The body was a mess. The hikers who'd found it supposed a drop off a cliff would do that to flesh, but the experts knew better. He -- they were fairly certain that it had been a 'he' -- had been pretty well mauled by something sharp, murderous, and thorough.
Hank supposed it was a murder disguised to look like an accident, despite a deal of head-scratching about what exactly had happened.
While Hank still stood and puzzled over the body, conversing with the equally perplexed coroner, Nick examined the frosted path above on the cliffside. Bloody smears in the rocky soil spoke of a quick exit for the victim, and further out, concealed beneath the leafy underbrush, large hoof-prints spoke of something beyond any human norm. "Damn," Nick muttered as he crouched, using his handspan to measure the forked prints.
When Eddie opened his door, Nick said, "So, what makes dinner-plate sized hoof-prints and tears hikers to pieces?"
Eddie sighed and gestured for Nick to come in. If Nick cast the briefest of glances to the ceiling before entering, he could be forgiven, but all signs of Christmas had been packed away by the beginning of February.
"Sounds like a Wilderbull," Eddie said as he led the way to the kitchen. "I was just mulling some cider. Want some?"
The chill that had descended that evening made the offer sound more enticing than Nick might otherwise have found it. "You bet."
So Eddie added more cider and spices to the pot steaming on the stovetop and said, "So, Wilderbullen. Closely related to Bauerschwein… well, in the same way a wolf is closely related to a Pekinese. Generally, they're feral. If they have a human identity at all, it's usually some run-down shack in the woods or the sketchy-looking RV at the end of the trailer park. Not usually this far north, though," Eddie said thoughtfully, head tilted to the side. "They generally make their homes much closer to the equator. But it isn't unheard of to find them in densely-wooded areas like Mt. Hood. Is that where--?"
"In the Waucoma Ridge Area, yeah. It was just around the Chinidere Mountain Hike."
"Pretty far out for this time of year," Eddie mused to himself. "Did you find anything besides prints?" he asked as he moved the wooden spoon in careful circles through the swirling cider.
"Like what?" Nick asked.
"Scat, wallows, signs of rooting."
"I, um," Nick didn't say he had very little idea of what those things would look like, "didn't cover a lot of ground."
"You want me to go out there, don't you?"
"Just for your opinion."
"Right," Eddie said, almost like a 'yes' as he poured out two sweetly steaming mugs. "Well, it'll be easy to determine if there's a Wilderbull out there. But I'd rather not come across one."
"Are they dangerous?"
"I believe you said the hiker was torn to pieces?"
So apparently they were going to do the manly thing and forget that it had ever happened. That out-of-control Christmas kiss was neatly blotted out of existence.
Nick drove and Eddie studied the passing scenery all the way along I-84. Only limited conversation passed between them, Nick occasionally asking specifics about Wilderbullen, Eddie sporadically pointing out interesting miscellany along the roadside.
Eddie lost the argument over food, so they stopped at a gas station to grab snacks as they swung around the Hood River loop toward the park entrance.
"Isn't this a little out of your jurisdiction?" Eddie asked as they approached Wahtum Lake Trailhead, where they could park just at the entrance to the trails.
Nick nodded. "Park Rangers contacted our department specifically, after our dealing with the Holly Clark case." After they pulled into the empty lot, he popped the trunk so they could grab their gear.
"So, you're the go-to guy for murders in the woods. Fantastic."
Nick only smirked as he checked his bootlaces and then hefted his pack easily onto his back.
"How far out--?"
"The DB was found barely a mile in, just off the main trail. The couple who found it only noticed because crows had started in on the body, which drew their attention."
"An easy hike," Eddie observed as he wrapped a particularly ugly scarf around his neck. "Easier if it weren't so damn cold."
"This?" Nick asked, "This is practically balmy. That's why there are hikers out here at all in February, even if it is technically closed for the season. Be thankful it hasn't snowed much."
"Yeah? Well, let's hope it stays that way," Eddie grumbled, eyes upturned to the steel gray sky like a vault closed over the canopy above them.
