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Beta Readers: SHEPARD (Aesop's World)

(This takes place in the Roaring Twenties in AESOP’S WORLD, the same universe with Brooklyn Blackie (40’S) and Frosty Pines (80’s))

by Bill Kieffer

“Towers and waterwheels!” the Alasation cursed, “Can’t you see that I’m working here?”

The single hanging light bulb swung back and forth behind the large police detective. Each time it passed over the head of his suspect, it singed a little more of the Cat’s head fur. The Feline squirmed in his cuffs, but he hadn’t broken yet. The confession – an honest one, at least – was still at least an hour away, if Andrew Shepard was any judge of these things.

“Lieutenant needs to see you, Shepard,” the mutt said by way of apology. They were partners on paper, but the mixed-breed Dog knew his place. He’d usually waited out these interrogations unless Shepard signaled him to play good cop or bring in a folder of random paper.

“Watch this Pussy for me, would you Diego?”

“I’m innocend, I ain’d doing nooding!” The Cat’s missing teeth made his speech sound a bit muddied.

Shepard slipped into his jacket and shook his hat in the Cat’s face. “Innocent people do not resist arrest. You better tell Detective Diego what we need to know before I get back. You’ll get a better deal from him than me.”

“Bud, I’m innocend!” The Cat wailed, but Shepard was already out of the interview room and marching up to the fourth floor. He knew “Mr. Frisky” was innocent of blackmailing several city councilmen, but he was protecting someone. Diego might not break him, but all he had to do was patiently and slowly explain what Shepard might be willing to do.

A white furred Terrier Rookie named Lucky pointed him to the conference room where Lt. Pace was speaking to an Otter family who comprehension of Aenglish was questionable at best. Gaulish-speaking Canadian tourists trying to explain how their daughter was almost undone by a Stoat in broad daylight. Shepard slipped into the conversation and took control with his Oxblood accented Gaulish, much to the relief of his commanding officer.

Shepard had a knack for languages and he was pleased to make himself useful. Catching a break in the latest sex-fiend case could net him some nice headlines. If it was the same Stoat, there was a chance that he had moved onto targeting foreigners to avoid getting caught. New Amsterdam attracted thousands of tourists a day. Very few of them would be willing to wait around until the suspect was captured. Even less would wait for a trail.

“I work in New Amsterdam a week each month on business,” the father Otter reassured him, a hundred whiskers pumping up and down as he confirmed his commitment to prosecution. The women in his family seemed less certain, but they didn’t argue as he promised to make his daughter available to testify, if they found the varmint.

He translated for Pace and took control of the interview. He was raised in the trappings of wealth and said all the right things to make the Otters feel comfortable. He sent the white Terrier to fetch a sketch artist and stayed for the translation needed. He hardly noticed when Pace sneaked away and all but ignored the Bear investigating the “Albino Fiend” as the papers called the Stoat suspect when the paper sales needed a boost. Steiff might know enough Gaulish to order some cheese; but beyond that, he was at Shepard’s mercy and he knew it.

It was less than an hour when he offered to escort the Otters back to their hotel. The young Otter girl was still a bit shaken, afterall, and Shepard learned the family had social connections to the Mayor’s family. They happily accepted, and as they proceeded him down the stairs, he began to wonder how all those thick tails were going to fit inside his car.

Before he made it to the first floor, the little white rookie stopped him and pushed a pink memo slip at him. “Rex Bescherming has been calling for you. He says that it’s a matter of life or death.”

My cousin… I wonder what trouble he’s in now…

He apologized to the Otters saying that he must attend to his own family emergency. Officer MacDonald would be taking them home. The Terrier’s native tongue was Highland Gaelic; which was close enough to Gallish to hustle them home safely. As Lucky stammered something about not having a car, Shepard all but ran off to the interview room where he’d left Diego with his suspect.

He walked in to find his Feline with a crop of burnt fur and soaking wet and cowering in the corner. Shepard looked at Mutt with a sense of awe and pride, but Diego was humble. “That greasy kit stuff he’s using is apparently flammable.”

“Apparently,” Shepard said drolly. “Did you learn anything from him?”

“Nope, not a thing.”

“Cut him loose.” Shepard smiled and met the Cat’s hopeful look. “With that haircut, his friends are going to assume he talked. And when they go after him, he’ll come running back to us. Won’t you, Mr. Frisky?”

The Cat hissed and spit as Shepard whispered to Diego that he had to take off to see to a special family problem. Diego gave him a sly look that intimated he was sneaking off to be with a woman.

Shepard forced a tight, ears forward smile. “A gentleman never tells.”

He glanced at the pink little square. His number.

The bastard, he thought, and strode angrily out of the Red Claw police station, passing the smaller Rookie as he smartly organized two patrol cars to get the Otters back to the Ritz.

Park Slope was not a quick drive from Red Claw, but it gets a lot quicker when you have a siren.

Rex’s Silver Ghost was parked outside of the detective’s relatively modest home. There was no driver leaning against it. This would be his dim cousin’s idea of discretion. Oblivious to the amount of attention a Rolls Royce would attract, he was probably very pleased with himself for driving the car here all by himself.

Growling so softly and continually that he might as well been purring, Shepard stomped into his home.

He was caught short to discover that Rex was not alone in his livingroom. A female Wolf stood by his bar. Lynne Black. Her maid outfit was rumpled and stained with bleach. A few gray hairs on her muzzle. His words died in his throat. The brown and white she-wolf whose picture he carried into Tejas during last years of the Apache War. The woman who tried to wait for him. The girl who wanted him more than anyone he had ever known. The love he threw away when a Coyote’s bullet destroyed what he thought of as his manhood almost two decades ago.

Time tried to stop and they all waited to see what it would do.

Rex cleared his throat and gave his cousin a look that said I tried to warn you. Instead, he said, “I thought you would have called me back, first.”

Shepard’s ears flicked the nancy boy’s words away. “Lynne, what are you doing in – ?”

Lynne howled in a sudden display of despair. She was halfway across the room in a instant and clutching Shepard’s lapel. With tears running down her face, the Wolf cried, “They took my baby!”

Shepard stood there frozen, uncertain, before embracing her and patting her back.

He glanced at Rex, but his ears were casual and his tail still. For once, his pose was poker perfect. Neither of them were surprised that they’d taken her youngest, Blaine.

That had been the plan, of course.

Two handkerchiefs and a bowl of whiskey later, the two Dogs had maneuvered the taller she-wolf into the love seat by the fireplace. Rex sat down beside her, comforting her and making soft noises that seemed to encourage Lynne into gathering her wits. “Lynne,” Shepard urged. “Tell me what happened.”

“Blaine was walking back from Mrs. Gottbald, she’s an elderly Polish Dog across the street. She used to watch Blaine and now Blaine is helping her translate her recipes to Aenglish.” Big wet eyes met his, something like accusation burning in them. “He’s very much like you, that way.”

Another awkward moment. Both Rex and he shared the family’s gift with language. Shepard only nodded. This wasn’t the time to talk about the complexities of the bastard’s conception. “Then what happened?” He urged her.

“Men in cloaks and a truck pulled up and took him.” She made a fist. “He fought back so hard, he kicked his leg braces off.”

Startled, Shepard nearly dropped his cigar from his thin black lips. He hadn’t care to know too much about the Pup over the years. “Polio?”

Lynne shook her head, but it was Rex that explained. “Blaine wears corrective shoes. He was born with a slight plantigrade malformation. I’ve… been helping with the doctor bills.”

Shepard glared at the dimwit. We don’t have Throwbacks on our side of the family. He bit the words back. Rex was too soft for what needed had to be done. He asked instead, “People saw this?”

Lynne nodded. “One of the neighborhood children, a Rept boy.”

Shepard nodded. He understood now, but he asked anyway. “Why come here? Why not go to the police?”

“The cop on the beat, O’Mallory, won’t listen to a Cold boy and…” Lynne took a deep breath. “And, Blaine has runaway before. But this is different, damn it, Andy. Blaine has a library book out. If he was running away, he’d have taken it with him.”

Shepard’s tail wagged in spite of himself. Not just because it was a cute that a kid wouldn’t leave a book behind, but she had called him Andy. He had a selfish urge to chase Rex from the room and comfort her for a moment. He squashed it by thinking of Waldo, the Wolf whose facial fur was similar to Shepard’s.

“And what does your husband say?”

Lynne’s ears fell back and she looked away for a moment. When she meant his eyes again, her face set in mild anger. “He thinks Blaine ran away. It’s hard for him… he’s smaller than any of the other Wolves his age and… his oldest brothers have figured out that he’s not a full Wolf. It’s strained things. Of course, Waldo’s a little resentful of Blaine.”

Shepard nodded with shallow sympathy. Only Lynne had ever thought that having a bastard half-breed would not be a strain. Even Rex, as dim as he was, knew what every rich privileged Mammal should know. Hybrids might be equal in the eyes of Xrist but in practice; not so much.

