They catcalled to Lincoln Marshall when he pulled up in a rented ’96 Toyota Corolla. A brittle-haired blond in her forties plumped her breasts, wrinkled to hard leather from too much sun, and grabbed his crotch the instant he stepped from the car.
“Look at him,” she told the others. “I love a man with money.”
He pushed her hand away, but another took its place. A cracked French manicure dug into his balls.
“Smells nice,” said Frenchy, sliding her palm down the shaft through his briefs. He didn’t even manage a half-hearted erection.
“Smells like Axe,” said a third. “I love Axe.”
“Don’t touch me,” Lincoln said.
The blond barked a nicotine laugh. “Queer.”
He pushed away the next attempt to grope him, and the next.
“Think he’s queer? He looks queer.”
“What a faggot.”
“Cut him,” said a fourth.
Lincoln had seen the likes of these bitches when he was in college. They were flies buzzing around the corpses of good towns gone sick, feeding on the rot in the hearts of men. The only way to eliminate them was to eliminate the corpse.
He smoothed a nervous hand over his hair, cropped so that it wouldn’t brush his ears or collar. He bumped the door of the Corolla shut with his hip. And then he drew his badge. The brass shined in the caged lightbulb on the bar’s back door. Six points of a star, nestled comfortably in leather backing, encircled the insignia of the Grove County Sheriff’s Department.
“Don’t touch me,” Lincoln said again.
This time, the women listened. He blinked and they were gone.
Lincoln Marshall turned a full circle, looking for the pungent women that had greeted him. There was no hint of lycra or animal print. He couldn’t even smell tobacco anymore.
Semi trucks slumbered on a patch of bare dirt behind the bar, reduced to black rectangles against the navy sky. Music rattled through the tin-paneled walls of the bar, jittering the boards nailed over the windows. Lincoln heard laughter inside, the too-loud voices of drunk men shouting, the rattle of glass bottles.
But the women were gone. They hadn’t even left footprints in the dust.
He grabbed the handle of his car door, tempted to drive away. Instead, he pocketed his badge again, and pulled out a notebook. He had written three things on the first page: The Pump Lounge (US-93), Lucas McIntyre - The Hunting Club, and Find the woman. There was a hundred dollar bill tucked in the back page in case he needed gas or a tow truck. The rest of the money was at home. All five thousand of it.
Notebook back in pocket. Hand smoothed over his hair. Deep breaths.
Lincoln Marshall walked into The Pump Lounge.
A live band played on a three feet-by-three feet platform in the corner that passed for a stage. Banjo, drums, vocalist, none of them with any obvious skill. It didn’t matter. Nobody was listening.
At one table, three bikers in fringed leather vests argued with a jaundiced skeleton of a man. An old woman wearing Daisy Dukes was sobbing at another table, consoled by a trucker. A man was slumped at the end of the bar, thigh fat drooped over either side of the barstool, snoring into a pile of vomit. The bartender, a brick house of a woman with a heart tattooed on her cheek, wiped down the chunks with a dishtowel.
“What you want, sugar?” she asked Lincoln. Her eyes flicked over his polo shirt, khakis, and loafers.
“Lime and tonic on the rocks,” he said. “I’m driving.”
“You’re stained,” the bartender said, jerking her chin at his crotch.
He looked down, surprised to see a circle of moisture over the lap of his khakis. He hadn’t even been aroused by the assault outside, yet his body had reacted to the pawing.
Angry heat crept up his neck. He could see his face purpling in the sliver of clean mirror behind the bar. He was a handsome man, Lincoln Marshall, and he knew it—from the square jaw to the bright hazel eyes, the cheekbones that could cut right through any woman’s heart, and the broad shoulders. Girls in high school used to tell him to go to Hollywood. Become an actor. But he’d returned from his full-ride football scholarship to protect Grove County. Nothing was more important than that.
He wasn’t a man that wet himself over crack whores.
“Don’t take it personal,” the bartender said. “They get everyone.” She slid a tumbler toward him. He caught it.
“There was nobody out there,” Lincoln said.