Nick looked up. "It'll hold off."
"It's called positive thinking."
"Right," Eddie huffed as he dragged on his pack. "Let's go, then."
Nick led the way under the police tape at the trailhead and they kept up a steady pace while Eddie commented on the woods around them.
"Yeah, there's definitely something out here. It's faint though. Either far away or gone by now."
They hiked the switchback for less than half a mile until they reached the Pacific Crest Trail, which took them north around the east side of the lake.
"It's stronger here," Eddie said, slowing their pace. "And look at that," he said, coming to a full stop to point into the trees, away from the water.
Nick stopped and squinted. "Uh, what am I looking at?"
"See how the ground is all turned up, churned over. It's been looking for food. Must be desperate; I mean, the ground is hard as a rock this time of year. You ever try to dig in the frozen ground?"
Eddie set down his pack and stepped off the trail, scouting around the scattered earth and underbrush.
"Should I… Do you want me to…"
"No need. I'll be just a minute," Eddie said. Then, he made a triumphant noise and trotted back over the frosty layer of fallen leaves to present Nick with a tuft of brownish hair. "That was caught in the bark of a chinkapin."
"Chinka… it's a tree. Nevermind. But look, it's been rubbing to leave its scent, and to scratch."
"Can you tell how long ago?" Nick asked, neither smelling nor noticing anything of interest about the fur.
"Not really. More than a couple days ago. Less than a week, judging by the state of the ground."
"All right," Nick said, wrapping the fur in a tissue to pocket it. "Let's push on."
Eddie narrated the rest of the walk with an essay on the various species of chinkapin trees, stopping occasionally to sniff the air.
"It's right up here," Nick said as they approached a turn in the trail that wound around a cliff's edge.
"Mmm. I can smell the blood," Eddie said, distaste showing on his features. "Dead blood."
"Dead blood?" Nick asked, skeptical.
"Yeah. The kind that's been laying around in a body, which is just gross. Not like the fresh---- You know, forget I said anything. Where are these tracks?"
"Right," Nick said, stopping to drop his pack and indicate the stretch of path before them, drag marks still evident in the loose, gravelly rock. "Even after the hikers and all the people tromping around to get at the crime scene, you can still see where someone was either pushed or dragged this way."
"Yup," Eddie said, crouching to examine the ground. He inched over to peer down the cliff that overlooked the lake. A steep drop of about thirty feet lay below them. The crushed underbrush at the bottom indicated where the body had lain better than the police tape did.
"Tracks are this way," Nick said, leading them away from the cliff and into the woods again.
That's when the sky opened up, and the snow began to fall.
"Well, shit. I told you," Eddie said as he dropped his pack and glared at Nick.
"No, you didn't," Nick argued.
"I implied it."
"Do you hear something?" Nick asked, suddenly alert as he turned toward the heaviest growth of trees.
"Again, you change the subject." Eddie sniffed. "I can barely smell the blood here, too. Blood spilled while someone was still alive, though."
"Hm," Nick said. They'd hardly gone a dozen paces before Nick kicked aside a pile of leaves to reveal the footprint, still clear in the hard earth. "I don't know of anything with hooves that big, so I covered it up."
"Probably for the best," Eddie agreed, kneeling on the hard-packed earth to sniff. But then he went still, his features melted into a wolfish face and he cocked his head, straining for something.
Nick crouched to hide from the unknown threat, and looked wildly around. He heard nothing, but he felt a weight on him. It was the distinct feeling of being watched, but he saw nothing except the still trees and softly falling snow. "What? What is it?" he whispered.
Eddie turned to look at him, fully human again. "It's out there."
"Yeah. And it knows we're here. And I'm pretty sure it's pissed as fuck."
"Um, maybe we should have covered this earlier, but does it have any weakn--"
"Get down!" Eddie shouted as he tackled Nick to the ground as something huge galloped past them, its hooves thundering fit to shake the earth.
"The hell did it come from?!" Nick huffed as he jerked upright and regained his feet, gun already in hand.
