me ask you again:  Do you know anything about what happened to him?”

“Nice speech,” he said.  “And I already told you no.”

“I’d like to ask you a few more questions,” I said.

“And I’d like you to go away.”

“John, we weren’t this antagonistic the last time we saw each other,” I said.

“Maybe not outwardly,” he put his hand on the door handle.  “You have to be invited to go inside a home, don’t you?”

“Well, yes,” I said.

John Renar laughed, and slammed the door in my face.

I said a few very rude and unkind things, and hammered on his door again.  Totally mature of me.

“Renar!” I shouted.  “You’re being stupid!  If you shut me out, then what are you going to do when the cops show up with a warrant?”

No answer, of course.  My fault for letting him suck me into a Social Justice Showdown – It was the oldest trick in the book – let the other person give you a reason to be offended, and kick them out.  Let it never be said that immortality makes you perfect.  Most vampires I knew were at least partly frozen at the same level of maturity, at least.  Of course, that meant I could’ve been a detective back in the middle ages, before the job existed.  I rock.

John Renar may have been kind of a belligerent jerk, but I didn’t want him to be guilty.  He sure didn’t act innocent, though – it went beyond the shifty-eyed glance, he was almost overdoing the obvious attempts to cover something up.  Did it mean he wanted me to dig further, or was he just off his game?

I knocked on the door again, mostly out of frustration.  If I had to, I could camp outside his house until it got closer to sunrise.  Or I could be smart and leave, check up on a few more trails, call Klein about Renar, and get my chance to talk to him that way.  I turned to head back to my car.

The door creaked open behind me.

I turned back around quickly, only to come face-to-face with the same woman who had been giving me body image issues a few moments ago.  She held a finger up to her lips.

“Shh,” she whispered.  Okay, so it was going to be like that.

I folded my arms.  “Are you going to let me in?”

She shook her head.  “John is innocent,” she said.  “But you can’t ask him anymore about this.”

“Why would that be?” I asked, and glanced over her shoulder just in case Renar was somewhere in sight, perhaps about to freak out and descend on both of us.

“I can’t tell you,” her eyes darted from side to side as she talked, looking around us, and behind me in the streets.  “Nobody in the pack is guilty, but I cannot tell you why.  You need to drop the case and walk away while you can.”

“That’s totally building up a whole lotta trust, sister,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “But I can’t.  My people do not speak its name.”

I lifted an eyebrow.  “Voldemort?” I asked.

She almost laughed.  I caught the hint of a smile before she bit her lip, and frowned again.  “No, no.  Don’t make light of this,” the werewolf woman said.  “Just know that we are innocent.  This thing is beyond your ability, like a storm that crushes houses.  I can’t tell you more.”

I sighed.  “Lady, this really isn’t making you guys look good,” I said.  “I have zero control over the police, and we’re talking aiding and abetting at the very least if you’re hiding anybody.”

Her nostrils flared for a moment, and her eyes widened.  “I have said too much,” she said.

“Yeah, you totally spoiled everything,” I nodded.  “Did all the work for me, right there.”

She shook her head.  “You mean you don’t smell it?  On the wind?  I’m sorry, but you need to get out of here.”

And that was the second door shut in my face that night.  Or the second time for the same door.  Whatever.

“Oh, come on!” I threw my hands up into the air.  “Why the hell does everybody have to be so cryptic?  It’s not like anybody’s getting a prize for the best riddle!”

No answer.

I tucked my hands in my coat and walked away, muttering.  I had made it about halfway across the street when I felt it – somebody was watching me.  I turned back toward John Renar’s house, but the windows were closed. Was there something else in the air? A scent?  The subtle rustling of the wind?  I couldn’t compare to a werewolf in the senses department, but I liked to think that I wasn’t blind.

I withdrew one hand from my pocket and slipped it into my coat, toward my holstered gun, glad that I had already loaded it with silver bullets – silver was useful against all sorts of supernatural nasties – and looked around.  The darkness of the night obscured most of the street, except that which was lit by the harsh arc sodium lights overhead.  When enough time had passed without any axe-crazy wolf-monsters charged me, I opted to play it casually.  I shook my head and reached for my car door with my free hand.

Something moved from across the street, reflected in a silent blur in my mirror.  I whirled around and brought my weapon to bear with all my supernatural speed, more than fast enough to catch a werewolf before it could close the distance.

The thing had already reached me.  “Objects in Mirror Are Closer than They Appear,” yeah.  It was shaped like a large wolf, hulking and primeval.  Its eyes were such a bright shade of yellow that they nearly glowed.  It struck me with a paw strong enough to knock the pistol from my grip, sending it clattering across the pavement.  I swung at it with my other hand, backhanding the monster and raking my car keys across its muzzle.  The wolf snarled and turned its head to the side, and I kicked it hard against a vulnerable leg joint, giving me a moment to quickly dive for the gun.  I ducked and rolled just in time to miss a pair of massive jaws aimed for my head.

“I took out a hellhound the other week,” I said as I grabbed my weapon and brought it up again, turning on my knee before it could get the drop on me.  “You’re gonna have to try harder if you want to – what the hell?”

