A Jason Wood Adventure
Chapter 1: Decked in the Halls
"I should've made the front door bigger," I grunted as I tried gently bending a few of the tree's branches while still trying to support it. In gratitude for my care, one of the branches whipped out of my grasp and smacked me in the face, leaving a stinging sensation and a smell of pine.
"I told you to carry it around back," Syl said in her most reasonable tone, "where the double doors are, but you insisted we could get it through the front door. And so now we have to."
I chuckled, even as I tried for a better grip on the trunk. "Yeah, Syl, you were right. As usual. But now we're ... stuck with my choice, I guess we could say."
She snorted at the pun, and shoved hard from her side; I was on the inside, holding the heavier end of the Christmas tree and pulling.
The tree suddenly gave up the fight, which almost caused me to end up on the floor under it. I'm still not quite sure how I managed to stay up, but somehow I did, as Syl came leaping over the threshold — not at all off-balance, as though she'd anticipated that event. Which, given her peculiar talent, she probably had.
Now that we were inside, it only took a few minutes to lug the tree to the living room, where I'd already set up the tree stand and the green blanket which would catch most of the needles that the tree would, inevitably, try to shed all over the room. I got it set in the stand and stood back to admire it. Syl came up next to me; I slid an arm around her slender waist and hugged her close. "Does look pretty, doesn't it?"
"And it'll be even prettier after we decorate it," she agreed. "But that's something for tomorrow. I'm exhausted after fighting that thing."
"Me too. But it's worth it, for our first Christmas in our own house."
We'd been married a little more than a year now, but our first married Christmas had been spent at Verne's, as our house was still being built then. It was a bit odd to spend Christmas at the house of a half-million year old priest of a nature goddess, but Verne was nothing if not adaptable; the traditions of any civilization were something he could accept if they didn't somehow violate one of his basic beliefs.
"You've invited Verne already, right?"
"Verne, Jeri Winthrope since she's got no family in the area, Raikafan and his family, any of Verne's household who want to come — I especially invited Hitoshi because that way he can have someone else cook for him for a change — the Plunketts, your parents, and my parents." Seeing my eyebrows climbing, she grinned. "Now, your parents and mine are almost certainly not coming; they're doing the snowbird vacation and celebrating Christmas in warmer climates. I think Raiakafan and family will be down in Washington with the Senator. I don't know if the Plunketts will come yet. I'm betting that it'll be Verne, Jeri, and some of Verne's people, like Morgan, Meta, Hitoshi, and Camillus."
"Still, a fair turnout for a first Christmas. But hey, I've got a big kitchen, time to really give it a workout, I guess. Now —"
The phone rang. I thought about letting it go to the answering machine, but then I saw Syl's face and ran to grab it. "Jason Wood."
"Sorry to call you this late, Jason," came the voice of Jeri Winthrope.
"Not just late, it's Saturday." Of course, Jeri — who was working for the local police as her undercover assignment to watch me and Morgantown for ISIS — didn't exactly get days off.
She also wouldn't call me like this if it wasn't important. "So what's up?"
"Murder's up," she answered. "But this isn't your garden-variety shooting. You know Hansen Guildermere?"
"How could I not?" I couldn't keep the half-fond, half-exasperated tone from my voice. "He's paid for six consults with me in the last six months, all of them very intense interviews to help him properly set up that Outward Outreach of his."
"Yeah, well, you won't have to worry about any more interviews. He's dead."
"What? Who the hell would want to kill that nice old guy? Even if he was a little nuts."
"Not who," she said grimly. "What. He was done in by a Werewolf."
That got my attention — for more than one reason. First, someone like Hansen had CryWolf sensors which should keep him from being ambushed by a Werewolf. But more importantly, I knew that no werewolf should be killing anyone here at all. The arrangement I'd made with Carruthers and, by tacit agreement, Virigar, should have seen to that. "Are you sure?"
"Damn sure, since the killer didn't get away. Old Guildermere had more up his sleeve than his arm."
Crap. I looked at Syl, who sighed and nodded. So much for a nice evening together, planning our Christmas. "All right, Jeri. Did this happen at his house?"
"No, in the Outward Outreach offices."
"I'll be there in ten minutes. Don't let anyone mess with anything until I get a look."
"Do my best. See you."
I hung up. "Sorry, Syl."
"It's all right, Jason." She had already gotten my coat back out. "This one will be ugly."
"Yeah, I already figured that. Jeri hasn't, I don't think."
It wasn't surprising; after all, Jeri and her whole organization were basically there to protect humanity.
But I'd gone and risked my reputation, and my life, to make sure it wasn't just humanity being protected.
And that meant that I wasn't going to the scene of one person's death. I was going to the scene of two people's deaths, and I was the only one who might possibly give a damn about the second.
This was going to suck.
Chapter 2: Scene of a Crime
"You know what to expect, right?" Jeri asked before letting me pass the yellow tape.
"Remember how we met. Yes, I know."
I steeled myself for the sight I knew was waiting for me inside, then walked past her into the entrance hall for Outward Outreach. A box had been set up just inside the door for people to take off their boots, which made sense; no need to be tracking mud and snow into the crime scene. I pulled on a pair of the provided hospital-slipper type replacements and moved on.
I'd been here twice before, so I surveyed the hallway with an eye to what might be different; aside from the police, I didn't see anything. The CryWolf sensor was in its usual place just outside the door. Remembering my encounter with the Werewolf calling herself "Angela McIntyre," I called over one of the techs. "I'd like to check that unit out, make sure it's functioning right. Okay?"
"Let me check." After verifying that any official tests and photos had been completed, he gave me the go-ahead.
That put off the inevitable viewing by a few minutes. I borrowed a stepstool from one of the other rooms, and opened the case. It didn't take too long to verify that this unit was functioning exactly as intended. Any Werewolf walking by this thing — except for the very few great elder Wolves — would glow with a pattern like a cobweb of fire, and set off a screaming alarm unless the owner had shut it off.
That's just plain weird. No one would spend thousands of dollars on a CryWolf unit just to turn it off, and the CryWolf devices were selective. There were a couple of things besides a Werewolf that might trigger them, but all of them were the kind of thing you didn't want getting close to you. So how the hell had this Wolf gotten close enough to poor Hansen Guildermere to kill him without setting off half a dozen alarms?
I considered, then rejected, the theory that it was one of the true Elders, like Carruthers, for two reasons. First and most importantly, the agreement to leave my town alone had been made in the name of Virigar, their King, and none of those Elders would be insane enough to break that agreement. Second, I seriously doubted any defense that Hansen could have had ready to go would stop one of those monsters.
