bottom of page STARWOLF

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

STARWOLF

 

 

Michael D. Winkle

 

 

 

 

For Dave the Dude and Gorgeous George

Who took what no one else wanted and gave me my favorite comic.

And for Terry and Valerio and others

Who remember ol' Fangsnout.

 

 

 

Prologue

 

 

Video Nasty

 

 

            Colonel John Jameson, USAF, studied the secret compound below, formulating his plan of attack.  The outside world knew nothing of the base or its personnel, and the Colonel saw no reason to alter the status quo.  His assault would be swift, silent, merciless.

            He switched on the ignition of his vehicle; the motor purred quietly.  He wrestled the stick into gear.  The wide black tires hissed over the grass.  He approached the high wall of the compound and spotted the first checkpoint.  The enemy, armor glinting like burnished copper, patrolled tirelessly back and forth.  Colonel Jameson gunned the motor and engaged the props.  He could barely hear the alarm drone as he drew abreast of the checkpoint.  The enemy scrambled wildly, one after another taking to the air.  Jameson dodged a shot on the left, the right.  He ducked as a missile whizzed over his head.  He twisted the wheel to the right.  A few more seconds and he'd be home free!

            "Ow!"

            He slapped at the burning stab in his shoulder.  The hornet buzzed past his ear with a sound very much like a Bronx cheer.

            He looked back at the insects' nest, half-hidden in the box hedge.  If the little buggers were going to chase him every time he mowed the lawn, he'd have to spray them.

            Jameson ran the John Deere tractor mower around the yard, shaving the tall grass strip by strip into a manageable carpet.  When he finished he disengaged the blades and rolled into the garage.

            He smiled at his daydream-scenario.  The compound -- the very suburban house and yard -- was secret, more-or-less.  After years of scrimping and saving, taking those thankless jobs, gambling on fruitless speculations, drawing on what influence his name and former glory could muster -- he had done it.  He was a Home Owner, a Property Owner, a Suburbanite.

            The personnel dwelling here -- that was a secret, too, sort of.  Not that he was ashamed of marrying Kristine Saunders, or vice-versa, but this was their life, their private life, and he would brook no interference.

            He entered the house from the garage.  He peeled off his knit shirt and tossed it in the washing machine, noting absently the smell of cut grass, gasoline, and his own sweat.  He turned on the shower and stripped the rest of the way.  He jumped in while the water was still cold.

            The couple valued their privacy.  Also, over the years, Colonel Jameson had made enemies . . .

            He toweled off and slipped on briefs and jogging shorts.  He was starting to sound like one of the "Long Underwear Brigade," as Colonel Fury called them, and their jealously guarded "secret identities."

            Well, my career's kept me close to that sphere of influence most of my adult life, he thought as he found a fresh T-shirt.  And I have made enemies.  But what could happen in a clean-cut suburban neighborhood like Penobscot Hills?

            John rooted through the refrigerator and took out a smoky brown bottle.  He settled into his recliner, switched on TNN, and gulped down his Pabst.  He fetched another and took his time with it.

            Couch potato already, he thought, at home like I've lived here for years.  Not much else to do, though, 'til Kris moves in.

            His smile deepened slowly.  Kristine Saunders and John Jameson.  A match that looked so certain, then certain to fail, because of --

            He frowned.  He tried not to think of him, he even practiced not-thinking, aiming his mind instead toward the mahogany blades of the overhead fan.

            Perhaps he would one day suppress that whole period of his hectic life.  That was dangerous, though; the seed of many a neurosis.

            Now I'm starting to sound like Dr. Kafka, thought Colonel Jameson, sinking deeper into his lounge chair.

            She was the past, however, part of the era after he died, when John Jameson became the proverbial loose cannon.  Security guard, jet-jockey, monster hunter, merc -- action without purpose and without goal, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

            For now, nothing to do but unwind, drink beer, and watch NASCAR racing.  Kristine would arrive in a few days from her parents' place, baggage in tow.

            The light faded outside.  On the tube cars roared and announcers shouted.  Colonel John Jameson faded from the world. . .

#

            He woke in the lounge chair.

            The overheads made him wince.  He didn't remember turning them on.

            The TV was still on.  The Wrenchheads removed the engine block from a classic Chevy on TNN.

            John frowned.  The Wrenchheads only came on Sunday.  This was Friday evening -- right?

            He sat up, clapping his palms on the arms of the chair.  The camcorder stood near the TV on its aluminum tripod, its dark glass eye pointed at him.

            John Jameson lurched from his recliner.  He did not sleepwalk, and he had not set up the recorder while conscious.

            Something stuck to his palm.  He found several white hairs.

            For a long moment he did not think; a single thought would have brought with it a tsunami of black despair.  Yet the house looked so -- intact.

            From his standing position he spotted a video cassette atop the VCR.  On that lay a yellow sticky note that read simply:  WATCH ME.

            He felt like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole.  Like her, he obeyed the simple message.  He slipped in the video.

            A moment of bright blue, a dark blue "4" in the upper corner.  A snatch of the Mariners game he'd recorded, then video snow.

            John stood with his back to the recliner.  Fortunately, because suddenly his legs melted like butter and he dropped onto its padded seat.

            Something stared out of the TV screen.  It sat in this very lounger.  It wore John's boxers and T-shirt.  The eyes, gold mixed with crimson, narrowed.  Black-lined chops wrinkled to display teeth like glazed ceramics.  A snow-white wolf's head atop a broad, shaggy torso studied him with the air of a tensed predator.

            It was he.  The nightmare.  The monster.  The slavering, mindless, moon-driven incarnation of evil.  The --

            "We need to talk," said the Man-Wolf in a low rumble.

#

            Colonel John Jameson's instinct was to flee, escape, shout, but he held himself in check, muscles ready but loose, waiting for the other's move, as if an enemy soldier held him at gunpoint.

            The humanoid beast -- the Man-Wolf -- in John's chair, in this very living room, interlocked his clawed fingers and leaned slightly forward.

            "I think I know you well enough to predict you will not go off the deep end," continued the snow-furred werewolf, slowly and painfully.  "You'll hear me out, at least.

            "I know what you're thinking.  The horror is back, the murderous Man-Wolf lives again, just when your horizons were clear.  Just when Kristine said 'yes'."

            John almost agreed out loud.  Instead he sat mutely.  He had seen photos of the Man-Wolf, of course.  But seeing it here, hearing it talk in a bear-grumble voice --

            Talk?

            "John, do not tell Dr. Kafka, or Dr. Conners, or Colonel Fury," growled the Man-Wolf.  "I am not the monster you remember, or that other people remember, as the case may be.  The authorities will lock you away in some secret SHIELD lab.  We'd never see Kris again."

            The hair on the back of John's neck rose.  We?  If Kris ever saw him --

            The video Man-Wolf nodded as if reading his mind.

            "Yes, it's quite likely we'd never see her again if she ever caught sight of me."

            The white werewolf raised one of John's Pabsts and enveloped the brown bottle's mouth, like a trick horse drinking.  John checked the TV tray at his side.  The empties lay there in a drying puddle of brew.  A wolf trying to drink like a man could be sloppy.

            The video lycanthrope whuffed.

            "I needed that."  He swept a shaggy arm across one side of his muzzle and lapped the fur on his arm, once, twice.  "John, I have existed without your knowledge for months, now.  That in itself should prove I am no monster.  Kafka drew me out during one of her sessions.  I've been, er, popping up ever since, careful to leave behind no evidence.  I used the freaking vacuum cleaner to sweep up the fur a couple of times.  I'm shedding now, I think."

            The werewolf paused, raking his claws through the manelike hair of his neck.  He waggled his fingers, and white wisps drifted out of camera range.  John looked down.  A cobweb of strands dusted the hardwood floor.

            "I don't know how long I could have pulled that off," the beast-man continued.  "Moot point; our marriage plans have forced the issue.  And don't get your garters in a tangle because I said 'our', John.  I am you.  I feel the same about Kris as you do."

            The Man-Wolf's ears wilted.  He closed his compelling, red-gold eyes.

            "To prove it, I am prepared to make a sacrifice.  For you -- for Kristine -- I will dive back into the abyss from which I so recently crawled.  I think I can curl up in some nook of your unconscious mind and build a wall across it.  I will try never to emerge again.

            "I want you to see something first, though," continued the white beast.  "I want you to see what I am giving up for you -- and her."

            Brief snow appeared, then darkness.  A circle of light clicked on, a vague C-shaped shadow within it, the bulb's occultation of its own filament.  The light swept over trees and bushes, creating a black and white mosaic.  Crickets chirped in the background, and an owl hooted.

            The camera whipped over the startling white form of the Man-Wolf.  Shadows became thick, solid borders, like something drawn by the late comic book artist Jack Kirby.  The light caught the werewolf's eyes; they shone back like ruby lasers.

            "There's still wilderness on the Island," growled the man-beast.  "Civilization encroaches further upon it every year.  Let's enjoy it while it's here.  Follow me!"

