I recorded his instructions on my phone. I’d intended to transcribe them later, if only for handy reference, but work intervened. I spent the next few days on a murder. Not all of them are difficult and lengthy, just like not all petty theft is quick and easy. The difference is that we just let the petty shit go if there isn’t an easy culprit.
This particular murder happened in broad daylight and in full view of a convenience store security camera. The shooter, an accountant and mother of two, not only had no criminal record, she claimed not to know the man and to be completely unaware of her actions. But the shooter wasn’t the reason the case came to me. It was the victim, who had “runes,” vaguely like currency symbols, burned into his chest and back. Then there was the murder weapon, whose six slugs were made of solid 24-karat gold.
You might assume my receipt of the case meant that certain folks in the NYPD had a true understanding of how the world is and were handling it as best they could. But you’d be wrong. Those in power don’t have a secret understanding of the world, although they’d prefer you to think that over the truth: that they don’t have any more of a clue than the rest of us. I wasn’t the NYPD’s secret resource. I was their secret embarrassment. Not that they were out to get me. Giant interminable bureaucracies aren’t spontaneously goal-directed in that way. That takes leadership. What bureaucracy is good at is protecting itself, and reacting to things. I survived because I hadn’t given it any reason to react to me. My clearance rate was shit, but all that really does is keep you from getting a raise. Or a promotion. I never bothered with either, which meant that as long as I didn’t call attention to myself, keeping me on the payroll was easier than going through the effort of firing me, and as long as I was on the payroll, my colleagues would keep asking their lieutenants to send me the weird cases, the ones that looked damned likely to eat up time and bring a precinct’s numbers down, as this case was likely to.
For one, people don’t walk up to strangers and shoot them in the head for no reason, especially in broad daylight. But then, that’s somewhat necessary with gold bullets. Silver and lead have similar density, but gold is nearly twice as dense and has to be used at relatively close range. And it’s not like you can buy gold bullets at the local sporting goods store. That implies premeditation. The fact that the insanity defense almost never works doesn’t stop people from trying. The DA wanted a motive before trial. Our shooter was an accountant and the victim a banker. Was there a hidden connection? If not, if the woman was just plain homicidal, then had she killed before, perhaps in another state? In other words, despite the incontrovertible evidence—or rather because of it—someone would have to turn this woman’s life upside down and shake loose some answers.
So that’s what I did. For any of it to make sense, though, you need to understand something first. You need to understand that lycanthropy is hell, and not just on the person who contracts it. On their families, on their friends. There’s no cure, but there are methods of suppression. Technically, it’s transmitted by bite. In reality, however, transmission is sexual, since that’s when biting occurs. The typical course starts when some innocent guy or gal walks into a bar and feels a certain animal attraction to a stranger in the crowd—someone seemingly magnetic, if a little skittish, like a wild animal. After a few drinks loosen inhibitions, contact is made. It’s hard to say no to someone who wants you so bad they can barely contain it, whose body is throwing off palpable heat.
Words spoken in advance of a life-altering bad decision include “I’ve never done this before” and “I never thought something like this would happen to me.” Maybe the couple makes it to a bed. Maybe they do it in the bathroom or parking lot. Either way, it ends suddenly with that innocent guy or gal holding their hand to their neck and screaming “What the hell?” while the biter cowers in a corner, apologizing over and over and saying they thought they could handle it, that they’d had their injection that month, that things just got out of hand.
At that point, an explanation may or may not be forthcoming—such as what will happen at the next full moon. To be fair, it’s a tough call. Dumping the full truth out of the blue is the surest way to scare someone off. Having already bitten them, it doesn’t take much to convince someone you’re just plain crazy and that they should never talk to you again, which is a risk since the best help at transition always comes from someone who’s gone through it before.
There used to be support groups, by the way. Used to be. People learned the hard way that it was a bad idea to put lycanthropes into packs.
