The predator lifted his face to the dark sky, the smell of blood wafting on the cool breeze, tempting him. Its tantalizing aroma drew him closer. Mouth watering, his footsteps muffled by the damp ground beneath his paws, the beast began to walk toward the scent of its prey. All around him the soft rustling of nocturnal animals in the woods echoed loudly within his sensitive ears.
As he made his way closer to his target, clouds parted, exposing the full moon behind them. The beast lifted his muzzle to the night sky and let out a long plaintive wail. There was no answering howl, just the muted clap of wings filling the air as night birds took flight, combining with the scratching of small feet scurrying off through the underbrush into the darkness.
Ice-blue eyes searched the area as he stalked though foliage. The carcass appeared before him, partially bathed in the silver moonlight. The beast crouched down low as his lips peeled back from its muzzle, exposing long canines.
The carcass rolled, bringing it fully into the light. The animal jumped back as the carcass was completely exposed to him. The woman’s lifeless blue eyes settled on the predator. Her blonde hair was sticky and matted with blood, her mouth open in a scream cut off before it could really begin. Her slender throat ripped open by claws, her chest and everything within it, mangled.
The beast stumbled back, his mind withdrawing in horror at the sight while his instincts warred with the desires of his species. The more he tried to move away, the more tempting the lure of tasting her became, and he took that first critical step toward his meal.
Lowering his head to sniff, he inhaled the coppery scent of her blood. His stomach clenched in anticipation. At once, he felt gnawing hunger pulling him closer until his muzzle touched the cold, dead flesh of the woman lying on the hard-packed earth.
The humanity in his mind cried out as he realized what he was about to do. Yet the animal fought and won, his jaws opening and snapping shut, taking a large mouthful of flesh and tearing it from bone. He closed his eyes and savored that first succulent taste of feeding from a fresh kill. As he went for another bite he didn’t give a second thought to the woman lying dead at his feet.
Alexander Christofedes bolted upright in his bed, his skin covered in sweat, his breath hitching as if he’d been sprinting. He looked around, eyes wild and confused. He leisurely surveyed his surroundings. His alarm rang without mercy, its shrill piercing wail interrupting what little sleep he’d managed to get. His heart raced as he scanned his stark bedroom. There was no one lying on his floor. No bodies torn apart by wild animals.
He slowed his breathing as he searched for what had awakened him. He found his clock/radio blaring on the other side of the white room, and cursed for thinking it was a great way of getting out of bed and ready to start the day. Grabbing a pillow, he threw it at the offending electronic terror, knocking it off the dresser and managing to silence it.
He fell back onto the white-sheeted bed and pulled another one of his down pillows over his head. The tactic used to work when he needed it to, back when he had the job he had always dreamt of, when he was at the top of his field, when it seemed he could do almost anything he wanted.
All before the attack.
The grant Alex had waited almost a year for had finally been awarded to him. At last he’d had the chance to go to Italy and research the sighting of several wild wolves in the Apennine Mountains. He’d managed to put together a group that included the top biology students in his field of study. They’d been there for only six days when the camp was attacked by a pack of the biggest wolves he had ever seen. He’d been the lone survivor.
He groaned as he rubbed the scar that bisected his chest in a ragged diagonal line. Although it had only been two months, the scar had was faded as if it were years older. Alex’s eyebrows furrowed, he couldn’t explain it. Worse, the doctors couldn’t explain it. He always had been a fast healer, but never like this. Within days of his arrival at the hospital his flesh and internal injuries were healed. The doctors wanted to run test after test, but eventually Alex refused. All he wanted to do was come home, get back to work, and try to put the attack behind him.
It wasn’t to be. No sooner had Alex stepped onto American soil than the questions began to surface. Why had he been the only one to survive? Why hadn’t he done more to protect his team? And how had he contacted the search party if he was left for dead?
There were inquests from the university, long afternoons of interrogation by the state’s attorney and countless sessions with both American and Italian government officials, which left him wondering if he was going to be charged with a crime. For two weeks he wondered, but the charges never came and eventually the questions stopped. He lost everything he’d worked years to build, his position at the university and his reputation.