Waldo might seem to resent the bastard under his roof, but Shepard knew that wasn’t the case. Waldo had come up with this plan. Her husband had known that he’d have to watch this boy grow up under a death sentence. Shepard imagined that even the hardest heart might soften under such a burden given enough time.

Of course, the crazy sect that persecuted Waldo’s family was more than a bit overdue. Supposedly, whatever they needed to do with Blaine, they needed to do it with the stars in a certain alignment. It had been that way when they’d killed Waldo’s father. The same celestial event occurred when two of Waldo’s brothers were kidnapped and eviscerated. And then there were the threatening letters, that if Waldo had a seventh child, the same thing would happen to his next child.

So, he stopped at six.

It had been the beginning of the 20th Century; Waldo didn’t believe in the “family curse.” Yet, what had happened to his father and brothers had been real enough. Shepard had looked into everything and, reading between the lines, he could see that this Cult had people in enough of the right places to keep the investigation from exposing them. Waldo sold him on the plan that exposing the Fabulist hating cult would make his career.

Shepard had brought in Rex for three reasons. Shepard’s manhood was painfully incomplete. Rex had a similar coloring to Shepard and Waldo. But, perhaps most importantly, Rex had his own manhood issues. A mickey finn and the badly kept secret of a bastard love-child protected Rex the family’s importance. Shepard had lost his claim to the family holdings by running off to "play Cowboys and Indians and his father’s will prevented him from taking any of the seats that Rex’s dumb ass filled. He hadn’t missed it until he realized that Rex was the last Shepard heir standing.

Waldo was grateful for the pansy’s contribution to his plan. He could see Lynne leaving him for Shepard. The idea that Rex might break up their marriage was impossible for either of them to conceive.

Shepard had realized that he had let the silence drag on too long. He strode to his bar and poured a small bowl of whiskey for himself. His manhood always tried to rise to the occasion whenever he caught Lynne’s scent. The scars always burned when this happened. He looked up at the ceiling and waited for the pain to pass.

“Andy… please. I know you investigated these people before…” Lynne rose from the loveseat, but Shepard wasn’t looking at her. He was thinking of the day that Waldo had sent her to him. The day he discovered that she still had a painful power over him. “Can’t you… I don’t know… check them out? Can’t you at least check to see if they are even still around?”

He put down his bowl and looked at Lynne for a moment. The agreed upon script was that Shepard should tell her No. That Waldo was right. Or that there were so many twisted people that would want a young boy for their own purposes. Oh, yes, Rex could tell her all about that. Yes, tell her what happens to a boy taken from the streets, why don’t you Rex? He jammed his cigar into the ashtray on the bar and worked up his courage, hating himself for this weakness.

She’d hate him forever. Once the boy’s body was found, she’d hate him forever. No amount of headlines or convictions would ease her pain. Waldo would reclaim her. Maybe even give her the Seventh Son of the Seventh Son she had always wanted. He’d never see again. He’d never feel this awful, searing pain again.

He looked at her again. Her ears were back and trembling. Her tail had slipped out of the girdle domestic help used to hide their tails and hung straight down, actively trying not to curl up between her legs. His mouth would not work. He glanced at Rex, hoping for some help. He didn’t love Lynne like he did. But Rex’s eyes were wide and wet, too. His cousin shook his head NO and his ears sent nonsense semaphore signals.

Shepard decided that he’d defer to tomorrow. It would be less of a No. He couldn’t burst into a Church, even a crazy one, on the say-so of a fresh out of the shell Rept that he hadn’t interviewed. The boy would be dead by then, but at least he’d have tried. She might not hate him forever. He fingered the silver waterwheel around his neck and did a quick prayer to Xrist for strength…

Rex barked slightly, cutting his prayer short. “Andrew, please… he’s my heir.” Ears back, eye’s wide, his cousin saw that this was no act.
The waterwheel fell from Shepard’s fingers and he rocked back. His hackles rose and he growled. He pulled at his own ears to control himself, to keep from striking his dim cousin. Lord help him, if he started, Shepard knew he’d never stop.

A red haze came over him and he forced his hands down, letting clumps of fur fall to the hooked rug. He tasted the tipping point of rage. He knew if he didn’t go out and kill something that needed killing, he might hurt the people he loved. “Lynne… where’s Waldo now?”

“He’s home. He promised to call you in the morning if Blaine didn’t come back by then… but I couldn’t wait.”

“I didn’t think she should.” Rex added.

Glaring death rays so bright he couldn’t see, Shepard grabbed his cousin off the loveseat and dragged him into the kitchen. Rex flayed, powerless to stop the buff Dog from slamming him against the pantry. Rex protested as he was slammed twice more.
“You. Were. Supposed To. Stay Away. From That Kid.” He whispered growled onto Rex’s ears. “I don’t ever want to see you near any little boys!”

Rex pushed back. “He’s my son. And I was a fool to ever agree to this plan.”

“Have you touched him? Have you touched him?” Shepard growled and pushed his exposed teeth into his cousin’s face.

“What would you care if I had? He was only ever meant to be bait for your big case, right?” Rex whispered growled right back. “But I haven’t… because I’m not that kind of monster. I am not that kind of monster at all.”

Rex spat on the floor between them. “You’re going to let that boy die just to make a case against a screwy church you could have just burned down a decade ago? What kind of monster are you?”

Shepard was rocked back by the accusation. He slapped Rex hard enough to knock the fight right out of him. “At least I’m a real man, you stupid nancy.”

Shepard went back to the front of his house where the taller She-Wolf was pacing. He shrugged into his coat and placed his bowler on his head. She looked at him hopefully and just those eyes quelled the fire he been stoking. “For you… Lynne… For you, I’ll check it out. I’ll check out the Illuminati Arcana.”

Shepard drove west across Brooklyn without the siren running. He stopped only once to call in his location to his partner and to grab a sandwich. He suspected that it might be his last chance to eat for awhile. Plus, it gave him time to think. By the time he headed out to Gairsville, he had convinced himself that he could make this all work out for him in the end.

If the boy was there.

If he was able to rescue Lynne’s boy.

If they hadn’t killed him yet.

Shepard wasn’t sure what he’d do if Blaine wasn’t in the hands of the cult. Flexibility wasn’t a quality that he was known for.
He parked on a side street under the New Amsterdam Bridge overpass which dominated the neighborhood. The area had been slowly sliding Colder in recent years. There were Repts everywhere. Horrible place, but then it had never been a garden spot. Better here than in his own Red Claw district.

The Illuminati Arcana, despite what Rex thought he knew, wasn’t just a church that he could burn down. There were some rich and powerful people behind the sect. Educated people that should know better than to believe in demons and magic… but stupidity and ignorance were like weeds. Especially for ego-maniacs with too much time on their hands.

He armed himself with a pair of brass knuckles… you never knew when a Rept would turn on you with their lightning reflexes. Shepard knew he’d only get one shot if he had to throw a punch. His gun was all but useless. Repts didn’t feel pain like normal people and often took days to die.

He thanked Xrist that they were lazy and unambitious. Otherwise, the monsters would be ruling the world.
Diego pulled up in a cruiser and parked behind his Model T .

“Ready to commit to some good, old fashioned detective work?” Shepard asked as he met the Mutt between the cars.

The detective smiled and shrugged. “I’m ready to bust some heads,” he allowed.

Together, they walked towards the Lex Pub.

Diego’s driver, the short Highlander Terrier, called out, “What do you want me to do? Stay? Leave?”

“Watch my baby, Lucky.” Shepard called out. “It’s not a safe neighborhood at this time of night.”

The sun had two hours before it would set, but already the New Amsterdam Bridge’s shadow had set the neighborhood in darkness.

Repts bleed like anyone. It just takes a little more effort.

As Shepard and Diego moved from one bar to another, word spread. When the bars emptied ahead of their visitations, the two began to bust up furniture. Beat cops were suddenly scarce; not that they were all too common under the bridge to begin with.

Bars that chose to close had their windows broken. Shepard made it clear that fire would be the next step. He wanted information and they were going to give it to him.

At 10 o’clock, the Alasation’s persistence paid off.

Diego and Shepard walked into Ray’s Hookah Parlor and found six Brute Repts standing in the middle of the floor. Diego paused, but not because of the Dragons. Behind these hulking figures, the shadows squirmed with Skinks. Creepy little buggers, they were practically snakes. Biters.

Shepard didn’t care. He smiled and stepped forward, taking his fists out of his pockets. He had beaten in so many Cold heads that his hands had swollen to the point where he couldn’t get the brass knuckles off his hands if he wanted to. They throbbed with a pain that felt glorious.

He could almost believe that he was doing God’s Work.