            The ghostly Man-Wolf slipped between oily shadows.  The camera bobbed after, its shaking and the stark, limited light giving John only glimpses of brush and earth.

            The Man-Wolf trotted along ahead, bent low.  A long white plume switched from side to side behind him.  He never had a tail before -- had he?  And one blot of darkness eclipsed white shag -- John's navy blue sweat shorts.  Did the werewolf feel modesty?

            Then it hit him:  Who's carrying the camera?

            The lycanthrope loped on, the camera bobbing after, like a scene from the Blair Witch Project.  Suddenly the man-beast halted and dropped to one knee.

            "Here," he growled.  "Deer trail.  White tail still live here.  They've come up to the back fence, you know."

            The Man-Wolf crouched and sniffed as the camera caught up.

            "A doe and a fawn," he continued, indicating barely-visible hoofmarks.  "Trotted by tonight.  Want to see them?"

            The lycanthrope grinned back to his ears.  The cameraman had nerves of steel, whoever he was.  The Man-Wolf loped down a narrow trail.  The camera followed faithfully.  The werewolf swept left and right, pausing once to sniff the air.

            "The trail meanders," he stage-whispered.  "The deer wander as they like.  In the wild they traipse carefully between pack-territories.  No wolves on Long Island."

            He sprang up onto a dirt-shrouded boulder; landing on all fours, he looked even more animalistic.  He grinned again.

            "Most of the time," he added.  "Come on."

            He jumped, arms high and claws extended, and loped away.  The cameraman jogged around the boulder, and again the picture blurred.  John heard only puffing, possibly the Man-Wolf, perhaps his unknown follower.  Whoever it was not only was brave but an athlete to boot.  The Man-Wolf covered ground faster than Colonel Jameson's best sprint.

            The sound of splashing rather than any visual clue told him Man-Wolf and company crossed a stream.  Finally the cameraman spoke.

            "Cripes, Wolfie, slow down!"

            John simply grew more confused.  It sounded like a woman, a fairly young one at that.

            The camera steadied on the were-beast, he crouching again on one knee.  He raised a wide paw of a hand.

            "Shhh. . . Kill the light!"

            The scene vanished save for shifting spots of moonlight on leaves.

            "Follow me," hissed the Man-Wolf.  "Quietly."

            The audio recorded crickets, the hiss and scrape of bodies passing through undergrowth, grunts and breathing.  It could have been a training film for infantrymen.

            The Man-Wolf and his companion stopped for a long moment.  John Jameson leaned forward, intrigued in spite of himself.  Only the slightest swish indicated movement.

            Finally the werewolf shouted "Now!"

            The spotlight flared.  The brook shimmered silver and black in the harsh illumination.  A deer and a spotted fawn jerked their heads up from their drinking postures in the middle of the stream.

            The white werewolf stood next to the doe.  He bent forward and gave it a goofy dog kiss on the cheek.  Both deer burst out of the water and into the underbrush.

            Man-Wolf, alone in the brook, grinned sharkishly.

            "That was kind of strange, Wolfie," observed the camerawoman.

            "Just demonstrating stealth-mode," the lycanthrope answered.  "Ready for more?"

            "Bring it on, Fang-face."

            The tape jumped to a new scene.  The light and camera steadied on Man-Wolf.  He stood on a knoll at the edge of a steep hill.

            "Listen," he said.

            He turned away ninety degrees and howled into the night, the fur along his spine bristling from neck to jogging shorts.  A chorus of dog howls and barks answered him.  The werewolf eyed the camera.

            "That's Riverhead.  The dogs are scared; their barking is all bluff."

            The canine sounds died down.  Man-Wolf turned to the opposite direction and shouted out a higher-pitched ululation that ended with "yawp-yawp-yow!"  Similar noises returned like an echo.

            "Coyotes," said the werewolf.  "They aren't scared; they're ready to rumble if we pass their urine splashes."

            Man-Wolf turned a three-quarter view to the camera and gave a softer series of yaps that were also answered from the night.

            "A vixen with her litter," said the beast-man.  "She's cautious but unafraid."

            Now he turned his tail to the camera and gave a wavering, all-out wolf howl down into the unseen valley.  This outcry, too, elicited an eerie response.

            The Man-Wolf hopped from the knoll.

            "A Malamute-wolf crossbreed on a farm down there," he said as he padded by.  "She's lonely."

#

            There was more.  The Man-Wolf crouched low, sniffed the ground, sniffed as he stood erect, and scampered half up a tree like a squirrel, speaking as he did of the scents at different heights.  He hunched by stumps and saplings and commented on the number of species that had urinated there.  He heard a mouse under a patch of dry leaves, pounced on it, and hauled it up for the world to see.  He released it at his companion's insistence.

            John's eyes glazed.  The film was like a demo tape for Hollywood.  It was surreal.  It was nuts.

            It was over.  The Man-Wolf sat in the recliner again, staring out at him.

            "There you have a glimpse of my life -- our life, John," said the lycanthrope.  He opened and closed his jaws a couple of times without sound.

            "That is what I'm giving up for you and Kris.  I'm locking myself in the dungeon of your subconscious.  If you ever decide the world -- and Kris -- and you -- are ready for me, you hold the key."

            The fearsome wolf head eyed the camera -- and Colonel Jameson -- one last time.

            "Take care of her, you son of a bitch.  This is the Man-Wolf, signing off."

            The image vanished, replaced by white confetti.  John stared for a long moment.  Eventually his fingers scrabbled over the remote, and the screen went black.

            I don't know what to think -- what to feel, he thought.  The Man-Wolf back, but gone again, a self-bottling genie in the basement of my mind?  And I hold the key?

            He rose.  He wanted something stronger than beer.  Instead he threw on a T-shirt, stepped out into the night, and jogged.

#

            The streets of the Penobscot edition were well lit.  John cantered along, mulling over the video message.

            Mr. Hyde doesn't just throw in the towel one day and disappear, he told himself.  But the Man-Wolf says he's not a monster now.  The mere fact he could make that video seems to bear that out.  Can I trust him?

            I may not have a choice.  I tried to keep him from appearing before, and look how that went.  If he decides to show up some full moon night, he'll show up.

            He rounded a corner and jogged past the big houses on their wide lots.  The Edmonds' cocker spaniel galloped along behind their fence and yapped.

            He considered ignoring the werewolf's advice and contacting Dr. Conners and/or Dr. Kafka on the sly.  Thing was, he could never be sly enough for Kris.  She would know something was going on.

            John thought back to the flighty, elfin artist who sent sketches, anonymously at first, to the big-shot astronaut.  She had been pretty and talented, but there was not much to her.  He wasn't sure what he saw in her.  Maybe just potential.

            The potential became reality, however, in her years away.  Steel in her gaze, confidence in her walk, and she still won their judo matches at Goldie's Gym.

            The new Kristine might even be able to handle the truth.  Someday.

            John trotted to a stop in front of the house.  The moon, rising over his peaked roof, shone with icy clarity, Copernicus and Kepler like etchings on glass.

            Colonel Jameson checked his arms for more than usual hair.  Nothing.

            The moon as full as it ever gets, and no Man-Wolf, he thought.  He really is gone.

            John felt he should jump for joy.  Instead he trudged up to the door like a pallbearer.


 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

The Name is King

 

 

            Hannibal King, that is.  I'm a detective.  I don't know what images that word conjures up for you -- Bogart in the rainy streets of Frisco, car chases, shoot-'em-ups -- but my biggest worry's usually keeping my butt from freezing off on an all-night February stake-out, watching the comings and goings of unfaithful spouses and their paramours.  At least it was before I died.

                Yep.  Yours truly, Hannibal King, is a vampire.  A fang-toothed, thirsty-for-the-red-stuff, stay-out-of-the-sun Undead.  It's a long story.  Suffice to say I owe my half-life to a white-haired bloodsucker named Deacon Frost.  He was a plotter, Frost; he appreciated the eternity stretching out before him, and his waters ran deep.  I knew him well by now, however.  At least, I thought I did.  Any suspicious activity that pointed to Frost, there I was.

            For instance:  Tonight I sat in my workhorse of a Buick watching an amazingly boring three-story brick building in Yonkers.   A Ms. Benchley, tall and brunette and sultry, told me her husband had found some irregularities in the files of a company called Ancient Mariner Imports.  Now he had gone missing, and the cops were no help.

            Not much to go on, but the story had a familiar ring:  Frost often used company fronts for his more mundane criminal exploits, and accountants who looked too closely at the books had a habit of going south.  That's how I ran into him in the first place.  That's how I gained my fangs and my pale complexion.  So I accepted the case.

            As in any good private-eye tale, it was gray and rainy.

            I don't like the rain, actually.  It slithers over me like an army of slugs, more irritating now than when I was alive -- I suppose because it's more-or-less running water.  It knocks smells out of the air, it washes out heat-signatures, and it softens sounds.

            Case in point:  I heard a footstep, close, only a second before I heard a shell pumped into a chamber.  I used that second to bail.  It's a reflex from my old life.  I've ridden gunshots to freak out the opposition, but I never let the good instincts wither.

