Theodore Kraznick, or at least the man presumed to be Kraznick by the media and thousands of Kraznick Corporation employees, scowled at the interruption. “I presume the cub is strong enough?” The mute–or at least the woman presumed to be a mute by everyone but the Chairman himself–nodded deeply, almost a bow. From the neck up, anyway. “Send him in, then.” He tapped the console built into the top of his Parnian desk, changing to the office’s back wall from simple teak paneling to a scene of shifting, slowly swirling colors that either mesmerized or terrified the average visitor.
Not that anyone allowed to reach this inner sanctum could ever be termed average. Not really. Still, it couldn’t hurt to keep the kid off balance; learning the truth was essential. More than essential.
The youngster ushered in by Mary the Mute…”You’ve grown, Chilly.”
“Y-yessir, Mr. Chairman, I, uh, I guess I have some.” Interesting. Dark, short for his years, but fat. How had the Bronsons let their youngest go to lard like that? “Wh–they said you wanted to see me?”
Kraznick hesitated, considering. After a moment’s thought, he tapped the console again, returning the back wall scene to Simple Rich Office. There was no need to nudge this kid sideways; he was already on the razor’s edge. The boy waited, fidgeting, while the most powerful authority figure in his young life considered the situation. Coming to a decision, the Chairman leaned forward, gesturing to one of the chairs arranged in front of his desk. “Have a seat, please.” The cub had liquid brown eyes, the kind either man or woman will fall for in a New York minute. They weren’t darting, either; despite his fear of the Great Man in whose office he found himself, he kept his head up and looked his Lord right in the eye. Good stock there. We may be able to salvage this one.
“All right, Chilly; that’s better. But either you have to call me Ted or I have to call you Mr. Bronson. We can’t have titles setting us apart from each other, can we?”
The boy’s eyes widened. “N-nosir, Mr., uh, Ted?”
“Ted it is. Tell me, Chilly, how did you come by that name, eh? Surely Bob and Sarah did not give it to you at birth, did they?”
“Nosir–Ted. The name on my birth certificate is William. Chilly is a nickname. I was always cold, that first winter after we moved to the Upper Peninsula. W-we came from Mexico, you know. It’s a lot warmer there. The kids l-laughed at me in school, started calling me Chilly, and it s-stuck.”
“Ah. I see.” Kraznick brushed back his blond hair, the one feature that made it impossible for most people to think of him as a vampire. Whoever heard of a blond god, never mind the less than Nordic surname, who sucked blood for a living? No one; that’s who. “Do you prefer William?”
“Not–yes–I mean, it’s up to you. Ted.”
The charm offensive was falling short. Time to shift gears. Pitching his mellow baritone voice to its most comforting level, he said quietly, “Tell me what happened, William. Exactly as you saw it.”
“Thank you. Nobody seemed to want to let me talk about it until now. It’s been more than a week–”
“Yes. I know. There’s a reason for that, but I’m listening now. Please proceed.”
“Um…okay. Lemme see…at first, it looked like everything was going exactly the way it should. The target, the Trace ranch house, looked pretty quiet. A lot of the planning was right. The ranch hands had been given the weekend off, last break they’ll get until after haying season is what Dad said. The first wave went in, Buster with the whatchamacallit, the explosive to bust into the basement. He’d thought to try the main floor, but somebody started shooting at him from the basement, so it was pretty obvious they recognized him as, you know, one of us. The Jehovah’s Witness disguise didn’t work at all; he and Marky never even got to the front door. Marky went down–everybody was hanging back, like they’d been told–and then it got kind of confusing.”
“I’m sure it did,” Kraznick nodded in agreement. “I’m impressed that you’re remembering this so clearly, William.” He was, too; he hadn’t expected anything this clear and concise. The kid was newly orphaned, after all, and he’d been left a good quarter mile away from the action, equipped with nothing but a spotting scope. “Please go on.”
“Buster was always fast. I don’t think he got hit then. Anyway, I saw him run for the back of the house. The boom went off, kinda sorta, though I only heard it a little bit. He must have made his change into rattler form and gone in, but I didn’t really see that part.”
“Stick to what you did see, William. Just the facts.”
