User:Eirik/Blood and Thunder
Blood and Thunder
Everything was vibrating.
It wasn't the feeling of a car passing outside, or a plane overhead. It was rapid, violent oscillation that seemed to be shaking the very paint off the walls.
"We've got to get out of here!" Shouted Marlin over the sound of the breaking glass from the kitchen.
Terry looked around, disoriented. Which way was the way out? She couldn't remember.
"Com'on!" shouted Marlin as he raced down the hall as fast as his four paws would carry him. "This way!"
Terry didn't bother to respond, she merely followed. As hard as she tried, she couldn't ignore the feeling that her bones were beginning to shake apart under the strain. She focused on Marlins tail, not letting it go out of her sight in the dimly lit room.
There were three flashes of light as the light bulbs exploded, and the room became dark. Terry stayed focused on the bobbing tail in front of her. She felt the fine dust fall around her as the walls began to shake themselves apart. She kept moving.
The tail stopped bobbing and abruptly spun out of the way, revealing a small hole that had shaken through the wall. "Terry! Go!"
Without thinking, without saying a word, she tried to stuff her body through the hole. But it was just too small for a raccoon to get through. Marlin started pushing her, shoving her, trying to get her out of the building. Even as the vibration in the wall started to rip the bricks apart, she suddenly felt herself fall out and tumble to the ground.
Terry managed to look up in time to see Marlin poke his masked head out the same hole and struggle to pull himself through with his forepaws. There was strain and fear in his eyes.
Then Marlin stopped struggling. Slowly, he started to go limp. He turned his head in Terry's direction, opening his mouth to speak...
Terry's eyes popped open. She didn't move, didn't dare move. Her heart was still beating quickly, her breathing hard. Quickly, she surveyed the quiet scene around her. There was nothing here to fear.
Except her nightmares.
Really, it was a nightmare, singular. A replay of the worst moment in her life. The last moments before everything seemed to come crashing down.
Unbidden, the image of Marlin flashed through her mind. Not the happy, intelligent raccoon that she'd always known, but rather the Marlin of those last moments. The Marlin that literally seemed to melt before her eyes as his body turned to dust, along with the rest of the building. The Marlin that saved her life, and died in a horrific way for his valor.
It was the only Marlin that she could now remember.
Quietly, slowly, she stretched her body out in the small hole she was sleeping in. Peaking though the opening, she saw that it was still dark outside. A cool summer breeze blew out of the west, quietly rustling the leaves. In the quiet of the night, she could hear crickets and frogs with their nightly song. For a moment, she closed her eyes and listened to the quiet music. With a long breath, she decided that she was calmed as much as she could be and left the tiny hole.
She saw him before she smelled him, standing downwind on the other side of the tree. Her heart started to race and she even took a few steps backward before she stopped. "What the hell are you doing here?" she asked angrily.
The wolf yawned lazily. "Waiting for you to wake up, Terry."
Terry waited for him to say more, but this wolf had always been a creature of few words. "Well, I'm awake now. Frankly, you scared the hell out of me. I didn't expect to see you ever again."
The wolf had been one of Palmers "creations", as it were. At least, Terry had assumed that. In truth, it was hard to say. Palmer had died without telling them who was always an animal and who was once human. It was likely that now they might never really know.
The wolf looked impassive as he spoke. "Believe me, I didn't intend on coming back. I'm not getting any younger, and I've spent enough time around this place of death. But I thought that you should know that there are men in the forest."
Terry cocked her head quizzically. "What are you talking about? There are always people out there."
The wolf yawned again. "People looking, specifically, for a trio of raccoons, two male, one female, a cardinal and a red tailed hawk?"
Terry felt her jaw hang slack. That had been the composition of the group that had gone to Boston last fall. Of them, two were dead. "What? You're joking."
For the first time, the wolf showed an expression. He shot her a disgusted look. "You think that I came all this way to play a prank on you?"
She shook her head quickly, "No, I'm sorry. It's just a surprise. Where did you hear this?"
"Around. Snippets of conversations between men that don't belong in the woods, some stories I've heard from some of the others. It sounds like someone is looking for you."
Terry nodded her head absently, then turned to look at the blackened foundation. On it had once been Palmers home. "Why wouldn't they have come here, first?"
"Maybe they didn't think any of us were stupid enough to stay here." He said, almost under his breath.
Terry turned on him, "Just because you never agreed with what we were doing doesn't mean that you can sit there and insult me! You left when the snows came, and told us you were never coming back. Frankly, I didn't see it as a loss."
The wolf continued to look at her impassively. "If you want a reaction out of me, you're not going to get it. We both know how the we feel about each other. Frankly, Terry, I don't care. I'm not here to win over your friendship. It wasn't something I wanted to begin with. But I have no interest in seeing you fall into the hands of the people that killed Marcus. Marcus was a friend."
Terry blinked. She'd never known that before, that Marcus and this lone wolf had been friends that is. Neither were terribly friendly. What was ironic was that this wolf had feelings for Palmer that bordered on hatred. He had never been told that the red tailed hawk that he knew as Marcus had also been the vessel in which Palmer had spent his last five years.
"You're telling me this out of a friendship with a hawk dead almost a year now?" she asked cautiously.
The wolf nodded slightly. "That's not precisely true, but it's close. Anything that makes the lives of the ones responsible for his death harder is worth doing. I figure warning you was a start."
She smiled slightly at that. "I'm glad to see that you still believe in something, even if it is revenge. Any idea who these people were?"
The wolf shook his head. "I've seen only two myself. Both men, hiking together. They were dressed to look like fishermen, but it was clear that they hadn't fished a day in their lives. Besides, they kept checking the trees and bushes. Doubt they'd catch much fish that way."
Terry frowned. "That doesn't sound right."
The wolf cocked his head, "What do you mean?"
"Well, if these are the same people that we dealt with in Boston, then they are a great deal more powerful that that. That seems like an awfully clumsy way to search. What else have you heard?"
The wolf seemed to be frowning himself now, ever so slightly. "Well, Clarence and Burton both told me about two similar men last week, just after I'd spotted them. I got a similar comment from Crystal, though she said that it was a man and a woman."
Terry sighed and looked up into the sky in thought. The sun was just coming up over the horizon, but the sky was still a dark blue. "That doesn't make sense. This group was powerful. Why on Earth would they be so clumsy as to make their presence that obvious?"
As if in answer, the pair heard a sound coming from down the small access road. "Car." Supplied the wolf helpfully.
Terry got a sinking feeling. "I don't like this. Hide!"
The wolf quickly jumped to his feet and trotted over to an old woodpile. Moments later, he was invisible. Terry crawled back into her hole. She didn't know how easy it was to see, but it was a good twenty feet off the ground. Cautiously, she raised her head high enough to see out.
The car pulled up into what had been Palmers gravel driveway. The older sedan idled for a few minutes before the pair inside seemed to decide that it was worth getting out. With a single chug, the engine was turned off.
Terry looked at the car curiously. She knew some of the cars driven by the local townspeople, but this wasn't one of them. She heard a slight click as the passenger door opened, and a figure stepped out into the gloomy light of morning.
The man stood up on the door jamb and leaned over the roof, peering around the shadowy forest. He tapped the roof once with a pinging sound. "I can't feel anything."
There was a muffled "What?" from inside the car and the door flew open. A tall man jumped out. "What are you talking about? You said you tracked him here!" he said angrily.
The other man shrugged nervously. "What can I tell you? I can't feel anything." He looked around the abandoned homestead. "It's this place. He's here."
That seemed to make the other man nervous. "He couldn't be. He's dead. We know his is."
The shorter man shook his head. "Maybe, but he's still got a hold on this place, this land. We'd better go."
"Wait, we haven't searched! You want to tell the old lady that we didn't find him?"
The other man didn't answer, but took a few steps from the car. After a moment, he shrugged and walked back. "It's like this land is dead to me. I know that wolf is around here somewhere, though, because I can't feel him. This is the only place that could happen. That's reason enough to get out of here."
Terry watched the two men cautiously. Neither said anything more, but instead got in their car and started the engine. It sat and idled anther few minutes before it backed out of the driveway, vanishing into shadows of the early morning forest.
As soon as the car was gone, Terry cautiously crawled out. There was something going on again, something connected with what happened in Boston. She leapt down the tree and over to the bush where she'd seen the wolf hide. "What do you make of...?" She stopped, surprised to find the hiding spot empty. "Where did you... Ahhh!" She screamed as she felt jaws close around her back.
A moment later, before she could react, the jaws loosened and dropped her to the ground. She angrily turned on the wolf. "What the hell was that?!" She shouted.
The wolf looked non-plussed. "Just thought that I'd remind you not to take anything for granted. Just because we've known each other for years doesn't mean that I'm still not a wolf. You seem to forget that at times."
Terry was too angry to listen, "Don't do that again! There is something going on here and I don't need you to start screwing with my head!"
"Get used to it, because I'm coming with you."
Terry closed her eyes and rubbed her muzzle with a paw. This was turning into a really bad morning, and the sun wasn't yet over the treetops. "What are you talking about? You can't go with me. And how did you know that I was leaving?"
The wolf snorted derisively. "Oh, give me some credit. Those two were looking for someone, and it wasn't me. I'm probably guessing the same person that you are."
"Jonathon." Terry said simply.
He nodded, "That's my guess. If they think that he's here, then they must not have tracked him in Boston. I know that you're going to go, and I'm coming along."
"Why? You don't even *like* Jonathon."
The hackles raised on the wolves back as he sat, his ears went back, and there was a noticeable snarl in his voice. "I'm going because they tracked me and I didn't know it. I can't let that stand."
Even though he regained his composure almost instantly, Terry slowly started to back up. She didn't feel like arguing, and the wolf was right. She did need to warn Jonathon. "Fine, but you're going to have to be inconspicuous. Wolves aren't all that common in the city."
He grinned evilly. Without a word, the fur on his body started to retract. His muzzle began to get blunter and blunter as it melded back into his face. His ears rounds and migrated to the sides of his head. It took a little over a minute, but he had transformed into a light skinned human male, with ice blue, intense eyes. "Will that work for you?"
Terry, stunned, couldn't find her voice to speak. This was one surprise to many this morning.
The former wolf reached over and picked up the stunned raccoon, holding her nose to nose. "Just don't forget what I really am. Ever. Now where is your stash of money and clothes? We have a lot of traveling to do today."
Terry glanced up at the rearview mirror and focused on the wolf laying across the back seat. "How long have you known that you could be human?"
"Since before Palmer died." He replied.
Terry frowned as she looked back at the other traffic on interstate 91. They would be in the Boston metropolitan area in just a few hours. "Why did you keep it a secret? We could have used your help."
The wolf snorted in a short laugh. "Why? So I could have maybe ended up dead? Like Woods? Like Marlin? Like Marcus?" he said the last with force.
Terry met his eyes in the mirror. "Maybe if you'd been there, Marcus wouldn't have had to die!"
"It wasn't my fight. I'm not going to apologize for something that I had no stake in." he said as he laid his head on his paws and closed his eyes.
Terry knew better than to argue with him, but she couldn't help it. He wasn't all that pleasant at times. Besides, her back was still sore from his mock attack.
Terry turned her attention away from her sleeping traveling companion and back to the situation at hand. She'd already tried to contact Jonathon or Christie by telephone from the car rental agency, but she'd had no luck. That was hardly surprising, though. They spent most of their time as raccoons on the small property outside Boston rather than in the house anyway. At least, she hoped that's all it was.
That thought brought her back to the pair of men that had driven up that morning. Oddly, they seemed to vanish once they left the property. Terry had expected them to shadow her once she left the apparent safety of the old homestead. But she'd not seen any sign of them in town, nor on the road following her.
But it was the implication of these two that bothered her the most. Palmer had told Jonathon that the Body had died with Van Cott. This secret organization had lost it's leader. Palmer had implied as much as he lay dying. But Palmer had also been out of touch for years. Maybe someone else stepped into the leadership in the time that Palmer was away. For that matter, Palmer had said that Van Cott was insane. Maybe he hadn't wielded any power in the end. Maybe the Body did survive.
But then why were they looking for Jonathon?
A siren broke Terry out of her thoughts. She glanced up into the rearview mirror to see a Massachusetts Highway Patrol cruiser, its lights flashing. Quickly, she glanced at her speedometer. "Damn!"
The wolf in the backseat opened his eyes. "What is it?"
"It's a patrolman. We're going to have to pull over."
The wolf seemed to ponder a moment. "Do you think that he's involved?"
Terry allowed herself a slight smile. "I doubt it. Seems that I've been going 80 miles per hour the last hour or so." She eased the car onto the shoulder. "Look, for the next few minutes, you're a dog. It's illegal for people to own wolves I think, so you'll have to be a well trained dog."
"Why don't I just become human?" he asked.
Terry looked at the side view mirror as she reached for her wallet. "Because there isn't time, and a nude man in the backseat would be even harder to explain away that a wolf. Unless you want to be confiscated by animal control and relocated, do *exactly* what I say."
She didn't wait for a response, but rolled her window down as the trooper appeared. "Good Morning, officer" she said cheerfully. "What seems to be the problem?"
The patrolman leaned down a bit, "Your speed, ma'am. I clocked you at 85 back there. Where you headed in such a hurry?"
Terry tapped her hands on the wheel impatiently. "I'm heading into Boston to meet some family."
"Well, I'm sure they'd like to see you arrive in one piece. Can I see you license and registration please?" As he waited, he seemed to glance in the backseat for the first time. "Whoa! What the heck is that? Looks like a wolf!"
Terry smiled, "Looks like one, doesnt he?" She reached back and patted the wolves head. To his credit, he acted very tame. "He's actually a pure breed Calgary Husky. Very rare. Renowned for their friendliness." The wolf cocked his head ever so slightly at the last.
The officer smiled, "Huh. I've never heard of that breed before. What's his name?"
Terry smiled even more. "Cupcake." The wolves eyes narrowed a bit, but he maintained the act.
The officer broke into a wide smile, "Really? Why that name?"
Terry rubbed the wolves head enthusiastically. "Because he's just so sweet." She cooed.
The patrolman, still grinning, handed back the license and registration. "Okay, whatever ma'am. I'll just give you a warning now. But keep it around the limit, please? I don't want to scrape you two off the road later."
Terry nodded enthusiastically, "Sure thing officer!" As he walked back to his patrol ca, she eased back into traffic.
After a moment of dead silence, she heard "Cupcake?! Cupcake?! Why on earth did you tell him that?"
Terry shrugged and smiled, "I just thought that I'd teach you a little lesson. Like it or not, we're among people now, and I know humanity far better than you. You'll have to conform a little. You've chosen all this time to go without a name. Fine, we never really cared. But you'd better decide on one pretty soon or you'll be 'Cupcake' for the rest of this little project."
Terry kept smiling at the wolves unease, mostly because it was so out of place. He'd made a point to make sure we all knew that names didn't bother him in the slightest. Hell, most of humanity didn't concern him as long as they stayed out of his fur. But her choice of names was obviously grating on something within him.
"I'll choose a name soon. Don't call me that anymore." He said simply as he carefully laid his head on his paws again and went to sleep.
Terry wore a smug grin on her face for the rest of the trip.
Terry cautiously maneuvered the rented Dodge down the pitted asphalt access road. Everything looked quiet and calm. Jonathon and Christie had moved into this house about six months ago, using some of the money Palmer had left behind to buy it. It wasn't much at all, just one bedroom, a living room and kitchen, but it was on a small amount of land and completely isolated from the neighbors. It wasn't even that far from Boston. Perfect for a pair who had to spend most of the day as raccoons.
Terry felt a bit of unease about the scene, but didn't see anything out of the ordinary. She glanced at the wolf who'd taken on his human form for the moment. "Sense anything?"
He looked around. "No, but these human senses just don't have the sensitivity that I'm used to."
"Okay, let's go up to the house. Keep a look out for those guys, in case we were followed."
The wolf shook his head in frustration as he opened the car door. "Why don't you just tell me to breath while you're at it." He muttered.
The pair walked up the front door of the house and knocked. It was entirely possible that nothing was the matter. Out of the corner of her eye, Terry caught the movement of a curtain in the window. "It's Christie" supplied the wolf. "She's in raccoon form."
Terry nodded. Christie normally wouldn't have hesitated to come to the door as a raccoon and let them in, but she wouldn't have recognized the man dressed in old sweats standing next to Terry. After a minute or two, they heard the deadbolt slide back and the door swung open. "Terry, it's good to see you." She said cautiously. "What brings you down here?" She was eyeing the man suspiciously.
"Oh, we just wanted to visit. Mind if we come in? He's okay, by the way. Believe it or not, you two have met."
"Sure, of course! Come on in. Can I get you something to drink?"
They both shook their heads as they settled onto the old sofa. "No, we're fine. Where's Jonathon?"
Christie shrugged. "He's around the property somewhere. He's been looking for some kids that have been coming onto the property the last few weeks. Figures that he can spy better on them as a raccoon."
Terry and the wolf exchanged a glance. "Have you ever seen these kids?" he asked.
She shook her head, but now was frowning. "No, we've just seen their footprints. What is this all about, and who are you anyway?"
Terry sighed, "Do you remember that wolf that you met up at the property last fall?"
"You mean the disagreeable lout? Yeah."
Terry tried to hide a burst of laughter in a cough, "Yeah, that's right. This is him."
Christie went slightly pale, "Oh. Oh! Oh, I'm sorry! I... I..." she stammered. He just shrugged without saying a word.
Terry's smile melted away. It was time to get to business. "Christie, can you get Jonathon in here? Something important has come up. It looks like the Body is back in business."
Christie seemed stunned. "What? But Van Cott is dead. How can that be?"
