by Sarah A. Hoyt
I drove into Goldport, Colorado at sunset, with the mountains in front of me and the sky a welter of red and gold behind them. And with a sense of doom in my heart.
Yeah, so I’m that geeky guy who makes his living investigating cryptids and writing about them for a website. For all those of you not up on the lingo, that means I hunt down reports of Big Foot, the Ohio Wolfman, Utah’s Bear Lake Monster, Denver’s Lizard Man, the south east’s supernatural panthers and all the rest, and then I take pictures if there are any to take, and report on what I found.
There was no reason to feel any particular dread of this one trip, either. Goldport was just the sort of isolated mountain town from which crazy reports came. Three hours by winding mountain road from Denver, it had been a mine town while silver boomed, then become all but a ghost town till the early twentieth century when the University of Colorado had moved one of its branches there – the infamous CUG. The surplus of educated people had, in turn, attracted a trickle of technical entrepreneurs which had turned into a flood sometime in the Eighties.
Now Goldport, holding on to its rugged image, was a mixture of white collar geeks, the students who would become white collar geeks, and the people who catered to their interests and needs. It was rumored to have the best comic shop west of the Mississippi River, the best microbreweries in the world, and one of the best “weird and geeky” presses anywhere in the universe.
In other words, it was just the sort of place where the front page of the paper would publish pictures of a dragon flying in a snow storm. Mike, my old college roommate and buddy who runs the cryptid site, gets clippings and scans of stuff like that three times a week, usually from places like Goldport, or from Brazil. Brazil either has an instability in its reality field or its papers enjoy spicing up readers’ lives with crazy reports.
The problem with the Goldport photo was that neither Mike nor I, nor Millie – Mike’s wife – could find anything in the picture to show that it was Photoshop.
Look, even the best image manipulators screw up, okay? There will be a hint of shadow gone wrong, somewhere the light doesn’t hit right. There will be some pixels out of place. But this picture didn’t have any of those, and the dragon didn’t look like a drawing or a figurine, not even a really well done one. It looked real, like something you could see flying by your window on a Saturday afternoon in January. That is, if dragons existed. This photo just might prove that dragons existed.
So Mike and Millie had asked if I’d come out. A day’s driving, because we were based in Kansas. The cyrptid website had been what Mike and I had started when we were laid off from our dot.com jobs after the bust. It had been born of an afternoon discussion on strange animals, and where they could be hiding, why there were never any decent pictures taken, and whether there could be any truth in rumors of things like the Loch Ness Monster and Big Foot. We’d hashed it back and forth, pulled out the scientific articles for and against, and finally decided to start the website for discussion.
It had taken off in an unpredictable way, and now Mike and Millie and I got our livings from it. One of us would drive or fly off to verify sightings, then come back, get one of our scientists – the ones who worked for pizza and beer – to give their view of the whole thing, and put it up.
As a result we were both sensational and scientific, and we’d managed to become the go-to- resource for cryptids for everyone from educators to your corner nut.
What we’d never managed to do was prove that even a single one of the sightings of odd animals was true. Which was why I was on my way to Goldport, on the track of that weirdly real picture, and why it was so odd for me be scared as I drove down the very clean streets of this white-bread mountain town. Thousands of times and nothing had gone wrong… It wouldn’t go wrong now in this clean-cut, straight-laced city.
Oh, sure, it had rougher patches, like the run-down motel row I was driving past, but that didn’t make it rough. And there was no reason, no reason on Earth that I should be feeling dread.
Perhaps it was that oh-so-very-real photo, or the fact that once we started digging into it, we’d found other odd reports in the local press. There was a black panther that showed up now and then, but no one could quite track down. There was a report of a room-sized roach. There were way more deaths by misadventure involving wild animals than there should be, and a few years back there appeared to be a reign of terror run by komodo dragon of unusual size. Then there were reports that had to be a joke, of a squirrel in a beret, smoking Galoises and carrying a little red book.
