Cara pressed down harder on the accelerator as she replayed the phone message in her mind. I hope you can make it here before I’m gone. The old man’s voice had sounded shaky and out of breath, which worried her. He’d always been such a tough old bird. She flipped the switch to turn on her cherries, but not the siren, and watched the lone vehicle in front of her on the highway dutifully pull into the emergency lane and slow to let the sheriff’s truck pass.
Sheriff. She still hadn’t gotten used to the title—even if it was only temporary, until Carl recovered from his stroke.
The sun was low on the horizon, making the clouds bleed with fiery intensity over the towering live oak trees lining the highway. By the time she reached Ten Bears’s tiny hut, it would be full dark. She hated climbing that steep path to his house at night, and the sky smelled of rain—the bad kind. Nothing like a flash flood to spur a girl on.
A flickering light far ahead on the left caught her eye just before she spotted the red stain, and a limp furred body sporting a massive rack of antlers in the opposite lane. She hit the sirens, because headlights shouldn’t be looking out from the middle of a field, and bobbing up and down.
Picking up her radio she hit the button as the car behind her disappeared into the distance. "Dispatch, T-2 . . . um . . . I mean, T-1, southbound on 377, at mile marker . . . aw, hell, someone snapped it off . . . let’s say about fourteen miles out of town, rolling code. We’ve got a 10-50, deer flip with possible injuries."
Maggie’s voice was calm and professional. "Dispatching an ambulance now, Sheriff, and calling for backup. I just saw Dave’s trooper car pull in to the Branding Iron. Want me to notify THP and wait for them to reach him, or should I just call the restaurant? You know how bad the radio reception is before a storm. I’m probably going to lose you in a minute."
"Copy that. Call the restaurant. Good catch. I’ll secure the scene and set some flares. It’s almost dark and on a blind curve. Oh, and see if y’all can dig up a number for Sam Kerchee and call him. Apparently, he finally broke down and bought a cell phone. If he needs medical assistance, get T-6 over there, stat. If not, then tell him I’ll be late for our meeting. T-1 out."
She parked well off the road, leaving on her lightbar to warn other drivers, then sprinted across the highway and down the embankment—sniffing carefully as she stepped through the knee-deep grass and weeds for the distinctive dusty scent of any of the variety of rattlers that lived in the region. It was hard to smell anything over the deer musk and blood that hovered in the still air, but she fought past her hunger caused by the rising moon. Tonight she had to be a cop first, a werewolf second. Company would be arriving soon and she couldn’t afford to get distracted.
"Hello? ¿Hola? Can anyone hear me?" Cara couldn’t see any bodies in or around the vehicle as she walked toward it and couldn’t decide whether that was good or bad. But then the sound of shallow, ragged breathing and a small whimper made her turn her flashlight away from the black SUV to the nearby brush. There, nearly hidden in the mesquite and cactus was the pale, red-stained arm of a child who must have been thrown from the vehicle. In seconds, Cara was by her side, checking her for injuries.
Still clutching a soiled pink Care Bear in one hand, the girl, who appeared to be about seven, opened her eyes slightly and tried to focus. "Mommy?"
She touched the girl’s blonde hair lightly and moved the flashlight around, looking for broken bones or deep cuts. Other than a variety of scratches and embedded cactus spines, she seemed remarkably healthy. "No, honey. My name’s Cara, and I’m a dep . . . the sheriff. Y’all had a little accident. Were you driving with your mommy? Was there anyone else in the car with you? What’s your name?"
She nodded and tears welled as she finally noticed the uniform and badge. "Brittany Foster, ma’am. Me and Mommy are going to Grammy’s house." The light twang in her voice had a regional flavor which said she lived somewhere nearby. Her little chin started to quiver. "Where’s Mommy? My leg hurts." The thick, wet scent of her fear was giving way to ammonia panic. Not good.
Cara kept her movements light and calm and took a quick sniff of the leg. Then she scanned the ground for any evidence of fire ant mounds or other wildlife that might have bitten the girl the girl before replying. "You just got some cactus spines in your leg, Brittany. You’ve had that happen before, haven’t you? I’ve got some tweezers in the car and we can fix you right up. Y’all just stay right here, don’t move, and I’ll go get your mommy. Okay? You keep—what’s your teddy’s name?"
A sniffle and a nod said Brittany understood. "Mr. Bear. He falls in the cactus a lot, but he never cries when Mommy pulls the stickers out."
Pulling a small penlight from her utility belt, she turned it on and handed it to the girl. "Well, Mr. Bear is very brave, ‘cause I know those spines can hurt. Now, you stay right here in the light and make sure Mr. Bear doesn’t get scared while I go get your mommy. I want you to listen for sirens for me, okay? They’re going to come and put your car back on the road so y’all can get to your Grammy’s house."
