Nowhere To Run
Noah didn't know what to expect on his first day back to school. Rumor had it that Vice Principal Quadland had been reduced to begging Principal Eisler to have him expelled from Chaney High. Noah could only assume that his ability to enter the campus without fear of arrest meant that the vice principal's willingness to sacrifice his dignity had failed to get him expelled.
Aside from the foregone conclusion that He Who Will Not Be Named was still fuming over the kicking his posterior had taken, Noah was okay with being back in school. It helped that Noah hadn't yet seen said arch-nemesis around anywhere.
Judging by the ape's past vendettas against fellow students, he planned to make life miserable for Noah as soon as he could. Noah and everyone else knew that the administration was keeping a close eye on both of them.
Noah still had not mastered turning yet. Watching Dad turn hadn't inspired him to greatness. Indeed, how easy he made it look only intimidated him.
Worse even, he had not channeled since the Incident. For all intents and purposes, he was once again an ordinary high school student. Noah didn't know how long he could last without the reassurance of having a kick-ass power to save his bacon in a pinch. Being human was being vulnerable.
Noah's eyes scanned the hallways. Noah had expected an ambush around every corner. Now, it was like his opposite numbers had disappeared.
Though he wasn't nearly naïve enough to actually believe that, a part of him wanted to believe that. As odd as it sounded, high school was hard enough without bullies. It was the most singularly mind-numbing soul-crushing experience of his entire life. Hours, weeks, months and years he would never get back.
His parents, especially his mother, spoke well of the virtues of education. Thus, the two tended to gloss over the difficulties and frustrations. His older sister, Alyssa, was such a pathological social butterfly she had become somewhat addicted to the dark side of high school and its empty promises of popularity. She was the last person who would understand his suffering.
Noah wasn't too fond of glossing over or being glossed over. Even his family, people who could thwart every monster under the sun, couldn't protect him from high school. He didn't want them to either. He just wanted someone in his life to acknowledge how much crap the experience of high school could be.
It was like a circus. Everyone wanted to be the center stage act. Most wannabes didn't care how many much more deserving talents ended up the guys who shoveled up the elephant dung. It was a time for obese egos to feast like gluttons on the self-esteems of their peers and for anorexic egos like Noah's to starve death from either honor or stupidity or a mix of the two.
"Hey, Noah," Jason Newton greeted. Noah wasn't too proud to note that he had jumped a good five inches off the ground. "Jumpy much?" Jason wrapped his arm around one of Noah's shoulders. "Forgot you had a best friend?"
Noah held back the inevitable smirk. With Jason Newton, forgetting he was his best friend was entirely possible. Despite the deus ex machina of having super-powers, Noah still hadn't forgotten how Jason had abandoned him during the big showdown on the battlefield known as high school.
Still, that wasn't the real reason why Noah hadn't contacted Jason during his suspension. Noah Walked wanted that time alone. While he hadn't taken the news nearly as badly as Alyssa did, Noah was still a little confused about the whole belonging to a supernatural subset of humanity thing. While the superpowers and the promise of even more superpowers were definite pluses, the fact that Noah Walker and his family were not technically garden variety Homo sapiens was a big fat check in the minus column. Would the friend who had left him to his fate treat him like a human being after the reveal or like a two-legged talking dog?
Besides, what did being a Benandanti even mean in terms of friends? Was he still allowed to have them? Or would they get in the way when he started hunting? Dad had taken to avoiding the issue. A week ago, he had been gung-ho about getting him started on the Benandanti fast track. Now, he was stalling. Noah couldn't quite decide what had happened. Had he come off too eager? Noah didn't know what to make of it. As a cop, his father could be mysterious and oblique at times. Now, Dad was downright impenetrable.
"Earth to Noah." Jason waved his hands in front of Noah's face. Noah had drifted off when he started contemplating the things he couldn't talk about.
"Hello. Anybody home?" Secrecy was a strict new rule in the Walker home. Alyssa had already lost her cell phone over it. Part of the rule included a ban on doing anything that could raise suspicions. At this, Noah was failing.