“Hello, boys,” he said and places his bloodied hat on a decorative hookah in the middle of the room. “You know why I’m here, I’m sure.”
The big fellows glanced at each other and nodded. Repts weren’t human enough to have facial expressions. They weren’t just called Cold Folk because their blood ran cold. Shepard counted on their pragmatism. A big black brute of a Gecko in the center reached behind his back and pulled a figure forward. In the neon lights from the window, Shepard thought this was some sort of fat Pig for a moment. Then Diego gasped as the Skinks fell away, leaving a gasping Anole in tattered clothing between the detectives and his neighbors. His throat began inflating and deflating rapidly as the extent of his betrayal became obvious. He glared at the Repts half in shadow,
The brutes avoided his eyes and kept their hands still.

The Anole looked at Shepard. “I didn’t do nothing!”

Shepard stepped forward and grabbed the Rept by his rapidly deflating dewlap. The Anola screeched high and loud, but closed it’s snout as the bloodied detective brought his muzzle close. With his other hand, the Dog reached out and pulled gently on a black cord on the whimpering male’s throat. With a few gentle pulls, he brought the little brass waterwheel around to where he could see it. The Anole flinched as the holy object clinked against Shepard’s bloody brass knuckles.

“The Church of Arcane Illumination, I take it.” Shepard let the waterwheel fall back against the Rept’s dewlap as the male began to make the hiccuping noises his people made when they wanted to pretend to cry. “You must be a very special Cold Boy for them take you for one of their own.”

The Anole closed his eyes. “I’m a… I’m a carpenter.”

“Of course you are.” Xrist was a carpenter and the Illuminati Arcana had a way of twisting the works of Xrist. They needed carpenters for all their terrible works; choosing them from the least of humanity was SOP for them. Shepard smiled with triumph and pulled the skinny, struggling Anole towards the front door. He called out, “No alcohol here. Thank you boys for your cooperation. Carry on!”
Diego backed out of the door. “Don’t worry, we’ll return him in one piece. If he cooperates. Like you, I’m sure he understands the value of cooperation.”

They walked the Anole carpenter, H’zeus Norops, the five blocks back to where they’d left the rookie. Dozens of Skinks escorted them, keeping to the shadows and only occasionally darting out in the blink of an eye. Low and fast, almost supernaturally impossible to spot, only the sounds of hundreds of claws clicking against concrete and brick betrayed their pressence. Diego’s fur stood straight up, even under his clothes. Now that the escalating violence was over, the implied threat of violence of a Skink swarm was eating at his nerves.
Shepard was unaffected by nerves. In the working gaslights, the Rept’s head was a black-green and his dewlap a bright contrasting orange. He refused to take a creature like H’zeus seriously. That the Cold community had turned him over, suggested that he had few friends here. The little creepy crawlers were there as much to keep the Anole from running away as much to keep Shepard and Diego honest.

“Tell me, H’zeus,” the Alasation said conversationally as if he wasn’t tugging the man about by sensitive neck skin. “What have you made for the Church lately?”

“An exorcism wheel,” the carpenter sputtered. “We go through a few of those every year. After the demon is expelled, he’s trapped in the wheel until they burn it.”

Shepard nodded as if this was a sensible thing to do. It was for that reason that the church’s exorcisms required a stiff “donation.” He thought it was a scam, but there were more than one Xristian sect performed this “service.” It was a tradition that all but pre-dated the Common Era. “Tell me what was so special with this one?”

The Anole stumbled, tripping over his own tail. “I never said there was–”

Shepard jerked him back up to his feet with a tug on the orange hide. “Don’t jerk me around, H’zeus, or I’ll make a valise out of all this extra skin you got here.” He rolled the pinch of flesh between his thumb and fingers. “It’s so… soft… I bet it’d take a dye well, don’t you?”

The carpenter hiccupped in terror and his hands flayed with emotional distress. Shepard held firm, an appraising grin on his face. After a moment, the Anole settled down. “I was just doing my job!” He whined, “I didn’t do nothing wrong!”

“I never said you did,” Shepard said calmly. “In fact, we’re here because you’re a fine upstanding citizen. A voluntary witness. You are going to tell me what I need to know, aren’t you?” Then, without even looking back, Shepard twisted his bloody fist 180 degrees.
“Yes!” The Anole screamed. “Yes! I’ll tell you everything! Just stop doing that! Stop!”

Shepard threw the hiccuping Rept in the back of the police vehicle and H’zeus spilled it all. The strange glyphs, the huge size of the wheel, and the body board that would fit a pup of a certain size. Shepard nodded at all of this. He studied these lunatics for almost two decades, ever since they’d contributed to his father’s mental decline. Ever since he’d been disinherited.

It all made a warped kind of sense. The Illuminati Arcana believed in monsters; literal monsters that could change species and had special powers. And the seventh son of a seventh son of a wolf was thought to have a special something that invited demons and death. In Western Europe, it was called the Black Dog and it was thought to have a benevolent side, or maybe a twisted sense of justice. The myth varied from the Highlands to the coast of Portus Cale. In America, the cult had twisted it to fit some sort of insane agenda.

Waldo had been kidnapped by the cult when he was a boy and had endured three months of their torturous exorcism before promising not to have a children. He was lucky to have escaped with his balls. The first thing he did when he got away was to convert to Fabulism. Aesop might have strange stories about Avi that could fly like little birds and asses that could talk like men, but he was never cruel or obscure. He could see the allure; except life was cruel. The path of righteousness was obscure.

“Diego, take him back to headquarters. Take his statement.” The Mutt nodded. Shepard patted the head of the Anole like he would a child. “I need you to repeat everything you me when you get to the house. The wheel, the death glyphs, the vacant warehouse you delivered it to, and the plans you overheard about kidnapping the Wolf Pup over in Washington Heights.”

"I didn’t hear – "

“Don’t sass me, boy… do what I say and you’ll be back here by morning sipping on bug juice like nothing had ever happened.”
The Anole nodded his dark head, beaten.

Shepard made sure the Rept had his tail in hand before he slammed the door shut. He leaned over to Diego and whispered instructions to make sure the little rookie understood what to say and not to say. Diego’s eyes and ears rolled in sync; this wasn’t his first rodeo. He asked if Shepard would rather switch duties. “Your hands are pretty shot. Are you even going to be able to use your gun?”

Shepard looked at his bloodied and swollen fists and he barked a little laugh. He used his mouth to work the brass knuckles off his right hand and Diego grabbed at his left. He saw stars, but they got the dusters off. Shepard took a deep breath and the Mutt repeated his suggestion that the Alasation type up the report and let him go check out the warehouse.

Shepard shook his head and pretended that that hadn’t cost him a bit. He was getting too old for all this hot dogging but he needed to do this for Lynne. “You’ve seen me type, Dee. Besides, these are just a couple of priests. Three or four at the most. I won’t need my gun.”

Diego looked him over, but he was tired, too. He knew Shepard could fight until dawn if he wanted to. He nodded shortly and then ran around to the passenger side.

The Anole knocked on the window as Shepard was about to walk back to his Pforde. Shepard opened the backdoor as Diego hopped into the front.

“Detective, there was just one other thing that was strange about the wheel I made.” The Anole said from the couch where he was curled awkwardly. “The body board… the straps… they were all on the wrong side.”

Shepard had learned out west how to use pain to focus himself. Shifting the Phorde with his swollen right hand was painful, but he took it and concentrated on the act of driving. A slipped grip meant slipping gears and that lost time. He kept at it, his destination his only concern. He knew every road in Brooklyn. He didn’t worry about having a plan. Shepard was a steam roller. He’d crush everything in his path.

The address that the Anole gave him was in Red Claw, not quite in his precinct, but close enough for him to take this as a sign that he was meant to rescue the boy. Waldo would forgive him if he brought the Church down. Lynne would forgive anything, if she got her youngest back. He’d even please Rex, but he stopped himself from going down that path.

He’d chosen this action. Shepard forced himself to not worry about the consequences.

God lit his path. He was righteous.

He drove around the block. He spotted two guards at the entrance. It wasn’t a wharfside warehouse, but a former ice house. He hoped that was all that H’zeus had gotten wrong. He stopped behind the building. None of the huge garage doors were guarded, but they must be locked down. Probably from the inside. He let the car roll forward to the next building.

There was a night watchman in that building. Shepard flashed his badge and the old Bear seemed to drop ten years. “I need to get to the roof,” the younger man said. The Bear merely nodded and led him up three flights to a trap door that opened up to a cantilevered rooftop. The guard cupped his flashlight and directed half a beam of light to a half fallen apart water tower.

“If you climb that ladder, you can step over to the ice house.”

Shepard nodded staring at the path he needed to take. The Bear’s short legs wouldn’t cross that span and his jumping days were long behind him. “I need you to go downstairs and make a phone call for me.” Shepard told him who to call, who to ask for, and what to say. The Bear nodded, eager to help; to see some action again. He waited until Shepard crossed from the water tower platform before running off to play his part in this little drama.