            A shotgun blast guaranteed Mel's Body Shop and Windshield Replacement more business from me.  The windows of my old Buick burst into harmless fragments, but I felt a bee-sting pain in my upper arm:  a single pellet.  Silver.

            I rolled and jumped around the corner of the office building.  That's why I park near corners.  Damn if a hulking shadow didn't stand there like a six-foot-five fireplug.  Even now I barely read his bio-aura through his long, wet western coat.  I don't like the rain.

            I was still thinking of Shotgun as the new goon punched.  Something ripped my cheek, and it burned as I stumbled away and caromed off a Kharman Ghia.

            Hawthorn spines poking out of his gloves.  Not something you'd learn watching Bela Lugosi.

            "That'll leave a mark," muttered the man behind the fist.

            "Funny as Ebola," I growled.

            I rose up right into another punch.  It felt like fifty broadheads pounded into my chin.  Shotgun rounded the corner, lifting his pump-action Remington to his shoulder.

            "Jake, outta the way, man!" he yelled.

            Jake smiled.  A Parmesan-cheese-and-garlic breath provided by the Italiano Eateria billowed out.  It might have been a third smack in the face.

            "Not yet, man!" he said.  "I'm beatin' the unliving snot out of a freakin' vampire!  Nobody'll mess with Jake Thorn after this!"

            That wasn't quite what he said, you understand.

            "With your breath, I'm surprised anyone'd mess with you now," I snapped.

            Shotgun stood down.  I saw another right coming.  I dodged the human mace, grabbed a long sleeve, spun, and Jake kept going into a big blue mailbox.

            The hair on the nape of my neck rose.  Shotgun had to be raising his Remington.  Only one thing to do:  Play misty for him.

            The blast seared through the white smoke I became.  The expulsion of gases came close to dispersing me.  I drifted with the flow, an omnidirectional "sense" replacing vision.

            "Where'd he go?  He disappeared, man!" yelled Shotgun.

            "Find him!" yelled Jake.  He wiped blood from his nose.  I smelled it a block away.  "He's gotta re-mat somewhere!  Find him or Frost'll tear us a new one!"

            Frost.  So it was a set-up.  He did that once in a while, just to let me know he was still around.

            I let the breeze carry me.  I imagined floating on my back, hands clasped over my breast like Ophelia or the Lady of Shalott.  But the allusions remembered from English Lit didn't really fit me.  Death ended their woes.

            I solidified five streets away.  I took a bus home.

            Couple of nights later I took another back to Yonkers.  A yellow sticker on the trunk of the Buick informed me that the police would tow it if I did not remove it soon.

            The offices on the corner were empty.  "Ancient Mariner Imports."  As in Rime of.  "Rime" is a synonym for "frost"; I looked it up in Roget's.  I'd have to watch for in-jokes like that.  Bad guys really do drop twisted clues like the Riddler in Batman.  It's all part of their mind-games.

            No invoices inside, no computers, no files.  An empty façade that would bring me no closer to the white-haired bloodsucker.  Shotgun and Jake were long gone, and, predictably, I never saw "Ms. Benchley" again.  To top off the perfect toilet sundae, her check bounced.

            Business had been slow, and I'd already given Mrs. Mulberry, the landlady, my best song-and-dance.  I'd have to take another case, however morose I felt.

            I snooped around my car for plastique whoopie-cushions, but Frost's goons had done their bad deed for the day.  I climbed into the Buick, sweeping the safety glass off the seat.  She was a tough old bird, and there was room in the trunk for me and a scattering of graveyard soil if I got stuck somewhere at dawn.

            I drove back to the office, hoping for a message on the phone.

#

            Wouldn't you know it -- the light on my answering machine winked at me when I woke the next sunset.  I pushed the button and heard a woman's voice.

            "Mr. King -- my name is Kristine Jameson.  I -- we -- my husband and I -- have a probblem.  I think."

            The voice was low without being husky, as if the woman had just stepped in from jogging.  Her hesitancy indicated that she was nervous, afraid, embarrassed, or perhaps she couldn't quite define her predicament.  I see the last a lot.

            "A friend of yours recommended you to a friend of ours once," continued the voice.  I rubbed my fingers through my hair and yawned.  "A Dr. Stephen Strange?"

            I froze in mid-yawn as if I had lockjaw.  Dr. Strange?  There was a man who lived up to his name.  I felt almost flattered that he'd throw business my way, but it had to be a pretty odd case:  Strange knows all about me and my, eh, condition.

            "He suggested I visit in the evening.  I'm going to be in the city tonight.  I hope to call about seven o'clock.  If that is inconvenient, I can be reached at --"

            I checked the clock as she rattled off her phone number.  Didn't give me much time, but as long as I could throw on my least-wrinkled set of duds . . .

            I dressed and drank my breakfast, though not exactly as Marlowe or Spade might, and I applied Binaca liberally.  I glanced at the mirror in my tiny bathroom and snorted.  If it wouldn't look so odd to snoopers, I'd junk it.

            I gathered up the sloppy pile of bills by the door and gave each envelope a cursory glance before tossing it in the circular file.  I'd pay by the fourth or fifth notice.

            Promptly at seven the bell over my door jingled.

            I'm a leg man, see?  When a woman steps into my office, I work my way from the ground up, the shapelier the equipment, the slower the climb.

            I could have taken all night with this one, but I started to feel like a voyeur, so I finally lifted my eyes to her face.  And what a face this young blond thing had.  She would have been gorgeous if it weren't for the fear and uncertainty shining like distress beacons out of her baby-blues.  Right now she was merely beautiful.  For a moment she looked ready to bolt, but finally she spoke.

            "Mr. King?  Hannibal King?"

            "The one and only."

            "My husband and I -- have a problem -- I think."

            "So you said over the phone."

            I rose.

            "Please come in and make yourself at home, Mrs. Jameson."

            Mrs. J entered my seedy little office.  She wore her skirts short, which was fine by me.  As she planted her shapely hips on the client's seat, I dropped back in my own squeaky chair.  I like to think I look more professional behind the desk, cigar-burned and shot-glass-stained though it is.

            Kristine Jameson sat like her legs were Krazy Glued together, and she kept her hands palm-down on her lap.  The silence was deafening.  I decided to break the ice.

            "So. . . Mrs. Jameson, if you could enlighten me as to the nature of your problem?"

            The woman smiled; she could brighten a room when she wished.

            "Sorry, Mr. King.  John -- my husband -- and I have hit some rocky stretches in the course of our relationship -- due to circumstances beyond our control, I assure you.  Things took a turn for the better, recently, but then these strange men showed up."

            "Strange men?"

            "I first noticed them a week ago.  John and I were playing tennis in the back yard when I glimpsed some faces by the fence, at the edge of the trees.  I thought they were kids from down the block -- only, I've seen the neighborhood boys from the same position.  These shapes were larger.  When I mentioned them to John, they drew back into the shadows, and he dismissed them as hikers.

            "That night I heard noises in our yard.  The Edmonds' cocker started barking -- she's -- she was usually so quiet.  I peeked out the window and spotted someone running away.

            "John humored me and called the police.  They sent an extra car to patrol the neighborhood, but our house is kind of on the edge of town, and these men just disappear into the trees when the police show up."

            Disappear into the trees.  I kept forgetting how wild some sections of Long Island were.  I couldn't even see Mrs. Mulberry's Bonsai from my window.

            "Anyway. . . now these vehicles pass our house, slowly, sometimes even stopping at the end of the drive for three or four minutes.  They're never around long enough for me to summon the police, and they drive off if anyone steps outside."

            "You say vehicles.  Could you be more specific?"

            Mrs. J's Arctic ocean eyes focused somewhere beyond the back wall.

            "Well -- I've noticed a convertible of some kiind -- Navy blue -- and a large sedan of the same color.  And a red pickup with a camper."

            "The cops can't find a pickup with a camper?" I asked.

            "I'm sure they could, Mr. King, if there weren't so many vehicles matching that description in our neighborhood."

            "You sound like real frontiersmen out there."

            Kristine Jameson smiled again.  Like I said, she was a looker anytime, but when her face was unlined by fear, she was gorgeous.  Strange men were watching her?  Seemed understandable from where I sat.

            "It's 'in', Mr. King.  We used to go sailing on the Sound, but nowadays everyone on the water is named Biff or Muffy.  Anyway. . . two nights ago the Edmonds' cocker spaniel disappeared.  I think they got tired of her barking when they were trying to spy on us.  Poor thing.  And the police patrols have tapered off.  I'm sure whoever-they-are know all this, too.  John keeps saying it's just pranksters, but he's been cleaning his rifles an awful lot lately.  I barely sleep any more.  Finally I decided I had to do something."

            "Mrs. Jameson, I'll have to ask you some obvious questions.  Do you or your husband have enemies?  Anyone who would have a reason to spy on you?"

            "No," she denied.  "Well, I don't know.  John's been around some genuine maniacs in his life.  I mean, he was chief of security at the Ravenswood Institute for the Criminally Insane."

