Excerpt from CALEB
Book 1 of the Shadow Wranglers
Copyright © Sarah McCarty 2009
All rights reserved Berkley Heat
Caleb might be weakened. He might even be on the verge of dying, but he was still turning out to be a hell of a nag.
Allie ignored this order the same way she’d ignored the last three, turning her compact hatchback out of the drive and down the dark road. The night wasn’t nearly so scary when she was in the car with the weight of the gun in her lap. She didn’t know where those monster wolves had come from, but she was pretty sure a bullet in the eye would take them down.
She slowed when she saw the dark mound in the road. Her heartbeat, which had never returned to normal, sped back up to impossible when the blob separated into two distinct bodies in the beams of her headlights. She pulled the car to the side of the road just past the bodies, turned off the ignition, and sat there, taking deep breaths, beating back the suddenly overwhelming fear through sheer force of will.
Stay in the car.
“Shut up,” she muttered as she reached for the door handle. The fear that swamped her was unreasonable and beyond imagining. It was all she could do not to flee in terror.
Those feelings were not coming from her, she realized as sweat soaked her palms and dripped into her eyes. She grabbed the flashlight and revolver, yanked the handle on the door, and kicked it open when the latch gave. “Get out of my head!”
She practically threw herself out of the car. As soon as the door slammed shut, the panic receded and she was left with just her own cowardice. That, she could handle.
She cautiously moved toward the bodies, keeping the revolver trained on the wolves. The gray wolf lay still, its head twisted at an awkward angle, tongue lolling, and eyes staring unseemingly, the malevolence surrounding it undiminished by death. About three feet away lay the black wolf. Hardly daring to breathe, she shone her flashlight on the animal. A huge pool of blood surrounded the body, seeping from the thick ruff, which glistened with the slow ebb of life.
“This can’t be good,” she muttered as the pool of blood crept outward. She gave the gray wolf a wide berth as she approached the black. Dead or alive, the beast gave her the creeps.
The black wolf merely gave her a sense of urgency, which didn’t make any sense considering it had won the fight and was therefore the greater threat. But there she was, once again with her gut instincts overriding common sense. She stopped a foot away from the black wolf’s side. She panned her light over the body. Its ribs heaved and jerked with every breath, but at least it was breathing.
“Easy, Big Boy,” she murmured, shoving the revolver into the waistband of her jeans before she knelt just outside the ring of blood.
Big Boy’s response was a lift of his lip. She didn’t get any closer, but she also didn’t move away. “Nice set of teeth.”
She touched a slash by its hip. The wolf flinched, and the order came loud and clear. LEAVE!
“Just as soon as I take care of Big Boy, I’ll do that very thing,” she retorted. It was weird carrying on a conversation with a voice in her mind, but on a scale of one to ten of all the weird things she’d done in her life, it actually only rated a four.
She sat back on her heels. In the fury of battle, she hadn’t really appreciated how big the wolf was. It was a good foot and a half taller than she, which wasn’t saying much as she barely cleared five feet, but the sheer mass of the animal was awesome. It had to be over two hundred pounds, which was going to make getting it to the vet a major issue. There was room in her hatchback for him, but getting the wolf to the car could be a problem. For sure, she wasn’t just picking him up.
“Don’t pressure me,” she muttered. “I don’t work well under pressure.” The fresh rush of adrenaline made her hands shake and her breath rasp in her throat. She really wasn’t cut out for this kind of thing.
She stroked the wolf’s side gingerly before getting to her feet. “I’ll be right back.”
Leave the wolf.
Everything inside of her rebelled at the thought. “Not an option.”
Do as I say.
Like that was going to happen. She snorted as she grabbed a tarp out of the back of the car. “I might be nuts, and I might even talk to the voices in my head, but even I know better than to take orders from them.”
Caleb didn’t respond verbally to her sarcasm, but what felt like a long-suffering sigh wafted through her mind.
