Dead as a doornail

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I didn’t thank Patrick Schulz for loaning me his Benelli for the last book—sorry, Son. My friend Toni L. P. Kelner, who pointed out some problems in the first half of the book, is due a big hats-off. My friend Paula Woldan gave me moral support and some information on pirates, and was willing to endure me on Talk Like a Pirate Day. Her daughter Jennifer saved my life by helping me prepare the manuscript. Shay, a Faithful Reader, had the great idea for the calendar. And in thanking the Woldan family, I have to include Jay, a volunteer firefighter for many years, who shared his knowledge and expertise with me.

1

I KNEW MY brother would turn into a panther before he did. As I drove to the remote crossroads community of Hotshot, my brother watched the sunset in silence. Jason was dressed in old clothes, and he had a plastic Wal-Mart bag containing a few things he might need—toothbrush, clean underwear. He hunched inside his bulky camo jacket, looking straight ahead. His face was tense with the need to control his fear and his excitement.

“You got your cell phone in your pocket?” I asked, knowing I’d already asked him as soon as the words left my mouth. But Jason just nodded instead of snapping at me. It was still afternoon, but at the end of January the dark comes early.

Tonight would be the first full moon of the New Year.

When I stopped the car, Jason turned to look at me, and even in the dim light I saw the change in his eyes. They weren’t blue like mine anymore. They were yellowish. The shape of them had changed.

“My face feels funny,” he said. But he still hadn’t put two and two together.

Tiny Hotshot was silent and still in the waning light. A cold wind was blowing across the bare fields, and the pines and oaks were shivering in the gusts of frigid air. Only one man was visible. He was standing outside one of the little houses, the one that was freshly painted. This man’s eyes were closed, and his bearded face was raised to the darkening sky. Calvin Norris waited until Jason was climbing out the passenger’s door of my old Nova before he walked over and bent to my window. I rolled it down.

His golden-green eyes were as startling as I’d remembered, and the rest of him was just as unremarkable. Stocky, graying, sturdy, he looked like a hundred other men I’d seen in Merlotte’s Bar, except for those eyes.

“I’ll take good care of him,” Calvin Norris said. Behind him, Jason stood with his back to me. The air around my brother had a peculiar quality; it seemed to be vibrating.

None of this was Calvin Norris’s fault. He hadn’t been the one who’d bitten my brother and changed him forever.

Calvin, a werepanther, had been born what he was; it was his nature. I made myself say, “Thank you.”

“I’ll bring him home in the morning.”

“To my house, please. His truck is at my place.”

“All right, then. Have a good night.” He raised his face to the wind again, and I felt the whole community was waiting, behind their windows and doors, for me to leave.

So I did.

Jason knocked on my door at seven the next morning. He still had his little Wal-Mart bag, but he hadn’t used anything in it. His face was bruised, and his hands were covered with scratches. He didn’t say a word. He just stared at me when I asked him how he was, and walked past me through the living room and down the hall.