            I was leaning back, fingers interlocked behind my head, but an announcement like that makes you sit up straight.

            "The Ravenswood --?"

            "Before that he was a pilot on the Avengers support team.  And of course, he was an astronaut."

            "Whoa, whoa!" I said.  "What did you say your husband's name was?"

            Mrs. J smiled thinly.

            "Colonel John Jameson of the USAF and NASA.  The last man to land on the moon.  Officially."

            I slapped a hand to my head.

            "That John Jameson!" I exclaimed.  "Well, that alone could provide a motive.  The mere fact he has a claim to fame could set off some people.  And if I recall correctly, his pop's J. Jonah Jameson, the editor of the Bugle."

            Mrs. J nodded emphatically.

            "That's probably where you'd know him.  Old J.J.'s promoted him ruthlessly for years."

            "I've read some of the things your father-in-law has written.  To be blunt, Mrs. Jameson, I'm sure there are a lot of people out there who'd like to do unpleasant things to him.  Could be someone is trying to strike at him through your husband."

            I'd have thought my speculations would increase her anxiety, but she seemed curiously reassured.  I shrugged mentally and continued.

            "But I can hypothesize 'til I'm blue in the mouth.  I'd have to take a look 'round your place before I could really get anywhere."

            "Then you'll help us, Mr. King?"

            Colonel Jameson's connections to the "hero" community at least made the Dr. Strange referral more understandable.  Still, I doubted Mrs. Jameson knew about my aversion to sunlight.  I pretended to dig through my card file.  I'll get a computer yet.

            "I'm afraid I'm booked tomorrow morning, Mrs. Jameson.  Police matters, you know.  They're always on a P.I.'s butt.  I'll be free starting tomorrow afternoon, though."

            Not exactly a lie; I had a heavy date with a coffin that would take up the day.  My "afternoons", of course, always became evenings, and I blamed my late arrivals on traffic.

            "Thank you, Mr. King," said Kristine Jameson.

            She gave me her address, in a development called Penobscot Hills on the Island.  We talked money, and I almost showed too many teeth when she gave me a check in advance.  I'd be straining it to call the bill collectors monetary vamps, but sometimes I feel like I'm under the fang again.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

 

Casing the Joint

 

 

            I started out to the Island a few hours later.  I'd nose around the Jameson neighborhood tonight; when I showed up tomorrow I could say I did it just before I knocked -- they would assume while the sun still shone.  It seems mighty strange to people to do all your detecting at night, and it is bothersome.  "Night vision" doesn't pick up hairs, threads, and other small but important details.  I can't do without a penlight.

            The streets of Penobscot Hills curved back and forth and budded off into numerous dead ends.  The houses were big, and the lots wide; the Jamesons, whatever their problems, were no strangers to money.  I rolled around a corner and found the address.  The Jameson residence was no mansion, but I'll never afford the like:  Two-and-a-half car garage, as many bathrooms, Lord knew how many bedrooms.

            I made a circuit of the block.  Through a neighbor's yard I saw the Jamesons' backside.  They really did have a tennis court, and a swimming pool to boot.  Trees grew right up to the fences.  Looked like someone could approach the house undetected.  I decided to give it a shot.

            A strange, rusty, beat-up car sitting long in a neighborhood like this would attract attention, especially with rumors of prowlers.  The least conspicuous place seemed to be a gravel turn-around beside a gas station three miles away.  I walked back, remembering how winded I got in the before-time on such hikes.

            Cigarettes didn't give me smoker's cough any more, but they tasted like burning cardboard.  I lit up a Winston anyway.  Old habits die hard.

            A low wooded ridge separated Penobscot Hills from the highway.  A radio tower, outlined by red and amber warning lights, stood like the old RKO symbol atop the ridge.  I found a paved footpath, kept on, found another.  This I followed through the trees, and a shortcut over fallen limbs and a drainage ditch brought me to the addition.

            I found a back fence.  A Doberman charged up, but I gave it the eye.  It ran back to a doghouse nearly as big as my apartment and cowered quietly.  I slipped along the fences using a trail worn by tennis shoes and bike tires, and soon I reached the Jameson place.

            A streetlight burned over the tennis court.  Floodlights and motion sensors hung under the eaves of the house.  Prongs bent down on top of the chain-link indicated that someone had climbed it more than once.

            I switched on the penlight and began the Sherlock Holmes bit.

            Mrs. J said that the boys in blue had combed the area behind the house as recently as three days before.  And they're good out on the Island.  If there was anything to find, they found it.  So I was looking for something less than seventy-two hours old.

            I found a spot where someone had worked his way into the brush, and I followed, eyeing every thorn and twig.

            A footprint of a size ten shoe and a strand of dark thread indicated a cop.  I slipped through high thistles and found more footprints.  The same cop's -- and a newer one, superimposed on the first.

            The new print was maybe a size twelve. There were ridges indicating treads on the bottom of the footwear, sort of interconnecting bull's-eyes.  A line of dirt, grayer than the local mud, had fallen from the boot-tread.  I knelt to study it, scraping some up with a fingernail.  Caked, silt-like stuff.  Here and there a speck of silica.  And a tiny chunk of gray-white gravel, one side blackened by tar.  He came from the highway.

            I searched some more.  On a particularly wicked briar I found a piece of cloth; at least, that was my first thought.  It was about two inches long, black on one side and yellow on the other.  It felt and glinted like Mylar.

            I wandered through the trees and eventually came upon one of the stone paths.  In the middle of the night, shielded from the houses, a stalker might chance using it.  I crouched down like a big spider and crept along, a weather eye out for -- Ah!  Another ridge shaken loose from the boot.

            There were at least three unknowns.  They had taken a roundabout route through the forest from an access road north and west of the Jameson house.  From there they had hiked to and from the highway.  Since a car parked several nights in the same place would have attracted attention, I supposed someone dropped them off and picked them up later.

#

            That ended my nosing around for the night.  I drove a few miles down the highway until I found a deserted K-Mart with the parking lot full of cars for sale.  I sighed; the things I did for a paycheck.  I climbed into the trunk with my graveyard soil, a flashlight, and the latest Kinsey Millhone mystery.

            The day passed without any major disasters, and as soon as Mr. Sun sank behind the skyline, I zipped back up to Penobscot Hills.  No, I didn't smell too much of the good earth -- somehow a vamp can shake off all the dirt -- and most of the stink -- particles from his duds.

            I parked behind a dusty silver convertible and climbed onto a front porch made of red and white brick.  I entered a tunnellike recess lit by a lantern-shaped fixture.  Mrs. Jameson answered the bell.  She wore a turtleneck sweater the color of toasted marshmallows, with slacks of a darker shade.  I apologized, as usual, for the lateness of my appearance and waited for her to invite me in, which she did.

            "It's just as well, Mr. King," Kristine Jameson said as she led me down a short hall.  "John went out to the airport.  He flies a lot.  Likes to keep his hand in.  He's a little late tonight. . ."

            I frowned.

            "Did you tell him I was coming?" I asked.

            We reached a den painted a nice, deep shade of yellow -- not screaming canary or wimpy pastel.  A dozen or so statues stood around on pedestals:  a discus thrower, a Greek goddess, an astronaut planting a flag.

            Mrs. J turned to me, clasping her hands together, not quite wringing them.  She gave me a not-quite smile.

            "He knew.  I don't think he really liked the idea.  But, even so -- he's rarely this late. . ."

            "Male ego," I suggested.  "Like not asking directions when you're lost.  A lot of men have to drive around or mow the yard before they come in to meet the detective."

            Mrs. J agreed, with words at least, and invited me to sit.  I dropped onto a beige sofa and she chose a wingback chair.

            "Well," I said, looking over the statuettes.  "Those are pretty good.  Where'd you get them?"

            Mrs. J blushed.

            "Actually. . . they're mine."

            "No kiddin'?" I asked.  I pointed at the astronaut.  "So that one's your husband?"

            "It's supposed to be," she admitted.  "It was hard to put his features there, on that scale.  As well as I would have wanted, at least.  I'm no Alicia Masters."

            Kristine looked toward a window.

            "I'm sure John doesn't mean to be rude, Mr. King.  He'll be as anxious as I to hear what you have to say."

            "I do have a few tales to tell," I said.

            I went into detail about my findings, mainly to keep her attention off her husband.  I've seen enough in life and unlife not to dismiss my hunches, and my hunch was singing like an informant with a handful of fifties.  I was sure something had happened to John Jameson, but I couldn't do much without worrying Mrs. J -- even if I knew what to do.

            "It's nice to know we're not just being paranoid," she said.

            "I guess," I said.  "But whoever it is can't keep this up without getting caught."

            Kristine rose and stepped over to the window.  She looked out into the night like the wife of a whaler long at sea.

            "Maybe they don't have to keep it up.  Maybe they've done whatever they wanted to do -- to John."

            Before I could make reassuring noises (a thing I'm lousy at anyway), Mrs. J gasped and jumped back from the window.  Then the wall exploded.