Shepard hoped he’d never be that pathetic when he got old.

“I’m just going to have to die young,” he whispered to himself as he sneaked across the rooftop. The gallows humor helped and kept him looking down over the edge of the building. Four stories would probably not kill him. He found a row of skylights. Candles and torches burned on the floor… it was right out of a dime store novel. Shepard gasped and cursed under his breathe as he tried pry one of the skylights open. “Damn hands. I’m going to have to get bigger brass knuckles.”

He found an office window in a small fifth floor portion. Someone must have wanted on office with a view of the port. Someone who liked a lot of fresh air. The open window needed a little elbow grease to open enough to allow Shepard through. A desk lamp still worked. He found a ring of keys, a half a bottle of rum, and a calendar six years out of date. In the hall, he found an open first aid kit. Sterile bandages from once upon a time.

Shepard had taken boxing lessons a long time ago. He knew how to tape himself up. He kept it light and made sure that he could hold and aim his gun. Stiff and painful, but it would have to do.

He found the stairwell easily enough and his thin luck failed him here. It was pitch black.

Shepard headed down as silently as possible, hoping that his caution didn’t get the boy killed. His senses heightened, he only heard his own breathing. Only his own footfalls. He counted his steps and then the landings. The lower he went, the more grit was on the steps. By the second floor, the debris was getting a little slippery. The noise of his footsteps were as loud as a horse chewing bamboo.
He decided to step out on the second floor before his nerves could undo his courage. The door make a small creaking noise, but he stepped out into flickering torchlight unnoticed. The second floor little more than a row of offices to the right and a railing overlooking what must have been where they stored the frozen slabs of river ice when the place was a working concern.

He peered cautiously over the railing, knowing his blond mask might be visible even in this low light. A floor below him, there were tarps covering a large portion of the center of the concrete. Candles and torchlight flickered a hundred small shadows and a few islands of light. Against the far wall, the water wheel stood in near darkness. Shepard made out what he assumed was a well around the wheel. It was a giant baptismal fount… or rather, it was a lifesize baptismal. No doubt it faced Homeland like it would in most churches.
And Lynne’s child was strapped, naked and upside down on the wheel, with his head inches from the edge of the wheel. A pang of panic raced through Shepard’s mind, but he didn’t flinch. He didn’t look away until his eyes adjusted enough to let him know Blane was still alive. Shepard barely registered the breath that he held in.

Other then the small black furred figure strapped on the waterwheel, there appeared to be no one around. Shepard knew his good luck could not last much longer. His instincts told him not to use the enclosed stairwell. The second floor wrapped around the open space and the section behind the wheel was darker still. He needed to watch for the cultists that he knew were nearby. He skulked off, head low as if wary of incoming arrows. Shepard thought he might find another way down there.

Suddenly, the Alasation’s ears twitched. He stood in the darkness and let his eyes adjust. He wasn’t even sure he’d heard something. After a moment, he heard a series of soft sounds from deeper in the darkness. He took a cautious step or two forward. A Cat’s head appeared out of darkness like a wrath. Shepard pulled his gun before he even realized it. The only thing that kept him from firing was that the head wasn’t facing him. The head floated upward in a smooth rocking movement that seemed eerie until the Dog realized that the Feline was simply dressed in a black cossack and climbing a ladder.

God, I really hate Cats. Even more than Diego hates Skinks, I hate Cats. Can I please get through the night without anymore friggin’ Cats?

It was the closest Shepard came to praying in years.

The cultist stopped on the third or fourth floor. After a moment, Shepard heard a click and then chain rattling. Then the Cat grunted and something creaked. Shepard’s eyes then made out a tube… a four inch wide pipe that vanished in the darkness, towards where the waterwheel stood.

Shepard climbed onto the ladder. He had to resist the urge to climb up and take out the Cat. His priority was the boy and he couldn’t climb up and take out the Cat in the dark. Cats tended to have better vision in the dark. He stepped down as silently as possible, hoping the twisting and squeaking metal covered his descent.

Near the bottom rung, the squeaking stopped and a voice called out. “Who’s that?”

Shepard found the ground and stumbled back even as a flashlight beam shined down from above. He held his breath, sprawled on the floor as the spotlight jittered around the base of the ladder. “Brother Mike?” the voice from above called down, but the Dog stayed silent. Forced himself not to begin panting aloud. He hated these people so much and now that he had something on them, a small but strong part of him wanted to plant lead into each occultist he saw.

After a few moments, the light snapped off and then the squeaking began again.

Shepard got to his feet and headed for the flickering light.

He came around some crates found himself behind the waterwheel. There were many runes burned into the struts, and a circle around the base that he suspected were either utter nonsense or obscure signets and glyphs from Ancient Roma. These did not interest him, but they did make him feel anxious. Crazy people were not always easily bullied or threatened.

He walked around the rim of the over-sized Xristening well with quick but cautious steps. The squeaking from whatever the Cat was doing on the ladder hopefully covered the sounds of his footfalls. In a moment, he came around and discovered the boy.

Blane. His nephew.

The child that might have been his son if things had been different. If things had been better.

Spreadeagle on the board and upside, so that his small, dark body formed the prescribed X, Blane seemed unconscious. Shepard was surprised at how uniformly black the boy’s fur was. One of the things that helped convince Lynne to sleeping with his cousin was how similar his coat pattern and coloring was to her husband. Nature had other ideas in mind and had given them a Sport without blaze, mask, or saddle. If Wally hadn’t been part of the plan all along, it would have undone them.

Spepard didn’t spare a moment to gawk, except to wonder briefly how his Wolf ally was going to react when the bastard child survived this. He shoved his gun into his belt and grabbed at the buckles that held the child in place, pushing aside useless thoughts. It only mattered what Lynne wanted.

It only mattered that she’d look at him the way she used to.

If he saved her child.
Shepard felt the child stirring within seconds of pulling at the buckle on his right leg. He finished loosening it with his clumsy fingers and then dropped to his knees to shush the boy. Alert, golden amber eyes glared back at him and then the child began to struggle and growl.
Shepard grabbed the boy’s snout and discovered a black cloth muzzle was already in place. “Hush, I’m getting you out of here,” the Dog whispered. The boy calmed a little but still seemed ready to fight. Shepard left the gag in place. Blane could howl and cry all he wanted to after they got out of this place. He moved to the boy’s hands next, noting the boy’s half webbed fingers in abstraction.
His ears patrolled the room, seeking out any signs of the cult. There couldn’t be just the one.
Instead of footsteps, he heard the sound he’d been dreading without realizing it; a rapid series of drips that grew faster with each plop.
The sound of a trickle of water that proceeded the stream that would begin turning the wheel.

He got the boy’s hands free and braced himself to hold the wheel against the clockwise motion that usually signaled the beginning of a Xristian service. Blane, impatient for rescue, didn’t need to be told to untie himself. Growling, the boy folded himself with youthful limberness, and began the pull at straps on his left leg.

The squeaking from above stopped as the sound of rushing water filled the warehouse. In a little more than a second, the water came crashing down on the wheel.

The wheel moved and Shepard shouted with surprise when the machine threw him to the right.

It took a precision few seconds for the detective to climb back to his feet, stars in his eyes.

They built it backwards.

The waterwheel spun counter-clockwise.

Now, he understood what that Rept carpenter had meant. The Wheel of Sacrifice turned the wrong way and even a lapsed Xristian like Shepard was appalled by the blasphemy of the very idea. A giant Undoing.

Shepard growled but found himself somehow frozen until he caught the panicked amber eyes of the boy. Blane had spun around maybe three or four times, the muzzle pulled off now. His black hands held onto the boards and he was chewing at the leather straps on his legs. Still, the boy pleaded. He couldn’t do this flopping about.

Shepard tried holding the wheel in place, but the released water turned the paddles too strongly. He was either lifted off his feet or the wheel threathen to pull him down and into its working. He couldn’t brace himself against the axle supports because they were on the other side of the damn contraption.

His mind tried to work quickly but it was sluggish. Shepard was vaguely was aware that he must have hit his head when the wheel threw him across the room. He would allow himself to feel pain later; maybe when he was dead and in hell. Not now. He had a mission.
Shepard knew the cultists would be in soon. The turning wheel set a series of events into motion, but the cultists had their own secret rituals that they had to observe. He had only moments, maybe five minutes. He remembered the crates on the other side and he thought maybe there was something he could shove into the wheel spokes to hold it still long enough to get the pup off the wheel and out of here.

He ran, splashing in the water filling the pool, as the wheel turned relentlessly.
For a moment, he though it was Diego who stepped out of the shadow, into his way. But it was the Cat in the black cassock that had turned the water on.