The bear smacked me across the face, knocking my hat from my head.  Not a wolf, a bear.  A freaking bear.  Stars shot across my vision, and I tried to steady myself.  When did a bear get here?

The cougar clamped its jaws around my throat and tore through my flesh.

Vampires are durable.  Really, really durable.  You can shoot us, smash us, break our bones, and lock us in coffins, and we’ll be okay.  We heal like superheroes.  Sure, we’ve got weaknesses – wooden stakes, fire, holy objects, sunlight – but for the most part, we’re pretty hard to kill.  However, there are a few things outside of our obvious weaknesses that can really take us down hard.  Blood loss and decapitation rank pretty high on that list.

It changed into a monster wolf again and whipped me from side to side, nearly tearing my head off.  My blood – which I needed, I might add – splattered in the street.  I couldn’t think straight through the shock and pain, and fell as limp as a rag doll in its teeth.

The shifter turned into a yellow-eyed bear again, and slammed one paw into my chest, breaking my ribs as it crushed me into my car door.  The alarm went off, and I crumpled to the ground.

You know what hurts?  That.  That kind of thing hurts a lot.

I landed face-down in the street, and tried to focus through the agony.  I had lost too much blood at once to pull any super-awesome vampire tricks, and I didn’t think I could take this thing down in close quarters, anyway.  My best shot was holding still and trying to get some breathing room.  The not-bear stood over me, its paws on the ground mere inches from my mangled face.  Wait, no, not “it.”  “He.”  From this angle, it was definitely a “he.”

And then it vanished.  Something screeched like an eagle and flapped its wings, and I was left alone in the streets, bleeding.  Did he think he’d killed me?  Or was this just meant to intimidate me?  “Quit the case, or get teabagged by a bear.”  That could work, actually.

I blacked out from the blood loss.  I was vaguely aware of John Renar’s door opening across the street, but my body needed a moment to repair the damage.  I couldn’t be blamed for checking out for a few minutes.

I woke up, throat mended and head aching, on John Renar’s couch.  The whole house smelled of werewolf.  And incense, probably to hide the werewolf scent.  Most ordinary humans would feel nervous in a place like this and have trouble identifying why.  I knew the reason, but was beyond caring at that point.

“So,” I croaked.  “I guess this counts as an invitation.”

“Don’t talk,” a female voice said beside me.  Oh hey, it was her again.  Little Miss Vaguepants.  “You need your rest.”

I sat up.  “Nah, I’m fine,” I said.  Well, sorta.  I could feel the effect the blood loss had on me, but like everything else, it was manageable.  “I’m tough like that.”

John stood back, leaning against the wall.  His ladyfriend knelt next to the couch.

“We don’t have any blood here,” she said.  “I’m sorry.  We’re almost out of food, too… we have some pizza if you’re hungry.  Is pepperoni okay?”

“Nah,” I said.  “Meat and dairy.”

The woman looked back at Renar, who shrugged and silently mouthed the words “she’s crazy.”

“I heard that,” I rubbed at my forehead.  “Metaphorically speaking.”

We all stared at one another in awkward silence for a moment.

“It’s a religion thing,” I said.

More awkwardness.

“Well,” I sighed.  “You guys wanna tell me what’s going on now?”

“No,” John said.

“Look,” I put my head in my hands.  It throbbed a little less that way.  “I’m going out there again whether you tell me anything or not, but I’d like to be a little better-prepared this time so I don’t get blindsided by Bonzo the Big-Balled Bear.”

“We do not talk about it,” he said.

I gave him my Guilty Look.  I, Lucy December, am many things.  Vampire.  Detective.  Warrior.  Lover.  And owner of the saddest, guilt-trippiest puppy dog eyes in the world.

“Don’t give me that look,” he said.

“John,” the lady said, standing up from beside the couch.  “Tell her.”

“No, Christine,” he shook his head.

“Tell her or I will.”

“Yeah,” I piped in.  “Tell me or I will.”

Look, it was a bad headache.

Renar sighed, and shook his head, leaving the wall to sit next to me on the couch.

“What you saw was one of the most foul creatures ever to walk the earth,” he said.  “Yee naaldlooshii.”

“Ye Olde Noodleshin?” I tried.

He looked like he wanted to strangle me, but took a deep breath.  “Yee naaldlooshii,” Renar corrected.  “A skinwalker.”

“Skinwalker” I said.  “Texas Skinranger?”

Okay, now he really did want to strangle me.

“Please take this seriously,” Christine said.  “You are in great danger.”

“Yeah, tell me something new,” I said.  “Go on, John.  What’s a yindleshiney?”

“A yee naaldlooshii was once human,” Renar said, emphasizing the name through gritted teeth.  “He took the Witchery Way, and destroyed his humanity with wicked acts – murder of a close relative, or incest, or cannibalism.  Things like that.  The skinwalker possesses vast magical powers, but his most-known is that he can transform into any animal simply by touching its pelt or similar remains.”