And if they'd been using Angela's trick of being, well, the sort of person you wanted to meet discreetly, Hansen would never have known, nor had any chance to act.
On the other hand... "Outward Outreach" meant what it said. It wanted to "reach out" ... FAR out. To the nonhuman residents of the world. I had stressed multiple times to Hansen that Werewolves were NOT one of the groups he wanted to try to play with, and that by even starting this thing he was in danger. He had seemed to understand, especially after Angela's trial and conviction. But maybe he'd decided to take a chance that killed him.
Well, I've put it off as long as I can. I took another deep breath and stepped through the door. As I remembered, this led to a reception area, with Hansen Guildermere's office past that reception desk.
I shuddered as I finally got a good look into that office.
Splashes of crimson and red-brown sprayed high and wide all around the formerly white and aqua-painted room, radiating out from and pointing towards the grotesque figure sprawled in a huge office chair. My stomach tried to protest. Preparation doesn't help so much when you recognize the victim.
Hansen Guildermere was spread-eagled in his cushioned chair, but his face was nearly bisected by a single cut that was paralleled by three others lower down, sectioning him neatly into four pieces that barely retained enough connection to keep from falling apart, not counting the severed remains of one arm that had been in the way; the stench wasn't just from blood, but from the contents of his lower abdomen, too. Part of the desk had been carved away by what must have been the same stroke.
Contorted on the floor in front of the desk in a twisted pose that showed all too clearly how agonizing its death must have been was the Werewolf. The size of a grizzly bear, the monster would have topped eight feet if it had been standing, and even in death radiated menace from its coarse, shaggy-haired form with the glittering diamond teeth and claws.
"So, are we dealing with a Wolf that can get past the CryWolf sensors?" Jeri asked quietly. She'd come up from behind without my even noting her presence.
"I hope to God not. Either he somehow got in another way, or — for whatever reason — Hansen had the alarms off and the thing got close enough to kill him before he realized it. There was security footage, right?"
"Yeah, we're getting that now. We'll send it over to your offices tomorrow to the attention of your new office manager... um, Wendy, was it?"
"Wanda. Wanda Beers, and don't make any jokes about her name unless you can figure out one she won't have heard a thousand times before."
"You are the one I'd worry about making cheap jokes, Jason."
"Point. Anyway, yes, send it to Wanda. She's not just office manager, she's got the technical know-how to get things started. I'm also finally getting some other field people trained for ... the unusual stuff. I'll introduce you when they get past the basics."
"Good." She clapped me on the shoulder. "Glad to see that you're finally getting things under control over there. James suggested Wanda, right?"
"He did, and a good call that was."
She looked down at the massive furry corpse, covered with a shimmering dusting of silver. "Honestly, though, this looks pretty straightforward, aside from the mystery of the alarms. Wolf comes at man, man's last act is to hit the button, everyone dies."
"He had a special button for that?" I reconsidered my thoughts. "Of course he did. Now that I think of it, he was asking questions about proper defenses and communications. He's got a little control panel there, hasn't he?"
"Not all that little. Take a look, just don't touch."
"I never do."
Sure enough, there was a fairly impressive set of controls inset under the desk, where Hansen could reach them easily yet have them completely out of sight of other people. Most of this was taken up with pretty mundane controls — lighting, environmental, presentations (open up the screen, activate and control a presentation, etc.), and so on — but there were a few clearly meant for dealing with situations your normal community outreach person never had to consider. The silver dispenser was clearly labeled, well separated from all others, bright red, and twice as big as any other button.
I examined the actual dispenser setup. "Thought so. Top of the line from Shadowgard, under cooperative license from me. Pressurized liquid with silver suspension, high-pressure delivery, clean and fast. Obviously worked as intended."
"You see any problems, other than the question of how he got in?"
As I hesitated, I could see Jeri's expression darken. "There aren't any problems... are there?"
Finally, with a sigh, I shrugged. "I wish I could say no, Jeri, but this whole setup stinks. I can't put my finger on all of the details, but I tell you, there's something I'm missing here. Maybe the security tapes will tell me something.
"But you know the real problem as well as I do: this shouldn't have happened, and the fact that it did? That's got me worried. And if I'm worried — you should be worried."
Chapter 3. Images of Fear
I shook my head and closed the book. "Argh."
Syl, who was reading her own book next to me in our king-sized bed, looked up. "Problem?"
"Can't concentrate." I felt foggy-headed and couldn't even put my finger on what was bothering me, but I hadn't been able to focus on what the book was about. "Sometimes I wish I could just forget about all the stuff I know, not have to deal with it."
"Well," she said, turning towards me, "I think there's a way you'll never have to deal with it again."
Syl's eyes glowed a monstrous yellow as her form began to expand, shaggy black-brown hair forming, the face shifting to a predator's with a mouth of crystal teeth...
I sat up in bed with a scream still echoing in my ears; Syl catapulted out of bed, not even fully awake but still grabbing for her gun in its nearby safe. Then she looked up in the moonlight, and her face softened.
I nodded, not able to speak yet. I reached out and took her hand, and stared into her eyes, assuring myself there wasn't a trace of yellow. I was tempted to find my CryWolf glasses... but I knew better. If that dream ever became reality, that would be Virigar himself, and my gadgets would be useless.
She embraced me and we sat there quietly for a few minutes, while my breathing slowed and I stopped shaking. Finally, she said, "Virigar?"
"Yeah. Like always." I hadn't had nightmares much until I started getting involved in the bizarre, and even after I watched Elias Klein fry I only had a couple. But the King of Wolves... he provided prime nightmare material, and every time I thought the dreams were going away, something came along to trigger them again.
I got up, turned on the lights, found my glass of water and drained it. "Has to have been the Werewolf body I was looking at earlier. That close up... they still give me the creeps even dead."
She looked at me sympathetically, black hair tumbling over tanned shoulders, framing her face in night. "And that's the first of what may be several weeks, if I remember the other times right."
"Maybe it's just a one-time nightmare." I didn't find my tone very convincing.
Neither did Syl. She stood up, a decisive look on her face. "Well, we're going to put a stop to this. After all, this is the kind of thing he wants you to go through. It's one of his victories."
"You have a spell or something for bad dreams?"