Noah blinked a couple times before replying. "I'm sorry." Noah groped for a convenient excuse somewhere in his mind. "Ian," Noah started, the name like acid on his tongue, "is still bothering me. Why isn't he at school?" Jason looked up and down the hallways like he hadn't noticed. Of course, Noah knew better than that. He didn't want him to worry. It wasn't working. "Well?"
"Ian only goes to school often enough to keep the couch from benching him. He must not have felt like going through the trouble of waking up before noon today." Noah crossed his arms. Noah was still waiting for the truth.
Jason sighed. "Okay, listen, I didn't want to be the one to tell you this but you're a marked man. Ian was suspended just like you were. Now, Principal Eisler won't let him play football anymore." Noah felt a knot in his stomach. Taking away Ian's only legit means of aggression therapy was a bad idea. "Word is he's getting together a bunch of his friends and his friends' friends to hunt you down and beat your ass bloody." Jason shrugged. "Me, I don't take much stock in idle gossip. You know high school, Noah, always someone making something up, right?" That disclaimer did nothing for Noah's anxiety.
Jason sighed again. "Besides," Jason said, adjusting his collar. "I haven't had time to notice. I'm actually worried about something else." Noah looked askance at Jason. Noah really cared about whatever was bothering Jason but he was also looking for an excuse to drop the subject of Ian Rockwell.
"Something bad happened at my dad's workplace. I don't know what it is but whatever it is, it's got him drinking again." Jason's father had been sober for five months after his mom threatened to leave him. It must be something really bad to make a man jeopardize his marriage and his liver.
Noah rubbed his imaginary goatee. Noah's mother and Jason's father worked at the same office building. Endore Enterprises. Mom hadn't breathed a word about anything bad or unusual going on at work. Noah could see why Jason was concerned. Mr. Newton was the kind of guy who could have his picture in the dictionary next to the word workaholic. Work was his life and his life was in free-fall. For the longest time, alcohol was the only thing that made his non-work life bearable. If work was going south, everyone in his family felt it. Noah often worried that his old man would cross the line someday but, so far, he had never laid a hand on Jason. He just made his life a masterpiece of misery in every other way. As if trying to make his son as dead on the inside as he was.
Noah was no detective. Jason was no client. This was simply a friend trying to help out another friend. Granted, the first friend had recently discovered he was a Benandanti, a type of lycanthrope with most of the powers of its close cousin, the werewolf, without the moon madness. Also, the first friend was preparing for a career in the monster extermination industry. On top of all that, Noah was itching for a chance to flex his brain with a good mystery.
All that was irrelevant. Noah just wanted to help Jason out of a rough patch. As soon as he got home, he'd explain the situation to Dad in the exact same thing. Noah was looking for trouble but his heart was in the right place. More or less.
"That is bullcrap." Bernard Walker felt like a heel for not telling Noah the real reason he couldn't encourage his enthusiasm for helping people. Also, Noah's timing was terrible. Bernie was exhausted from work and in no mood for a debate. Maybe, Noah meant to exploit that. It wasn't working.
Bernie hadn't told anyone about his meeting with the Palladian Society. Of course, he had to tell Michelle something since she led him there to begin with. He told her that the devil worshippers had packed up and left town.
That part was true; he just neglected the part where he learned the true nature of their secret society. The Palladists weren't in league with the Devil. They were witch-hunters disguised as witches. It was actually kind of brilliant. Bernie had to give the Palladian Society full points for originality.
Paul Utah, a Palladist who explained the big secret of their secret society, told him another shocker. The Palladists were responsible for summoning the Benandanti. After that gigantic bombshell, Bernard didn't think his new friend Paul Utah could say anything that could top that one and then he did.
No one from the Palladian Society had summoned the Benandanti this time and nobody knew who did. Bernie didn't trust Paul but something in his gut told him he was telling the truth. That meant there was another group of players in this mess and they were packing serious firepower magic-wise.
"You didn't used to curse." Bernie took a pause. "Try it. It's like riding a bike." Bernie knew that a little added aggression was typical with teenagers and even more typical with active Benandanti. Bernie wanted to be supportive but Noah was burning through his sympathy at an alarming rate.
"Listen, you're not ready, Noah. We were summoned for a reason; it could take months before we meet that reason. For all we know, that reason could be looking for us. So until it finds us, we need to practice hard and lay low."
