He never heard the cat behind him. He was only surprised as the sudden weight on his back pushed him to the ground and then pain as the jaws closed around his head.
Mona stared up the the ceiling of the cave and sighed. One of these days I'll get closer to the house. She rolled over and pushed herself to her feet. A new layer of mud covered her hands. Her muscles protested and she groaned as she stood up straight. Ain't gonna happen soon, she thought, putting her hands on her hips and leaning to one side, then the other. This cave is the closest you've gotten and you're still a mile away. Pushing her arms up over her head, she stretched to the ceiling. The feeling that she should be down on all fours lingering in the back of her mind. Come on, she told herself, two legs good. She walked to the mouth of the cave, mud squishing between her toes, and looked outside. Bright morning sun shone down through the green leaves of the trees, insects sang and she could hear the river rushing by at the bottom of the hill. She started walking. I should at least leave a pair of shoes in here. She snorted to herself at the thought. Yah. You do that. And they'll be stolen by some hiker in a week. A chilly breeze blew and the leaves overhead rustled in response. Mona rubbed her bare arms, dried mud flaking off and falling to the ground. She looked up at the sun, trying to judge the time. What does it matter? It's not like I have anything to do today. She carefully picked her way down the trail back home.
"Morning Trev." Gilbert said, closing the door behind him. Trevor waved absently, a pen in his hand as he held the phone to his ear with the other. Gil walked across the small office to the coffeemaker and filled his mug. A pile of paperwork, probably permits he thought, sat on his desk. Sitting down, he set his mug down and began to sort through the stack, keeping one ear open to Trevor's conversation.
"We'll get right on that. Yes. Yes. We will. Thank you. Bye." Gil studied the application in his hand as Trevor wrote something down on the paper in front of him. After a minute he stood up and handed it to Gil.
"What's going on?" Gil asked, glancing at the paper. "Who was that?"
"That was Sim, he's got a missing hiker. The family says he was supposed to be home yesterday. They know he was camping near Lesterville, but aren't sure where."
"He's probably lost." Gil said, standing up. "Go into town and ask Mavis Red if he stopped by their place. If he rented any gear from them he probably said where he was going. I'll talk to Sim. Meet me by the boat landing in an hour."
Trevor nodded, picked up his hat and walked outside. Gil sat down again at his desk, picked up the phone and dialed Sim. Drumming his fingers on the desk he listened to the rings and hoped like hell that the guy was just lost.
Mona watched the last of the brown water swirl slowly down the drain. It wasn't clearing by itself. Maybe she could borrow some drain cleaner from Gil again. Or a snake. Did Gil have a snake? Maybe Mr. Jahn has one. Just so long as I don't have to call the plumber. Rubbing the towel over her short hair, she looked at herself in the mirror: sandy brown curls fell around her chubby face, framing brown eyes. I couldn't be any more average if I tried. She picked up her bra from where it was hanging over the sink and hooked it around her back. Her fingers brushing the three long scars on her side. She paused a minute, recalling the night before. I caught something. Something big. Not the usual little scurrying things. A deer? I'm definitely not hungry this morning. Probably a deer. Shrugging, she pulled the straps up over her shoulders and reached for her shirt.
"DJ 12:30" was written on the calendar and circled. Mona paused a minute, DJ? Who was...? Oh, right. Wait, Wednesday? That's today. She looked up at the clock, damn. Barely an hour to get there.
The waiting area was full. She ignored the little boy pulling at her purse until his mother slapped his hands away. Mona was about to respond to her muttered apology when her name was called.
Don Jensen, her unemployment adjudicator, was on his phone as she approached his desk. Listening intently to the person on the other end, he did not look up as Mona approached. He waved her down to the chair across from him. Pulling the manila envelope out of her purse, Mona set her forms down on the desk in front of him. He picked it impatiently and set it to the side.
"Did she give a reason?" He asked the person on the phone. Mona watched as he wrote down "school" on the paper in front of him. "Anything else? Okay." He wrote down a date. "OK. Great. Thanks for calling. Uh-huh. Bye." Don hung up the phone and scribbled a few more things on the paper. He picked up a stack stapled it all together, opened a drawer in his desk and dropped it in a file. He turned back to Mona.
"Hello Ms. Kilmer. How are you today?"
He picked up her stack of papers. "Is this your job search?" he asked, looking it over.