Terry shrugged. "I don't know for sure. We just never considered the possibility that maybe they would have new leaders waiting in the wings. But more important, I think that they are looking for Jonathon."
Christie put a hand to her mouth. "Oh no! And he's out there alone right now!" She jumped up and raced to the back door. Flinging it open, she yelled "Jonathon! Jonathon! Your sister is here, and she needs to talk to you!"
Christie waited by the door for him to appear. Christie wasn't exactly one of the same group. She'd definitely been born human, but had accidentally been turned into a weasel last year by a friend who had Power, but was not a member of the Body. In the course of the next few days, she was then changed again, this time into a raccoon, and an attempt had been made to scramble her memories. Palmer had tried to stop it, but only succeeded partially. As far as she recalled, she had always been a raccoon, even though she could still remember all about her human past.
Terry almost envied that. For all her love for the man, Palmer did steal a part of her life when he changed her, an event that Terry couldn't even recall. As far back as she could remember, all she knew was the life of a raccoon. She knew now that those were implanted memories, that none of it happened. She couldn't even be sure that she and Jonathon were really brother and sister, though they'd never really talked about that possibility.
She saw a light colored form race across the short grass, a form she knew instantly to be Jonathan's. He quickly bounded through the door and leapt up into Terry's arms. "Nice to see you, sis!" he said happily. "What brings you down here?"
"Looking for you. We've got some problems." She pointed at the human formed wolf. "That's..." she started.
"I know who that is." Said Jonathon carefully. "Even if he doesnt think I do. I thought that you'd gone for good."
He shrugged, "I have my reasons."
Jonathon turned his furred head back to Terry. "I get the feeling this isn't a friendly visit. What's going on?"
Terry carried him back to the sofa and sat down. "I wish I knew."
Terry had finished filling in Jonathan and Christie on the events of the early morning. Now, they all sat around in their animal forms in the living room in silence.
"I don't believe it." Muttered Jonathon. "Why did Palmer lie to me on his deathbed?"
Terry shrugged, "I don't think that he knew what was happening, Jonathon. I doubt that he wouldn't have warned us if he thought the Body was still around. But didn't he tell you that there were still some members alive?"
Jonathon shook his head. "No, I picked that up from what I overheard between him and Van Cott. But I got the impression that Palmer had broken the back of the Body when he took out their security arm." Jonathon glanced pointedly at the wolf who only seemed to be half paying attention to the conversation. Terry shook her head slightly, indicating that he didn't know the whole story.
Suddenly, Christie perked up. "Wait a minute. Where's Franklin?"
Terry looked at Christie and back at Jonathon. "Isn't he around here?"
Now Jonathan and Christie exchanged worried glances. "No. He was, but about three months ago he said that he was going back to Vermont for a while. He never showed up?"
Terry shook her head. "No, he didn't. Oh no, I hope nothing happened to him." She looked at the wolf laying on the carpet. "Have you heard or seen him?"
The wolf shook his head. "No, nor did any of the others that I've talked to in the last few months. At least, they never mentioned it."
Jonathon looked even more worried now, even though he'd seemed calm through revelation that the body was still around. He and Franklin, after all, were good friends. Since Woods died, they'd practically been inseparable. "Do you... do you think that they have him?"
The wolf stood and stretched. "I think..." he paused to yawn, "that is a definite possibility...."
Terry felt a tight feeling in her stomach. She hadn't felt this way since the night that Marlin died.
Jonathon got a worried look across his masked face. After a quick glance at the wolf, he locked eyes with Terry. "I need to talk to you, in private."
Almost in a daze, she followed him into a back bedroom. "Terry..." he said quietly. "I never told him."
Terry looked at him a second, not comprehending what he said. Then realization dawned. "What?" she shouted. "What do you mean you never told him?!"
Jonathon started to back away from her a little. "I'm sorry, but how was I supposed to tell him? I didn't know something would happen!"
Terry closed her eyes and tried to get a handle on her emotions. After last year and the revelation from Palmer that they were not who they all seemed, they had made a conscious choice not to tell everyone. At the time, that included the only other survivor of what happened in Boston: Franklin.
Palmer had told Van Cott that his son had been turned into a cardinal, and there was only one cardinal in their fold. That meant Franklin was Van Cott's son. Jonathon knew this, as did Terry, Christi and Carrie. Franklin didn't. At the time, it had seemed like the correct thing to do. But by the end of winter and after much discussion, Jonathon and Terry had decided that it was time to tell him about his past, even if just for his own safety. In the back of their minds, they had always been at least open to the possibility that someone may search them out again.
"Damn it, Jonathon." Said Terry quietly, "Do you realize how much danger he's in? These guys can track us. They may even know that we're here right now. What possessed you not to tell him. You're his best friend."
"Don't you think that this is killing me?" he said. "I couldn't tell him, Terry. Van Cott killed Palmer, and you know how they felt about each other. Palmer had always protected Franklin when he was alive, more than most of the rest of us. Do you think that he would have reacted well to finding out that his father was Van Cott, and all that brought with it?"
Terry looked at her brother. She could see the deep pain etched in his features. She didn't want to hurt him, and the fact was that she'd been a party to the conspiracy of silence from the start. The only moral ground that she held was that she'd made damn sure that Jonathon had taken the responsibility for telling him off her shoulders. She walked over and hugged him. "Look, I'm sorry. It's been a bad day and this isn't your fault. We didn't know that this was going to happen."
Jonathon suddenly looked at the door. "What about the wolf out there? I assume you haven't told him. And what's he doing here, anyway?"
Terry shook her head. "I don't know. It sounds like he's taking this personally, but I think that he's got his own agenda."
"Do you trust him?"
Terry thought. He could have killed her this morning. All it would have required was a little more pressure and she'd have been his breakfast. But the fact was that he'd never killed any of the others. He'd always had the chance, but had never acted on it.
But when push came to shove and she needed someone to watch her back, could she trust him? She had to admit the same answer came into her head no matter how many times she asked herself the question. "No, I don't really trust him. But as long as we're working for the same thing, I think we're safe."
"But what does he want?" asked Jonathon.
Terry shrugged. "I don't know, but at the moment, he must think that it corresponds with our goals, so he'll go along with us."
Jonathan seemed to think long and hard before saying what he said next. "We have to tell him."
Terry felt the anger boiling up inside. "Are you out of you mind? You know how mad he'll be?"
Jonathon got a determined look on his face, another flashback to last year. "Would you rather him find out later? When maybe we need to depend on him?" His look softened. "He deserves to know. Maybe they all do."
Terry felt her will collapsing. She still didn't like the idea of telling him, but Jonathan was right. If he found out at the wrong moment, then everything could be for naught. If Franklin was in trouble, they didn't need a wolf turning on them at the wrong time. "Okay. Let's do it. Then we have to find Franklin."
Terry thought she was sure how the dour timber wolf would react, but gales of howling laughter certainly wasn't it.
"What's so funny?" asked Jonathon. "You did understand what I said, right?"
The wolf managed to put a clamp on his laughter, "Oh this is just too funny. You all thought Palmer was some sort of God. You know that some of the others still practically worship him? But he wasn't a god at all, he was a desperate man! A man that either didn't know or didn't care about the full implications of what he was doing."
"Look, please don't tell the others just yet..." started Terry.
"Why would I bother?" he snapped. "If you take what Palmer said in the end at face value, most of them really were born animals. Only a handful of us were ever human. Besides, the memories are gone." He yawned, the smug smile still somehow visible on his lupine features. "I know why you told me now. You didn't want me to find out sometime later. But do you know why they might want Franklin?"
Terry looked cautiously at Jonathon. He shrugged and said, "Franklin may have been Van Cott's son."
Terry was gratified that there was something in the universe that, even for a moment, could shock the wolf. "I guess that's reason enough. How do we go about finding him?"
Jonathon looked at Christie. "Can you track him?"
She frowned, "I don't think so. The only person that I've ever forged any type of link with it Carrie."
"Where is she, anyway?" asked Terry.
"She went with her parents to Europe last month. I think that she's still trying to forget what happened. She won't be back for a while." Replied Christie.
Terry sighed, "Well, I guess that we'll have to do this the old fashioned way. Why don't we start with the apartment that he was keeping in Cambridge?"
Before everything in their world changed, Franklin had been living and observing in Washington, D.C. But after everything that had happened, he'd returned to the homestead briefly before going south again and living among people. He'd only gone as far as Boston, though, to stay near Jonathon and Christie.
As she steered her rental car through the heavy city traffic, Terry reflected that it was the opposite journey than the one she had made. Everything that had happened had shaken her, but she'd been determined to try and live among people again. She'd eventually returned to Providence to live a few month in the same apartment, doing the same things, trying to create a human existence where she had only had a shell of one before. Then she realized it wasn't for her.
She was more raccoon now than human, and she didn't feel as safe any other way.
The foursome stopped behind the 150 year old building at the edge of Cambridge. The building looked like nobody had bothered to paint it since the Civil War. The sun had started to set and the worn building look positively ghastly in the dimming light. The three humans got out of the car along with the wolf. Grudgingly, he'd allowed them to put an old collar around his neck to make him at least look somewhat the part of a dog. He's even agreed to ("Temporarily!" he'd growled) take the name on the tag, Shep.
Jonathon knelt down and made a show of patting Shep on the head for any eyes that may be following them, whispering "Anything seem wrong?"
"No, not a thing." He replied. They all knew, from experience, that only the other animals among them, and possibly some in the Body, could understand them in animal form. "Let's go."
The four walked up the back stairs and to the fourth floor apartment. Standing in the dingy hallway, they knocked on the door and waited. They all hoped that Franklin's mysterious absence was just because he hadn't bothered to call in a while.
"You looking for the kid in four?" came a voice from downstairs.
Terry looked over the railing to and down to the third floor. A man at least in his late seventies was standing in his bathrobe in front of an open apartment door. "Yeah, you wouldn't happen to have seen him lately?"
The old man shook his head. "Nope. Nice boy, too. Helped my Margaret with her packages whenever he saw her. No, he up and left a few weeks ago." He glanced around conspiratorially, like he though a spy in a trench coat might be hiding behind a nearby potted plant. "You kids wouldn't happen to know if he's in any kind of trouble now, would ya?"
They all looked at each other worried. "No." said Jonathon cautiously. "But we are worried about him. Why do you ask?"
The man frowned a moment and then waved them down the stairs. "Why don't you come down here and I'll tell ya. No need for us to shout in the halls, disturbing the neighbors. By the way, the names Brody. Flint Brody." He didn't wait for a reply, but turned and entered his apartment, leaving the door open.
They hesitated only a moment before Shep started down the stairs. He paused when he realized they weren't following. "This guy is harmless, and he might know something. Besides, I smell dinner cooking."
They all walked into the apartment behind Shep, who was acting like he owned the place. Terry had to give him a lot of credit, he knew how to act like a domesticated dog. Brody bade them to sit on his worn sofa and then ran into the kitchen.
They heard the sound of some cans crashing to the floor, and all stood to investigate when a sheepish looking Brody reappeared, a rusty soup can in his hand. "Sorry about that, I was looking for this and knocked over all my wife's sewing supplies. She'll kill me when she gets home. Anyway, your friend asked me to give this to anyone that I thought was really looking for him. Said that you'd know it came from him."
Brody handed the can to Terry. Curious, she turned it over. Into her hand fell an old brass key and a single, small red feather fell into her hand.
The foursome stared at the brass key in Terry's hand. The red feather that accompanied it seemed to prove that it was Franklin's. Terry held it up to Brody. "Do you know what this key goes to?"
The kindly old man fumbled for a moment and put on his glasses. "Sure. Looks like the front door key to your friends apartment."
Jonathon quickly snapped it out of Brody's hand and started out the door. "Thanks!" He was already halfway up the stairs before the rest of the group was out the door.
Shep was the first to reach him as Jonathon struggled to release the lock on the old door. "Wait!" he growled.
Jonathan's stopped a looked up. "Why?"
"Because," said Shep in a tone reminiscent of an adult talking to a child, "someone may have beat us here. We have to be careful."
By this time, Terry and Christie had reached the top of the stairs. "I didn't know you cared." Said Terry with a slight smile.
The wolf fixed his eyes on her intensely. "I don't."
They all heard a click as the lock released. Slowly, Jonathon pushed the door open to the darkened apartment. All that the three in human form could make out was the dark shapes of a few pieces of furniture set against the windows.
Terry looked at the wolf, who was testing the air and cautiously entering the apartment. "Anything?"
He stopped. "Yes, but nothing recent. Franklin's been here, as has the old man and I think his wife. I smelled her scent downstairs. But those scents are all old, weeks old. There is something more recent, though. Two, three scents. Human, but not exactly."
Christie frowned. "What is that supposed to mean?"
Shep shrugged. "I can't explain it. But whoever they were, they haven't been here in at least a week, maybe two."
Jonathan reached into the dark entry and found a light switch. He clicked on the single, bare bulb in the ceiling. The light reveled a room that had been ransacked. The few sticks of furniture that were in the room were overturned and some torn apart. The floor was covered in foam padding from the old sofa. The cabinets in the kitchen were all opened, their few contents spilled out on the floor.
There was a short intake of breath from the three in human form. Even Shep growled slightly and quietly. He entered the room first, like a wolf stalking prey. When he seemed to relax slightly, the others followed and closed the door.
"You think that they were here looking for him?" asked Christie absently.
Terry shook her head. "Maybe, but that's not all they were looking for. You don't tear apart sofa cushions unless your looking for something someone might hide."
Shep nodded in rare agreement. "Very true. Even if they knew that Franklin was usually a cardinal they wouldn't have done all this. No, they were looking for something else."
"Do you think that they found it?" asked Jonathon.
Terry surveyed the room. "Somehow, I don't think so. They tore everything apart. You'd think that if they found it they'd have stopped at some point."
The four of them started looking around the room. They didn't have a plan, or any idea what they were hoping to see. They simply didn't know what else to do. Suddenly, Shep padded out from the bathroom, where he had wandered in to look.
"Wait a minute!" he exclaimed. "We're not thinking about this right."
"What do you mean?" asked Jonathon.
Shep started looking around the room hurriedly, as if confirming something. "Look around you. Look where they searched. It's not right."
They all started looking, but didn't get the point.
The wolf sighed. "If you were Franklin, and you had something that you thought was worth hiding, where would you hide it?"
The three of them frowned and looked at each other. Then Terry suddenly opened her eyes wide. "I'd hide it someplace where a bird could get to, but not a man!"
The wolf nodded franticly. "Yes! And if you suspected that your three friends might come looking for you, and all of them were raccoons at heart..."
"...Then I'd put it somewhere a raccoon could find!" finished Christie.
Without another word, the three of them suddenly willed the shift back to raccoon. They all gritted their teeth in obvious pain. They were mostly used to it now, but it was a kind of ache that you could never fully dismiss. Still, despite their human past, this was now their baseline and more comfortable form anyway. After crawling out of their clothing, the trio started looking from their new perspective and spread out again.
"I doubt that it's in any of the furniture at all." Said Jonathon as he climbed up the kitchen cabinets to take a closer look inside for hidden doors. "He would have know that stuff could be searched."
Terry nodded in agreement as she looked around the living room. There were no holes of any type in any of the walls. The floor was smooth wood, which didn't reveal any trap doors or hidden compartments. There were old baseboards on the floor which had long been painted the same color as the wall. She traced the outer edge of the room looking for one that was even slightly loose.
Christie came out of the small bedroom. "There isn't anything I can find in there or in the closet."
Shep's voice echoed from the bathroom. "Can you come in here and look around, then? I think that the ventilation pipe in the ceiling here is large enough for a raccoon."
There was a thud as Jonathan jumped down from one cabinet onto the old, brown refrigerator. His claws clicked on the smooth metal surface as he crossed to the second set of cabinets on the other side.
Terry, in the meantime, found herself looking at an obvious quandary. There was an old marble fireplace front in the far wall of the room. It looked purely decorative, it's fire pit area sealed by a heavy, solid, iron gate. She played her sensitive hands over the front. The gate was somewhat decorative, it's front had some swirling patterns pressed into it. As she ran her paws over it, she realized that it was vibrating slightly. "Shep, take a look at this." She said.
The wolf padded over and looked at it curiously. "Does the front open?"
She frowned. "I don't think so. I can't seem to find a latch anywhere."
Shep started sniffing around the grate and then looked down at her. "I think this may be it. I can smell Franklin's scent on this specifically." He pointed his nose down near the floor. "And strongest on this edge."
Terry started working her hands at the spot he indicated. Just behind the metal plate, she felt a small latch and pulled it. With almost no effort, what had felt like a solid panel swung open.
Terry looked at it with some bewilderment. "How come whoever searched this place didn't open that?"
Shep seemed to smile slightly and jerked his head at the top of the marble arch that made up the fireplace. Some of the marble was deeply scratched, apparently by a crowbar. "Who says they didn't. It just didn't budge when they pried at it, and they didn't find the latch."
Without further comment, Terry ventured into the long cold fireplace. As she got to the middle, she looked up. "It's not tall, only a few feet. It's pretty dark in here, but there is some moonlight near the top." She paused and laughed a little. "There's a screen at the top to keep out animals."
"I guess they didn't expect them to come from the other side." Noted Shep.
Feeling at home in the dark, cramped quarters, Terry started to climb up. She felt around the brickwork for any sign of anything, like a crevice or loose brick. She could feel that someone had cleaned the soot out of the chimney long ago, so at least it wasn't falling all over her.
When she reached the top, she hit the jackpot. The chimney had a small crevice near the top where the screen had been fitted imperfectly some time before. Jammed into it was a tiny pocket notebook. She gripped the spiral ring holding it together and dropped it. "Incoming!" she shouted.