Bernie knew the feeling Noah was going through quite intimately. When his foster parents died, Bernie wanted nothing more than to find the Wolf Mistress and tear her head with his bare hands. He had been preached to about patience and humility, hard lessons to hear when the heart ached for bloody righteous vengeance. In the end though, loggerheads prevailed. It all paid off too when the Wolf Mistress got to join her flock in Hell. It was a proud day.
Noah gritted his teeth in response. "Heroes," he said. "We're supposed to be heroes." Noah look down at his feet. "But we're not, are we?" Noah let the weight of that question sink in. "If helping my best friend is wrong, I don't want to be right but I don't have a choice, do I?" Bernie shook his head.
Noah Walker massaged his temples. "Nicholas Newton is an alcoholic. When life gets hard, he drinks. Jason doesn't deserve to have a drunk for a dad. I could stop all that but you won't let me." Noah paused. "Why, Dad?"
The expression on Bernie's face darkened. Noah took a step back. Bernie worried that he was channeling. This was the dark side of having two souls in one body. The dual identity. The human in Bernard Walker knew he was just a father being smarted off to by his son. No biggie. The wolf in Bernard Walker dealt in terms of a strict social hierarchy. The wolf saw this as an effrontery to his status as the alpha male. In the end, the wolf soul prevailed.
"Go to your room," Bernie said. "I can't even look at you right now. Get out of my sight." Bernie yelled that last commandment. Noah didn't scamper away in fear like a scared prey item. He was too angry for that. Instead, Noah did an about-face and marched off, his footfalls echoing through the house.
"I'm sorry, Noah," Bernie said, too late for his son to hear him amidst the sound of his bedroom door slamming shut. Bernie chuckled bitterly. A framed picture of a lake rendered in water colors had fallen off its hook and onto the kitchen's marble floor. "That went well," Bernie said to no one.
Virginia Tetch caught herself staring at the delivery boy's butt. A flush of blood went to her cheeks. Christ, Virginia thought, I'm old enough to be his mother. Virginia closed her eyes and gave herself a few seconds to reset. She was on company time and Simon Reed, the delivery boy, had more places to be than Endore Insurance. He had no time for middle-aged women in heat.
Virginia smiled at her private little in-joke as Simon placed the package on her desk. "What can I do for you, Simon?" Virginia could only hope that last sentence didn't sound like the horny come-on from a forty-year-old divorcee. The thought of a private session of "Simon Says" had crossed her mind before. Virginia couldn't help herself around the twenty-year-old male.
Simon wasn't even anything particularly special as far as men went. Simon was generic handsome with a touch of Texan charm. None of that was the reason for this. Mostly, Virginia Tetch was just lonely. Lonely and desperate.
A bad combination, Virginia thought. Simon looked up at her with those big blue eyes. Simon tipped his baseball cap like he was cowboy greeting a Southern belle. Simon really was that ridiculous; a throwback to a bygone era of plain-spoken courtesy. Virginia hoped that her blush had gone away. She really was too old for the whole blushing schoolgirl routine.
"Just need someone to sign for this package." Simon always lingered when she looked at him. In her mind, it was the same way Nick Newton would look at Michelle Walker. It was like raw lust doing its best impression of courtly romance. Then again, Virginia Tetch could just be imagining the subtext though.
Virginia signed off on the package. Thomas Towles was one of those old-school managers who spent a lot of money buying whatever piece of junk he thought would bring back the glory days. It was a waste of time. The Endore Insurance of a few years ago was never coming back. Virginia couldn't complaint though. It gave Simon Reed a reason to keep coming back and that was as good as a smile. Virginia looked at Simon. She nearly gasped.
This time, she caught him sneaking a peak down her blouse. Virginia felt another blush coming on. She could see the shame reflex in his face when he realized what he had done and that he had been caught doing it. It was sweet, the whole innocent school boy routine. It probably got him laid more than a couple times in the past. The important thing was that Virginia Tetch was not imagining things this time. Simon Reed was checking her out.
Now, for the million-dollar question: What would she do with this shocking revelation? A look of contemplation crossed his face. Virginia didn't have Clue One what was going through that skull of his. Simon looked up and took a big gulp of air. Suddenly, Simon's thoughts weren't so hard to guess.