She gave him a knowing look. “Take the booth. He’ll be here soon.”
The bartender had already turned her back.
Lincoln glanced at the door that he had used as an entrance. The night outside was black, blacker than it had any right to be. He couldn’t even see the rickety wooden steps leading to the threshold. It was like someone had draped a blanket over the doorway. He wouldn’t be going out that way.
He wouldn’t be going out the supposed front door, either. It was nailed shut. He got a real good look at the bent nails as he slid into the booth positioned next to it. The table was covered in a yellow crust. Sulfur? It was hard to tell with the overbearing stench of piss and vomit and cheap liquor.
Lincoln set the tumbler down. He didn’t dare drink. Alcohol-free or not, he didn’t trust the bartender to serve him something that wasn’t laced.
Ripping napkins out of the metal container, he scrubbed at his trousers. He had shot a load at having broken fingernails dug into his genitals and hadn’t felt the orgasm. Some unsettled part of him wondered if the hooker had stolen the sensations from him. The Devil was working black magic behind a bar on US-93, miles from Alamo City, where even God couldn’t shine His light.
“You’re a long way from home, Deputy.”
A bear of a man took the opposite side of the booth. The hair on his head was prematurely receding, but what remained looked like it had been dyed blue with Kool-Aid. What his scalp lacked carpeted his beastly arms and stuck out the collar of his wife beater instead. He wasn’t trying to hide his shoulder rig. Two pistols, positioned for a cross-draw, gleamed black in the dim light of The Pump Lounge.
“Lucas McIntyre?” Lincoln guessed.
McIntyre tongued his stretched labret plug and smiled.
In any other situation, Lincoln would have offered to shake his hand. But he still had a fistful of messy napkins and his nerves were wound tight. He wasn’t going to touch this filthy redneck riddled with facial piercings, not when a single touch from the women outside had juiced him dry of both semen and courage.
Find the woman.
“How can I help you?” McIntyre asked.
“Aren’t we still waiting on someone?”
“You said on the phone that you could hook me up with her,” Lincoln said.
“I can. You talk to me first.” His sentences were staccato, choppy as his thinning hair, like talking was an effort.
Lincoln tossed the napkins onto the table. “I could have talked to you on the phone if it was like that. I didn’t have to come…here.”
“You did ‘cause we said you did,” McIntyre said. “Tell me what you need. I’ll tell you if you can see her.”
Lincoln didn’t like this. Not one bit. But he could tell when he was cornered. He had no leverage to negotiate, and he wanted out of this hellhole as soon as possible. “There have been murders. I’m told that she’s the expert with this stuff.”
“Deputies deal with murders,” McIntyre said.
“They’re considered animal attacks. The bodies are mauled beyond recognition. Remaining flesh is semi-masticated, and the rest of the bodies are consumed.”
“First they’re murders, now they’re animal attacks.”
“It’s both,” Lincoln said.
McIntyre raised his pierced brows. “So it’s like that.”
“Yeah. It’s like that.”
“And new,” Lincoln said grimly.
That was the information that clearly convinced McIntyre. An average crackpot wouldn’t know that werewolves—real werewolves, the Devil gloved in a man’s skin—transformed twice a month: once when the moon was full, and once when there was no moon at all.
McIntyre rubbed his jaw with a meaty hand. There was a chunk missing from his chin that looked like a bite wound. “How many?”
“None,” Lincoln said. “Yet. But there have been two missing people. We don’t know if they’re dead or if they’ve been…taken.”
“You want to find these people?” McIntyre asked.
It was a weird question, and equally as probing as the question about the phases of the moon. Lincoln sat back against the ripped leather bench as he considered. If he wanted to find the missing people—if they found them alive, bitten, and changed—they would have to do something about the fact that they had become werewolves. It was, at its core, a question about Lincoln's sympathies.
For the last year, the newly-formed Office of Preternatural Affairs had taken a tough stance against all things evil and fanged. Their obvious yet unspoken policy on werewolves was toughest of all: extermination. Werewolves were already an endangered species. The OPA hoped to make them extinct.