Brittany nodded and started to play with the flashlight, turning it toward her surroundings. Cara hated leaving the girl alone, but she had to find the mother. The SUV had finally stopped rocking on its roof. She played the bright beam of the flashlight around the wrecked vehicle, searching for the driver. The pungent odor of dripping antifreeze and gasoline made it impossible for her to smell the woman. "Ms. Foster? Can you hear me? Please answer if you can hear me."
No sound, other than punctuated hisses from drops of hot fluid on the engine block, met her ears. One entire side of the vehicle was buried in a mass of young mesquite trees, making it difficult to see. She crawled down on her belly under the branches and played the light around—
There she was!
Cara shook her head slightly in the small space. Also thrown from the vehicle when it flew off the road, the car must have flipped and landed right on the woman . . . well, actually not much more than a teenager, and a mirror image of the girl. She was alive, but unconscious and bleeding badly from a cut to her forehead. And . . . the roof of the vehicle was resting right on her pelvis and legs. "Motherf—"
A tentative voice from the darkness made her cut off what she was going to say. "Mother? Cara? Did you find Mommy?"
She wiggled backwards, ignoring the multitude of mesquite spines that ripped at her hair and shirt, thinking desperately. "I sure did, Brittany. But she’s sort of stuck, so I have to help her out of the car. You just stay right there, ‘kay? Don’t come over here, because there’s antifreeze all over the ground. It’ll make you sick." If she acted quickly, there was a chance not only to save the woman’s life, but ensure she didn’t wind up in a wheelchair for the rest of her life.
She’d never tried to use her Sazi magic to lift an entire car. She was barely alpha enough to lead her pack and hold the members in an emergency. Still, it would only have to be for a few moments until she could drag the woman out from underneath.
Or . . . hmm, maybe the reverse would work better.
She walked around to the back of the vehicle and inspected the terrain with the flashlight. Yes, that could work. If she braced her back against the massive live oak butting up nearly to the rear bumper, she could lift the entire car and then use her magic to move the woman.
But there would be a witness. There was no way she could pull this off without the girl seeing, and humans didn’t know the Sazi existed.
To protect and serve.
Cara played the light over the woman’s still, barely breathing form. There was no escaping her duty. She had to risk it. "Brittany, honey. I need you to turn off the flashlight for a minute, ‘cause it’s making it hard for me to see. Can you do that for me?"
There was a long pause and she knew the girl was getting scared again. Her voice was barely audible and trembling a little, obviously wondering what was happening and why her mommy wasn’t talking. "Okay." The light went out and she breathed a sigh.
"Now, this door is going to be really hard to get open and it’s gonna make a lot of noise. But you need to trust me. Just ignore what I’m doing and you keep listening for the sirens. Tell me if you hear them, and I’ll have your mommy out in just a second."
The girl’s voice was getting panicked again, rising and falling with a sing-song, breathy quality. "Cara? Mr. Bear is scared of the dark."
She was going to have to make this quick, or the girl would come over looking for her mom and there was no way she was going to let her see her trapped by the car. "Um, do you know any songs, Brittany? Sometimes singing in the dark helps . . . bears that are scared. Do you know the song about the spider climbing the water spout?" Cara braced her back against the trunk of the old oak and spread her arms wide to grab both sides of the car, digging in her fingers with enough supernatural strength to bend the metal slightly. She had to keep hold of the frame. She couldn’t afford for the bumper to shear away and drop the vehicle back on the woman. With a barely audible grunt, she dug in her heels and began to lift.
"Uh-huh. Grammy has a CD with lots of songs. I know all of them."
Forcing her voice to remain calm was the hardest thing she’d ever done as the vehicle began to move. "Okay, then why don’t you sing it for me? I don’t remember the words too well. But I’ll join in and then your Mommy can too."
The girl’s pure, clear soprano filled the night. "Eensie weensie spider, climbed up the—"
Cara forced her mind away from the song to concentrate on keeping the vehicle level. It was trying to fall forward to its heaviest point—the engine. But she couldn’t let that happen. She forced her elbows to lock so the roof wouldn’t shift or fall over onto the woman’s chest. She felt her muscles ache and then begin to burn as she lifted the entire vehicle a fraction of an inch.
"—washed the spider out! Out came— c’mon Cara. You said you’d sing with me."
Sweat rolled down her forehead and she panted out a few words. "Finish it once for me first. ‘Kay?"
"Oh, okay." The sullen tone in her voice vanished when she started over from the beginning.
Inch by inch the SUV rose from the ground as her heels dug in deeper. The oak bark cracked, and sharp branches splintered under the force, cutting through her shirt and wedging into her back. Now her neck muscles were starting to spasm and she wanted to scream from the exertion. When she thought it was high enough, she pressed outward with her magic, searching for the woman with senses she couldn’t explain. Power swelled and flowed, a subtle wind that touched every surface—caressed the blades of grass, each flower and leaf until . . . she touched a leg. She knew it was a leg, but even after years of training, she still couldn’t explain how she could sense a body from among the surrounding rocks and branches.