His family was non-existent. Found in a church as a toddler, he’d been put into the foster system and never really felt as if he’d fit in with any of the families who chose to make him their own. Instead he’d found comfort and solace in schoolwork and books. He found his passion in wolves, and in high school decided he would devote his life toward conservation.
The media coverage of the attacks spanned not only American shores but was an international sensation. Once the claims had gone out, every newspaper from the New York Times and la Repubblica to The Enquirer and The Sun was after him for a story. Not to mention the internet bloggers who were worse than anyone else.
When his name was being dragged through the mud within the educational circles that he’d worked so hard to get into, and his face was flashing on television screens as a person of interest in the attacks, it came as no surprise that what family he’d kept in touch with finally cut the ties he’d been cautious to embrace. What did surprise him was the ease with which his colleagues were quick to judge him. People he once called friends suddenly turned their backs on him. No one would vouch for his credibility. How could they when their own reputations would come into question as well? Hell, he couldn’t blame them really; he would do the same if the shoe were on the other foot.
The phone rang, dragging Alex from his depressing thoughts. He lifted the pillow and reached for the handset, checking the caller ID before accepting the call. He smiled as the familiar number brought him a sense of peace. Not everyone had abandoned him.
“Hey, sexy, did I wake you?” the soft female voice asked.
“Nope, the shrieking banshee across the room did that.”
“Oh, you have another hot date?”
Alex laughed and closed his eyes. He could almost see his best friend’s smiling face, her green eyes bright without condemnation as she stood by him throughout his ordeal. He loved her, had even tried to date her at one time, but they soon realized they were much better suited as friends than lovers.
Rhiannon also worked at the university. She was a professor of Celtic History, and at thirty-two was one of the youngest professors on track to make head of a department.
“Hello? Are you there or are you getting ready for round two … or is it three?”
Alex reached up and placed his discarded pillow behind his head. “I wish.”
“So, what are you wearing?” she asked, her voice dripping with sexual promise.
He looked down his bare chest to the dark blue boxer briefs he wore and the socks that covered his feet. “Daffy Duck footed pajamas,” Alex deadpanned.
“Oh, sexy… come open the door and let me in so I can show you my Elmer Fudd getup and we can play kill the wabbit.”
Alex laughed loudly and rolled out of bed as he hung up the phone. There was no need to grab a robe, Rhiannon had seen him in far less than what he was wearing now, and he’d never been one for modesty.
He jogged through his small apartment and threw the door open. Rhiannon struck a provocative pose in the door frame; her arms outstretched on either side of the door, legs spread shoulder-width apart, and on the floor between them a bag of takeout from his favorite local restaurant.
She took a long, slow look at him, and he stretched his arms out at his side and turned in a circle. When he faced her again he let his gaze wander over her torso lazily. Just because they weren’t lovers didn’t mean he didn’t enjoy looking. Rhiannon had bound her dark auburn locks in a long ponytail that hung past her waist. She wore a baby-pink tank that did little to hide her voluptuous curves. Alex was sure he hadn’t been the only man to appreciate the sight and marvel at the wonder of spandex this morning. Her cargo shorts would have seemed innocent if not paired with the high-heeled sandals she insisted she always wear. On anyone else the outfit would have been scandalous, but on Rhi it seemed just right and seemed to complement her attitude.
“I brought breakfast.” She wiggled her brows. “I thought maybe you haven’t been eating well, but you are looking a hell of a lot better.” She reached for his hair. Running her hand through it, she grabbed a handful and yanked playfully. “You need a haircut.”
He slid his fingers through the overgrown locks. He usually kept it in a buzz cut, but had let it grow out since the attack. “You don’t like it?”
She shrugged. “You look a little like an underwear model. Speaking of which, have you been working out?”
Alex looked down his chest. He’d always been fit, healing quickly hadn’t been the only quirky attribute he’d had. His metabolism was also on the high end. He could eat more than three truckers combined and not gain an ounce. However, he had never been muscular, at least not until now. Alex shook his head and reached for the bag on the floor. “Nope.”
Rhiannon followed him into the apartment. “Are you kidding me? You’ve got a six-pack most men spend years trying to get. Your biceps are huge, your thighs look like you’ve been doing squats while holding a bull over your head, and you’re telling me you haven’t done anything except get out of bed each morning?”