“Okay,” I said.  “So the yanaglotchy is a shapeshifter.”

“Yee naaldlooshii,” he corrected.

“Yeenerloshy?” I tried.  Now he was the one rubbing his own head.

“Skinwalker.  Just say skinwalker.”

“Skinwalker,” I nodded.  “Okay, skinwalker.  Crazy witch guy, turns into animals.”

“The skinwalker has many powers,” Renar gritted his teeth, and continued.  “He can curse and poison his enemies with bone beads and corpse dust.”

“Good thing I’m immune to poison,” I said, and flashed him a fang.

“Take this seriously,” he frowned.  “You have no idea how terrible they are.”

“Look,” I said.  “I don’t mean to disrespect you, or anything, but I took out a count of Hell the other week.  Nasty guy, looked like a dog with wings.”

“Then you should understand how dangerous an animal with black magic can be,” he said.

“Yeah, I do,” I admitted.  “But what I don’t get is why you strung me along, told me zilch, and then left me out to the wolves, present company excepted.”

“Is that why you’re being so difficult?” he asked.

“Both of you, stop it,” Christine chided as she joined us on the couch.  She slipped an arm around Renar’s shoulders. “John, don’t let her get to you,” she said, and then shot me a death glare.

“Sorry,” I said.

“You should be,” she said.  “The reason why our people do not talk about yee naaldlooshii is because to speak of one gives it power.  They know when their name is spoken, and will never let a target escape with its life.”

“So,” I said.  “You think that Malcolm Hines ticked one of them off, and that’s what happened?”

“I don’t know,” John said.  “But the point is, this monster is beyond your ability to fight.”

“Hello,” I said.  “Big old hellhound, remember?”

“Crosses and exorcisms will not help you against the skinwalker,” he said.

Actually, I had used a tefillah, but I decided to behave and not say anything.

“Then how do you kill one?” I asked.

He shook his head.  “In theory, the same way you kill anything else,” John said.  “Only it takes more.  Skinwalkers have been shot, stabbed, and burned, only to walk away unharmed.”

“Then I guess I need to shoot this one a bunch of times,” I said.

“Stop joking.”

“I’m not.”

“You may still be able to survive this if you leave it alone,” John said.  “The skinwalker did not know what you are.  Stay out of its way, and it may assume you dead and leave us all alone.”

I shook my head.  “If it knows when we’ve been talking about it, then it knows what I am,” I said.  “And I’m sorry, but this thing is murdering people.  I have friends on the police force, and I’m not going to leave them to take something like this on alone.  Do you have any idea where it’s hiding?  The park?  A pack member’s house?”

John shook his head.  “I do not know where the skinwalker lairs,” he said.  “Nor would I try to find it.  Attacking it would be suicide.”

“Doesn’t matter,” I said.  “Someone needs to kick the skinwalker’s ass, and I’ve already taken a number.  I’m not backing out of this one.”

“You couldn’t find it if you tried,” he answered.

Christine lifted a finger.

“But we can,” she said.  “We can track it.  Because of the blood.”

“Christine, no,” he said.  “Don’t.”

“No, John,” she shook her head, and stood.  “The woman is right.  What happens if we sit back and let the yee naaldlooshii kill again?”

“I can’t risk losing you,” he said, and put his arms around her.

I stood up and stepped away from the couch rather than interrupt the inevitable lovey-dovey argument.  I yawned, and stretched my arms, working out the kinks in my neck.  My head felt a little better.

“Oh, stop being obnoxious,” Christine said.

“I wasn’t trying this time,” I answered, and went to the door.  “Look, I have to track that thing down before it makes somebody else into hamburger, and every minute we spend in here is just a little closer to sunrise.”

Christine sighed, and let go of John.  “I can track the skinwalker for you,” she said.  “By tracking the trail he left of your blood.”

“Christine,” John stood.  She turned, and they looked at each other, eye-to-eye.  Finally, she closed her eyes and lowered her head.

“I promise,” Christine said.  “Not to put myself in danger.  I’ll lead the detective, and then come home before the skinwalker attacks.”

I opened my mouth to say something, but then I saw the look in John Renar’s eyes.  The one hiding behind the bravado.  And I thought about my own family, back in my mortal life.

“I’ll keep her safe for you, John,” I said.  “I promise.”

He scowled and took in a deep breath, but nodded.  Christine opened the door for me, and we walked out into the night.

“Do you think the scent’s still strong enough?” I asked.

Christine looked at me.  “For one of us?  You’re a vampire.  You reek.”

“Well, gee, thanks,” I said.

And then she transformed.  For some, it’s a painful, slow, clothes-tearing physical transformation.  For others, it’s more of a spiritual change.  Christine shifted from one form to the other so smoothly that there was barely any transition, with even her clothes vanishing as she became a majestic, tawny wolf.  She started sniffing the ground before I could really wax eloquent about untamed nature, or whatever.

“Hey, could you give me one second?” I asked.  The wolf looked up at me.

I went over to my car and retrieved my gun and my hat.  I holstered the gun in my coat, and then put the hat on my head.