 


 

Chapter Three

 

 

"Back -- For Revenge!!!"

 

 

            John Jameson brought in the open-cockpit Starduster II perfectly, as usual.  He watched Mack the attendant hook his low-slung tow truck to the rear wheel of the aircraft and pull it tail-first to the hangar.

            John trotted across the tarmac to his candy-apple red Corvette, wincing into the late afternoon sun.  He hadn't meant to stay aloft so long, but he worried, and time eluded him when he worried.

            He climbed into the sporty convertible, no more noticing the engine's smooth drone than he had the sports plane's perfect roll and pitch.  He didn't like leaving Kris alone at night any more.  Besides, she had that private investigator guy coming . . .

            He passed through the airport gate and rolled off down the narrow road.  He slipped into the trees quickly, occasionally glimpsing a blinking tower light through the leaves.

            Who were the strange men who invaded the neighborhood at night?  What did they want?

            They could be casing the Edmonds' house, or the Harrisons', thought John.  Hell, it could all be coincidence -- hikers, line-walkers, maybe an ordinary burglar once --

            He shook his head.  The wind whipped and eddied in his ears.  He knew men and women who would kill him if they had the opportunity, but he couldn't think of anyone who hated him who didn't hate someone else worse.

            God, if I can get this worked up, how paranoid must those super-types get?  Is it an even trade, gaining "powers" but looking over your shoulder all the time?  Maybe they really should be overprotective of their secret identities.

            John passed a construction area lined by stumps and torn vegetation.  Dump trucks and bulldozers sat on the cleared earth like zoo animals in an open enclosure.  They would build houses near the airport soon.  The Island would become as congested as Manhattan eventually, but for now there were still leaf-lined country lanes.

            A half-mile ahead, a large white panel truck pulled onto the road.  John caught it up and slowed to a crawl.

            Colonel Jameson frowned.  Why did the widest trucks choose the narrowest roads?  He edged into the southbound lane.  No one was coming, but the truck shifted to the left, its tires well over the center line.

            John fell back into the right lane.  Slowly, like a ship on a new tack, the truck did the same.  John edged over again, but once more the truck slipped half over the line.

            "Oh, boy," muttered John Jameson.

            He calculated the distance to the highway.  He had to get home and meet this detective Kris had hired.  How would that look, leaving Kris by herself when a strange man arrived at the house?

            He realized, to his surprise, that he wanted to meet this King guy.  If he could find out who was snooping around, they might plan a course of action.  If he and Kris were imagining it all -- well, a private eye would keep it confidential.

            He forgot the detective as the door flaps of the panel truck swung open.  In the shadows of the vehicle's interior --

            "Is that a cannon?" asked Colonel Jameson of the air.

            He stomped on the brakes.  The muzzle of the weapon flashed dull red.  The 'Vette lurched as if it hit a deer.  Jameson swore as steam gushed from the radiator and spilled over the windshield.  The car wobbled as if the front wheels were loose.  He fought the steering wheel, scalding water stinging his eyes.  He scraped the guardrail bordering the right shoulder; he swung the 'Vette to the left, crossing both lanes.

            There was no guardrail here.

#

            He woke to the constrictions of pythons.  The seatbelt and shoulder harness squeezed him as something pulled them in turn.  John blinked as a huge, black, metallic hand tore the nylon straps.  The hand clamped around his wrist, hard and harsh and cold, and lifted.  Colonel Jameson grimaced as the hand dragged him arm-first out of the sports car.

            The hand released him, and he rolled in grass and dead leaves.  He opened his eyes to find himself several meters off the road, in the shade of a stately elm.  His wrist, shoulder, knees and neck ached, and a dull buzzing filled his ears.

            Something human-shaped but a good three meters tall stood looking over his wrecked Corvette, like a boy examining a broken Radio Flier.  The being was black except for dozens of colored, self-luminous buttons on its forearms and chest.  It glinted like a stealth bomber in the light of sunset.  Overlapping plates formed its joints.  A simple glass visor marked its "face".

            Some sort of robot, thought John Jameson.  An Adaptoid?  A Dreadnaut?

            The automaton turned jerkily to face the Colonel.  The visor-eye reflected a tiny image of the sun; John thought of the Cylons on the old show, Battlestar Galactica.

            "So, Jameson, you wake at last!" a voice boomed from the robot's chest.  "Good!  I want you conscious for a brief time -- before delivering you to my, eh, employers."

            No -- a guy in some sort of cyber-armor>, thought John.  Guess we weren't being paranoid, after all.

            "Who are you?" asked Jameson.  He rubbed his wrist -- his whole arm was going to bruise -- and drew in his legs.  "What do you want with me?"

            The armored being approached, its blocky feet sinking into the damp earth with each step.

            "Who am I?" parroted the metallic one.  "I, Colonel Jameson, am your greatest -- most cunning -- most implacable foe!  What do I want?  I'm back -- for revenge!!!  And a large sum of money I am to receive upon delivering you to a certain party -- but mostly revenge."

            The armored being touched buttons on its right forearm with its left gauntlet:  red, yellow, green.  The blank visor hissed up like a welder's mask.  Framed within the black helmet was a man's face, very narrow, with long, flowing gray hair and a devilish spike of beard.  The man's eyes were wide and wild to begin with, but a silver-dollar-sized monocle expanded one grotesquely.

            "Yes, Jameson, it is I!  Baron Ludwig von Shtupf!"

            Seconds passed.  A chickadee chirped happily in the woods.  Grass grew.

            "Who?" asked Colonel Jameson.

            The man's evil grin drooped into an angry scowl.

            "So.  You do not share your hairy alter-ego's memories.  I suppose I should have expected that from an inferior mentality."

            The armored man stomped heavily along the road embankment.  He turned to Jameson again.

            "Let me clarify things, then:  I am the greatest, most cunning, most implacable foe of the Man-Wolf!"

            John shook his head.

            "The Man-Wolf?"

            "Don't be coy, Jameson," warned Von Shtupf, wagging the foot-long index finger of a black gauntlet.  "I studied that shaggy beast's biological and paraphysical makeup thoroughly the first time I captured him.  The fact that he and you are one the same is not even much of a secret, these days."

            Cripes, you crazy wolf, thought John.  What were you doing when I wasn't around?  Maybe I can bluff this lunatic.

            Colonel Jameson held up his hand as if to stop traffic.

            "Hold on, Von Drake --"

            "Von Shtupf," corrected the armored man.

            "Von Shtupf," continued John.  "I am not the Man-Wolf any more.  That nightmare is over.  See, there was this red crystal from the moon --"

            Von Shtupf pointed an exoskeletal finger skyward.  Bang and John smelled cordite.

            He has a gun in his finger?

            "Silence!" ordered the bearded man.  "I don't know whether you're lying or are even less intelligent than I first believed.  However, I know you can become the Man-Wolf without that alien bauble.  I've seen it myself!"

            John could think of nothing to say.  The man was more like a Scooby-Doo villain than an actual person.  Von Shtupf's grin, pointy as the letter "V", returned.

            "The Man-Wolf still exists -- but not for long," he said ominously.

            John's ears buzzed again.

            No, something buzzed by him, a familiar sound.  A hornet.

            "As much as I'd enjoy reducing you to your component amino acids, Jameson, I have agreed to deliver you to a certain party, as I mentioned.  They have paid me handsomely already -- enough to refurbish my laboratory with technology built in this century -- and they assure me I can study what'ss left of your carcass after they finish with you."

            Von Shtupf pushed a purple button over his heart.  The visor hissed into place.  John peered up and found the source of the buzz:  a yellow-brown hive, like oak gall on a limb, illuminated by an errant shaft of the setting sun.  It hung only a few feet above.

            The armored madman lumbered forward.

            "Come, Jameson.  Let me escort you to the old homestead."

            John struggled to his feet, back against the tree.

            "Homestead?"

            The blank faceplate loomed near.

            "Oh -- it slipped my mind.  Other operatives have been dispatched to collect your lovely wife.  It is rather an insult; a backup plan in case I failed.  But, of course, I have not!"

            A monstrous iron hand snapped out and clamped onto John's wrist again.  It lifted him painfully from the earth.  Von Shtupf's laugh could only be called diabolical.

            Colonel Jameson grabbed the limb of the buzzing hive with his free hand.  Thank God the branch was thin enough to break!  He folded it double, and the armored villain's own tug ripped the green wood in two.

            John stuck the end of the branch between his teeth.  The melon-sized hive vibrated against his breast.  He chinned himself up even with Von Shtupf's hidden face.

            He tapped the buttons on the exo-armor's forearm, red, yellow, green.  The welder's mask whipped up.

            "What --" gasped Von <Shtupf.  His monocle popped out like a champagne cork.

            "Bon appetit!" yelled John Jameson.

            He shoved the hornet's nest into Von Shtupf's helmet with all his might.  It -- or maybe the madman's face -- crunched.  He slapped the purple button on the armored man's chest, and the mask hissed shut.