Alex shrugged. What more could he say, that was exactly it, but of course muscle formation like this came at a price. His muscles burned almost every day, his joints screaming in pain those first couple of weeks. Now it seemed to ache less, but it was still disconcerting to feel this way.
She whistled as she locked the door behind her. “Let me tell you that men would pay mega bucks to get some of what you’ve got. Holy crap!”
He froze. “What?”
“Your back! When did you get a tattoo?” Alex tried to look over his shoulder as Rhiannon traced the ornate tribal marking. “This is beautiful, but I’d never figured you for ink, and you covered your birthmark too.”
He pulled away from her and walked to the other side of the room. How was he going to tell her he hadn’t, that he’d noticed the elaborate marking one morning after he’d gotten home from Italy? It was just one more strange thing to add to the growing list that had encompassed his life as of late.
She bit her lip and let him retreat. “It really is gorgeous, Alex, it looks like a wolf’s paw and a moon. I think it suits you, all things considered.” She paused. “So, how are you feeling otherwise?” Her voice softened. “Running a fever?”
“No, I feel fine. What did you bring me?” he asked, hoping for a change of subject.
She looked in the bag. “All of your favorites. I went to Roberto’s and got you an egg white omelet with peppers and mushrooms, two pieces of wheat toast and a side of fresh fruit.” She looked up and caught his disgusted expression. “What?”
“Nothing. Do you happen to have some sausage or bacon, oh, or maybe a rare steak or something?”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
He walked over to his refrigerator and pulled open the top door. “I’m fine, Rhi.”
She crossed her arms over her chest and watched as he pulled a steak out of his freezer. “Really, so why does a devout vegetarian suddenly crave meat?”
Alex froze and looked down at the package in his hand. He glanced back at his friend and shrugged. “Maybe I need the iron.”
Rhiannon sighed softly. “Look, I don’t care if you eat a whole cow. You know I’ve always been a proponent of meat eating.”
“Yeah, but I thought you were talking about your boyfriends.”
“Hey, you never had a complaint.”
“I can’t argue that,” he said, relieved that they had fallen into their usual banter.
She grabbed the package from him and motioned him away. “I’ll fix that for you.”
“So, are you still having nightmares?”
Alex flinched. So much for easy banter. In one moment, and without knowing it, she managed to hit him where it hurt most. He’d regretted telling her about the dreams that plagued him as soon as he closed his eyes; dreams of blood and gore, terrible dreams of ripping flesh and consuming it. His doctors had said it was part of post traumatic syndrome and it was to be expected. They told him that even if he couldn’t remember the details of the attacks, subconsciously his mind recalled even the smallest details and would replay them when he could least control it–in his sleep. Still, that didn’t explain the other dream. The one that scared him so much he’d called Rhiannon in a panic one night.
He glanced at her now. She’d put the steak in his microwave to defrost, and now she pulled plates from his cabinet, waiting for him to answer but not pressing the issue. She was good at giving him time to get himself together. Alex appreciated it more than he would ever admit. He needed Rhiannon and he was sure she knew it. She had an uncanny ability to sense things like that.
“Yeah. I’m still having them.”
“Look, you scared me half to death when you called–”
“I called you?”
Rhiannon arched a brow as she removed the steak from its packaging and placed it in the pan. As it sizzled she reached for the sack of food and began to plate it. “Yeah, it had to have been about four o’clock this morning.”
Alex decided to sit on the chair at the small whitewashed table in his kitchen before his knees went out on him. “What did I say?”
She took a deep breath and joined him at the table. “It was hard to understand, that’s why it was so scary. You were screaming about blood and a woman. Jeez, Alex, I almost ran over here, you were hysterical.” She tilted her head, her long ponytail falling to the side. “You really don’t remember?”
His brow furrowed. “No.” He didn’t remember the call, but he did remember the dream and waking at dawn naked and wet in the shower. He also remembered the state of his apartment. He’d wanted a drink and walked out into a disaster area. The place had looked like a scene out of Animal House. His furniture was turned over, curtains were ripped to shreds, and he wasn’t sure if he’d ever get his DVD player to work again. It had taken him more than an hour to put everything back in its place.
“Okay, spill it. What is going on?”
Alex let out a heavy breath, unsure of what he should say or how much to confide in her. How much could one person take before thinking you were going crazy? Of course, there was always the possibility he was.
