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    Libby Drew
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

Keeper of the Rituals - 10. Chapter 10




A day without my wolves leaves me testy. I’m not so obsessive and introverted that I never take a day off from the refuge. But the emptiness this morning is deeper than usual. I miss them. Crave their loyalty and companionship. The wolves judge me not as a man, but as pack. Even fickle Acadia and aloof Banshee treat me as one of their own. My ability to share their thoughts has bearing, but the greatest factor in their acceptance is my integrity. The responsibilities of the pack are greater than those assigned to most men. Humans rely on freedom of choice to justify wrongs. No such excuse exists for the pack. It’s not a hive mind, but a community. A mentality of sacrifice. The pack comes first.

Yesterday is a blur. A span of hours during which I fell in and out of disturbing dreams and precious memories. I can’t spend another day like that, waiting for my phone to deliver more strange texts. Waiting for Chase to show up at my door with Calhoun, an arrest warrant in his hand. Just waiting, while the world spins on, but I don’t.

I’m on the road before a hint of light has even touched the horizon and arrive at the refuge at the exact same time I had nearly a week ago when this horror story started. There’s been some chatter on the news about the hurricane, but the latest model runs have it making landfall to the north. Minimal, if any, preparations will be necessary. Strange then, that the first thing I sense when I stretch my mind out to the wolves is disquiet.

Even more curious is the luxury sedan parked in the lot. I approach with caution, mindful of the tinted windows, and place my hand on the hood. Cold. A sheen of dew coats the paint. The car’s been here a while. An hour, at least, possibly far longer. I backtrack to squint at the license plate. Hendry county. Whoever it is lives locally.

I’m struck by a nefarious sense of deja vu. The circumstances don’t match exactly, the wolves aren’t howling, for one, yet I sense trouble… No, more than trouble. Peril. I’ve sunk into a defensive crouch before I realize the reaction isn’t my own. It’s simply been carried to me through the pack’s consciousness. One of them is in danger.

I rise, cross twenty feet of crushed gravel at a lope, and try to fumble my key into the door before I realize it’s already unlocked and open a few inches. Not jimmied. In fact, a key is still slotted into the mechanism. It’s the sort of detail that should ease a measure of my confusion. It doesn’t.

In my haste to dash across the room, I stub my toe on the corner of a display cabinet and crash into an adjacent case. History of the Florida Panther, one of our more expensive tomes, and the heaviest, tips from where it’s propped atop the glass and crashes to the floor. I freeze, look around wildly, but nobody rushes out of the dark to attack. Across the room, the twin sliders are backlit with the weak, fading light of the paths’ solar lamps. Enough shines through the glass that I can clearly see one door is partly open. A breeze wafts across the room, passes over my face, sucked through one door and out the other. It carries the familiar scent of marajuana. A smell I’d come to associate with Sam.

The imminent danger I sensed in the parking lot hasn’t faded, and now I recognize the source of the fear. Whisper, our youngest wolf. In the wild, the pack raises pups together. Non-breeding females and young males will even compete to babysit. Whisper came to us freshly weaned and orphaned, and we chose to board her with Luna, who’s proved to be a diligent surrogate mother, but Whisper is everyone’s baby. I reach out to Luna now as I rush across the museum and squeeze through the open glass door. What’s wrong?

Our communication isn’t carried out in words, but sensation. Sometimes in images. Kane and I shared such a connection. It took many years for me to master the translation, to instinctively speak in abstract and emotion. And my link with each wolf at the refuge is different. Whisper is young, still shies away from my foreignness at times. Luna, however, answers immediately, and with urgency. Panic. Pain. But not for herself. She is mostly calm and confused. The fear is Whisper’s.

Reassured somewhat, I slow my headlong flight. After all, there’s still the matter of the car, the open door, and the smell of pot in the air. A cool gust of wind fans across the bricked patio beyond the museum, and the sabal palms catch and ride the wave of air. The rustle of their fronds sounds eerily like the chitter of young voices in a ceremonial chant. Goosebumps break out on my arms. I spin in a circle, search for any clue to the intruder’s whereabouts. The wind rises again, breaks over the clearing, carrying voices with it this time. I barely digest this fact when two figures emerge from one of the paths and into the open.

They stutter to a halt when they see me, but I can’t be more than a tall figure in the gloom. I aim to use that to my advantage. “Who’s there?” I bark.

They both jump, but one slithers forward a step, ventures in a cautious voice, “Michael? Is that you?”

“Frank?” My fear dissipates and anger rises in its place. “What the hell are you doing here?” Haven’t we had enough tragedy this week? I keep those words to myself.

