Monday, February 27, 2012
Target: Talbot's Peak
Cochrane couldn’t stop touching himself. It wasn’t just the diner. This whole town made his nerve ends itch. In between bites of his flapjacks (“We don’t use the P-word in my place,” the cook/proprietor had told him) and the crunchy abomination the menu said was Fakin’ Bacon, he continuously checked the placement of his two hidden bowie knives and the pistol tucked under his jacket. The rifle, loaded with silver rounds, sat in the trunk of his Chevy, waiting for action.
Talbot’s Peak, Montana. A town the hunters’ network said had been taken over by shapeshifters.
He studied the diner’s other patrons with senses honed through years of stalking the unnatural. The two young men seated by the window, shoveling flapjacks into their mouths, appeared human. He had his doubts about the pair of old guys arguing politics in the booth behind him. The one with the moustache was clearly a wolf, just by the way he growled out his words, never mind the yellow eyes. Cochrane had already spotted five wolves in the breakfast crowd alone, along with a definite cougar and something he thought might be a horse. The rest he had no idea what they were, except they were more animal than human.
Even the proprietor had his hackles up. She seemed friendly enough, topping off his coffee, asking could she get him anything else. It was the delicate way she placed her feet when she moved, like a bighorn picking its way up a rocky escarpment, that had tipped him off. Damn, these things were clever. If you weren’t watching for the tells, you’d think they were just normal folks.
He cleaned off his plate, washed it down with a gulp of strong coffee, and motioned for his check. Time to get this show on the road.
Out on the street, Cochrane paused to take stock. Where to start? The whole town was crawling—and loping, trotting, stalking and flying—with shifters. If he started firing wild, he’d probably take out half a dozen right here in the center square. While he’d find that immensely satisfying, it wouldn’t help him in the long run.
Word had it some kind of war was brewing between the Hancock werewolf pack and some newcomer faction. The presence of so many shifters right out in the open confirmed it. The beasts were consolidating, choosing sides. Once their pissing contest was over, he doubted the leaders would just let their armies dissolve. Predators lived to kill, and they always aimed for the weak. Normal humans, here and elsewhere, wouldn’t stand a chance.
His attention was drawn to a young man exiting the bakery down the street. He had a bag in one hand and a gingerbread cookie man in the other. He didn’t so much bite as rip the head from its pastry shoulders.
Good God, that was a tiger.
Cochrane had hunted a weretiger clan in Bengal, and barely escaped alive. Two others in the party hadn’t been that lucky. No question now which shifter he’d start with. First the cat would talk, and then he’d die.
The tiger ambled down the street. With a final touch-check on his pistol and its silver bullets, Cochrane loped in pursuit.
He’d nearly caught up with the tiger when rough hands grabbed hold of him and yanked him into an alley. The grizzled old wolf from the diner thrust his nose up in Cochrane’s face. He sniffed, and nodded. “Yep. A hunter. Told you, Lance.”
The other old guy pinned Cochrane’s arms. In spite of his age and lack of height he had a grip like King Kong. Cochrane struggled uselessly while the wolfman searched him. He found both Cochrane’s knives and the gun with no trouble. “Well, lookie here. Clear violation of the town’s weapons ordinance.”
“You can’t hold me,” Cochrane spat. “I’ve got more rights than you animals. Even if you finish me, others will come. We all know about you.”
Kong tsked. “You humans act so entitled. It makes me ashamed I share so much DNA with you. Here’s the thing. Vernon and me, we don’t see eye to eye on a lot, but some basic things we agree on. Both of us want the best for Talbot’s Peak, and we’ll fight to the death to protect it.”
“And,” the wolfman added with a grin full of teeth, “we don’t like hunters.”
“So we’re going to have to make an example of you. I think I’ve got just the thing. Let’s take a walk to my office, shall we?”
# # #
Cochrane stumbled out the door and stood on the sidewalk, panting. He’d managed to escape, but what now? Not only had they taken his weapons, they’d stripped off his clothes and dumped a gallon of purple paint on him. The cardboard wings they’d duct-taped to his back thumped his shoulders with every shot of breeze.
What the hell kind of torture was this supposed to be? He shrugged absently, causing the wings to bump. Who knew how an animal’s mind worked?
Screw it. He was loose, and they didn’t know about the arsenal in his car. Once he was armed, he’d show these beasts what for. Ignoring the shouts, hoots and pointing fingers, he sprinted for where he’d left the Chevy.
He hadn’t even made it halfway across the square when a white sedan with the county seal and “sheriff” stenciled on the side screeched to a stop right in front of him. The big-bellied man who got out was clearly human. “Thank God,” Cochrane said. “I’ve just been assaulted by—”
“Wellnow,” the sheriff said, looking Cochrane up and down. “So you’re the one been sparking all the rumors. Aren’t you chilly down there?”
“I didn’t do this.” Cochrane held out his purple-painted arms. “This was done to me. Two old jokers kidnapped me and took my clothes. They called each other Vernon and Lance.”
“Lance?” The sheriff’s brows shot up his forehead. “Mayor Link? You trying to tell me the mayor did this to you?”
Cochrane’s gut did a twelve-story freefall. Of course a town full of shifters would be run by a shifter. Why hadn’t he thought of that?
The sheriff strongarmed him into the back of his cruiser. “C’mon, Tinkerbell. You can sprinkle your fairy dust down at the county lockup. Goddamn pranksters, bothering honest folk. Nude purple fairies. Jesus Christ.” The onlookers both cheered and boo’d as Cochrane was taken away.
# # #
Miss Elly stood by the diner’s window and, along with the two humans, watched Sheriff Busby cart Cochrane off to the hoosegow. She snorted. “Hunters. Who knows what goes on in their heads? So,” she added with a bright smile, “you boys plan to stick around?”
The tall one shook his head. “We’re just passing through. We only stopped for breakfast.”
“Yeah.” The other was still staring out the window. He looked queasy. “Nothing here for us.”
She nodded, satisfied. “You made the right decision. We’re pretty insular here. We keep to ourselves and we don’t cause trouble. Trouble comes to us, we deal with it.”
“Hey, that’s us too,” the older one said with an easy grin. “Live and let live. Especially when we’re outnumbered and outgunned.”
“You boys have more sense than Mr. Purple out there. How’d you hear about us?”
“Our dad told us.”
“Hmm. I think I remember him. He came through here about ten years ago. Poked around, then left. Smart man. I see he raised smart boys.” She crumpled their check. “Breakfast’s on the house if you get out of town within the next fifteen minutes. Vernon and Lance might come back looking for more hunters to play with.”
The two got up in a hurry. The older brother nodded toward the counter and Elly’s array of fresh-baked pies. “Can I have a slice to go?”
# # #
And that’s why Talbot’s Peak has nothing to fear from this particular pair of hunters, just in case anyone was wondering. Names have been withheld to protect me from a lawsuit.