Taken one at a time, it was easy to shrug off all the reports and say that whatever it was was in fact impossible. But all of them together—
I started to shrug my shoulders to ease a feeling of tension and cold in the middle of my back, then forgot it all as a large, golden dog surged in front of the van. It ran into my path so close that I had to stand on the bakes to stop from running it down. As I stopped, I realized the dog had come around to the driver’s side of the van and also that it was not only beautiful and well groomed, but that it looked like an Afghan hound, a rare breed. I only knew what it was because a friend of mine had owned one of these growing up. Obviously this was no feral mutt. And it was stretching, paws on the window.
I opened the door and said, “What is it boy? What—” I couldn’t say anything more, because the dog had nuzzled the door a crack, and forced himself in, jumping onto the space in front of the passenger seat.
Reaching over, to open the passenger door wide, I said, “Come on, boy. You can’t mean to get in here. I’m not your owner. I don’t want to be accused of steal—” Before I opened the door, I saw people come running out of the side of the road towards the van. There was a little wooded area out there, what seemed to be a camping ground of some sort, and they were running out of there, from where, at a guess, the dog had come.
You know how sometimes your body makes decisions before informing your brain what is going on? Mine took a split second to ditch the idea of opening the passenger door, and hardly any longer to close the door on my side and step on the gas and take off out of there like I meant it.
I was probably a mile down the road, before I thought through what I’d seen. This was a beautiful, well cared for dog, without a collar. A dog who had just forced himself into my car, despite not knowing me. A dog who looked terrified. And the people running out of the wooded area looked… not like the kind of people who would own a really expensive dog. More like the kind of people who would steal a really expensive dog and hold him for ransom. Or perhaps use him in dog fights – even though I couldn’t imagine anyone using an Afghan hound for that. These weren’t exactly your vicious dogs.
But the thing is that the pursuers looked just like the kind of people who would try. I’d only got a quick impression of twenty or so people, all running out, all … well… all male and all rough-looking. It was enough. On the other hand, I thought, as I took the first right turn haphazardly, and then a left turn into a tree-lined street with largish houses – if they were really rough characters, they would be after me. Could they have got my license plate number?
“Damn,” I said. “They’re probably after me. I just managed to involve myself in a local dispute. And they probably do own the dog.”
“They don’t,” a voice said from in front of the passenger seat.
I cast a quick glance to the side, veered all over the road, said, “Oh, my,” and bit down on a more vigorous exclamation, because huddled on the floor of the passenger side was a girl. She was blond and slight, and for just a moment I thought she was young – very young, like fourteen or fifteen. But then I focused on her face, because the rest was naked and I really didn’t want to look at it, and, my face burning, realized that she was in her late twenties, maybe around my age. The face had that mature look, and the eyes – strangely warm brown eyes – had a look of grave seriousness. She still looked scared
Yeah. I had no doubt that those almond-shaped eyes had belonged to the Afghan hound. Which meant I had been wrong in calling the dog “boy.” I pulled to the side of the road. Turned off the ignition.
“You shouldn’t stop,” she said. She had a low voice, raspy, which made me think of dark coffee and nutmeg. “They might have got the license plate.” She was huddled, sitting down, hugging her knees, managing to hide as much of herself as was possible. “They will be looking.” Her hair was very long, covering most of her back, and it was the exact color of the hound’s fur. Her face was peaked, oval-with-a-pointy-chin and managing to betray both elegance and a sort of artlessness that has nothing to do with youth.
I opened my mouth, closed it. How does one argue with a girl who was a dog just moments before? Nothing in my ten years of hunting down cryptids had prepared me for this. I started the car again and took off down the street. “Where do I go?” I asked.
“Somewhere public,” she said. “Somewhere with a lot of people. It will be less likely they’ll come after us in public. Of course, I’ll have to shift, and they’ll claim they own me.” The little, raspy voice had a sad undertone.