"Hmmm..." he paused, studying, "Have you called that temp agency back?"
"They said it was slow. I should try back next week." She lied. She'd hated that place.
"I applied at Roku House, too." she added hopefully. "They said they might have an opening soon. They said they'd call."
"Hm." He picked up a pen and wrote something down. "What else are you doing?"
"I check the papers every day."
"And this is everywhere you've applied?" there was a note of near skepticism in his voice as he pulled some forms from a drawer and started to write.
He hit some keys on the computer. A printer behind him suddenly chattered to life. "All right. You still qualify. But you've got to step it up. You only have three weeks left."
"Three weeks?" Mona echoed.
"'Fraid so." he tore some sheets off the printer, stapled them to the forms and the stack across the desk to Mona. He held a pen out for her.
She took the pen, signing and initialing where he pointed. Standing up, Don walked out of the cubicle. Mona did not watch him go. She leaned back in the chair, listening it creak, and lightly kicked the desk with her toe. Three weeks? The office buzzed indifferently around her. Damn. What am I going to do?
Don returned and sat down in his chair. He looked up at her face for the first time since she'd come in. "Do you want some water?"
"No. I'm fine." She said, irritated.
"You all right? Do you need help?"
Mona ran a hand through her hair. "No."
He tapped the desk with one finger, looking away for a minute, then back at her. "You were a nurse once, weren't you?" He asked in a low voice.
"Yeah, a few years ago."
"You know, they're opening a new nursing home over in Piedmont."
"They just hired my ex as the Director."
Mona looked at him hopefully.
"You might consider putting in an application."
"I – I'll look into it." Do I want to get back into that?
"I don't do this for everyone you know." He said, handing her the check.
"No. No, of course not." She signed the receipt.
He leaned forward. "If you're hired, be sure to tell Amanda – that's my wife – how grateful you are."
"Tell her Don got you the job."
"Yes." She didn't look up. She pretended to study the paper in front of her. This is getting weird.
"Tell her I am not the loser her idiot boyfriend thinks I am."
Mona reached for her purse and stood up. "I gotta go."
Don leaned leaned back, "Of course." He turned to his computer and started typing. "I'll see you next week. Make an appointment with Shanese up front."
"I will." Mona said as she walked out.
Maisie Red was a big strong woman and an old friend of Gil's. Gil saw her talking with Trev on the boat launch as he pulled up.
"Hey, handsome!" She waved cheerfully as he climbed out of his truck. "How's it goin'?"
"Not bad. How you doin' beautiful?"
She grinned at him. "Just waitin' for Josh to get back with the bus."
Trevor turned to Gil. "The guy rented a canoe from them. Maisie thinks he might have told Josh where he was going."
He nodded as a yellow school bus, "Red's Outfitters" written on the side, came around the corner and pulled into the parking lot behind them.
"JOSH! COME DOWN HERE!" Maisie yelled. Trevor and Gil winced. Maisie started up the road without a backwards glance, both men hurried to follow her.
Joshua Red was just as big and broad as his mother. He looked curiously at Trevor and Gil as they approached. "What is it, Ma?" he asked.
"Josh, d'you remember that guy who came through here a couple days ago? Rented one of the canoes? You talked to him, didn't you?"
Josh shook his head. "Rented a canoe? That don't narrow it down, Ma. Lots of people renting canoes now."
"His name was Nathan Rogers." Trevor said. "He was probably here Saturday or Sunday."
"Come on Josh, I remember you talkin' with him. Didn't he say he was goin' to camp along the river?" Maisie said.
Josh frowned, thinking. "Saturday or Sunday...? Oh yeah! The guy with the orange pack. Yeah, now I remember, he came by on Sunday. Said he was floatin' down to Clearwater."
"Clearwater..." Maisie said thoughtfully, "Adam knows that area."
"Yeah, he talked to Adam about it."
"I saw him in back, cleaning the boats." Maisie said. Again, she didn't wait for a reply but lead the way through the building to a large open-sided shed in back. Racks of upside-down boats were stacked inside.
"Adam!" Maisie called.
"What?" a voice called from somewhere behind the racks.
"Come out here! Need to ask you a question!"
Adam, a blond version of his mother, walked out wiping his hands on a rag. Gil smelled paint thinner.