You are one stubborn woman.
“It’s one of my more endearing qualities,” she said as she laid the tarp flat alongside the wolf’s back, tucking a large fold underneath.
What’s your plan?
“I’m going to roll the wolf onto this tarp and drag him to the car, and providing I manage that without having my own throat torn out, take him to a vet.”
He won’t harm you.
“Like you can guarantee that.”
She looked at the wolf, especially at the teeth still exposed in its snarl, and shook her head. After this, she really was going to have to go see that psychiatrist her family kept recommending .
You’re not crazy.
“So says the voice in my head.”
Whether she was crazy or just on the verge of toppling over the edge was neither here nor there right now. She took a breath and reached over the wolf.
“I hope you’re right about his friendly level,” she muttered as she grabbed its front legs and pulled up and over. The wolf made a horribly wet gasping sound as she rolled its front half over. Midway, the weight of his body fought her, almost dragging her face first into the road on the other side. She quickly straddled its torso, holding its legs upright with her inner thigh while she grabbed its back legs and dragged them along. There was a moment when she thought she wouldn’t be able to do it, but then the wolf twitched just enough, and she rolled him onto the tarp.
Breathing hard with the effort, she tugged the fold out from under the wolf, shuddering when blood smeared her hands, pausing only to wipe them off on her jeans before continuing. Her gut was talking to her again, and it said she had to hurry.
Grabbing the end of the tarp, she tugged. The tarp slipped out of her hands.
“Son of a bitch.” She wiped her hands again, and gathered the excess folds into a better grip. Leaning back against the resistance, she dug in her heels. The wolf moved a foot before she had to take a break, her muscles screaming in protest.
A bone-chilling howl pierced the night. It was immediately followed by another. And another. All from the same direction. All sounding too damn close for comfort.
Like she needed him to tell her that. “If you think you can do better, do it yourself.”
A feeling of extreme displeasure rolled over her. Great, just what she needed. An inner voice with an attitude. She braced her feet and pulled again. “What’s got you upset?”
Your insistence on risking your life.
“That was an amazingly calm not to mention sweet thing to say,” she said as she panted through her next break. A quick glance revealed two feet to go.
I’m not sweet.
She gritted her teeth and gathered her energy. The howling came again. Closer. She glanced over her shoulder. It was tailgate or bust.
“Sweet is all in the eyes of the beholder, darling, and that sounded pretty darn sweet to me.”
After that, she didn’t have air for extras like speech. She needed everything she had to move the wolf. She pulled until her arms and legs ached. Inch by inch, she got the wolf over the ground, desperation giving her a bit more strength as the howls rose to an obscene cacophony, ringing inside and outside her head. She was profoundly grateful Caleb didn’t add another “hurry” to her own internal litany.
She didn’t know if they were going to make it. Didn’t know if she could get them the last foot, but she closed her eyes and gave it everything she had. When she opened her eyes, the wolf was just clear of the rear bumper. She’d done it. Leaning against the side of the car, she popped the hatch .
“Looks like we might make it after all.”
She didn’t have to ask why the order screamed through her mind. She could hear the crashing in the bushes, hear the growls, literally feel death approaching.
She wrapped her arms around the massive torso. “Help me, Big Guy!”
To her shock, the wolf did, getting its feet under itself, exerting the last of its strength, heaving its torso up so they both fell into the cargo area. She didn’t waste a second marveling at the miracle. She just grabbed its hind legs and shoved them into the small space before slamming the hatch.
A glance toward the woods revealed eight massive wolves of assorted colors spilling out of the shadows, closing in on her fast. She tore around the car, sobbing as her bloody hands slipped uselessly on the door handle, trying twice more before she got it open. In the time it took to get a prayer of thanks out, she had the door closed and the key in the ignition.