She shook her head. "That's not a good idea, Jason. Messing with the way someone thinks, even in their dreams, that's a really delicate operation. Verne can do it, but he's got half a million years of experience behind him — and I really don't think he'd approve of using that power just to stop nightmares.
"No, we're going to beat these nightmares with mundanity. I'm going to teach you lucid dreaming, and eventually you'll take control of the dreams instead of letting them control you."
I remembered the last time the nightmares had come — after Virigar had appeared in a private jet at thirty thousand feet, to both congratulate and terrorize me after the trial of Angela McIntyre AKA Tanmorrai. I'd ended up running without sleep four nights out of five. "Can you teach that? I never know I'm dreaming."
"Most people can learn," she said confidently. "I've been doing it most of my life, and I've taught other people. I'm sure you can learn, at least enough to know you're in a dream and shift it out of nightmare."
I nodded. "Okay. But we'll start on that tomorrow."
"Are you sure?"
I thought for a moment; I could feel the terror still receding, being replaced by an exhausted calm. "Yeah. I'll be able to sleep now. Not sure why, but I'm sure."
She gave me a concerned look, but then nodded. "Yes, I guess you will."
I was glad to hear her confirm it, but I was still puzzled by why. It was as I was actually drifting off to sleep that I understood.
The nightmare had been as much a warning from my subconscious as it was the triggered fear. I knew there was something wrong, and if I screwed this case up, the King of Wolves would feel that my time had come.
But at the same time, I also knew I was trying to solve this case, and that meant that — at least for a while — I had nothing to fear from Virigar.
With that understanding, I let myself drift off, and found no nightmares waiting.
Chapter 4: Almost Answers
"What the heck?"
Jeri was up from the chair where she'd been drinking coffee and filling out forms she'd brought with her to my office, where we were both going over the video from Outward Outreach. "What?"
"I was fast-forwarding through the recordings and suddenly Hansen just appeared in the chair — nothing on the hallway cams."
"Oh." She chuckled. "Go back and watch. He had a back door."
Sure enough, a section of wall I thought was fancy paneling opened up and Hansen came through it, placed a briefcase on his huge desk, and sat down.
"Makes sense. Outward Outreach sometimes had uncomfortable publicity, so he had a way of coming and going that wasn't obvious." Hansen pulled something out of his case and inserted it into a computer slot underneath the desk. "What was that?"
"Presentation. He had a whole presentation made for this guy, who was going by the name of Cheney Lugosi."
I snorted. "The Wolves sometimes have low senses of humor. I'll have to look at that presentation, but I doubt it has any bearing on it, unless he was showing him some particular slide that somehow ticked him off."
I fast-forwarded until I saw a flicker of movement in the hallway. "There's our not-man."
"Cheney Lugosi" had chosen a very unprepossessing form — probably deliberately to undermine any fears on the part of Hansen or anyone else he might encounter. He wasn't much over five feet tall and skinny; his forlorn, somewhat beaky face gave me a twinge, because it reminded me somehow of Elias Klein, or maybe of a small Ichabod Crane.
The shimmering network of light visible in the CryWolf sensor layer, however, showed that this was indeed a Great Werewolf.
"Shame there's no sound," Jeri said as the disguised werewolf entered Hansen's office and exchanged silent greetings with the activist.
"Hansen mentioned to me that he wanted to control when actual speech was being recorded, so that's a separate system."
"I know; unfortunately he hadn't turned that one on — we checked."
Still, even without sound, everything seemed fairly clear; Hansen offered his newcomer coffee or tea, Cheney accepted a cup of coffee, and Hansen returned to his own seat.
"See that?" I asked Jeri.
"He was cautious with the silverware. And he sniffed the coffee first."
"Yeah. He's tense as hell." That made sense. Technically he was not violating the agreement I had with the other Wolves, at least so far — he wasn't hurting anyone in Morgantown — but he must know he was trampling on the spirit of the agreement. Plus if he was meeting with a human for a genuine attempt at peacemaking, he was potentially putting himself at odds with Virigar himself.
The two talked for a few moments, Hansen showing some signs of nervousness at first but quickly easing into his more natural and winning smiles. Then Hansen looked down.
As quickly as that, everything changed. A screen started to lower from the ceiling and at the exact same moment Cheney Lugosi's face contorted and his form shifted, lunging in that moment across the desk. Hansen's head whipped up and he made a pathetic attempt to escape, shoving the rolling office chair backwards a few inches before the huge talons ripped through the desk, his upflung arm, part of the chair, and chopped him into pieces; even as that happened, though, the werewolf pulled back, parts of the black-brown fur smoking, and collapsed in agonized convulsions which lasted a few seconds before all living movement in the room ceased.
But in a macabre twist, not all movement ceased. The screen quietly finished extending and the first slide shone out: "Werewolf-Human Relations: Building a Bridge."
"Well," Jeri said, "that looks pretty straightforward. Hansen was either watching him or not in good strike range before; when he looked down to turn on the projector setup, Cheney took his chance."
I frowned. "Maybe. But really, you've seen these things enough, Jeri, and you saw how fast that transformation was. There isn't anywhere in that office Hansen wasn't in strike range if Cheney wanted him dead. That looked to me like something triggered the strike."
Jeri grimaced. I couldn't blame her; the desire to just shove all the blame onto the Wolf and close the case was strong, and perfectly justifiable; we knew that no Werewolf we'd ever encountered gave a damn about any people other than their own. But she knew as well as I did why I'd fought to defend Angela McIntyre from an undeserved charge of murder. "Yeah, it does. But... look how nervous he is. He's really on edge. So his host does something he doesn't expect and suddenly things start moving..."
I rewound and watched again. "Yeah, that timing fits. Fits real well. I would've thought that a Great Wolf would be more controlled than that, though. Still, they aren't as a group terribly bright, and he might have been a young one. Probably was. Still..." There was an obvious question that the video left hanging, and unfortunately the angle didn't let me see exactly what Hansen was doing under the desk.
"Have you checked that panel out?"
"Yep. In perfect condition, works exactly as it was designed. I had people pull the control module itself and test it in the lab."
"Okay. Then my guess is that Hansen got lucky; since his hands were already on the panel when it all went south, he pushed the panic button as he shoved away from the desk."
The two of us sat there looking at the monitor in silence for a few minutes.
Finally Jeri cursed and stood up. "You're not buying this, are you?"
She grimaced. "I want to. I really do. It fits. I think I could make it stick in court. It'd wrap the whole case up neatly." She paused. "And it stinks to high heaven."
