By W.D. Gagliani
“He who fights with monsters should beware lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
(Somewhere between Minocqua and Eagle River, WI)
The keys clicked lightly under his fingers, and he watched the short paragraph take shape on the laptop’s screen before him. The light it emitted was enough to cast a blue-white glow across the room and over his shape. He hunched over slightly, refocusing his eyes and positioning the bifocals to give him a clear look at the text he was leaving behind. He moused over a phrase, adjusted it, cut another word here and added several words there.
He was very quiet. His family slept, and he didn’t want to complicate things by awakening them. Karina snored softly in the adjacent room, her form stretched under the sheet in the sideways position she preferred. Down the hall, the nearest room was where Katerina slumbered the innocent sleep of the six-year-old, a favorite bear watching over her from one side of the pillow and an animal—a jolly looking dog from the latest Pixar movie—was crushed in her sleepy embrace. The boys slept in the far room, across the hall from the main upstairs bath.
He smiled sadly as he thought of his family, asleep and unencumbered by what ate at him like acid. His smile turned into a frown and then a grimace as he tasted the acid column that rose in his throat. Real or not, he felt the vomit push its way into the back of his throat, and he fought to swallow it down.
Hands shaking, he typed a few more words, reread the six lines or so he had written into the blank file, then he moused over to the Print command and heard the sheet work its way through the elderly Epson below his desk. Then he highlighted and copied the text, clicked into the open browser, scrolled to where the text box sat waiting, empty, its cursor blinking like a clown’s evil wink. He pasted the text and Submitted it, then closed the page and clicked into the Preview function. There it was, his text posted on his website’s main page where the counter would soon begin to click upward as his regulars checked his blog and news.
He closed the browser but left the computer on. It really didn’t matter.
Behind him, where the bottom of the built-in bookcase met the lower cabinets, their shelves hidden behind cherry-wood doors, he flicked the disguised switch and waited for the upper bookcase to disengage from its lock. It hissed open a few inches, and he reached between its edge and the frame and opened wide the secret compartment. Behind the movable bookcase were several shelves of items and a built-in safe. He ignored everything but one item. He took it from its resting place inside the red velvet-lined case, then pushed the compartment door shut again.
He took the object and held it up where moonlight entering the wide picture window could illuminate it. The huge, silver disk above shed light over the lake and its surroundings, leaking into the living room and over his hands. The heavy object shone in the light. It was a dagger perhaps nine inches in length, sheathed in lightweight wood criss-crossed with carved symbols. The dagger’s grip was set with several irregular shaped jewels in a line above the straight cross-guard. The moonlight blackened the jewels so they looked like pools of darkness in the hilt.
His eyes suddenly filled, and he tilted his head as if tears could be coaxed to clear his pupils on their own. His motion achieved nothing, and the tears swelled up until they were heavy enough to seek their own ways across his cheeks. He repressed a sob.
He had decades to sob over.
He tucked the sheathed dagger into his belt, leaving his hands free.
Almost without realizing how he had gotten there, he stood in front of a door down the hall. Now holding the dagger in one hand, he used the other to edge the door open just enough to slip inside, where his daughter slept among stuffed animals and at least one doll. Her golden hair was made into a silver halo by the moonlight filtered through the blinds. She was tucked in all the way to her chin, her tiny hands wrapped around the plush dog.
He let his tears fall onto her pillow for a moment, looking at her one last time. Then he swiftly slid the blade from its scabbard, placed one hand over the top of her face and pressed down hard, effectively preventing her scream and keeping her from seeing what he was about to do.
Forgive me, he prayed as he quickly drew the blade once across her throat. He wasn’t sure who would grant the forgiveness, however.
Dodging the hot spray, he held her head down on the pillow until it and the bed were sodden, and her tiny struggles were finished.
Not long. It didn’t take long at all.
Sobbing quietly, snot bubbling from his nostrils, he left his daughter’s room and entered the next, where the boys slept.
Thankfully they had given up the bunk beds, preferring two individual singles set perpendicular to each other. He approached the closest, his younger son, and said his quiet good-bye.
Then he repeated the procedure with the heavy hand, pressure downward holding his son’s neck in position and keeping him quiet and blind. The blade sang through the young skin with nary a hitch, but this time the blood gush half-caught him as he swayed to evade it. His older son grumbled in his sleep, muttered, and snored after shifting sideways on his pillow. In a moment the large hand, the father’s hand, was holding the small head down, and the other hand was doing the deed almost as if they were independent of each other and of his control. He barely moved this time, letting more of his son’s blood bathe him as he suppressed the struggling boy beneath. This son had been his favorite.
