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It Ain't All Lon Chaney walking with the Queen

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I blame Toby. It was him who found them, anyway. I'd've gone blithely by. Which is to say, if it weren’t for Toby's biological needs, I wouldn’t have been out in the blue October pre-dawn at all. It was only because I was trying to be efficient and walk him before settling in for some serious early morning practice.

In any case, we were circling the walled garden across from the Folly, me half-asleep in the dim light, when Toby stopped dead in front of a thicket of bushes. He growled low in his throat.

“Come on, boy,” I said, pulling at the lead, “Let's leave the birds alone today.” But Toby wouldn’t budge, just bared his teeth some more and yelped. Just about the same moment I realized that this wasn’t his small-furry-animals yelp, but rather his magical-alert bark, a thin, canine snout emerged from the leaves and snarled.

The hair stood right up on the back of my neck. Not only was the snout probably the size of Toby’s whole head and in possession of some formidable teeth—it also carried a shock wave of magic. Not vestigia, either, but megavolts of living magic. I hauled hard on the lead, but Toby, inexplicably, seemed determined to stand his ground. I was frantically trying to figure out what spell would best dispatch a feral dog, when a voice bloomed in my head.

It was young, male, and thickly Irish. “Back off, now,” it said, more panicky than fierce. “Back off and no one will get hurt.”

“I’m trying, mate,” I said, startled into speech. “Give us a minute.”

I could feel the dog’s surprise at my words. “Can you hear me, then?”

“Yeah, loud and clear,” I told it, again aloud, since if Nightingale had a lesson planned on communicating with telepathic animals he hadn’t yet seen fit to impart it to his faithful apprentice.

“You’re the first person who could.” The voice inside my head softened, sounding even younger, even more Irish, and filled with something like longing. At the same time, more of the shaggy head pushed through the leaves. I sucked in a breath. This was no dog. It was a full-on, gray-pelted, slavering wolf.

Instinct made me jerk Toby’s lead again, even though he was pressed against my ankles like he wanted to disappear up my trouser legs. But I had no intention of going anywhere. Curiosity, the kind that always got me into trouble, had me in its grip. How often do you run into a wolf in the middle of London, much less a telepathic one? “You’re not going to hurt us?” .

He wagged his head back and forth in an oddly human gesture. At the same moment, I heard a whimper from deeper inside the thicket. The wolf whined in response, his ears twitching.

“Is there another one of you back there? Is it hurt?” I asked.

“My wife,” he said, the human term a strange juxtaposition to his lupine form. “I think she might be dying.” His despair was stronger now, the tone in my head echoing his audible whine.

“Let me see?” I moved towards the bush. The wolf bared his teeth, and out of habit my hand went for my warrant card—which of course I hadn’t taken with me on this early morning walk. “I’m a police officer,” I announced instead, trying to sound authoritative. “PC Peter Grant.” Miraculously—since why would a wolf respect the power of the Met?—the wolf heeded my words. He closed his mouth and sat back on his haunches to let me pass.

Steeling my courage, I bent down and parted the branches. A kind of natural room, or den, was revealed, carpeted with fallen leaves. Another wolf lay there, curled in a tight ball. It—she—seemed barely conscious, but she was panting, her thin flank rising and falling quickly. There was enough light for me to see a nasty wound, red and seeping, marring one leg. I could smell the infection from where I crouched.

The male wolf whined again and went to her, licking her face. “You’ve seen, okay,” he said inside my head. “Now leave us be, unless you know a priest willing to give last rights to the cursed.”

But I wasn't backing down that easily. “No need to be dramatic,” I said. “Maybe I can help in some more practical way.” I tried to keep my voice dry, but I was strangely moved by the scene. I always had been a sucker for dogs. Evidence: Toby, though he was now doing his best impression of a limpet. “Tell me what you are: werewolves? Magical wolves of some other variety?”

The male wolf curled himself around his wife, as if trying to share his warmth with her. He sighed. “I don’t know what you can do. But perhaps someone should know what’s happened to us. And since you’re the only one who seems able to hear me, maybe it should be you…”

The Wolf’s Story

My name’s Dex. At least it was while I was a man. Not sure if wolves have names in the same way. Anyway, we grew up together, me and Emma. In a village in Kilkenny so small you could drive through it without noticing. More sheep than people. People always thought we’d outgrow being in love with each other, but we didn’t. We were lucky that way, I guess, finding our soulmates right next door. Emma was a star—first in every class at school. But we were the world to each other, and when she won a fellowship to university in Dublin, I went with her. I wasn’t much of a student myself—no interest in that kind of thing—so I worked odd jobs while she studied—barrista for a while, then one I liked, in a pub.

She was a scientist, my Emma, and a bloody good one. After university, they wanted her to go straight on to a PhD, and she did. When she was finished with that she got an offer to come work in a lab here. Cancer research, just the kind of thing she wanted. I hated to leave Ireland, but there wasn’t any question I’d go with her. Our families didn’t like the idea of us living so far away without being married, so we did that, too.