Virginia laughed. Simon looked wounded by her laughter. The delivery boy and the receptionist. Her ex-husband had a fondness for what he called "marital aids." This felt like the set-up to one of his beloved "marital aids."
He'd brag to his friends if I let him get away with this. Virginia took off her red winged glasses and let them sit on the table. Virginia stared at them for what felt like ages. She couldn't believe this might actually be happening.
A hundred different responses emerged for Simon's unspoken ultimatum. Most of them were prosaic enough. All of them what any reasonable woman would do to get out of this situation. Except for one problem. Virginia wasn't sure if she wanted out of this situation. This was a dream come true. It was a very raunchy and unprofessional dream but a dream nonetheless.
Virginia sighed in defeat. How am I kidding? Whatever he had planned for her had her implied consent already. With her right hand, Virginia traced a path along Simon's youthful face. With her left hand, Virginia disposed of her glasses in the nearest desk drawer. She wasn't going to need them for this. What she needed was a few minutes to get someone to cover for her.
"Enjoy your lunch." Barbara McCullen left out the epithet of bitch or slut but Virginia could hear it in her tone of voice. When Barbara muttered something under her breath about getting a disease, Virginia's suspicions were all but confirmed. Barbara was the textbook example of an evangelical prude and she must have known what she was up to. Barbara smirked a bit.
Evangelical prude or not, Barbara was jealous. She had done online dating to look for a Christian boy with the intent of marriage and her purity ring routine wasn't getting a lot of takers even among men used to having their balls tied into a knot. Virginia could do nothing but smirk back at Barbara.
Virginia was just as uncomfortable as Barbara with the tonal shift from soulless corporate office into a never-ending soap opera. If you can't beat them, join them, Virginia Tetch thought as she lead Simon Reed by the arm. Barbara was still holding out for a return to the stifling climate staffed by the emotionally dead with no active libidos. Virginia had no such delusions.
Barbara didn't even belong here. Nick Newton had pulled some strings to get her hired at Endore Insurance. She was his sister-in-law. He felt obliged to help her out. It didn't change the simple fact that she didn't belong here.
Virginia stopped a moment as she felt a rush of air brush across her left side. Virginia shook it off. Just a little pre-coitus jitters. That's all. The old wooden door to the janitor's closet next to the break room was open a crack.
It wasn't the most inspired choice for illicit affairs. In fact, it was a company hot spot for things of that nature. Virginia half expected the room to smell like sex due to its colorful history. It smelled like any janitor's closet should. Wet with just a hint of mildew in the air. Virginia pulled the light bulb string and lit the room. A black garbage bag was huddled in the far right corner.
Virginia was surprised at how little talking was going on. No sleazy innuendos or boasts of future pleasures. Simon was as silent as a death row inmate being held in cast-iron shackles to the electric chair. Perhaps, he was just trying to be respectable. Maybe the innocence wasn't an act. Whatever Simon was going, it was giving Virginia the creeps. She needed to speak up.
"Please say something," she begged as she closed the closet door behind them. "I'm feeling self-conscious right now." It was lame but true. She wasn't the type of girl who did things like this even when she was young enough to get away this sort of hijinks. Virginia held Simon close. "Please."
Simon didn't reply. He started unbuttoning her blouse like a machine with fingers. Simon's lips pulled at the skin of her neck as he leaned her against a shelf of cleaning products. Simon was unrelenting. He wouldn't speak and he wouldn't stop. Virginia guided Simon with short one-word commands like "deeper," "lower" and "slower." Simon didn't talk but he sure did listen.
Virginia Tetch tried not to complain. She knew what this was. Simon Reed wasn't a knight-in-shining-armor rescuing a damsel-in-distress. The real situation had far fewer hyphens. Simon was just a horny kid about to get lucky with a woman twice his age. Simon was sweating proverbial bullets.
Simon was going through the same thing every man went through at this point. The thrill of conquest was being replaced by the desire to perform. Simon was eager to get this right and Virginia was eager to show him how. Virginia shuttered as Simon's lips cupped her naked beast. This is amazing.
Virginia felt that same rush of air. Something cold dipped in and out of her stomach. The look of steely determination on Simon's cherub face turned to horror as he looked down at his fingertips. They were covered in her blood.
