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Shades of Night



     The train rattled as it trundled down the aging track.  The old diesel engine was laboring to haul the passenger and freight cars up the steep grades of the Blue Ridge Mountains, moving just faster than a person could walk at times.  Coming down the opposite slopes was harrowing as the train labored instead to hold back the onrush of gravity and keep the train from plummeting into the deep ravines and valleys on either side of the track.  For the passengers, most of whom had taken this passage before, it was a matter of routine.  The threat of imminent disaster looming over them had lost its macabre hold long ago.  The people experiencing it for the first time, only the thought of reaching their destination intact and their intrinsic loyalty in the technology of man kept them from becoming too afraid.  The girl calling herself Red stared out the window, content to watch the scenery pass, not caring to think about where she was going or where she was coming from.

     Mrs. Prunell, the social worker assigned to escort Red to her new home, snored softly in the next seat.  More than once, Red had considered trying to run away while the woman was inattentive.  She wondered how long it would be before she was missed.  The social worker had fallen asleep just outside of Asheville, but by then a strange calm had settled over the girl.  Traveling up through the Piedmont from Spartanburg, Red had been agitated, consumed with feelings of dread and anxiety.  The first mountain she had seen, a purplish smear against the horizon, brought with it a soothing calm.  The feeling grew, or rather it settled in deeper, with every slope they climbed.  It was as if the spires of stone could lift her above the worries that plagued her, and it felt as though the surrounding forests and hills embraced her with welcoming arms.

     It had been an hour since they had passed the last depot, and she guessed they would be arriving at her stop soon.  She had no idea what to expect once she got to Dillsboro.  When her mother was alive she had told Red very little about Sally Riding, Red’s grandmother.  The social workers were no better, treating her like baggage instead of a person, giving her orders but little information.  Red had never known anyone in her family, had barely known her own mother.  She had been eleven when the woman went into the asylum for the last time, never to emerge.  That was two long years ago.  At thirteen, Red was too old to adopt, too young to be on her own.  She told herself she was lucky the workers had managed to locate her grandmother, although from what she had overheard, the woman was none too pleased to hear from them.

     Red looked up sharply as a man slid into the seat across from her.  There were a lot of empty seats on the train, so he could have sat somewhere else.  He smiled warmly at her, a warmth that penetrated, and despite her caution she could not help smiling in return.  He pretended to watch the scenery for awhile, but she could tell his attention was really on her.  In turn, Red pretended to ignore him as she covertly studied him.  He had the kind of looks most men desired for themselves, the kind they thought women wanted.  His brown hair was combed back, not a strand out of place, and his cream colored suit was just as immaculate.  His clean-shaven face was darkly tanned, like a movie star.  He was stout without appearing too large, projecting massive strength barely concealed.  His movements were fluid, as though long-practiced, yet he looked younger than middle age.  His hands were wide with long fingers tapering into pink, slightly pointed fingernails. And his eyes…

     He turned to face her, bringing them eye-to-eye, and Red found herself staring into a great depth of grayness.  “Hi,” he said, as though noticing her for the first time.

     “Hello,” she replied quickly.  He put a friendly hand out and she cautiously clasped it, unwilling to let him know how apprehensive she suddenly felt.  His hand was surprisingly warm.  She felt a tingle form in the palm of her hand and pulled away, startled.  His smile was as warm as his touch, seeming to covey comfort and understanding all at once.

     “My name’s Tobias,” he said.  “What’s yours?”

     “Ruth,” she replied.  “Ruth Marie Hood.  But everyone calls me Red.”

     Tobias chuckled.  “I bet I can guess why,” he said as his eyes darted to her hair.  She reached up self-consciously to brush auburn strands off her shoulders.  She had the only red hair in her family, according to her mother, and it had turned a much deeper shade when Red had reached puberty.  Now it was almost the color of dried blood.  “I bet you don’t like your hair,” Tobias said.  “I think it’s pretty.”

     Red frowned at him then cast a glance at the other passengers.  Apparently, Tobias was unaware of the girl’s discomfort.  Mrs. Prunell continued to snore beside her, and there were plenty of people within sound of her voice if she needed to call for help.  If Tobias were a pervert, she decided, then he would be a fool to try anything here.  She turned back to him, folding her hands in her lap, feeling her confidence returning.

     He was watching her face, studying her.  “How old are you?” he asked.

     “Thirteen,” she said calmly.  She brought her arms up and folded them across her chest to hide the fact that she was so underdeveloped there.  She blurted, “I’m too young for you.”

     He laughed.  “Believe me, girl,” he said, “I feel the same way.  Besides, you’re not wild enough for me.  Not yet.”

     Red narrowed her eyes, not yet comforted.  “Why aren’t you in the army?” she said, saying the first thing she could think of.

     “Not everyone gets drafted.”

     “You could have volunteered,” she said, feeling naïve for saying so.  “There is a war on, you know.”

     He grinned without humor.  “I know,” he said.  “I’m too old anyway.”

     She thought about it, and then decided not to ask how old he was.  It seemed too much like flirting.  “I’m on my way to my grandmother’s house,” she offered.  “I have to go live with her.”

     His eyes flicked knowingly to the social worker.  “Oh?  Why’s that?”

     “She’s not my mom,” Red jerked a thumb at the sleeping woman.  “Just my guard.”

     “Who’s your grandmother?” he asked next.  “Maybe I know her.”

     “You know everyone in the mountains, I suppose.”

     He shrugged.  “I know a lot of people,” he said.

     “Sally Riding,” Red told him.  “She’s an artist or something.”

     “Or something?  You don’t know?”

     “I’ve never met her.”

     “I think I have heard of her,” he said after a moment’s reflection.  “She’s not an artist, though.  At least not lately.  Got a name for herself in her youth painting wolves.”

     Red raised an eyebrow.  “That’s a weird thing to be painting.”

     “Why do you say that?”

     “There aren’t any wolves here,” she said.  Then, “Are there?”

     He laughed again, a quick barking sound that unnerved her.  “You’d be surprised,” he told her.  The train lurched.  People grabbed for supports as the train began to slow, the cars swaying even more than before on their ancient bearings.  Red felt no need to grab for anything as her body compensated for the abrupt movement on its own.  She noticed the same was true for Tobias, and for some reason that annoyed her.  Outside her window she could see the buildings of a small town passing by.  A factory of some kind rolled past, then a long line of pines behind which could just be seen the outlines of houses.  The train was slowing steadily and ground slowly to a halt as they pulled alongside a long concrete platform, gray with age.  There were no signs indicating what stop this was.  When she turned to ask Tobias about it, he was gone, and Mrs. Prunell was awake.