“Shift,” I said, but didn’t ask what that meant. The question answered itself. She had the good sense to ignore me. She’d risen on her knees and took a quick peek out of the side window. She dropped down again into her protective stance. “If you turn right ahead, then left, we’ll be on Fairfax Avenue. There’s a diner there, the George. At this hour the parking lot will be pretty busy.”
I did as she told me. When the world is completely insane, acting as though it all were perfectly logical is your only defense.
As I pulled into the parking lot, I realized that there was a problem with a public place and a naked girl. I could ask her to change back into a dog, of course. But then she couldn’t talk. My eyes scanning the parking lot for any approaching stream of dubious characters, my mind jumped to the obvious conclusion. “Go in the back,” I said. “There’s a space to get back there between the seats.” She gave me an apprehensive look, and I explained. “There’s a duffle bag back there. Open it. You’ll find a bunch of clothes, and there should be a grey sweat suit. Put it on, and bring me the hiking boots.”
She didn’t argue. A good thing when a young woman didn’t argue, in a situation that was already crazy. I caught glimpses of grey cloth in the mirror, then she squeezed between the seats, wearing my suit and extending me the hiking boots. as if she thought I might bite. I put the van in park, put my shoes on and handed her the flip flops.
“You haven’t turned the ignition off,” she said.
“No, in case we need to take off,” I said, as I looked again one way and another in the parking lot. It was a large parking lot behind a diner, with a busy street on one side, an alley on the other, and facing a huge brick Victorian at the back. A car came into the parking lot and pulled up, but the people that came out of it, a man and a woman, middle aged, laughing together, didn’t seem the type to be involved with the roughs who’d chased after the hound. I noticed my companion tensed slightly and followed them with her eyes, but when I asked her, “Do you know them? Is there any reason we should avoid them?” she shook her head. She still followed them with her eyes, and her forehead was slightly wrinkled.
I said, “Well, come on. We’ll talk where it’s public.”
She got out of the van, looking both ways and darted as close to the diner as possible, in full view of the windows. I followed. The place looked Greek by way of mid-century America. It was clearly a small home that had been expanded with a glassed-in annex. Inside, as we came in to a tinkle from the bell on the door, into a smell of hot frying oil and souvlaki, it was homey and somehow familiar in the way stereotypical places have of being familiar. There were stools along the shiny chrome counter, a row of booths against each wall, tables in the center and tables in the annex. My companion made like a shot for the back of the diner, and a corner booth that looked too small for normal human beings. She scooted in under a gruesome picture of St. George slaying a dragon, which had been drawn mostly in red and by someone obsessed with bloodshed. This was so far from the normal pictures of Greece in a place like this, that I stared, remembering that outside over the door there had been something in neon, flipping pancakes, and I’d almost swear it was a dragon.
More confirmation was on the wall to my left where The George, with a logo of a dragon in a chef’s hat flipping pancakes, was awarded Best Place for a Midnight Breakfast and Best Place for Saturday Brunch by a newspaper that sounded like one of the free rags given away in college towns.
I looked at the painting again. Curiouser and curioser. Was this a place for dragon haters? Or merely people obsessed with dragons? In my head, I saw the dragon picture as real and these people right here as the dragon hunters, chasing down dragons relentlessly and—
“What will it be?” a voice asked, and I realized a woman stood beside me. She was very pretty. At least that was my first impression. Slim and somewhat darker than olive skinned, racially unplaceable and probably one of those mixes that exist only in America, with long hair down to the middle of her back dyed in complex layers that made an ever changing tapestry of earth tones as she moved.
I sat down and looked up at her. She was wearing a green apron with The George on the chest, and a red feather earring. She smiled at me and set down two menus, one in front of me and one in front of my guest. Was it my impression that she seemed to look twice at the young woman? Well. The young woman was dressed like… she was wearing my clothes. Which in fact she was. But she looked up and managed a smile at the waitress, while she put a hand on top of the menu. “Just coffee, please.”