"You remember a guy, came through here on Sunday? Josh says you talked to him."
"I talked to lots of people on Sunday."
"He had an orange backpack." Trevor offered.
Adam looked blank.
"He rented a canoe. Said he was paddlin' down to Clearwater." Maisie said.
Adam snapped his fingers with recognition, "Oh yeah, him! I told him to be careful once he got past the highway bridge. It's been tricky since the floods last spring. He was looking for some good places to camp near the river so I sold him a map."
Ah, now we're getting somewhere. "Can you show us where he was going?" Gil asked.
Mona was weeding her garden when she heard Gil's truck pull up the driveway. Standing up, she pulled off her gloves and walked around to meet him.
Hugging her, he kissed her on the forehead. "Hey there." he said looking down at her affectionately.
"Hey yourself." She smiled back at him. "What brings you by?"
"Oh I was in the area, thought I'd stop by."
"You want lunch?" she asked.
"Lunch? That'd be nice too." he said innocently.
She chuckled. "Smart aleck." she said, kissing him. She held his hand as they walked inside.
Gil started setting the table as Mona opened the fridge and looked inside. "I've got some leftover ham, you want a sandwich?" I'll have to cut around the bite marks, she thought, pulling the plate out.
"You got any brown mustard left?"
"Sure do." She set the bottle down on the counter next to the plate of ham then looked back inside. Could have sworn I had half a loaf... She thought. Oh right, ate it the night before last. Hmm... do I have any tortillas left? Maybe I could make wraps or – Ah ha! Biscuits!
"So how's the search going?" she asked, pulling a knife out of the drawer. "You find that missing hiker yet?" She started slicing the ham.
"No, but we've narrowed down the areas where he might have been."
"Yeah, one of them isn't far from here." he paused. "I don't suppose you saw anything the other night?" he asked, half-joking.
Mona stopped spreading the mustard and set the knife down on the counter with a thump. She turned around and glared at Gil.
He held up his hands apologetically. "Sorry."
"You know I never remember anything."
"I know. I'm sorry."
"Bad enough I can't work nights."
"That's why I was trying to get out of nursing, you know."
"You've told me."
Mona sighed and turned back to the counter. Gil came up to her and put his arms around her waist. "Sorry. It was a bad joke. I won't bring it up again." he said, nuzzling the back of her neck.
Mona relaxed into his kisses. "Apology accepted." she said. She put the last sandwich on the plate.
Letting her go, Gil opened the fridge. "You got any soda?" he asked.
"Not until it goes on sale again at the store. I made lemonade, though."
"Sandwiches and lemonade. We should have a picnic."
Mona smiled, "You like getting eaten by horseflies? You go ahead. Anyway, enough about you. I've got news."
Gil poured two glasses and set them down on the table. "What's that?"
"I've got an interview."
"Really? That's great!"
"Yup, it's a new home over in Piedmont. They've got an opening for a morning nurse."
"Thought you wanted to get out of nursing."
Mona took a bite of her sandwich. She chewed slowly before answering. "I do but my unemployment's going to run out at the end of the month. I gotta take something."
Gil nodded, his mouth full.
"Besides." Mona continued. "I can still keep my eye out for other jobs. Or maybe someone there will need a secretary. People always need secretaries, right?"
The radio chirped, "Yo, Gil."
Gil pressed the button. "Yes, Sim?"
"I think we found something over here."
"Be right there." Gil braced himself internally as he walked up the hill. It had been three days since Trevor had taken the first report. He dreaded facing the family. Sim and a few of his men gathered in a loose knot around the entrance to a cave as Gil walked up. Sim waved him over.
"Steve found the shirt over there." He pointed to the left, "and followed it up here." He motioned to the cave.
Gil looked inside, it wasn't a cave so much as a hollow in the rock. Reaching for his flashlight he flicked it on and pointed it inside. The light shone on a torn pair of jeans, a few scraps of fabric, and a dead body. The neck and stomach had been torn out. There were – parts – missing and the body had been chewed. Gil let the light play over the cave floor, confirming his suspicions. He flicked the light off and stood up with a sigh. "Looks like an animal got him. A cougar, I'd guess, from those tracks."
Sim nodded. "You want me to call Doctor Clark?"
"Yeah. Just be careful getting him out of there. We gotta get casts of those prints."