     “Ah!” she said, looking past Red at the town outside.  “Finally.  Come on, missy.  This is your stop.”

     “How do you know?” Red asked.  “I don’t see a name anywhere.  Maybe it’s farther down.  You’ve been asleep a long time, you know.”

     Mrs. Prunell stared at her icily.  “My dear,” she said, “I’ve been quite aware of everything.  I’m a very light sleeper you know.  Besides, the name is right there on the station.”  The woman pointed out a window on the other side of the train to where a small whitewashed building, abandoned for some time, bore a faded sign. 

     “Dillsboro,” the girl read aloud.  The new station had been built beside the concrete platform and had no sign.  The rest of the small mountain town spread out in a thin line parallel to the station before twisting away into the encroaching forest.

    “Enough gawking,” Prunell said, grabbing Red by her wrist.  “The train won’t stop for long and I’m ready to be rid of you.”  She began to drag Red down the aisle.  Red decided not to resist and trotted along behind obediently.

     Not many people were getting off here.  As Red detrained, helped by a smiling conductor, she saw there was no one was waiting on the platform.  A few people lugging small suitcases ambled off into the station.  The engineer hopped out of the locomotive and hurried through a door marked as the public restroom.  A single railroad worker, an elderly man in a black vest and a conductor’s cap, ambled past, smiling and dipping his hat at them.  Red nodded and smiled in return.  Mrs. Prunell, it seemed, had as little patience for railroad workers as she did children.

     “You there,” she snapped, thrusting out Red’s ticket.  “The girl has bags on board.  See that they’re unloaded.”

     “Yes, ma’am,” the man said without loosing a bit of his smile.  Red thought that was amusing.  There was so little amusement in her life anymore.  She had learned to cherish the little things.  Five minutes later, still smiling, the worker deposited Red’s two small bags on the platform beside her.  Prunell did not even look his way.

     “Thank you,” Red told him.  She smiled as she held her empty hands out plaintively.  “I’m sorry, but I don’t have a tip.”

     The man laughed.  “Sure you do, honey,” he said.  “You just gave it to me.”  He reached out and touched her chin lightly, chuckling to himself, and Red felt her smile become genuine.  The old man’s gray eyes twinkled as he turned away, and he began to whistle tunelessly as he sauntered away.  Red watched him head toward the corner of the station.  A gentle breeze wafted against her back, ruffling her dress and scattering her hair.  It was cool and smelled moist.  She felt suddenly, indescribably comfortable.  For the first time since leaving the city, she felt at ease.

     “Where is he?” Prunell growled, staring at the closed doors of the station.  She checked her watch for what must have been the tenth time.  The engineer came out of the toilet and began chatting with the smiling platform attendant.  The train conductor ambled over a moment later to join in.  The trio cast frequent glances toward Red and her anxious chaperone.  It seemed no one here was in a hurry to do anything.  Red could empathize.  Like the railroad, her life was on a track to nowhere, and she was in no hurry at all to get there.  It was enough to soak up the sunshine and make the most of each moment.  The air was crisp and clean, the sky overhead devoid of clouds and painted a wonderful shade of the deepest blue.  “It’s a beautiful day,” she commented.

     “Yah, yah,” Prunell muttered bitterly.  “There he is.  Finally.”  She pointed then at a man who had just emerged from the station before starting toward him.

     The man was smiling at them.  Good humor was ubiquitous here, Red supposed.  Prunell intercepted him, shoving a string-bound envelope into his hands.  The roar of the diesel drowned the words she said to him.  He nodded at the woman so evidently he could hear.  Red glanced toward the corner of the station.  The trio was gone and the locomotive was revving up for departure.  Prunell spun on her heels and dashed for the train, not deigning to give Red so much as a farewell glare.  The train was in motion seconds later.  Red stared after it, but she could summon no emotion either good or bad about the social worker or the kind of life which was leaving her behind.

     The man’s approach was masked by the noise of the train’s clamorous motion.  Red jumped as she discovered him next to her.  “You must be Ruth,” he said, still smiling.  At close range Red could see he was wearing some sort of a uniform.  Denim pants, black patent leather boots, a fleece-collared brown jacket over a khaki shirt tucked neatly into his pants, and a metal badge affixed to the lapel.  It was, Red reflected, just the sort of look she should have expected from a mountain policeman.  “My name’s Jack.  Jack Donaldson.  I’m the Sheriff.”

     “Pleased to meet you,” Red said politely as she extended her hand.  He took it, clasped it lightly, and released her.  His touch was cool and uninspiring.

     “You can call me Jack,” he told her.  “Most people do.  You ready to go see your grandma?”  His eyes sparkled, but his teeth were dull, and the face set beneath a shock of salt and pepper hair was lined and weathered.

     She shrugged.  “I suppose so,” was her answer.

     “I think that’s the way your grandma feels about it too,” he said.  “Don’t worry.  It’ll all work out.”  He moved to pick up her bags.  Red wanted to laugh at his back.  He was such a stereotype and he was totally unaware of it.  She had no confidence in his attempt at reassurance.

     “Why isn’t she here?” she asked, following him toward the station.  “Is she some kind of hillbilly who can’t drive?”

     Jack ignored the barb.  “I suppose she could drive if she had a car,” he told her.  “I called her when the news came in about you.  Told her I’d bring you when you came in.”

     “You moonlight as a cabbie?  Guess they don’t pay cops enough around here, eh?”

     He pushed the door open with his foot and waited for her to enter first.  The interior was as drab and bare as she should have anticipated.  The ticket window looked like it had been unused for years and the train schedules posted on the wall were out of date.  It was like stepping through a time machine.  Almost.  Jack held the next door open for her as well and they stepped out onto a wide sidewalk running along a deserted street.

     He pointed to a bench set against the station wall.  “Sit there,” he told her.  She did, and the bags landed at her feet.  “To answer your question,” he said, “I get paid just fine.  And I’m not just a cop, I’m the Sheriff.  I don’t know what your story is, but I’m guessing you’ve had a hard life up to now.  You should really try not to take it out on everyone you meet.”