“Yessir. Ted. The others charged in then, changing on the way. You know, to back up Buster. But all of a sudden a bunch of the people who weren’t supposed to be there came flying out of the welding shop. I was only watching, but I still almost peed my pants. You know about the welding shop?” He flushed then, realizing that of course the Chairman knew about the welding shop. The Chairman–Ted–had set up the whole plan. Ted knew everything. “So, um, they had I think two vehicles. One was a four wheeler with an Army looking guy on it. He must have known the action was around back of the house, ’cause that’s where he headed. Some of our people split off to take him out, but, um, I don’t think they did very well. I didn’t see any of them come back around the house, ever.” Tears welled in the boy’s eyes, but he kept going, his voice strong. “The other, um, vehicle? It was a big, a really big black pickup truck. Lots of our people headed for that, including my Mom and Dad and Wyatt–”
Softly! “Your pack died fighting the people in the black truck?” A sliver of emotion threatened to slip out past the Chairman’s defenses, but he suppressed it easily enough. No big; he’d had centuries of practice.
“Yeah. There was a big black guy, he–I don’t know many of us he killed. Lots, I think. But my pack, they–women killed them. Women! Two of them, one a little blonde chick who shoots like she was in the movies, and this big black were bear.” The kid shuddered, remembering. “The woman did for Mom and my brother, but the worst was that bear. A he bear, but I swear I felt the truth of it, that the bear is a she human, you know? Dad…Dad had a lot of fighting experience, he really did, he told me, but that bear…tore his throat right out. I didn’t…didn’t know a bear could do that. I been scared of the bears in our woods here ever since. Crazy, I know; they’re mostly natural bears, but….
“Anyway, um, it looked like we were still going to win, even after my whole pack died, but then that big black man–”
“How big, William?” Kraznick had to know. “How big was that big black man?”
Young Bronson looked confused for a moment, either thrown off his game or simply trying to remember. “I’d say…bigger than you, Mr. Kr–”
“Yessir. Bigger than you, but smaller than Creek.”
“Ah.” The Weaver himself, then, not the oversized uncle. This time, he let the rage rise a bit, let it smolder. Another score to settle.
“Mr.–Ted, that black guy, he…he took out some of our people with a freaking sword. Right in the middle of a gunfight!”
“I’m sure he did, William.” If the Weaver was packing cold steel, even in this shootemup culture, yes, he would have taken– “Go on.”
“The expendables went in the second wave, just like you ordered. We’d lost nearly all our were people–the ones that were there, anyway–but the military guy was pinned down out behind the house and the three I saw–”
“The bear, the woman, and the black man?”
“Um, yeah. Oh, and a coyote. I almost forgot about the coyote.”
A coyote? Kraznick’s pulse began racing. Could it be? “How big was the coyote, son?”
The boy’s eyes widened even further as understanding hit him. “Maybe forty pounds, fifty at most.”
Damn! The rumors are true. The girl is already skilled enough to take part in a fight to the death at eight years of age. He had to have her; there was simply no other option. “William, what did the coyote do?”
“Um…bit the back of Larry’s leg.”
“Larry was in ox form?”
“Uh huh. I think it got shot, too. The coyote, I mean. But it didn’t die. It got knocked over, but it got back up and hid behind the truck with the others.” The boy sighed, remembering, an adult too soon. “The expendables were spreading out, shooting good. I couldn’t see behind the truck, but somebody was shooting back. Got two of our e’s. I feel stupid, but despite seeing my pack die, and the rest of our people, it made me feel good to know our side was going to, you know…win.”
“But we didn’t win, did we?” Kraznick’s voice was whisper soft, the slide of steel on silk.
“Nosir. We did not. ‘Cause the Wizard got there and killed ’em all.”
“The Wizard? Rodeo Iron has a Wizard on call?” He had not expected this. Of course, he could have taken the cub’s testimony the first day they got him back to the UP, but it had been necessary to get him on the proper regimen first. He couldn’t tell it wrong now.
“Yessir. And, um, Ted? It’s no ordinary Wizard. It’s a Purple Fire Wizard.”
Only Kraznick’s iron control allowed him to avoid doing a double take at that. “A Purple Fire? Are you sure, son? I realize they’re always showing up in those books you read, but I’ve never seen one.”
“I know what I seen.” The chubby boy’s jaw set stubbornly, clenched muscles visible even through the fat. “I seen a coyote, and I seen a Purple Fire Wizard. Not like the books, either. He didn’t shoot purple from his hands. Instead, he shot red and blue, and those come together just before they hit the target, and only then, the point of it, that was purple. I know what I seen.”