It’s a hard city, London. Crowded, expensive, hard to get around. But we got a tiny place, and we were making it work. I found a job at another pub, and Emma loved her lab, thought they were really making progress, though I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.

Then one night we ate a bhindi aloo (we were vegetarians, more fool us). Went to sleep as humans. Woke up as wolves.

I suppose we weren’t as shocked as we might have been. We’d heard the stories, see? Someone’s grandfather would have one too many at a wedding or a funeral and start talking about the curse. The Curse, saying it with big spooky eyes. One couple in every generation doomed to live as wolves. All because our great-great-ancestors had the nerve to laugh in the face of some saint. It made a good tale, but who actually believed things like that? And besides, we were so far away. Even if there was a curse, how could it get us all the way in London. Yeah.

At first we thought it was a passing thing. A moon thing, like you see in the movies, and we’d go back to ourselves in a day, maybe two. I say we, because we could still talk to each other, like I’m doing with you. Still had our same minds inside these great hairy bodies. But it didn’t pass. We stayed wolves. And eventually we got hungry—and not for the leftover aloo, either.

Don’t give me that look—it wasn’t like that, us tearing around town devouring virgins or some such. But the dumpster diving, the eating rats, that was bad enough. We were vegetarians before, like I said. Emma was even a member of a Ban Bloodsports group back home. Now, here we were: predators. Human minds and animal bodies. That’s a first class, A-1 curse, all right.

And we weren’t the only ones roaming around, either. One night, we were set upon by a pack that was much better at being dogs than we were at being wolves. Emma got hurt like you see. And I guess the whole werewolf thing doesn’t come with healing powers like you see on the telly.

So here we are. I think the whole thing’s been worse for Emma, even before she got hurt. She lived so much in her head, you know, in her lab, curing cancer. Me, I never had much use for thinking anyway. I was starting to see how I could get by as a wolf, if that’s the way it had to be—I still had Emma, after all; we could still understand each other, be together, maybe even have a passel of pups, if we could get somewhere safe. But if I lose her, well, I don’t know.

++

Toby’s vet gave me no end of grief. “If he’s hurt,” said Dr. Gallucci, “you need to bring him in so we can take a look at him.”

“He’s fine,” I told her. “Only scratched up. He just needs a course of prophylactic antibiotics to make sure nothing gets infected. I’ll pick them up this morning.”

She was so insistent that I bring Toby in that I considered trying to get the meds from Dr. Walid instead. But I knew Dr. Walid would march right down to the Folly and demand to see the patient. And once he’d seen that patient, no way he wouldn’t tell Nightingale about her. I could hear what Nightingale would say clear as day: “This isn’t a pair of spaniels we’re talking about, Peter. They’re killing machines—supernatural killing machines. Sooner or later their instincts are going to get the better of them. Better we put them out of their misery ourselves, before anyone gets hurt.”

I shuddered at the thought, that's how much Dex and Emma had wormed their furry way into my heart already, and played my last card. “I shouldn’t be telling you this, Dr. Gallucci, but Toby can’t come in. Thing is, see, he’s on police business, and if I brought him in it would compromise his cover, and possibly blow a very important operation entirely.”

There was silence on the line. I could tell she knew I was probably full of shite, but a smidgen of doubt kept her from calling my bluff. Finally, she sighed. “An undercover dog. Right. Well, then DC Grant: one course, pick it up before noon. No refills without my seeing Toby, understood?”

“Yes ma’am,” I said. “Understood.”

++

Even Toby’s usually mercenary heart had been touched by Dex's story. Out of some kind of canine solidarity, he’d refused to leave the wolves’ side when I finally managed to install them in a blanket nest on the lee side of the Folly.

“I can’t take you inside,” I’d said. “My guv’nor wouldn’t approve, to put it mildly, and there are magical protections on the house.” I’d been amazed we’d got them out of the park without me encountering anyone with a bloody great she-wolf in my arms. “Sorry.”

But Dex had gone quiet, curled up around Emma again, sunk in despair.

When I came back with the antibiotics and some packets of ground beef from the shop, Toby had joined them in the nest. He even growled softly at me when I approached, but I rolled my eyes at him, and he subsided. I’d brought along some of the pill-pocket things we use to get Toby to take his heartworm tablets, and between my practiced technique and Dex’s nudging and whines of encouragement, we managed to get Emma to swallow some of the meds.

Then I was off to find out what I could about Irish werewolves.

++

I’d never heard of them, but the Ossory werewolves turned out to be all over the literature devoted to animal transformations. Lots of competing stories, though, of men who could turn into wolves at will to fight for ancient Irish kings, of female werewolves who emerged from caves to slaughter sheep, of whole tribes of wolfpeople in the ancient Irish forests. Unfortunately, none of them mentioned any cures, or any spells that could de-wolf-ify someone. The only glimmer of hope came from the most extensive story, recorded by someone named Giraldus Cambrensis in the twelfth century: this version held that the curse only lasted for seven years. After that, a new couple would end up as wolves, but at least it might be good news for Dex and Emma, if they could live that long.