He waited again for the bleed-out, snot now coating his chin. He was unmindful of the snot and tears and saliva that ran freely from his open mouth.
Then he headed for the master bedroom, where his wife waited.
Her eyes were open and questioning when he approached, apparently having heard either his walking or the children’s struggling. She probably hadn’t processed what she’d heard, because her instinctive alarm had not forced the issue and fully awakened her fear.
“What—” she began, but his hand covered her lips and eyes, and his one motion took the blooded silver blade through her neck. Even as the curtain of blood jetted out from her, he could feel the scream under his hand, the accusation, the terror.
It didn’t matter whether she asked the question, it was what he heard. His body covered hers, lovingly, feeling her struggles diminish until finally it went still beneath his.
He was drenched with his family’s blood now, a symbolic sacrifice of everything he had ever loved.
Carefully, he replaced the blooded dagger in its hiding place. The box contained two dagger-shaped cradles, and his filled one of them. The other cradle was dusty—it hadn’t held its dagger in decades.
Then he took a pistol from its hooks above where the case holding the blade lay among other items. He closed the secret compartment’s door.
He dragged himself through the hallway and to the living room, with its view of the woods and the lake. He surveyed the moonlit scene one last time.
He felt nothing, really. Did he?
His family’s fresh blood soaked his clothes and clogged his nostrils with its sweet, metallic stench.
No time for regrets. It was too late. Better decisions would have led to better outcomes.
The pistol in his hand was an antique, but he had kept it oiled and in good condition. And the magazine was filled with his best home loads. He pulled the toggle and cocked the German war-issue 1908 Parabellum model, which most people knew as the Luger. He felt the weight of the pistol, its superb balance, and he allowed himself one small, sad smile.
He stood with his back to the wide, white wall. Twisted the gun around in his grip. Rested the oily barrel on his forehead.
When he squeezed the trigger, the last thing he saw was the frozen face of his wife, asking Why? Her staring, accusing eyes registered for a fraction of a second, and then it was over.
His body spasmed once against the wall now ruined by the shower of blood and bits of skull, spasmed then slumped to the hardwood floor. A lake grew quickly below him like a crimson outline.
One hour later, the sound of breaking glass washed over the frozen tableau inside the house. Heavy boot falls marked the intruder’s trek through the rooms, one by one, ending at the wall where a man’s body lay slumped, his head collapsed like a deflated child’s balloon.
The blood was black in the reflected moonlight.
The intruder shook his head, then set about the search, which had just become more complicated.
Another hour passed, and the intruder found what he knew was there to be found. Not much effort had been made to keep the secret storage area truly hidden. With a laser measuring device, the intruder quickly located the several discrepancies that signaled secret compartments behind false walls.
Still almost two hours before dawn, the intruder found the main gas valve in the rear of the basement, the portion behind a door located in the cedar-paneled bar area dominated by a regulation pool table and various rich man’s toys. Behind the door, the house’s systems were ensconced in a room with walls of reinforced poured concrete. The intruder flicked on the lights, located the gas line and took a few moments to follow it with his eyes, then he took a wrench from his waist pack and loosened a couple connectors. He waited for a minute until he could smell the gas quickly escaping the pipe, then retreated through the open door.
Back upstairs, he set an innocuous-looking cell phone housing on a hallway table near the back door and basement entrance. Inside was a tiny, remote-operated device that would ignite upon receipt of a certain signal text. When it did, it would at the same time provide the needed spark and destroy itself. It would be indistinguishable from the kind of slag left by any sort of cell phone upon melting.
Confusion was the intended result. The crime scene would be a mess. Suicide? Murder? Murder-suicide? Unlawful entry, or fakery? The man whose body lay slumped against the wall would be blamed, and they’d stop looking for the rest of the story. Small-town cops would never go beyond the obvious in this one. There was plenty of the obvious on which to concentrate.
The intruder left the premises undetected. Two hours later—and a fair number of miles away—the time he knew was needed to fill the enclosed space with gas, he sent the text message.
Imagining the fireball, he smiled slightly.
In his trunk lay the wooden case he had removed from the scene.
Endgame: First Day
The bitter breeze blowing off the lake cut through his leather jacket and, instinctively, he dug his large hands into the pockets. He made fists, but he wasn’t aware he had.