The notebook hit the floor with a rustle, and Terry saw a Jonathon race in and grab it. Terry turned herself around and climbed down the brickwork as fast as she could. By the time she got to the bottom, Christie was had already opened it to the first page.
"'My Friends.'" She read, "'Ever since the events of last year, I have long suspected that you have been keeping something from me.'"
"Oh no." breathed Jonathon.
Christie continued. "'I know that some of you know more than you're telling about what happened. I fear that it somehow involves me. I've noticed a subtle change in some of your reactions to me. More suspicion in your glances, conversations that cease when I come into view, a feeling of tension whenever I'm in the room. It's been subtle, and I think unintentional, but it's been there.'"
Jonathon seemed to sag to the floor. "I should have told him." He said quietly. Terry put a paw on the back of his neck reassuringly.
Christie read further. "'I've spent the last several months trying to piece together some of what happened here last year, and it hasn't been easy. If not for my special talents, I wouldn't have gotten as far along as I have.'"
Terry tilted her head a bit. "What on earth does that mean?" she asked rhetorically.
"He's being coy." Shep said. "Notice how he's never mentioned any names, even first names? No mention of Palmer, Van Cott or any of you? He knew that this might fall into the wrong hands, so he didn't want to make it too easy for someone to figure out all the players. But he also didn't want them to know that he was a cardinal. Evidently, he didn't think they knew that."
Christie turned the page and started again. "'I'm not sure under what circumstances you found this. I'm not sure how you can reach me. I'll try to reach you. Wish me luck. Franklin.'" She finished.
"What the hell is he trying to do?" mused Terry.
Shep sighed. "I'm not sure, but we'd better figure out what he knew. It's the only way to find him."
Terry nervously rubbed her hands on the steering wheel as she looked at the lights of the city across the river.
She didn't know how many nightmares that she'd had since that night. The memories of waking up panting, her furry body twisted, they were all jumbled together into one. The nightmare was always the same, in every detail. Anymore, she couldn't even allow herself the luxury of a daydream or the image would invade.
For a year, she'd tried to forget Marlin. Forget him in every way possible. Marlin had been a friend, a confidante. She had felt of him as a father figure. She'd loved him in that way.
But now she couldn't call up the raccoon with the thin black mask that she'd cared for. She couldn't think of his voice, his laugh, or his wisdom without returning to that night.
She couldn't forget watching him disintegrate before her eyes.
She couldn't forget his scream. A quiet, guttural scream as his lungs were torn asunder.
She shook her head and tried to shake herself of the memory. She instead concentrated on the lights of Boston. That horrible night so long ago, every piece of glass in this city had been shattered. Whatever it was that Van Cott and Palmer had done to each other had manifested itself around the city that way. A year later, most of the lights were replaces, though many buildings still lacked glass. It would be a long time before Boston recovered from that.
Terry looked down at the raccoons next to her on the seat. They were busily flipping through the small notebook Franklin had left behind. It had been the only useful item in the apartment. They'd continued to search well into the evening, finally giving up. If Franklin had left anything else of value, it was gone.
"Anything that we missed?" asked Terry.
Jonathon looked up at her. "No, not that I can see. I don't know why, but Franklin made this notebook awfully vague. Either he didn't know that much, or he was going to great lengths to hide what he knew from prying eyes." Jonathon indicated a page. "Like here. He wrote out a list of names, all with titles. Captain, Lieutenant, Sergeant. Ten names in all. Four are crossed off, two have stars and four have no marker. But he doesnt say who these people are. Police, military?"
"Probably police." Said Christie. "Remember that they were specifically looking for you last year. There had to be a reason why they had a special interest."
"Do you really want to start back at that apartment?" asked Terry nervously.
Jonathon nodded slowly. He knew that this was a burden on her, even if he didn't know how much. "I think that we have to. Franklin mentions this address a few times. He said, rather cryptically, that the site made him realize where to start looking. He'd been trying to dig up information on it for a while, though from this it's hard to see what he got. If I'm reading his writing right, he managed to confirm that the place was in Van Cott's name, no real surprise there. He'd requested a floor plan from the city planning commission, though only God knows why. He doesn't say if he got it..."
"Wait." Said Shep as he stuck his head between the seats. "He requested those? That's what he says?"
Jonathon looked at the wolf oddly. "Well, yeah. That's the gist of one of the notes. Why?"
The wolf hung his head a bit. "I thought Franklin was smarter than that. If there are people out there, powerful people, then it probably stands to reason that they'd be interested in any attempt to find out anything about them. Franklin had given himself away."
Christie frowned. "How else was he going to get that kind of information?"
Shep gave her a cross look. "Franklin is a cardinal. I can't imagine that he couldn't find a way to get himself into that building and go through the records himself. You three could do it."
Terry glanced at the wolf though the rearview mirror and smiled slightly. It was a rare compliment from him. Then she frowned. "Why would he want those plans?" she muttered.
"What? Say again?"
She glanced at the three of them. "Why would Franklin have wanted the floor plan? I can understand why he'd want the name on the deed. But the plans? What good would it do? The building and everything in it was pulverized to dust."
Shep just slid back into the shadows of the backseat. "Maybe he thought he knew something. I guess we'll find out when we get there."
It turned out to not be as easy as it seemed.
In their haste to get to the departed building, the foursome had forgotten one important fact: the area was still sealed off.
Something had pulverized, with surgical precision, a building in the middle of a row of brownstones. Other than the shattered glass for miles around, no other building was damaged, even the ones that were physically attached. Since the first moments that this had been realized, the site where the Van Cott home had once stood was cordoned off. Within hours, the rest of the block had been evacuated, every home effectively confiscated by the federal government.
Terry slowly drove past the dark street. The glass that had littered the street was long gone, as were the rows of parked cars, but the windows were still vacant. No lights showed through the empty window frames, the curtains billowing out slightly in the evening breeze. About halfway down the block, worklights were set up around the perimeter of a chain link fence that cordoned off the property. There were no workers there that night, but there were two guards sitting in a small kiosk at the edge of the fence.
Terry drove on a little ways and then parked the car. "What do we do now? The place is being watched."
Jonathon and Christie exchanged glances. "Uh Terry? They're not likely to pay much attention to some raccoons. People are funny that way."
She grimaced a little. "I'm sorry. I... I... I don't think I can do this." She was gripping the steering wheel tighter now and she could feel herself losing control of her form.
Jonathon rested his paws on her arm. "Terry! It's alright. You don't have to come. Christie and I can handle it."
Already loosing control, Terry simply allowed her raccoon form to flow back. She closed her eyes as she felt the familiar and comfortable feeling of her muzzle push out. She twisted slightly in the seat to face Jonathon. "No, I need to go. If I don't, and we don't find Franklin..." her voice trailed off.
Jonathon ran his slender fingers through the fur between his sisters ears. "We'll find him. Let's go." He looked at Shep in the backseat. "I presume that you'll stay here?"
He cocked his head. "A wolf would be rather out of place here. I think that the guards would notice that. But be careful. Remember that these people might be tracking you. Watch yourselves."
Christie opened the door and they tumbled out into the street. As they ran through the shadows, Terry looked back at the car and saw the glint of Shep's eyes watching them. She felt an involuntary chill run through her body, but somehow she didn't really feel danger. What is it about him? she asked herself silently.
"Terry? You coming?" she heard Jonathon hiss. She shrugged off those thoughts and raced ahead.
Up close, the area had the aura of a UFO crash site. Four banks of portable lights stood around the site, one at each corner. A few of the bulbs had burned out, but the pulverized rubble was still lit up like daytime. The rubble itself, all piled into the half basement that had once been there, was covered in a tarp. Terry simply assumed that samples of this were being looked at in every relevant lab in the world.
It seemed to be lightly guarded, but that could be deceiving. While only two guards were posted in a small hut near the gate, there were probably hidden cameras looking out from the dark holes in the buildings across the street. There might even be more people here than there looked like.
Jonathon motioned toward a small hole in the fence. "We can go through there and poke around the site."
Christi was starting to look a little worried. "Are you sure that's a good idea? Won't they get suspicious if the see us sniffing around?"
Jonathon shrugged. "Probably, but even so, what are they going to do? As far as they're concerned, we're basically rodents."
Christie couldn't think of anything else to say. Terry could think of a dozen reasons why they shouldn't be here, and a few why she simply didn't want to be here. But they needed to look at the sight, to see what Franklin saw.
Silently, the three raccoons made for the chain link fence. There wasn't much clearance below it, but it was enough. Within moments, the three of them were standing atop the heavy black tarp that had been used to cover the remains of the building.
For Terry, it was plain to see the changes that had occurred since that night. The last things that she remembered before waking up in the hotel room was the sight of the building falling into one neat pile. The area had almost an ordered look to it now. Somehow, it was foreign from the chaos that had ruled that night.
Christie ambled over to the edge of the tarp and picked it up. "Hey, look at this." She pointed to dozens of holes, each about the diameter of a dime, dug into the dense dust. Up close, multiple colors could be seen in the predominately red dust. "What do you make of that?"
"Samples for testing." Noted Jonathon. "Probably all over the place here." Indeed, they were. The trio looked all over the sight and managed to turn up nothing of any importance. Nothing that could explain why Franklin had been so interested in the site itself.
Finally, Terry sat off to one side and started rubbing her muzzle with her paws. Franklin? she thought, What did you see? She started looking up at the stars, hoping that they would give her an answer. Against the black sky, she caught the outline of a small bird flying from rooftop to...
"Jonathan!" she shouted.
Her brother's head shot up and looked in her direction. "What is it?" he asked as he raced to her side.
"Damn it, we're still thinking like raccoons!" she muttered.
Christie seemed to smirk a little. "I wonder why that is?" But almost as soon as she said that, he jaw opened a little. "Franklin's not a raccoon!"
Terry nodded. "We need to see this site from the air, or at least higher up." She noted to the rooftops on either side of the virtually empty lot. "And that's how we can do it. We just need to try and see what he saw from the air."
There was no debate about that fact at all. They only paused long enough to decide to separate. Terry and Christie took the buildings on either side of the lot while Jonathon was to climb to the top of the building across the street.
Climbing back to the street, Terry quickly climbed the brickwork under a nearby window and slipped in. She took a few quick sniffs of the air. There was the vague scent of people, but nothing that had been here a long time. Long rotten food from the kitchen and dust dominated the air. Gingerly, she stepped across the living room, he paws kicking up tiny puffs of dust as she went. She felt the broken glass scattered across the floor, but managed to avoid cutting herself.
There was no way to the roof from inside this apartment, so she risked a brief transition to human to open the door and slip into the hall. As she climbed the stair, she started to realize just how quiet it was. There were no sounds at all. It was as if the entire world had vanished, and all that was left was the sounds of her own heart pumping.
Reaching the top stair, she paused with a start. The door to the top floor apartment was open. Cautiously, she approached it. Sniffing the air, she noted nothing out of the ordinary. Slowly, she took one step at a time toward the door.
A few paces from the door, she stopped and shook her head. She'd watched too damn many of those horror films since the days of Palmer. She looked around the dark hallway and had to admit that the scene was almost perfect. A dark, dusty hallway, an open door and a female moving cautiously toward it. Terry silently chided herself for giving into her fears and instead tried to bring a little of the bravado that her species was all but famous for.
She moved casually over to the door and pushed it open enough to get through. She started looking around the room slowly, carefully. Much like the apartment downstairs, it was dark and silent. Broken glass littered the floor along with old magazines and cushions from the sofa. The smell of mold drifted in from the kitchen. Emboldened, Terry took a few cautious steps into the apartment.
She never saw the form that grabbed her.
Terry struggled frantically against the strong hands that held her. She tried to twist her head to sink her teeth into the soft flesh of the mans' palm, but one hand held her below the chin. The other gripped her over the stomach.
"Stop squirming!" came the gruff, hushed voice. "If I wanted to kill you, you'd already be dead."
Unsure what else to do, Terry stopped. "Ungf..." she grunted, unable to move enough even to speak.
"I was a friend of Palmers." He said quietly. Terry went shock still and tried to look at his face. The best she could manage was making out a shadowy outline. "I'm here as a warning. The Body knows who you are, they simply don't care right now. But they don't know yet what you're up to. That will change if you keep poking around."
Terry tried to speak again, but the grip got tighter. "Don't confuse friendship with loyalty." The shadowy man continued. "I'm not here to help you. Your presence and actions are going to destroy years of planning. Palmer did enough damage last year, making his move before we were even nearly ready. I don't want you animals to do the same!"
There was a long pause. "Franklin is alive, but I think that you know that. You'd have felt it if he died. Believe it or not, he's safer now than he's ever been. He may not be that way for long if you start messing with things. Once he no longer has value..."
There was a slow creak from the front door to the abandoned apartment. From the nearly black hallway, Terry head a very low growl. "Leave the lady alone."
As far as Terry could tell, the man holding her never moved a muscle. "I wondered if you'd be involved this time. I'm surprised that you weren't before. Always were the protective one."
"Says you." Came the careful reply. "I wouldn't know."
The man actually laughed a little at that. "No, of course you wouldn't. Sad really. I always liked you."
"At the moment, I don't share that sentiment." The statement was punctuated with a slow growl. "Drop the raccoon. Now."
The man laughed lightly. "I will. I simply have one more thing to say. If you get in the way, we'll kill you. All of you. Some of us still like and respect Palmer, but we're in too deep. If it comes to you or us, it'll be you."
There was an electric feel in the air. Terry could sense that Shep was preparing to strike. Then she realize that she was no longer being held and fell to the ground. Shep was over her in a second.
"Are you okay?" he asked, genuinely concerned.
Terry got her bearing and looked around frantically. "Where'd he go? Who was he?"
"He just vanished. I didn't recognize him or his smell. What happened?"
Terry shuddered. "He grabbed me when I came in here. Warned me against looking for Franklin anymore."
Shep padded around the room a bit, sniffing. "Looks like he must have come in the same way he left. He wasn't here long, and I didn't smell his scent in the hall."
Terry took a couple of deep breaths and calmed herself down. Physically, she felt fine. Mentally, she was chagrined. That was the second time in the last week she'd been at someone's mercy. She didn't like that one bit. "What are you doing here, anyway? I thought that you were going to wait in the car."
Shep didn't stop looking around. As he carefully walked into the kitchen, he said, "Just thought that you might need a hand, that's all." He said evasively. "Or at least a wolf."
Terry looked at the wolf oddly. Obviously, Palmers old friend had known him, and perhaps all of them, before they'd been altered. She wondered, not for the first time, if the wolf knew more about what was going on than he was saying.
She pushed the thoughts out of her head. There wasn't much chance of that. This trip to the old building site had been a bad idea with little hope of finding anything useful. If Shep had known more, he wasn't likely to lead them on a dangerous, and futile, wild goose chase.
Shep padded over the a window and looked out behind the building. The next block over was dark save for a few streetlights. The only sound was the distant whine of a siren. "We'd better get the others and get out of here. We need to regroup."
Terry nodded silently and led the way downstairs.
Somewhere in a dim room, she waited.
The others were gone now. Most were simply home with their families this night or out of town on some errand or other. But a lot of them were dead.
Or might as well be.
She'd lost count of the missing faces around her. The number wasn't obscenely high, but it was more than anyone should have to endure in one lifetime. After a while, it simply became too painful to think about, and she stopped thinking about them.
She looked longingly toward the dining room. The memories of meetings past and of meals eaten. She couldn't remember any of the happy times without thinking of a missing soul.
Dead or altered.
She wasn't totally alone in the world. She'd had the mantel of the Body thrown on her as it's senior surviving member after Palmer took his final act of vengeance on the organization that had tried to destroy him. It was something that she couldn't forget, couldn't forgive. Worst, she couldn't get her revenge.
How do you take revenge on a dead man?
Her mind swirling with a thousand twisted thoughts of vengeance, she slowly drifted to sleep on the sofa.
"You're not seriously going to suggest that, are you?" yelled Jonathon.
Shep's impassive expression didn't alter. "I am. If we take what he said on face value, then you're all going to be in far more danger than any of us realized. We should consider just waiting to see what happens."
Terry nodded curtly from her spot atop Franklin's sofa. For lack of a better idea, they'd returned to his vacated apartment for the night. "Yeah, sure. But we've all been in this before."
"Have you? Really?" said Shep. "You were thrown into a situation that you didn't understand last year and you never really knew who the players were. Without Palmer, you'd all be dead right now."
It was plain to see that Jonathon was getting angry at this. "So you want us to just abandon Franklin to these people? Are you nuts?"
"Look, that man in the apartment seemed to say that there was a battle coming soon. A power struggle maybe. If Van Cott was truly the head of that group, and some of us were really members of that leadership, then they must be in a precarious position."
"So where does Franklin fit in all of this?" asked Christie. "Why would he be safer now?"
That was the question of the night. How did he get tangled up in this? Why? Franklin had never been the type to go off half cocked. For something this big, something that he obviously suspected was so dangerous that he didn't even write down everything he knew in his own notebook, he never asked for help. Instead, he went off and started to investigate the Body all on his own.
That made no sense.
Franklin didn't know everything that she did, but he knew enough to stay clear of those people. What on earth could have propelled him to do this?
Palmer did enough damage last year, making his move before we were even nearly ready. I don't want you animals to do the same!
What had the man in the apartment meant by that? She started thinking back on the events of the last few days, starting with the two guy who drove up to the old homestead in Vermont.
You want to tell the old lady that we didn't find him?
Some of the pieces started to fall into place. "Oh, no." muttered Terry. "Franklin is a distraction!"
They all looked at her. "What do you mean?" asked Christie.