Gil started walking back to his truck. Have to find the plaster kit, notify the family, start the paperwork, should probably call Larry at the paper before someone else does... He stopped suddenly, and leaned heavily against a tree. "A cougar." he said to himself. "Damn."
"Oh, Ms. Kilmer, I'm sorry to say we filled that position yesterday." The Nursing Director said. The Human Resources woman sitting behind her said nothing and watched Mona.
Mona's heart fell.
"But we do have an opening for nights."
Mona smiled. "Nights?" she asked, keeping her tone carefully neutral.
"Yes. Eleven to seven. The pay is the same. If you do well, I could give you first consideration if, or when, something opens up on days."
Mona pretended to think about it. Oh thank you Lord. I do appreciate Your little jokes. "Can I ask one thing?" she said.
"What is that?"
"I need one night off a month."
HR raised an eyebrow. The DON looked confused. "Why?" she asked.
"I belong to a religion - it's kind of obscure you might not have heard of it: Selenism? No? Well, we worship the moon in her aspect as the Great Mother. So I need off one night a month, during the full moon of course, to worship Her." There. No one ever questions that story.
The DON looked down at Mona's resume on the desk in front of her. Mona glanced at her badge: "Amanda." The name seemed vaguely familiar. She looked back up at her face and at the furrowed lines creasing her forehead. "I'll work any amount of overtime you ask me to, I'll never call off unless I'm dead. I'll work as hard as I can, do the best that I can, come in with a smile on my face every day... All I ask is one night off a month, Amanda." she said in a rush.
The DON turned to look at HR. She shrugged: what the hell, give her a chance.
"All right, maybe we can work something out. I'll talk to the Scheduler." Standing up, she extended her hand over the desk. "Orientation starts on Monday."
Mona stood, smiled, and shook her hand. Yes!
Gil stared at the manila envelope on the desk in front of him. Sighing, he picked it up and opened the flap. Reaching inside, he pulled out the final report from the coroner and flipped through the pages, automatically finding the one that would tell him what he already knew. Yes, there it was in black and white. "...the victim was most likely attacked by a Mountain Lion (Puma concolor)." Carefully, Gil set the report back down on his desk. Folding his hands over it, he took a deep breath and silently mouthed every expletive he could think of. There hadn't been any attacks on people in Missouri since... since the 1860s, at least. He looked down at the report again. Maybe he could just file this away. Lose it. That cougar was probably just passing through.
The phone rang and he picked it up. "Department of Conservation, this is Gilbert." he said.
"Hey Gil, It's Larry at the News."
"Hey Larry, what's up?"
"I wanted to give you a heads up, you know that hiker you found?"
"Yeah, I read the story, tell Gina she did a good job."
"It's gone national."
Gil sat up straight. "What?" he asked.
"The wires picked it up. I just got a call from a reporter from one of the networks and..."
Gil stopped listening. "Oh God." he muttered.
He forced his attention back to the phone. "Well, thanks for telling me Larry." he said with forced cheerfulness. "I will let Trevor know."
"Just be careful Gil. You and I have a good relationship. I don't want to see it ruined by someone from the city."
"I will Larry. Thank you." He hung up the phone.
Mona crossed off another day on her calendar. Half a week, she thought, picking up the two bowls of ice cream and walking back out to the couch.
"Did I miss anything?" she asked Gil, handing him a bowl.
"Briscoe isn't the killer." He put an arm around her shoulders as she cuddled close.
"Told you it wasn't him."
"It's the wife."
"No it's not."
"No it's..." his voice trailed off and he leaned forward as the detective on the television turned to address the room. Mona smiled as the wife stood up and confessed.
The credits rolled and a teaser for the news came on. There was a close up of Gil's face as several reporters held microphones up to his mouth.
"Oooh, look at you. You're famous." Mona teased, gently poking him in the side.
Gil fumbled for the remote and quickly changed the channel.
"No! Change it back! I want to see you!" Mona cried. She reached across him, trying to grab the remote away from his hands.
"No! It's terrible! I look terrible!" He cried, holding it up, out of her reach.
Laughing, Mona tried to climb over him to grab it back. "You look good! Handsome." Still laughing she reached farther, lost her balance, and collapsed on her stomach across his lap. Turning over, she looked up at his face.
Gil flicked the TV off, and set the remote down on the side table. "I think that's enough TV for tonight, don't you?"