He couldn’t exactly disagree with the sentiment, but if the OPA learned that Grove County had a werewolf problem, they would get involved. Lincoln didn’t want an OPA office in his town. It was his county, his people, and he wasn’t going to let the feds take it from him.
“I called you instead of the OPA for a reason,” he finally said. Let McIntyre make of that what he would.
The fact that Lincoln wasn’t supporting their scorched-earth policies seemed to please McIntyre. “Maybe we’ll help,” he said. He pulled his girth out of the booth. “Let’s see what she thinks.”
Lincoln glanced down at his drying khakis before rising, too. He left the tonic on the table. “Where is she?”
He was torn between relief at leaving the stench and cacophony of The Pump Lounge behind, and trepidation at stepping out into that darkness again. He gripped the back of the booth. Dug his fingernails into the leather. Eyeballed the bent nails holding the front door closed.
McIntyre was oblivious to his hesitation. He flicked a wave at the bartender, who was trying to drag the unconscious man off of his bar stool, and headed to the back door.
The music chased them out into the cool autumn evening. The dome lights were on in one semi’s cab. He could see the forty-something woman grinding against the driver, whose head was thrown back in ecstasy. She caught Lincoln's eye through the window and winked. Then the light went off. It was so very, very dark inside.
“Lord help me,” Lincoln said.
McIntyre shot a look at him for that. “Careful whose name you take in vain out here. She’s not a fan.” He nodded at Lincoln's collar. “Hide that, too.”
The deputy had forgotten that he was wearing a crucifix on a slender gold chain. He put a possessive hand over it. “Why?”
“Just do it.”
Thoughts of vampires and the Devil flitted over Lincoln's mind, quickly followed by the thought of all the dead people back home.
It took two tries to work the clasp. He kissed the crucifix, said a prayer, and dropped it into his pocket.
McIntyre led Lincoln through the darkened trucks. Some of them were shaking. He thought he heard moaning. He imagined those women turning tricks inside, and then quickly stopped himself—he didn’t know what might happen if he dwelled on the mental image of sun-leathered cleavage, French manicures, and Lucite platforms. In the vast, sagebrush-pocked night, Lincoln feared his thoughts might become tangible, take on a life of their own.
“They won’t bother us,” McIntyre said, as if catching the tenor of Lincoln's thoughts. “Not when I’m here.”
“What…?” Lincoln began to ask. His mouth dried.
“So it’s true,” he said. “Demons have infested the western states.”
Nevada, Arizona, and Utah’s plight had been broadcast over the news networks virtually nonstop for months. The west had gone wild again. Demons owned the desert.
Lincoln couldn’t wait to get home.
Find the woman. He clenched his fist on the crucifix in his pocket hard enough for the corners to leave an imprint on his palm.
McIntyre led him to a copse of Joshua trees. The Pump Lounge was reduced to a lonely red light near the highway, and Nesbitt Lake was a line of paler blue on the horizon.
That was where they stopped.
“Say your problem,” McIntyre said. “Loudly.”
Lincoln looked around, confused. They were alone among the human-like figures of the trees. A breeze whispered through the sagebrush.
“I already told you what’s going on,” he said. “Are we being watched?”
McIntyre flicked a lighter, lit a cigarette, took a drag. “Say it.”
Lincoln took a bracing breath. “I’m Deputy Lincoln Marshall from the Grove County Sheriff’s Department. I believe we have a werewolf problem. There have been six murders, and two people are missing. I want your help finding them.”
He felt dumb speaking to the Joshua trees, and dumber still when there was no response.
McIntyre tilted his head as if listening to a strain of distant music. “Who’s missing, deputy? Tell me about ‘em.”
“A man,” Lincoln said. “Thirty-three years old. Bob Hagy.” He licked his lips to wet them, tightened his fist on the crucifix. It was so quiet out here. “And a, uh, a girl—nine years old. Lucinde Ramirez.”
“You’re lying,” McIntyre said.