Shepard barely had a moment to curse the fricking Feline and his own luck before grabbing for a gun that was no longer in his belt. The Cat used that moment of confusion to crack the brick sized battery of his lantern into the Dog’s skull. Fireworks went off in Shepard’s skull as he struggled to keep his feet.

He was hit twice more and fell to his knees, unable to see what was coming next.

But the Cat was panting, and unable or unwilling to press his advantage. The flashlight came on, a sun swimming amidst the stars filling the warehouse. Shepard’s eyes involuntarily closed and blinked with pain that refused to wait until he was resting in hell.

He could think of nothing else but the pain for a moment, but then his stubborn pride refused to let him slip off into darkness. A Cat was trying to get the better of him and the very core of his soul would not let that happen. So when the sun rose up to deliver one final blow, Shepard scrambled forward into the shadowy mass that was the Cat. The heavy flashlight slammed into the base of his tail and Shepard barely heard his own howl of pain. He was too busy delivering what he thought must be kidney punches, but who knew how stupid Cats kept their insides. The Cat grunted enough to let Shepard know that the blows were landing close enough to do their job.
There was a tipping point, where Cat and Dog seemed ready to fall to the floor, but then Shepard found himself against the A-frame of the waterwheel housing without really realizing what was holding him up. The Cat stumbled against the bolt the size of a fist and Shepard used that moment to push him down and to the left.

There was a horrible crunching noise and then a sputtering cough that might also have been a scream. The sound of rushing water changed strangely then and Shepard was startled to realize that he’d lost track of the damn Cat.

No more blows landed on him, so Shepard told himself that he’d won. Somehow.

He wanted to celebrate his victory with a healing nap right where he stood, but the sound of frustrated water whispered dire things in his numb mind. He had a mission. He had to keep moving.

The large flashlight had fallen during the fight and it painted a cone of light on the stairwell that he had used to get in here. Picking up the flashlight proved harder than he expected. His hands had trouble unclenching and his fingers were swollen again and bleeding.
They denied that they’d ever been used to pick up anything. The wrappings were gone and he nearly fell over from a wave of dizziness as he pondered what he’d expected them to do with the flashlight.

He picked up the flashlight with his fists and moved the light around him, expecting to catch the sneaky Cat leaping at him.

The immobile waterwheel surprised him and he almost missed the black clad trunk of the Cat. The cultist’s body had gummed up the works. Shepard coughed a laugh. So much for always landing on your feet. But the words would not come out.

Instead, he whispered, “They took my baby.”

His mission. The sound of Lynne sobbing was louder than all the other sounds in the warehouse and it turned him as steadily as if he was a waterwheel to her tears. He couldn’t bare to hear her cry any longer.

Shepard limped back around the wheel, letting the water splash on him.

The boy had almost freed himself now that the wheel had stopped spinning, which was a good thing. Shepard’s hands were still locked up as fists. The Dog could only hold the boy up at the nine o’clock position as the last buckle loosened enough that he could pull free. Shepard caught him and then had to catch himself as the wheel twitched.

“My shoes,” the naked Wolfdog said as Shepard let him down. “My Mama’s going to murder me if I lose my shoes.”

The Dog found this the funniest thing in the would, but he couldn’t find a laugh to share with his nephew. “I’ll buy you new ones,” Shepard promised instead. “We’ve been lucky… I don’t know where the… bad people are. But they’ll be back soon.”

A small black hand tried to slip between his useless fingers but it felt like a tiny dagger slipping into a reluctant clam… and his hand was the clam. He hissed in pain and the boy instantly grabbed the dogs wrist instead. Blane picked up took the flashlight with his other hand and looked up at Shepard.

“They are doing something with the compass points and ley lines,” the black furred child said. “They were waiting for 100 turns to see if I’d drown, I think. They were speaking in Latin, so I only understood some of it.”

Shepard nodded and looked at the floor. The water was now up to were boy’s head had been. An overflow stream of water went off into the darkness. “100 turns… they’re going to notice the wheel stopped turning if they are counting it off somewhere…” Then through the fuzziness in his head, he caught up with something the boy said. He wasn’t sure he heard right over the noise of the gushing water. “You know Latin?”

The Wolfdog simply nodded and pulled at Shepard, “We gotta unstop the waterwheel before they notice.”

Shepard staggered after the boy… his mind was so fuzzy that he couldn’t remember the pup’s name. Started with a B. By the time he realized that he shouldn’t let the boy see what was blocking the wheel, it was too late.

“Ick,” was all the pup said before reaching over to tug at the corpse. Shepard tried but couldn’t get a grip on the body. The wheel twitched again and a few more ribs cracked under the wheel’s relentless pressure. The boy’s ears went back, angry but not afraid, and Shepard found a perverse streak of pride in the boy’s lack of fear.

“This isn’t going to work,” Shepard gasped. Then he heard voices in the distance, or he thought he did. The water made it hard to be sure. “Let’s get out of here, Blackie.”

His fingers made a half hearted attempt to point at the dark corner he knew the stairwell was in. The pup nodded and pulled Shepard towards the door. “Come on,” the boy whispered, “Wolves can see in the dark.”

They left the flashlight behind as shouts of outrage cried out from the other side of the wheel. The door creaked as loudly as Shepard had feared it would, but it could not be helped. All the ground level exits were guarded.
After only a few steps, Shepard ran into the boy, who was now shivering. “What’s wrong?”

“Wolves can see in the dark,” a note of fear now crept into his voice, “But…”

Shepard didn’t wait to find out if he was was figuring out that he wasn’t all Wolf or if he was just realizing that he was as blind as any species in pitch darkness, he just grabbed the kid and started running up the stairs. “That’s an old wives’ tale, Blackie.” he reassured the boy, who now clutched him as if he’d never let go.

“But my brothers said…”

Shepard never had any brothers, but he knew how it went. Especially when they can see that there was something different about their little brother. “They’re assholes, now hush.”

Even loopy, Shepard remembered he’d come down four flights. It was a muscle memory of sorts that allowed him to climb the stairs unerringly in the dark, even with a nursing a bum knee. The door was right where he thought it was at the top of the final landing, but when he burst out something was obviously wrong.

Half of the offices were gone and the hallway was lit by a dim glow of the torches down below. Different stairwell, he belatedly realized. He was at the wrong end of the building! He put the boy down and tried to catch his breath… and his wits.

Their ears both rotated sharply in the direction of the stairway. Footsteps! Cursing!

Shepard looked over the railing to the torches below, trying to figure what stairwell he had used so he could get out via that open office window. The wheel had been in the distance… he pulled the boy in that direction and hoped for the best, despite the nagging thought that he’d overlooked something. He was feeling naked without his gun.

He found the stairway, but the hallway still didn’t look right. The boy was holding his wrist both hands, the only sign of fear or nervousness that he exhibited. A wailing child was the last thing he needed. He tried to count the office doors from the stairwell, but that seemed wrong. Hadn’t there been a first aid kit mounted on the wall? Shepard patted the boy’s hands as he felt the sluggish wheels of his own mind continue to turn.

The door to the previous stairwell burst open and Shepard pulled the young Wolfdog into the nearest office before their flashlights could find him. Even as he locked the door behind him, lights came on in the hallway and slipped in through the frosted glass panel in the top half of the door. There was no leaving this room out this door as long as the floor was lit.

Shepard gave the room quick once over. A broken window that looked out on a four story drop. No escape that way. There was a desk, but this time there was nothing useful in its drawers except for a rusty letter opener.

Then it hit him. Shepard had come down four floors, but he’d exited the stairwell on the second floor! The safe way out of here is one floor higher! They were trapped!

“Hide behind the desk.” He whispered and the boy complied without arguing. He felt a little sick thinking about what a good mother Lynne must have been to raise such a brave lad. Then he cursed himself for allowing his mind to stray. This was hardly the time for emotion and regrets.

A shadow moved across the glass pane in the door. The knob was fiddled for a moment, but the old lock held. With a whispered curse, the shadow moved on and Shepard nearly fell to his knees with relief.

Now, all he had to do was wait until either Diego and some men to show up or for the night watchman to summon them. Shepard figured an hour, tops.

His head hurt. His fists hurt almost as badly as his head. His knee decided to throb for attention, too. Waiting was never one of Shepard’s strengths, but he was pragmatic when he wasn’t “in a mood.” This wasn’t the moment for one of his rages.

I could burn this place down, he thought. I can’t remember why, but these ice warehouses go up in a flash. Fox lightning? Insurance fraud? No… something about the factory run-off in the river. Ice sweats it out, the timber soaks it up…

He was just about to drift off when he heard the scratching at the door. It only took an instant to recognize the sound of a key slipping into the lock. Shepard reached for his gun, but again it wasn’t there. His hand wouldn’t have been able to grab it if it had been where it belonged.

I must have left blood on the doorknob.