I ordered a coffee too, but kept the menu. The smell of souvlaki and gyros made me realize how hungry I was, but the menu appeared to be written in a foreign language. I blinked in confusion at things called “Draw One in the Dark,” “Noah’s Boy,” “Bowl of Red,” and “Gentleman Takes a Chance” before realizing that there were the real names for the foods written underneath: black coffee, ham sandwich, tomato soup, hash.
Still it seemed very odd, and I was relieved to find a side of the menu labeled “specialties” that was mercifully free of this strange speak. It listed things like “The George’s Platter” which consisted of salad, gyro strips, pork and chicken souvlaki, olives and dolmades. I wondered how big it was, but at $15, how big could it be?
I ordered it when the waitress brought our coffee, and five minutes later had the answer. Big. As in, really, really big. It was a tray, piled high with salad and meat. She brought two plates with it, one for me and one for my guest, and then, with a look over her shoulder at my guest, she left us.
My guest daintily helped herself to an olive and a slice of tomato, and I told her, “Please. You have to help me eat this. I didn’t realize I was ordering enough for a family of four.”
She looked up and smiled, tensely, and I realized – don’t ask me how – that she was very hungry, an impression confirmed moments later when she started tucking into the food with a will.
“How—” I stopped short of asking her how old she was. I’d guess short of my own age. Instead I asked, “What should I call you?”
She paused towards munching on souvlaki – excellent, I’d tasted two pieces – and looked up, blinking. “Jane,” she said, much too hastily, and then as though she sought to make things clearer, “Smith.”
“I see,” I said. “And you… you… shift? Into an Afghan hound?”
She stopped shoveling meat into her mouth at a prodigious rate, and nodded, once. Then she set the fork down and said, “Look, look… I… If I tell you, you won’t give me away, will you? I mean, I—”
“I’d be very careful what you tell him,” a man said. As he spoke, he slid into the seat next to me, forcing me to slide over. I looked at him in some alarm. He didn’t look like one of the guys who’d chased the dog… Well, chased Jane, whatever her real name was. I was fairly sure I’d have noticed a guy with a reddish-blond mane wearing a Hawaiian shirt and khakis.
On the other hand, he was tall and powerfully built, and his casual comment wasn’t filling me with confidence. “Who—” I said.
He flipped ID at me. “Rafiel Trall. Officer of the Serious Crime Unit, Goldport.”
I turned sideways and blinked. “Oh.” I relaxed a little. “Is anything wrong?”
He made a face. “You work for a website about cryptids?”
“Is anything wrong with working for—” I asked, even as I registered, out of the corner of my eye, that Jane started to rise up out of the booth.
“Depends. Would you be intending to cause trouble?” the policeman asked, even as, deftly, he put a hand out to stop Jane leaving. “Rumors of shape shifters could really ruin this town’s tourism and—” He stopped because I’d snorted.
“Have you looked at the site?” I asked. “In eleven years of operation, we have yet to find a true cryptid. And if we did, I’m not sure our public would believe it.” I paused. “Hell, I’m not sure I believe it, and I saw it, with my own eyes.”
He turned half sideways to look at me, and I realized he was looking at me very intently. More alarmingly, the waitress was back, and standing very near the table. Next to her was a man maybe two inches shorter than her, but for that not unimpressive. He had the chest of a fanatical weight lifter, not rendered less alarming by his wearing a George apron that must have been customized because under the dragon logo it said “Beware of Flames.” He wore his hair long, confined in a bandana, and he carried a spatula. Don’t ask me how, but that spatula looked lethal. Next to him, completely closing off that side of the table, so that neither I nor Jane could leave, was a small Chinese man, wearing jeans, a checkered shirt, a bolo tie, and a determined expression. They were all glaring at me, though they also seemed to prevent Jane from moving. She’d started panting, and the Chinese man touched her on the shoulder. “Don’t,” he said. “Shifting here would be a bad idea.” She looked scared, but stopped the panting.
“Would you care to tell me when you saw shifting? I presume you mean shape shifting?” the police officer said. “And how you met this young woman?”