"Yeah." A glimmering of an idea was starting to materialize in my mind. "And that means that we're back to the classics: motive, means, and opportunity."
Jeri nodded. "And there's one doozy of a motive."
"Let me guess: Hansen Guildermere left everything he had to Outward Outreach, cutting out his family and friends."
"I'm not sure if that shows you're too cynical or too idealistic for this business, but... almost dead-on. There were some minor bequests, but the vast majority of his estate went to Outward Outreach and established a pretty impartial board of directors; it'd be hard to ride it as a gravy train."
"Are we talking about enough to kill over?"
"Wood, I've seen people killed over pocket change. But in the way you mean? Hell yes. Hansen Guildermere was worth about seven hundred and fifty million dollars."
Chapter 5. Family and Friends
"I knew something like this would happen," Vernon Guildermere said heavily. "I just knew it."
Vernon's sister Meredith nodded. "We tried to tell him this was a crazy idea, Mr. Wood. We all did."
We were all seated in one of the conference rooms at Morgantown police headquarters; Jeri and her people had done their own questioning earlier, but had let everyone involved know that I was directly attached to the investigation. I studied the four people in the room with me: Vernon, Meredith, Adam Brown (the CFO for Outward Outreach), and Felicia Santos, Guildermere's executive assistant who had been rather obviously personally involved with Hansen Guildermere as well as professionally.
"All," I repeated. "Does that mean all four of you, or some other 'all'?"
"I didn't try to tell him he was crazy," Felicia said, black eyes swollen from earlier tears; even her well-applied makeup couldn't entirely hide the signs. "Hansen wanted to bring us together, not keep us separate and afraid. That's not crazy."
Vernon's blade-sharp face winced. "Okay. Sorry, Fel; not crazy, but... risky. And he insisted on everything being done his way. Meeting that... thing by himself? That really does push toward crazy, to me."
"But you all helped him with Outward Outreach in various ways, right?"
Adam spoke up; he had a smooth, warm voice which seemed more suited to someone heading up a political party than the guy in charge of money matters. "As Vernon says, he insisted on doing things his way. As his friends, relatives, and, in the case of Felicia and myself, colleagues, we had little choice. Better to work with him than against him."
"How were Outward Outreach's finances?"
Adam gave a wry smile. "From a business standpoint? Hideous. From an operating standpoint? Just fine. Understand, Hansen didn't expect Outward Outreach to make money. It was incorporated as a nonprofit institution, and while one can make money under such an incorporation, under certain circumstances, it was never Hansen's expectation that Outward Outreach would do so, or even that it would reach break-even status in his lifetime. He had found a mission and intended to dedicate himself to that mission, and making money was not a part of that dedication."
"So Hansen was Outward Outreach's sole source of support?"
"Not at all, although it is undeniable that he was by far the largest source of support. There are many contributors to Outward Outreach on individual or subscription bases, and many other sources of material or monetary support."
"But Hansen's contribution was large?"
"Very large. I am not at liberty to be more specific than that."
"What's the point of all this?" Meredith demanded. "Hansen was killed by one of those werewolf monsters, and it was invited in by Hansen himself." She suddenly looked worried. "Unless... this is over his insurance?"
Vernon looked puzzled, while Felicia gave a tiny, almost unnoticeable start.
"Hansen had a couple of large life-insurance policies taken out on him, one of them just a couple of years ago," Meredith said. "I thought perhaps the insurance companies might be thinking it was suicide."
That was a wrinkle I hadn't thought about before. "Who are the beneficiaries of these policies?"
"I... I am," Felicia said reluctantly. "For one, anyway."
"And Vernon and I, for the second," Meredith said.
Insurance policies wouldn't be connected to his will, I thought. If they have specific beneficiaries on the policy, his will couldn't take that away.
I decided not to pursue this just now; I had all the info I needed on that front for the moment. "Looking at the publicity, I'd guess Outward Outreach isn't doing well now."
Vernon shook his head. "Well, Adam would know the details, but no. Lots of cancelled subscriptions, withdrawn support. Hansen was the heart of the operation. We didn't have anyone even proposed as a backup; we thought he'd be with us for another twenty years." He looked gloomily down. "I should've found better defenses for his office. Thought I'd gotten the best."
"Shadowgard's are the best," I said. "Well, there might be military ones that are better, but the way Hansen was going about it, there really wasn't much more that could have been done. So you selected his defenses?"
"Not just the defenses; the whole automated office layout and things like that. It's what I do, you know."
I did know that; Vernon ran an office automation and security firm, one he'd built up himself from a computer and electronics servicing business run from his basement. Made sense that his brother had hired him for the work. "And from my quick glance around, you did a good job, down to the modular control panel for the office functions. You designed that layout?"
"The buttons? Yeah, that was mine. I guess it worked well enough. At least he managed to get the monster."
"What if it did break down? How easy would it be to repair?"
"Easy," Vernon said. "Like you said, modular. Any part of the systems, including the Shadowgard nozzles and tanks, could be pulled out and replaced in minutes. But it all worked, right?" He looked suddenly apprehensive. "Right? There wasn't any sign that someone... messed with any of it, was there?"
I couldn't blame him for looking nervous; if anything had gone wrong, who'd be the primary suspect? "No, Mr. Guildermere, nothing wrong. It all seemed to have worked exactly as it was supposed to."
"Oh. Whew." He relaxed. I noticed Felicia also leaning back, as though she'd tensed up herself. Hmm. That's interesting.
Adam spoke up, with a slight furrow in his brow. "I notice, Mr. Wood, that you have not exactly answered Meredith's question. This is a terrible misadventure but it would seem that the facts are clear enough. I've granted you this time in the interests of cooperation with the police, who say you are a consultant, but I must confess that I don't see the point of this interview."
"This is a murder investigation, Mr. Brown." As the others blinked or opened their mouths, I raised my hand. "As the Werewolf Trial established, werewolves are accorded the status of people. Thus, Mr. Lugosi's killing of Hansen makes this a murder, and Lugosi's own death in apparent self-defense requires investigation as well. The police and I are following all the required due process. It would be easier to just say that a monster killed him and he killed the monster and it's all over, but that would be treating the whole situation casually and unprofessionally."
"Oh," said Meredith. "I... I hadn't thought of it that way. But you're right, of course."
Felicia nodded. "It's the way Hansen would want it handled, too." She looked on the brink of tears again at the thought of Hansen.
"But I understand Mr. Brown's underlying objection, and I think we're done for now. If I have any more questions I'll contact you."