“Jesus, Michael. You—you scared the hell out of me.” Frank gropes behind him for his companion’s hand. “I just. I forgot my wallet here this afternoon. Kris came with me to pick it up.” He pulls his girlfriend forward until we’re standing close enough for me to see the nervous slide of his gaze. She’s a tall redhead, makeup caked over a pretty face, with smoky-rimmed green eyes. Frank looks everywhere but at me as he tries to explain. Lying little shit.

“You left it out here?” I ask. “Where?”

“Well, no. I mean, I left it inside. I was just showing Kris around a bit. You know, let her meet the kids.” He leans closer as he says this, fist pumps my bicep and winks. He reeks of pot. They’re both dressed for clubbing, though Frank’s pricey-looking ensemble looks a little worse for wear after hours of who knows what. I’m not sure Kris’s dress contains more than a square yard of fabric in total. Her gold stilettos sparkle in the dim path lights as brightly as the diamonds draped around her neck. Some business magnate’s daughter probably. We’ve got more than our fair share around here, ensconced in mansions along the beach in Naples.

“Guests after hours are expressly forbidden, Frank. You know that.”

“Yeah,” he drawls, “but I figured, better do it now, right?”

That’s a damn strange thing to say. “Why is that?”

“Oh. Ah.” He rubs at the back of his neck. And he’s yet to look at me directly. “Just cause her birthday’s coming up. And this is what she asked for, you know? I mean, what do you get the girl who already has everything, right? She… she wanted to see them.”

“She” must mean Kris, though she’s neither confirming nor denying Frank’s story, just staring at me like I’m one of the displays in our museum. They’re both swaying slightly. Whisper’s anxiety still beats in the back of my mind. I don’t have time for this, although Martina will have to be told. Losing another volunteer… I don’t want to dwell on why we can’t afford it.

“You should leave now,” I tell them both.

“Yeah!” Frank points both index fingers at me. Tiny pistols of agreement. “Totally. We were just doing that.”

“Are you okay to drive?” I’m irritated, don’t want them here, but I can’t let them back on the road if they’re impaired.

“Totally fine. Promise.” Frank crosses his heart. “Wouldn’t risk it, dude. That’s Kris’s dad’s car.” He grabs Kris’s hand and yanks her away. I’m beginning to wonder if she’s mute. Frank never did truly meet my eye, but she gawked the whole time. Even now, she cranes her neck to watch me, stumbling over the bumpy bricks in her barely-there dress and heels as Frank pulls her through the door and out of sight.

I take the time to follow them. Watch Frank replace History of the Florida Panther on the shelf and close the main door behind him. A few moments later I hear the purr of Kris’s daddy’s Lexus. Tires crunch on gravel as it pulls away.

I’d been a tangle of nerves before that encounter. Now I practically vibrate. I whistle a greeting as I set out across the sanctuary toward Luna’s enclosure. Get a few return yips. I’m no control freak. Quite the opposite. If my life to date has taught me anything, it’s to let go of the little things. But the thought of Frank and his girlfriend prowling along the paths in the dark, when they’re both obviously high and possibly drunk, makes me hot with anger. It’s as though everyone’s gone off script. Turned rash and impulsive.

Luna and Whisper share an enclosure halfway back on the property, on the east side. Luna’s waiting for me near the gate, ears flattened. All her attention is on Whisper, who is digging at the fence line about thirty feet away. I crouch to bring us level. “Luna.”

Her head flicks my way, then back. She doesn’t approach me but stands guard over her adopted daughter. Blowing out a frustrated breath, I circle toward Whisper. Getting close means climbing through some underbrush, not a concern when her distress is so acute.

“Whisper,” I murmur when I reach her. “What’s wrong, baby?”

She pauses in her frantic digging, spares me a glance through the fence, then returns to her task. I fish my phone from my pocket and shine the flashlight at her. Catch my breath when I see how deep she’s reached. All the way to the small barbs that mark the halfway point of the buried wire. They’re meant to deter digging. One sharp poke and most wolves stop.

Whisper hasn’t stopped. Her paw pads are torn and bloody.

“Whisper. Enough!”

This time she barely pauses, even at my sharp command. Gives one choked-off yip. Luna slinks into the circle of light, sniffs at Whisper’s haunch, then sits, head tilted. Still confused. When Whisper catches another tender pad on a barb and yelps, Luna comes to me at the fence and begs with her eyes.

“I can’t,” I say, but I’m rising even as I speak and trudging back through the brushwood to the enclosure’s entrance. My keys are always with me, and I use them now to unlock the first gate. By the time I’ve stepped through and relocked it, Luna waits for me at the second, tail thumping on the ground. Wolf tail wagging can signal many things. It’s naive to believe an animal is happy based on wagging alone. Lucky for me, I have other methods of communication at my disposal. I sense Luna’s relief, as well as pleasure that we will finally be able to touch after several long days.