I told him. As I said, when things get crazy enough you act like they’re perfectly sane. Sometimes that’s the only way to survive. So I told everything from the time I’d driven into town and seen a beautiful dog escaping a bunch of rough looking characters.
He listened to it all to the end, in silence, though I expected snorts of derision or confusion, at any moment. Instead I got “I see,” as I finished.
“So you’re probably not the one who did it,” the waitress said.
“Who did what?” I asked.
Instead of answering me, Officer Trall turned to Jane. “Your name really is Naomi Howland, right?”
For a moment, I thought Jane would bolt, and since her way was blocked, she would do it by jumping over myself and Officer Trall, and running out the door atop tables, booths and people’s heads. Instead, the wild look of panic in her face subsided, and she said, “Yes,” in the tiniest voice, followed by “I don’t want to go to jail. I don’t.”
I registered surprise from all the people around us. Then Trall said, “Why would you go to jail?”
“I stole… I was left at the pound… various places… I was to make up to… rich people, and then when they were gone call a number and… open the door to…”
“To your kidnappers?” Rafiel asked. “But my dear, that’s not your fault. You were what? Twelve, when you were taken? Coercion and Stockholm syndrome. Besides, how do you think the police would prove that? Could we show in court that you changed into a dog and back? Do you think anyone would believe it? And if they did, think what it would do to our lives. At best, we’d all end up as experiment subjects in some lab.”
Her eyes were very big. Tears shone in them. I said, “You’re upsetting her,” and was surprised at the defensiveness in my tone.
But she shook her head. “You see,” she said, her voice very small. “I had just started shifting. I was afraid… afraid my parents would… find out, and kill me or something. And then...”
“These men… One of the boys at school talked to me. He shifted too, so I thought I was safe, and he said his dad could cure me and…” She shook her head. “They took me to this place, in the mountains. It used to be a miner’s shack. There were a dozen of them. They said they’d told my parents and my parents didn’t want me. They showed me a letter—” She paused. “And then they made me do the scam, you know, being the cute puppy and getting adopted and then…” She shook her head. “For ten years. Five houses a year, because it took a while for people to feel like they could trust a new dog loose in the house. And they said if I told, I’d be arrested too. Then they came back to Goldport, and I heard them talk. They were going to take me to the pound, but they said we’d have to be careful because this diner was a center of shifters, and some of you weren’t cool. I wasn’t sure what it meant, but I thought they were afraid of you, and I should… I wanted to come here and ask for help.”
“You did the right thing. We’ve been looking for you for ten years,” Rafiel said. “The entire force has. When this man came in with you, Kyrie spotted that something was wrong.” He nodded to the waitress. “And of course we could tell you were a shape shifter, and he wasn’t. We could smell it. So we ran the van ID and we thought we’d figured it out, that he’d kidnapped you to create cryptid incidents or smell out other shifters, or something.”
“Now, really,” I said. “What kind of a cryptid incident is an Afghan Hound?”
Rafiel gave me a fleeting smile. “Not a great one,” he said. “Well, not for a website. But it happens. Believe it or not we have a were-basset hound too.”
“I don’t believe it,” I said.
“Good. Willingness to believe it would make me fear for your sanity,” the policeman said. Then he turned to the young woman, “Look, Miss Howland, your parents have been looking for you for ten years. I imagine you’re anxious to reunite with them—”
Jane-Naomi looked anguished. “Yes, but… but… what will they think… I mean…”
“I think they’ll think they’re very happy to get you back. Your mom might want to tell you some things you don’t know about your grandfather. But meanwhile… that ring is still out there. I take it they’re all shifters?”
She nodded. “Coyotes mostly,” she said. “And a fox. They can’t get adopted, see? When they met me—”
“Yes, but now they’ll be looking for another young shifter to kidnap and if you escape…”
Her eyes were very big. “I just want to get away,” she said. “I just want to go home. I’ve had put up with them for ten years. I’ve worked their scam. I’ve been fed dog food and visited every humane society in Colorado, always in danger of being put down if they have too many dogs. And there was… other stuff… What more can I do?”
