The consultation room was a mess. His breathing sounded like exhausted bellows. Sweat was beading on his forehead and upper lip. How long time did he have? When would they notice? In a couple of hours? He didn’t dare count on that long.
A smudged trail of blood led from the door to where he was sitting on the floor. Bandages and bottles had been torn from their cupboards and drawers. There was a clean shirt on a shelf somewhere that he would get in a moment. Once in a while he would have to perform an impromptu operation or deal with violently bleeding injuries, so it was useful to have spare clothes here. Thank god for that.
His hands were shaking so badly that he dropped a small bottle of antiseptic solution on the floor. It shattered.
“Calm down. Calm down. Breathe, Peter,” he ordered himself. There was only one way of handling this. He had to pretend that it was happening to another person. Behave as if he was counselling someone else. “Take the shirt off so we can look at the injury.”
It looked like a big predator had sunk its teeth into his upper arm and ripped the flesh away. And that was a rather accurate description of what had happened. He forced himself to breathe slowly. Hysteria did nothing to help. He had to hurry up, but it was imperative to remain calm now. He cleaned the gash. Involuntary tears rose in his eyes. There was no doubt that it had bit him thoroughly. No doubt that …
He put a bandage around the wound, tied it almost like a tourniquet. He needed to bring more bandages … He had not brought his bag back with him. But it did not matter. He could take the old one. It was full of papers that would never matter again. He brought it out from under his desk and emptied it on the floor. Then he threw everything that he could possibly need into it. Bandages, thread, needle, antiseptic solution. Something for the pain. A lot of something for the pain. The only reason that he could move his arm fairly unhindered now was that panic and urgency kept him going. It would not be long before his body gave up. And how much blood had he lost? Not enough to be dangerous yet.
He sat for a moment on the floor, thinking. What else did he need? Something to drink. Money. Food. Expensive medicine that he did not have … He stood up and found the clean shirt. A coat was a good idea too. There was no guarantee that he would be sleeping in a house tonight.
He wrote two letters and folded them up. Then, when he was almost done packing, there was a knock on the door. Peter gasped. “One moment!” he called out as calmly as he possibly could.
“Is everything all right, doctor?”
“There is blood out here … Has something happened?” The voice sounded worried. It belonged to his assistant, a kind and competent nurse. He was really sorry to leave her with this mess.
“Unexpected complications with the patient. She was hemorrhaging profusely,” he said.
“Doctor? May I come in?”
“Just a moment!” he shouted, this time shrilly. How would he get out now? She wouldn’t stop him, would she? No. He put a piece of cloth around a small glass bottle and tossed it into the bag next to the syringes.
He took a deep breath and opened the door.
“Doctor … You look … What’s wrong? What is going on?”
“It’s fine,” Peter said. “I may be back late. You can take the rest of the day off.”
“Thank you, but …”
“You are a very good nurse. Would you …” He held out one of the letters to her. “Won’t you give this to my wife when you see her?”
The nurse took the letter and shot a glance at the bag in his hand, then at his face. “Doctor … You aren’t leaving her …”
“I love my wife and my children,” Peter said. “Please tell her that too. But I need to go now. Thank you for the help. All your help.” Leave. Now. He strode through the waiting room. She was undoubtedly staring after him, but she had not figured anything out. Perhaps she thought that he was indeed leaving his wife. There was nothing that he wanted more than to go home and embrace her now, yet he did not dare. Didn’t dare spend more time here than he absolutely had to.
The first day on the road, Peter pushed himself and the horse to the limit. He administered as much of the analgesia to himself as he dared. He simply must not fall off his horse and lay unconscious or confused in the side of the road until potential pursuers or strangers found him. He needed to get away from the village and away from everything he had ever known. For the first few hours, that was all he could think of. Then a burning doubt set in. Was he doing the right thing? Should he have turned himself in? Or done himself in? But he didn’t stop, and when he looked over his shoulder, it was only to reassure himself that no one was following him. And gradually, exhaustion set in.
That night, when he and the horse were both spent, he slid to the ground on the verge of collapsing. He fell asleep in a forest, wrapped in his coat on a bed of leaves. It was spring, but still so cold that he woke up with clattering teeth early the next morning.
And while he was drinking from his flask of water, the last day’s events really caught up to him. He had been bitten. There was no doubt that the werewolf had infected him before ... Everything unfolded once more in his mind. He had faced a werewolf. He was on the way home from visiting a patient outside his hometown, had climbed over the little hill and was almost at the brook that formed a trickling border between the town and the countryside. There he had met some farmers who struck up conversation with him to ask for advice. Something about warts. Then the werewolf had come over the hill, charged at them, ferocious, but emaciated and wounded. Peter had no idea why it was in that state, but it was the only reason he was alive now. It had probably been stuck in a snare and wrestled itself free. He had fought it with the farmers, and somehow they had managed to win the battle, using their shovels as swords. And while they were hacking at it to separate the head from the body, Peter had fled the scene.
It was not a superficial wound. The saliva was in his bloodstream. But incubation would take some time. He would, most likely, transform at he next full moon and that was only a little more than a week away. Some never changed back. He did not hope that he was one of them. And he hoped that he could reach Frankfurt before it happened.
There was no guarantee that the hunters had received his letter. There was no guarantee of anything. His plan, if that was an appropriate term for the panicked idea, was to offer the hunter organisation his help in exchange for them rendering him harmless once a month. He knew that advanced medication existed and though it could probably not save him, it may help lessen the effect of the bite.