Mona caressed his cheek with a warm hand. "Maybe."
He bent over and kissed her. Her other hand joined the first, pulling him close.
"You staying tonight?" she asked as they broke apart.
"Maaybe." he answered, drawing out the word with a smile.
"Then I think we've had enough TV." she said with a mischievous grin.
- Shoving another piece of food in her mouth, Mona followed it automatically with another from her other hand. Why was she here? This place? She was caged... No. No! She shook her head. Keep it together. Just got to get through the night and...
The phone rang shrilly and she jumped. Her fingers digging in to the carpet, as it shrieked again. Got to get out! Walls. Free! Must be outside. Must... Mona shook her head sharply as it rang a third time. She fumbled with the buttons on her shirt, her fingers clumsy. What were things? Binding... Clothes. She reminded herself. They're clothes. I take them off and then I go outside. The fourth ring was cut short as her machine picked up.
"Hello, Ms. Kilmer? This is Tanya. Tanya Washington, Amanda's assistant?" the words barely registered, she was losing focus. "We had a couple of call-offs tonight and I see your name's on the list for overtime. We need you..." the words trailed off, no longer intelligible. She felt a growl rising up in her throat. Can't wait! These – ! Closing! Trapping! Tearing off the last of her clothes, Mona ran outside and into the forest.
Karen woke. Should not have had that last beer, she thought, staring up at the tent ceiling. Rolling over, she reached for her backpack and pulled it close. Her bladder reminded her with every movement how important it was that she get outside quickly. Carefully, trying not to disturb her friends, she dug around inside until her fingers closed around the cool metal cylinder of the flashlight. Pulling it out, she zipped up the pack and picked it up by the top. Slowly, cautiously she set it down in the corner, where it promptly and noisily fell over, taking a metal cup and a few pieces of silverware with it.
Freezing with guilt, Karen looked over at her friends. Cheryl curled farther down in her sleeping bag with a mutter and a sigh. Dave, on the other side of Cheryl, farted loudly and turned over. Karen smiled to herself and slipped out the front of the tent.
The full moon lit the sky turning everything silver. The fire, so big a few hours ago, was nothing but ashes now, empty bottles scattered around it. Picking up a few strays she set them back with the rest of the group and pushed the switch on her flashlight. Nothing happened.
"What...?" she muttered to herself. She pushed it again and, again, nothing happened. She shook it. A feeble light brightened and faded away quickly. She shook it again, nothing. Frowning in annoyance, Karen opened the flashlight and let the batteries slide out into her palm. She looked at them a moment, then placed them back inside and replaced the cover. She pressed the switch. Still nothing.
"Dead." she whispered. "Damn." Setting the flashlight on the ground near the bottles, she looked around. It's bright enough, she decided I can find my way around. She started up the hill.
This looks good, she thought to herself stopping in front of a tree. Pulling down her pants, she squatted, steadying herself with one hand on the dusty bark. What was that song Dave sang? Something about a birdhouse and a canary? It was so funny. How did it go? Dah dah dah...
A faint sound behind her. Karen tensed and looked around, but saw nothing. You're so paranoid, she thought, laughing to herself. She finished and leaned forward, awkwardly reaching for the roll of toilet paper. Something hit her from behind, driving her head into the tree.
Gil set the phone down heavily.
Trevor looked up from his desk, "What is it?"
"Near Brushy Creek."
Trevor sighed. "I'll call Sim."
"No need. Her friends found the body."
Trevor winced. "Doctor Clark then?"
"Yup." Gil sighed.
- He could not use his usual homilies with the press this time. He tried, "Apex predators" "Nature red in tooth and claw." "We are just visitors here." But they were having none of it. Even Larry had given him a doubtful look. Christ. Gil scowled to himself as he drove past the news vans parked on the side of the highway, antennas high in the air. Turning into the driveway, he parked next to Trevor's car.
Trevor looked up from the phone and met his eyes as Gil opened the door. "He just came in! Hang on a minute, I'll put him on." Trevor hit the hold button and hung up the receiver carefully. He looked up at Gil, his eyes wide. "It's Commander Jody!" he said in a stage whisper, as if the person on the phone could still hear him, "From Jeff City!"
Gil walked slowly to his desk and looked down at the blinking light. No escaping it now. He picked up the receiver and pressed the button. "Hello, this is Gilbert."