The four left with various farewells. I observed from the window as they went to their cars.
The conference room door opened. "Anything interesting?" asked Jeri.
"A few... what was it Sherlock Holmes said? A few suggestive facts, but nothing conclusive. I've got a few things you can research for me that might give me what we need — plus some analysis that's just up my alley." I listed them off, and Jeri nodded.
"That shouldn't take too long." She looked out the window. "What did you see?"
"Felicia Santos didn't drive herself here," I said thoughtfully. "She came here — and left — in the company of Vernon Guildermere."
Chapter 6: Night Before Christmas
"Mmmmm," Syl said, leaning over the smoker. "That smells wonderful, Jason."
I lifted the lid to take a look. The ham was looking a lovely deep red-brown from the smoke and the glaze I'd applied. "It does. Then tonight I put in the turkey."
"Ready for Christmas, then?"
"I guess." I closed the smoker. "Verne won't be eating any of this, but the Plunketts plus a large chunk of Verne's household will."
She put a hand on my arm. "You're still tense, Jason. That case —"
"—will be resolved tomorrow, I think."
"You don't look happy."
I rolled my eyes, then sighed. "No. No, I'm not, if things play out the way I think they will. This was a trainwreck any way I look at it, and it'll be worse by the time it's over, I think."
"It's not your responsibility to worry about that part, Jason." Her voice was emphatic. "Did you figure out what really happened?"
"I think so. I just need to check one more thing... which should be about ready."
Syl followed me into my study, where I had a computer with a secure mirrored connection to my work machines. I brought up the screen from the image analysis package.
"That's part of the footage from the attack," Syl said. "I thought you'd already looked that over."
"Visually, yes. But there are things that don't show easily to the naked eye, even on replay, but a machine can see things that we don't." I looked at the current frame, and already my trained eye could see the difference. "And this is one of those things."
"You mean the screen? But you could see that before."
"Not the screen. Over next to it. Here, and here."
Sylvie squinted, then closed her eyes. "Oh. Oh, dear. There isn't any good explanation for that, I suppose."
"None." I pulled out my phone, hit a well-known number.
After one ring it was answered. "Winthrope here."
"Jeri, it's a go. I'll need them all at my office tomorrow morning."
"Tomorrow? But that's —"
"I don't want this hanging over me or anyone else any longer. Tomorrow at ten in the morning."
Jeri sighed. "Merry Christmas to us both."
Syl didn't say anything as we went back out and set up our Christmas Eve dinner. But her not saying anything meant more to me than anything anyone else could say; she was simply there for me, and that slowly made me able to smile at her again, halfway through the meal. She smiled back, and while I still wasn't looking forward to tomorrow morning, I could suddenly taste my food again.
After dinner we cleaned up, I took out the ham and put the turkey in to smoke overnight. "Ready to hang the stockings?"
She giggled. "Is this silly or what? We're grown people and neither of us Christians, and we're making sure to hang up stockings so a jolly fat man will come down the chimney and stuff them if we've been good."
"My family had the same tradition. I promise not to try to sneak a peek at 'Santa' if you do."
"We'll take turns not peeking, then." She kissed me, and we went upstairs — with each of us going downstairs once more, of course.
Finally I got ready for bed. "This doesn't seem to be working."
"Give it time," Syl said. "Most people don't lucid dream at all. It takes practice."
"But that's sorta what I mean. It can't be that simple — just thinking 'I will control my dreams' — or everyone would do it, right?"
"Will most people focus on that thought, and only on that thought or related ones, for at least half an hour before going to sleep, every night, for weeks? That takes motivation, Jasie. I promise you, this will work, if you stick with it."
"I wish it'd work tonight. I really don't want to spend Christmas half awake," I said as I settled back into the cushions. But I knew she was right; Syl usually was. Nothing worth doing was easy to learn. So I took a deep breath, let it out, and focused. These are MY dreams. They are a creation of MY mind. I am the one dreaming, and so I can control these dreams. They have no power over me; I have power over them. These are MY dreams...
Chapter 7: Denouement
I stepped out of my back office and into the larger meeting room. Everyone was there — Jeri Winthrope with two deputies, Vernon Guildermere, Meredith Guildermere, Adam Brown, and Felicia Santos. In addition, there were two other people — one man and one woman — who I didn't know, but I could guess just from the suits and the body language what they were. Someone's ready to lawyer up. Good for them.
"Thank you all for coming," I said as I entered. "My apologies for interrupting your Christmas; I'm interrupting mine, too, so I'll try to make this brief. I see we have some new faces at this meeting."
"This is Dan Mason and I am Peri Crane, of Webster, Crane, and Mason, Mr. Wood," said the woman, rising and shaking my hand. Her grip was steady as her gaze.
"One of our best local firms; I know it well," I said. "Pleased to meet you, Ms. Crane, Mr. Mason," I shook Mason's hand in turn.
"Our pleasure," Dan said. "We're here as retained counsel for Vernon Guildermere, Meredith Guildermere, Felicia Santos, and Adam Brown, in case legal advice becomes necessary."
"Understood." I wondered who'd called them, and who was footing the bill. Well, it wasn't going to matter much.
"Now, can you tell us why you've had us dragged here on Christmas morning?" Vernon Guildermere's tone was, understandably, a lot less tolerant than it had been in our prior meeting.
"Dragged? I'm quite sure none of you were forced to come here, and in fact that would be criminal, since none of you are charged with anything," I said. "But yes, now I will tell you why you were asked to come here at this time."
I sat down and glanced around the meeting table. "Hansen Guildermere was a wonderful, if possibly somewhat overeager and naïve, old man who had a dream: to unite, not just humanity, but all the thinking, living beings on Earth. To do that, he founded Outward Outreach, opening branches not just here but in a dozen cities across America, with plans to expand beyond our borders soon. He consulted with me on these ideas many times, to the point that I feel somewhat responsible for what happened to him — even if I did warn him multiple times that the Werewolves were not candidates for his outreach plans.
"Some of his work was already bearing fruit; he had had communication from... several non-human persons who were attempting to verify his good will. This was vastly encouraging to him, to the point that he believed that he was truly on the right track — enough to commit himself totally to this work."
"We know all of this," Felicia snapped. "Well, except maybe your guilty feelings, but —"
"Please, Ms. Santos, let me do this my own way. I have my own reasons." She settled back slowly. "Thank you."