“All right, don’t tell me.” She stood and walked over to the counter, turned off the stove and picked up the phone sitting in its cradle. “I’ll just call Dr. Pritchett. I know how much you love talking to him.”
Alex froze. He hated sitting with that whack job of a shrink, but he’d done it to satisfy his bosses at the university. Of course, they’d put him on administrative leave anyway, so there was no telling what that quack had said about him. “Look, it was nothing, really.”
“It was nothing? Alex, you were ranting about a woman and eating her, and not in a good way I might add because she was dead! You said your body was changing, your voice … my God, Alex, your voice … it was like something out of a horror movie. I don’t know how else to describe it. You were growling and gruff. It was scary as hell. Now tell me what’s going on!”
Alex listened with growing horror. This was not what he expected to hear. The nightmares were one thing. This was a totally different kettle of fish.
Rhiannon began to pace. “Okay, if you don’t want to see your shrink. See mine.”
“I am not going to sit with your boyfriend.”
“Why not? Peter is a great doctor.”
“He’s a dick.” Alex ran a hand through his hair. “You could do better than him, you know.”
She shrugged. “I like him, he’s settled.”
“He’s boring,” Alex muttered. For someone who was such a free spirit Rhiannon couldn’t have picked a worse mate. Watching paint dry was more interesting than sitting with Peter Holden.
“I didn’t come to talk about my boyfriend,” she said, breaking into his thoughts.
“You brought him up.”
She put her hands on her hips. “Because we were talking about you. Now stop trying to change the subject.”
“Rhi, I have no idea what is happening,” he replied softly and looked down at the slightly scarred tabletop. He began to trace a small nick as he gathered his thoughts. “I don’t remember calling you. I sure as hell don’t recall talking about changing.” A shiver ran through him. Alex fisted his hands on the tabletop and closed his eyes. “Maybe I am going crazy.”
“People who are going crazy, don’t think they’re going crazy, Alex, you know that.” She pulled the chair she’d vacated over to him and sat close so she could grasp his hands in hers and stare into his eyes. Alex remained still, trying to block out his biggest fears, but Rhiannon narrowed her steely green gaze. “You’re keeping something from me.”
“Don’t you ‘Rhi’ me, Alex. I’m trying to be a good friend and understand, but you aren‘t being straight with me.” She rose to her feet and sifted through the massive purse she’d brought with her. “I need to know everything, Alex, because there are things happening that defy explanation.”
“What do you mean?”
Rhiannon tossed a newspaper onto the table. Alex glanced at the front page and jumped up from his chair. It fell to the ground behind him cracking loudly. The headline blared: THE MANGLER STRIKES AGAIN.
Below the bold, capital typeface was a picture of a beautiful blonde woman with smiling eyes and a grin that lit up her face. It was the same face he remembered from his nightmare. Alex recoiled. He tried to school his features back into an impassive façade, but he should have known better than to try to fool Rhiannon.
Her gaze sharpened, and he realized he’d been caught. Her lips parted as if she would call him on it, but she closed them and looked out his small kitchen window. He watched as she gathered her thoughts, a storm brewing behind her closed expression. He braced himself for the explosion that was about to erupt, but she surprised him. She let out a breath on a huff of annoyance, snatching the paper back. “Forget it. I’m going home. Don’t call me anymore with your problems.”
Alex reached out, grabbing her arm before she could take more than a few steps. “Wait, please.”
“Are you going to be straight with me?”
“Okay. So who is this woman and why did you look like you were going to be sick when you saw the picture?”
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t give me that. Your face is as white as a sheet.”
“I swear to you Rhi, I have no idea who she is.”
“But I’ve dreamt of her. I saw her in the park. I … I think I was eating her.”
Rhiannon’s eyes narrowed. “You dreamt of her?”
“Yes. Last night.” Alex rubbed his hand down his face and turned his attention back to his friend. “I swear I don’t remember picking up my phone and calling you, but I do remember the dream … and that’s not all.”
“I knew it! I knew there was something you were keeping from me. Alex, you know you never have to be alone in anything. I’m your best friend. I hate to see you like this, you’re usually the most reliable and solid person I know, and it’s killing me to see you so vulnerable. Let me help you.”
