‘My, what big fatal chest wounds you have.’
The werewolf glances down at its blood-soaked pelt, yellow eyes narrowed, teeth bared in a grimace of pain. A growl starts in its chest, rising steadily in pitch until it becomes a hideous howl, slicing through the woods quick as moonlight. Seeking an answer.
So I give it one. I put the barrel of the gun to the beast’s forehead and place one high-heeled boot on its throat. That does the trick. The cry chokes in the monster’s throat, its eyes widening. It stares up at me, no doubt trying to play on my conscience: to remind me that behind this bestial mass of fur and teeth, there beats a human heart. That this creature sprawled at my feet is — other than for one night a month — a man.
That might have worked on my predecessor. In fact, it’s probably the reason I’m standing here now, wearing the infamous red cloak, basket in one hand and sawn-off shotgun in the other. The last girl to don the scarlet mantle — Jemima, I think she was called — was good, but had one thing I didn’t. The thing which proved to be her undoing; the thing that led to Granny knocking on my door, cloak over her arm, knowing smile on her face, offer I couldn’t refuse bursting on her wrinkled lips.
The last Little Red Riding Hood had a conscience.
This beast lying before me isn’t to know. He probably thinks that by beginning to turn back, he can tug at my heart strings, play them like a maestro. Like he’s no doubt done to dozens of other girls over the years, promising them moon-drenched nights of danger and pleasure. He probably thinks I’m just like them: all wide eyes and blushing cheeks, heaving bosoms and fluttering hearts.
I’m not like them.
I’m like me.
The beast’s lips curl back in a parody of a smile. The fur is rippling, receding back into the skin, revealing the human beneath. Limbs crack as they straighten; his muzzle shrinks, his jaw clicking back into place. His eyes begin to lose their sickly yellow hue, returning to a natural, piercing blue. His thick mop of black hair; his dark shadow of stubble accentuates his finely-chiselled features. He’s a handsome one alright. A real ladykiller, I bet.
‘Please,’ he says, voice cracking with the pain. ‘Spare me. I promise I’ll seek the cure, if you only let me live.’
The cure. That’s what’s in the basket. Specially-treated apples, one bite all it takes to turn one of his kind back into human form forever, the lycan curse eradicated, their soul purified. It’s very effective.
But then so’s this.
‘Nighty night,’ I say, and pull the trigger.
‘Bourbon, three fingers, straight.’
The barman is staring at me like I’ve got three heads. I’m not in the mood for this; I’m weary and all I want is a drink before heading home to my shack and hanging up my shotgun for another twenty-eight days.
‘Erm…’ He shuffles from one foot to the other. ‘You have something on your cheek.’
I glance at my reflection in the mirror behind the bar. My hood’s down; my black hair is dishevelled and wild, my eyes red-rimmed and tired. And my pale skin is spattered with so much werewolf blood, I look like I’ve caught the measles and smallpox at the same time.
‘Sorry.’ I pick up one of the napkins next to a bowl of wasabi peas and wipe my face. That only makes it worse.
‘You’re frightening the other customers.’ The barman sounds braver than he looks. ‘I’m going to have to ask you to leave.’
I sigh. I don’t want to make a scene. Neither do I want to risk letting the red mist descend and force me to kill everyone in the room. ‘Fine.’ I take a handful of peas and throw them in my mouth. ‘I’ll be going.’
The whole room breathes a synchronised sigh of relief. I glance around — it’s filled with the usual assortment of unambitious peasants and slop-swillers. I’m better off without them and their accusing stares. Better off on my own.
I pick up my basket and walk back towards the door. There, sitting in the corner, shrouded in grey curls of pipe smoke, is a patron unlike the rest. Large, broad, muscular arms rippling as he grasps his tankard and brings it to his bearded lips. He wears a hood similar to mine, except it’s made of the blackest, finest material I’ve ever seen. It obscures most of his face, though I think I can see his eyes glint from beneath his hood. Watching me.
I sniff the air between us. He’s not a werewolf: no reek of that bestial musk I’ve come to detest so much. Just a man: a strange, muscular, handsome man. Staring at me.
‘Evening.’ His voice is rich as autumn wine. ‘Care to join me?’
I look back at the barman. He’s glaring at me, arms crossed in front of his chest. ‘I don’t think so,’ I say. ‘I’ve been asked to leave, and I don’t want any trouble. Not tonight, at least.’
‘What you want and what comes hunting you are often very different things, lass.’ A cloud of sweet-smelling tobacco smoke fogs towards me. ’Sometimes we have no choice as to which path we must travel down.’
’That’s as maybe,’ I say, regretting stopping to speak to him in the first place. He talks like he’s stepped straight from the pages of some third-rate fantasy novel; likely fancies himself as a lone hero, travelling the land in search of wrongs to put right. ‘But I am, to be brutally honest, knackered. I just want to go home, go to sleep.’
‘The land of dreams is often the most treacherous of all,’ he puffs. ‘Let he who does not enter into Morpheus’ realm prepared rue the day.’
‘My worries tend to be more real,’ I say, pulling up my hood. ‘So, if you’ll kindly excuse me, I’ll be on my way.’
A series of smoke rings coil into each other. I think he’s given up, returning to his shadowy corner, waiting for someone more gullible to impress. Then he speaks.
‘As you wish.’ A long sigh. ‘I only thought you might wish to know what I had to tell you.’
‘And what’s that?’ I’m used to the come-ons and the lousy pick-up lines. I think it’s the red cloak — some kind of scarlet woman thing. Guys seem to think I’m an easy target, fair game. ‘How you’ve never met someone like me before?’
‘No, no.’ He taps his pipe on the table. A plug of spent tobacco thuds out. ‘I just thought that perhaps you might like to know what happened to your father.’