We took Penny’s car to Arcadia College, neither of us speaking. Penny barely knew Wesley, but he took the news of his death hard; face pale and slack, lips collapsing inward, eyes distant. I couldn’t judge; I wasn’t taking it well, myself. The sensation of being drenched in his blood kept overwhelming me, causing my eyes to squeeze closed as I stifled the gag that clenched at my throat. I couldn’t stop wondering if his death was somehow my fault. He was obviously the link between the werewolves and the witch(es?); maybe his suicide was actually punishment for his failed attempt on my life.
The street to the clock tower was cordoned off with police sawhorses. Uniformed officers with matching stern faces were directing the crowd of curious students to keep back, making sure no one snuck through the barricade. Emergency service vehicles, lights blinking, stood sentry at the foot of the building. Penny didn’t stop, or even slow down; he wasn’t interested in the scene of the suicide, but in the pack.
Some houses, the ones with boarded over windows, peeling paint, and overgrown yards are forbidding, closed off to anyone but the occupants. Yet, the Omega Kappa Beta house dared any intruder to mount the steps, peek through the curtained windows, request entrance into the building remarkable for how well its bleak facade expressed the heartbreak of the young men inside.
He turned off the car, but made no move to open the door, fingers resting around the steering wheel. I gave him time, in no hurry to confront the pack of grieving werewolves. I couldn’t imagine they were happy with me.
Finally, he removed the keys from the ignition, and with a heavy sigh climbed out of the car. I followed him up the walk, letting him knock on the door. We waited on the porch for such a long time that I was sure they weren’t going to let us in, but then a lock clunked as it was disengaged and the door swung inward.
The one other time I’d been to this house, only McGregor was home. This time, when Penny and I walked through the door, every member of the fraternity was arrayed around the hall as though they were a welcoming committee. Only, they weren’t very happy to see us.
No one spoke, staring at us from red-rimmed, unblinking eyes, hostility and aggression sitting in the air like oil on water. I focused on each sad, angry face, searching for McGregor. I scanned the room twice before spotting his dark golden hair; his head was bowed, only the slightest bit of his distinctive brown eyes, fixed on Penny and I, were visible.
When our eyes met, he straightened up and walking towards us. The rest of his pack parted to let him get through.
“Follow me,” he muttered, leading us into the back part of the house. The belligerence followed us, a black cloud trailing at our backs. McGregor ushered us through thick double doors into a wide room; two walls were lined with stocked bookshelves, while the other two were taken up with windows and a grand fireplace. The only furniture was a long table, surrounded by a set of severe ladderback chairs.
McGregor pulled two chairs out for us, but didn’t sit himself, choosing to lean against the sturdy table. I sat down, expecting Penny to be close behind, but instead he stood almost toe-to-toe with McGregor.
“I’m sorry,” Penny said, hand stuck out for a condolence handshake.
“Thank you,” McGregor replied, words going liquid around the edges. His hand gripped Penny’s, but what started out as a handshake, ended in a tight hug. It wasn’t one of those hard back-patting, feigned remorse, man hugs; but a genuine, arms wrapped around one another, McGregor’s face buried in Penny’s neck, outpouring of grief.
One of the most awkward moments in a person’s life is witnessing grief that you cannot share. With a tingling sensation rolling up my spine, I turned away from them, tracing the pattern in my jeans until I heard the shriek of wood on wood as Penny sat beside me.
“I’m—“ I started
“It’s not—“ McGregor said.
“It’s not your fault, Caro,” he raised his voice over me to finish speaking.
I kept my eyes down, watching my fingers flex. “How do you know? I almost killed him the other night and now…”
“He didn’t kill himself because you staked him,” McGregor said, he fought to keep his face neutral, but a twitch in his jaw revealed the effort it took.
“Was he depressed?” I asked.
McGregor shook his head, closing his muted brown eyes and pursing his lips. “Obviously, I can’t say for sure, but he always seemed happy. He wasn’t very forthcoming, but he didn’t exhibit any warning signs.”
“What do you mean he wasn’t very forthcoming?” I asked.
“Ah, so we’re on to the interrogation portion of this condolence call,” he said.
“I was working under the assumption that you’d want answers about Wesley’s death.”
He raised his hands in surrender. “Fine,” he said. “Wesley was a great guy, but he didn’t open up very much to anyone. He loved to have a good time, but no one really knew that much about him.”
“Did you ever ask him anything about himself?” I asked.
“Of course,” he said. “I asked him about his family and where he was from. He told me he’d never known his parents and didn’t have any brothers or sisters. I got the feeling it was a touchy subject, so I dropped it.”
“So, you have no idea what his association to a coven could be?”
McGregor’s hands came up to scrub at his face in frustration. “No,” he said, but it came out more like a groan.
“What reason did he give for wanting the run to be at the cemetery that night? He must’ve told you something, otherwise you wouldn’t have orchestrated that whole meeting to get him to open up to me about what he knew.”
“He didn’t tell me anything specifically, but I knew that if any of us were involved with the grave robbery, it had to be him.” He didn’t wait for me to ask the necessary follow-up question. “He was too interested in the story. He wasn’t the type of guy to read a newspaper, but he did the day the story about the cemetery vandalism was released. He kept asking us if we’d heard anything about it. Then, he kept talking about two high school kids interrupting an internment at Willow Hill. So on our run, he begged that we head in that direction.”