He signed and resigned himself to his fate. His luck was always bound to catch up with him. Diego would avenge him and then the people who turned his father against him would finally be brought down. No one killed a policeman in New Amsterdam and got away with it. Not these days.

And maybe Lynne will shad a tear for me.

The flashlight beam made him flinch when it came cautiously into the room, landing right on him. He glared bravely back into the light, hoping the shadowy figure understood the hatred and contempt he put into it.

“Well… Detective Shepard. I thought you’d given up on us.”

Shepard tried to think of a witty comeback. Instead, he settled for a curse and spitting at the cultist in the doorway.

The Cultist laughed. “You killed Brother Bleu, rescuing the monster. I’m glad to see he got a few good licks in.”

“Give it up,” Shepard coughed, hoping the gravel in his voice made him sound tougher than he felt. “The place is surrounded.”

“Not yet it isn’t,” The Cultist reached out to his right and pressed a button. A dim bulb came to life over their heads and Shepard found himself facing Reverend X, the Bear leader of the Illuminati Arcana. “We’ve enough friends in the Red Claw precinct to make sure we can finish the ceremony first.”

“Good luck with that. Diego and Black are carrying that boy to safety even as we speak. We’re going to put you all in jail for the rest of your lives.”

The Bear laughed and glanced around the room. “I don’t think so. I have a Gecko watching Big Blackie. The Wolf hasn’t left his apartment since he came home. Personally, I think he’s going to be relieved when the devil spawn is gone.”

Reverend X stepped backwards into the hallway. He called out to the other cultists without looking away from Shepard. Then he stepped back into the doorway, “And if you lied about Waldo Black, I’m guessing that you lied about your partner.”

Shepard found himself steaming at being caught out. “Put me on your Wheel of Undoing. Sacrifice me, instead.”

Ursine features registered surprise and then amusement. “Detective… That’s a Wheel of Exorcism, not a Wheel of Sacrifice. No one was supposed to die tonight. Once the demon is out of the boy, we are going to release him.” The sound of a gun cocking was like punctuation to his next statement. “You will not be so fortunate.”

Shepard laughed, “Lycanthropes can be exorcised? Forgive me for laughing, but I think you’re the one lying now. My father spent too many years trying to get me to by the bullshit you’re pushing.”

Two hooded figures appeared behind the Reverend. From their mass, Shepard guessed that they were Rhinos.

“Shepard, if only you were as good a student as you are a bully and a scoundrel. Lycanthropes are only one of the curses the seventh son of a seventh son might be inflicted with. In the case of Blane Black, it seems that he’s a Black Dog… the Incarnation of Death. Death is going to follow him every where, unless he’s purged of the demon. Brother Bleu’s death is proof of that.”

Shepard could not have stopped himself from laughing if he tried. Even though every guffaw was like needles being shoved in his temples, he laughed until the Bear shoved the gun between his eyes. The Reverend was not used to such disrespect.

Shepard was pleased to see the Rhinos were hanging back. The Bear’s mass was blocking the doorway and they couldn’t enter. Every second that he could stall them, increased the chances of his arrival.

“Don’t you get it… you’re the victim of a long game con.”

“What are you talking about, Shepard?”

Shepard forced his ears up and gave the head cultist a great big smile. “Big Blackie always knew you were in the background, waiting for him to have a seventh son. He knew you needed him to have a seventh child so you could kill it and ‘save the world’ with your mystical magic mambo-jobo.”

“It is NOT mambo-jumbo–”

“And knowing that, you think he was going to whelp a seventh child just so he could watch it grow up to die at your hands? He’s a Wolf, not a moron. He’s as sly as a Fox… so you know what he did?”

“Detective… what are you saying?”

“His wife wanted another child so bad and she’s just too damn nice a person to believe that a Bear like you can even exist. She’s so stupidly, so persistently, so unbendingly a good woman, that we almost didn’t talk her into it… but, you know, wine is a wonderful social lubricant. And when she was lubricated enough… I took her and I gave her that child she wanted. Blane is my son, not Big Blackie’s. He Has No Second Son!”

The Reverend looked staggered. He even took a few steps back as he processed the mostly true story that Shepard had fed him. It would have been true but for his war injury. And if he could spare his idiot cousin any trouble in the future, so much the better. Shepard hoped the cult leader would decide to cut his loses and run.

A grim resolve seemed to come over the Bear and Shepard knew things weren’t going his way.

“C’mon, why do you think this maid from Washington Heights would even come to me? We went to high school together. We were in love until she thought I’d died in a Coyote attack out West. Waldo gave his blessing, knowing I’d do anything to stop you. You’re going to kill this boy for nothing.”

“I can almost believe you, Shepard.” The gun came up again. “But you see, your father told me all about your injuries in the Amerind War. He was quite upset that his line was coming to an end.” He turned to the hooded figures behind him. “The kid’s got to be hiding in this room. He was too doped up to get very far without help.”

Then, before Shepard could stall further, the black body leapt across the room with a scream. It landed on the Bear and tried to stab at the heavy cassock with a pencil. The Reverend did a little dance for a second and then Blane was on his arm trying to pull the gun from the Bear’s grip. There was a small snapping noise that made Shepard sick to hear it. A finger? An arm? A rib? Then one of the Rhino was there, pulling the frantically struggling child off his leader’s arm.

It took both Rhinos to drag the boy away, as he screamed and cursed. He didn’t cry, and, for that, Shepard took morbid pride as he struggled to stand up. I’m not going to die sitting on my tail.

The detective mostly made it up when Reverend X turned his attention back to the Dog. “I could almost believe that he’s your son. Such a persistent pain in the rump.”

“It’s true, he’s completely innocent. By your own lights, he cannot be the monster you said he was.”

The Bear raised his weapon and Shepard found himself looking down the barrel. The cult leader said something else that sounded sarcastic and revealing, but the battered Alasation was too busy staring down at the barrel of the gun pointed at his head.
The barrel of the gun and the broken pencil jammed tightly into it.

“Do it,” Detective Allan Shepard commended.

Whatever satisfaction the Bear felt in pulling the trigger was wiped off his snout by the exploding gun.

Shepard was on top of the flailing body with the letter opener he’d hidden on himself, stabbing at the throat and eyes of the Bear. In a few moments, the cult leader was drowning in his own blood. It was a terrible death, but not so terrible that Shepard wished it could have taken longer. The Ursine deserved much worse. Still, he didn’t have the time to spare.

The Rhinos either weren’t familiar enough with firearms to know the difference between the sound of a gun shot and the sound of a misfire, or they were too intent on getting the kid back on the wheel. There were Rhinos, so Shepard assumed that they weren’t hired for their brains.

He was just grateful that they hadn’t come back.

His head spinning. He crawled out into the hall way and considered his options. The way out was one flight up and then a walk across two roof tops and a short leap that suddenly seemed very daunting. Yet, the idea of taking on who knew how many cultists seemed even more daunting, especially without back up. Especially without guns.

Retreat was the only sensible option.

It was shear will power that got him to the stairwell.

Force of will made his fingers open and drop the slim letter opened to the floor so that he could grip the doorknob instead.
Absolute stupidity made him go down the steps and not up.

He walked down the steps in the dark, whatever power went to the lights in the hall hadn’t been turned on. Shepard took his pain and built it into a cudgel with every step. He flexed his fingers, leaving blood on every step, leaving blood on the railings. He was getting too old for this shit. Hate and rage filled him until he panted like a drug fiend.

He wasn’t even conscious of having a plan.

Or rather, Shepard had fallen back to his plan A. Luck, pluck, and bull headed determination. He would just keep breaking things until something gave. It always did.

“It always would,” he growled when he’d counted four landings.

The second floor and he got his fingers around the doorknob. He saw stars and it took him a moment to realize that there weren’t any lights lit on this floor. Just the glow of the torches below leaving the floor in even darker shadows than before. He’d heard the water pouring onto the wheel and he hoped he wasn’t too late.

He took off his coat… he was too hot to wear it… he didn’t drop it, even though he willed his fingers to let it go. Shepard nodded as if agreeing to some invisible stranger. There was a reason for this, he’d have to roll with it, trusting his luck.

He found himself heading to the ladder he used before, the ladder to the water valve. Shepard barely heard the squeaking of the valve until he was right next to the ladder. The torrent began to diminish and suddenly it gone except for a small distant roaring that the Alasation realized might only be in his ears.

Shepard leaning on the steel ladder catching his breath until he felt the vibration of someone coming down it. He forced himself to stop panting and somehow managed to take a big breath as white brown furry feet came into view.
They weren’t Rhino feet, so that meant he had a chance.

He looked at his hands, the coat had fallen away somewhere and only the woolen belt had remained. That was fine. That was all he needed.

Shepard climbed atop the railing like an Avi school child, although he didn’t have the bird like feet to anchor him as securely. He needed leverage and there was no safe way to do this. As the cultist came down, Shepard saw that it was another Canine. Another Alasation, probably a Mutt. They liked recruiting Dogs and this one looked like a young version of his damned father.