“You’re lying about the victims. Lucinde Ramirez hasn’t gone missing.”
Unease crept over Lincoln's heart. “Her disappearance has been assigned to me. That’s what it says on the report. Nine years old. Lucinde Ramirez.” McIntyre held out the cigarette as if offering it to someone else to smoke. Not Lincoln. “Why do you think I’m lying?”
“Because she says you’re lying,” McIntyre said.
And the cigarette suddenly wasn’t in his hand anymore.
He hadn’t dropped it or put it out. It was pinched between his first finger and thumb one moment, and then gone the next.
Light flared behind Lincoln, briefly splashing his shadow over the trunks of the Joshua trees.
A woman stood behind him, taking a deep drag on the cigarette. The top of her head came to Lincoln's chin. Black hair was pulled back into a long ponytail, and a form-hugging tank top bared an inch of pale midriff above her belt. Her legs were encased in leather leggings and low-heeled boots. It took Lincoln a moment to look up from the alluring peek of navel to her face, and once he did, he was transfixed. Her lips were full and red. Her irises were black.
Where the supposed succubi had been wrecked, hideous women, this creature of the night was beautiful and youthful. Ageless, almost. The Devil had taken a much more tempting form.
Lincoln had found the woman.
“Lucinde Ramirez has been dead for four years,” she said, flicking her thumb against the butt of the cigarette. Ash fell to the desert. “She would have been nine if she’d survived.”
Lincoln struggled to remember how to speak.
“That’s all I know,” he said.
She glanced over his shoulder. “McIntyre?”
“He seems legit to me. Up to you.”
“Werewolves,” Elise mused. Her lips puckered around the cigarette. Lincoln was jealous of it.
“Didn’t you have a run-in with werewolves once?” McIntyre asked, sauntering over to take the cigarette from her. He seemed comfortable with Elise, almost fraternal, as if she hadn’t appeared from nothingness outside a pit of succubi.
“Yeah,” she said. “Long time ago in Kansas. I’m not a fan.”
“Will you help me?” Lincoln asked.
She walked up to him, standing close enough that their bodies nearly touched. Her head tilted back so that she could study him. It wasn’t the night that made her eyes look black. They were black, from iris to the edge of her pupils.
Lincoln felt the strange urge to kiss her.
He didn’t move when she reached her fingers into his shirt pocket, removed his badge, and studied it. She traced a fingernail over the text. Then she put it back. Her hand lingered on his chest, as if she were interested in the pounding of his heart.
“Fine,” Elise said.
He hadn’t been expecting that answer. After everything that Lincoln had been forced to go through to get a meeting with this woman—flying all the way to Nevada, driving out on US-93, going to that hellhole of a bar—he had been expecting an argument.
“Yes. I’ll meet you there,” Elise said.
“Where?” Lincoln asked. “When?”
But she was gone.
He couldn’t have looked away for more than a half-second—the length of time it took to blink—but the woman had vanished. The cigarette smoldered in the dust at his feet. McIntyre stubbed the embers out with his toe, wiping his hands off on his jeans.
“I’ll call you later to arrange payment,” McIntyre said. “You know it’s not free, right?”
“I know,” Lincoln said.
McIntyre sauntered away—not toward the bar, but toward the lake.
Lincoln was alone, but he didn’t feel alone. Invisible eyes made his skin crawl. He put his crucifix around his neck again and walked back to The Pump Lounge, barely resisting the urge to break into a run.
When he arrived, he found the building dark. There was no music, no shouting, no clinking of glass. He pushed the back door open.
The stage was uninhabited, the bar was dusty, and everything was coated in sulfur.
In fact, it looked like it had been empty for months. The desert had begun to reclaim the property. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling. A thick layer of dust covered the floor, which had holes the size of Lincoln's Toyota in it. The roof was rotting away.
His heart pounded in his throat as he backtracked to his car. The trucks weren’t rocking with the ministrations of the women anymore, and Lincoln wondered if he would find dead truck drivers inside if he looked.
He didn’t look.
Lincoln got behind the wheel and drove.