For once the car started without protest. As she slammed it into gear, something struck the windshield. She threw up her hands and screamed, the impression of fangs and glowing eyes striking terror through her. Another body hit the driver’s door window so hard she expected the glass to crack. It held. Thank God for safety glass.
As before, calm soothed her panic and for once she didn’t mind following an order. She stomped on the gas, yanked the wheel so the wolf slid off, and headed for town, glancing in the rearview mirror as her tires grabbed the blacktop. The wolves were in hot pursuit.
“And drive back into fang and company?” She shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
Another glance in the rearview had her blinking. The wolves were gaining. She checked her speedometer. She was doing thirty-five miles an hour and climbing. That wasn’t possible.
“What in hell are those things?”
No answer, just more of that calm stroking of her nerves, and another statement of fact. No one in town can help you.
She stepped harder on the gas. “So Mr. Know-it-all, where would you suggest I go?”
She shouldn’t have been surprised by the answer.
The Circle J.
The turn off to the Circle J was a mile in the other direction. On the other side of her house. On the other side of that rabid pack of monster wolves.
She tightened her grip on the wheel. “Come up with another suggestion.”
There isn’t one.
She believed him.
“Shit!” She hit the brakes, spun the wheel, and accelerated out of the slide. Behind her there was a heavy thud. A glance in the rearview showed the black wolf in a heap on the other side of the cargo area. She winced. That had to have hurt.
The tires squealed a protest as she floored the accelerator, heading straight for the wolves. She expected them to separate, not form a solid wall across the road. She instinctively went for the brake.
“Okay,” she licked her lips, “but I hope you realize hitting one of those things is going to total my car.”
Don’t hit one.
Great advice from the amorphous voice in her head, but she wasn’t sure she was going to be able to avoid it. They were a solid line of snarling determination spread across the narrow road. She fumbled with the gun in her lap until she found the safety. She flipped it to off.
On a “Here goes nothing,” she tromped on the gas.
The wolves didn’t move, just held their position slightly behind the one in the middle, the expression on his black-masked face both arrogant and vicious. In the second her gaze met his, his chin lifted. A challenge?
There was an edge of desperation in the weak order.
Why did everyone, from her family to voices in her head, think she was unreliable?
“Don’t worry, I’ve never lost a game of chicken yet.”
They’re not playing.
“News flash.” She ducked her chin and braced her arms. “Neither am I.”
She hit the wall of flesh doing fifty, at the last minute swerving so the fender glanced off the lead wolf’s shoulder rather than hitting it dead on. Yanking the wheel to the left, she sent another wolf flying. In the interim, four more swarmed the car, their snarls bruising her ears while their claws screeched against the metal. One jumped up onto the hood, limiting her view to the gray-black of its chest and the white gleam of its huge teeth.
She pulled the gun from her lap, pressed the muzzle against the windshield, closed her eyes, and pulled the trigger. The roar was deafening in the small interior. The recoil slammed her forearm down into the wheel. Only her death grip on the revolver kept it in her hand.
When she opened her eyes, there was a huge spatter of blood on the windshield and open road in front of her.
“And stay off my car,” she muttered in weak relief as she hit the windshield washer button. Most of the blood cleared, leaving an oily smear between the maze of cracks.
She looked in the rearview. The wolves were gone. For the first time in ten minutes she took a deep breath. She glanced at the unmoving wolf in her cargo area.
“We might just make it after all.”
They’re going to head you off.
“Gosh darn it!” She slapped the wheel in frustration. “Can’t you even let me enjoy one stupid second of relief?”
The man was becoming quite the killjoy.
The weakness in the faint order alarmed her.
Get to the Circle J. Stay on the road and keep going. Don’t trust your eyes. No matter what you see. No matter how bad it gets, do not take your foot off the gas.
Call her a skeptic, but how much worse could it get? “What do you mean, ‘no matter how bad it gets’?”
Get to Circle J. The wolves cannot go there.
She glanced longingly at her driveway as she passed by. “How do you know that? Do you have some sort of monster wolf fencing installed?”