     Red felt herself blush.  She was loosing her composure and hating it.  “Sorry,” she mumbled.  Jack was instantly all smiles again.

     “It’s fine,” he said amiably.  “I’m going to go fetch the car.  You wait here, okay?”  She nodded sulkily and watched as walked away.  He did not look back, not even once.  She had seen a lot of people leave her the same way.  He disappeared around the corner, and she suddenly felt very much alone.

     The bench was in shadow, robbing her of warmth from the sun.  She shivered.  The town was very quiet, lacking the bustle and noise of the cities she had known all her life.  Kate, her mother, had moved them frequently, always on the run from the ghosts of her memories.  There had never been a place that Red could comfortably call home.  But if anyplace held more potential to claim that title than these mountains, she had never been there.

     Warmth touched her skin from someplace behind her, just preceding a familiar voice.  “We meet again,” she heard, and turned.

     “Tobias,” she said, recognizing the tan man from the train.  “I didn’t see you get off the train.”

     “The train has two sides,” he said.  He hovered at the edge of the bench, half in shadow.  Red was forced to look up at him.  She smoothed out her dress and held her legs together tightly, not wishing to give him anything to ogle.  Actually, she was surprised to realize that she hoped he would ogle her, but he was looking into her eyes instead of at her chest.  “Do you need a ride to your grandma’s house?” he asked.

     “No, but thank you,” she said.  “The Sheriff is giving me a lift.”

     Tobias looked toward the corner Jack had disappeared around.  “Really?” he said sardonically.  “Interesting.”  He turned his warming smile on her again.  “At least you’ll be safe,” he told her. 

     “Where are you headed?” she asked, then mentally kicked herself for asking.  Don’t flirt, she admonished herself.

     “I have some business to attend to,” he told her.  His smile broadened.  “Maybe I’ll see you again?”

     She shrugged.  She wanted to find his interest in her unwholesome, but found she could not really form an opinion about it.  “Who knows?” she replied.  “You said you know my grandma.  Maybe she’ll invite you over.”

     He laughed heartily.  “Stranger things have happened,” he told her.  “In any event, it was good meeting you.”  He extended his hand again.  She took it without hesitation, her small hand being swallowed by his massive paw.  His skin was hot, almost feverish, a heat that jumped the gap between them and fanned the flame of her youthful exuberance.

     It was as if her senses were suddenly awoken from a long slumber.  The mountain air had a flavor she could taste, and it carried a dozen new and exciting odors.  She could hear the purr of a motor approaching, the flapping wings of a passing bird, the fast beating of two hearts.  It felt as though, for the first time, she had come truly alive, and the world was suddenly brighter and more beautiful than anything she had ever imagined.

     Then Tobias took his hand away, and the intensity of the experience dwindled.  “Be careful,” he told her ambiguously.  He strode away just as a police cruiser turned the corner and headed her way.  It was an older model car with two large emergency lights mounted on the roof and a bullhorn of a siren between, painted in traditional black and white.  She could see Jack behind the wheel.

     She turned to look after Tobias, thinking she needed to tell him something else, though she could think of nothing to say.  The street was empty.  The car stopped at the curb.  She barely noticed Jack getting out, paid less attention to her luggage being loaded into the backseat.  He held the passenger door open for her, and she climbed in wordlessly. 

     Jack slid in behind the wheel, smiled at her, and then they were on their way.  She stared moodily out the window as the car made its way out of the little town and into the hills.  Something was stirring inside her.  She hungered for the freedom of the ranging hills.  The greens of the forest called to her with a dark voice, an echo of some ancient melody buried in her heart and now floating to the surface of her soul.  The sensation only grew stronger as the altitude increased.  Obviously it was not something Jack shared.  He cast curious glances her way, letting his eyes slide over her body, lingering on her exposed legs, but never once seemed to share the elation that was filling her with restless energy.

     She smiled to herself, thinking herself foolish.  Did not all teenagers want to believe they were somehow different from everyone else?  It was strange to so desperately want a unique identity of one’s own while still desiring to meld with the rest of humanity. 

     The car bounced a bit on the mountain roads.  Jack made light banter, telling her what was, to him, interesting tidbits about the town and the surrounding country.  Red only half listened.  She marveled at the lushness of the forest, at the greenness of the trees.  The clean mountain air felt wonderful on her skin as it blew in through her open window.  The day was bright and beautiful, and she felt strangely at one with the universe.

     “You don’t talk much,” Jack said to her after awhile of listening to his own voice.

     “Huh?” she said, turning to him.  “Sorry.  It’s just I’ve never been to the mountains before.  I didn’t expect it to be so beautiful.”

     “Yeah, it sure is,” he said.  He cast another leering glance at her.  His attention was starting to feel uncomfortable.  The car rounded a crest and came upon a spectacular view.  The ground fell away in gentle folds, the trees below them topped with wisps of mist.  Mountains surged up around the deep, narrow valley like mighty giants basking beneath the sun.  A few lonely clouds wandered through an otherwise empty sky, their shadows sailing like majestic schooners across a green sea.  She could not help but gasp.

     “Yeah,” Jack said, slowing the car.   “It still gets to me.  And I was born here.  You know, the mountains are a primitive place even today.  There are so many places no one has ever seen.  You forget there’s so much geography here because so much of it’s vertical.”

     Red stared out her window with renewed fascination.  It was like a fairyland, a verdant forest concealing hidden realms of wonder and enchantment.  “How long have people lived in this area?” she asked.

     “A long time,” Jack said, sounding happy to have her interest piqued at last.  “There were Cherokee here before settlers moved in.  There’s this cavern over in Linville I heard about where Confederate soldiers hid out during the end of the war.  A big cave, goes way back in the mountain.  But nobody knew about it until they came out and told folks where they’d been.  See, even people who really know the hills don’t know it all.”

     They came around a curve, still cruising slowly.  Jack cursed and hit the brakes suddenly, pitching Red against the dash.  “Sorry,” he muttered as the car came to a halt in front of a man standing in the road.  Jack leaned out his window.  “Hey, buddy,” he yelled.  “What are you trying to do?  Get yourself killed?”

     Red stared through the windshield at the man who had seemingly come out of nowhere.  At first glance, he looked like a mobster, the kind she had seen on television.  He wore a black three-piece suit, legs slightly apart, a hand on one hip pushing the coat back to reveal a small shiny badge pinned to his vest.  His other hand held a machine gun, finger on the trigger, lying casually over his shoulder.  He stood like a mute statue, blocking the way.