She tried to calm herself down a little and held up a paw to indicate she needed a moment. "Okay, that man tonight said that Palmer made his move too soon. Now, I don't think that was really his choice, since events got out of hand pretty fast, but that doesn't matter. What were the events last year, at least as far as the Body was concerned?"
"A distraction?" ventured Jonathon.
"At the least." Stated Terry. "I think that there are at least two sides to this little conflict, and what Palmer told us seems to hold true for that. But one side is a lot weaker than the other. They can't act until they're ready, and unless attention is diverted."
"But where does Franklin fit into this?" repeated Christie.
"Van Cott was high in the Body, as was his son. Perhaps leadership runs in the family."
She paused. "Every boy has a mother."
She woke up quickly. Never a heavy sleeper, she was fully awake in an instant. Still, she lay still on the sofa, listening for the sound that had awakened her.
For a long moment, all she heard was the sound of her breathing and the occasional creak from the quiet house. But then the sound that had awakened her came again.
Slowly, she turned her head toward the plate glass window. In the darkness of the night, she could see nothing there. But the sound persisted
A shorter, more impatient pause.
She pushed herself off the sofa and carefully made her way over to the window. As she got closer, she spied the outline of a form on the window sill and stopped in shock. Tears welled up in her eyes. Without hesitation, she raced forward.
Patiently, and nervously, a cardinal waited on the other side.
The three raccoons and the wolf looked at each other in silence as they realized the implications of what Terry said.
"Franklin's mother." breathed Christie. "Of course. But how did he find out?"
"I imagine that your friend from tonight could tell us.", growled Shep. "If it wasn't him, it was someone else that tipped off Franklin."
"Wait.", said Jonathon. "I thought that these were the good guys."
Terry sighed. "Who knows? Nobody has given us a pamphlet recently on who all the players are. We know that, at least as far as Palmer knew, they had a desire to take control of the world."
"But Palmer told Van Cott to his face that he didn't have the people or nearly enough power." interrupted Jonathon.
Terry nodded. "Sure, but maybe this other group think that they have the people. Perhaps they have some people in high, key places. Maybe they simply want to continue what Palmer started."
"What do we do now?" asked Christie. "Do we keep looking for Franklin?"
Terry shook her head. "No. He's got a head start on us of at least a couple weeks. Assuming that he's still in the city, he could be anywhere. I say we look for Mrs. Van Cott."
Melinda Van Cott yanked the heavy window up. Trembling, she fell to her knees to get eye to eye with the tiny red bird that was still standing there. With a trembling voice, she asked one word, "Arthur?"
The little bird said nothing for a long time. It simply looked her over, seeming to be hesitant about what to do next. A response seemed so long in coming that she started to wonder if the bird was simply sick or oddly brave.
"It's Franklin now. Are you... are you Melinda Van Cott?" He asked in a tiny voice. It was a few octaves higher than she remembered it, but there wasn't a doubt in her mind.
This was her son.
Terry flipped frantically though the white pages while Shep looked on amused. "You have to be kidding. You think that she'd be listed?"
Terry didn't bother to look up. "Why not? She has to have a phone."
Shep rolled his eyes. "Terry, think about this logically a minute...."
"Shut up." She said under her breath. Much to her surprise, he did. "Damn."
"What is it?" Shep asked, now amused.
She pointed at the page. "There must be thirty entries for Van Cott here. Half of them don't have a first name."
"Wouldn't help Terry. We don't know her name, anyway. We don't know what she looks like. We don't even know if her last name is Van Cott."
Jonathan snorted from his spot on the sofa where he was pawing through Franklin's notebook. "We don't even know that she exists."
Terry nodded mournfully. "You're right."
Christie nestled up to Jonathon and started reading over his shoulder and around his muzzle. "What are you looking for, anyway?"
Jonathon shrugged. "I don't know. I was hoping that maybe something would jump out at me." He paused at the list of names again. "What about these guys? The ones who might be cops?"
They heard a deep laugh, and were all surprised to see it come from Shep. "Why not?" he asked.
Terry looked at him opened mouthed. "You're kidding, right? These are the guys that came after us last year!"
Shep shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not. But they are also the only ones with answers to questions that we have. Why spend weeks trying to repeat something Franklin did, probably with help that he didn't even realize, when we can go right to the source?"
Terry still couldn't believe what she was hearing. "And what do we ask them? 'Excuse me, but we're looking for a friend of ours. He's about four inches tall, covered in red feathers. Answers to the name Franklin?'"
Shep nodded. "Not to be flip, but yes. That's precisely what we do. One way or the other, we get the answers that we're looking for."
"Or we get killed." Muttered Terry. Shep didn't comment.
Jonathon looked at the list. "So where do we start?"
Shep padded over and looked at the list. He pointed his nose to the second name from the top. It was one of the two with a star next to it. "There. Captain Dennis Talbot."
Mrs. Van Cott sat on the sofa, rubbing her cheek against the side of the tiny bird that she knew her son to be. Franklin, for his part, seemed almost speechless.
After a few minutes, she regained her composure enough to let her son perch on the arm of the sofa. "Oh, Arthur. I wasn't sure I'd ever see you again."
"Arthur?" said Franklin hesitantly. "Was that my name?"
She nodded. "It was. You were named for my grandfather. When Palmer changed you, he changed everything. Including your name. I guess that he did it to everyone he took from me."
Franklin seemed to sigh and then lowered his body to the arm of the chair. "I can't believe this." He said in a barely audible whisper. "You really are my mother."
Melinda smiled. "I am. No matter what you look like or what that bastard did to you, I'm the one that gave you life." She tentatively reached a hand out to him and started rubbing his chest feathers with a finger. "I'll love and protect you with my life, if I have to."
Franklin's eyelids lowered slightly. "I'm sorry, but I just don't remember any of this. I really don't."
Melinda smiled a little wider, wiping a tear away. "You will. There are others in the Body that can help you. Help you remember."
"Can they give me back my old body?" he asked.
She stopped rubbing his feathers for a split second, her smile faded. She knew exactly what Palmer had done. Hell, she'd taught him how to control his abilities herself when they were both younger. She knew better than anyone alive that what that man had done was not reversible. "We'll see what we can do, Arthur. We'll see what we can do."
Christie took the drivers seat this time as they maneuvered the car through the eastern portion of the city. "Are you all certain that you want to try this? This could get really dicey in a hurry."
Shep nodded. "I'd honestly prefer to confront him in a dark alley or in the woods, but this may be better. He won't expect a confrontation in the middle of a police station. He's not going to be as free to try anything that way, either."
Terry sat on the floor of the back seat and pondered what they were going to do. A few phone calls had reveled that the good captain was not only definitely a member of the Boston Police Department, but he was working the night shift. After that revelation, they decided that there was no time like the present.
Christie pulled into a parking space shadowed from the streetlights by some large trees and shut off the engine. The sat in silence a moment, looking around for anyone. But at close to 2am in the morning, there were no one on the street.
"Okay, everyone ready?" whispered Shep. With a curt nod, Christie started to lose her human shape, even as Shep and Terry started to gain it. Jonathan, who had jumped onto the dashboard, was alone in staying in the raccoon form that he occupied.
As Shep's muzzle retracted into his face, and he steeled himself against the slight pain he felt, he said, "Okay, you all know what to do. Jonathon and Christie stand by as close as you can to the front door without being seen. If you are seen, just act natural."
"Right, I'll start whistling a happy tune." Said Christie.
Shep shot her a nasty look, but continued. "We'll go in and ask our friend in there a few questions. If something happens to us, then abandon the car and make your way over to the Fens by dawn. If we haven't returned in a day, get back to Vermont."
Jonathon shifted uncomfortably. "I still don't like this. I don't want to leave you alone and in trouble."
Shep growled a little. "If we're not out of here in a day, then we're dead." He growled, "There isn't any point in killing yourselves." Without waiting for a response, he popped open the door and he and Terry jumped out into the night.
Terry and Shep said nothing as they made their way down the sidewalk. There wasn't much to say. Beyond getting in, there really wasn't a plan. He held the door open for her as they entered the brightly lit lobby.
The desk sergeant barely looked up as they entered. He closed the magazine that he was reading, but left his finger marking the page. "Can I help you?" he asked in a dull voice.
Shep stepped forward and flashed a smile the likes of which Terry had never seen. It was instantly charming and disarming. "Yes, sergeant. If it's possible, I'd like to speak with Captain Talbot."
The sergeant looked at them with a little more attention, but still dully. "Let me see if he's available." He picked up a phone and punched a button. After a long sigh he perked up a little. "Captain? There are two people at the desk who would like to speak with you. Yes, sir. Yes, sir." He hung up. "He'll be right out." The sergeant went back to his magazine.
Terry looked around the small office at all the officers in uniform. She started to wonder if this was really a good idea. Just then, a tall, dark hared man stepped out of a small office and started walking forward. His eyes were on a folder that he was reading, but he managed to make it halfway across the precinct office without collision. Then he looked up.
His eyes and Shep's met.
The captain faltered a step, but his eyes never lost their connection with Shep. His face seemed to visibly pale. He mouthed the words Oh my God. After a moment he seemed to recover, but he was still pale.
Terry leaned over to Shep. "Friend of yours?"
Shep grunted. "Apparently."
Captain Talbot walked up behind the sleepy sergeant, still looking at Shep. "Roany?" he asked breathlessly. "Roany? Is that you?" he asked in awe.
Shep shrugged, "Apparently so." He said non-commitally.
Talbot frowned. "But you're..." he glanced down at the sergeant who had still not taken much notice of the conversation. "Come on back. Let's talk."
They followed Talbot to his office and sat in his guest chairs. Talbot closed the door and the blinds. "Roany, where the hell have you been? We started to think that maybe you'd died."
"Apparently not." He replied. "I've been indisposed, you might say."
Talbot frowned at that and for the first time looked straight at Terry. Then he looked back to Shep. "Oh good lord. You confronted Palmer, didn't you? Damn it, I told you not to do that. I should have known that you'd do it anyway." Then he stopped as if he'd just realized something.
Shep smiled. "In case you've just realized it..."
"You don't remember any of this." Finished Talbot.
Shep nodded. "Bingo, my friend."
"You're looking for Van Cott's kid, aren't you? Christ, I didn't know you were in this." He looked around quickly and then slowly started to write on a small notepad. "Look, I can't help you with this." He said as he wrote. "By all rights, I should take to my contacts. They'll already be pretty pissed that I didn't. But if you walk out that door right now, I'll let you go." As he finished, he slid the notebook across the desk.
Terry and Shep read it together. Common, Soldiers Memorial. 9 AM.
Terry looked at it a moment, not sure what it meant. Shep, though, picked it up quickly. Barely missing a beat, he said, "I guess that means that friendship means little to you. We'll be going."
They got up and left the station in a hurry, waiting only long enough at the car for the two raccoons to jump into the backseat. "What happened?", asked Jonathon.
"Something very interesting.", replied Terry. "It looks like we have a meeting in the morning."
Melinda woke with a start.
For a split second, she was confused. She wasn't in her bed, so where was she? In the space of a few heartbeats, he mind became more ordered and she remembered the previous night. She remembered falling asleep on the sofa. She remembered Arthur.
She turned her head slowly, almost afraid of what she might see. There, perched atop the lamp on the end table was a tiny red bird. It's head was tucked under a wing and it sat perfectly still. She stared at him for a few minutes, not wanting to disturb him but so desperately wanting to talk to him.
Finally, she reached a trembling hand outward, afraid that the moment that she touched it the phantom would vanish. But her finger met feathers. Franklin's head came up almost instantly, his wings opened as if to fly away.
Melinda pulled her hand back. "Wait! I'm sorry, I shouldn't have done that."
Franklin closed his wings and adjusted himself a bit on the lamp. "It's okay. You just startled me is all. I don't know what kind of person I was before, but I'm a small bird at heart now."
Melinda smiled. "And an adorable bird you are." She reached out a hand in a silent offer for him to climb on, which he accepted. She pulled him closer to her face and could feel the tears welling up again. "God, I've missed you. I've had people looking for you, you know. Ever since Palmer died, they've been looking."
Franklin fixed his gaze on her, "But you never found me."
Melinda shook her head. "No, we couldn't. You were too well hidden, and not at all where we though you'd be. Palmer was smarter than most of the others gave him credit for. Especially your father."
Franklin drooped his head a little. "I don't remember him."
She shook her head sadly. "No, you wouldn't. Nathan was a good man after his own fashion, but just wasn't all that bright. His only flaw, really. Well, that and the fact that he held grudges." Melinda started stroking her sons wing lightly with a finger. "If not for that, you'd still be here."
Franklin looked at her curiously. "M-Mother? What's been going on? Why did this have to happen to me?"
Melinda stood up from the sofa, her son still perched on her hand. "That's going to take a long time to explain, Arthur. Let me at least start some coffee. Would you like anything?"
"No, I'm fine. But... could you call me Franklin? Somehow I just can't accept the other name. Yet." He said quietly.
Melinda felt her heart sink at his words. She hadn't even considered the fact that, as far as he knew, he's always been named Franklin. Baby steps, Melinda. Baby steps. She nodded. "Okay. But promise me that you'll think about the name Arthur?"
The crimson bird inclined his head slightly, his tail feathers fanning out. "I will, I promise."
Terry and Shep stood in their human forms beside the Soldiers Memorial at the center of Boston Common. Terry could tell why Dennis Talbot had chosen this spot to meet. At this hour of the morning, there were not that many people in the park, but enough that a few were able to blend in, and the monument sat atop a hill dotted with trees. It was concealing at the same time as it provided a fair view of the park.
Terry fidgeted nervously. "I still don't like this, Shep. We had the element of surprise, no matter how thin that was, at the police station."
If he were still a wolf, Shep probably would have growled his response. "I don't either, but we don't have a choice. It looks like Talbot is willing to give us some answers, and we need them."
Terry didn't respond. Instead, she scanned the trees looking for some sign of her brother or his wife. They had parted company to hide in the trees before any of them had even entered the park. Shep's idea. If they knew exactly where Jonathon and Christie were, then it was possible to give them away by accident. This way, there was no way to tell.
Shep pointed his chin down the path. "There." He said quietly.
Terry followed his gaze to see a jogger coming closer to them. The man was wearing a simple white T-shirt and shorts, wearing a walkman. As he approached, Terry could see that it was Talbot. He'd stripped off his police uniform before coming here.
Talbot jogged over and beckoned them to sit on the memorial with him. He sat, his back to the heavy marble column, for a minute or two just to catch his breath before he finally spoke. "You always had a knack for getting into trouble, Roany. I just hope that you don't drag me in this time."
"Why do you keep calling me 'Roany'?" asked Shep.
Talbot reached down and shut off the portable tape player. "That was your name. Well, nickname at least. Your given name was Roanoke Freed. You never liked it much."
Shep smiled a little. "I guess that explains why I never took a name as an animal."
Talbot shrugged slightly and dabbed off a few beads of sweat from his brow. "Okay, I've only got a couple minutes here. I don't think anyone is watching me, but you two, that's a different story."
Shep gave Talbot a hard look. "Who?"
He shrugged again in response. "Everyone has a reason. The Body, because your friends threw them into an uproar last year. Some of the unattached because of your connection to Palmer."
"Dennis, What is going on here? We've blundered our way around for over a year without much of a clue."
Talbot thought a moment, tapping his knee with a finger. Finally, he said, "Never thought that I'd have to explain some of this to you, but in a nutshell..." his voice trailed off a moment. "In a nutshell, have you ever heard of witches, warlocks? Those old fairy tales?"
Both Terry and Shep nodded.
"Well, that stuff is a lot more true than most people realize."
Melinda picked up the family photo off the glass kitchen shelf and brought it down to Franklin's level. "This is you, me and your father. It was taken, oh, about 10 years ago. You were 16." She looked at the picture a long time. "You were a handsome young man."
The bird looked curiously at the photo, seeming to lock eyes with the image of the red headed young man long gone. He stayed silent, thought.
Melinda set the photo down and took a sip of coffee. "This whole thing started a long time ago. None of us really knows when, but the earliest that we've been able to figure out is around the early 1300's. That's when the Body was formed."
Shep blinked. "You mean that all of you are witches of some sort?"
Talbot shook his head. "Not in the classical, fairy tale sense. I only used those terms because they fit. The stories about cauldrons, potions and baking children in ovens are mostly made up. The only truth to those old stories is that we have a certain mastery over the natural world."
"How much?" asked Terry.
"It varies from person to person. I've got very little ability myself, and what I can do can only be done when I touch another. Nothing far ranging, nothing permanent. At the other end of the spectrum were people like Palmer and Van Cott..."
"The Body was formed," continued Melinda Van Cott, "as a way for those with magical abilities to form a united defense against those that mistrusted them. Most individuals couldn't defend themselves against a mob of townspeople, but several with abilities could survive much better."
"Where was it formed?" asked Franklin.
"We think either in eastern Europe or maybe the mid-east. But it doesn't matter. The Body grew very quickly, gaining secret support on continents that weren't otherwise even aware of each other. By the time the western Europeans were roaming the high seas and making the world smaller, we had a sizable network out there."
"Palmer, specifically, was the most powerful necromancer in the last 200 years." Continued Talbot. "His abilities came to light at about the age of five, earlier than almost anyone else, and by the time he was 22, he was a member of the Body leadership. Between him and Van Cott, the Body was far more powerful than it had ever been."
Shep frowned. "So why did Palmer leave?"
Talbot sighed. "Very simple, Van Cott was insane."
Melinda picked up the dusty book off the shelf in the study and sat down at the desk. She opened it and showed it to her son perched on her shoulder. "This is something that your great grandfather, Charles Van Cott, wrote while he was living in London at the turn of the century. It was his plan for inserting himself as the defacto leader of a united Europe. He was convinced that it was the first stepping stone on the road to world control."