I give her my full attention for almost a minute. Our bond is bolstered by physical contact, which is one reason Kane and I enjoyed such an intense connection. I’d been handling him since he was a pup. Luna’s eyes drift closed under my ministrations, but she’s tense. Still half focused on Whisper. “Okay,” I say. “Let’s go see what’s wrong.”

Whisper is a red wolf, smaller than many of our others. Tawny with gray markings, her body type differs in subtle ways from timber wolves. She’s lither and lacks Luna’s muscle mass, especially across the chest. Not that she’s being obvious about that at the moment, the way her paws are flying through the sandy soil.

“Whisper.” I refrain from touching her. Startling a wolf of any size for any reason is a mistake most people only make once. Instead, I stand a few feet away, one hand on Luna’s scruff, and try to connect with her thoughts. I get no more than Luna did. Pain from her injured paws. Panic.

It’s the fear I don’t understand, and I sense this as the source of Luna’s confusion as well. But Whisper is still quite young, and perhaps that’s the crux of the issue. What merely unsettled the others has frightened her profoundly. It’s a stretch, but my only theory at the moment. Regardless, I can’t allow the digging to continue.

“Whisper. Stop! Come!” I infuse command into my tone and some of it penetrates. She stops, then sinks to her belly, panting. By now, enough light glows on the horizon for me to assess her injuries more accurately. The dawn’s diffuse sunlight throws a pinkish tinge on her already bloody paws, and I’ll admit I have to sit and center myself at the sight. I can’t afford a panic attack right now, for a myriad of reasons. Luna comes to lean against me. Sniffs my hair. Licks my cheek. Her ministrations help, and my heartbeat slows to a more placid pace.

“Thanks.” I scratch her head, then reach for Whisper, giving a relieved sigh when she allows my touch. I couldn’t have handled a fight alone and have no intention of restraining her when she’s feeling this vulnerable. “Let me see.” I lift one front paw, hiss at the damage. “Stay here.”

I head to the closet at the rear of their enclosure and unlock the gate. Medical supplies line the inside of a molded plastic footlocker. I grab gauze, antibiotic ointment and two Medi-mitts.

“Okay,” I say when I return. “You’re probably not going to like these, but if you keep them on, even for a couple of days, I don’t have to worry so much about infection.”

She tilts her head, as though listening, but I know the most she’ll understand is my soothing tone and the waves of reassurance I’m sending. Luna butts in, watches me cleanse the wounds, disinfect and wrap them in clean gauze. I slide a Medi-mitt over each paw and secure them with tape. Luna huffs something suspiciously like a laugh as Whisper lifts one front paw, then the other, shaking each in turn, then whines when the sock dressing stays put. “Well, sorry. But you brought it on yourself,” I tell her.

Correcting Whisper’s handiwork takes the better part of an hour. She stays in Luna’s shadow as I fill the trench in along the fence. The morning has resumed an air of normalcy by the time I’ve replaced the shovel and medical supplies in the storage area. The sun sits low and plump to the east, pleasantly warm in a cloudless, azure sky. Perfect.

Which is why I’m caught off guard by the same vile emanation that struck me earlier in the week. It’s less a wave of emotion this time than a blow to the pit of my stomach. I drop to my knees with a breathless groan. Whisper howls in fear and tries to burrow under Luna. Many of the others lend their voices to the uproar, until howls echo from all directions. I pull to my feet, stumble from the storage closet, but before I can reach the exit, Luna appears in my path. I try to step around her. Again, she moves to block me. A low growl vibrates in her throat, and I freeze. “Luna?”

Every warning I’ve ever given a worker or volunteer here about handling the animals alone comes back to haunt me. If she attacks, I deserve it for my carelessness. Luna’s ears are low and turned to the side. Teeth bared and snout wrinkled, she gives another low growl, communicating a very cross and threatening message. If I were a submissive member of the pack, a nudge to her snout might deescalate the situation. Unfortunately, Luna considers me anything but. Whisper slinks up from behind, eyes on the dirt and tail tucked between her legs. Her show of solidarity does little to alter Luna’s stance. I drop to my knees. Place an arm around Whisper’s shoulders. Luna takes a step toward us. Another. Her lips pull back further, exposing her sharp teeth for another snarl.

I reach out mentally, brush against her mind, and receive a curious message in return. Protect. The situation registers as Luna steps closer, closer, then past, continuing to growl at something in the overgrown foliage behind the fence. I spin and peer into the mass of underbrush. See and sense nothing, although my blood still beats with the wave of anger and hate that set the pack to howling. Wading through all the emotion flying through the air is impossible.