Without thinking to cover herself, Virginia staggered out of the janitor's closet, her exposed breast chilled by the AC as her hands struggled to hold in her guts. Simon was screaming for help. Virginia didn't feel pain. She didn't feel anything. I'm going to die, Virginia Tetch realized as her head hit the floor. Her blood pooled up to her neck before she lost consciousness.
"I can't believe you still have that thing." Noah Walker stared up at the teddy bear in the red cowboy hat perched on the top of a bookshelf, providing a silent vigil over Jason Newton's beloved comic book collection.
"Howdy, Red. Long time no see." Jason had bought Red during his trip to the British Isles two years ago. Jason still talked about the trip like it was the coolest thing in the whole world. Unless Jason ever watched his father turn into a wolf in his living room, Noah had cornered the market on cool.
Noah had googled "Endore Insurance" when he got home. Noah didn't expect anything to come up. Googling was the first baby step into the world of investigative research. Noah was surprised by the outcome. Two deaths had been reported in the downtown office and they were both very strange.
"This is weird." Noah pointed at the screen of Jason's Mac laptop. "Both deaths had witnesses who claimed to have seen the murders but not the attacker. Tiffany Young, age 25, was stabbed 7 times in full view of 18 witnesses. No one saw the killer. Virginia Tetch, age 40, was stabbed once but the only witness, Simon Reed, age 20, couldn't identify the assailant."
Noah Walker tried to process all the information. It was clear that something supernatural was happening here but it wasn't going to be easy to narrow down the suspects. According to Mom, supernatural creatures tended to have a lot of abilities in common. Invisibility was far from rare among the other-than-human inhabitants of Earth. Noah had his work cut out for him.
No wonder Jason's father was drinking again. The shadow of death had fallen on Endore Insurance's ilk. "I don't know what any of this means." Noah looked at Jason. "Tell you what. I will dig up some more information about it and I'll meet you here later tonight, okay?" Jason nodded. "Good."
Noah didn't know why he didn't leave. The investigation was underway; Noah had no reason to overstay his welcome. Still, Noah could sense when Jason was holding back. Noah could feel his secret gnawing away at him.
"Jason, I'm your friend." Jason nodded. "I know you pretty well." Noah shook his head. "You try to come off like nothing bothers you but it does." Noah sighed. "So please tell me what's wrong and we'll go from there."
Jason took a deep breath. "A while back, Mom thought Dad was cheating on her. She did an amateur investigation. She even had a list of suspects." Noah didn't like where this was going. "Two are dead. Two more are alive."
Noah couldn't help but concede that the theory had merit. This wasn't a spree killing. Tiffany was attacked en route to her apartment. Valerie was cornered in a janitor's closet. Jason grabbed a list from his bookshelf. "I didn't want to tell you about it. Once you look at this list, you'll know why."
Noah looked at the names of the third and fourth suspects, the one still alive. Noah lingered on the name of the third suspect. "See, I knew you wouldn't believe me." Noah stared at that name like it was a terrible curse.
Michelle Walker. That was the name of the third suspect in Mrs. Newton's investigation. The name of fourth suspect was Barbara McCullen, her own sister. This was one paranoid bitch and Noah couldn't stand it anymore. Mom was about to get slashed because of a bored housewife's insipid paranoia.
Noah had finished explaining the situation to Mom. Apparently, the name McCullen had showed up in her mother's journal. The McCullen Castle was said to be home to a redcap, a near-extinct breed of fairies with an appetite for murder and a fondness for blades. This one was likely the last of his kind.
"What do you know about redcaps?" Noah was starting to go into full panic mode. The last two victims had died with people standing right next to them. Any minute now, a redcap could sneak up on his mother and kill her before he even had a chance to arm himself with Dad's silvered boot knife.
"They're not invisible. They're fast. According to folklore, it is impossible to outrun one." Noah could feel his blood pressure rising. Too bad Dad was working a double shift at the station. He might know how to handle this.
Alyssa was safer where she was, hanging out at Erica's. Noah still couldn't believe that Mom had OK'ed that. Mom must have figured that Alyssa had no way to proving her supernatural claims. She couldn't access her Benandanti abilities. Another reason she was safer somewhere else.