“Gotta be stylish,” I said.  “All right, Christy.  Let’s roll.”

Christine left me in the dust.  I lost track of the werewolf as she darted between buildings, following the scent of my blood on the skinwalker.  Some vampires are capable of superhuman speed and endurance.  I’m better than the average person my size, but I still only made it barely a block before I lost sight of her.

I changed into a bat.  It took some effort, mostly because of my own injuries, but I made it.  My senses changed, vision dimming, hearing increasing to sonar levels.  I flapped my (tiny) wings and soared, flying high enough to get a bead on Christine.

Flight is freedom.  For millennia, humans have yearned to fly, finally grasping the sky with technology.  But nothing – nothing – compares with flying on one’s own power.  I soared in the night, diving down to follow Christine.  The wolf dropped her speed a little to help me catch up, so I dropped down onto her back.  We couldn’t exactly communicate in English like this, but she kept running as I clung to her fur.

Tiny bats are cute.  Tiny bats riding dogs are the cutest.  I could have made a career out of that.  It would have been more peaceful than hunting Native American weremonsters, that was for sure.

Christine followed the skinwalker’s trail all the way across town, leading us into Golden Gate Park.  The smells and sounds of the city, though still present, were now muffled by the presence of nature all around us.  I clung tightly to Christine’s fur and let her lead.

We ended up in front of an elongated three-story building across from the DeYoung Museum.  The roof rose up in three domes.  I hopped off Christine and turned back into myself again.

“The California Academy of Sciences?” I asked.  “Really?”

The wolf shook herself off, smoothening out the fur I had ruffled.

“Isn’t a museum just a little too public for something like this?” I asked.

She shifted back into her human form, and studied the building.  No light shone through the museum’s glass façade.

“A building filled with the skins and bones of dead animals,” she said.  “It sounds logical to me.”

I grimaced.  “Right.  Yeah.  Forgot about that.”

Christine sighed.  “I can’t follow you inside,” she said.

I nodded.  “I know.  It’s all right.  But thanks for bringing me this far.”

One of the first things you learn as an immortal is that almost nobody ever has your back.  Everybody is wrapped up in their own fears and rules, and there just isn’t any helping it.  After long enough, it doesn’t sting as badly.  Sometimes.

“You can still turn back,” she said.

I responded by loading my gun.

I could still see Christine watching from across the street as I approached the Academy’s front doors.  I half-expected them to be locked.  They should have been locked, the place had been closed for hours.  But they swung open just as freely as they would have at noon.  I took one more glance to my wolfen guide, then took a deep breath and went inside.

I don’t know what I was expecting.  A pile of dead security guards and janitors?  Racks of slaughtered animals?  A black Sabbath taking place right in the foyer?  What I got was a tyrannosaurus rex.  Well, sort of.  It was an unwritten rule that every natural history museum worth its salt needed at least one fossilized T. Rex, and the California Academy of Sciences was no different.  It wasn’t as big as Sue in Chicago, or even the one in New York, but the skeleton was pretty impressive in its own right.  The museum’s other main showpiece was a massive skeletal whale, but it wasn’t in its usual spot hanging from the ceiling.  Water trickled in the background – some of the exhibits involved running water, something that I did not want to deal with.

I stepped inside, mindful of my footsteps echoing on the hard floor.  The floor was littered with sign and touch exhibits, turning the vast open space into sort of a maze, but there was no movement – not even on the big walkways criss-crossing above me.

I heard footsteps.  I slipped my hand in my coat and ducked back just in time to see a flashlight shine from somewhere around the planetarium.

“Who’s there?” someone asked.  My night vision is better than most mortals, and I spotted a security guard’s uniform.  I decided to act marginally less suspicious than the average gal in a trenchcoat breaking into a museum at three in the morning.

“Excuse me, sir,” I said, and flashed my I.D. quickly.  “There have been reports of a disturbance in here tonight.  Would you know anything about that?”

The guard approached, and shook his head.  He was one of those people who wore sunglasses at night.  “I haven’t heard anything,” he said.  “It’s usually quiet in here all night, except for the animals.”

The animals. Dammit.  The swamp and aquarium habitats were full, and the skinwalker could have been any one of them.  Didn’t they have an alligator somewhere?

“Well,” I said.  “If you could, I’d like to take a look at some of those animals.  Could you show me to the rainforest habitat, please?”

“Of course, ma’am,” he said, and turned the flashlight around.  His keys jingled from a pretty thick ring on his belt, only slightly muffled by another next to it, which looked like it was padded.  “It’s this way.  They lock it up at night.”

“Thank you very much,” I said, and walked with him.  In the daytime, this place would have been beautiful, built like a greenhouse to allow natural light to come in.  At night, the museum was lit by the moon, and shadows distorted the aisles between exhibits.  We left that part of the museum and walked over the short indoor bridge leading to the rainforest dome.

“It must be amazing working nights in this place,” I said.  “It’s kind of eerie, isn’t it?”

“Every job gets boring after long enough,” the guard said as he approached the massive enclosed dome that was the Academy’s rainforest habitat.  He was really being very accommodating.  Water streamed beneath us, forming the artificial pond that watered the rainforest habitat.