That just made it easier.

Shepard leapt forward when the cultist looked up. He’d looked every where but behind him. The belt, still wet from his accidental baptism earlier, went over his victim’s muzzle swiftly and landed against his furry neck with a slap.

He was startled and grabbed at his neck with his right arm. Shepard squatted and allowed himself to fall back a little, letting the cultist support his weight with neck. Then when Shepard was at a 45 degree angle to the floor, he pushed his legs straight with all his might and yanked the other Dog off ladder. The belt came undone as Shepard hit the floor, but it had done the trick. The unbalanced cultist had cracked his ribs into the railing and tumbled into a heap headfirst nearly on top of Shepard. His legs fell between the railings, and his lower half began obey gravity while the Dog tried to shake the stars out of his eyes.

Shepard got to his feet as the other Dog scratched uselessly at the slick floor. He was trying to call for help, but the Mutt couldn’t gather enough air to cry out. The black cossack blossomed around the slender Dog until his body had twisted just under his arms, stopping his fall.

“You moron, you’re only on the second floor.” Shepard spat and then leaned on the railing. With casual deliberateness, he lifted his right leg and them brought his heal down on the base of the fallen Canine’s head. He repeated this until he felt things crack under his foot and he could smell that the body had voided itself.

“You should have taken the fall to get away from me,” but the advice fell on deaf ears.

Shepard’s ears turned and twitched, hoping to hear pious cursing or even gun shots, anything to indicate that Diego had arrived. Nothing but the growling and sobbing of a lost little pup. It worried him that Reverend X might have been right; that the local precinct was riddled with his friends. But he refused to allow himself to dwell on that; he wasn’t dead yet and the boy still had some fight in him.
His head spun a bit as he bent over and grabbed at the bloodied cossack by the hood and sleeves. Shedpard walked backwards until the garment was off the body. The Mutt had a palm-sized ceremonial knife on him, but not a gun. Shepard cursed softly; even he was getting a little tired of doing this the hard way. He smeared blood on his face and hands… there was no avoiding it, as he put the thing over his head. Then, using the Mutt’s body as a step, the detective climbed over the railing and onto the ladder. Both knees shrieked in protest, but he made his way down… one rung at a time with the knife in his belt and the robe trying to get in his way.

Somehow, he managed not to drop down to the hard floor.

Shepard traced his steps back, stumbling in the dark. There was no point in trying to be quiet… he was going to have to serve as his own distraction.

He allowed himself to pant, almost forcing himself to hyperventilate until he became staggeringly dizzy. He allowed himself to stagger and to put his bloodied hands in front of his face. The smell of cooper made him as nauseous as a rookie. Shepard found himself hacking and retching as his stomach attempted to rebel for the first time in years. He heard splashing and there were dancing lights suddenly on him even before he reached the edge of the giant baptismal.

He waved a bloody hand upwards in answer to the rough voices. “They… they’re in the waterworks… up the ladder… I got one of them… I think.” Shepard didn’t plan to fake a collapse… his knees just went out from under him. Rough hands grabbed at him, and he tried to fight them off without thinking, but he was too week to them any real harm.

They steered him to the edge of the basin and sat him down, asking if it was the police. He grabbed his snout, channeling the Cat from the interview room. “I couldn’t do nuthin’… I couldn’t do nuthin’…”

They suddenly realized that Reverend X was taking too long and Shepard could feel the spark of fear that went through all of them. The cultists didn’t break, you had to give them that. Orders were snapped, pairs to all the stairwells… the Rhino up the ladder… and they left Shepard with Brother Madden, who was some sort of Parrot.

Shepard got up and the Avi started wiping at his face with a wet rag. Shepard shook him off, but the cultist was having none of it. So, the Alasation allowed the stupid bird to dip the wad of clothe in the water and rub at his muzzles and forehead. He let his hands down and gathered all the cold rage he had put down. He felt his spine straighten as he watched the Avi’s face mere inches away as the water and elbow grease revealed the Dog beneath the blood and gore.

A Dog that he did not know.

The second the Avi’s pupils froze, Shepard slammed his knife into the Parrot’s chest. Hollow ribs snapped with ease. A short whistling squawk escaped his beak and Shepard pushed the cultist into the pool. He stepped into the water and held the Avi under for a few moments… there wasn’t much threshing about, but Shepard wanted to be sure. He needed a breather anyway.

“No rest for the wicked.” He searched the corpse for a gun, but he came up short.

He was alone now and for a moment Shepard could not remember what he was doing. He could not remember what he’d come for.
What kind of Monster are you?

His cousin’s voice came to him around the roar in his ears. Lynne’s big wet eyes and swept back ears hovered in the darkness, begging him to do something. Pleading.

Briefly, he felt a strange and unfamiliar sensation. Guilt. Never punch a bird. Never ever punch a bird. Shepard grunted. His mother’s voice always chose the wrong time to haunt him.

“Well, the joke’s on you, Mom.” Shepard forced himself back on his feet and sloshed through the water. He barely spared the waterwheel a glance. The pool had continued to drain with the water off. Shepard found his gun and he picked it. Or he tried to. It would probably still work. Possibly. His hand had to be convinced that the effort was worth opening up. His knees weren’t helping in the least.

Shepard started to hear the shouting of the other cultists. The open air warehouse let the sound carry down from all the floors. His flickering ears convinced his hand that he had to pick up the damn gun right now, dammit. Sooner or later, someone was going to look over the railing and see…

Shepard looked behind him at the wheel, his mind catching up again.

Any moment now, he forced himself to complete the thought, someone is going to look over the railing and see that I’ve freed the Blane… Blake… Blackie… whatever the hell his name is.

Shepard limped and splashed five or six feet across the pool until he was at the inverted boy’s side once more. One eye seemed swollen and there were a few chunks of fur ripped off his neck and body. He had put up a fight and that made Shepard smile however briefly. The cloth muzzle had been found and stuck over the boy’s snout, but it didn’t stop him from trying to take a bite out of the Alasation.

Shepard pulled his hood down and pushed the wet gun into the boy’s restrained right hand. “Don’t drop that,” the cop said firmly but softly. He needed both throbbing hands to loosen the cuffs and straps that held Lynne’s boy to the wheel.

There was only a second between a sharp shout and three echoing pops that told him they were on the wrong end of a shooting gallery. Instinctively, Shepard covered the boy and closed his eyes.

I’m so sorry, Lynne.

Then there was a terrible blast in his ears and startled him right out of his fear.

Shepard stepped back, eyes wide open. There was the boy, bent half upright, arm extended with the swollen eye shut… and smoke from the gun, moving slowly up from the revolver… The warehouse was swaddled in an echoing silence for the next two or three seconds as the boy’s open eyes followed the path of something heading down…

…until the all too clear sound of a body slapping against the pavement.

The Black Dog smiled and its tail swept a wag between the strapped legs that still held it mounted on the wheel.

Gunfire made the most excellent alarm clock. For the first time since the wheel had thrown him across the pool, Shepard found a large enough burst of adrenaline to overcome his pain. He started pulling at straps on the boy’s feet and the boy grabbed at his robes. More bullets came their way, crashing into the wheel and the boy returned fire with the calm deliberation Shepard might have seen on a soldier’s face. Each shot from the revolver either hit its mark or came close enough to give them coverage. Shepard didn’t care.
The Wolfdog’s freakish feet soon wiggled out of the straps and then they were free to run from the pool and out of the circle of torches and candles. He picked up Blane when he realized that he wasn’t going to fall down. Shepard knew he’d pay for it later, but the boy seemed to have trouble running on his clownishly long feet.

He saw black clad figures with flashlights coming out of stairwell and Shepard headed for the rows of crates he barely made out in the darkness at the back of the warehouse. Blane shot over Shepard’s shoulder as a cone of light pinned them against tarp covered crates.
The light vanished with a curse and Blane gave a victory howl… or what the pup could muster as he bounced around in Shepard’s arms.
The dark places of the warehouse forced him to slow. As suddenly as the adrenaline had revived him, the shadows seemed to suck the life out of him. He could hear sandal covered feet running around the crates near. They were close enough that they’d hear his panting sooner or later.

“Get under the tarp,” he ordered. “Stay quiet.”

He let the boy keep the gun. As a cop, he had instinctively counted the bullets. The revolver was as empty as his bag of jewels. The boy did as he was told, earning a “good boy,” the highest honor Shepard had ever given a child. He took out his knife, his hand clutched it like it was the last thing he’d ever feel in his hand for the rest of his life.

As it very much might be.

Heavy clunks of switches being thorwn sliced into the darkness. Then lights began to come up in the warehouse. Most of the bulbs were dead, but in steps the cultists pushed back the darkness until it no looked like an abandoned warehouse.