The usual clanking of small boat rigging was down to a dozen or so stragglers still in the water of the North Point Marina. Lupo stood with his back to the old roundhouse, which was boarded up for the season. Wistfully, he recalled warm days on the lake, playing dominoes and drinking overpriced canned beer from the roundhouse deli, getting greasy with chips and sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper. Across the weathered picnic table in his memory was Caroline Stewart, laughing as they struggled to play the old man’s game they had somehow both enjoyed picking up.
Lupo’s fists started to hurt from the pressure, and then they started to itch.
It was strange, after all these years, having such clear memories of Caroline. She’d been his professor, confessor and confidante, and then lover.
And then he had killed her.
“Jesus, Nick, could you just let it go?” The voice from behind him startled him, but he pretended otherwise.
“You’ve beaten yourself up for too many years. You have good reason to move on now, and accept the past and what you are and what you will always be.”
Lupo wanted to stifle the raspy voice, but he already knew the old man would have his say.
He had killed Caroline Stewart, and that act of violence, while not completely his fault, had damned him forever, as far as he could tell. It had confirmed his suspicions—he really was a monster.
“Get over yourself,” said the old-man voice.
He resisted for a few moments, then whirled around.
There was no one there. Ghost Sam liked these surgical strikes, making his point in as bloody a manner as possible, then disappearing…wherever he disappeared to. Most likely Lupo’s head, which was definitely not a healthy place to be.
He was a monster, Ghost Sam’s platitudes notwithstanding.
How could a werewolf not be a monster?
“You’ve faced real monsters. I know monsters. You’re not much of a monster.”
“Christ, Sam, you still have a sick sense of humor even after death, you know that?”
“Laugh away, cop boy. But will you ever listen to me? No, you won’t. Apparently you inherited that stubbornness you always accuse your dad of having.”
Actually Lupo listened to Ghost Sam fairly often, both when he saw him and when he didn’t. But there had to be an end to it, a line he could draw.
His mind wandered back to Caroline, and what the Creature had done to her. The guilt was still tangible. She had backed his decision to become a cop, and he’d been on his way to being a good one when the most traumatic incident of his life took place. The Creature had done it, he knew it intellectually, but he couldn’t stop thinking that the Creature was still part of him, or that he could have controlled its rage. Miraculously, he had managed to evade suspicion, though he’d lived in fear for years, and then he’d climbed the ranks of the Milwaukee Police Department, all the way to Homicide Detective.
Until his past—and his secret—had come back to torment him and endanger the woman he now loved. He had managed to protect her so far, when she wasn’t protecting him, but he had a lousy record when it came to women who became attached to him.
He stifled what he had to admit was a sob.
Things weren’t so smooth now, and it was all his fault.
He’d tried to get her some help, but she was either at her meeting right now or at the casino. He couldn’t quite grasp why a woman as successful, intelligent, beautiful, and perfect in every way had succumbed to a strangely warped version of the same gambling addiction he saw manifested in old folks who flushed their life savings away while standing blank-eyed at slot machines.
What the hell was he supposed to do, lock her up? Keep her out of the casino?
He snorted in spurious laughter. He remembered when he was the one who needed to be locked up, when he feared the full moon would take him and force him to commit murder after grisly murder. In fact, the moon had indeed caused him to do some bad things, but he’d learned to beat the moon’s influence.
He had a lot on his mind today. It wasn’t just Caroline’s memory, or Jessie’s gambling. It was the look in Tom Arnow’s eyes as he’d died, after Lupo had flicked that damned dagger squarely into his chest. And it was what he’d done even later.
That damned cursed dagger.
He turned away from the gray water, his fists itching like a delicate torture. He wished he could flay the skin off his hands.
His iPhone buzzed in his pocket. Damn it, somebody always interrupting his life. He dug it out with an itchy hand.
“Yeah?” he barked.
He listened for a minute, verified the address, and clicked off. Third Ward, crime scene. He was practically there already. Just a hop down Lake Drive and then a few blocks south of downtown. DiSanto was meeting him there.
He turned and half expected to see Sam Waters standing nearby, his gray hair gathered in its usual ponytail and his small but somehow still imposing frame tucked into a too-large leather parka. But he was alone.
He crossed the deserted parking lot between the boarded-up roundhouse and the yacht club and climbed into the slightly battered Maxima he clung to stubbornly. Rich DiSanto, his partner of two years, hounded him ceaselessly about the car. As a homicide detective, Lupo had the choice to drive his own vehicle while on duty, and he preferred comfort to style.