"Dunno," Eddie muttered before he shifted again, hackles raised and claws outstretched.
They spun around until they saw it, shivering and huffing into the air, half-hidden behind a large cedar tree.
"Oh my God," Nick muttered, his aim faltering, for the thing he saw looked exactly like the minotaur of Greek myth.
It stood taller than any man on its gigantic cloven hooves. Muddy, thick-fingered hands clutched at the tree, and its bull head glared at them with a red light behind its demonic eyes; it lowered its great horns toward them as its hot breath misted the snow-touched air. Maddened eyes narrowed and the beastly snout lowed out the word, "Grrimmmmm…"
Eddie growled, a deep, animal noise that sounded a lot like 'Oh shit.'
Hooves stamped the hard-packed ground and the Wilderbull lowered its massive head, still gasping great plumes of breath into the air as it clopped sideways out from behind the tree.
Nick gathered himself and steadied his aim, trying to soften the ramping wildness approaching him. "Freeze! I have a gun trained and I don't want to use it. But I will. I need you to--"
The beast shook its frost-tinged mane and dug its hooves into the ground as it took off, charging wildly through the woods.
Nick fired his gun twice, but before he could tell if a hit had made contact, the beast was nearly on him and he dived out of the way, but not soon enough as he felt the harsh burn along his side. He hit the ground hard and his gun skittered off into the dead leaves and first light layer of snow.
His vision went black and then white before everything came into focus again as he took in a huge gasping breath and he heard the scrambling sounds of a fight. There was a howl and a yelp from Eddie and a low moan from the Wilderbull.
Nick raised his head just in time to see Eddie latch his fangs into the thing's arm and jerk viciously like a dog with a rat, if the rat was bigger than the dog.
Nick clasped a hand to his side to staunch the sharp burning and he felt the blood flow over his fingers. He resolutely didn't look down, but rolled to his knees and lurched up onto his feet with the aid of a bent sapling. "Monroe?"
Eddie dragged the thing to the ground as it huffed its last fetid breath into the falling snow.
The alien features receded in death, leaving a muddy, naked man laying in the new snowfall, two bullet holes in his chest and a nasty bite on his arm.
Nick stumbled forward and Eddie caught him as the wolflike features were blinked away, replaced by concerned human eyes. It made his bloody beard that much more disturbing.
"Damn, Nick; he got you?"
"Guess so," Nick murmured, finally lifting his own bloody hand away to look down at his side.
Eddie dropped to his knees and his nostrils flared, but calmed himself and lifted Nick's torn coat and shirts away. "Plenty of blood, but it's not too deep. Let's get you back to the trail; c'mon."
His arm slung over Eddie's shoulders, the Blutbad half-dragged, half-carried Nick back to the trail and sat him down - thump - on a low mound of earth.
"My bag's got a kit in it," Nick said as his vision wavered and the chilling cold leeched into his bones.
Eddie dumped Nick's pack out, things scattering everywhere, so he could grab the clearly-labeled first aid kit.
Nick reclined into the bushes, oblivious until some stinging liquid poured over the cut. He clenched his teeth and moaned, then sucked in harsh breaths as Eddie laid gauze across the graze, then unwound the ugly scarf from his neck to tie everything tightly, making Nick sit up to do so.
"Are you okay here? I need to take care of the body. Unless you want to explain to your superiors why a bullet from your gun was found in a naked man in the woods by the crime scene."
Nick lay back again and waved Eddie off.
"Don't loose too much blood," Eddie said. "You'll freak me out."
Nick looked up at the afternoon sky, a solid grey canvas overhead. The soft, peculiar sound of falling snow took over when Eddie's footsteps died off, and he blinked the dewy flakes away.
Nick couldn't have said how much time had passed, but the thin layer of snow had accumulated to an inch by the time Eddie returned, bending over him to ask, "Hey dude; you still alive?" His panicked tone belied the teasing question. The blood around his mouth had been washed away and his breath steamed the now-frigid air.