“Here we are,” he said, and leaned over to the lock, removing one of the two key rings on his belt.  The other one was decorated with some sort of fuzzy fob.  “Though I don’t think you’ll find anything wrong in there, ma’am.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “Seriously.  You’re really going out of your way for me here.”

The guard turned his head just a little bit.  “It’s my pleasure,” he said.

“Aren’t you breaking the rules a little bit?”

He hesitated with the door half-held open, his other hand at his side, next to the fuzzy key ring.  “No, what do you mean?’

“I mean,” I drew my gun.  “A real security guard would have tried to usher the suspicious-looking lady out of the building.  Or at least looked closely at the badge.  I mean, come on.”

He smirked.  “Is that what gave me away?”

“No,” I said.  “It was the yellow eyes behind your shades.  Now, there are a few ways we can do this.  The easy way involves me taking you to the police.  The hard way is the one where I beat you silly.”

“I think not,” the skinwalker said, and his fingers brushed against the swatches of animal skin dangling from his belt.  He changed shape in an instant, becoming a bear, and I had time to fire once as he pounced.

Glass shattered somewhere and the scent of blood filled the air, but I couldn’t tell how badly I had hit him.  The skinwalker barreled into me with all of his weight, and clamped his paws around my shoulders.  I had enough presence of mind to drop my gun just as he began to swing me, hurling me like a baseball off the walkway.  I hit the railing and flipped over the edge, banging my head against a metal strut before falling headlong into the artificial pond.

Water overwhelmed me.  Vampires cannot travel through running water – it knocks out our senses and disorients us, and it takes everything we’ve got to get out of it if we can.  My vision came in disjointed flashes, my hearing was overwhelmed by the roar of the water, water, and my head spun.  I flailed to try to swim, to reach for the shore, anything.

A tremendous weight slammed me underwater, and I was able to see a flash of scales and jaws.  The skinwalker’s yellow eyes burned as he tried to snap at me in the form of an alligator, and I blindly grabbed his jaws.  I remembered something about them being too weak to open their mouths under any real pressure, and I hoped it was true.  I wrapped my arms around the skinwalker’s snout and held on for dear life as he thrashed.  I couldn’t see.  I had to trust that I was doing something right.

His form began to melt, becoming smaller and more flexible as he twisted out of my grasp.  My flailing hand slapped against something cold and metallic, and I hung on for dear life.  I was able to open my eyes enough to see the shore, and pull myself out of the water, panting and gasping for breath.  I shook off the disorientation just as I heard something growl behind me.

The skinwalker, now a bear again, took a swipe at my head.  I ducked low and kicked him right between the legs.  As he pitched forward with an agonized yelp, I scrambled away and tried to orient myself better in the room.    My gun still laid on the walkway, but the skinwalker was between it and me.  Several parrots escaped the rainforest dome and flew out into the museum proper.

“All right,” I said.  “I guess you chose the hard way.”

The bear turned into a mountain lion, who lunged at my knees.  I stumbled as I sidestepped, nearly falling into the drink again, but had the presence of mind to backhand the skinwalker in the face when he turned.  The mountain lion became a wolf and tried to bite, and then a snake that slithered away, fast.  I looked back toward my gun again.

“All right,” I said, looking around for the skinwalker as I edged closer to the weapon.  “There’s just one thing I don’t get about all of this.  Why did you do it?  No offense, but the description John gave me didn’t make you sound very politically active.”

“Why not?” came the skinwalker’s true voice – raspy, growling, not the warm and friendly tones of the security guard he had impersonated.  “I killed a man.  It was fun.”

“Right,” I said, taking another step toward the gun.  “This was totally just a random thing, and you didn’t plan it at all.”

“Chaos is its own plan.”

“Ooh, nice slogan,” I said.  “Where’d you come up with that little gem?  Junior High?”

“You brag too much for someone who is about to die,” his voice echoed again from wherever he was hiding.  Stupid echoing acoustics.

I took another half-step toward my gun.  “I believe the phrase is, ‘He who puts on his armor should not boast like one who takes it off.’  King Ahab.  Ninth century B.C.”

The wolf charged at me from the shadows.  I dove for my gun, grabbing it and firing at him before I stopped sliding.  The skinwalker veered off-course, dodging the wild shot, and ran to the side.  I scrambled to my feet and went after him.  Blood spattered the ground in a vague trail, from when I had winged him in his first pounce.  It was leading toward the exit.  I took off running.

“Hey!” I followed the trail through the piazza, toward the entrance hall.  “Stop running away!  I’m not letting you get out of here!”

I turned the corner, and the dinosaur skeleton came into view again.  The skinwalker, who had been waiting beside the door, pounced me.  Okay, maybe I had walked into that one.  He bit my hand and pulled the gun out of it – again, damn it – and left me unarmed beneath him.  I shoved a knee underneath him and kicked, tossing the wolf off.  He landed on my gun, kicking it away as I scrambled to my feet.  Blood trickled from a wound near his shoulder, but he still stood strong.