Now the waitress pushed in, to sitting beside Naomi, and held her hands. “Listen,” she said. “I understand where you’re coming from. And you don’t owe anything to anyone. If you want us to call your mom right now, we’ll take you home, and I’ll tell Rafiel to stuff it. For most people that’s how it would work, except for a court date to identify your kidnappers. But we’re not most people. We’re born with the ability to shift.” She must have seen my widening eyes because she gave me a small smile. “And we heal faster, are stronger, and live longer than normal humans. But the price we pay is that we exist outside normal human society. We can’t just go to the courts and say these men exploited a young, fearful female shifter. That’s not how life works for us. We live with the threat of our secret being exposed at any minute, and normal humans turning on us. There are a lot of us in Goldport. There are reasons for that. Maybe we’ll tell you some day.” She gave me another smile. “But we’re very few in the whole world. We’d be at best curiosities and at worse destroyed.” She squeezed Naomi’s hands. “The problem is that we come in all human varieties. And those that are bad are very, very bad. If those men continue to do what they do, if they find another victim, sooner or later they’re going to get caught. And then we’ll all be caught. Besides—” She paused. “Would you like what happened to you to happen to any other twelve year old?”
Naomi formed “No,” soundlessly, and shook her head. Then she cleared her throat. “No,” she said, in her little raspy voice. “What do I do?”
“We should take this to the back room,” the short man in the bandana and custom apron said. “He’s not one of us. He might talk.”
Naomi looked at me. It was a quick, considering look. Then she shook her head. “No,” she said. “No. He’s not of us, but he helped me when I needed it. He gave me the clothes off his back. Well, off his duffle-bag. While the ones who were shifters…” She shook her head again. “I feel safe with him here.”
“Thank you,” I said, feeling humbled.
The policeman next to me chuckled. “One picture, cryptid man. One word in your infernal website and they’ll be wondering what made those big bite marks on your corpse.”
“I wouldn’t,” I said. “I’d never do anything to hurt Naomi.”
“Good,” Rafiel Trall said. “Because I think the ruse will work best if you’re in on it.”
The plan unrolled. It was simple. She was to call them and tell them that I wanted to take her prisoner, to make her reveal other cryptids to me. She was scared. She’d heard me call my associates, and on the way out of town tomorrow evening, we were going to stop for dinner at a place called Three Luck Dragon. She wanted them to rescue her.
Naomi played her part word-perfect. She called from the back room – a storage room filled with bins of flour and racks of paper napkins – because it was quieter than the diner, and we didn’t want them to trace us. Meanwhile, the police changed my license plate, just in case. I was starting to get a feeling this was a very unusual town. I definitely had the feeling that these people were all shifters. I wondered into what and if one of them was the dragon in the picture. It didn’t seem worth it to ask. After all, what could I do? I’d never thought, when setting out to be cryptid hunter, that cryptids would have law-and-order problems or be policemen. Or young kidnapped females who turned into Afghan hounds.
They found some clothes for Naomi. The people in the diner seemed to have an endless supply of clothes in various sizes. “It is a side effect of our condition,” Kyrie, the waitress, and apparently co-owner of the diner said. “That we end up naked a lot.” It was one of the many problems I’d never considered for shape shifters. After all, in novels, they are always sexy naked or something, or have these little minimal bondage-like outfits that end up staying on throughout.
At any rate, the nakedness in stories comes with a lot of sex. I was getting a feeling there might or might not be sex for real shifters, but it wasn’t the entire reason for their lives. And being naked in public would be inconvenient. For one, being naked in public makes people stare. For another… for another it’s really hard to get help or food or anything when mother-naked, without a really good story.
They took us to a nearby house, where we could rest through the rest of the night and spend the day tomorrow, so we weren’t at risk of being discovered in the diner. It turned out Naomi mostly wanted to talk. She mostly wanted to talk about her parents. Her mom was a nurse and her dad was a mechanic. She’d had a completely normal childhood, until the shift came.