But what to do with them before that? Perhaps Dominic and Victor could be persuaded to keep them in Herefordshire. Wasn’t Victor keen on re-wilding the land and all that? He’d waxed poetic about the Scottish Lynx once, at least.

I was pondering how best to sell them on the benefits of telepathic Irish wolves to modern farming practices when my luck ran out.

“Peter.” Nightingale stood at the door of the library, his arms crossed. “I’ve just had an interesting message from Dr. Gallucci’s vet tech—a routine follow up on Toby’s injuries. And yet Toby—“ here the traitorous Toby trotted in behind him wagging his tail “—appears to be fine.”

“I can explain,” I said, without any real conviction that I could.

“There’s a distinct odor of wet dog about you,” Nightingale continued. “And some suspicious gray hairs on your jacket. Have you been collecting strays?”

“No,” I said. And then, “It’s more complicated than that.”

Nightingale didn’t immediately break out the silver bullets when I’d finished explaining, but he wasn’t best pleased either.

“The Ossory werewolves,” he mused. “I’ve read about them. Never thought they actually existed though, much less in London.”

“Everything exists,” I said, with the voice of hard-won experience. “And everything ends up in London.”

“But they aren’t pets, Peter," he said, sounding just as he had in my imagination. "They can’t stay here, or even in the city—sooner or later someone will get hurt. And there’s no way to get them back to Ireland. Best to end it quickly and humanely. It sounds like one of them is already almost there.”

“If you could just see them, sir. Meet them, I mean.” Nightingale gave me a baleful look. “Twenty-four hours, that's all I'm asking. Just give me twenty-four hours.”

++

“Seven years?” said Emma. “That’s not too bad.” A day of rest and antibiotics had done wonders for her. Her coat was still ragged, and she was still too thin, but her eyes were bright and alert. Her voice in my head was as Irish as Dex’s, but light and quick where his was slow and soft.

“Well, we don’t know for sure,” I told her. “But we can hope.”

The two wolves, Toby, and I, were standing outside the Folly almost exactly twenty-four hours after I'd found them. The sun was about to rise, and we were waiting for the van that had promised to arrive.

“Re-wilding,” Nightingale had snorted when I told him my solution. “They’ll be banning fox hunting next, we’re not careful.”

“Sir?” As ever, I couldn’t tell if he was taking the piss or simply completely unaware of the modern world. But, somewhat to my surprise, he’d given his blessing to re-homing Emma and Dex in the Home Counties Wolf Sanctuary with a minimum of fuss. He had not, however, chosen to get up early to see them off.

Now, an inauspicious white van pulled up in front of the Folly.

“You’re saying you found a couple of stray European wolves,” the man in charge, a Mr. Finriss, had said when I phoned. “In central London?”

“Yes, sir. Part of an exotic animal transportation sting. By the Metropolitan Police.” I’d laid the authoritative voice of law enforcement on as thickly as I could manage.

“Why haven’t I read about this sting in the papers, then? Punters love that kind of thing.”

“Very hush-hush. And ongoing. Don’t want to jeopardize the operation. Safety of the public, and all.”

“Uh-huh.” Mr. Finriss hadn’t sounded like he believed me, but he’d agreed to come pick up Emma and Dex, provided they didn’t turn out to be “tricked-out dogs.” For my part, I’d checked out his organization as thoroughly as I could and it seemed to be legit—more than legit, actually, definitely working for the greater good.

The man who opened the door to the van looked like he’d be good with wolves, tall, loose-limbed and shaggy-headed, a white man browned and wrinkled by a life lived outside.

“These them? Pretty tame, aren’t they?” he asked, as Dex docilely allowed him to scratch behind his ears.

“I told you, they’ve been living as exotic pets,” I said defensively.

He harrumphed. “Well, we’ll teach them to be proper wolves, won’t we? Here you go, my beauties.” He slid open the side of the van: some hay and blankets lined the interior, but no cages.

The wolves hesitated for a moment. Then Dex bent and licked Toby’s nose, as delicately as a Mayfair matron kissing good-bye. “Thank you, Peter,” Emma’s crisp voice rang in my head; Dex butted his great head against my hip, and I tousled the thick fur at the nape of his neck.

“See you in seven years,” he said, and leapt into the van, powerful muscles rippling under his pelt. His wife followed.

“What, no paper work?” I asked, as Mr. Finriss got into the driver’s seat and started the engine. Years of police work had taught me to always expect paper work.

“Not for an old customer like yourselves,” he said, giving me a grin through the open window.

“Old customer?”

“Well, yeah. I took a look through the old invoices before I came down here—had to do my due diligence, didn’t I? It’s been a long time, since before the war, but it seems like this address and our own have a longstanding relationship." He winked. "I’m surprised you didn’t mention it.”

My face must have shown my horror at the implications of that pre-war relationship, because he laughed, showing some pointed canines of his own. “Oh no, mate, it’s not like that. I’ll keep them safe for you, I will. No wolf will be harmed on my watch, you have my word.”

The van roared off into the London traffic, and I headed back inside to have a word with DCI Nightingale.