Nick lipped his lips and Eddie frowned down at him. After Eddie packed everything that had spilled into his pack and settled it and the empty one on his back, he hauled Nick (almost carefully) to his feet.
They edged their way back down the trail, Nick leaning heavily on Eddie, who remained stoically quiet, his eyes wild as he took in their surroundings and pointed out the obstacles that lay in the way.
"Careful, there's a step down here.
"Gotta keep clear of this branch, now.
"Let's go around this muddy patch."
"What-- ugh, what did you do… with the body."
"You stay quiet till we get to the car, okay? Don't worry about anything."
By the time they cleared the tree line and the car came within sight, Nick was pale and sweating, but his fingers were ice-cold, and Eddie didn't say a thing as he dug into Nick's pocket for the car keys. He laid a blanket out in the back seat and settled Nick in as gently as he could before tossing the packs into the trunk and jumping in the driver's seat.
The wipers cleared the snow from the windshield with a few passes and Eddie carefully steered his way down the dirt road until they came to the park's paved route. "All right, which hospital do you--"
"Hospital," Eddie told him firmly.
"No, I think I'm gonna be okay, I just… no one can know what happened out here. Where's the body, Eddie?"
Eddie sighed and stared at the snow-glare of the headlights. "I was right about the wallows. That's why he was so muddy, seemed to come out of nowhere. There were a few stagnant pools gathered up in the hard ground that he'd churned over into wallows and he was just laying there, watching us. I found the deepest one and rolled him in. It's off the path… maybe a hundred yards? There's no reason for anyone to go out that way. If we're lucky, everything will freeze over and in the spring, it will firm up into a marshy bog that no one would go near anyway."
"So where am I taking you?"
"Please, Eddie. I just want to clean up before Juliette sees me, get a better look at it."
"A better look?" Eddie asked, incredulous. "Nick, you were practically gored by a Wilderbull. You don't want a better look, trust me."
"Will you take me to your place?"
Eddie snarled, "Fine," and Nick didn't say another word.
Dark had fully fallen by the time Eddie pulled up to his house, and the snow had become a cold rain in these lower elevations. He cast a baleful eye about the neighborhood, but everyone had been driven into their homes by the weather.
"Nick?" he half-whispered. "We're here."
"Hm? Oh," Nick croaked, pulling himself into a sitting position with the utmost care.
When Eddie came around to help him out of the vehicle, Nick did not hesitate to take his hand and then lean heavily on him along the path and up the porch steps. Eddie fumbled to unlock the door and then they did an awkward dance of 'you first,' 'no you.'
"You're looking better than you were an hour ago," Eddie observed as he helped haul Nick upstairs to the bathroom.
"Dunno," Nick wondered, "I feel kinda numb."
"Is that good or bad?" Eddie asked.
"Hell if I know."
Eddie closed the toilet lid so Nick could sit. They worked together to remove the torn coat, but at Nick's bidding, Eddie took a pair of scissors to the flannel button-down and the t-shirt beneath it, as Nick admitted, "They're done-for anyway. Dunno what I'll tell Juliette. She got me that shirt for Christmas."
Eddie hmmed and then warned Nick, "I'm gonna untie the scarf now. Hm. Looks like that's ruined, too."
"Not much of a loss," Nick said with a wry smile. "I think it was due for the trash anyway."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that is the ugliest fucking scarf I have ever seen."
"Something someone's 'stodgy old grandfather' would wear?"
Eddie took a small amount of pleasure at Nick's wince when the scarf was pulled free of the wound, releasing the tension that had bound it.
"I need to check the wound," Eddie said. "I'm gonna use some antiseptic to loosen the gauze and… Nick, if it looks infected, I'm taking you to the hospital."
Nick sighed and nodded. "I understand."
"I imagine this is gonna hurt."
"S'alright," Nick slurred. "Just do it."
Nick clenched his teeth against the sting and groaned aloud each time he felt his skin try to pull away from his body, but Eddie worked slowly and carefully until the mass of bandages came away in his hand.
"How about that," Eddie wondered.