Alex turned his gaze away from her. Rhiannon was probably the only person in the world he could turn to now. What choice did he have? He had to confess and see where things went. Maybe a new set of eyes and ears could make more sense of this. “Every morning for the last few weeks I’ve woken up naked.”
Rhiannon sat down in the chair she’d just vacated and arched a brow. “Umm, Alex, if I remember correctly, you usually go to bed naked.”
“No. Well, yes. I used to, but not in the last few weeks. Not since…” He cut his words short and closed his eyes.
She reached out and took his hands in hers. He felt calm at the touch of her soft flesh against his, the warmth radiated from her palm into his chilled skin. “Not since… It is okay to say it, Alex. Words don’t have power over you unless you let them.”
He opened his mouth and everything he’d kept to himself these last few weeks came out in a rush. Once freed, he couldn’t seem to hold anything back. “Rhiannon, I think I’m going crazy. Which I’m not so sure is a bad thing because the other option is even worse. I woke up a week after the attack, wet in my shower. I could taste blood in my mouth. The next morning, the first corpse was found in Golden Gate Park. Ever since, it’s been happening a few times a week and each time…” He rose to his feet, unable to hold his connection with her. Her soul was too pure. He rubbed his palms on his legs, then stared down at them and wiped them again, as if trying to erase his sins.
“Don’t even think it, Alex. You did not kill those women and you sure as hell didn’t kill this one.”
“What else could it be?”
Rhiannon held the paper out to him. “Read the article, Alex. These victims, the victims of this so called ‘Mangler’, were mauled. They were torn apart. It has to be a rabid animal attack. No human could do this.”
“It would have to be a fairly large animal, Rhi, and if there was one like that running loose in San Francisco we’d have heard about it, don’t you think?”
“What else could it be? Come on, Alex, unless you’ve grown claws and fangs in the last few weeks there is no way you could have done this. The press is making more out of this than they should and scaring half the population while they’re at it. It’s sensationalism.”
“But what about the dreams, and why am I waking up naked in the bathroom? Why can’t I remember anything?”
“It’s post-traumatic stress, plain and simple.”
“Screw that. If you thought it was PTS you wouldn’t have shown me the paper.”
“I thought maybe you were showing signs of psychic ability, you dope, not that you were attacking women in the park. Alex…” She walked to him and cupped his face in her hands. “You’ve got a good heart. You could never hurt someone in a million years.”
“I wish I was as sure as you.”
She kissed his lips softly. “Why don’t you go and shower. We’ll go out and get some fresh air. You need to spend time outside of this apartment.”
Alex gave her a weak smile and turned to walk out of the room. In the doorway, he looked back at her. “Rhi? Thank you.”
“For believing in me.”
* * * *
For the second time that morning Alex found himself standing under the hot spray of his shower. He was content to stand there for several seconds letting the water seep into tired, aching muscles. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back into the spray as he tried to put everything that had happened into perspective. As long as he lived he would never forget the screams of his friends as the wolves attacked, and he would never know why he’d been spared.
As the sandalwood scent of his soap floated in the air within the confines of his glass shower, his mind conjured up the image of a woman, and Alex felt his entire body go rigid. She’d first appeared to him in the dreams immediately after the attack. He was sure he had never met her before, but something in him recognized her. From deep within, he heard himself growl possessively like an animal. It was always like this with her. His fantasies were feral when he thought of her. Every part of him wanted to claim her.
In his mind’s eye he saw her standing in a clearing in what had to be his campsite in the Apennines. Her long black hair gleamed in the moonlight as she stretched her arms out to him. She was dressed in a long, flowing gossamer gown that left little to the imagination. He could see her breasts through the sheer crimson fabric, her tightly beaded nipples erect and clearly outlined. His gaze traveled down her flat abdomen to the juncture of her thighs where she was covered with fine dark hair. He tried to take a step forward, but he seemed to be frozen to the spot. This time his growl was more forceful, and the woman smiled.
“Come back to me.” Her voice drifted to him on the wind, soft and velvet-smooth with a hint of an accent that was foreign to him. “Come home, Alex.”