Anyway, some weeks later, after recovering from what seems like a bout of flu, the bitten wakes up in a strange place, naked, with pigeon feathers caked in the blood on their cheeks, or rat meat stuck in their teeth. They become quick to anger—but equally quick to forgive. In fact, they become intensely loyal to friends and family and lash out at anyone who offends someone close to them. Every few weeks, their temperature spikes and they suffer uncontrollable bouts of sexual desire. A couple days after that, they black out completely. Sooner or later, someone in their life makes the connection between all of that and the phases of the moon—usually as a joke—and wheels start turning.
The transformation isn’t nearly as dramatic as you’ve been led to believe. It’s more psychological than anything, but there are a handful of physical manifestations. Catching the disease early makes it easier to contain of course, but that almost never happens. Victims feel too good about themselves at first. The changes in diet give them more energy. The temperature spikes and nocturnal activities burn a lot of calories and they get lean quick. They like the new them. Slimmer. Confident. People react to them differently. Positive things start happening at work or with the opposite sex, and so warnings from friends and family—“You’re different”—are ignored, maybe even angrily, and the disease progresses. It’s not until later, when they experience the full effect on their loved ones, that victims begin to despise themselves.
But attacks on people are rare, same as with bears and sharks. It usually only happens when the victim is desperate—if they end up ostracized from their “pack,” for example, which is to say abandoned by their friends and family for their despicable behavior. Such attacks, when they occur, are frenzied and violent and the victim rarely survives, which is sometimes better than the alternative. It’s a terrible fate to suffer the disease confined to a wheelchair.
It’s torture watching your loved one go though that, month after month, year after year, gradually getting worse, waiting for the inevitable but seemingly powerless to prevent it. You’d do anything to help. Of course, you treat it rationally at first. You spend a fortune on doctors. On therapy. You get diagnoses ranging from food poisoning (common with lycanthropes) to dissociative disorder. But nothing seems to work. In fact, the pills and treatments only seem to make the outbursts worse. Only now you’re broke. Sooner or later, convinced you can’t be the only ones going through this, you start poking around online. The things you’ve witnessed maybe make you a little more open-minded than the average person, so you scroll through obscure internet forums and crackpot websites you never would’ve considered before.
One day, someone suggests a witch.
So you find one—maybe she even has a banner ad on that forum—and she’s only too happy to help. She can make it all stop, she says. All you need to do is lease your soul to her. Sounds crazy, right? But you figure what the hell, how bad can it be? You’re not sure you believe any of that crap anyway. And she’s such a nice old lady. It’s only for a few months, maybe a little longer depending on the terms. So you sign the papers and the witch seals a silly old clay pot with wax and you walk away with a bag full of vials—rare herb brew, silver nitrate cocktail—and each new moon, at the ebb of their condition, when the effect is weakest, you make sure your loved one gets their injections: one into the neck, one into the gum line. And yeah, maybe life seems a little duller, maybe your friends all tell you that you’re working too hard lately and you seem like a zombie, but there are no more episodes. Your family is safe. So it’s worth it.
Then the deal runs out. You get your soul back, but you also run out of injections. You realize how dead you’ve felt—so numb you didn’t even realize it. You try to get by on your own. One month goes by and things aren’t so bad. Two months, it gets a little worse. Three months, you’re back to the witch. Only now the terms are different. Now you have to lease your soul for longer. Maybe you sign right away, maybe you don’t. Maybe you go home and try to tough it out. Maybe you lock your loved one in the basement. Maybe they snap at you—literally. Maybe they get rough with one of the kids. Maybe in an inexplicable fury over a chew toy, they attack and kill the family pet. Maybe, as you’re scrubbing the blood off the kitchen floor, wondering what you’re going to tell your daughter when she gets home from school, you finally decide that you don’t have a choice. It’s just a year. You can do a year. And that will give you time to figure something out.
So you sign the paper, this time with a dot of your own blood, and the witch seals the urn and the light goes out of your eyes and you walk home in a daze with another bag full of vials. Another year goes by, and you never do find a different solution. Only now you know what’s coming, so you sign up again without any debate. You don’t even wait for the last contract to lapse. You’re numb and don’t want to remember what it felt like to be really alive, to experience again what you’ll have to sacrifice, so you go to the witch a few weeks early, and just as you expected, the terms of the deal have doubled. Like a payday loan, she gets a better deal the longer interest accrues.