She let the woman fill her mind until every nuance of her body was memorized. The world disappeared as she surrounded the woman with magic, felt the almost sensual tingle as she became one with another living, breathing being. She grieved at the damage to the woman’s legs and went an extra step—one she hadn’t planned, and mended the fractures, attached torn ligaments and let blood flow again through undamaged veins.
Then, as she felt her arms failing and her legs buckling, she lifted the woman’s form—pulled it from beneath the twisted metal and floated her a few feet, to safety.
Seconds later, gravity won the battle and the vehicle slipped from her hands, crashing down to the ground loud enough to make Brittany scream, turn on the little flashlight and start to run crookedly toward the tree. "Mommy! Cara! Is Mommy okay?"
Cara took a moment to catch her breath before hurrying toward the girl and stopping her from limping around the back of the SUV. "Your Mommy will be okay now. But she’s hurt, so I don’t want you to see her until I wake her up. But I promise you she’ll be fine. Now, you take my big flashlight and give me the little one." She removed the penlight from the girl’s hand and gave her the large flashlight. With four D cells, it was heavy enough to force the girl to concentrate to keep it steady.
Tears were flowing freely down the girl’s scratched, dirtied face, and she looked up into Cara’s face with desperation. "Mommy’s okay, isn’t she? Daddy got hurt once and he never came home. I don’t want Mommy not to come home!"
Cara heard a car door slam from behind her squad car, although she hadn’t seen headlights or heard it arrive.
A pleasant baritone spoke from the darkness. "Your mommy is going to be fine." The girl pointed the flashlight up and smiled when she saw a man wearing a Texas Ranger white hat and uniform walking toward them. She didn’t ask a single question, but just ran over and hugged his leg and walked away to sit down on the ground, telling Mr. Bear that everything would be fine now.
Cara lowered her voice to the lightest whisper and shook her head in amazement. "Y’know, Ranger Kerchee, that’s just weird how you do that magical persuasion thing. I didn’t even see you drive up, and I’m supposed to be the Alpha around here."
He smiled brilliantly, softening his Comanche born Roman nose and high cheekbones. "Yeah, you’re the Alpha, but I’m a Wolven agent. We’re supposed to be able to sneak up on other Sazi. And if you’d stuck with the program instead of running off to the police academy, maybe you could do that persuasion thing too."
"People here would say you’re a brujo, you know, for the way you can make people see things that aren’t there. A witch."
The humor dropped away from his face. He glared at her and crossed arms over his chest. The white hat couldn’t hide the darkness—the death—in that gaze. "And people would say you’re She-Hulk." Cara flushed and glanced at Brittany, only to find that she was frozen in place, mouth open as though to speak, unseeing of everything around her. Damn, he was good!
His voice hissed into the darkness. "What in hell did you think you were doing, Alpha Salinas? I could have your life for the way you’ve fucked up this accident scene. You think nobody’s going to notice there are marks on the ground and on the roof that match up with that woman’s legs, or see your torn shirt and bark in your hair? You think your colleagues are stupid? Think they won’t ask questions—investigate? Maybe even question the girl or find your fingerprints . . . or finger dents on the SUV?"
Cara absently ran her fingers over the normally tight bun at the back of her neck to discover it was disheveled and did indeed have bits of bark littering it. She had no excuse, and she knew it. He was right. She’d overstepped her bounds—risked her entire pack, their entire kind in fact, with exposure. The Wolven agent had the right, and the authority, to take her life on the spot. It was their way. All she could manage was an embarrassed shrug and a whispered, "She would have been a cripple, Will."
"And you think she didn’t deserve that fate? She risked her own life, and her child’s, by not wearing seat belts. Have you measured the skid marks in front of that eight-pointer yet? She was doing at least ten over the limit. What gave you the right to change the future she brought on herself?"
She looked up then, met his eyes—accepted whatever fate he would give, and told him the reason, the one truth in her life. "To protect and serve."
He emitted a sound that shouldn’t be produced by a human throat: the angry, frustrated cry of an eagle denied a dinner. He stalked away, leaving her unable to breathe for a moment. Was he really going to let it go? Would she live to see morning?
He grabbed the buck by the antlers with one hand and pulled the heavy animal to the side of the road as easily as if it was empty skin. As sirens began to fill the air, he turned to her with his face set in cold stone. "Keep your mouth shut and don’t make any excuses or statements about anything. I’ll fix anything strange after the reports are filed. But the three of us will be discussing this tomorrow at lunch. Plan on it being a long lunch."
The three of us? She opened her mouth to ask, but he suddenly wasn’t there. He was just . . . gone. But then she heard a sound overhead and realized he’d turned to animal form and flown into the darkness, and Brittany was again quietly singing to Mr. Bear. When she looked behind her squad car, there was no sign of another vehicle.
Damn, he’s good.
Banner Photograph copyrighted to Timothy Klein and used with permission.