     Behind him, Red saw more black-suited men.  There were two black sedans parked on the side of the road.   A sleek beige sportster lay halfway over the other side of the road with several men apparently guarding it.  The man in front of the police cruiser looked over his shoulder as if someone had called him.  “Who are they?” Red asked, staring at the scene in wonder.

     “Don’t know,” Jack replied.  “They look like feds.”  He was about to say more when the man in front of them stepped aside and waved them past.  They went only a few feet before being stopped again.  One of the feds approached Jack’s window as the others studiously ignored them.

     “Good afternoon, officer,” the man said.  He bent down to look inside the car.  “Sorry to inconvenience you.  Just a little government matter.”

     “I’m Sheriff Donaldson.  Who are you?” Jack demanded.  “And tell me what you fellas are doing here without checking in with me first.”

     “Sir, we’re with the government,” the fed said.  “The whole country’s our jurisdiction.”

     Jack opened his door and started to climb out.  The man grabbed the door, keeping it closed.  Jack glared at him.  “Son,” he said, “you’d best take your hand off my squad car.”

     “Please stay in the vehicle, sir,” the fed told him.  “This is a matter of national security and not a local matter.”

     Jack glared at the man.  “I won’t ask you again,” he said.  He pushed on the door.  The man pushed back.  Jack grabbed at the revolver on his hip.  Instantly the man jumped back, drawing a sleek looking automatic from a holster beneath his coat.

     “Jenson!” a gruff voice roared.  A large man appeared, tromping toward the police car.  “What’s going on here?”

     Jack used the distraction to make his exit.  “That’s what I want to know,” he declared.  “You fellas got some I.D.?”

     The large man glared at Jack for a moment.  “Certainly,” he said, his voice losing none of its gruff edge.  “Jenson, put away that firearm.  Officer, why don’t we step over here and I’ll fill you in on a few details.”  Red caught the meaningful look the fed shot her.  Jack, evidently feeling that his authority was finally being respected, nodded in agreement and allowed himself to be led away.

     Red slumped in her seat.  Always on the outside looking in, she thought.  “Don’t let it get to you,” a woman’s voice came to her ears.  Red turned, startled.  Her window was in line with the rear of one of the sedans.  It was open, and a woman’s smiling face appeared.  “They’re men,” she told the girl.  “It’s their nature to be secretive.  I’m Shannette.”

     “Ruth,” Red replied.

     “Pleased to meet you Ruth,” Shannette replied.  She did not offer her hand, to Red’s relief.  It seemed that every fresh human contact made her flush with strange emotions.  She was tired of it.  “You under arrest?” Shannette asked.

     “No,” Red answered.  “Jack’s taking me to my grandmother’s house.  The Sheriff I mean.”

     Shannette craned her neck to look down the road.  “Your grandmother wouldn’t be Sally Riding, would it?”

     Red pulled back in surprise.  “How’d you know?” she asked.  Shannette laughed gently.  It was an endearing sound, like the chuckle of a stream.  The woman’s eyes sparkled when she smiled.  They were a strange color, almost brown, nearly violet.  Just like mine, Red thought.

     “I know the mountains pretty well,” she told the girl.  “Sally’s the only woman up this mountain old enough to have a grandchild your age.”

     “I’m older than I look,” Red argued.

     Shannette tilted her head.  “Maybe,” she agreed.  “But I’d guess you were just shy of fourteen.”

     “That’s a lucky guess.”

     “It’s not a guess,” Shannette insisted.  “It’s in your eyes.”

     “My eyes?”

     “Sure.”  The woman put a cigarette to her mouth and lit it.  She puffed on it without inhaling.  “Eyes are windows to the soul.  If you know how to look, you can see inside, right down the well of their soul to their secret fire.  Some burn brighter than others.  Some lights go out.  And some…burn with a special light.  I see that in you.”

     Red blinked.  “You don’t even know me,” she protested.

     Shannette shrugged.  “It’s just an observation,” she said.  She crossed her arms inside the window opening and leaned out a bit.  “Your friend is getting frustrated.”

     Red looked to where Jack stood, arguing with the big man.  He made wide gestures with his hands each time he spoke, but the fed stood like a rock, as solid as the mountain.  “He’s not my friend,” she said to the woman.

     “No, I suppose not,” Shannette replied.  She tossed her cigarette to the ground.

     “What are you doing with those guys?” she asked to distract herself.

     “Helping them,” the woman replied after a moment’s hesitation.  For the first time she appeared sad.  “They’re with Army Intelligence.  Officially, they’re investigating anti-war activities.”

     “Officially,” Red repeated, catching on.  “What are they really doing?”

     Shannette smiled again, but it was grim, forced.  “Looking for people.  Special people.”

     “And you know where to find them?”

     “I know where they might be hiding.  I take the feds to those places.”

     Red studied the woman’s face for a moment.  “You don’t look happy about it.”

     “Should I be?”

     “Aren’t we supposed to want to help?  You know, do our patriotic duty?”

     Shannette gave her a genuine grin.  “Do you believe that?  Really?”

     “No,” Red laughed.

     “That means you’re growing up.  That’s good.”  She leaned back into the car, into partial shadow.  “They’re finishing up.  We’ll be going soon.”

     “Why help them if you don’t want to?” Red asked, rushing the words out.  “Don’t you have a choice?”

     “We all have choices,” Shannette said.  Her voice had dropped to a near whisper.  “I chose the path I believed to have the fewest unhappy consequences.  That’s the best we can hope for, in the end.  I’m sure when the time comes for you to make your difficult choice, you might choose more wisely than me.”  She sank back into her seat, disappearing from view.

     The driver’s door swung open and Jack dropped himself onto the seat behind the wheel.  “Who do they think they are?” he snarled.  “I’m the Sheriff here.  For crap’s sake, they think they can push me around.  Well, we’ll see.  We’ll see.”  He jerked the car into gear and they leaped forward.  Red was about to call out a farewell to her new friend, then thought better of it.  She settled into her seat to brood.

     Tobias watched the police cruiser pull away from his vantage point on the mountain high above the road.  Despite the distance he could smell the blood that filled the floorboard of the little sports car.  Shannette had led the feds astray again, just as she had promised Tobias she would.  The bullet-ridden corpse in the car was human.