"But I thought that the Body was formed to be defensive." Said Franklin.
She nodded. "It was, but over time it started to become more activist, actually taking preemptive steps to protect itself and it's members. But until Charles Van Cott, it had never tried to take any significant control."
Franklin skimmed the pages quickly, not seeming to read much of it. "So what happened?"
She sighed. "He came rather close, not that anyone would know it. He knew that war was coming into Europe two decades before it was declared. He started positioning himself in a way that put himself in control, secretly, of the industrial base of most of Western Europe and America."
"Why? Why not make himself a political leader?" asked Franklin.
She smiled. "Political leaders are too public. He wanted to work from the shadows. He used his abilities wisely, and worked his way into nearly every facet of the economy. He was positioned well. He was a man that no one really knew, but was only a few years from owning everything."
Franklin looked at the book and back at his mother. There was the vestiges of a frown on his avian face. "If he was that close, then what happened?"
Despite herself, she laughed a couple times. "He never learned how to swim, believe it or not."
Franklin's frown got deeper. "Huh?"
"He traveled to America early in the war to take care of some business and then booked passage back on board the Lusitania. Turned out that it was her last voyage. His body washed ashore a few days later."
Terry and Shep looked curiously at each other. "How did Van Cott get to be head of the Body if he was insane?"
Talbot didn't answer right away, instead he looked around the park a moment. When he felt the coast was clear, he answered. "The leader of the Body is hereditary. It wasn't always that way. In fact, it used to be an elected position. About 100 years ago, an ancestor of Van Cott changed that. He managed to turn the position into one that was closer to a king."
"Why didn't the others stop him?" asked Shep.
"They couldn't. Charles Van Cott was good at forming alliances, and he had too much support and far too much power. No opposition sufficiently large could form without word getting back. Eventually, there wasn't any."
Terry frowned. "So when the last Van Cott stepped into the position, he managed to do it despite his insanity?"
Talbot shook his head. "We didn't know at the time. We only knew that he was a little odd, a little off. Most of us just thought that he was just a little immature. But by the time we knew the full extent of his insanity, his full propensity for evil, it was too late. He was entrenched."
A lightbulb seemed to flash over Shep's head. "Palmer was never really a member of the leadership, was he? He was working for you people, wasn't he?"
Talbot shook his head. "First of all, I have no alliances to anyone. I broke with the Body about a year after Van Cott took over. Since I wanted to live a long life, I never joined any of the others. As for Palmer, he had his own agenda."
"He was the most powerful man in the world, and he couldn't avoid drowning?" asked Franklin incredulously.
Melinda nodded, a slight smile on her face. "Ironic, isn't it? He could swim the sea of sharks that made up the business world, but he couldn't manage to swim to shore."
"Why didn't someone else take over for him?" he asked.
Melinda shrugged. "He'd never told anyone what his empire amounted to. To hide what he was doing, a lot of it was held under dummy names, was being watched over by others, or were simply secret. Nobody was able to reconstruct even a quarter of his empire before it fell apart."
"So his goals fell apart?" asked Franklin.
Melinda sat in a cushioned chair and nodded. "Yes, and with him was the peak of the power of the Body. After his death, his son took his place at the head."
"Your grandfather was simply not the kind who should have led us then. He lacked even a fraction of his fathers ability, both in the mystical arts and in raw intelligence. Though his inept leadership, the Body started a slow slide. He started to become paranoid, seeing plots behind every corner."
Franklin looked at the black and white photo of the man. "Was he right?"
Melinda seemed caught off guard by the question. She considered a moment and then grimily nodded. "Yes and no. He was convinced that his father had been killed by a member of the Body in an effort to get control. One of his first acts, in fact, was to move from London to Boston to get away from the perceived plot. Over time, as his instability became clear, there were efforts to remove him from power. They didn't work."
"So when he died..." ventured Franklin.
"...You're father took his place." Answered Melinda. She shook her head. "It was a terrible choice, one that they shouldn't have made. His son was every bit as paranoid as his father, but had nearly the power of his grandfather. It was a dangerous combination. But for a while, it was an unfocused rage. He thought he smelled plots, but never uncovered them. Never could find the conspirators, though he suspected everyone."
She sighed loudly, "Palmer joined the Body, and all hell broke loose."
Terry and Shep were taken aback. "What do you mean? Who was Palmer working for?"
Captain Talbot shrugged. "Only three people on earth knew the answer to that: Palmer, Jake Crenshaw, and you, Roany."
"I'm guessing that, based on what you told me not long before you vanished. You told me that you knew what Palmer was up to, that you knew why he'd left the Body." Replied Talbot.
Shep waited a moment for more, but Talbot had finished. "Didn't I tell you what I knew?" he asked.
Talbot smiled thinly. "No, and I didn't want to know. I was out of the Body, I didn't want to get into the middle of it again."
"Can we talk to Crenshaw?" asked Terry.
"No." said Talbot quickly. "Last I heard, he was believed to be either dead or changed by Palmer. No one ever did find out." Talbot laughed humorlessly. "It wouldn't surprise me if you all actually know him, and don't even know."
Shep stood up and paced a few steps, looking slightly up at the sky. Talbot and Terry just stared at him, wondering what he was thinking. "Then is there some way to regain my memories? Even a few of them?"
There was a heavy silence. "You don't know what you're asking, Roany." Talbot replied quietly.
Shep looked stonily at his old friend. "I think I do. I'm looking for some way to regain my old thoughts and memories. Something that I think Palmer stole from me, and something that I think I'm entitled to."
Nervously, Talbot leaned back against the marble column. "That's not what I mean. What Palmer did was powerful, and permanent. I don't think that it can be undone. If it could, the Body would have tried to revive some of the people he changed."
Shep stared hard at the police captain. Even though he was in human form, you could see the hard stare of a wolf behind those eyes. "You're lying to me, Dennis." He said evenly.
Talbot started looking even more nervous. "Damn you, you're going to get me killed!"
"Like you're going to let Franklin get killed?" he responded icily.
Talbot couldn't look at his friend straight on, and started to gather himself up to leave. "O-o-okay. I know two people who might be able to help you. One's a lieutenant under my command. He's technically part of the Body, but he's been really unattached for a long time. Walt Eisenstadt. But he took a leave of absence two weeks ago, and I haven't seen him since."
Shep's expression didn't change. "Who's the other?"
Talbot stood up and looked squarely at Shep. "Melinda Van Cott. She taught Palmer a lot of his control, and probably knows better than anyone what he did. Good luck getting her to help you."
Talbot turned and started jogging away, but stopped a few feet later. "Don't contact me again, Roany." He said simply. Turning, he ran off down the walkway.
Shep growled a little under his breath, but quickly grabbed Terry and started walking her quickly out of the park. When she opened her mouth to protest, Shep snapped, "Quiet! We're being watched. We need to get out of here, fast."
Terry felt a chill through her body. "What about...?"
"They can take care of themselves. They know where to meet us." Shep said as he led Terry past the large duck pond at the side of the Common. A fair number of people had started to congregate there, mostly tourists, to take pictures and wade in the murky water. Shep started to walk though the small crowd when he stopped. "Damn it." He muttered.
Terry didn't have to ask him what he meant, she saw it too. A man and woman were walking purposefully straight at them. Not so fast as to attract suspicion, but fast enough. "We've got to get out of here!" she whispered.
Shep held her arm and walked back to the thin grove of trees. "How fast can you change to raccoon?" he asked quickly.
She didn't take long to think. "About five seconds, I guess, but I get dizzy for a little while."
"Do it!" he hissed, "Now! I'll lead them away."
Terry immediately released her concentration and willed her transformation. Shep held her closer so that the obvious changes were hidden from prying eyes, though nobody was close enough to see anything. In seconds, she was fully raccoon, but the world spun slightly on it's axis. She felt Sheep's large hand grab her around the back of the neck. "Get into the trees!"
She haphazardly grabbed the branch in her claws and tried to climb. Even as she did, she noticed Shep trying to run as fast as he could, dumping her clothes into a trashcan. He vanished from sight over a low hill a moment later.
Mindful of the danger she was in now, she climbed higher and higher, looking for a sign of Jonathon or Christie. But the next soul that she saw was standing at the base of the tree. A well dressed young woman looked up at her and smiled. "Not this time, sweetie. You were warned." She lifted her hand upward.
At once, Terry felt like something had grabbed her! Struggling to hold herself to the branch, it felt like her paws were being ripped out of their sockets. The force quickly became to great, and she was torn from the branch and landed squarely in the woman's hand. It felt like getting slammed with a baseball bat as the wind was knocked out of her.
The woman then opened her oversized canvas handbag, dumped the stunned raccoon in, and closed it up.
Trapped in the small, pitch black space, Terry had no idea how much time had passed. For a few minutes, she'd been heavily jostled around as she was carried before being placed into the trunk of a car. Hot, still having trouble breathing and with no way to gauge the passing of time, Terry couldn't be sure if she'd passed out at all. She didn't know if Shep had made it out of the Common, or if these people had known that Jonathon and Christie were in the trees.
All she knew for sure is that she was scared to death.
Melinda Van Cott continued to sit with the tiny bird her son had become. Somewhere in her mind, she couldn't believe how quickly she could accept that fact. Even if Franklin were never to regain his human form and his memories, he was always going to be her son.
"When Palmer became a full-fledged member of the Body leadership, your father pretended that he was a complete ally. In fact, I think that Palmer probably was. Palmer was a man of enormous power, though. As I helped him fully control his abilities, it became clear that there was little beyond his ability."
Franklin cocked his head in an odd way, a look that Melinda already recognized as a questioning expression. "If he was that powerful, then why didn't he just simply take over?"
She shrugged. "Directly, he couldn't. The only way to remove your father easily from control was to kill him, but he couldn't then. He was as interested in keeping the Body a complete secret as the rest of us, and as you well know..."
"I remember." Replied Franklin. "It sends ripples through the fabric of the universe."
Melinda nodded. "You're right. With someone of lessor power, it's not that big a deal. Only those sensitive to it can feel it. But when someone of greater power dies violently, it's more announced."
Franklin hopped up her arm to her shoulder and rubbed his head against her neck. "Mother..." he started, but was interrupted by a pounding at the door.
Franklin flew off and landed on the back of a chair nearby while Melinda walked to the door. When she opened it, a smallish man in a rumpled business suit stepped in quickly. "Melinda! Where have you been!!" he practically shouted.
"Tanner, I've been home all night. What's the problem?" She asked.
He looked shocked. "The problem? The problem?! Damn it, Melinda! We were supposed to..." his voice trailed off as he saw the small red bird across the room. "What the hell?"
Melinda smiled and walked toward the bird. "It's Arthur! He came to me last night. After all my searching, he found me." she said happily.
The car stopped at some point, and Terry felt herself being lifted from the hot trunk. She strained to hear any familiar sounds, but the heavy canvas and her own disorientation worked together to mask out anything recognizable.
Terry tried to make a plan for escape, to jump out when the bag was opened. After all, a single raccoon can be deceptively hard to handle. The more she thought about it, though, the more she discounted it. She wasn't in any condition to fight.
She felt a bone jarring thump as the bag was dropped on a hard surface. There were a few muffled voices, some angry, some soothing. Strain as she might, she couldn't make out what they were saying, but she had a feeling that she was the center of attention.
Finally, the bag was opened. The rush of fresh, cool air was of massive relief to the overheated raccoon. Terry gasped and panted even as a hand reach in and grabbed her by the scruff of the neck.
"You've got to be kidding." Said a voice, "This raccoon has been doing all this?" Terry turned her head a little and focused on the source of the voice. It was an older man sitting in a chair.
The woman's voice was amused. "Well, she did have help."
"Where's are they?" asked the same man.
"Roany got away." She said, though she didn't seem all that upset by that development. "The other two raccoons are missing. We think that they were nearby, but got away."
The man seemed upset. "Damn it." He said quietly. "That's going to set us back a little."
The woman shrugged. "We've got a few people looking out for them, but I wouldn't worry. This one seems to have a relationship with Roany."
The man laughed a little and pushed himself out of the chair. "Roany had relationships with anything resembling female as long as I knew him." He stepped over to Terry and looked her in the eye. "My dear, I'm not planning on hurting you at all. In fact, it would be counterproductive right now. But we do need you."
Terry found her voice. "Who are you people?"
The man shrugged. "In a sense, you could call us revolutionaries. Revolutionaries against something far more insidious that a government." He looked up at the woman. "Put her in the cage and get Maria."
The woman said nothing as she carried Terry into another room and dropped her into a large wire cage. With a flurry of movements, she snapped a heavy padlock closed on the door and the removable wire floor, trapping Terry in. She smiled sweetly. "He was right when he said we didn't want to hurt you. We don't. But if you screw with us again, I'll skin you alive myself." She brought herself to her full height. "Would you like something to eat? Drink?" she asked in a normal voice.
Terry, now more afraid, backed herself into the rear of the cage. "Please, water." She asked quietly. The woman said nothing else, simply turned and walked out.
Terry stood shock still even after the woman left. She felt more vulnerable than ever before, and she didn't doubt that the woman would keep her promise if she made trouble.
Terry heard the tiny voice and slowly turned her head. Across the room was a small birdcage, the kind that you'd normally see a parakeet in. But the bird inside was no parakeet.
Tanner took a hard look at the cardinal sitting perched on a nearby chair and then nearly blew his stack. Running across the room, he threw himself between Melinda and the bird, raising up an arm as if to strike.
Melinda, shocked into action by the unexpected attack on her son, threw her own arm out and struck Tanner. The disheveled man twisted oddly in the air and slammed into a glass fronted china cabinet.
"What are you doing?!" Shouted Melinda.
Tanner seemed mildly stunned but not injured but his brief flight into the glass. "What am I doing? What are you doing?" he yelled back. "Do you have any idea the danger that you've put us all in? You were supposed to be looking for Roanoke!"
She gave him a cold, hard stare. "I realize that, you idiot. But my son comes first! If it wasn't for you people, he'd still be human!"
He drew himself to his feet and pointed accusingly at the red bird. "How do you know that's your son?"
Melinda gritted her teeth so hard that her jaw started to ache. "A mother knows." She hissed.
Tanner rolled his eyes dramatically. "Don't give me that materialistic psychobabble! Everyone knows what Palmer did to Arthur. Anyone who wanted to distract you could have simply created that visage."
She grabbed him by the lapels and shoved him against the broken cabinet. "If you want to go on living, I suggest that you drop this matter. Now."
Tanner didn't flinch. "They got to Roanoke."
The room fell dead silent. "What?"
"Sometime this morning, we think that he made contact with one of the unattached, we're still working on which one. We tracked him as far as the Common, and then he seems to vanish." Explained Tanner.
"How do you know that they got to him?" asked a suddenly uneased Melinda.
"Because we think they got one of his friends. Despite everything, you know Roanoke. He was always the protective type."
She was more and more unnerved by what she was hearing. Roanoke was the key to everything, whether he knew it or not. Her job had been to keep tabs on him whenever he used a bit of his peculiar talents, allowing others to guide him into a trap from which he couldn't escape. But she'd been distracted.
Distracted by her son, Arthur.
"Terry!" exclaimed Franklin in a hushed tone. "Oh God, they got you too!"
Gripping the wire bars to her cage tightly, she looked across at him. "Yeah, while we were looking for you! Franklin, what happened?"
He hopped off the perch and climbed as close to the edge of the cage as he could. "They got me a couple weeks ago. I still don't know why! No one will tell me anything!"
Terry shuddered. If they got him that long ago, how much did Franklin really know? How much did she dare tell him? He deserved to know the whole truth, he really always did. Could she risk telling him now, when the very fact that he *didn't* know anything might keep him alive? Mentally she shook her head, realizing that she couldn't risk it. She had to keep lying to him. "I'm not sure I know either. Something is happening, and for some reason we're in the way."
"Just like last year." He said quietly.
"Have they been treating you okay?" she asked.
Franklin made a small show of looking around his cage. "Other than this, sure." He said sarcastically.
Terry furrowed her brow a little. While her cage looked very sturdy, Franklin's was little more than a cheap plastic and thin metal container. "Why haven't you just shifted human to get out of there?"
"I can't! I've tried! You can't shift when you're confined like this." He replied. "I think it's something to do with the magic or something."
"It is." Came the voice of the woman. She was now carrying a large water bottle of the type that you see in rabbit cages. "One of our good friends put a bit of a damper on these particular cages." She stuck the bottle onto a clip though the bars of the raccoon cage and Terry started to drink eagerly.
"Please let us out!" begged Franklin. "I can't take this anymore! At least tell me what's going on."
She turned on him, "Shut up! I'm getting sick and tired of your whining. If you don't shut up, I'll..."
She whirred to see the old man from earlier right behind her. "Sir! I didn't realize.."
"That I was right behind you, I'd imagine." His face started to turn a shade of red. "My patience is wearing very thin, dear. If you keep this up, I'll seal you alive in some glacier somewhere. Maybe you'll calm down before it melts in 20,000 years!"
The woman blanched considerable. It was obvious that she believed that he'd really do it. "I'm sorry, sir! I didn't mean..."
He folded his arms, "Don't try to make excuses. These two are now under my personal protection, you got that? If either of them are harmed without my explicit instructions, I'll mold you into a raccoon myself. With my bare hands." Not awaiting a response, he turned and walked from the room.
Her confidence shattered utterly, the woman finished a few of her duties quickly and silently. As she finished, she clicked off the light in the windowless room and slammed the door as she walked out.
