Monday, July 18, 2011
Say Hello to My Little Friend
The cross-country bus rarely stopped in Talbot’s Peak. People usually arrived here by car, or wing, or on four legs. Ilsa didn’t own a car, and for the next several months would be denied the use of her wolf form. She stepped off the bus with no more than a carry-on bag and determination to find the wolf responsible for her current hiatus from shifting.
This was the place, sure enough. The town square stank of wolf and enough other shifter species to give the mountain air an added zest. Ilsa settled briefly on a bench to take it all in. The little hamlet of Isle Royale, home to her tiny pack, had been her entire world until he came into it. She understood Talbot’s Peak must be small itself by most standards, but to her it still looked like the big city. How was she to find one wolf in a zoological garden like this?
By being methodical, as always. Wolves were wolves, no matter their territory. It wasn’t hard to figure out which businesses would be wolf-run. She got up and headed for the Grease and Grill. Any place you could find frying meat you were bound to find a wolf or two.
The dapper aged wolf at the grill ran a quick hand through his hair when Ilsa entered. “Help you?” he said, with several shades of meaning in the words.
“I’m looking for a wolf named Vernon.”
“You found him, sweet-tail. Looks like both of us are having a lucky day.”
Ilsa looked him up and down. “Your name’s Vernon?”
“Vernon McMahon. Vernie Mac to my running buddies, Hercules to the ladies.” He waggled his eyebrows. “Which would you like to be?”
“Neither, sorry. I’m looking for Vernon Hancock. He’d be about your age.”
“Old Gray? He hasn’t lived here in a dog’s age. His fleabag son Damien ran him off years ago.”
Damien. She filed the name away for later study. “I heard he’s back.”
“If he is, he’s hiding out. What’s your interest? You’re too young for a mate. Daughter? Wouldn’t that bristle Damien’s hackles.” He leaned over to peer more closely at her. “Granddaughter? Huh. Same reaction.”
“My business is with Vernon Hancock. Does he – did he have any favorite hangouts? Anywhere he’d go to ground?”
“Well, he wouldn’t go back to Damien, that’s for damn sure. Only one would walk away from that reunion. His grandson Dante’s got a bar out in the woods. Worst-kept secret in the Peak. Try there. Dante’s a decent pup, not like the rest of the pack. Hold it,” he said, when Ilsa thanked him and started to leave. “Let me get you a couple of burgers to go.”
“I couldn’t – ”
“They’re on the house. My treat, for Vernon.” And for anybody out to make trouble for those uppity dog-damned Hancocks. Vernie Mac knew trouble when he smelled it, and this trim young she hit his nose like a class-A calamity. He even threw in a soda and fries. “Good luck,” he said, when she headed out for the second time. The clatter of the bell over the door masked his evil chuckle. “Oh, to be a fly on the wall.”
Ilsa found Dante Hancock’s country bar with no trouble. She even got a lift from a gang of hogs on motorcycles. She suspected the leader’s girl, a bighorn by the scent of her, had much to do with their chivalry. Interspecies mingling was unheard of in Isle Royale. Ilsa snorted to herself. Where she came from, same-species mingling caused enough problems.
Dante himself spoke with her. He neither confirmed nor denied Vernon’s presence. Ilsa swallowed her nerves and as calmly as she could stated her business. Her voice didn’t tremble, thank Lycaon, but she knew her face must be pale. By the time she finished her story, so was Dante’s.
Ilsa found Vernon sunning himself on a flat rock by the shore of a small woodland pond. The sight of the shirtless Old Gray Guy caused her heart to stutter. How many times had she come upon him just like this, on the shores of Isle Royale? He always laughed and said the old dogs had to have their sun. She doubted very much if he would laugh today.
She caught herself on the verge of whining like a low-rank pup for attention. She cleared her throat instead.
Vernon sat up, quick and limber for an older wolf. He shaded his eyes and peered at her. Like his grandson’s, his face grew pale. “Ilsa? Ilsa? You’re … here?”
She forced herself to meet his eyes, like the alpha she must become. The alpha he’d made her. “Hello, Vernon.”
“How – hell, I know how. You always were the best tracker in the pack. I suppose the question is why.”
“You know why.”
Was he deliberately being dense? Or cautious, as befitted an alpha of his age? Maybe hunting him down hadn’t been a wise move after all.
“I came on the bus,” she added pointedly.
“Why … oh.” His stare dropped to her belly.
Ilsa patted the gentle swell beneath her t-shirt. “Yes, I am. And yes, it’s yours.”