"At first glance, this situation seemed straightforward, if tragic: Hansen somehow got in contact with a real Werewolf, using the alias of Cheney Lugosi, who pretended to be willing to talk. Said Werewolf then got himself killed while assassinating Hansen.
"Unfortunately, I had reason to know that it was not that simple."
Peri Crane raised her hand slightly. "Could you explain that, Mr. Wood?"
"There are details I will not tell you at this time, Ms. Crane, but in short, I know for a fact that no Werewolf would ever come to Morgantown to commit a murder, no matter the provocation. After the defeat of their King, Virigar, this town is completely off-limits to them. This Wolf was already skirting the spirit of that ban by being here."
"Oh," said Felicia suddenly.
"Exactly, Ms. Santos. If we accept that the Wolves take such a ban seriously — and they do, I assure you — then this Cheney Lugosi was at worst here to simply amuse himself listening to a foolish idealist's words and lead him on for a bit, and at best sincerely hoped to find a way that he, at least, could truly live in peace with our people.
"But that meant that Cheney had no intention of killing or even injuring Hansen Guildermere when he entered that room.
Felicia's face showed she was near tears again. The discussion couldn't be easy for her, but she did not make a sound.
"The second theory was that the Werewolf, Cheney, was extremely nervous, on a hair trigger — as well he might be in that situation — and when Hansen did something to startle him by unexpectedly causing the screen to lower from the ceiling, Cheney instinctively struck out."
"This was superficially supported by the video footage, and honestly, we would have liked to leave it at that. But we couldn't."
"Why not?" Vernon Guildermere asked. His tones had moderated somewhat, and had a wary note to them.
"Because werewolves — as I risked my life to prove — are people, with exactly the same rights as we have. I could not ignore the possibility that Cheney Lugosi and Hansen Guildermere were both victims," I said.
"And that video footage raised its own questions. I've watched that clip a couple dozen times, and I honestly can't really see when and how Hansen could have activated the Shadowgard defenses. That would have required him to recognize that Cheney was attacking, understand the danger he was in, and then react by pressing the deployment button — all in the few instants available — and then push himself away from the desk, trying to escape.
"I can barely envision it as a sort of accident, in which he happens to hit the big red button as he's pushing backwards, but his hands didn't look like they were in the right position; they look much more like he was already raising them, for defense or protest."
"But... well, he did activate them," Meredith said, puzzled. "Obviously, or that thing wouldn't have died. So what does it matter?"
I nodded. "Yes, that was the question. Did it matter at all? Whatever the trigger, the Werewolf had attacked, Hansen defended himself, both died. A tragic accident in one way or another.
"But what if it wasn't an accident at all?"
Adam Brown slowly turned to face me more fully. "You can't be serious."
"I am very serious. In point of fact, nothing that happened in that office was an accident. It was a very carefully planned murder — a murder of the werewolf calling itself Cheney Lugosi. Hansen's death wasn't necessary, but for the purposes of this crime it was certainly a bonus."
"What?" Meredith was half on her feet. "What purposes? How could that be a murder? I... explain, Mr. Wood!"
"The first and most obvious motive is money," Jeri Winthrope said. "Hansen Guildermere was worth three-quarters of a billion dollars, but he was planning on dumping virtually all of it into Outward Outreach. Since he had no children of his own, it is the people in this room who could be expected to be the biggest losers in that instance — his brother, his sister, his fiancée and right-hand woman, and close friend as well as Chief Financial Officer of Outward Outreach."
"Exactly," I said. "His will had several conditions in it, but the most interesting here is that while he left everything to Outward Outreach, the ownership — though not control — of Outward Outreach was divided among those same heirs. Which meant that if Outward Outreach failed and was liquidated, the assets would be divided among those four people."
I looked around; the four in question were frozen in silence, while the lawyers were visibly tensed to jump in as soon as I made anything approaching an accusation.
"Hundreds of millions of dollars; motive enough. Plus, as mentioned at our first meeting, even if Outward Outreach itself continued onward, there were very substantial insurance policies that would pay out upon Hansen's death. But of course, none of that mattered if this was just an accident. Yes, this event might well be a deathblow to Outward Outreach — Hansen was its heart and soul, and this spectacularly lethal failure in judgment would hurt the cause directly as well — but the question was how this could be a murder, and not an accident."
I gestured with my remote control and the lights dimmed slightly. A screen at the end of the conference room lit up with the scene of Hansen's office, with the human Cheney Lugosi sitting across from Hansen. I let the clip run, but stopped it just before the blood started. The others gasped or winced even so; seeing a Werewolf transform and lunge at an old friend couldn't be pleasant.
"It is clear from this that as soon as the projection screen starts to descend, Cheney transforms and attacks. How, then, could this be an assassination of Cheney? Simple. There is and was already one weapon ready-made for that assassination in the room: the Shadowgard silver spray defense. If Hansen had triggered that at the same time as the screen deployment, it would have been seen as a direct attack on Cheney, who transformed in a last-minute attempt to defend himself or at least get revenge on his killer."
"Hansen... you're saying Hansen attacked the werewolf first?" Meredith said in disbelief. "But no, Hansen would never have ... unless it was an accident? He hit both buttons instead of just one?"
I shook my head. "No. The two were well separated. It wouldn't be possible to trigger them together by accident."
"But you can't tell one way or the other," Vernon said.
"I don't see anything except that screen moving," agreed a pale-faced Felicia.
"No. Things like sprays or rain actually often don't show up at all on cameras, partly from their preferred wavelength filters and partly just because of the effect of the high-speed image acquisition; try taking pictures of rain sometime, you'll find it's harder than you think to make it look anything like your eyes think it looks." I gave a brief grin. "But machines can see things that aren't obvious to us."
The clip ran again, strangely brighter in places, darker in others. The two men spoke, Hansen's head bent down...
... and as the screen began to descend, faint, ghostly jets of grayish fog, barely visible, shot from multiple points on the wall, converging on Cheney, whose face contorted in what could now be recognized as horror and agony just before the transformation began.
"My... my god," Vernon said slowly. "So... so you're saying Hansen did do it. Why? Was he... committing suicide?"
"That was the reason Meredith thought of insurance, of course," I said. "If Hansen had somehow deliberately triggered this event, it could be reasonably ruled suicide, and that would nullify the insurance policy — as he had taken the policy out recently, when he founded Outward Outreach, and thus the anti-suicide provisions were still in force. But the police found one piece of evidence that points in the direction of murder."
Jeri rose. "There were a number of fingerprints on the panel, including the most recent ones on the screen deployment and the Shadowgard defense. However, the prints on both of those buttons were of Hansen Guildermere's index finger."