In the darkness, Terry actually felt a little more secure. She could work in the dark better than any human. If only she could find a way to get out of the cage, that is. She started feeling around it, looking for a weak spot, a missed door, a patch of rust. The cage was large, and she knew that it would take a while.
"Terry? I know that this sounds cruel, but I'm glad that you're here." Said Franklin. "I've never been alone like this before."
Terry stopped her searching, "To tell the truth, I a little relived to be here myself. At least now I know that you're okay." She said, and then resumed her searching.
The room was spinning faster and faster. How could it be that her own son could betray her? Melinda had plenty of experience with back stabbing. In recent years, that's what the Body had become. She'd expected it from people like Tanner, who viewed himself as the one who should lead, but never from her own son.
Slowly, she released Tanner from her grasp and moved across the room. "Arthur, please don't tell me that you were involved in this." she said in a whisper.
The cardinal fidgeted on the back of the chair. "M-mother, I don't even know what's going on. I don't know what you're talking about."
Melinda felt cold and hot at the same time. She feared the truth now, but she needed to learn it. "Arthur, please. You're my son and have always been my son. I won't harm you. I couldn't if I wanted to. But I must know the truth. Were you sent here to distract me?"
"I... I..." he stammered, seeming to look for the right words.
Tanner was the one to lose his patience. He held out a hand, and the cardinal sailed across the room, desperately trying to get away. The moment he slammed into that palm, Tanner closed his fingers around the fragile feathered body. "You're lying! Who the hell are you?"
Melinda had spun on her heels and prepared to strike. Her only hesitation was that her son was in his hands. "Put him down, Tanner. Now."
The small man looked up with fire in his eyes. "This little son of a bitch fooled you, Melinda! He's not your son!"
The room became deadly still, and there was the palpable feeling of electricity in the air. "Let. Him. Go. Now."
"Oh, give it a rest!" he sneered. "If you'd bothered to do a simple probe of his thoughts, you'd have..." Tanner's expression changed to shock and he looked at the struggling bird in his hand. "Oh no..."
Melinda didn't wait any longer. She fired.
It was one in a million.
When two people of similar ability attack each other, it's impossible to tell who would come out the victor. More often than not there isn't a clear winner. It's hard to gain an upper hand on someone with similar training, similar skills and similar knowledge. As a rule, these fights ended with both giving up or both dead.
But surprise was always a powerful tool.
Tanner shouldn't have been surprised at all. Despite the fact that the attack he was about to be under was powerful, it took time to prepare. Precious seconds that left him more than enough time for him to put up defenses.
Then he connected with the small birds mind. What he read there shocked him, shocked him into total inaction. He barely had time to raise his gaze to Melinda when the force slammed into him.
Terry continued to feel around the bars of the cage. She figured out quickly that it was well built, more than enough for a normal raccoon, but it hadn't been designed with intelligent animals in mind. While the walls of the cage were all factory welded steel, impossible for her to get through, she did manage to find a couple of weak spots.
The hinge of the door was promising. She found that while the simple design was sturdy, it wasnt perfect. With a couple of hours of work, she thought that she could bend away the hinges and push the door outward. Then the lock that was used to keep the flooring in place. They'd used a combination lock, something that she might be able to figure out given time. After all, the sensitive hands of a raccoon were almost the perfect safe cracking tool.
She heard a quick turning of the doorknob and jerked her hands back inside the cage. The shaft of light that came through fell right onto her cage, blinding her momentarily. With a loud click, the room lights came on again.
"This is her?" asked a new, female voice.
Squinting against the light until her eyes adjusted, Terry saw the same older man enter, now with a new woman, this one with dark hair and complexion. They both approached the cage. "This is her, all right. You think that you'll have any problems, Maria?"
"No, I don't think so. It's been a while, but I've done this before." She replied as she took off her jacket and handed it to the older man.
Terry was getting nervous. "What are you going to do to me?"
The man laughed a little. "Nothing at all to you. You might say that we're going to use you as bait, though. To get your friend, Roanoke."
Terry forced a confident laugh, even though she didn't feel it. "Why should I help you at all? Especially to catch him?"
Maria started unlocking the padlock at the door to the cage. "Actually, you won't be helping us directly." She opened the door and reached a hand in. Terry moved futility to the back of the cage and made as if she was going to strike. The woman just continued in and lightly grabbed her fur in a way that was definitely not meant as an attack. She even stroked it a couple of time. Quickly, she withdrew her hand. She smiled. "Nice."
"Is that enough?" asked the man as he locked up the cage again.
She nodded. "It should be. But there isn't any time like the present to find out." She closed her eyes and seemed to concentrate.
Terry peered through the bars of the cage curiously. Then, as she watched, the woman known as Maria started to change. Her body started to slowly get smaller as hairs started to sprout from all of her exposed skin. Her ears began a slow migration to the top of her head even as they started to get pointed and her face started to take on the appearance of a raccoon.
Terry gasped as she realized that this woman was becoming her mirror image. They could still use her for bait and leave her locked in this cage!
Most people who felt the pain that Tanner did would scream at the top of their lungs, but he couldn't. All that came out was a slight gurgle. It felt like he was drowning.
His hand opened, dropping the bird that had moments before been the focus of his rage. Falling to his knees, he tried to cough out the fluid he could feel building on his lungs, but nothing worked. He could taste the torrent of blood in his mouth, but it refused to fall to the carpet. It filled in his nose and seemed to flow into his intestines. It was a pain like getting turned inside out. Yet to look at him, you wouldn't know that he was about to die.
Not a single drop of blood hit the floor.
As the wave of blackness closed in around his eyes, the last thing that he saw was Melinda cradling the tiny red bird she knew as her son.
"You can't do this!" shouted Terry.
The man smiled as he watched Maria slowly form herself into a raccoon. "Already being done, my dear. Nothing to worry about. You'll be fine. You're far to valuable to harm."
That's when they felt it. Terry suddenly had the overwhelming urge to wretch, and she managed to gag up some bile from her stomach. She heard the man gasp, but she heard Maria scream.
Concentration lost and only partially to her goal, the woman suddenly went into convulsions. Terry managed to look up in time to see her being lowered to the floor, her body still bearing the distinct fur of a raccoon.
"Sandra! Get in here!" he yelled as the woman shuddered on the floor.
The other woman raced in. Her face looked slightly green and around her mouth was the distinct sign that she'd vomited. "What happened?"
He tried futility to calm the woman on the floor. "I think someone just died."
Sandra fell to her knees and started helping him. "Oh God, who?" she said breathlessly.
"Who knows? Someone fairly powerful, that's for sure." He forced open Maria's eyelids. "Maria? Can you hear me?"
Abruptly, she stopped convulsing and lay still. For the second time, everyone felt another wave of nausea as Maria died, though not as severe as the first.
The man kneeled next to the body and then slowly closed her eyelids. She was frozen forever in a partially altered state. "She's gone." He said quietly.
Sandra stood wobbly to her feet and took a step back, as if suddenly repulsed by the body on the floor. Slowly, she turned her gaze to Terry, her expression cold. "You!" she said gruffly. "What did you do to her?"
Reaching out, she grabbed the cage and simply pulled the door off as though it were made of taffy. With her other hand, she grabbed Terry by the neck and started to squeeze. "What the hell did you do to her?! I'll kill you!" Terry couldn't say anything, her throat closed off completely. The world started to get darker. Abruptly, she fell to the floor and landed in a heap. Gasping for air, she only barely heard the struggle above her.
"No! You can't stop me! I'll kill her!" yelled Sandra.
There was a loud crash. "No you will not! It wasn't her fault, and you know it! Maria died because she was distracted." He paused. "Look, get out of here." He said in a calmer voice. "Go to the safe house in Cambridge and find out who just died."
Sandra, so angry the moment before, sobbed. "But you need me here."
"No, I don't." he said quietly. "I'll get one of the others if I need an assistant. We both know that I'll do something we'll both regret if you stay. Tell Mick what happened when you get there. He'll know what to do."
Terry had managed to get herself back to all fours, but the room was spinning as the blood flowed back to her brain. She looked up in time to see Sandra leave the room reluctantly. The man leaned his head against the wall, collecting his thoughts. Terry thought about taking this chance to escape, and made a move toward Franklin's cage to release him.
"I wouldn't do that, my dear." Said the man, still not looking at her.
Terry froze. "Do what?" she asked.
There was a humorless laugh. "Escape. Or at least try." He turned and knelt down beside her. "I told you that you were valuable. Now you're even more so." He reached out and cautiously began stroking her fur. Terry didn't dare move. "Now you're the only one that can help us."
"Mother, you're hurting me."
Melinda snapped out of her grief and loosened her grip on Arthur. "I... I'm sorry." She cradled the tiny bird and one hand and cautiously ran her finger down his back between his wings.
"Ow." He said softy, moving one wing away from her finger.
She stopped. "Are you hurt?"
"Just bruised, I think." He replied. "It hurts to move my wing out to far. I don't think that I can fly."
Melinda looked cautiously at the wing, noting that it appeared normal so at least wasn't broken. She began searching her memory for someone in the Body that she could trust to check him totally.
And then she looked up at Tanner's body.
He'd fallen face first on the floor, his clothing soaked by sweat and blood, not a drop of which touched the carpet. It was a little trick that she'd learned many years before, sealing the body in a sort of magical plastic. It wouldn't last forever, but it came in handy considering modern forensic techniques.
She was disturbed by what she had done now that it was too late to undo it. Tanner was a back stabbing, paranoid little man, but he'd been a key member of the Body. He had connections all over the world and had used them to curry favor with dozens of key government officials the world over. The ones that he couldn't win over with promises and money he threatened. Tanner could always figure out where a politician had, figuratively, buried the bodies.
In the case of one politician, he knew that literally.
In one angry moment, Melinda had eliminated years of work. Tanner never told anyone everything, and probably never recorded his most sensitive secrets.
Slowly, a realization dawned. "They'll be coming after me." She whispered. "I killed Tanner, so they'll be coming after me..."
She leapt to her feet, almost upsetting the unprepared Arthur. "Wha--?" he started.
"No time!" she responded quickly as she made her way to the bedroom. "We have to get out of here, and fast. They might try to kill me for what I've done." She ran to her dressing table and grabbed her purse and car keys. "I have to get out of here before they figure it out." She sighed heavily. "I have to find Roanoke myself."
Terry cautiously backed away from the stroking. "What makes you think that I'm going to help you?" she asked.
He sighed. "I guess you don't have much reason, do you?" he thought for a few moments and then placed his hands in front of Terry. "Please, come with me. I'm sure once you hear, you'll help."
Terry didn't like any of this, but didn't have that much choice. As long as his attention was on her, it was clear that there was no way to escape. She nodded toward Franklin's cage. "Let him go first."
He sighed. "This isn't a negotiation, Terry. Believe me, I'm being very generous by not simply forcing you." She relented and crawled onto his hands. She'd intended to go up to his shoulder, but he'd quickly moved his arm in a tight, but not malicious, hold.
He carried her out of the room, leaving the partially raccoon body on the floor. Terry got a good look at the outer room for the first time. It seemed like it was a cabin or vacation home of some sort. The view out of the large windows showed no sign of a city or town, only trees.
He settled into an easy chair and started rubbing his temples with his fingers. "You don't know how badly I hate this." He muttered. "I've become the de facto leader of a bunch of people who are only barely united under a sort of common goal. I've had to deal with infighting, back stabbing and blatant incompetence." He sighed heavily and shook his head.
Terry took that chance to speak. "What are you doing?"
He laughed once. "I've asked myself that question I don't know how many times. I used to think that we were trying to defeat an enemy that was willing to take everything over or die trying. Now?" he shrugged. "I can't always tell who the enemy is."
"Who are you?"
He laughed again, this time with some genuine humor. He started lightly scratching her between the ears. "Names Denny Palmer. I suppose that you could say that I'm your grandfather. Frank Palmer was my son."
Melinda almost raced out the door when she stopped by Tanner's body. Everyone knew that someone of high ability was dead and that was a short list, a list she was on. Someone would come soon to check on her. She needed to buy some time.
Reaching down, she lightly touched Tanner's body and concentrated. With little trouble, the body shrank, growing fur until it looked like nothing more than a bloody, medium sized rat. Gingerly, she picked it up by the tail.
Her son on her shoulder, she walked out the back door, pausing only long enough to throw the dead rat into the garbage. Unless someone thought to examine the rat thoroughly, it was unlikely that anyone would ever know precisely Tanners fate. It wouldn't take long, though, for the rest of the Body to trace his movements and discover that he died in that house.
"Where are we going, mother?" asked Arthur.
Melinda stopped at her car door and looked at the small bird. Despite everything, she refused the entertain the possibility that this was not her son. "Not far, I think. But I need to get somewhere I can catch my breath." She smiled and stroked under his beak. "Don't worry. Everything will be normal soon."
Terry stared at the man. "Your son?" she asked breathlessly. "But, you don't look old enough. Palmer looked older than you when he died."
He nodded. "He was, and I'm actually far older than I look. I was born in Vermont, not far from where you lived, many years ago. I've never been sure of the date. They just weren't as important then, but it was some years before the birth of this nation."
"That's not possible."
He laughed again. "And a talking raccoon is?"
Terry didn't respond to that. "What does any of that have to do with want you with me?
"I suppose nothing, I guess. Well, nothing except that he's the main reason that all of this going is going on now." He smiled. "Even a year after he's gone, he's still a pain in the ass."
"Was Palmer always working for you?" she asked.
"No." he said quickly. "He didn't even know that there was anything to oppose until he was recruited by the Body. I never told him of my abilities."
"What?" said Terry, surprised. "Why not?"
"Because I had hoped to keep them a secret from the Body, something that I've managed to do for a long time." He snapped. After a few deep breaths, he calmed himself and continued. "When I was a child, a member of the few unattached managed to locate me before the Body was aware of me. She protected me from them until I was able to control my abilities and I could hide for myself."
"So why didn't you protect your son?" asked Terry.
"I didn't know." he said. "I've had at least two dozen children in my life and none have ever attained any ability. By the time that I realized that Frank had abilities, it was too late. The Body swooped down and stole my son away."
The elder Palmer began to tear up. "I couldn't let on that I knew. I don't think Frank knew before he died what I was." He wiped away the tears. "But through him, I learned what the Body was up to. It was then that I started to organize the unattached to oppose them quietly, create dissention amid their ranks."
"Something's changed, hasn't it?" she asked. "You're not moving quietly anymore."
He nodded. "Roanoke changed, so to speak. Your wolf friend has some interesting abilities, Terry. When we thought that he was dead, we were able to go back to a state of quiet working. But you," he said pointing, "you and the rest of your friends last year revealed that not everyone sent against my son was dead. Maybe none of them. If Roanoke was alive, we all wanted him."
"So why do you need me?" she asked. "As far as I know, all I am is a raccoon."
"Roanoke always had a couple of character issues that grated. One was his overwhelming love of women, the other was his overprotective nature." He patted Terry soundly on the head. "With Maria dead, we still need bait for a trap, and that bait is you."
Terry stared at the elder Palmer defiantly. "You've got me and my friend prisoner here. That's not how to gain trust. What possible reason do I have to help you?" she asked.
He nodded in acknowledgement. "None, really. Unless you count the fact that your friend is in a cage in the other room."
"You wouldn't hurt him." Terry said in a tone of voice that betrayed her uncertainty. "You must still need him or you wouldn't still have him."
Denny shook his head sadly. "We don't need him anymore, really haven't for a couple of weeks. The only reason that I've been keeping him alive is that I don't like killing when it's not necessary."
Terry shifted uncomfortably on the mans lap. "But you'd kill him now." She said in a matter-of-fact way.
"In a second, if it meant getting this over with."
She looked at him sadly. "You want my help to kill Roanoke. You want me to trade a life for a life. How can you ask me to do that?"
He shook his head. "I don't want Roanoke dead. In fact, neither does the Body. No, we all want him alive." He paused, considering. "Roanoke is something of a wild card. Either side can use him, but neither side can really succeed right now without him. The Body is frankly too strong for us to attack directly. We're too scattered, yet too powerful, for them to defeat or overlook."
"Where does he fit in?"
"Among his abilities is something rather unique. As far as I understand, no one has come along with anything like it in over three hundred years, and even then they didn't nearly have the strength. To put it simply, Roanoke can eliminate the magic. He can do it in a heartbeat."
Melinda drove through the heavy Boston traffic as fast as possible. She didn't want to be trapped in the city if the Body came after her. The more open suburbs and forests offered far more protection than the confining walls of a city.
Her destination was a small vacation house an hour or so out of the city. Her husband had bought it in a fit of paranoia as a possible safe house. He only told her about it several years after he bought it, and told no one else. As far as she knew, it had been vacant since long before he died.
She looked down at her son who was carefully preening he feathers on the passenger seat. With a slight grin she realized that Palmer had indeed chosen a good form for her son. With his flaming red hair and almost hyperactive demeanor, he'd already been close to a human cardinal before.
He noticed her looking. "What is it?"
She smiled, "Just thinking, remembering. You make a handsome bird, you know."
He attempted a slight bow, opening his wings a little. "Thank you. You've already told me that, though." He looked upward to the front window, even though he couldn't see anything but sky from his position. "Where are we going?"
"A safe place." She said simply. "We'll be there in a little while. Why don't you try and get a little sleep."
He nodded slightly and settled into the plush seat. Melinda turned her attention back to the road and started mentally preparing her defenses against the Body, and her offense against Roanoke.
Terry shook her head. "What are you talking about? Eliminate the magic? Totally?"
He nodded. "That's exactly what I mean. No one ever got a full concept of how powerful, or controlled, he was. Even if his power is limited, it's enough. We do know that he can render a person totally powerless, no matter how much ability they have, for short periods. Some think that he can do far more."