“Why didn’t you ask him about this, if you thought it was so strange?” I asked.
“I did. He told me he was fascinated with the macabre.”
“He was the kind of guy to use the word ‘macabre’?”
“I’m paraphrasing,” McGregor said.
“Did you know he was going to try to attack me?” I asked.
“Of course not!” McGregor said, face slack with genuine shock. “I ordered him to heal. I thought he had submitted. I wouldn’t have turned my back if I thought he’d disobey.”
“Can pack members ignore orders from their Alpha?” I asked.
His mouth pulled back a little in a one-sided smirk. “Ah, it’s not easy to explain.” His eyes met Penny’s, they locked for several seconds.
Penny pulled his focus from McGregor, speaking up for the first time. “We still have free will, but we want to do what the Alpha tells us. It’s incredibly difficult to resist a direct order, because our desire to comply overrides everything else.”
“The fact that Wesley could do it was, quite frankly, astonishing to me,” McGregor said.
For some reason, I kept thinking of the bewitched Willow Hill groundskeeper, Carl Allen. By all accounts he was a mild mannered family man. One encounter with a questionable spell had turned him into a shovel-wielding mad man; what could the same type of spell do to a werewolf?
“Did you speak to him after he attacked me? What did he say?”
McGregor shrugged. “He showed up at the place we were hiding out almost completely healed up. He apologized to me. Said the hunger got to be too much for him, and there you were, a delicious looking girl, walking by herself in a dark field during the full moon. We’ve all been there, so I didn’t press the issue, but I wondered if there wasn’t more to it.”
“Does your pack often kill humans?” I asked, knowing my voice came out an octave higher than normal, but unable to do anything about it.
“I work really hard so that doesn’t happen,” said McGregor. “Every full moon we go to a different place, far away from where humans usually venture. Most of the time we avoid contact completely. None of the guys have killed anyone, but we’ve had close calls.”
I nodded, absurdly relieved that I didn’t have to start hunting down this pack, the leader of which I was coming to like. “So, Wesley was fine yesterday morning. What did he act like today?”
McGregor’s eyes flickered as he shifted in his seat. “He stayed in bed this morning. I didn’t think anything of it. Sometimes the transitions can be rough, plus he was injured. I figured he needed some more sleep, and that he’d be fine in a day or two. He left the house around 2:30, but I didn’t see him go.”
“Who was the last person to talk to him before he left the house?”
“Jake was. He saw Wesley heading out and stopped him to see how he was doing. Jake told me Wesley seemed out of it; his hair wasn’t combed and he was muttering to himself. Jake tried to get him to talk to me, but Wesley left anyway. Jake told me what happened, and we gathered up some other guys to go look for Wesley. The captain of the campus police force called me fifteen minutes after we left the house.”
I chewed at my thumbnail, looking from McGregor to Penny and back. I wasn’t sure how they would react to my hypothesis that Wesley had been hexed. Something told me it wasn’t going to go over well.
I took a deep breath, trudging forward. “I have a hunch,” I said. “Just a hunch, so please keep that in mind, that Wesley was supposed to kill me because I was snooping around. His attack failed, so he was hexed, or cursed, or whatever, to kill himself. He’d become a liability.”
Penny and McGregor shared another look, something that I was starting to resent. “It’s a possibility,” McGregor said, but the hesitancy in his words was obvious.
“But?” I asked.
“But,” he said, “from what I’ve heard, it’s difficult for a witch to spell other supernatural creatures. Their magic isn’t as effective on vampires, werewolves, or what-have-you.”
“It’s still a possibility, though,” I argued.
“Sure,” he agreed. “Especially if this witch were particularly powerful, or working with a full coven.”
“Which is what I think is happening,” I said.
“That doesn’t explain why they would target Wesley,” Penny added.
“I was getting to that,” I said. “Wesley had to apply to join the fraternity, right? You have to prove you have the right qualities, or whatever?”
“That’s correct,” McGregor said, falling back into politico mode.
“And he listed his home address on these forms?”
“No,” McGregor said. “He listed his dorm room address. Like I said, Wesley never talked about his family. I figured he was a foster kid when he said he’d never known his parents.”
“Who’s paying for the funeral service?” I asked.
“We are,” he said. Another dead end.
“I think we’ll learn his connection to the coven, when we find his family—foster or biological.”
After some time McGregor said, “He could be tracked.”
Another look between the two werewolf boys. Okay, it was getting really old.
“Penny could do it,” McGregor said, eyes shining again.
All the expression dropped from Penny’s face as though he was an Etch-A-Sketch and someone was shaking him.
“Why can’t you do it?” I asked McGregor, knowing from the expression that Penny had no intention of tracking anyone anywhere.
“I want to know what happened to him,” McGregor said. “I need to know if there’s a coven out there strong enough to control us, but I can’t put my guys into any more danger.”
“So, it’s okay to put Penny in danger?” I asked.
“That’s not what I meant,” McGregor replied. “Penny is stronger than the others. I know he can protect you and himself.”
“Why are you interested in protecting me?”
He smiled—wide, bright, terrifying. “Because, Ms. Spencer, you’re proving to be a formidable ally.”