     They would be growing impatient.  That Shannette had her own agenda, Tobias was well aware.  The feds would realize it too, sooner or later.  She would have to give them one of her kind soon, just to remain in the game.  Either that or make her escape.  So long as she did not interfere with his plans, Tobias would let her live.

     He watched until the sedans began moving again, heading back down the mountain.  Idly, he wondered if the girl had spoken to Shannette during the stopover, and what they might have said.  It mattered little.  Red was locked into her fate now.

     He turned away and began to sprint easily up the slope.  The road had to snake its way into the heights, taking nearly half an hour to do so.  Tobias dropped to all fours, getting even more speed on his cross-country shortcut.  His arms automatically lengthened for the task.  It was not a full change, just enough alteration of form to gain an advantage.  Tan skin became coated with coarse black fur.  His hands and feet grew into something resembling paws.  He raced along game trails and washouts in his new form, crossing the winding road twice like a streak of black lightning.

     Finally, his path intersected a narrow, rutted road ending at a bald near the crest of the mountain.  He trotted to a cabin sitting near the center, all his senses alert.  It was more shack than house, the siding dark gray from weather with a few boards loose and hanging.  Smoke curled out of a crooked chimney.  Heaps of firewood were piled about, none of it neatly.  On the whole, he found it very distasteful, but he had come to believe that the humans could simply do no better.

     He stood upright as he approached the door. He took a moment to smooth out his clothes before knocking.  His feet were bare.  He had to leave his shoes behind in order to enjoy the benefit of his transformation, but that was a small matter.

     The door was jerked open.  A large woman with salt and pepper hair and wearing a flour sack dress shoved a shotgun at him.  “You’re trespassing,” she growled.  “This here’s private prop’ty.  What d’you want?”

     Tobias smiled at her warmly.  “Why, Sally,” he crooned smoothly.  “Is that any way to greet an old friend?”

     Sally Riding squinted her eyes, staring right through him.  “Sonny, I don’t know you from squat.”  She spit to emphasize her words.  “You got the look of one of them hippies.  I don’t like hippies.  You ain’t even got no shoes on.  Best turn yourself around and git.”

     “It has been awhile,” Tobias said, still smiling.  “But surely you can remember a former lover?”  They stood in mutual silence for a minute, each trying to outwait the other.  Gradually, Sally’s features softened.  She lowered the shotgun slowly.  “That’s it,” Tobias nodded.  “You remember.”

     Sally shook her head.  “I remember somebody like you,” she said.  “But that was a long time ago.  When I was young and foolish.”

     “You’re no longer young,” he pointed out.

     “I ain’t foolish, neither,” she snapped, raising the shotgun again.

     “I didn’t mean to imply that you are,” he said.  “Now, please point that gun in some other direction.  It bothers me.”

     “If you don’t start telling me who you are, it’ll do more than just bother you.”

     His smile faded a notch.  “Look me in the eye and say that,” he challenged.

     Sally leaned over the weapon, a sneer on her lips.  “I ain’t somebody you want to mess with, buddy,” she yelled.  “I…”  Her voice died as she stared into his unblinking gaze.  His eyes had been gray, she would have sworn it.  But now they were black, midnight black, like a bottomless shaft.  She had seen eyes like that before.

     “No,” she muttered, backing away.  “It can’t be.  He’d be my age now.  Older.  You’d have to be his…son…or something.”

     “If I were you,” he said, “I’d go with the ‘something.’  It’s me, Sally.  Tobias.”

     Sally shook her head violently, lowering the shotgun again until it aimed at the floor.  “No,” she protested.  “No!  I don’t believe it.”  She clutched at her neck, tugging at a leather strap under her collar and pulling out a strangely shaped amulet.  “By the goddess, I command you to obedience,” she said, voice deepening.    

     The air around the pair crackled with invisible energy.  Tobias looked up and around, his smile fading just a notch.  His gaze found its way back to Sally’s fear-widened eyes.  “It seems I’m no longer bound by your magic,” he said.

     “Impossible,” Sally said, backing away from the doorway.  The shotgun clattered against the wooden floor as it slipped from her grasp.  She closed her fist around the amulet and pointed a finger at Tobias.  She said something that sounded like a growl laced with laughter and the air again exploded with arcane power.  Tobias took a step forward.  “You know what I am, Sally.  And I’ve grown since you knew me last.  Your magic is useless.”

     “But you haven’t aged,” she complained. 

     “My kind never does,” Tobias replied, advancing.

     “Your kind,” she echoed.  “Oh, by the goddess.  You’ve done it.  You’ve crossed over.”

     “Yes,” he said.  “Yes, Sally my love.  I have surpassed the limits of my people.”  Sally turned to the wall and pulled down a ceremonial sword from its decorative place.  She thrust it at Tobias.  He ducked under it and struck her wrist.  The weapon flew from her grasp as razor sharp talons raked across her arm, rending flesh.  He grabbed her, squeezing her tightly.  “Silly woman,” he said.  “You can’t kill a god.”  Sally had time enough to scream as fangs closed about her throat.

     A short while later, the police cruiser bounced its way up the rutted lane and stopped in front of the dilapidated shack.  “Here we are,” Jack announced.  He climbed out and came around to open Red’s door.   He had been pent up and anxious ever since they had left the feds, and Red sensed he had been transformed into someone else eager to be rid of her.  She followed a few paces behind him as he approached the front door.  She was nervous about meeting her grandmother for the first time, and the appearance of the place did nothing to alleviate her dismay at having to come live with the woman.  She had no choice, really.

     Jack knocked and the door opened almost immediately.  “Hell, ma’am,” he said to the slender woman who appeared.  “My name’s Jack Donaldson.  I called you about…”

     “I know who you are, Sheriff,” the woman cut him off.  “You act like you don’t know me.”

     He hesitated a long moment.  “Sure I know you, Mrs. Riding.  I just didn’t know you’d lost weight.”

     The white haired woman smoothed down the front of her dress self-consciously.  “It’s been awhile since you visited,” she said.  “Who’s your friend?”

     “Ma’am,” Jack said, waving Red closer.  “This here’s your granddaughter, Ruth.  I spoke to you on the phone about her.”

     Red stepped forward and extended her hand.  “Hello,” she said formally.  “I’m Ruth Marie Hood.  Pleased to meet you.”