Terry considered for a moment and then frowned. "But if he's so powerful, then how did your son do anything to him?"
Palmer laughed. "You know, that's had the Body in a quandary for a couple of years now. Until last year, when you all appeared on the map, most just suspected that he'd simply caught Roany off-guard. But now?" he shrugged. "I suspect that it was a plan. Either to hide him indefinitely or to be called by a specific signal."
"And what's that signal?"
He shrugged again. "We have no idea. I don't even know for sure that there is one. It's possible that he may simply have been flushed out by everyone looking for him."
Terry thought back a few days to the first time that Roanoke had come to her at the edge of the clearing that had once been the old homestead. The two men who had come looking for them had been unable to track them. Could Roanoke have been using his abilities then, and simply not realized it?
"What about Jonathon and Christie?"
He shrugged. "What about them? We have no need for them. The girl is powerful, but totally untrained. Jonathon has some abilities, some of which even he isn't aware of, but none of them that we need or would be important to the Body at the moment. If they show up, we won't take any action against them if they stay out of the way."
Terry looked at the elder Palmer, a man that she simply didn't know and felt she couldn't trust. She also didn't have a choice. Franklin was helpless in the storeroom. Even without the benefit of his abilities, this man could physically crush the life out of her friend in a moment while Roanoke could defend himself. With a long sigh, she looked at him. "I'll help you, but on one condition."
"What's that?" he asked cautiously.
"I want to talk to him first..."
"Out of the question!" interrupted Palmer.
Terry ignored the interruption. "...and ask if he'll simply come quietly."
Palmer glared at her. "You really think that will work? If he wanted to help us, he would have a couple of years ago."
"Ever consider that he's a different person now?" she shot back. She gritted her teeth. "Look, he's my friend, and I won't betray him if I can avoid it. We're interested in one thing, and that's to get Franklin out of here. If you give me five minutes--with no tricks--I think I can convince him."
Palmer looked at her a long time. Terry suspected that he would rather do it her way, though not for the same reasons. She didn't want to see Roanoke hurt because she cared for him. He didn't want his prize damaged. But more than that, he needed Roanoke to be as willing as possible. If he simply refused to help, then all could be for nothing.
Finally, he nodded. "Fine, we do it your way. But I have to be nearby at the least. And we don't let Franklin out until we have an agreement with Roanoke."
Terry offered her paw, which Palmer shook. "Deal."
The suspension of the luxury car was tested beyond it's limits as it bounced down the country road. Franklin was sleeping on the seat, somehow able to ignore the rolling of the car. Melinda was more concerned about being lost. She wasn't certain that this was the right road, but she was reasonably sure. She'd only been to the cabin once, shortly after she found out about it.
She was engrossed in her thoughts. Her world had always been well organized, and pressure tended to focus her thoughts. She didn't know yet how that she could capture Roanoke on her own, but she did know what to do if the Body approached.
A shadow in the distance caught her attention. She squinted a little and realized that it was a small, white car coming from the other direction. For a moment, she struggled to remember if there was other cabins in the area. With a start, she realized that her husband would never have bought a place near other people.
She tapped on the seat next to her son. "Arthur! Wake up!" She gripped the wheel a little harder. "Hang on!"
She slammed on the brakes and swung the car across the road. The other car spewed a small cloud of dust ahead of it as the driver slammed on the brakes. The young woman behind the wheel angrily threw open her door and jumped out. "What the hell are you doing?!" Melinda got out herself, and realized that that she didn't know this person at all. If she was a member of the Body, she wasn't very high up.
But the woman definitely recognized her. "Van Cott!" She breathed. Barely missing a moment, she jumped back into her car and threw it into reverse. There was a grinding of gravel as the car shot backward.
Melinda cursed. To get a reaction like that, it had to be one of the unattached. She couldn't afford to waste time dealing with them right now as well. She gave the fleeing car a cross look.
The car suddenly swung to the left and slammed into a tree.
Franklin jumped to the dashboard and looked out at the wrecked car. "Mother?" he asked quietly.
"Shh--shh." She whispered. "I've got it all under control." She walked to the other car and looked in. Crumpled across the center console was what looked like a lump of fur. She popped open the door and reached in, pulling out the raccoon by the scruff of the neck. She hung limply from her hand and a trickily of blood ran down her muzzle, but she was alive.
Melinda smiled at her handiwork. She didn't transform people that often, but she had a few forms that she knew well and raccoon was one of them. She shook the raccoon a little. "Waky waky." She shouted.
The new raccoon wearily opened her eyes. "Wha--?" she started.
Melinda lowered her to the car hood. "I want to know who you are and what you're doing here."
The bloody raccoon was just figuring out what she was. "No..." she breathed.
Melinda twisted her neck and rolled her over onto her back. The blood soaked fur smeared on the white paint of the hood. "Yes, and unless you want to become the lining for my coat, you'll answer my questions. Now."
The elder Palmer smiled and stood, leaving Terry on the arm of the chair. "We'd better get a move on."
She crawled to the armrest. "Where?"
Smiling, he slid on his coat. "We're going to the Cape. Another of the unattached owns a ranch down there. If things went off like they were supposed to, Roany and the others have been led to believe that you and Franklin are there."
Terry shook her head. "I want to see Franklin first. I need to explain this to him."
"You want his permission?" asked Palmer quietly.
She paused, thinking. "For now, I suppose. But I'm afraid that I may be begging his forgiveness later." Palmer stared at her coldly, then sagged and walked away.
Taking that chance, she jogged into the storeroom, stepping around the partly raccoon body on the floor, and over to the side of Franklin's cage. He looked at her in relief. "Terry! You're okay! What's going on?"
"They want to use me, use me to catch the wolf from our group." She sighed. "And I'm going to do it."
Franklin nearly fell off his perch. "Are you out of your mind? Why?"
She shook her had. "Because they'll let us go if I help. All of us."
"Including the wolf?" he asked quietly.
"I don't know." She admitted. "But I think that he's sincere about not wanting to hurt him. Besides, I know him pretty well now. He can take care of himself."
Palmer walked back into the room. "It's time. We have to..." his voice trailed off as his eyes went wide. "Something's wrong."
"Please! Don't do this! I haven't done anything to you!"
Melinda backhanded the new raccoon. "Don't give me that. Just by being an unattached you've ruined everything. Now I want you to answer me! What are you doing here?"
"I don't know what you mean!" she sobbed. "I was just out at the cabin on vacation...."
Melinda tightened her grasp a fraction. "In the blink of an eye, I can erase everything in your mind human. You'd spend the rest of your life a raccoon, memories of your human life nothing more than flashes of jumbled nightmares. So you better think again." Melinda looked at the soft, dark eyes of the raccoon and saw the raw fear there. It was a good fear.
She burst into sobs. "It was Palmer! He made me do it! He..."
"Palmer's dead." She growled. "Don't lie to me!"
"It's his father!" she said quickly.
"Father?" she said in a hushed voice. "Father?" Slowly, a smile spread across her face. She suddenly had a way to get revenge on the man that ruined her life.
"Something's happened to Sandra." Said Palmer as he raced across the room to the door.
Terry followed close on his heels. She didn't have any love for Sandra--this is the same woman who gleefully threatened to kill her--but anything to panic Palmer like this had her worried. "How do you know?" She asked.
Palmer threw open the door and peered out. "I know. She's not dead, but she's in danger."
He didn't apparently see anything out the door, so he backed into the room and slammed it shut. With no hesitation, he grabbed the ancient rotary dial phone and quickly spun an eleven digit number out on the dial. There was a pause of only seconds. "There's a problem at the cabin. Something happened to Sandra. She was on her way to meet up with you... Maria's dead.... No, he didn't have anything to do with It might be him, but I'd suspect the Body. Look, just get some people up here. We'll sort out everything with Roany later. Bye."
He hung up the phone and looked at Terry. He seemed to consider his words a long time before he spoke. "I truly am sorry to have to drag you into this, but there is no choice at this point."
"Why don't you just let us go?" asked Terry.
"Because I can't. We need you more than ever." He smiled a little. "Don't worry, I can protect you."
Terry frowned at him, but stayed silent. She didn't even think that he believed that. But she didn't have any choice for the moment. Until something happened, she was stuck. Once he was distracted though, she'd try and take Franklin and get out of here.
Melinda pressed down on the bloody raccoon. "How powerful is he?" she growled. "How strong is Palmers father?"
Sandra was obviously terrified. Stunned from the transformation and the accident, she could barely bring herself to speak. "Very." She gasped. "More powerful than his son."
Melinda backhanded her again. "What are you holding back from me?"
"Please! No! Change me back!" she pleaded.
Angrily, Melinda gripped the sides of the raccoons head and concentrated. It was an old, but sometimes dangerous, way to read minds. It had the advantage of being fast, but it tended to scramble the mind being read. Sandra seemed to realize what was about to happen and struggled vainly against the grasp, and then cried out in pain as she felt the knowledge being drained from her head.
Melinda wasn't selective. She simply ripped the memories of the last several weeks from her mind. Sandra wasn't without protection herself, but weakened and scared she wasn't able to last long against the vastly superior abilities of Melinda Van Cott.
Quickly, the missing pieces fell together. The clues that she'd been left, the sudden appearance of Roanoke, and the reappearance of her son. Even most of the details of the plot to bring down to Body once and for all; a plot that involved Roanoke in a key way.
But most important to her was the truth about the tiny red bird in her car.
She looked at him, now perched on the dashboard looking at her. She couldn't read his expression, but his body language seemed to show true fear. Angrily, Melinda dropped the raccoon to the ground. She walked stiffly over to her car and stared long and hard at the small bird. "Why are you so nervous, son?" she asked acidly.
"You're scaring me, mother." He said. "Why did you do that to that girl?"
Melinda slammed shut the car door, trapping him inside. "It just occurred to me, but you're supposed to have the ability to become human. Why don't you try it, Arthur?" She leaned in closer to the glass. "Why don't you become my son and get out of the car?"
The small bird flitted about nervously, jumping from seat to seat in the car. His tiny form wasn't enough even to pull open the door latches, much less open the doors. Finally, he stopped trying. "Mother..."
Enraged, Melinda pulled open the door and made a grab for him. He expertly dodged her grasp and started to fly desperately away. Melinda simply held out her hand and pulled him from the sky. He landed solidly in her hand. "Don't you dare use that term around me!" she shouted.
He struggled against her firm grasp to no avail. "But I don't know what you..."
"Shut up!" She looked at the tiny red bird. Even in her rage, she felt caution. If this wasn't really Franklin, then he was playing the game to the end. She tentatively touched his mind, as Tanner had done back at the house. Then she felt what had distracted her former friend: This bird certainly felt like Arthur.
With far more caution that she'd done with Sandra, and with more depth than Tanner had done, she started to probe the mind of the bird for the first time. Unsurprisingly, the memories that she'd hoped to find were not there. These were the memories of a young bird who had gained human intelligence. Through his eyes, she saw his time in Vermont with Palmer, the weeks in Providence as he searched the cities, and the events that started with the death of his friend Woods and culminated in the death of Palmer and Van Cott in Boston. Every memory that she expected to find from what she knew of his last few years was here, in nearly perfect clarity.
Frowning, she tried to probe deeper. The memories of the girl were a little unclear about how the duplicate was created. Indeed, the attempt to create a duplicate of that raccoon had ended with the girl dead. It was still possible that this was in fact her son, even if the girl's memories seemed to indicate that he was locked in a cabin only a few miles up the road. Melinda felt her heart pounding. She needed to know. She had to know.
Carefully, she started to peel back the layers in his mind.
Palmer went to a small closet hidden off to one side of the kitchen. There was a lock on it, but it wasn't locked. As he opened it, the smell of gun oil permeated the room. Terry saw that the man had a small arsenal of weapons: Everything from shotguns to pistols.
He sighed and reached in, pulling out two heavy pistols. As he inspected them, he looked at the raccoon on the floor. "You're surprised that I'd use these?"
Terry nodded. "A little. You seem to put so much faith in your abilities."
He grunted once and smiled thinly. "That's always a plus, but few things beat a well maintained .44." He inspected the gun. "I didn't live this long because of my abilities alone. It takes some brains. You know that one of Van Cott's ancestors actually died on the Lusitania? He couldn't swim."
Palmer made a final check of the weapon and tucked it into his belt, pulling out one other pistol and going through the same motions. By his actions, it looked like he felt that he had little time left. Terry started to let her eyes wander a little around the room, looking from her raccoons perspective for a way out of here. The walls were rough hewn, she could climb them if there was something like a vent out of here. But it would take too long. Far simpler to open a window and jump...
She almost missed it. A dark shadow that was practically glued to the bottom of the window, hidden partly by the ivy that grew in front of the window. Careful not to let on to Palmer that she'd seen anything, she let her gaze stay near the window in case she saw it again. Then it returned.
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Christie's dark brown eyes looking at her. There was the tip of the ears of another raccoon next to her.
The cavalry had arrived.
The frustration was building quickly. Melinda couldn't seem to penetrate deep enough into the tiny birds brain to find the answers that she wanted. Despite her rage with the world, she was finding herself unwilling to go as far as she had with the raccoon who was once a young woman named Sandra.
She allowed herself a momentary look at the dazed and bloody form on the roadway. The creature, it's fur matted with dried blood, was slowly struggling for the cover of the bushes on the side of the road. Whatever was left of the mind of the woman was horribly scrambled. If she survived her injuries, she might make a smart raccoon, but she would never be more.
But could she risk the same fate on her son?
Still holding the bird tightly in her hand, she opened the trunk of the car and pulled out an old beach towel. In moments, the bird was heavily wrapped in it.
"Why are you doing this to me?" wailed the bird.
Melinda fought back tears. Despite the fact that he might not really be her son, this bird thought that he was. There wasn't any question about it in his mind. "Shut up." She said quietly. "I don't want to listen to you for a while."
Getting back into the car, she threw it into gear and tore down the road to her meeting with the elder Palmer.
It was all that Terry could do not to look out the window at the two raccoons.
She didn't have any idea how they had known where to find her, if they were tipped off by someone or if Shep had somehow figured out that the clues they were getting were false. It didn't matter. She also had no idea how long they had been listening.
"You won't reconsider letting me and Franklin go?" she asked, more for the benefit of the two at the window than for herself.
Palmer shook his head, apparently not having realized that there were eavesdroppers. "No, I can't and won't."
"At least let me stay with him in the back room. He's trapped in a cage. The Body will get to him..."
Palmer looked angrily at her. "Will you stop your yammering?" he yelled. "I've only got a few minutes before someone comes tearing up that road. I've got a few more preparations to make."
Terry could see that he was getting more and more nervous, and perhaps with good reason. If everything that he said was to be taken at face value, then he had never faced down the Body before, never faced down anyone directly. Something like that would have inevitably brought attention down onto him. Attention that he loathed and feared. Despite his very advanced age, he was about to do something that he'd never done before, and it scared the hell out of him.
Terry couldn't feel any sympathy for the man. He'd done much the same to her and Franklin.
Palmer checked the weapon for the last time and shoved it into his belt at the small of his back. He slammed the gun cabinet closed and looked down at Terry. "You're coming outside with me. I might need you."
Terry started to back away. "Look, this isn't my fight. Don't put me between you and the Body. I won't help you."
"You don't understand." He said. "This isn't a request. I can't force you to help me, but I can prevent you from letting that bird go. At the moment, he's about the only bargaining chip that I've got."
"Bargaining chip?" she asked quizzically. "But you said that he was worthless!"
He shrugged. "True. But if need be, I can at least confuse the Body something fierce. Believe it or not, despite the fact that Van Cott was a son of a bitch, his son was pretty well respected. If they think that I've got him, they might hold off a little before they attack me."
Terry started to protest, but the sound of a car rapidly approaching outside caught her attention. Palmer looked toward the door, his expression grim. Without a word, he grabbed Terry in a firm grip and wrapped a leather collar around her neck. Even as she struggled to undo the clasp, he dragged her forward toward the door.
The cabin popped into view far faster than Melinda had remembered.
Rounding a wide bend, it seemed to just appear at the far end of the small clearing. If someone let the trees grow a little more wild right around it, it would have been nearly lost to the casual viewer. It was probably one of the reasons that her husband had been so taken with it as a safe house.
But the cabin was definitely occupied. Not only the obvious sign given by the presence of a battered pick-up parked near the front door, but the place looked clean. Kept up.
Someone had been here for a while. Months, perhaps years. Someone this powerful had been living right under their noses in a cabin with her name on the deed.
Presently, that someone opened the front door.
Melinda slammed on the brakes hard, swinging the car on the loose gravel of the road until the car pointed directly at the door. The car inched forward slightly until it's front wheels fell a few inches into a tiny drainage canal and stopped. Melinda sat nearly frozen at the wheel of the car.
They both maintained their positions, unwilling to move, unwilling to act, unwilling to speak. Melinda knew who this man was, and she had no doubt that he knew her.
Both knew that the other had to die, but neither wanted to make the first move.
In the end, it was Palmer who decided to end the stalemate. In a smooth motion, one that he had practiced since the days when flintlock pistols were the state of the art, he pulled the .44 from his belt and fired.
Melinda had been prepared for a number of potential attacks, even given the limited information about the man that Sandra had known. But something so direct and physical was unheard of. Melinda barely had time to duck below the dashboard before the bullets started to pepper the windshield.
Protected momentarily by the metal bulk of the engine, she took a moment to concentrate...
Palmer didn't bother to unload his clip into the car's windshield. Having lost the advantage, he ran to the side of the car, Terry in tow on the leash. He peered in, and his jaw dropped. "What the..."