“Round two isn’t going the way you wanted, is it?” I asked.  “So, whatcha gonna do now?”

The yellow-eyed wolf looked at me.  “Kill you,” he said.  He charged, feinted left, and broke right when I lunged to intercept him.  He hit me low across the hips, teeth raking over my thigh.  I grabbed the wolf around his hips and held tight, straining to pick him up.  The skinwalker yelped in surprise as I lifted him over my shoulders and fell back, slamming him headfirst into the ground.  The German suplex is one of the few professional wrestling moves that you can actually do to somebody in real life, and generally when you suplex a person, he ain’t getting back up.  The wolf crunched hard into the pavement, and I let him go to roll back to my feet.

The wolf turned into an eagle and took to the air, flying up all three storeys into the museum rafters.  Even with the moonlight, I lost track of him in the gloom.

“Okay,” I called out.  “Why did you really kill Hines?  He was almost as much of a jerkwad as you, so why not somebody else?”

The skinwalker’s raspy voice echoed through the museum.  “I hate Renar,” he said.  “I hate his pack.  He will be blamed for the murder, and I will laugh as he is punished.  When he is gone, I can pick apart his kindred one by one.”

“Yeah, he isn’t doing himself any favors with the whole belligerent and evasive act,” I said, still looking up.  “So, why not confront him yourself?  Are you scared, little man?  Worried that even with all your shapes, he’s twice the shifter you are?”

The eagle screamed out of the shadows, diving for my eyes.  I shot at it once, and threw my arm in front of my face.  Talons raked through my sleeve and dug into my forearm, and then the skinwalker flew away again.  Some glass tinkled down from where my shot had hit.

I shook off my arm, ignoring the pain.  “You know, you’re really not equipped to take me down,” I said.  “No follow-through.  Sure, you came close earlier, but you should have finished me when you had the chance.  And I’m not gonna give you that chance again.  You’re finished.  Done.  Kaput.”

I looked around again, and tucked one arm halfway inside my coat.  Then I added one final little insult.  “You picked the wrong town to have your rodeo, cowboy.”

The skinwalker shrieked and dove at me again, talons out.  I whipped my coat off and flung it, catching the eagle just before it reached me.  I wrapped him in the coat and swung hard, slamming him to the ground.  I pounced on the makeshift bag, throwing my full weight on top of the fragile bird.  I felt something crack underneath me, and the eagle shrieked just before the skinwalker began to change shape again, thrashing and flailing underneath me.

I grabbed my gun and shoved it against the struggling shapeshifter in my coat, and was about to pull the trigger before he finally shoved me off, throwing the coat away.  I sprang at the skinwalker before he could run, tackling him as I got my first look at his true form.  He was a thin, reedy man, fairly obviously Native American, and extremely hairy.  That key ring of pelts jingled at his waist as we grappled there on the floor.  He smacked an elbow into my nose, and I kneed him in the groin.  My gun was on the ground again, but it was all right – I had the worst luck in shooting this guy.  He clawed at my eyes, and I grabbed him around his waist.  The skinwalker shoved both hands into my throat and kicked at my hip, tearing himself from my grip.  He punched me in the face and tumbled back, scrambling to get away from my grasp.  I rubbed at my nose and shook off the disorientation, letting him step away as I put my coat back on and stood to my feet.

The skinwalker backed away, bruised from the fight and bleeding from the one gunshot that had grazed his arm.  He looked at me with yellow eyes and reached for his belt.

“You should have finished me when you had the chance,” he mocked.  He did not transform.  The skinwalker blinked in surprise, and looked down at his belt.

I twirled the key ring of pelts around in my hand.  The animal-skin patches flapped together as I did that.  “Finders, keepers,” I said.  Then I grabbed my gun off the floor and pointed it at him.

The skinwalker’s mouth hung open as he stepped back, staggering against the railing surrounding the T. Rex skeleton.

“Wow, and I thought the bear form was hairy,” I said, steadying my aim at him.  “Nair.  You should invest in Nair.  Believe me, you’ll get more chicks that way.”

He looked at me, and at my gun, and caught his breath.

“This isn’t over,” he said.

“No,” I answered.  “It totally is.”

He chuckled, and then evil laughed.  I swear, it was a full-on evil laugh.  People never did those anymore.

“Dude, you’re like two seconds from getting shot purely on principle,” I said.  “You are out of laughing room.”

The skinwalker threw himself over the railing before I could shoot him, and planted both hands on the tyrannosaurus rex skeleton.

The remains of a tyrannosaurus rex.  As close to a pelt as you can get.

“Aw, crap,” I said.

He transformed in the blink of an eye, growing into a fifteen-foot-tall dinosaur.

“Aw, hell,” I said.

As it turns out, T. Rexes did not have feathers, for those who want to know.  But they did have teeth bigger than steak knives.  This particular specimen had yellow eyes.  The skinwalker turned and roared at me – but not one of those elephant-vacuum-cleaner bellows from the movies, something more akin to the earth-shaking mega-growl of an alligator.  Only this one was loud enough to break windows.