The room was silent a moment, the others looking puzzled — or at least one, I was sure, faking it and sweating hard. Then Meredith's eyes narrowed. "But we just saw that the screen deployed at the same time as the silver."
"Exactly," Jeri said. "And that would have required him to press both buttons simultaneously; given the spacing and size of Hansen's hands, that would only be possible by using the index finger to activate the presentation and the pinky finger to press the Shadowgard activation; in addition, watching his movements in the camera does not show a swift movement of his arm which would accompany pressing one button and then the other very quickly. The fact that the fingerprints do not match this position, therefore shows that either he did not do that, or that he did and some unknown person wiped the original fingerprints away, replacing them with the ones we found."
Then Adam said, "But... Mr. Wood, Hansen wouldn't have done it. I am sure of that. Yet we can see that the silver was deployed. Could it have been an accident? A short circuit in the system that activated both at once?"
"Our technicians checked it out carefully," Jeri said. "It was in perfect working order."
"So there was another mystery: how was it possible that the silver had been deployed at all? There was no one else in that room. There was no remote access to those systems — that, too, was checked out. The system itself is in perfect condition, and there's never been a report of a Shadowgard system deploying like that on its own."
Dan Mason looked at me narrowly. "And you have an explanation for this?"
"Oh, I certainly do. The key is the fact that the whole system — including that control panel — is modular, easily replaced. It turns out that the control panel itself can be removed by a simple turn of a setscrew and a turn-and-pull action.
"This made it easy for the murderer to set up the entire thing. They knew that Hansen had an appointment to meet a werewolf well ahead of time — more than enough time to modify one of the replacement control modules so that a single press of the presentation button would trigger both screen deployment and Shadowgard silver spray; the modification itself wasn't very difficult, even for someone with moderate skill, as long as they knew how the module worked. Then, the evening of the murder, the murderer substituted in the new module. After the murder was over, the modified module was replaced with the original and touching Hansen's dead finger to the appropriate controls."
I pointed to the screen. "So when Hansen started to give his presentation — a presentation of alliance and hope — he sprayed his visitor with lethal poison, and was killed in return."
I looked down at Felicia. "I don't think you meant to get Hansen killed," I said quietly. "You just wanted to bring down Outward Outreach, once you found out about the will. If one of the creatures that Hansen was trying to build bridges with was killed, apparently deliberately, by Hansen, it would ruin Outward Outreach's reputation. Either Hansen would look like a hair-trigger killer, or Hansen would have to lie and justify the killing — and it was almost certain that other Werewolves would have known it was a lie, and have no trouble spreading that piece of information throughout the hidden world. Driving a wedge between humanity and other species on this world? Exactly up their alley."
"Unfortunately, you couldn't grasp just how fast a Werewolf reacts, or maybe you thought its instinct would be to run away, or maybe even that it'd just drop dead without knowing what hit it. But spraying a Wolf with silver is like hitting it with poisonous acid that causes anaphylactic shock; they know exactly what's happening, and they know they have mere seconds to react, and they always, always react with rage and hatred. So in killing Cheney, you killed Hansen, too."
"I advise both of you to say absolutely nothing," Peri Crane said emphatically, even as Felicia's face crumpled with tears and horror. "This is also purely circumstantial evidence —"
"There's plenty more," I said. "Here's how I think it worked. Felicia did the evening switch when she was closing up the office. You can see she knocks something off the desk and it rolls underneath, so she goes under then gets it out. But there's a very tiny glitch in the recording and the time-markers tell me there's a few seconds missing.
"No one's visible in the later footage, until Felicia comes in the next morning and finds the body. But if you look real close in the footage, you find a short period of time that's a loop from a prior one; the heating system's forced-air and some papers give the exact same ripples from one moment to the next. You can also see from the pattern that someone entering by the hidden panel doesn't have to cross through the blood spatter; the murderer entered that way, removed the panel, and left in the loop time."
"Still circumstantial," Dan Mason said. Felicia was staring at me, but her eyes were also glancing sideways, and I knew who she was looking at.
"But there was one key piece of evidence," I pointed out, "that wasn't circumstantial: the modified control panel. Felicia had to get that module out — she couldn't leave it there. Nor, being the person who was known to be the last out of the building, could she afford the slightest chance of being caught with that device on her person. She couldn't destroy it, she couldn't carry it with her on the chance that she might get caught in the vicinity of the office at night.
"So instead she did something absolutely brilliant: she wrapped it up and put the modified unit into the storage room with the other spare components for the system, underneath another, untouched unit. The purloined letter principle — and one that was even better because no one would even be looking there unless they already suspected something. Once the immediate fuss died down and she could get into the offices again, she could then remove the unit or even simply modify it back to its original functionality."
Jeri stood again. "And since the offices are already a crime scene, we didn't need a warrant to search them again." She slapped down a photograph of the module in question. "Found this wrapped up just as Wood described... and with clear, unmistakable prints on the sides of the module that belong to Felicia Santos."
Felicia's face shifted instantaneously from horror and fear to absolute fury and she swung about. "You told me you would wipe —"
"SHUT UP!" bellowed Vernon Guildermere — but I could see from his panicked face that he knew it was already too late.
I would have grinned, but the situation wasn't funny. "Sorry, did I say murderer? I meant murderers."
Jeri came forward, and handcuffs jingled. "Vernon Guildermere and Felicia Santos, I arrest you both for the crime of premeditated murder of the individual calling himself Cheney Lugosi, for involuntary manslaughter in the death of Hansen Guildermere, and other charges to be preferred later."
Chapter 8: Season's Greetings
"A neat and quick solution to a potentially sticky problem, Jason," Verne said, and raised a glass to me; Jeri, Morgan, Syl, and Camillus — the only ones left after the party — joined him in the toast. "Would you be willing to clarify a few points for me?"
"I guess, though I'd rather not spend the rest of Christmas on this one. In some ways it's a big downer, and not just because that nice old man got killed."
"Why did you accuse Felicia Santos alone, rather than both of them?"
"Because Vernon was a slippery bastard, that's why. I didn't have a good connection for him to the crime — just circumstantial evidence. Of the people associated with Hansen Guildermere, Vernon was the one who not only had the motive, but the means and opportunity. He worked in security, he knew how to edit security footage. No one else in the reasonable group of suspects fit.