They may also just put a bullet through his head.
Yes, that was a risk, but it was a risk that he was willing to take. If he were to die, he would much rather have a well-aimed bullet between his eyes than being hunted down with pitchforks or stoned to death while his family was watching.
His wife and his children ... He had left them.
There had been no choice. In the best scenario, he would have been able to tell them farewell before the villagers killed him. In the worst, he would have killed them.
Peter removed the bandages from his upper arm and examined the wound. It was not remotely healed. And it stung. He would have to stitch it to make sure it closed. He had not allowed himself the time to do that before now.
At least he was a doctor.
The absurdity of that thought made him laugh so hard that tears rolled down his cheeks. Although it was a very different matter to treat himself, and although the pain in his arm made him nauseous, at least he knew what he was doing, and he was in good hands as long as he could hold on to his humanity.
He had to lean against a tree, laughter still shaking his aching frame. At least he was a doctor. That also meant that he was well aware that this reaction was caused by the shock. That realisation made him laugh even harder.
Afterwards he stitched up the wound as well as he could with one hand and put new bandages around it. He may be doomed. He may be days from getting killed. If he had not reached Frankfurt or had been found when it was close to full moon, he decided to attempt to lock himself up somewhere or to take enough analgesia to end it. That much he owed the world. But he still had his professional pride. He may as well treat the wound properly, and he certainly did not want to die from a ridiculous infection. Another infection.
In the course of the next few days, he came through several villages. He bought something to eat in the first one and decided to spend the night in the second one. No one looked strangely or accusingly at him. And why would they? How should they know? All they saw was an exhausted man on an exhausted horse.
He was getting closer to Frankfurt each day. But would he get there in time?
The horses were not keen on getting closer to the carcass on the ground. Hector could not blame them. But they were both trained well. Knew and trusted their riders. Anita sighed, and Hector knew what she was thinking. Despite their rushing out of Frankfurt as soon as they had received the letter, without even taking the time to clear the job with the board, they may be too late.
“You keep watch,” Hector said and dismounted.
Behind him, Anita loaded her rifle and kept watch for signs of movement in the vegetation around them. She would put a bullet through a potential attacker before it put its teeth through Hector.
He approached the dead horse by the side of the road. It was dusk, and the full moon was still hanging low in the sky. Blood glistened in black stripes across the body of the animal. Flies were flocking on its eyes, but not in the wounds. The gashes were long and deep. Hector hoped that the horse had died from the shock when claws and fangs had sunk into it. But he doubted it. It must have screamed in pain and panic, may have tried to kick the attacker, but since the assailant had been on its back to begin with, it probably had been no use. There were wounds down the neck that appeared to have been drawn from above.
“Werewolf,” Hector confirmed with a sigh.
“Unless another werewolf in the area came riding on this horse, lost control of himself and tore it apart, then I think we have found him.” Hector bent down to take a closer look. “He did not eat anything. A mouthful here and there, but it was hardly a meal.”
“So we are looking for a hungry werewolf. That’s nice,” Anita said dryly.
“He had no idea what he was doing. This is not systematic.” Hector walked around the horse. “Still warm. He can’t be far away.” Torn pieces of clothing were strewn on the other side and along the road in the direction that the horse had come. There was also a bag. Hector picked it up. Yes, it was definitely the doctor. There were bandages in it and a number of small glass bottles. Some were shattered, but others had survived the fall. Hector read the labels. Most of them were painkillers. He took the bag and went back to Anita and the horses.
“Well then. Let’s find him and take good care of him,” she said and patted the barrel of her rifle.
Hector shook his head and mounted again. “No,” he said. “He came this far. He hoped that we could save him.”
“But it is obviously too late.”
“We’ll catch him. He wrote us. He trusted that we would bring him with us.”
“Before he turned! Hector, we can’t ...” She shook her head. “You cannot be that naive. He’s a werewolf. If we had intercepted him and talked to him before … But we didn’t.”
This was important. Hector was not certain why. Later he would learn that sometimes one single person was incredibly important. To him, to the bigger picture. To give everything a purpose and meaning. It should never be more important to save one person than a whole town, and it wasn’t. But it was important to take on the small jobs too, the ones where only one life was at stake. Even if that one life belonged to a werewolf. Because things were not so simple after all. “Anita.” He regarded her seriously for a moment. “We will try. According to his letter, he was bitten while he was helping others kill a werewolf. We will find him and get him under control somehow.” Regardless of whether they succeeded or not, Hector would have to explain his actions to the board when they returned. He was the one in command on this mission, and what he was suggesting was far from normal procedure.
Anita spread her arms in an exasperated gesture. “You don’t just get a werewolf under control!” she said. “What are you thinking? Do you want to ask him to behave and not bite us?”
Hector grunted, only half amused. “Rather knock him unconscious and tie him up and see if we can keep him under control. Perhaps the medicine in his bag can help us.”
“You are mad.”
“You can turn around and go back if you don’t want to be part of this,” Hector told her. “It’s your choice. I will respect it.”
Anita looked away. She considered it for a moment. “Alright,” she finally said. “You win. I’m with you. But the moment he gets too close … The moment he attacks you, I will shoot him.”
“That’s fine.” Hector smiled. “I wasn’t planning on dying for this.”