The stories always make it sound like it would be cool to shift. But all Naomi had got was being a young girl, barely coping with being a human and now having to handle another form too. She talked quietly, over endless cups of tea, at the kitchen table of the house I believed belong to Kyrie and Tom the diner owners, and also waitress and cook. “It’s very odd, and at first I barely remembered what happened when I was the dog,” she said. “Then I started remembering more and having more control. Also more control when I shifted. I still wish very hard that I didn’t have to shift.” She looked at me with very sad eyes, and I smiled at her.
“But you get the healing ability, and you’ll live longer.”
“I just want to be a normal girl,” she said, and didn’t cry but made me want to.
After a while she asked me about me, and Millie and Mike, and how we’d fallen into this very weird cryptid business. She laughed at the cavalier way in which we’d started, and I told her some of the funniest stories I’d hunted down, like the big lizard alien who turned out to be someone’s pet lizard photographed at a really high resolution. “You see,” I told her. “People don’t want to know… I mean, they really aren’t hunting for people like you. They just want an amusing story and the idea that the world holds wonders beyond normal life.”
“How odd,” she said. “For years I’ve dreamed of normal life.”
At night fall, when the people from the diner came for us, we were the best of friends. I never thought I could feel so much at home with someone who could shift shapes, but of course I’d been working with the idea of cryptids my whole life.
Tom and Rafiel gave me instructions. I was to drive to Three Luck Dragon, and go in with Naomi and order a meal. “Don’t worry. There will be no one else there. There rarely is. And then we wait, in the parking lot,” he said. “The… people who run the restaurant are allies, of sorts. They might help. They almost for sure won’t stop us. We’ve talked to them. Or at least sent message. Just delay till after the restaurant closes, and then come out. They will be waiting for you. And so will we.”
It all went according to plan—to a point. Kyrie had given Naomi a wraparound dress thing. She looked good. It looked like a date.
It wasn’t a date. I could maybe see sometime in the distant future where we might have feelings for each other, but for now, she was too much of a wounded thing, and I just wanted to protect her.
Dinner seemed quite normal, even if the restaurant was deserted. The food was good. I figured it was only this empty because it was a week night, and it was late.
I looked outside at the parking lot. My van, with its license plate back to normal, was the only thing in the parking lot.
What if the kidnappers didn’t come? What if the good guys didn’t come? Where were the good guys? Why weren’t there more cars out there?
We paid our bill and headed out, into the warm summer night. At the door, I paused and turned to Naomi to say something about how that was the best hot and sour soup I’d ever had. The sign at the restaurant door was just being flipped from open to close by a hand which showed surprisingly long clawlike nails.
A sound made me turn. There were men surrounding us. They were the men Naomi had been running from when I met her. Instinctively, I put my hand on her arm.
One of the nearest men, an unkempt guy with a bushy beard, snarled, “None of that. She’s coming with us now. She’s our bitch. You stay away if you know what’s good for you.”
“We should kill him, Joe,” another of the charmers said. “He might post pictures.”
The one nearest me was coughing, only I had a feeling it wasn’t a cough as such, and his body was spasming, the features acquiring a lupine cast.
From above came the sound of wings. Two dragons, one green and one red, descended. From the shadows of the parking lot, other… things emerged. A glossy black panther, a lion, a fox and a squirrel wearing a beret.
I was staring at the squirrel as the melee broke out. Someone pushed me out of the way. Other someones grabbed the men and coyotes and forms inbetween who’d surrounded Naomi.
And then suddenly I realized Naomi was nowhere in sight. I told myself that Afghan hounds not being a fighting breed, she’d probably have got out of the way, but I felt that something was wrong. Something was very wrong.
It was dark in the parking lot and there were very large and very odd bodies fighting everywhere. I followed, no sound, no hint of presence, only the vague feeling that Naomi was somewhere around, that she was in danger.
From behind one of the boulders past the building, dividing the parking lot from an alley, came a sound like a sigh. “Naomi.” I ran.