"Nick, I think you're gonna be fine."
Eddie disposed of the bandages and carefully washed his hands in the sink before he dug a mirror out of a drawer and held it so Nick didn't have to twist to look at his side.
"It-it stopped bleeding," Nick wondered. "And it looks fine, no redness or swelling or anything."
"I guess what they say is true," Eddie said, putting the mirror away.
Eddie ruthlessly looked anywhere but at Nick as he spoke. "Haven't you ever wondered about why you can see the creatures? I mean, did you really think that's all there is to being a Grimm?"
"I… I did kind of wonder about that," Nick admitted, reaching down to touch the slash along his side.
Eddie struck out and grabbed his hand before he could. "What are you doing, dumb-ass? Your hands are filthy. Let me tape some plastic over that so you can take a shower, okay?"
"Yeah. Yeah, let's do that."
"I don't exactly have any extra beds up here," Eddie told Nick, who was wearing only an overlong pair of gray sweatpants, but moving slowly under his own power along the upstairs hall. "So, the couch will have to do if you're still adamant about staying here."
"Couch is fine," Nick said, nearly asleep on his feet as they made their way downstairs.
Eddie quickly threw a few blankets down and refrained from helping Nick, who gingerly sat and then just stared at nothing. "I'm dying of thirst," Nick said.
"Right! Let me get you some water. Not too much though. Don't need you getting sick all over my couch."
Nick grinned and said, "Thanks, Eddie," even though the Blutbad had already disappeared into the kitchen.
While Nick drank his water and got comfortable on the couch, Eddie went back upstairs, eager to rid the place of the scent of Nick's blood as soon as he could. Anything that could soak went in the sink with way more soap than it needed. Everything else was tied up into triple-layer trash bags and taken outside. He collected Nick's things: gun and holster, badge and wallet, keys and cell phone -- to set them on the coffee table while Nick slept.
With his charge resting, Eddie took a shower himself. Then -- bundled up in sleep pants and bathrobe -- went through the calmest motions he knew: making tea.
At last, he could take his guardian position in the armchair nearest Nick's head, sipping hot tea that was too sweet, and let his eyelids slowly drift closed.
Eddie was finally letting the adrenaline nosedive down into fatigue when the shrill ring of Nick's cellphone broke the silence. Eddie scrambled like a mad clown to set down the tea without burning himself and get to the phone before the horrible screech of it could wake Nick.
He pressed several wrong buttons before the ring stopped and Eddie held the phone quickly to his ear, whispering, "Um, hi?"
"Who's this?" a female voice demanded.
"Well, who's calling?"
"Juliette. Nick's girlfriend."
"Oh! Oh hi, ma'am." He winced, knowing immediately he'd said the wrong thing. "Uh, I'm Nick's… friend? Eddie." That probably shouldn't have sounded like a question.
"Nick's never mentioned you," the suspicious female voice told him.
"Yeah, well, Nick's here," Eddie tried to steer the conversation somewhere safer, "at my place, but he's asleep."
"He said he'd be home by midnight or he'd call."
"Well, he…" Eddie thought very quickly. "He got into a bit of a bar fight, so I brought him home and patched him up. He's conked out on the couch. I think he really needs the sleep."
Eddie held the phone away when something that resembled shrieking emitted from the earpiece.
By this point, Nick was awake, looking at him with fatigued but still devilish amusement.
"No, he doesn't have a concussion…. because I just know…. No, I'm not a doctor…. well, because I can! *sigh* …No, no vomiting." He glanced at Nick. "His pupils are fine. I will tell him you called when he wakes up. …Yes. …Yes, ma'am--miss, I mean-- Juliette. …Oh, I promise. …Yes. …Yes. Goodnight… Goodnight." He punched the call to an end and tossed the phone back on the table, shooting a look at Nick, just daring him to say something.
"I can't wait to explain to Juliette why I got into a bar fight."
"Would you rather explain to her why you were nearly gored by a Wilderbull?"
Nick huffed, but conceded, "Good point."