“I believe you, son.” He didn’t want to believe, but there was no other choice. There was only one Wizard who’d ever worked with the Weaver over the millennia; it had to be him…and he’d finally learned how to throw Purple. Why couldn’t the enemy fight the war with the last war’s weapons? It would make it so much easier. His thoughts occupied, he dismissed the boy without even realizing he’d passed the wimp back into Mary’s custody.
In stark contrast, “Chilly Willy” Bronson would always remember that moment. His future had been decided by the Chairman; he would foster with the Lexingtons. Like hell I will, he thought fiercely, though neither his expression nor his shuffle-weakling body language gave him away. When you’re teased for your weight, your height, and your unmanly sensitivity from the time you could walk, you learned to lie like a rug or you suffered for your honesty. C.W. is not into suffering for the enjoyment of others, nuh-uh! His big brother had joined the local igs in mocking him unmercifully. His father hadn’t been far behind. They could rot in whatever hole they were rotting in; good riddance to bad rubbish. Only Mom had given a damn, herself a born fighter yet with a mother’s instinct to protect her weakest offspring.
She’d taught him a lot, mostly on the sly when nobody else was around. He was going to have to use it all, and quickly, too. Ted the Head–Bastard tells me to call him Ted, like I’m too bonehead dumb to get what he’s after!–yeah, old Teddy would be doing it to everybody, even the youngsters, right down to the five year olds. Nobody was going to buck the Chairman.
One was going to slip out from under the undead bastard’s nose, though. Oh yeah.
The problem, as he saw it, was the lack of double trouble fighters left in the clan. There weren’t but two or three that he knew of, and he knew more than any twelve year old was supposed to know. Old poison tail leopard himself, sure, but the Chairman wasn’t about to do his own dirty work. Especially not after a couple of mere igs had pumped him full of lead when C. Willy Bronson was just a little tyke. Nope. The leader of us all still has a stiff leg, he grimaces when he thinks nobody’s looking, and I don’t think he could breathe well enough to get through a hard fight, either. Old Icy Veins talked a great game, but he was scared. C.W. knew the old goat was scared. He’d found out ordinary lead could do him some real damage if he caught enough of it. He was a faker; he wouldn’t fight unless he had to.
Which left Mr. and Mrs. Jolley, plus maybe Terence O’Wright. He wasn’t sure about O’Wright. But that was only three strong weres, powerful enough in their animal forms but lousy shots as humans. That last Trace ranch battle had cost them everything, or near enough to it.
So the Chairman would be making a new ruling. The kids who hadn’t already doubled up would be bitten, forced to receive the virus. For a lot of them, it would be a death sentence, though the survival rate among young weres was a lot better than it was for the igs.
He wouldn’t touch those who could shapeshift and spellcast, of course. Which doesn’t help me one bit. You think I haven’t tried and tried and tried to get one lousy spell to take? Heck, even to get a few potions right? It’s not fair!
Not that survival had anything to do with fairness. Frequently, it had to do with sneakiness. It was a good thing he was Michigan’s mightiest sneaker.
Mary the Mute–who wasn’t any kind of mute but was a world class faker–left him once she’d seen him to his room and locked the door so he couldn’t get out. Or so they all thought. Chilly didn’t waste any time. There was no food to be had, but there was a sink and a single cup; he drank as much water as he could hold and hurried, in part to be done with it before his bladder started making demands. They hadn’t searched him when he got back; he still had his folding knife and the little pocket survival kit every Bronson carried from the time he was big enough to understand the necessity. His jacket was light but warm; he’d need that and his stocking cap. The window was already open, welcoming a warm breeze. Why not? This room was three stories up and he was a fat weakling. Fat and worthless. But I’m also a Bronson. The last Bronson. The bed had top and bottom sheets plus two blankets and a comforter; these he readied before wrestling the mattress through the window. It had to bend some, but the opening was tall enough to make it happen. He knew; he’d studied the problem every night, eh?
The thump of the mattress hitting the ground wasn’t really all that loud, but somebody probably heard it. Around this bunch, no unidentified noise would go uninvestigated. Adrenaline flying through his veins, heart in mouth, he swiftly wrapped the bedding around his pudgy body and took his turn exiting the building. Not that it was an easy process; one chubby boy’s body fat plus a thick wrapping of blankets made it a tight fit. Even so, it couldn’t have taken more than three or four seconds before he was clear of the constraining window frame and flying free. For thirty feet and ten inches. Straight down. He hit the mattress with a harder thump than the mattress had hit the ground, his wind gusting out of him on impact. Gasping for breath, pretty sure he’d broken twenty or thirty bones at least, he rolled painfully off the mattress…and shifted. The half grown wolf that surged into a ground eating lope toward the woods was still fat, but the blankets were not part of that. He looked bulkier, chunky maybe, but not exactly bulging with baby fat the way he did in his human form.