I squeezed between the boulders and to the alley. The man was holding Naomi down, and from her position, he was holding something to her back. A gun? A knife? I’d never had to fight anyone since middle school.
But I thought that now that they knew that Naomi was likely to run away, they’d use even harsher methods to get her to obey. I didn’t know what they’d be, and I didn’t want to think about them. Then I thought about how much Naomi wanted to go home. And about the parents who’d missed her all these years.
I found myself pulling the man off her. He was holding a knife. I didn’t have much in the way of weapons, except my hiking boots. But as I turned to face him, I found Naomi pushing something into my hand. It was a rock.
Whoever said not to bring a knife to a gun fight never brought a rock to a knife fight. The rock is a lousy shield, and sucks as an offensive weapon. But I found panic gave me ideas. As the man thrust the knife at me, I sidestepped and hit his wrist hard with the rock.
He dropped it. I didn’t have time to stop and didn’t dare stoop for it, so I hit him again, hard, across the forehead with the rock. He came at me roaring. And he was twisting and writhing. The teeth that closed on my arm were canine. I screamed.
Suddenly Naomi was there. There was a swipe of the knife, and the creature – coyote? wolf? – latched onto my arm. Blood poured out of the animal, spurts hitting my arm. Then the teeth let go. My arm was bleeding too, but the animal fell to the ground, bleeding, writing, changing.
Where the coyote had been there was a dead, naked man. And Naomi was looking at me, “Are you hurt?” she said. “I couldn’t let him hurt you, see. Not after everything you did for me.”
Which was the last thing I saw before I passed out from blood loss or perhaps shock.
I came to with a man sewing my arm. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We get pretty good at fixing wounds, after a while.”
“Will I change into a werewolf?” I asked. And to the man’s blank expression. “I was bitten by one.”
“Nah. Doesn’t work that way. You have to be born that way, and then you change at puberty.”
“Good,” I said. I’d had a glimpse into how the other half lived. I didn’t want to become one of them.
I slept in Kyrie and Tom’s guest bed, on the back porch of their house, that night, and planned to head out on the road bright and early in the morning.
At least that was the idea, but Naomi called and I met her at the diner. They’re keeping it all pretty quiet still, just announced she was found and I gather there would be a story of amnesia. But that morning no one knew she had been found, and I could have breakfast with Naomi and Mr. and Mrs. Howland, who were like everyone’s dream parents, still unflappable and loving, after losing their daughter for ten years, and after – doubtless – knowing what had happened.
I shook hands with her father over the breakfast table, and smiled at Naomi. “You come back and visit now and now, son,” her father said. “Goldport is pretty pleasant, if you don’t come during a blizzard.”
“I will, thank you, sir. I’m not so far away.”
And then I headed back to the van, and headed back to Kansas and Mike and Millie. For the first time since college, I’m going to lie to my best buds. It was an art rendition of a dragon, I’ll tell them. Photographed in a storm, of course it looked real.
They won’t question it. We’ve had enough of wild goose chases. We’ll have a lot more in the future, at least if I’m concerned. There will be funny stories of someone’s pet lizard with paper wings glued to his back; spooky stories of legends of some lizardlike being living in top secret bunkers.
But as far as I’m concerned, no matter how much I travel, or how much people crave the fantastic, Big Foot, the Ohio Wolfman, Utah’s Bear Lake Monster, Denver’s Lizard Man, and the Carolinas’ Panthers are all safe from me.
They have trouble enough policing themselves and each other and trying to stay safe and on the right side of the law.
And in the end, all they want is to be normal people. Like everyone else.
I don’t need to add to their troubles.
Copyright © 2013 by Sarah A. Hoyt
Sarah A. Hoyt is originally from Portugal, but is a long time U.S. citizen. She’s the creator of the Shifter series, which began with Draw One in the Dark and Gentleman Takes a Chance, and continues with latest entry Noah’s Boy. She is also the author of the Prometheus-award-winning Darkship Thieves, as well as its sequels Darkship Renegades and A Few Good Men.