"They can also shape shift but there are limits. They have a red birthmark on their foreheads. No matter what form they take, they must have something red on their foreheads, usually in the form of a red cap. Hence the name."
Miss Turco next door never took off her red bonnet hat, a gift from her grand-niece Paige. Mr. Zacniewski wore a red baseball cap to cover his bald spot. "So it could be almost anyone then." Mom shook her head. "What do you mean?"
Mom explained. "Redcaps cannot speak. They can understand words spoken to them but they do not possess vocal chords. It is one of the limitations of their shape-shifting." Noah wasn't acquainted with any mutes with a preference for red headgear. Dad had been right. Noah wasn't ready for this.
Mom was creating a circle of iron oxide sprinkled with holy water. According to her mother's research, redcaps couldn't cross a barrier made from consecrated iron. Moreover, all shifters could be destroyed with silver.
Noah felt an idea inside his head worming its way to the surface. Mom had provided the means and opportunity. Noah still lacked the motive. Someone was targeting the list of suspects. Knowing why was key to knowing who.
Noah closed his eyes and imagined himself in Jason's shoes. Jason lived at the end of the block. Sometimes, Noah heard the arguments. Jason might try to come off like a typical disaffected youth but this kid cried when he watched Bambi's mother die and he was 16 when he first watched Bambi.
Noah watched in his mind's eye as the people who gave life to him waged their titanic wars. At one point, Jason's mother couldn't resist waving the list of suspects in his father's face. He would storm off. Somehow, Jason had either seen the list or gotten a copy. He read the list alone in his room.
The truth hit Noah all at once. Jason wasn't alone when he read that list. There was someone else in the room. Hiding in plain sight. He needed to warn him. He grabbed the iron salt and holy water and ran out of the door.
Noah Walker would have kept smashing his fist against the door until his fists bled if Jason hadn't answered the door when he did. "Thank God. you're alive. It's important you don't go back in your room." Noah tumbled through the front door. "We need to get you in a circle of consecrated iron."
Noah unsheathed his father's silvered boot knife. Jason took a step back from Noah. "First things first, I need to stick this knife in Red. Believe it or not, Red is a monster. He is killing everyone on that list. He needs to die."
Jason shook his head. He was taking this surprisingly well. "Why? Because you say so?" Noah stood in the foray, speechless. Jason Newton had known about Red the whole time. This was his circus and he was running the show.
"Tell me, Noah, when you found out your mom was on that list, did you for one moment think my mom was right about her and did you write her off some jealous housewife with a chip on her shoulder?" Noah couldn't speak.
Jason smirked. "Don't bother lying. You ran home to protect her and now Red is going to starve." Red showed up in teddy bear form like he had materialized out of nowhere. "Your family sickens me, Noah. You think they are so perfect but they are not. You think my family sucks because they scream a lot? Your family screams too. On the inside. Most families do."
Mom had told him one last little tidbit about redcaps. Their murderous rage was contagious. People who spent too much time around them ended up like this. Filled with homicidal rage. "Listen to me, Jason. This isn't you talking. Red is messing with your head. He wants your permission to kill people."
Jason petted Red behind the ears. "He has it." Jason grinned. "I can't think of anything more tragic that a mother losing her son." Jason pointed at him. "Sic him, boy." Noah raised the knife. He blinked. Knife was gone and he left something slice into the meat of his thigh. "That's it. Nice and slow."
Jason turned around and caught a blow to the head. Mom stood over him with a baseball bat. "Leave my son alone, you bastard." Jason's eyes rolled to the back of his head. He wasn't dead but he was down for the count. "Are you okay, sweetie?" Before he could answer, Red stabbed Mom in the foot.
Red rose his spear to bring down on her unborn child. "Stop!" Jason yelled. "I'll take it from here." Hopes that Mom's bat had knocked some sense into Jason were dashed. Jason walked up to Mom. "Good night, Mrs. Walker."
Noah watched as the knife came down. The silvered knife lost in the heat of battle was now buried in Red's cowboy hat, penetrating his brain. The last redcap disintegrated. His tiny ashes were carried away by an eldritch wind.
Jason gripped the sides of his head. Jason looked around like he didn't know his own house. Noah and Mom got up and limped out the front door.