     Sally ignored the proffered hand.  “Yes, yes,” she said to Jack.  “I remember.”  She bent at the waist, bringing her face close to Red’s.  Her breath smelled of mint leaves.  She had lines around her eyes, and her white hair was pulled into a ponytail revealing weathered brown skin.  Her dress looked years out of fashion and it fit her a bit loosely, as though it had been made for someone else.  She seemed entirely too sophisticated.  Red had expected a hillbilly to emerge from the old house.

     “You’re pretty,” her grandmother declared.  “Just like you mother.”  She stood quickly.  “Well, let’s not stand here all day.  Come in, child.  You look like you need to be somewhere, Jack.”

     “Yes, ma’am.  I do.”  He started to turn.  “You folks going to be all right?”

     “We’ll be fine, Jack,” Sally said.  She winked at Red.  “You run along.  We’re just going to go inside and catch up on a lot of missed time.”  There was a twinkle in the woman’s eyes that Red wanted to think was affection, but she was not going to set herself up for another disappointment.  Jack muttered a few words of farewell as he rushed back to his car.  The motor roared to life as Sally stepped aside and waved for Red to come into the house.

     The living room was large, but white sheets covered everything as though it was being prepared for painting.  Sally led the way into the kitchen.  The floor was heavily worn and creaked beneath every footstep.  The kitchen, at least, was clean and orderly. 

     “Ma’am?” Red asked as the woman urged her into a wooden chair by a small table in the corner, “what, uh…what should I call you?”  She was embarrassed to have to ask.

     “Hmm.  I’m your grandma, so why not call me that?”  She smiled warmly at the girl, and it made her feel better.  “I’ll bet you’re hungry,” Sally suggested.

     “Not really…Grandma.”

     “Nonsense,” the old woman scoffed.  “All children want to eat when the visit their grandma’s house.  Now, let me see what kind of goodies I have in my basket.”  Red felt numb as she watched her grandmother begin rummaging through the cabinets, pulling out various things, announcing each new discovery.  She was trying to see her mother in the old woman, and failing.  She really needed to feel some connection.  “Preserves, very yummy,” she said.  The Mason jar was unlabeled and filled with a dark syrupy mass that looked more like molasses.  “Bread, crackers, cornmeal.  No, don’t want that.  Ah!  Irish potato cake.  Still fresh, too!”  She set a platter in front of Red containing half of a dark brown cake.  She opened three drawers before coming up with two forks.  She sat next to Red, crossed her legs, and dug into the cake.

     Red tried not to stare and reminded herself that the woman was a mountain woman.  She had long, wide feet with no shoes and dark hair on her brown legs, like she had never shaved them in her life.  Red lifted a forkful of the cake to her mouth.  To her surprise, it was actually good, if a bit dry.

     “So,” Grandma said after a few minutes of silent eating.  “I bet you have all sorts of questions for me.”

     Of course I do, Red thought.  There were so many she had trouble picking one.  She had grown up with questions, with mystery, not just about her heritage but also about anything having to do with her family and why her mother had gone slowly and quietly insane.  Something had happened between her mother and this woman, something to twist her.  She had fled from home as a teen and had never stopped running.

     “Why did Momma leave?” she said aloud.  She closed her lips tightly, trying to get a grip on the sudden upwelling of emotion she felt.  She looked up from the food to stare into her grandmother’s eyes.  The old woman looked away.

     “That’s a tough one,” Sally said as she stared at the cabinets.  “Your mother was never happy with herself.  Never.  All she ever wanted was to be like her friends, like everyone else she knew, but she couldn’t.  She had trouble accepting the fact that she was different.”

     “Different?” Red asked.  “Different how?”

     Sally smiled, and Red felt the heat of it, the actual heat emanating from the woman.  It was disconcertingly familiar.  “Everyone’s different,” she said.  “But I think you understand the kind of difference I’m talking about.  You’ve been feeling it ever since you got to the mountains.  Haven’t you?”

     Red was startled.  “Yes,” she answered in a soft voice.  “How was she…are we different?  I need to know.”

     “That’s something you have to decide for yourself,” Grandma said.  “Your mother chose…unwisely.  She got involved with a married man, got pregnant by him.  She was supposed to go to a home for unwed teens over in Asheville, but she ran away instead.”

     “And you never went looking for her?” Red asked, incredulous. 

     “Of course I went looking for her,” Grandma snapped, scowling for the first time.  “I invested a great deal of time searching.  Time I would have better used on other projects.  She didn’t understand how special she was.  She couldn’t guess how special her child would be.”

     “Me?” Red asked, beginning to feel dizzy.  The day outside was still bright, but the room had grown suddenly dim.

     “Of course you, Red,” the woman said, regaining her composure.  She leaned back in her chair, making it creak.  “Who else?”

     Red tried to turn her face to stone.  She had not mentioned her nickname to the woman.  In fact, since leaving the foster home in Charlotte, she had told only one person that people called her Red.

     “I was wondering,” she said in a dry voice, “who do you think I get my red hair from?”

     “From your father,” Grandma said.  “There are no redheads in my bloodline.  It’s an impurity.  But like the color of a ruby, it’s an impurity that only makes you more valuable.”

     “I see.”  Red swallowed hard, wishing she had been offered something to drink.  “I notice you have big feet.”

     The smile on the woman’s face remained steady.  “All the better for running through the forest, my dear,” she said.

     “Right,” Red said, pretending to agree.  Alarm bells were rattling inside her head.  She felt like her mind was boiling.  It was like being on a ship whose anchor had broken, leaving her adrift on some surreal ocean.  “What about your ears?” she asked, reaching up to touch her own.  “You have…long ears.”  Were they getting longer as she watched?

     “All the better for listening,” the older woman said.  “For instance, I can hear how fast your little heart is beating right now.”

     Red swallowed hard.  She had to force her eyes to blink.  Eyes.  The woman’s eyes.  “You have big eyes,” she said, choking.

     “And excellent night vision,” Sally agreed.  “Wonderful for tracking prey.  You know, you’re just as intuitive as I’d hoped you’d be.”  Her smile widened to reveal pearly white fangs.  Her midnight eyes blinked and changed in an instant to yellow, vertical slits.  The eyes of a predator.

     Red screamed.  She pushed away from the table and toppled over her chair.  A hand like a band of steel wrapped around her ankle, and she felt herself lifted from the floor.  Powerful hands turned her like an infant until she was nose to nose with a face she suddenly recognized.

     “Tobias!” she gasped. 