"Unfortunately, Felicia was very close to Vernon — close enough that a defense attorney could easily argue that Felicia could have gotten the information on the control panel from him, and possibly the information on the security system needed to mess with the footage. Not likely in the latter case, mind you, but possible; Felicia wasn't just a secretary, but had some prior technical experience and education.
"Vernon figured that no one would catch on to the scam, but he wasn't taking chances either; if the module was found without anyone's fingerprints on it, the default assumptions would point to him. Modifying the footage was also a problem; cutting out the stuff that showed him entering and leaving, not so much, because the whole office was supposed to be empty except for the bodies until Felicia got there the next day, but the footage with Felicia in the office swapping the units? Much bigger problem."
"Why?" Verne asked with a raised eyebrow. "Why not eliminate even the possibility of the question about her actions?"
"Because her routine — setting up things for Hansen, closing up the office, all these things — was known, and her entering the office was also on the cameras in her area of the office — the anteroom leading to Hansen's office. There was a continuous presence that would have been much harder to seamlessly edit into, say, Felicia just walking away from the office, or never going near the desk, so he had to minimize those edits as much as possible."
Syl nodded. "And so there would be video evidence that Felicia, at least, was near the control panel."
"And she couldn't wear gloves while doing the switch; those would be a dead giveaway. So he promised he'd be wiping the module clean, which made sense to Felicia anyway, but instead he left her prints intact, while removing any of his from the plastic wrapping. This gave him one last backup: if the module was discovered, the evidence would lead to Felicia, not him."
Camillus grunted in understanding. "So you staged the sequence so that her spontaneous reaction would bring the connection forward, rather than be brought out later in a court of law — with Vernon having plenty of time to prepare to defend against an accusation he would have known would come."
"Exactly," I said. "Anything else?"
"Briefly, then. You said that you did not think they intended to kill Mr. Guildermere; yet would not Vernon Guildermere's position have been most precarious if Hansen had survived?"
I tried to smile, but the situation was still too serious. "Caught me there. Technically, I said that I didn't think Felicia had any intention to kill Hansen; she might have — I think — been having, or have had, an affair with Vernon, but I think she genuinely loved Hansen and certainly believed in his mission. Jeri and I figure that we can probably get her to testify that it was Vernon's idea and that he told her that Hansen would be safe, especially after he clearly set her up for the fall.
"With respect to Vernon... you're right. He had a contingency for Hansen surviving — he'd come in, get a completely shocked and traumatized Hansen out, promise to "take care" of things, and so on — but he must have known that this would be a very dangerous game to play, and if Hansen ever started thinking carefully about the sequence of events he'd be in huge trouble.
"But yes, I think Vernon wanted Hansen dead. Not only for the money, but also because of Felicia — and for himself. He figured that the death of Hansen, combined with the terrible publicity of the leader of Outward Outreach being murdered by one of those he was trying to contact, would help bring the organization down — and of course by killing Hansen, the money would go first to Outward Outreach and then to Vernon and the others. And he also figured that once Hansen was gone, Felicia would turn to him as she had before."
Syl shook her head. "How terrible. He must have been a terribly stupid man, for someone so apparently bright. Even if he convinced her that it was an accident, that secret would have poisoned any relationship."
"Many men are very stupid in that area," Camillus said. "Money and a pretty pair of... er, eyes drives anything else out of their heads. Still, what did you mean by him doing it for himself?"
"I don't know for sure," I said, "but honestly? I think he was poisonously jealous of his brother. The two of them started out with the same advantages, a couple years apart, and Vernon builds himself a small business, working day in and day out, while Hansen figures out how to do investments long-range and get the right people working for him, ending up running a multi-billion dollar investment and publicity firm, and personally worth five hundred or even a thousand times what Vernon was. Then Hansen just wants to — from Vernon's point of view — throw all that money away on things that aren't even human."
"You might be right," Jeri said. "His business wasn't doing all that well recently, either. If it hadn't been for the big contract he got from his brother, Vernon might've been in a lot more trouble. Problem is, some people are grateful for charity, but others ... it eats into them."
"Well, in any event, good work, my friends," said Verne. "Shall we drink to the memory of Hansen Guildermere, and hope that his dream survives his death?"
"I'll sure —"
The phone rang. I rolled my eyes but grabbed it off the hook. "Jason Wood."
"Ahh, Jason. How pleasant to hear your voice. I hope you're having a good Christmas."
Even though I'd been more than half-expecting the calm, warm, urbane voice, an icicle jabbed down my spine and I felt myself go pale. I didn't let this show in my voice, though. "Virigar. What a surprise. Well, not entirely."
"You did expect me. I can hear it. Excellent. In that case, you know why I'm calling. A job well done, Jason. You found the murderer of one of my people and are bringing him to justice on exactly that charge. I suppose you must find that a bit... disturbing."
"Slightly... but not as much as you think. You see, I know you wanted him dead too."
The voice was amused. "Did I?"
"Cheney — or whatever his real name was —"
"Tanirivanor," supplied Virigar. "A somewhat distant descendant of your old acquaintance Tanmorrai, in fact."
"Okay, Tanirivanor, then. He was in Morgantown against the spirit of your orders, talking with a human being under circumstances that were clearly peaceful. Now he could have been just stringing Hansen along, but I don't think so. The risk of making a mistake or somehow being forced to injure or kill someone inside of Morgantown, and thus getting on your list? Too much for your people. So he was really there to talk — and that is something really against your philosophy. If he hadn't been murdered, you'd have made an example of him yourself, I think."
The deceptively warm laugh rolled out. I could see Verne's face across from mine, eyes narrowed. "Perhaps, perhaps indeed, Mr. Wood. But in any analysis, you have done me and mine a considerable service. You continue to adhere to spirit and letter of our mutual ... duel of manners, shall we say? So — in the spirit of the season, and for services rendered, I give you a gift."
"A ... gift?"
"Indeed, and perhaps less disturbing than your wedding gift." My eyes glanced involuntarily towards the front room where the glittering, savage statue of a springing wolf stood. "I give you a year of freedom, Jason Wood. For one year from this day, you may rest assured that this will not be the day on which I begin your destruction. On this I pledge you my word.
"My thanks to you, Jason... and Merry Christmas."
Copyright © 2014 Ryk Spoor
Ryk E. Spoor is the coauthor, with New York Times best seller Eric Flint, of the popular Threshold series of science fiction novels. Spoor's solo novels for Baen include the Grand Central Arena series, and the epic fantasy, Phoenix Rising. His latest, Paradigms Lost, is out now.