Then one day, out of the blue, you wake up holding a smoking gun. People are screaming and running from you on the street. There’s a dead man at your feet, bleeding on the sidewalk. You don’t recognize him. You’ve never seen him before. The police arrive and order you to put the weapon down. You comply, shaking, and are arrested. You’re told there’s video footage of yourself standing perfectly still for hours in front of a convenience store before suddenly walking up to the man and shooting him in the head at point blank range. You’re asked if you want a lawyer and you say yes, and while you’re waiting there alone in the interview room, you realize the color is back in your cheeks. You got your soul back. And the real terms of the deal you made become clear.
Of course, it took me a couple days to piece all that together. Any other detective armed with a warrant to search the family’s financial and medical history for hints of a motive certainly wouldn’t have recognized the signs—like a 32-year-old previously healthy man who suffers repeated bouts of food poisoning and who asks his doctor out of the blue for tetanus and rabies shots.
The shooter was one Elise Landry. Divorced. Mother of two. Her brother, the youngest of four siblings, has been sick for months and unable to hold a steady job. With the family savings spent on doctors and the rest, Ms. Landry incurred a large debt. Her brother moved in, ostensibly to help with child care, shortly after being arrested for assault and battery. Life for the unusual family wasn’t easy, or so I inferred, but they were making it work. Until the shooting.
The good news, if you can call it that, is that the victim was a right genuine asshole, a banker at Goldman Sachs who got rich short-selling the insurance business—by all accounts, a real shark: greedy, intractable, and unloved. Still, on the video evidence alone, Ms. Landry’s conviction would’ve been all but guaranteed . . . if the warrant hadn’t been improperly handled. It was a technical oversight, definitely—the video was seized a few hours before the warrant was actually issued—but it was enough. Any halfway decent defense attorney would get it thrown out. And with no discernible motive, no prior record, no mention of the tape, and no eyewitnesses—thanks again to the bumbling of the investigating officer, who might’ve discouraged any of them from coming forward—Ms. Landry will likely end up pleading to probation and be home in a few weeks.
I’ll get my ass chewed over the procedural “mishaps,” not just from my boss but the DA as well, who I’m sure will make a special trip to see me. I’ll also get a formal reprimand. But as long as no one in the papers makes a stink about the case, it’ll wash off in a couple months—after I clear a few more cases that no one else could.
Meanwhile, I put the brother in touch with a certain guy I know. Well, that’s not exactly true. I don’t really know him. I know of him. Everyone does. Banacek. The Finder. Walks with crutches. Works as a trauma counselor. He’s also a fellow victim who teaches folks like himself how to keep their conditions in check: brewing herbs, preparing silver nitrate, avoiding others of their kind. Every so often, one of them will find their way to the door of the community center where he works. He can always tell. The hunting eyes. The skittish demeanor. But then, lycanthropes can smell each other from across the room.
He pulls them aside and tells each the same thing.
“I don’t wanna know your name. I don’t wanna know where you live. I don’t care about your troubles or how you got here. I’ll show you what you need to know, and after that, I don’t ever wanna see you again. Is that clear?”
He shows them what they need to know and tells them to refrain from having sex until they’re in a committed relationship with someone who knows the truth and understands the risk. Hardly any of them do. Oh, they do good for a while, especially at first, but as the years drag on, sooner or later they get an itch they can’t scratch and the whole thing starts over with someone new. I hope the brother does better, for his sister’s sake at least.
I only saw Ms. Landry once. There was a meeting with the prosecutor, and we were waiting for her lawyer to arrive. I walked over and sat next to her and when no one was listening, I asked who held her contract. She seemed surprised—that anyone knew about that kind of thing, especially someone with the police. She wouldn’t say the witch’s name of course. She wouldn’t say anything, which was smart. She wanted to keep custody of her kids. No better way to lose them than by shooting a man on the street and then raving about werewolves and witches.
She wouldn’t say the name. But I saw her eyes when I did a moment later.
“It was Granny, wasn’t it?”
snippet from the third course of my forthcoming five-course occult mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS.
death card by Molly Rose Purcell