The narrow aisle lit up and Shepard found himself in a row of automobiles and trucks; some covered with tarps, some not. He growled, in spite of himself, at the single bulb fixture that hung directly over his head… a head that stood in plain view over the bonnet on a fancy Packard. He ducked down and moved into a shadow of a larger truck. The ceiling was lower in this section of the warehouse, so there was that at least. Less vulnerable from the hooded men on different floor.

Some of the men near the wheel could be seen hurriedly putting out the candles and torches… Shepard damned himself for not knocking any as he ran away. His damn fuzzy headedness had forgotten that ice houses went up like a gasoline soaked rag. But there was no exit visible in this parking section but one of those new steel roll-up doors. The padlock crimping the chains together against the wall was visible from where Shepard hung in shadow.

But the boy… Going out in a literal blaze of glory would not get Lynne her child back.
Shepard forced himself to think past the roaring in his ears. The boy firing over his shoulder had either deafened him or he was learning what a concussion felt like. Or both.

By now, the nutjobs must have found Reverend X and that would be enough to cause some members to rabbit it. A few true believers would want to hunt him down for some holy revenge plan. He could hide himself easily in and among the vehicles for hours, long enough for the boys to arrive. But they might find the boy first… and his knees vetoed the idea of crawling around.

A Fox in a robe ran by, giving the row only a quick glance. In a moment, however, he called out and poked his red head back into the aisle.

The Rhino jogged up behind the Fox as Shepard stepped out into the middle of the aisle. Shepard smiled and waved the knife with the bravado that usually served him well. The Rhino smiled at the invitation and took off his robe. A wide gray chest rippled like a circus strong man as he wrapped the cloak around his right hand.

A Rhino’s knuckles were unique among the Warms of New Amsterdam and they were one of the rarest in the United and Independent States. The Rhino was intending to beat him to death and was willing to take his time doing it. Shepard could respect that.

Shepard saw it coming, but it wasn’t the punch he was expecting. The Rhino’s mitt snatched the knife right out of his hand, the Dog stumbled on trembling knees as the Rhino punched him with the other hand just behind his right ear.

“You’re not worthy of touching this knife, Shepard.” The Rhino gave the knife to the Fox. “You’ve released this Black Dog, this walking death, into a world ill-prepared for it. I know in your heart you believe yourself a good man, but you have always been blind to the truth. Fixated on the laws of man. I forgive you for that but will that child? You’ve condemned him to a life without satisfaction, without peace, without love.”

Shepard leaned on the truck as the Rhino mocked him. The Rhino may well have been describing the Dog’s own life. With one important difference, and he chuckled with dark humor. “You’ve not met his mother, bub.” He pushed himself away from the truck and stood a tower of pain held together with spite and fury, but also with a little satisfaction, with the peace of knowing he’d done his best, and the memory of a love that had never faded no matter how deeply he’d buried it. “His mother…”

Shepard suddenly lost his thread. His head whistled like a teapot.

And the Dog fell to his knees.

The pain woke him up.

The Fox stepped forward with the knife. The Rhino said something, crossing his palms into an X over his heart. Praying.
I guess they decided it was ok if the knife touched me.

The single gunshot caught the Rhino in the eye. His prayer faltered and his head shook and trembled as the lead bounced and rattled in his thick skull. Nonsense syllables spilled out of his gray mouth as the huge man slowly crumbled to the floor.

The Fox had turned to watch and spectacle of the Rhino’s death dance stunned the slender red man, who stood there frozen. Holding the glittering ceremonial knife the wrong way. Shepard grabbed the cloak and even though his grip was weak, he still managed to pull the Vulpine to him. He still managed to slam his Canine forehead into the hilt of the knife and into the furry white blaze of the other man’s neck. It wasn’t a killing blow, but it was enough to spook the Fox into running off as Shepard put his mitt on the knife.
The coward hadn’t even stopped long enough to see that the Dog couldn’t open his hand to grab it. Typical Fox.

Shepard turned on all fours and look down the aisle, to the tarpaulin when he’d hidden Blane.

And the smoking black hole in the dusty canvas.

He crawled to the hiding spot and the little Wolfdog didn’t move until Shepard lifted up the edge. Then he moved quickly, hugging Shepard with his freakishly long black arms until he was choking and coughing. “That’s my boy,” Shepard whispered. “That’s my good boy.”

The whistling made his ears jerk and Shepard realized that the noise wasn’t just in his head.

His fingers and hands were numbly dead to him. “Puppy… now… I need you to reach under my shirt and grab… no not the Wheel. The other thing… put it my lips…”

Shepard blew the whistle six times before Diego was at his side. He wanted to make a crack about the Mutt’s timing, but by then, he was too winded to do anything but pass out.


The Detective jerked awake, realizing the someone was pulling Lynne’s child from his arms. He yanked the child back and grabbed at his holster. Or at least where it had been. He glared at the white fuzzy face of the Highlander Terrier rookie. Everything hurt and his fingers wouldn’t open. His joints were wielded in place and throbbed in time with his exhausted heart.

“Lucky? Where’s Diego?”

The Highlander looked hesitant, but he answered quickly enough. “Some of the boys from the press turned up. He’s talking to them now.”

Shepard just nodded. Just this once, he had no time for the spotlight of public adoration. The shorter Dog seemed relieved. “We need to get you the ambulance. You’ve got some serious damage.”

“No… get me to my car… we’ve got to get this boy home to his mother.”

Lucky protested but Shepard persisted and eventually the rookie, caved if only because he was afraid of what would happen if he let Shepard collapse in front of the press. As it was, a Feline photographer had staked out Shepard’s Pforde and got a picture of the crying Wolfdog wrapped in Diego’s jacket while in clinging to the bloody Alasation. Shepard glared, his ears back. Unflappable, the photographer tried to get a comment from the detective, but Shepard looked at the Terrier and told him to shot the Cat if he didn’t get away from him.

The Rookie made it a point to unholster his weapon.

Shepard ended up in his passenger seat only because his fingers were too stiff to get around the handle of the car door. He held the boy close to his chest as they both both began to drift off. During the ride, Lucky would occasionally wake Shepard up for no other reason than to make sure that he was still alive. “Lucky, stop! Let me sleep.”

“It’s not healthy,” the Terrier snapped back. “And my name’s not Lucky. It’s Lachey. Officer Lachey McDonald.”
Shepherd smiled in the dark. “OK, don’t get short with me.”

The young Highlander gave the Detective some serious side eye. “Faith! A joke out of ye… now I know I’ve got to get you to the hospital first.”

“My house.” Shepard growled.

His ears still whistled and every inch of him hurt. He was not looking forward to discussing this with Waldo, but Lynne would be happy and the Arcana cult had its nutsack cut off. That would have to be enough. His numb fists rubbed at the furry black heading on his chest.
He’s a Black Dog… the Incarnation of Death. Death is going to follow him every where…

You’ve released this Black Dog, this walking death, into a world ill-prepared for it. I know in your heart you believe yourself a good man, but you have always been blind to the truth. Fixated on the laws of man. I forgive you for that but will that child? You’ve condemned him to a life without satisfaction, without peace, without love.

He kissed the black head between the head between the ears.

The boy stirred then. “Where are we?”

“We’re in Brooklyn.”

The boy seemed satisfied with that snuggled into his chest. “Brooklyn,” he muttered like it was a magical place, a magical word. That made Shepard smile some more.

He allowed himself to pretend this is what it felt like to be a father.

Somewhere, under all the pain, it felt rather nice.

Shepard thought briefly about the way the boy handled his gun. He was a natural. Big Blackie must have taught him a bit when Lynne wasn’t looking. Waldo had been a natural, in his day… before he went straight. That made him smile, too, thinking that the big bad Wolf might have also had a soft spot for Lynne’s bastard child.

Waldo would have the rest of his life to pretend the be the boy’s father; Shepard would only have a few more minutes. “Just this moment, McDonald, I feel lucky.” He whispered it.

The boy began licking the blood off his shirt. The lazy casual licking of a sleeping pup who hadn’t eaten in hours. He has a taste for blood, Shepard thought. At least he won’t grow up to be a pansy like his real father. He’s hard. He’s strong. The thought made him warm. And what if they were right? What if he was Death Incarnate?

There were a lot of people that needed killing.

Not bad, it needs a bit of spell checking and in a couple of places there a few 2 letter words missing. Nothing that interupts the story.

Thanks Gnarl. I was afraid the complicated backstory of how Blaine came about might have been too complicated.

I did a detail-edit on this and sent it to both of the e-mail addies I have for you. Am posting here so people will know someone’s replied. Good story!

Thanks Rabbit! You’re swell!

I will have to fix the gun issue mentioned. I doubt Blaine could have shoved rebar in barrel, so I will have to think up some other piece of luck to save Shepard.