“At least get a Mustang or a Camaro, one of those new ones,” DiSanto had a habit of nagging almost weekly.
“If I did,” Lupo usually reminded him, “you wouldn’t be very comfortable.” It was true—the Maxima had the horsepower he wanted, thanks to some custom work, and the leather seats were comfortably worn. DiSanto’s long legs needed the ample space below the seat.
No way would he confess to the childish DiSanto that he’d been, in fact, tempted by the recent Mustangs.
Lupo sat for a minute. A strange tingle centered on the back of his neck made him turn and scan the rest of the lot. A couple cars in slots near the yacht club and a minivan toward the beach side were his only company. They were deserted, probably people who worked maintenance at the club. He shrugged.
Paranoia strikes deep.
He’d given Wolfpaw Security Services—or whatever they were calling themselves these days—enough to chew on for a long while, and right now the congressional hearings were gearing up in D.C. He had to be the last thing on their minds at the moment.
He shrugged, then started up and zipped onto Lake Drive, heading south along the coastline. The trees that dotted the parkland around the pond beside the curvy road were already half bare. He chafed at the thought of another case, on top of the half dozen he and DiSanto still had pending. It was just that kind of fall season, he mused, with people losing their cool after having lost their money or their house, or their family. Tended to make people a little crazy, as did the weather, which had been gray and drizzly or downright cold for three weeks already.
Lupo knew, because the Creature within also wanted out. The depression that had set in to harass his human side had begun to affect the Creature, too. Bleed-through had started to increase a year ago, and Lupo wondered if it was an age thing.
The shitty fact of it was that he didn’t know, and he couldn’t ask, because all the other shapeshifters he had met so far he’d had to kill. There was no asking for fatherly advice in his world. He hadn’t even realized there were others like him until they showed up and started killing people he cared about and trying their damndest to kill him, too.
He checked again the address they’d texted him as he passed under the U.S. Bank building, Wisconsin’s tallest skyscraper at a conservative 601 feet, and headed for Water Street, which would take him into the heart of the Third Ward a few blocks south.
He had ambivalent memories of the Third Ward, since his friend Corinne had been involved with a porn outfit that had set up shop in a loft in one of the renovated warehouses there. She’d been murdered by Martin Stewart and a long nightmare had begun to unfold, the only positive aspect of which was his new and sudden relationship with Jessie Hawkins, whom he’d known for years but hadn’t realized he had fallen in love with until they were both targeted by the serial killer.
First she’d been his landlord Up North, where he went a few days a month to distance himself from people he might hurt when the moon turned full. They had certainly been friends for years, since she’d first taken over her family’s properties near Eagle River. In that time she had begun her practice inside the reservation, tied to it and its people because they were her own people, too. Jessie Hawkins came from a mixed marriage, her father having been a prominent physician and surgeon and part-time coroner, and she’d followed his footsteps in all the best ways. But neither Jessie nor Lupo had realized their attraction until the killer Martin Stewart began targeting everyone Lupo knew, including Jessie.
Now Lupo was hip to the fact that she was beautiful, a sort of earthier version of a famous model, as he had been told. Her flaming, highlighted chestnut hair either left to bounce off her shoulders in a controlled blaze or harnessed in a ponytail still made him want to comb it with his fingers. Her dark eyes were limpid, light-reflecting pools set above a long, straight but slightly upturned nose and a generous, smile-ready but sensuous mouth.
She had moved in with him recently, after he had brought them more trouble by kicking the sleeping wolf that was Wolfpaw Security Services.
Just thinking of them and what they had done—and almost managed to do—to everyone he cared about brought a rage so severe he worried about his own self-control. He shook his head.
“You’re right to worry,” Ghost Sam said, speaking from the passenger seat. He was translucent.
Lupo was used to the sudden appearances. “Damn right. But I almost took care of it, didn’t I?”
“If running away is taking care of it, then yes, you almost did.” Ghost Sam had a way of speaking sarcastically that made Don Rickles look like a comedian for children.
Damn it, Sam, I miss you.
“I know. I miss those Bloody Marys we used to have Up North,” the apparition said wistfully. “I miss the better Bond movies…Daniel Craig’s good, but they’ve sacrificed character for non-stop action.”
“It’s a reboot,” Lupo pointed out.
The passenger seat was empty again.
Shit, talking to myself again.
Except he always felt slightly better afterwards.
He was almost there.
* * *