He didn't bother to finish the sentence, instead spinning around with the gun drawn. He pulled off two shots in the direction of the oak tree. From Terry's vantage point on the ground she couldn't see what he was shooting at. Then she realized that the shadow of the tree had something attached to the back. Somehow Van Cott had managed to teleport herself the short distance from the car.
Palmer fired one more shot, but even a .44 isn't powerful enough to go clean through a one hundred year oak. Boldly, perhaps realizing that the woman held no physical weapon of her own, he stalked across the yard after her.
"Give it up, Melinda!" yelled Palmer as he approached. "You can't win."
Confidently, Melinda stepped from behind the tree. "Really?" she asked with a twisted smile. "You really think that you can stop me?"
Without a response, Palmer raised his gun again and started firing, this time emptying the last of the bullets in the clip. Each bullet flared as it struck a barrier only a few feet in front of the woman and vanished.
Melinda didn't change her expression at all. Instead of gloating, she simply closed her eyes and concentrated. Whatever happened next was hard to determine, but there was a magnificent flare of light in front of Palmer so bright that Terry was stunned even through her closed eyes. The ground trembled slightly under her feet and the smells of the dead leaves and pine needles became sickly sweet as they started to cook under the temperature.
Palmer started breathing hard, his lungs aching from the heated air. He fell to one knee as he fought against the continuos onslaught.
Then, as suddenly as it started, it stopped. Palmer was now on his knees and dazed. As her vision cleared, Terry saw that Melinda wasn't all that better off. Her clothes were singed from the heat and her body was covered in sweat. Her expression, cold before, was now worried.
"What--what did you do?" she managed to croak out.
There was a laugh, but Terry didn't hear it from Palmer. It was a gruff, humorless laugh. "My dear, sweet Melinda. This old goat didn't do anything. I did."
All eyes turned now to the wolf with the strangely iridescent blue eyes.
All eyes were on the wolf.
He was standing only a few feet away, somehow managing to stare at both Melinda Van Cott and Denny Palmer without moving his head an inch. His expression was intense, his jaw set.
Palmer seemed to smile a tiny amount. "Roany." He whispered. "It's nice to make your acquaintance."
His ears flicked forward, and the wolf stared harder at him. "Really? You may not think so later. And call me Shep. Evidently, I never liked my name."
Terry knew instantly what was happening. There was no sign of Jonathon or Christie; they were undoubtedly finding their way into the cabin. Taking advantage of the distraction herself, she started to work the collar and leash with her paws. She soon found that the collar somehow didn't have a clasp, it seemed to be a continuous piece of leather, but the leash did.
Melinda regained her breath. "What did you do?" she said through clenched teeth. "Let me finish this!"
Shep turned on her. "Finish what? This Palmer? Frankly Melinda, I'm surprised at you. You were never given to such emotion." He shook his head. "Maybe that's part of the problem." He added quietly.
She pointed dramatically at Palmer. "This man's son took mine from me! I want vengeance..."
"And I want all my memories back!" shouted Shep. He took a deep breath and continued. "This man did nothing to Arthur. And like it or not, Arthur deserved his fate."
Melinda stood wobbly to her feet. "How dare you..."
"Oh, shut up." He shot back. "Arthur was sent there to kill Palmer? Or don't you remember that little tidbit? To kill him. He was sent alone, and after how many had gone before him? Ten? Twenty? But he went."
"Arthur went up there to talk to..."
Shep broke in again. "It's not worth it to talk to you, my old friend. You've rewritten history in your mind. You knew Frank Palmer as well as anyone, and you knew that he loved Arthur like a son. What he did was the only way to save his life and to keep him away from the Body."
Terry felt the clasp on the leash and figured out how it worked without ever looking away from Shep. The leash undone, she positioned herself so it wouldn't be obvious. Terry simply assumed that Shep had a plan, one that she had to watch for.
Melinda was staring daggers at the wolf. "You're going to blame me for this? After what Frank did? After you left us to join him?"
Shep actually seemed to laugh. "That's about the first correct thing that you've said. I did join with Frank in the end."
Denny Palmer, still on his knees but no longer breathing hard, smiled broadly. "So you decided to help us even then?"
Shep turned to glare at Palmer. "Don't even think that for a moment. I joined your son, not you and your band. You know, you're no different than them."
The smile vanished and Palmer started to look angry. "You can say that after all the evil that they've done..."
Shep actually laughed, letting his tongue hang out of his mouth. "If you believe that, then you're as bad as they are. Do you really think that they ever came as close to controlling the world as they like to claim? Really?"
"You've been out of touch, friend. They are closer than you think..."
"Bull!" he snapped. "All they've done for the last two generations is tread water and kill people. That's it. And for that matter, that's all the unattached have done."
Denny Palmer seemed at a loss for words. He worked his jaw a few times, as if about to speak, but said nothing. Melinda Van Cott was looking at him with naked hatred in her eyes. There was no question that she still wanted him dead.
Finally, as if conceding the argument, he glared at Shep. "I want you do release your control over out abilities." He nodded at Melinda. "We have business to take care of, and you are in the way."
Shep shook his head sadly. "You know, your son knew what you were. Frank wasn't an idiot. I think that he died wondering why you never trusted him enough to tell him."
Palmer set his jaw. "Roany, I don't want to hurt you..."
"Frank always tried to be a good man, even if he fell at times. He bore the weight of the world on his shoulders, more than you will ever know."
Palmer lost his patience and pulled the unused pistol from behind his back, aiming the large caliber weapon at the wolf. "Roany, this fight isn't between us. Leave. Now."
"Now that I remember," continued Shep, "I'm glad that I had the presence of mind to make the choice I did. Two roads diverging, and all that." Shep suddenly looked straight at Terry, his eyes flashing and his ears back. "Run!" he shouted.
There was the sound of a gunshot and the whelp of a wolf in pain. Terry almost stopped in her dash for the trees, but she heard his voice again, quieter but no less forceful. "Run!"
Terry made it to the edge of the trees even as she felt the warmth on the back of her neck from the resumed battle between Van Cott and Palmer.
She felt a horrible sense of deja vu.
She thought again of Marlin. The sight of him being torn asunder by the forces that killed the other Van Cott, and ultimately Palmer.
She wanted to go back. She knew that Shep was still alive, she'd have felt his death. But how could she? Alone?
"Terry!" she heard a shout. She looked up to see Jonathon, in human form now, running toward her. He reached down and scooped her up, barely missing a step as he ran from the cabin. "Thank God you're all right!" he said between breaths.
"I'm fine, but we've got to save Shep!" she yelled.
Jonathon jumped over a stump in his run, forcing Terry to dig her claws into his flesh to hang on. "No. We won't. He intends to die, and we have to get the hell out of here before he does!"
Terry opened her mouth to protest, but didn't get the chance. They broke through the trees and were back on the dirt access road just below the compound. The ground was starting to shake from the battle raging behind them. There was a muffled explosion behind them, the sound of the fuel in Melinda's expensive luxury car exploding from the heat of their combined wills.
"Over here!" came another shout. Terry was shocked to see the form of Boston Police Captain Dennis Talbot, still out of uniform but standing next to an unmarked cruiser with Christie, also in human form, in the front passenger seat. He was poised to jump into the drivers seat, and the nearest door to Jonathon and Terry was open and waiting. "Hurry!"
Talbot jumped into the car and threw the car into gear. Jonathon no sooner dove into the backseat than he gunned the powerful police grade engine and shot down the street, gravel spewing behind. The passenger door slammed shut next to them.
"Where's Franklin?!" shouted Terry.
Terry held up her hand, revealing two identical birds. "Here!" she said loudly. "One real, the other fake!"
"Which one? Franklin?" asked Terry.
The two birds looked at each other, confused. Neither seemed to want to accuse the other of being a fraud. But they were mirror images of each other.
Captain Talbot looked up from the road into the rear view mirror, the reflected light dancing on his face. "Good God." He muttered, then lowered his gaze. "Terry, get into human form! Now!"
Terry desperately reached for the collar, still wrapped around her neck. "I can't! This thing is too small. But why..."
Talbot cut her off. "Because Roany said to! There's a pocket knife in the glove box! Cut the damn thing off!" he shouted.
Christie frantically opened the glove compartment, spilling maps and papers onto the floor before finding the knife. In her haste, it slipped from her fingers and fell to the floor. She lost precious seconds as she hunted for it. Triumphantly, she grabbed it and held it up to Jonathon. "Here!"
At that moment, the universe seemed to tilt.
An anchor on a local news program would sum it all up in a fairly straightforward way. "It hasn't been Boston's best year."
Most people would have accused her of making something of an understatement, but it certainly was accurate.
Only a little less than a year before, an explosion on a subway train that killed more than a hundred commuters and thirty on the street above, to this day unexplained.
Only days later, a mysterious explosive concussion from a what seemed typical row house shattered everything made of glass for miles. Five known dead, more than a thousand injured and millions of dollars in damage. It was an incident that the city was only just on the verge of recovering from.
And now this.
At least it wasn't a big earthquake...
Terry slowly opened her eyes and blinked a few times. She had a hard time making out what she was looking at. After a few blinks, her mind clicked and she realized that she was looking at the twisted wreckage of the inside of the car.
Her mind started to clear a little more. She heard a slight moan from the front seat and saw Christie slumped there, but starting to move. Terry struggled out from under a heavy weight before she realized that it was Jonathon. He was unconscious, but breathing. Terry made her way to his face and tapped him on the nose.
He groaned a little as he came around. "Terry? Oh God, we crashed. Christie!" He pushed open the back door and walked to her side. Pulling at her door, he bent the twisted metal enough to reach in and take a closer look at her.
Her dark eyes popped open and she smiled, then winced with pain. "I feel like I've been run over by a truck."
"Pretty close." Said Talbot, who was coming around himself. He looked around the car. "Where are the two birds?"
Jonathon and Terry both perked there heads up and looked around the roadway. It was really the first time that either of them noticed that it wasn't just the car that had crashed: The forest was in chaos. A large number of trees had been knocked flat and the roadway, which had basically been level when they drove it earlier, had been heaved in many spots.
"There!" shouted Jonathon. He started running for a crimson spot on the side of the road, finding a cardinal laying on his side there. Gently, he touched it. "He's alive."
Terry walked over to examine him with her more nimble fingers. "Nothing looks broken. It might be just the shock." She sniffed him. "But this smells like Franklin all right."
Jonathon just stared at Terry, and she realized that both Talbot and Christie were now doing the same. "Terry? Is that you?" asked Jonathon.
Terry rolled her eyes. "Of course its me. Are you sure you're okay?"
Instead of responding instantly, he reached over and fingered her collar. "You're Terry all right, but I can't understand you. You're just chittering to me." He looked at Talbot and Christie with pleading eyes. "Tell me that it's just me."
Slowly, Talbot shook his head. "No, it's not. I can't understand her either." He sighed and looked around. "I think I know what's happened, but first let's find the other bird. He must be around here. Don't worry. Terry is still in there." He said pointing at the raccoon.
Terry felt her stomach drop. She didn't like the idea of not being able to talk. She began pulling at the collar, trying to get it off so that she could shift back. Christie stopped her, picking her up gently and cradling her in her arms. "It's going to be all right, Terry. Don't worry. We've got to help Franklin now."
Terry looked at Christie a long moment and then silently nodded. She was right. One of her oldest and dearest friends was hurt. It wasn't a time to be worried about herself. As far as she could think, she was still her inside. It was simply the trick that allowed her to communicate like this that was gone.
She indicated to Christie that she wanted to be let back down to the ground and then got close to Franklin. Cradling the silent bird in her paws, she kept him warm.
It took a few minutes to find the other cardinal. He was also alive, but in far worse shape. Both wings were badly broken, one nearly torn off. His breathing was much more shallow.
They carefully moved both birds to the back seat of the crushed car. That taken care of, Jonathon used a knife to cut away the leather strap around Terry's neck. Gratefully, Terry willed herself to her human form.
But nothing happened.
Frantic, she looked at the three of them, her eyes again pleading. Talbot caught on quickly and put a hand on her back to sooth her. "Don't panic. It's not as bad as it seems."
Jonathon turned on Talbot. "What are you talking about. You mean that she's stuck like that?"
He nodded. "For the foreseeable future, yes. It's what Roany was afraid of. It's why he wanted you all in human form when he confronted Van Cott and Palmer." Talbot started absently petting Terry like a small dog. "He found a way to break the back of the Body, and it was by eliminating their advantage."
A light dawned in Christi's eyes. "The magic is gone, isn't it?"
Talbot thought a moment and shrugged. "I doubt it. But it's been disrupted. It's been disrupted a lot. For a while, none of it should work." He nodded at Terry. "Frankly, I'm mildly surprised that she seems to still be her in this body. But there were more variables than Roany every imagined."
"What happened? What did he do?" asked Jonathon.
"After we left the park," started Talbot, "Roany caught up with me. It turned out that he remembered more of his past than he'd been letting on. It started to come back to him the moment that Palmer died. Not a lot, but in little bits and pieces. It was only a few days ago that enough memory had formed to understand it."
Terry laughed a little, which caused the three of them to look at her. Not having a way to communicate with them, she simply waved a paw in a motion to indicate that she'd explain later. The fact was, Terry thought that the wolf had ulterior motives from the beginning. It was nice that in the end, though, they had been the same motives that she had.
Talbot continued. "He'd asked me some questions in the park to fill in gaps, and others to see if I was being truthful. It seemed that his conversion to a wolf had been much like the hawk that you knew as Marcus. Voluntary. As his abilities became more pronounced, Roany realized that the Body would soon want him to start to move on the unattached. He wasn't willing to do that. So he went to the one person that he thought could hide him."
"Palmer." Said Jonathon. He shook his head. "I'm beginning to wonder how many of the others were voluntary."
Talbot smiled. "I suspect most. What Palmer did is not easy with a live person, especially an uncooperative one. Maybe if they were asleep or unconscious, but not easily otherwise. Anyway, Roany told me that before he had been converted, the two of them had reached an agreement. They were both worried that the Body might make an effort to round up the converted and alter them back. The idea had been that Roany, who had the best ability of anyone to protect the group, would take over."
Jonathon smiled. "You're kidding. The wolf? He grew to hate Palmer when we thought he was dead."
Talbot nodded. "You're right. Roany told me that something went wrong. The conversion that Palmer did was total, as all of you know, it even altered past memories. But in a few cases, it altered personality. Roany was one of those."
Christie pointed back in the direction of where the cabin had once been. "So what happened back there?"
"That, my dear, was probably only the second duel between anyone with real power since the fall of Rome. The last was between Palmer and Van Cott. That time, only Van Cott died in battle. This time?" he shrugged. "All three died in an instant. Roanoke hoped that it would end this way."
"What did he do?"
Talbot shrugged. "Interrupt something at a critical point? Selectively cancel out their powers? I dont think that we'll ever know." He looked thoughtful. "But I think that he probably just died. Roany was at least as powerful as either of them. His death would have ripped through them pretty badly, especially since they were actively using their abilities to the limit."
Terry thought back to the poor woman who died trying to become her duplicate, and what her lost concentration had done to her. Jonathon started petting Terry himself. She wanted to protest, feeling already a little like a pet, but she didn't bother. It felt good.
"So it's over? The Body?" he asked.
"I think so." Said Talbot. "They held their power with their abilities. I doubt most know how to function without them." Talbot looked at the darkening sky. "We'd better make some shelter. We're going to have to hike out to the main road for help, and that's a few miles away. We'd best do it in the morning."
The small group huddled around the car as the sky grew dark, the unnatural quiet of the disturbed forest all around them. Terry curled up close to the two feathered forms on the seat, wanting to be right there when they awoke. Finally, she managed to sleep.
For the first time in months, she truly slept.
She was being nuzzled awake by someone, someone with a very cold, wet nose.
Terry reached up and slapped the muzzle, only to be greeted with a harder shove. Finally, she ventured to look at her tormenter, and her jaw dropped. "Shep?"
The wolf inclined his head. "Who were you expecting?"
Terry stammered. "Not you. You're dead!"
Surprisingly, the wolf didn't seem to mind. "Really? And where exactly are we?"
Terry blinked and looked around. She wasn't laying in the wreckage of the car anymore. She was somewhere familiar. Somewhere safe. Somewhere that didn't exist.
"This is a dream." She said finally, and a little sadly. "This is only a dream."
Shep padded up to the front door of the house and shoved it open. "Well, if it's just a dream, you might as well enjoy it. Come in."
Hesitantly, she followed. Stepping into the comfortable living room, she realized that there was a silent gathering in there. She stopped short when she realized that those present were all dead.
They had all been her friends. Woods. Marlin. Marcus. Shep.
She felt tears well up in her eyes. "This isn't a dream." She stated simply. "I'm dead."
Shep shook his head. "You were closer the first time. This is more dream than reality."
"What is going on here?" she asked.
For the first time in years, she heard Palmer speak. "My dear Terry. I wish I could explain it all to you, but there is simply so much that I don't understand myself."
"Try." She asked.
Palmer sighed and smiled. "I wish I could. My dear, all that you see are the ghosts of what we once were. Perhaps we are the ghosts of legend. Never able to truly rest until our work is done." He reached down and ran his fingers through her fur. "But our work will be done very soon."
She blinked. "You're leaving? So soon? But..."
Palmer put his finger to his lips. "Quiet. We have other visitors."
Terry slowly turned her gaze to the door, where other forms began to gather: Two small red birds, two raccoons, and two humans.
The fight was gone from the two humans. They seemed to walk in a daze, not comprehending fully where they were. The birds and raccoons were in a little better shape, but were certainly confused.
Palmer beckoned them all to sit. He looked seriously from face to face. "I've got a great deal to tell you all, so much to explain."