Twenty minutes later, he hung up. Trevor watched him carefully. "Well?" he asked.
Gilbert swallowed, carefully considering his words. "We have to hunt it down. That's from the top. No more dead hikers."
Trevor looked down at his desk saying nothing. After a long minute he pulled out some papers and began to work.
Gil stared down at his desk and at the blue cover of Dr. Clark's newest report. He didn't see the text. It only confirmed what he already knew. His eyes drifted to the desk calendar sitting just above it. Monday July 23 it read. He reached up to flip the page when he noticed the open circle printed below the numbers on the date. He paused, icy worms gathering in the pit of his stomach. After a long moment of paralysis he reached up and flipped the pages back to the month before and the date of the previous attack. Another white circle looked back at him. Gil took a long breath and let it out. No. He thought. Hell no. It can't be.
Mona woke in the cave, the morning sun shining bright outside. What day is it? She wondered. Listening to the cicadas, rational thought slowly returned to her. It's July. It's the... twenty-fourth. It's Tuesday. I have to work today. Standing up slowly she stretched and bent over to brush the dirt from her legs. Boy, I'm full, she thought. Did I have another deer? Maybe a cow? A sheep? Hope it's not a sheep. A cobweb touch, Mona ran her hand down her arm and caught something in her hand. It was a hair: a long hair. She walked to the mouth of the cave to look at it in the sunlight. It was long and blonde, the color darkening to a deeper brown near the root. Wrapping it around her finger, Mona turned slowly and began to examine the cave floor where she had woken up. Ah, there. In the dirt. Picking them up, she looked at them, then brought it forward to the sun. They were the same: long, blonde, with dark roots, blood still red at the ends.
Running her tongue through her mouth and over her teeth, Mona tried to capture the tastes that had filled her mouth the night before. "Mmm..." she said, "Long pig. Been a while." Smiling, she started to walk home.
- "Hey. Mona." Verna walked up beside her and poked her in the ribs. "Have you heard?"
Mona ignored the poke and punched out two pills from the blister pack into the paper cup. "No, what?" she said, handing the cup to Mr. Sheffield.
"Marquis is quitting."
"Really?" Marquis? Who's that? "Why?" Returning to her cart, Mona initialed the book and picked up the next package of meds.
"He's moving to Alabama." Verna watched her carefully.
"Wait, you mean Marquis in the morning?"
"The same. I overheard him at the time clock. He says he's going to turn in a letter at the end of the week."
Mona paused, the implications of the gossip washing over her. "So..." she said slowly, "there's going to be an opening in the mornings?"
"Yup." Verna said smugly.
"Shi..." Mona let the word trail off without finishing it. Could it be? Would all her brown-nosing finally pay off?
"What time does Amanda get in?"
"8:00. If you help me with crabby Mr. Gester this week, I'll make sure your name gets to the top of the list."
Mona agreed without even thinking about it
- Gil's head laying comfortably in the hollow of her shoulder, Mona idly twisted her fingers in his hair and thought. Two weeks. Amanda had kept her promise and she would start working mornings in two weeks. Shift started at seven. Seven. Ay. Em. God, she liked the sound of that. No more "Selenism." No more crap from Tanya. Up with the sun and home by four. Maybe she could meet Gil at work and they could go out for dinner. It had been so long since she'd been able to do that. Pulling him close, she kissed the top of his head. He opened his eyes and looked up at her, a question in his eyes.
"Go back to sleep." she said, giving him another kiss.
He returned it. "I love you." he said, turning over.
"Love you too." Spooning up against him, she closed her eyes.
Another week passed. The woods and river, usually thick with tourists at this time of year, were nearly empty. The news vans had moved on, but the damage was done, and only the hardiest of souls ventured outside.
Gil looked down at the little half-circle on his calendar. There was a knock at the door. As he looked up, Mona walked in wearing a yellow sundress.
"Hey there, you get off early?" he asked, surprised.
"Nope. It's five." She said happily.
"Is it?" he turned around to look at the clock on the wall. The minute hand clicked past the 12.
"Come on." she said, pulling his arm. "I'm taking you out for dinner."
The waitress handed Mona her card and placed the bag of leftovers on the table in one smooth motion. Gil watched, almost in a trance as Mona signed the slip and tucked her copy away in her purse. Standing, she picked up the bag and frowned down at Gil.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
"You've been moping all night. What's wrong?"