     He pulled off the wig he was wearing and tossed it aside.  His skin rippled like water on a pond, smoothing out wrinkles and returning his rearranged features to normal.  “Yes, my little cub.  Tobias.”  He laughed loudly.  “But maybe you should just call me Grandpa.”

     Red screamed again. This, she told herself, was what it felt like to go mad.  Tobias frowned at her.  “Stop that,” he yelled.  She stopped.  “Promise to behave?” he asked.  She nodded, sniffing back tears.  He lowered her to the floor and released her.  Her legs were like jelly, unable to support her.  She sank to the floor in a heap.

     “I told you the truth,” Tobias said, settling into a chair.  The dress looked ludicrous on him, but Red found nothing amusing.  “I did search for your mom, just like I told you.  For a long time.  I never expected your grandmother would be so stupid as to let her run off.  But then, she didn’t know she was part of the experiment, too.”

     Red licked her dry lips.  “What experiment?” she managed to croak.

     “You’re smarter than that, Red,” he said.  “You met our little government friends.  Who do you think they’re up here hunting?  Not just me, baby.  Tell me, have you never felt it before?  I mean, truly?  Never looked toward the north, felt your blood pulling you back to the mountains?  This is our home, Red.  All mountains have a few groups of our kind.  But you’re a cross-breed, maybe you wouldn’t know.”

     “Are you going to kill me?” she asked, her voice more under control.  The initial shock had passed, taking with it her fear.  And whatever had been struggling to wakefulness inside her had either been crushed out of existence…or it had expanded to fill her completely.

     “No, baby,” Tobias said to her, leaning forward in his seat.  “I’m not going to kill you.  You’re too interesting.  Like I said, you’re a crossbreed.  Know what that means?  I’ll tell you.  See, Sally, your grandma, was a witch.  A real witch, not like the storybooks or movies.  I covered up all her stuff out there.”  He pointed out to the living room, to all the lumps covered by sheets.  “God awful stuff.  I seduced her once, a long time ago, and that had a purpose, too.”

     He paused to shove a piece of cake in his mouth.  “See, the government found out about us back in World War II.  Hitler was chasing down all sorts of occult stuff, so the Americans tried to match him.  It was just luck that they found a garou up in the Appalachians.  Anyway, ever since then they’ve wanted us as weapons.  Why do you think we won in Korea?  Who better to hunt down an enemy hidden in the jungle than the greatest predator God ever made?

     “Now, they want us over in Vietnam.  Your momma was born in 1941.  If Sally hadn’t been such a tough bitch she wouldn’t have survived it, but she did.   That gave us hope for the new bloodline.  But your mom was flawed.”  He shrugged.  “It happens.  Seem witches and wolves often have diametrically opposed instincts.  She couldn’t handle it.  But fate intervened when she was sixteen.  Know what happened?”

     Red shook her head.  “You happened,” Tobias laughed.  “She hooked up with a human, of all things.  And look at you.  Calm, rational, self-control, downright pleasant personality.  Hell, by the time I was your age I’d already had four homicidal rages.”

     He froze, head cocked as if listening.  “Uh, oh,” he said.  “Company.”  Red heard it an instant later.  A car was jouncing its way up the rutted drive.  Tobias grabbed her again and rushed from the kitchen into the bedroom.  “Sorry, kid,” he muttered as he began tying her up.  “Must be that cop.  I thought he forgot to leave your luggage.”

     “What are you going to do?” she asked, oddly unafraid.

     “Probably kill him,” Tobias said.  He looped the bedspread around her ankles deftly, cinching it tightly.

     “I mean about me.”

     “Oh.”  He gave her arms the same treatment before answering.  “It has to stop,” he said, leaning over her.  “The feds, I mean.  They can’t just take us anymore.  I think you’re the key to an alternative.”

     “That’s a load of bull,” she snorted.  He drew back, surprised at her outburst.  “You don’t care about anyone but yourself.  If anything, you just want to give the feds something new to hunt, to use.  I think you’d kill your own kind as quickly as you would anyone else.  You know what your real problem is?  Inbreeding.  You’ve become defective as a species.”

     Tobias laughed heartily.  “See,” he said.  “Intuition.  You knew already in your heart what you were.  What I am.  A human right now would be in denial, but you aren’t telling me how crazy I am.  You know what I’ve told you is true.  You feel it.”  He lunged for her, teeth bared, snapping closed inches from her throat.  Rose sat quiet and still, refusing to even flinch. 

     A loud knock sounded at the door. 

     Tobias was frozen for a moment, snarling softly.  He looked over his hairy shoulder.  Slowly, he sniffed the air.  “It’s him,” he declared.  “The cop.  Did you like him?  I think you did.”

     “Yes,” she replied, lying, hoping it was the right answer.

     “Good,” he growled.  He whirled and stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him.  Panic seized her.  It was all happening too fast, leaving her dizzily confused, disoriented.

     “Mrs. Riding?” she heard Jack’s muffled voice.  “Are you…”  The door creaked as Tobias opened it.  “Hey!” Jack yelled.  Whatever he tried to say next came out as a wet gurgle followed by a loud crack.

     A moment later the bedroom door opened and Tobias entered dragging Jack’s limp body.  He tossed the man like a rag doll, sailing the body over the bed.  “You can have him, now,” Tobias said, his voice raspy.  He began to laugh, his form changing as he did.

     He hunched over as his shoulders widened.  Rippling muscles tore the dress to shreds as they swelled under his dark skin.  Already his body was covered by coarse black fur.  She watched his face elongate, becoming a snout filled with sharp teeth.  His ears spread out, becoming broad and pointed.  In seconds he had become a massive beast, a strange wolf-thing supporting itself on thick hind legs, waving hand-like paws tipped with long black talons.

     “Am I not beautiful?” he asked, somehow managing to make human speech with his bestial mouth.  “I have evolved beyond the limits of what a wolf can be.  And you are going to help me go farther.  Look at me!  Am I not a living god?”

     The window shattered as if in reply.  Tobias spun, struck in his shoulder as staccato gunfire filled the air.  He snarled in pure rage, crouching against the floor.  The front door flew open and black suited men came pouring in.  Without hesitation, Tobias leaped to meet them, bowling them over.  The guns they were carrying flew out of their hands and their screams tore the air asunder.