            Von Shtupf screamed in agony.  John's vision blurred and his elbow felt like it had snapped as the exo-armor flung him away.  He landed, rolled, and pushed himself up.

            The armored Baron stumbled off drunkenly, banging himself in the helmet with bucket-sized fists.  The exo-armor caromed off a tree and fell against the embankment.

            He's not going to be too happy when he gets that helmet off, thought John.

            The 'Vette wasn't going anywhere.  Colonel Jameson slogged up the embankment to the road.  The panel truck sat innocently on the shoulder.

#

            Jameson rolled through the darkening woods, grinding around turns and up grades.  The truck cab and box formed one open space housing the cannon -- some sort of ray projector -- and a bay for the exo-suit.  A PC keyboard crudely bolted to the dash probably controlled the energy-gun.

            Wish I had time to figure that out, thought the colonel.

            He thought to call ahead, warn his wife.

            Damn!  The cell phone's back in the car!

            He reached the highway at last.  The truck rolled smoothly, its headlights flowing out in a white apron before it.  He punched the vehicle past the speed limit.

            How long did the Man-Wolf exist without my knowledge? Jameson asked himself.

            Dr. Kafka assured me his persona had been "normed" into my psyche . . . but I wonder about her.  She was an excellent coworker and fellow soldier, yes.  Hell, I thought I loved her.  But she's so damned manipulative, so damned sure of whatever analysis she's made of someone's Rorschach . . . I have enough monomaniacs in my life.

            He reached the Penobscot entrance and swerved in.  The truck scraped a stone gatepost.  He screeched around one corner, then another.  At least the lanes were wide; thank God so many people had RVs.

            He pulled up a slight rise.  He could see the house from the summit.  Three vehicles, a convertible, a camper, and a black sedan, sat along the curb, blocking the driveway.  He swung Von Shtupf's truck around the last and bounced onto the grass.

            Smoke poured from a gaping hole in the front wall of the house.

            "Kris!"

            Something bobbed up in his peripheral vision.  A man rose from beside the limousine, a gun of some kind in his hand.  John dropped aside.

            ZAAAK!

            Multicolored lightning shot through the open driver's window.  The roof of the cab banged as if hit by hail, and white-hot sparks hissed on John's head and arms.  He belly-crawled into the box of the truck.

            "Fool!  That was he!" came a muffled cry.  "He must not be slain -- yet!"

            The truck still rolled.  A jarring thump told John it collided with the maple fronting the picture window.

            So they want me alive? thought Colonel Jameson.  Let them come and get me!

            He dragged himself up with the help of Von Shtupf's ray weapon.  It possessed, he realized, an ordinary trigger and a fairly obvious ON switch.

            Fists banged the rear doors, and gloved fingers hooked the unlocked flaps.  John aimed low.

            "I hope that lunatic built a real weapon," he whispered.

            A round, pale head with a mop of black hair popped into view.  He fired.  The weapon made a loud thoomp and a red flash.  The man-figure fell away.

            Boots clumped on metal behind him.  A solid arm in a black sleeve whipped around his throat.  John seized the arm, lifted his foot, and raked his heel down the attacker's shin, ending with a hard stomp on booted toes.

            Someone else climbed into the confined space.  John swept his fist out into the second attacker's solar plexus.  That didn't slow him or keep him from yanking up a length of lead pipe.

            It wouldn't be such a bad thing to become the Man-Wolf about now, thought John Jameson as the bludgeon connected.

 


 

 

Chapter Four

 

 

The Three Stooges and Friends

 

 

            I've seen a surprising number of walls collapse in my day.  This implosion was relatively clean; little smoke or shrapnel, just gypsum dust and bits of concrete.  Mrs. Jameson jumped away with a gymnast's ease, but she stumbled and sprawled on the carpet.  Chivalrous ol' Hannibal hopped down to see if she was all right.  She was.  I pulled out my trusty .38 and turned to the new front entrance -- a second too late.

            I read once that if you're tapping out a story and get writer's block, you should have two goons enter with guns and hustle the hero off somewhere.  It was too early in this case for that, yet --

            Two men stepped in, crunching fragments of brick and cement under their boots.  They carried strange guns like double-barreled hairdryers.  The weapons didn't look real, but I decided not to chance it.  The intruders wore black uniforms with pants that flowed right into their boots.  Stripes of bright primary colors decorated their jackets or tunics.  To demonstrate how much I live in the past, I'll say that they reminded me of the Sandmen from Logan's Run.

            One guy was stout and bald.  The other had a mop of black hair cut bowl fashion, for all the world like Curly and Moe.

            "Drop your weapon," ordered Moe.

            I obeyed for Kristine's sake.  I made ready to shield her with my body if I had to.

            "Who are you?" I asked.

            "Silence!" came Moe's answer.  "This one is irrelevant, Groton.  Seize the woman."

            Mrs. J rose to a crouch.

            "You," she said.  "I remember you."

            Moe grinned like Snidely Whiplash in a sawmill.

            "Do you, Kristine Jameson?  Good.  You are to be our guest again.  Permanently, this time."

            Curly lurched forward.  He was about to get a surprise from ol' Uncle Hannibal.

            Then a big van rocketed down the street outside, jumped the curb, and roared straight for the house.  I heard a weird sort of ZAAAK, a loud bang, and a dull crunch as the truck hit a tree only yards from the house.

            "It is he!  Jameson!" yelled Moe.

            Curly did an about-face and ran out the hole in the wall.  I jumped up.  Moe casually aimed his hairdryer at the ceiling.

            ZAAAK!

            A flash of unkinked lightning dazzled me, then the ceiling hailed down on us.  I managed to get one arm over Mrs. J.

            "If it weren't for bad luck . . ."  The crumbling gypsum wouldn't slow a vampire, but I would be standing under a ceiling fan, one of the cheaper kind, held by only two bolts.  It dropped hard enough to knock me on my face.

            As I struggled up, I heard another ray-gun sound.  Moe and Curly exited.  I lifted ice-floes of ceiling plaster off Mrs. Jameson, and I spend a few more seconds digging for my .38.

            I peeked out the jagged hole.  Steam hissed from the van's front grill, which was wrapped around a foot-thick maple tree.  It sat abandoned.  All three vehicles Mrs. J had described lined the curb:  navy blue convertible, black Lincoln Continental, and a red pickup with a camper.  Two "Sandmen" trundled a limp form to the last.  The trundlee wore tennis shoes, polo shirt, white shorts.  Logic dictated that this was Kristine's husband.

            This sure was no "sitting in the rain" case.  I trotted around the van to my trusty Buick.  As I opened the door, I was surprised to see Mrs. Jameson dashing up.  She pounded on my passenger's side as I climbed in.

            "Mr. King!  Hurry!  They're getting away!"

            I pushed the Unlock button before I could think better of it.  Mrs. J jumped in as I wedged my revolver down between the bucket seats.  I no sooner roared off than screeched to a halt.

            "What am I doin'?  Lissen, Babe, they outnumber us.  And someone's gotta call the cops --"

            Mrs. J grabbed two handfuls of my trench.  The nervous woman who walked into my office yesterday was gone, replaced by a blond tigress.

            "No cops can follow them where they're going!  Now drive, damn you, before they get away!"

            "Okay, sister!" I snarled.

            I stomped on the gas, and Mrs. J dropped into the passenger's seat.  [No cops can follow them?]  I plowed across the grass and bounced onto the street behind the Lincoln.

            The black sedan caught the pickup.  The latter couldn't roll too fast down the curving lanes of Penobscot Hills without toppling over.

            We turned onto a straightaway.  The pickup made a sharp right ahead of the Lincoln, its camper listing dangerously.  Two old people out power walking watched our little caravan shoot by.

            The camper hung a left; I made the mistake of turning down a narrow side street, hoping to intercept it.  I almost got stuck between a double-parked Pontiac and another camper.  Fortunately, Mrs. J had her radar going, and she informed me in no uncertain terms as to which way they were headed.  We scraped between the two vehicles and roared off again.

            A big stone wall lined the eastern edge of Penobscot Hills.  I careened onto the lane paralleling the wall, and up ahead I saw a flash of red and white beneath a streetlight as the pickup shot across the road and out the gateway.  The black Lincoln followed close as a boat trailer.  No sign of the convertible.

            We followed them through the exit, and Mrs. J whacked me across the face as she pointed north.

            "There they go!"

            "I got eyes, lady!"

            We sped off in pursuit of their taillights.  On our right were more trees, but somewhere in that direction lay Great Peconic Bay.  I watched for a Wawa or anyplace that might have a phone.  I'll get a cellular yet.

            "One of us has got to call for reinforcements, Mrs. J!" I yelled over the wind.  "And since this is my car, I nominate you!"

            The woman looked at me pleadingly, blinking blond wisps of hair out of her eyes.

            "But, Mr. King --"

            "Who do I look like, the Punisher?  I can't handle this alone!"

            "They'll get away!"

            "A pickup with a camper can't possibly outdistance me!"