He stood up. "Let's talk." He took her hand, leading her out to the car.
"Where are we going?" Mona asked. The car hit another bump on the dirt road and she grabbed frantically for something to keep from flying out of her seat. Why did I let him drive?
"Just down to the river." Gil answered, too calm.
Mona looked out at the dark trees and tried to place where they were. "Where? The campground?" The car bounced again. Mona's head hit the ceiling painfully.
"Yes." Turning a bend in the road, Gil slowed and stopped. Turning off the engine, he got out of the car without waiting for Mona.
Mona watched him curiously. He'd said he wanted to talk, then he'd driven out here. There had been no talking. She opened her door and stepped out.
The loose stones of the riverbank were treacherous under the heels of her best sandals. Sitting down again, Mona took off them off and carefully set them on the floor in front of her seat. Picking her way around to the front of the car, she pushed herself up on the hood. She looked over at Gilbert, beside her, leaning against the grille and staring moodily at the river. Mona rubbed her bare feet against the bumper, trying to dislodge the sharp stones that seemed to have drilled into the soles of her feet. Ouch.
"You never told me how it happened." he said distantly.
"What?" she asked.
"Your thing. The moon. Were you born that way or...?"
"Oh no. I used to go hiking a lot. Real back country, you know? Anyway, I got attacked by an animal one night. Some people found me and got me to the hospital." She thought about Rory briefly, and remembered the mole under the Sheriff's chin moving as he gave her the news. "The hospital stitched me up and sent me home. They said it looked bad, and I was lucky to have survived. A month later I changed." She paused and chuckled lightly at the memory. "Broke a window trying to get out. I told the landlord I surprised a burglar. He was not happy."
"Are there others?"
"I don't know. Never met anyone. But, then again, it's not exactly something you can ask about on the first date." She held her hand to an imaginary companion. "Hello, I'm Mona. By the way, do you turn into an animal when the moon is full?" She looked at Gil. He was still staring, unblinking, at the river, his expression unreadable. Mona frowned and leaned back on her elbows.
Time stretched out between them. "What happens? What do you think about? When it happens, I mean." he added.
"I'm not really sure. It's all kind of alien to me." She knew this wasn't what he meant. She forged on anyway. "It's..." her voice trailed off as she tried to think of a way to explain it. "It's like..." She stopped again, thinking. Finally, she gave up with a shrug. "All I can say is it's me, but it's not. An animal. I can't explain it farther than that." She looked over at him."You've never asked before."
He said nothing. Silence stretched out between them again.
"Those hikers, they were all attacked during the full moon." His voice was flat.
"Really?" Last month, too? That explains a lot.
Gil bent over and picked up a handful of pebbles. He started tossing them, one at a time, into the river. He seemed to be waiting for something. Mona stared out at the moving water trying to think of an appropriate response.
"I'm sorry." she said.
Sighing, Gil dropped the rest of the rocks on the ground, turned around, and pulled Mona off the hood of the car and into a bear hug. "I'm sorry, too." He murmured into her hair. "Sorry for everything." He held her a long moment, then let her go. The rocks turned sharp ends up again and dug into her feet. Mona suppressed a wince. "Let's go home." he said.
Trevor was a good tracker but a poor shot. Gil was a fair tracker, but a much better shot. Not that they usually had much use for the guns. Trevor motioned him forward, interrupting Gil's thoughts, and pointed at a print on the ground.
"Came through here." he said. He pointed up the hill. "I think she's got a den up there somewhere."
"She?" Gil asked.
Trevor nodded. "I'm pretty sure. Probably explain why we haven't seen her before." He thought a moment. "I don't think she's got cubs though. Sedalia would've reported it if they'd seen something. Probably a lone female."
Gil let out the breath he wasn't aware he'd been holding. "No. No cubs." he said.
Trevor looked up, the sun was brushing the western horizon. "It's getting late."
Gil looked at the sun and then at the moon, faint and full in the sky. "Did you bring the equipment?"
Trevor motioned to his back pack. "Borrowed some night vision binoculars from Sim."
Gil smiled. "Good." He checked the scope on his rifle and settled in to wait.