That might have been just a trace of mocking amusement she heard at the end of the soft affirmative. When she didn’t answer, she felt the mental nudge again.
Damn persistent man. She just wanted to go home and pretend this never happened.
Promise me you won’t stop. No matter what.
She turned right onto the entrance road to the Circle J ranch, feeling like she was heading down a path of no return. “I promise.”
His Good was just a sigh in her head. It winked out on a whisper of energy, and then he was gone, leaving her alone on a strange road in a race with killer wolves that planned on cutting her off from a sanctuary she wasn’t even sure existed. Son of a bitch. Wasn’t that just like a man?
There wasn’t an answer. And she wasn’t really expecting one. There was an emptiness where his voice had been. A dead feeling void that scared the bejesus out of her.
She shook her head and drove as fast as she dared up the rutted, tree-lined road. Her car bottomed out in a deep hole, making her jump. The gun fell to the floor. She swore and fished around for it, not taking her eyes off the treacherous path.
Another bump had her abandoning the gun in favor of trying to stay on the road. Clenching the wheel tightly in her hands, she squinted through the smears and cracks into the night and cursed her luck. It just figured the first man to believe that she could keep a promise would be a fictitious voice in her head.
She wrestled the car around the corner against the series of ruts trying to bounce the vehicle off the road. By the time the car hit the next smooth patch, her teeth were vibrating in her head. Lord knows how her passenger felt. If he was even still alive.
“Sorry about that,” she whispered, afraid to look, wrenching the wheel to the right, narrowly missing a big boulder sticking up in the middle of the road. Caleb had to be out of his mind to think her little compact could handle this path masquerading as a road. She had half a mind to turn around.
The white wolf that leapt out of the trees put paid to that idea. She hit the gas and fishtailed to the other side of the path, narrowly avoiding the collision that would have taken out her car. More wolves appeared on both sides of the car, taking advantage of her slowing to swarm her. It scared her, how willing they were to sacrifice themselves to stop her. They had to be after either her or the wolf, but since they were a package deal at this point, she wasn’t slowing for love or money.
The car leaned precariously into the next curve. She was driving too fast for the road, but it was impossible to slow down. Herded on by the wolves like a lamb to slaughter, she could only pray that the car held the road and that there weren’t any unpleasant surprises between here and the Circle J. Sweat poured down her face, and her hands slipped on the wheel. The bumper scraped a tree before she got it back on the road. The wolves howled at the near miss, and then fell back into formation around her. The masked wolf paced alongside the driver’s door, seemingly content to wait. For what? Were they waiting for her to crash?
She wiped the sweat off her brow with her coat sleeve. She wasn’t going to crash. The only course she’d ever gotten an A in had been the defensive driving course in high school. She was damn proud of that A. She wasn’t about to blow her perfect record tonight with a bunch of maniacal wolves as witnesses.
She looked up, and her heart sank to her toes. Even an A in defensive driving wasn’t going to get her past that. The road dead-ended at the biggest boulder she’d ever seen. Just ended right at the base of it. With the thick growth of trees on either side, there was no way around. With no room to turn and no way back, she was out of options.
Beside her the masked wolf gave a victorious yip. She met its glare dead on. Again the uncanny expressiveness of its face shocked her. And then pissed her off. There was nothing worse than a gloating wolf. She looked at the rock coming up fast. She was almost at the point of no return. The wolves around her picked up their leader’s yip, their voices blending to a nerve-racking war cry.
Don’t trust your eyes. No matter what you see. No matter how bad it gets, do not take your foot off the gas.
Caleb’s words came back to her. She trusted Caleb, but more than that, she did not want to die as a wolf snack.
She caught the lead wolf’s eye, flipped him the bird, and then jammed the accelerator to the floor. The little car shot forward. Her scream echoing all around the tiny interior, she closed her eyes and waited for the inevitable collision.