            It didn't have to, however.  The Lincoln screeched to a stop in the middle of the highway and its driver climbed halfway out.  He pulled up his double-barreled hairdryer.  I stomped the brakes and snatched up my Smith & Wesson.  Mr. Hot-Rod Lincoln fired as I tossed the revolver from my right hand to my left.

            ZAAAK!

            This time I got an eyeful of their weapon.  A stream of something shot between Mrs. J's head and mine.  Molten steel?  Napalm?  Lightning?  It passed through the Buick with little damage, as I still lacked both windshields.

            "Cheese m'knees!"

            I fired at Mr. Hot-Rod Lincoln.  He took a pratfall.  It was a lucky shot, because the zap-ray rattled me.

            We shuddered to a stop. 

            "Mrs. Jameson," I gasped.  "What the hell is going on?"

            Kristine opened her mouth to say something, but now a car came up fast from behind.  It was the navy blue convertible.  It had dropped back to follow us.  An arm with a double-barreled hairdryer poked out the side.  I floored it.

            Another ZAAAK! from a Buck Rogers pistol.  A cloud of smoke spewed up from my trunk.  I twisted and popped off a shot, sending a spider-web of cracks across “Buck”'s windshield.  He receded several car lengths.

            "Mr. King!"  Mrs. J's fingernails dug into my shoulders like bird claws.  "The camper!"

            The pickup, half a mile ahead, had forsaken the highway for a hillside road.  It rushed ghostlike among the tree-trunks.  I still must have been addled, because I steered for it instead of trying to find a convenient SWAT team to help us.

            At the turn-off, another ZAAAK took the paint off my fender.  Buck Rogers floored it, trying for us before the trees blocked his aim.  I swung the Buick left, scraping black donuts across the road, and fired at the convertible's left front tire.

            Bingo!  The tire blew out, and the car wobbled to the left, doing at least sixty.  When it was at right angles to the highway it flipped over and came at us side-over-side.  I roared onto the access road to get out of its way.

            There was a loud Whoomp as the vehicle flopped onto its back.  I stuck my .38 between the seats.

            "He's out of it," I said.  "Now, Mrs. J, we've got to go for help."

            Mrs. J shook her head wildly.

            "By the time help arrives, it'll be too late!  We have to catch them now!"

            "What does that mean?" I demanded.  "Where are they going, any --"

            To my utter shock, Kristine snatched up my gun and stuck it into my face.

            "-- way?"

            "Drive.  Now!"

            I hadn't loaded silver or incendiaries.  I could have grabbed the gun -- but that look in her baby blues.  She'd have forced me somehow.  I drove.

****

            The dirt road ended at a clearing on the summit. Looked like someone had started building a private airfield but ran out of funds.  Construction lights illuminated some shacks and corrugated steel sheds.  Someone was here. 

            The camper sat in front of a large Quonset hut.  Three of the mystery men carried John Jameson toward the building's door like the proverbial sack of potatoes.

            I blinked.  With Moe and Curly was a guy with only a frill of hair around his bald scalp.  He became forever "Larry".

            "This must be their hide --" I started to say, then I noticed something leaning out of a tree that was definitely not Mr. Bluebird.

            Without thinking [or my own .38 pointed at me would have made me pause], I punched the door open and rolled out.  Another mystery man dropped on me with a war-whoop.

            Fine by me.  We did a Chinese tumbling act through the grass.  A shoe in the gut got him off.  As God as my witness, he looked like Shemp.

            I slapped a ray-gun out of his hand.  He tried for the old stranglehold.  I boxed his ears and added a crack to the cheek that got him off again.  He was up fast as I was, but he jumped right into a sucker punch.

            As Shemp fell aside, I saw something like a tiddlywink flipping through the air.  I caught it and looked it over in the car headlights.  It was a contact lens painted like a human iris.  You know the type -- lets you change your eye color.  I used them myself.  But why --

            Shemp came back for more, growling like a junkyard dog.  I dropped the lens and faced him.  I found out why.

            Shemp had no eyes.  From his sockets two white, featureless marbles stared blindly out.

            Blindly?  He found his ray-gun easy enough.  ZAAAK!

            I felt like I'd stuck my finger in a light-socket, then my vision faded.  One tiny spark in the darkness remained to bid adieu to Hannibal King, Ex-Detective, dead again.

****

            I awoke.

            I suppose I should have been grateful I could wake at all, but any joy I felt at cheating the Reapo-Man again fled when I opened my eyes to find myself in Hell.

            After the first startling moment I realized I wasn't really in Hell.  But I wasn't much better off.

            Judging by the curvature of the roof, we were in the Quonset hut.  Mrs. Jameson lay stretched out on my right.  Near the other end of the structure lay the inert form of her husband, trussed up like a Christmas goose.  Around Kristine and me stood Moe, Larry, Curly and Shemp.  They had apparently tired of masquerading as real people, for none of them had eyes, only white marbles.  But that wasn't the strangest thing.

            The strangest thing was the throbbing, glowing device at the far end of the building, near Colonel J.  It was a metal platform of some sort, with an oval ring about eight feet high and six feet wide standing upright on top.  Bright orange, yellow and red lights played across the oval's mirrored surface.  The illumination from this mirror, or whatever it was, was strong; you could have read a newspaper by the glow.  The eerie radiance gave the hellish appearance to the construction shack.

            "He awakens!" remarked Moe.  "You were right, Groton.  He is not the weakling most Earthlings are."

            Groton?  Earthlings?

            "I'm alive?" was my first brilliant observation.

            Moe snorted.

            "Indeed, Earthman.  Your persistence has impressed us and so gained you a few extra hours of life."  He glanced over his shoulder at John Jameson.  "We shall bring you two along with Jameson.  Then you the friend and she the bride of the hated usurper will be executed before his eyes.  Our master will be pleased."

            I could hardly call myself Colonel J's friend, since I'd never even met the guy, but I kept mum.  These zap-guns were a wild card, and I suspected they could prove fatal even to the undead.  Moe's assumption that I was buddy-buddy with Jameson was the only thing keeping me out of the deep fat fryer.

            I sat up drunkenly, only to see a row of zap-guns leveled at me.

            "Von Shtupf's incompetence may have drawn attention," Moe continued.  "We must leave immediately."

            My white-eyed host turned to look at Colonel J.  I noticed my .38 stuck in an elastic belt around his waist.

            "Urlak!  Thool!  Take Jameson on to our camp!  We will bring these two when they are able to walk under their own power!"

            Curly and Larry trotted over to Colonel J and hefted him up.  They worked their way to the platform and stepped onto it.  Then --

            My hair puffed out like a cat's.  The low hum from the platform increased in pitch and volume, and the colors alternated faster and faster on the surface of the mirror.  Then the mirror wasn't a mirror.  It was a hole -- a doorway -- a Portal.  Beyond was not the corrugated steel of the back wall, but instead -- another Place.

            Curly and Larry waddled through the opening with their burden.  There was a shimmer, as of heat waves, and then the mirror returned to flashing red, orange, and yellow.  Colonel Jameson and the two carrying him were gone.

            "Sonuvabitch . . ."

            Moe laughed.  "So -- you have never beheld a Portal.  I assume, then, you have never visited the Other Realm?"

            "Other Realm?" I parroted.

            "Well -- you shall.  In fact, you'll be spending the rest of your life there -- what little remains of it."

            Cheery news.  Mrs. J moaned.  Moe's attention shifted to her.  Mine focused on the .38 in his belt.  Unfortunately, Shemp's blank eyes had never wavered from yours truly, and he gave a warning grunt.

            "So," said Moe.  "Jameson's woman rejoins us, as well."

            Kristine shook her head and raked golden tresses out of her eyes.  I helped her sit up, despite the threatening zap-guns.  When she spotted Moe, she snapped to attention.

            "Your champion knows us not," continued the head Stooge, "but you recognize us, don't you, Kristine Jameson?  You know who sent us!"

            "Tyrk!" gasped Mrs. J.

            "Tyrk!" yelled Moe.

            "Tyrk?" I asked.  Then I remembered -- buddy-buddy.  "Aaaaah -- Tyrk!"

            "But -- he's dead!" insisted Mrs. J.  She knew what was going on.  Well, I could get mad later.

            "Arisen Tyrk does not die so easily," said Moe with a sneer.  He glanced at Shemp.  "Bring her."

            Shemp grabbed Mrs. J by the arm and dragged her to her feet.

            "Hey!  Leave the lady alone!" I shouted.

            For my half-assed act of chivalry, I got a zap-gun across the mouth.  I dropped onto my keister.  When I ran my hand across my lips, it came away red.  It almost tasted like blood.

            "Beware, Earthman.  We have what we came for.  You are superfluous.  You may accompany us alive, or remain behind -- dead."

            "Least I got a choice."  Shemp stuck his ray-gun in my face.  "Okay!  I'll come!  Sheesh!"

            I climbed to my feet slowly so as not to set off either Stooge.  They herded Kristine and me onto the platform, and, to tell the truth, I was not anxious to find out what lay beyond the looking-glass.