The night wind blew, making the trees sigh and whisper among themselves. Gil focused on the woods in front of him. Mona's house is just a short walk that way. A small, treacherous, part of his brain told him. You could leave Trev. Tell him you gotta drain the lizard or something. He'll be OK.
And if he's not? His sense of duty replied. Do you want to be the one to tell his wife? Gil glanced down at this watch: 12:17. He stared into the woods again and tried to concentrate.
Grabbing his arm, Trevor pointed at a slight movement in the brush. Gil brought his rifle up and looked through the scope, following the line of Trevor's finger. There it was, walking along the deer trail. It was bigger than he had expected. Pausing a moment, it turned its head, looking his way. The eye shine green as they caught the moonlight.
Taking a deep breath, Gilbert let it out and pulled the trigger. The rifle cracked, the big cat flew backwards and was still.
"You got it!" Trev cried, pounding him on the back. "Good shot, Gil!" Dropping everything, he ran up the hill to examine the carcass.
Gil opened the chamber of his rifle and unloaded the remaining rounds. Carefully he set them on the ground next to Trevor's pack. Equally careful, he laid the gun down next to it. Looking up, he saw Trevor drop down beside the cat's body. Slowly Gil walked up to join him.
Blood, black in the moonlight, had sprayed across the bush behind the cat's body. The bullet had gone through its – her – eye.
"Look at the size of those paws!" Trevor said. "It's gotta be eight or nine years old at least!"
Fishing around in his pocket, Trevor pulled out a tape measure and stretched it across the body. Gilbert watched him dispassionately. Looking down at the silvery fur and black tipped ears, he wondered when she would change.
"Hey." Trevor said, looking up at him. "Are you OK?"
Gil shook his head slowly. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine. Can you get it back to the truck?"
Trev looked down at it, considering. "I think so. I've got something that should help."
"All right. Call Larry in the morning. He'll send someone over for an interview." He paused and looked around, I should go.
Trevor looked at him concerned. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"I-" his voice nearly broke. He swallowed and tried again. "I'm fine. Let me help you with the... stuff. You take the truck back."
"OK." Trevor said doubtfully.
Gil walked through the woods to Mona's house. Picking up the key to her back door from under the fake rock, he remembered the day he'd helped her install the deadbolt on the back door. It had only been a few months after they'd met.
- "Why?" he'd asked.
"Oh you know," she said, "I don't want anyone breaking in while I'm out."
He remembered the hot September sun on his back, her soft fingers handing him the screws, the cold beer in the sweating glass that she'd brought him when he was finished. They'd stood out there, later, on the back porch watching the sunset, his arm around his waist, her head on his shoulder, saying nothing, just letting the day pass them by.
"Don't come by tomorrow." She'd said suddenly.
"Why not?" he'd asked puzzled.
"I don't want you to get hurt." He felt her tense and he looked at her. She looked away.
"What do you mean?"
Her lips tightened to a thin line. "If I tell you a secret, will you promise not to laugh?"
"I'll do my best."
She took a deep breath and looked him in the eyes. "I turn into a cougar when the moon is full."
He gave her a sly smile. "You're only a year older than me."
She glared at him. "A cougar. As in Mountain lion, catamount, puma." she said flatly.
His smile faded as he realized she was serious. "You mean you're a-"
"A werewolf – well, lion – but yes. Look, so far as I can tell, I mostly eat deer. That's why I rented this place. I mean it's right on the edge of the Conservation Area so it's protected from hunters, it's perfect, you know?" She turned away from him and sat down abruptly on the step. "I-I like you, Gil. I don't want you getting hurt."
He sat down beside her and put his arm around her, gently pulling her into him. She sighed unhappily and rested her head on his chest. "If it makes you happy, I won't come by tomorrow. I won't come by the day after tomorrow. In fact, I won't come anywhere near you until you say it's safe."
She snorted. "You don't have to go to extremes. It's just one night a month." She wiped a tear from her eye.
He hugged her close. The last of the sun disappeared behind the hills and the evening chill began to set in. She started to shiver and they walked inside.
- Gil looked up at the morning light shining through the curtains. He waited for her to walk in the back door. Smiling, maybe with a handful of basil from her garden. She'd be so surprised and happy to see him. He would tell her his thoughts and they'd laugh. His fears would seem so small once she was there in his arms.
Gilbert stared at the closed door and cried.