     Red watched, fascinated as Tobias lived up to his claim.  If he was a god, then he was a god of death.  He was a deadly efficient killing machine, hurling men about, tearing them with fangs and claws.  They shot him, but the bullets seemed to have no effect.  The dingy room became a killing field as the white sheets covering the witch’s inventory became painted red with blood.

     A silver form sailed gracefully through the broken window.  Red watched impassively, totally numb to any knew surprise.  It was a wolf, she saw, and she suspected for a moment that Tobias had somehow called for aid.  It was a beautiful animal, pausing to look at her with slate colored eyes that matched the silver of its fur.  It padded over to the door and used its paws to push it closed, shutting off Red’s view of the battle.

     As it trotted back to the bed, the wolf began to change.  “I should have known,” Red muttered as a woman rose where the animal had been.  She was nude, but the fur remained like a form fitting covering, disguising her womanly charms.  Then Red gasped as she recognized who she was.

     “Hello, Ruth,” Shannette said, smiling.  “Looks like you need some help.”  Her small hands quickly loosened the bonds.  Red swung her feet to the floor and stood on shaky legs.

     “I guess you’ve figured it out by now,” Shannette said, placing a hand on Red’s shoulder to steady her.  Even through the shirt she wore, the touch was electric.  The world around her took on an extra dimension, as though sound and smell were suddenly tangible and had texture.  “I wasn’t really helping them,” the furry woman explained.  “I was keeping them away from our people.  We knew you were coming though.  Tobias warned us to leave you alone.  See, we have this way of recognizing each other.”  She giggled girlishly, and Red understood completely.

     “That’s why she never touched me,” Red said, shaking her head with a rush of unpleasant memory.  “Why momma never…”  She looked up with haunted eyes.  A single tear formed and ran over her cheek.  “She could have told me.”

     Shannette brushed stray hair from the girl’s face.  “Don’t blame her,” she said.  “She did not know what she was or why it hurt her so.  That’s what Tobias wanted.  He’s the oldest living one of the garou, you know.  But he’s a criminal in both worlds, wolf and human.”

     “Is that what I am?” Red asked, listening to the fighting in the next room.  “A wolf?”

     “A very special wolf,” Shannette agreed.  “Like me.”  Red’s gaze rose into the woman’s warm smile.

     “Fine,” she said.  “I guess you’ve got plans for me, just like everyone else.”

     “No.  I only want you to do one thing.  Live free in the world of your choosing.  Either path you choose, I’m sure you’ll change things.  It’s time to choose, Ruth.  Will you walk with men? or run with wolves?”

     Silence fell.  “It’s done,” Shannette whispered.  “I have to go now.  Back to the forest where I belong.  They fear us, that’s why they hunt us.  They think they do it because they need us.  But I’ve always wondered, are the garou humans who can become wolves…or wolves who become humans?”

     Something stirred in the next room.  Shannette turned toward the window.  “If you need me,” she said, “you can find me at the edge of the forest.”  She lingered a moment, letting her steel gray eyes bore into Red’s.  Like a wraith, she dove through the window, transforming in midair.  It was a fluid transformation, a natural progression.  She landed on four paws outside already running.

     Red watched the wolf for a moment, then she turned to the door.  It creaked loudly when she pulled it open.  The scene was worse than she had expected.  Tobias, caught halfway between his human form and his monster shape, lay on his side in the middle of the room with the broken haft of a wooden spear jutting from his body, pinning him to the floor.  There were body parts everywhere, torn from the men who had attacked him.  Most of the corpses lay in mangled heaps amidst an arsenal of guns and more broken spears.

     Red walked through a lake of blood to get to Tobias.  She knelt by his head, reached out to touch his brow.  His heat was fading.  He opened his eyes, and she could see darkness behind them.  He tried to say something to her, but he was too weak.  “Shh,” she told him.  “It’s okay.  It’s over.”  She leaned down and kissed his forehead.  When she rose, she could taste his blood on her lips.  “Goodbye, Grandfather.”

     She felt the presence behind her before she turned to face the man pointing a gun at her.  “Jenson,” she said, recognizing him.  “Did you get what you wanted?”

     “Apparently so,” he answered.  He smiled as he brushed imaginary lint from his unspoiled suit.  “My boss is dead.  They’re all dead.  But I still get to be the hero.”

     Red shook her head, feeling a great sadness fall over her.  “Do you think I’m a fool?” she asked.

     “I think you’re a monster,” he answered.  “Just like him.”

     “Then what are you?”

     He laughed.  “I’m with the government.”  He walked to her.  Red stood her ground, even when she had to look up to see into his eyes.  “I’m afraid you’ll have to come with me,” he told her.

     “No,” she said calmly.

     He sighed.  “Normally,” he said, “this is where I call upon your sense of patriotic duty.  I’m supposed to ask you to volunteer.”  He raised the gun to draw her attention to it.  “But I’m the one holding a gun loaded with silver bullets.  That makes me the boss.”

     He touched her face, then jerked his hand back as if burned.  “Yeah,” he muttered.  “You’ll make a fine slave.”

     Red stared into his eyes.  Shannette had been right.  She could see through those windows into his hidden depths.  She could see all the way down the well of his soul to his secret heart, and it was hollow.

     Fate, her mother had once told her in one of her more lucid moments, came upon you if you were ready or not, and all too often events presented themselves in ways that left a person no real choice at all.

     What she had not said, but her daughter realized anyway, was that when you embrace Fate, it became Destiny.

     Red made her choice, and she reached out to embrace the human.

     Shannette was waiting at the edge of the forest, keeping her back to the house.  The sound of a man’s scream cut the air.  Her fine ears heard the thunder of a single gunshot, then the crunch of bone, and a splash of fresh wetness.

     A minute passed, then another.  Finally she heard the footsteps behind her.  Soft, carefully placed, yet bold.  She sensed a small, powerful presence at her elbow.

     “I chose,” Red announced.  

     Shannette smiled, looking up at the sky.  “It’s a lovely day,” she said.

     “Yes,” the girl agreed.  “It sure is.”

     Shannette reached out to clasp the girl’s hand.  “Are you ready, Ruth?” she asked.

     The girl smiled, brightening like the sun.  “Call me Red,” she said.  “Ruth sounds so…human.

     “Come on then, Red,” Shannette said, pulling Red by the hand.  “It’s a lovely day to run.”

     High above, a questing falcon dipped its wings and soared through the perfect sky, its shadow racing with the two wolves below.