I don’t dare touch Luna. She wouldn’t welcome the distraction. Her message is unmistakable, though I can’t ascertain where or to whom she’s directing it. Despite being a grown man, I find myself battling a fear from my childhood. It rears up in my memory as it supposedly does in legend, on hind legs with claws and teeth bared, eager to drag me into the swamp to be eaten, or worse.

Long-Ears. I blame Billie for putting the idea in my head. That and a week full of upheaval. “Luna. It’s okay, sweetheart. We’re safe.” She has to be sensing a coyote or wild dog. Nothing else, with the exception of a rogue panther, would set her off.

Except perhaps a person.

Sam’s limp, bloody body comes to mind. I banish the visual immediately, but not the idea. “All right,” I say, half to Luna and Whisper and half to myself. “I’ll go check it out.”

Luna glances over her shoulder and lowers her head to glare at me. She’s not a fan of the idea. Me either, but I’m doing it anyway. I rise and head to the gate. Luna doesn’t challenge me this time, though Whisper tries to follow. I scratch behind her ears. “You’re safe here. No more digging, okay?”

Ten-foot-high chain link fence surrounds the refuge. A path rings the inside of it, five feet wide and gravel-lined. The cleared area makes patrolling and maintaining the fence line easy. I cut through smaller, lesser-used trails to the perimeter and begin my inspection. We’ve never had a breach, but I can’t discount the idea outright.

I turn and make my way toward the rear of the property. The fence looks intact. A few minutes later I reach the back entrance. This had been my second thought as the source of the trouble. We’ve had a handful of attempts to cut the lock on the emergency gate. Getting inside the refuge undetected has become a test of courage for the local kids. Their adolescent magnum opus. None has ever succeeded, at least to my knowledge.

The gate is undisturbed. I yank on the lock, almost hoping it will spring open. Any rational explanation for the strange goings-on would please me. It holds fast. Swallowing a sigh, I forge ahead, and a few minutes later, the roof of the decrepit hurricane shelter comes into view. My steps slow. Faulting our volunteers for avoiding the place would be cruel and hypocritical. I’m no more eager to spend time there than they are. The building resembles a Mayan temple, gray blocks crumbling in places where vines and other creeping plants have infiltrated and undermined the walls’ integrity. Perpetually in shadow. Shrouded in abandonment. A little-used path winds from the perimeter fence toward it. Overgrown to near invisibility.

I can think of a thousand things I’d rather be doing. My feet drag with a week’s worth of stress and mystery, but I turn toward the building anyway. Fear and fatigue are no excuse for shirking. Not for the pack and not for me. I lift one foot, press it onto the matted grass and fronds that litter the narrow path.

Copyright © 2023 Libby Drew; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 
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@CincyKris perfectly described the intensity of this chapter for me with "this chapter crackles with electric tension". The approaching hurricane, the mania with which Whisper was digging, the aggressive behaviour of Luna towards whatever or whomever lurked outside the chain fence and Micco's blow to the pit of his stomach all had a sense of foreboding. 

@drsawzall those damn red herrings have become red piranhas for me, viciously and effectively stripping and shredding my brain of any rational thinking when it comes to this story now. I feel I can only rely upon any predictions @weinerdog may make (which as some of you will know from other stories, are at times "spot on"), the astute observations of @drpaladin or my own wild speculations. The latter is the basis for me thinking:

  • the shelter is a sham, inside the apparently decrepit hurricane shelter is a very sophisticated operation run by Martina, importing a huge amount of cocaine from South America and heroin from the Far East
  • Martina's husband did not die from the effects of COVID; he forcibly snorted a lethal dose of cocaine when murdered by Martina after he uncovered what the "real" purpose of the shelter is
  • Sam was also murdered by Martina when he got a little too "greedy" and wanted more of the share of the profits from the drug cartel she is the head of in the USA
  • Micco's "black outs" have been caused when his drinks or food has been spiked by Martina, Rory or Frank
  • Rory is not the sweet little innocent she appears to be; she is a cold-blooded killer who was responsible for Sam's death
  • Burke is suspicious of Martina but does not have enough to reveal her double identity yet
  • Elvis is still alive and is secretly engaged to Kris Jenner
  • And I just saw 50 pink pigs flying overhead in Sydney, Australia

Riveting again @Libby Drew, such that I may have completely lost my mind with trying to "use the little grey cells" and make a considered assessment of what the hell is going on. The good doctors @drpaladin and @drsawzall may be the only hope I have of restoring sanity.

Edited by Summerabbacat
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