“Aw, shit,” I said, and ran.

And I mean, I ran.  I heard the dinosaur as it began thundering after me, and tore around the nearest corner into the exhibits.  The only way to outrun a horse was to force it to keep turning around, because even though they are way faster than humans on straight stretches, we corner better.  Maybe the tyrannosaurus was like a horse.  Or maybe I was just grasping at straws.  So I wove my way through the exhibits, running through row after row of signs and display cases.

The skinwalker just smashed through them, the rude jerk.  Plastic and fiberglass scattered everywhere, along with whatever was in those cases.  Where now?  The rainforest dome?  Too closed-in and fragile.  The walkways?  Those were right at snack level for him.  The planetarium?  Same problem as the rainforest.  The restrooms?  No, I saw that movie.

His thundering footsteps came mighty close, and I turned into a bat to gain some speed.  The T. rex’s jaws snapped shut mere inches from me, so close that I caught a spray of spittle from his mouth.  I screamed into the air, flapping as hard as my tiny wings could manage.  I veered to the side, barely avoiding death as the T. rex chomped again at where I had been, and I cruised around, careening to the side.  The next roar almost blew out my batty little eardrums, and I shifted back into human form before I could crash.  I hit the ground running, grabbed the side of the wall, and swung myself around the corner.

The stairs!  There were stairs!  Tyrannosauruses couldn’t climb stairs, right?  I ran for the stairwell just as the dinosaur emerged from around the corner and charged at me.

I had made it halfway up the steps when the T. rex jammed itself into the stairway, the walls straining and cracking around him.  He snapped his jaws mere inches from my body, giving me my third super-lucky missed bite of the day.  I looked back, directly into his eyes.  Turns out he couldn’t fit in the stairwell.

“Yeah, bye,” I said, and ran the rest of the way up the stairs.  The skinwalker roared loudly enough to make me stumble up the last step, but I made it.

“Okay, Lucy,” I said to myself.  “He turned into a freaking dinosaur.  Admittedly, this was kind of unexpected, but you should have thought about that contingency.”

I heard him thrashing around in the stairs, and backed further away.  Well, now what?  There was no way my gun had the stopping power to take him down, unless I could press the barrel against his eye or something.

I looked around, and found out where the museum’s whale skeleton went.  It hung from the ceiling, flanked by two smaller specimens, and oriented opposite from a huge (read: life-sized) fiberglass blue whale, just like the one in the New York museum.  A sign read Whales: Titans of the Sea.  Well, that explained a lot.

The second floor had a lower ceiling than the main hall, and the new exhibit cast everything in a calming, blue glow.  Of course, the effect was somewhat lessened by the sounds of a dinosaur thrashing around downstairs, but I appreciated the effort.  I pocketed the skinwalker’s ring of pelts.

“Come on, Lucy,” I said.  “Think.  He’s going to find a way up here pretty soon if he wants his skins back.”  Maybe I could double-back, and sneak out through the balcony.  Or if I just wanted to escape, I could find an elevator and make tracks for the roof.  But I wasn’t really in an escaping mood.  There had to be a way to take this guy down.  The demon was tough, but I found a way to punch his ticket.  So what was Mr. Dino-Thunder’s weakness?

The skinwalker came up the stairs in his human form, clutching a tooth snapped off from the fossil downstairs.

“Ready for round three?” he teased, and transformed into a tyrannosaurus rex again.

Now the quarters were a lot closer.  He could barely rise to his full height, but his body was horizontal when he ran, so it made no difference.  The dinosaur wove between the hanging whale skeletons as he ran for me, and I ducked around a wall – not a partition, a real wall – to avoid him.  I got my gun ready, seeing as how it was pretty much the only thing I had at my disposal at this point.

The T. rex turned the corner, and I fired.  It flinched when one of the bullets struck home, but shook it off and bellowed again.  I backed off and started running, keeping my distance from the thing.  How many bullets did I have left?  Four?  Five?  Would that be enough to bring him down?

I shot at him again as I turned the corner, completing the circuit back into the whale room.  I ducked behind a large exhibit to catch my breath, and considered my options.  The dinosaur stomped into the room and stopped, sniffing the air.

“I can smell you,” he said in a voice so deep that thunder would have taken lessons.  “I smell your fear.  I am yee naldlooshii.  I am death incarnate.  You cannot stop me.”

Aw, what the hell.  I still had a few bullets left, anyway.  I emerged from behind the exhibit and aimed for his head.  The dinosaur roared and began to charge, and I started firing.  He flinched a little, and some blood trickled from his snout, but I still couldn’t be sure.

And then two furry blurs raced up from the stairwell, charging at the T. rex’s feet.  The skinwalker reared back at the sudden assault, and I managed to squeeze off another shot at him.  It hit somewhere in the cheekbone, making it stumble.

The werewolves barked as they went for the dinosaur’s hamstring, circling him and harassing around his feet.  I recognized Christine’s tawny coat, and realized that the other one must have been John.  The skinwalker tried to snap at John, who backed away from his jaws, but then Christine came at his opposite leg.  They circled him, using pack hit-and-run and flanking tactics.