The trees welcomed him home. He’d read books that declared the wolves used to roam the open prairies freely, but that was before the white man came. Poison bait, long gun, big boom, no more wolfie.
Would the Chairman pursue? No. At least, he didn’t think so. He certainly wouldn’t stoop to such a thing himself, and with so few weres left, anyway…no, he was safe for a while. Not that it would be a good idea to linger in the area, but a wolf–even a young, overweight wolf too sensitive to kill rabbits along the way–can cover a lot of territory in a hurry. This form wasn’t in the class of a Chevy running down the Interstate, but it was pretty much the next best thing. Certainly, he could survive for a while the same way he’d made it back to Michigan after seeing his pack killed, on road kill and the occasional pan of dog food left out for a noisy pet who dared do nothing but bark when the wolf came into his yard. Unless it was a wolfhound, of course, but he could tell a little yapper from a wolf killer. Duh.
But once out of Michigan, then where do I go? That was the real question, eh? The only other people of his kind, more or less, were those shifters who’d killed his own family right in front of his eyes. He didn’t hate them; there wasn’t a hate bone in C.W.’s entire body. As a matter of fact, he kind of admired them. Mom and Dad were dumb enough to follow old Call Me Ted’s brilliant plan; they walked into it with eyes open. But they took casualties. The Trace lady and her one guard at least, dead. The Annie Get Your Gun shooter lady, down. The big black man, he had one arm hanging funny, too. No, they wouldn’t exactly welcome him with open arms if he trotted up to that Rodeo Iron place and said he’d really like to be on their side, now would they?
Hell no, they wouldn’t. They’d shoot him on sight. Shoot, shovel, and shut up. Or sick that were bear on him; that sumbitch was mean.
Well, he could think about it for a while. In wolf form, his fur would certainly keep him warm at night. Maybe if a stupid dog attacked him, he could kill the dog and eat it; he didn’t think he’d feel guilty about defending himself, and if the barking meat was that dumb…it was a thought. Kind of a sucky thought, but still a thought. He’d hurried on the way from Montana to Michigan, anxious to report. For most of the way, he’d stowed away in trailers towed behind those big trucks. They all had metal seals on them, but they were piddly things and the drivers hardly ever checked to make sure they were intact, that nobody had been inside. He’d made it in record time, then Ted’s Thugs had locked him up and drugged his food, figured he was just another dumb kid, an ig or something.
Bastard. If you’ just asked me straight out, I’d have given a complete report. Up Uranus.
But they’d decided to drug him instead, so he’d left things out. It had been easy. Nobody except his pack–and they were all dead now, weren’t they?–knew he’d mastered the wolf shift. They all thought he was still blocked. He had his dead Mom to thank for that, too. She’d had a premonition. He was sure of it. Her premonition had saved his life, encouraged the Heartbite Clan one and all to underestimate his chubby little butt. That particular drug worked great on humans. It didn’t work worth beans on wolves.
Still, he had some real trouble ahead. He’d pretty much had to admit his truck trailer riding trick to explain his swift return to Kraznick Corporation headquarters. That meant Teddy Boy would have people watching the truck stops. He could do that, too; all it was required was plenty of cash payments to enough hard up igs, and they’d watch eighteen wheelers 24/7, 365. Chump change to the billionaire butthead. That meant he was going to have to cover a lot of open country at night in wolf form, finding safe hidey holes to curl up in during the day. Across the Great Plains, he would, anyway. In deep timber, he was as safe as safe could be, but North Dakota wasn’t exactly the forest capitol of the world.
I’ve really decided, then? He considered carefully, his steady trot interrupted only by frequent stops to check his backtrail. Dad hadn’t thought all that much of his younger son, but he’d done what he could to teach him basic wolf woodcraft. Yes, I guess I have. Not that the decision gave him any comfort. Even if the Montana bunch didn’t kill him before he could blink, they’d still suspect him of being a spy at best. He’d read a lot of books; he knew what strong organizations did to spies. Even so, that has to be the better option. I’ve seen what the Chairman does to those who defy him, and that’s even worse.