Alex struggled against the invisible bonds of his mind, but couldn’t free himself. He looked up again, a silent plea for help in his eyes. She took a step toward him, and he felt his groin tighten in response. He reached down for his rigid shaft and wrapped his palm around it. He began to stroke, tightening his hold on the downward movement just the way he liked it. He raised his gaze to her and found her standing before him, watching. Her attention focused squarely on his erection. Her breathing hitched, her face flushed with arousal. She reached out.
“Yes.” He moaned as her hand joined his. He looked into her eyes. As she met his gaze her green eyes began to glow, shining brightly in the dimness of the forest.
She removed his hand so she could hold his shaft fully in her small palm. Her touch set fire to Alex and he felt a shudder move over his bones. She leaned in and licked the nape of his neck from shoulder to ear. “Focus…” she whispered and took over where he’d left off.
Alex had no idea how she could know exactly the way he liked to be touched, but it was his fantasy so he paid no heed to the small detail. Instead, he leaned in to kiss her, but she stopped him, placing her free hand on his chest to hold him back. With a siren’s smile she went down to her knees, and Alex groaned in anticipation. He looked down and watched as she replaced her hand with her mouth. His body burned as she pleasured him. He wasn’t going to last long. She grabbed his hips as her mouth worked him. Just a few moments more and he would come.
Suddenly a wolf’s howl pierced the air, and Alex cried out as the sound drove him over the edge. The woman placed teasing kisses to his abdomen and up until she reached his lips. She kissed him deeply.
“Come home,” she said as she pulled back.
Alex’s surroundings came back in a flash. He was standing in his shower, steam rising around him, and Rhiannon was yelling through the locked door in a panic. He turned off the water and barely had the towel around his hips when the door flew open.
Rhiannon held a butter knife in her hand as she stormed up to him. Alex plucked it out of her grip before she did anything either of them would regret. “Why didn’t you open the door? You scared me half to death. Jeez, Alex, are you trying to give me a heart attack?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you. Did you just jimmy the lock?”
“Well, when you didn’t answer I had to do something.”
She searched his face, but seemed to ignore whatever it was she saw. “I found a note.”
He reached for a second towel and dried off his hair. He felt its length and realized Rhiannon was right; he did need a haircut. “What?”
“I found a note tucked into the newspaper.” She pulled out a long envelope. “It’s addressed to you.”
Alex threw the towel into the sink and examined the envelope. The paper didn’t feel normal, it felt old like parchment. To add to the strangeness it was sealed with wax, and on the front, handwritten in graceful calligraphy, was his name. There was no return address. He frowned. “This was inside the newspaper?”
“Yup. I was flipping through it while waiting for you and it just fell out. And before you ask, I have no idea how it got in there. I picked the paper up from Josef on the corner, like always.”
Alex turned the envelope in his hands as he studied it again. His life was becoming an episode of the Twilight Zone.
“Aren’t you going to open it?”
He wasn’t sure why he did it, but he brought the parchment up and sniffed it. The hairs on the back of his neck rose as the scent triggered a memory tucked into the back of his mind, but nothing became clear. He slipped a finger beneath the flap, breaking the seal. Rhiannon shifted to read from beside him as he pulled the folded paper out.
“What the hell does that mean?” Rhiannon asked as she plucked the paper from his hand. “The answers you seek are in the mountains?”
Alex leaned back against the sink. “I don’t know. Maybe it means I should go back to Italy.” As soon as the idea came into his head, he felt as if that was exactly what he should do. The fantasy had to have come from a deep-seated need to go back and find some kind of answers.
“For what? There’s nothing there except bad memories.”
“No. Those are in here.” He touched his temple. “Those I carry wherever I am.”
“Alex, you cannot be considering what I think you are. You can’t just up and leave because you get some strange letter in the newspaper. That’s crazy.”
“I think it’s becoming standard issue in my life. What else have I got to do? No one here is going to help me, maybe there’s someone there that can. Rhiannon, wolves don’t just attack people unprovoked. My team didn’t do anything wrong, and there has to be some kind of evidence there that I missed. Maybe there are some answers as to why my friends were butchered.”
“I’m going with you.”
“No!” He grabbed her arms and stared into her eyes. “I won’t risk your life. I’m going alone.”
“So, just like that you’re going to drop everything and go back to Italy?”
Alex lifted his lips into a sly smile. For the first time since coming home he finally felt like his old self. “Yeah, I guess I am.”