“All right,” I said, and aimed again.  “Time to finish this.”  I pulled the trigger, but my gun clicked empty because I had been too worried about dinosaurs to remember how many bullets I had left.  I am so smart sometimes.

“Oh, come on!” I shouted.

The tyrannosaurus roared in triumph and charged past the werewolves to come at me again.  I dashed to the side and out of his reach just as both wolves came at his hamstrings once more.  They nearly brought him down, but he thrashed around, whipping them off and nearly stepping on Christine.

Okay, Lucy.  Think.  Think.  No ammo left didn’t mean that the fight was over.  If anything, I could use his overconfidence against him.  I circled around the fight and looked for another solution – maybe a whale harpoon or something.  But no, the people who ran this museum just had to care more about conservation and the beauty of wildlife than they did about cool, rusty weapons.

But then I saw it.

“Hold him off!” I called out as I ran.  “I’ve got it!”  I hoped that they got the hint and would lead the skinwalker in the right direction, but I wasn’t about to blurt it out in his hearing.

I turned into a bat and flew up to the ceiling, bypassing the whale skeletons – there was no way I was going to wreck one of those priceless specimens – and straight for the fiberglass blue whale.  I turned back into my human form and crash-landed onto the whale itself.  The rig holding it up creaked, and the model swayed.  I chanced a glance back down to the floor, where both wolves were leading the T. rex closer to my position.  Christine was bleeding from a gash at her side, but both were still on their feet.  If the skinwalker had looked up, he could probably have reached me for a Lucy-snack, but he was too concerned with the others, and stayed low to attack at them.

I rolled across the whale, reaching up to the ceiling.  The whole thing was held up by a full rigging of cables, but they converged into one central spot on the ceiling – again, just like the New York museum.  The cable was solid, as was the ceiling itself.  I hammered away at it with my empty gun.

“Come on, dammit!  Break!” I cursed at the rigging, and then began fumbling in my pockets.  Did I have a spare clip in there?  I thought I did, but it had been a hectic night.

The dinosaur smacked John with his tail, sending the wolf flying back into the wall.  He struck it and fell, changing back into his human form as he landed.  The skinwalker lunged, only for Christine to hurl herself at his throat, barely managing to knock him off-course.

I found a clip and fumbled with my gun, ejecting the spent one and trying to jam the new one inside.  It didn’t help that my platform was swinging badly.  Below, the tyrannosaurus almost bit Christine in half, sparing her only because she fell and rolled out of the way of his jaws as they clamped over thin air.  He stomped, and she yelped as a claw struck her along the side, near her other wound.  The skinwalker turned around to finish her off, placing him just beneath me and the whale.

I slammed the clip into my gun and chambered a round, pressing the barrel up against the bolt holding the cable up.  I pulled the trigger as many times as I could.

I had thought that the tyrannosaurus rex’s roar was loud, but it was nothing compared to the sound of the fiberglass whale dropping on its head.  The dinosaur had barely a second to register what was happening before ten tons of fake cetacean fell on top of his head.  I had the sense to turn into a bat again just as the cable broke free, sparing myself a trip down with it.  The whale model shattered in an explosion of fiberglass, shaking the museum with its impact and shattering even more windows in the building.

Round 3:  Lucy December wins by TKO.

I dropped to the ground, landing among the pieces of shattered whale.  John Renar had managed to sit up, and a bloody Christine, still in wolf form, was nuzzling his chest.  The skinwalker lay in the rubble, bloody and broken.  He groaned, somehow still alive.  I spotted the fossil fang next to him, and kicked it away.  He looked up at me with his one good remaining eye, and I aimed my gun at his head.

“Go ahead,” he said.  “Finish me, vampire.”

“Yeah, no,” I said, and, while still keeping my gun trained on his face, leaned down to handcuff him.  The metal bracelets made a wonderfully satisfying noise as they snapped around his wrists.

“What are you doing?” the skinwalker slurred.

“I’m taking you to the police,” I said.  “The cops in this town know how to deal with supernatural threats, and I’m not letting any of this carnage get pinned on John.  The way I see it, you’re responsible for murder of Malcolm Hines as well as so much vandalism in this museum that they’ll probably bring you up on terrorism charges.  You’re going away for a long time, Mr. Skinwalker, and without any of your pelts.  Your days as a feared noodle ocean are over.”

John Renar sighed in frustration.  “That’s yee naldlooshii,” he said.

“Whatever,” I shrugged, and hoisted the wounded skinwalker over my shoulder.  “Does anybody know where the phones are in this place?  I’d use my cell, but I don’t think it survived the water.”

John muttered something, and produced his phone.

“Go go modern technology,” I said, and dropped the skinwalker in the corner while I made the call.  I kept my eyes on him, but he didn’t have the strength left to make another move.

As it turned out, the cops were very, very happy to see him.  You’d be amazed at how harsh the sentence is for destroying a museum.  It was almost as bad as the one for murder.  And that’s why you don’t mess with my town.

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