            I waited for an opening, but Moe and Shemp watched me like hawks, irises or no.  Moe led Kristine up to the vibrating oval; the poor woman could barely walk --

            Or so I thought until she spun on her heel and slammed her arm across Moe's throat.  She grabbed for my .38, but the Stooge seized her wrist.  The cold barrel of Shemp's weapon left the small of my back; I knew he aimed for Kristine. 

            I spoiled his shot with one hand.  The other I balled into a fist and sent crashing into his jaw.  He didn't seem too impressed, vampire strength or not.  We staged a WWE bout there by the Magic Mirror.

            Shemp slammed me against the mirror's support.  It felt like an eight-foot joy-buzzer.  I kicked out and connected with something; I hoped it hurt.  I shoved myself from the mirror and grabbed him again.

            Moe and Mrs. J. made a quadruple fist over my .38.  Kristine hooked her leg around Moe's.  They both fell against the mirror -- and passed through, like ball bearings dropped into mercury.

            I bit a hand and came up with Shemp's ray-gun.  A bite from yours truly is hard to ignore.  Shemp broke away from me, and before I could figure out how the damned hairdryer worked, he rammed me in the breadbasket with his thick skull.  I stumbled backwards and fell through the mirror.

            And I pushed the right button on the Buck Rogers gun.

            Going through the mirror was like diving stark naked into an icy pond.  But I wasn't cold for long:  the red-yellow ray shattered the oval ring, and a fiery blast of energy shot over me like the business end of a rocket booster.  I threw my arms over my face, and suddenly I knew what prawns felt like on the barby.

****

            Eventually I moved.  It was silent and dark.  Bits of rubble rained off my chest when I sat up.

            I looked around.  Vague light -- moonlight -- revealed that I lay in a small naturaal cavern.  The dim illumination entered through a round entrance several yards away.  I started searching for Mrs. J on my hands and knees.

            "Mrs. Jameson?"

            Her limp form glowed orange with life off to one side of the cave.  As I scuttled over, my hand came down on something metallic and familiar.  My S&W .38.  I reared up and slipped it into its holster.  The activity set all my muscles to complaining.

            I lifted Mrs. J's hand carefully.

            "Kristine?"

            She moaned.  I helped her to a sitting position again, then I studied our surroundings more thoroughly.

            We were, as I’ve said, in a natural cavern.  No sign of Moe, his cohorts, or Colonel Jameson.  Shemp never made it through.  The platform on this end was inert, and its equivalent of the oval mirror was gone.  Fragments of its frame lay strewn about.  The cave opening appeared to be the only exit.

            "Mr. King?" whispered Kristine Jameson.

            "The one and only," I replied.

            "Where --?"  Her eyes suddenly fluttered open.  "No!  John!"

            She scrambled to her feet with surprising speed and headed for the cave entrance.

            "Hey, lady, hold your horses!  They may be waiting for us!"

            I pulled out my gun again and lurched to my feet.  Kristine stopped at the mouth of the cave, wide open for a zap-ray.  I caught up to her, ready to throw her aside, but then I froze, too, and my jaw dropped down around my knees.

            Out before us stretched a small, boulder-strewn clearing.  Beyond this grew a forest, rising eventually onto hilltops.  The Stooges and their captive were gone.  A good thing, because I was wide open too.

            Two moons hung in the sky, one silver-blue, the other, gold.  Large, chunky objects passed before them; they floated like clouds, but they were not clouds.  They were islands or mountains, severed from the earth and defying gravity.  By the silhouettes they threw against the moons, I could tell there were trees and even buildings on their upper surfaces.

            "Mr. King . . . The Portal.  What happened to it?"

            "Uh . . . I got knocked through.  I grabbed for a ray-gun.  I think I shot it."  Flying mountains.

            "Then it's been destroyed?"

            "Yeah," I muttered.  Two moons.

            "We're trapped here, then," whispered Kristine.  "Trapped in the Other Realm."

            "Other Realm. . ." I repeated.

 


 

 

Chapter Five

 

 

The Great Return

 

 

            Jolting and bouncing woke Colonel John Jameson.  He stirred long enough to attract notice, in the form of a kick to the temple.  He collapsed.

            "Careful, fool," a gruff voice ordered.  "The master instructed that Jameson be delivered alive!"

            "Why is this one important?" demanded a second, equally gruff voice.  "He no longer possesses the Godstone.  He has no power!"

            Another kick, this time in John's side, punctuated the second speaker's observation.

            "'Ware, Urlak, lest you incur the wrath of Arisen Tyrk," warned the first speaker.

            Tyrk, thought John Jameson muddily.  Tyrk is dead . . . I think.

            The camper jerked to the right and then the left.  Kristine's husband lost consciousness again.

****

            A shock snapped him out of the darkness this time, a cold blast that bit through to the core of his being.

            He could not move.  His wrists and ankles were bound.  He kept his eyes closed, straining his other senses.

            Two people carried him like a rolled-up carpet.  They did nothing but grunt and complain.  At first they were inside:  the atmosphere was damp and musty, and sounds echoed off walls.  An odd vibration filled the air, a hiss that seemed faintly familiar.

            His captors carried him into the open.  He felt a cool breeze and smelled earth and vegetation.  They conveyed him across a level space; he could hear the crunch of boots on shale.  They started up a hillside, dragging him through brush like ants with a dead beetle.

            Eventually his kidnappers crested the hill and started down.  They reached a grassy field -- John could hear the breeze whistling through the stalks -- and then a strange, rattly voice hailed his captors.

            *Thool!  Urlak!  You have him?*

            "That we do," answered the man holding John's legs.

            There were stompings and snortings, as if horses stood nearby.  The musky smell that reached John's nose was not an equine odor, however.

            *Where are the others?* demanded the reedy voice.

            "Groton and Varna follow with Jameson's woman and her champion.  Varna believed the Master would find amusement in them."

            Kristine!  No! thought Colonel Jameson.  He still did not reveal his wakeful state.

            "The others . . . did not make it," continued the man holding his legs.

            The reedy speaker hissed.  *What went awry?*

            "We were observed and pursued," said the man holding John's shoulders.  Both kidnappers released him, and he landed on bristly stalks.  The third voice hissed again.

            *So much for Varna's reconnaissance!  I told him a legion of Lizard-Riders would have Jameson lightning-swift; none of these days of stalking and waiting!*

            "The plan was Tyrk's, Klaktar.  From him came our instruction in Earthly matters.  There are powers on that world whose attention we dare not attract -- yet."

            All three voices gave out ugly laughter.  The laugh of a rattlesnake, a shark, and a scorpion, if such creatures could laugh.

            Wait, thought John.  They said, "powers on that world."

            An icy hand twisted his intestines.  He had to open his eyes.  He saw two bright moons and impossible floating mountains.

            "No!" he gasped.

            A figure occulted his view.  From the shoulders down it appeared to be a muscular man wearing archaic armor.  Instead of a neck and head, however, this creature had only a stack of vertebrae surmounted by a jawless skull, like a gourd on a stem.  Jameson let out a sound of disgust.

            The skeletal creature spoke, despite the lack of larynx and throat and mandible.  Its was the reedy voice.

            *So -- this is the Awaited One who destroyedd a hundred of my carrion-brothers.  Hah!  Without the Godstone, he is a coward, like all his ilk.*

            John Jameson frowned, anger replacing shock.  He struggled onto his side and looked the pseudo-living creature in the eye-sockets.

            "Untie me, Skinny, and we'll see who's the coward!"

            The jawless skull atop the creature's neck could display no emotion, but John received the impression of a scowl -- just before he received the heel of its booted foot.

            *Silence, cur.  Klaktar of the Undying Legion has not given you leave to speak.*

            John was almost used to pain by now, but this kick sent his brain spinning.  He flopped onto his back and watched a ballet of asteroids and clouds.

            "Beware, Klaktar," warned a new voice.  A white-eyed man with a mop of black hair strode angrily up from the trees.  "Urlak has had sport enough with Jameson.  Arisen Tyrk will wax wroth should we bring him a lifeless husk."

            A bald warrior -- Urlak? -- stepped into view, scanning the trees at the edge of the clearing.

            "Varna!  Where are the other prisoners -- and Groton?"

            "That fool!" said the mop-headed one, spitting into the grass.  "He allowed the Earthman to overpower him.  And during their struggle, he managed, somehow, to destroy the Portal.  He, too, was destroyed in the process.  I barely escaped, myself."

            The bald one grumbled as if unsatisfied.  A third White-Eye, presumably Thool, spoke.

            "And the prisoners?  Jameson's woman?"

            "Most likely dead," answered the one called Varna.  "They do not matter.  They caused more trouble than they were worth."

            [. . . dead. . .]

            *Perhaps, Varna,* hissed the walking lich Klaktar.  *But if they live . . . and contact those miserable wolf-worshipers . . . they might goad them into searching for Jameson.*

            Varna marched over to a reddish blur at the edge of the clearing.

            "I do not believe they pose any threat, even if they live," he called back, "but I shall make sure."

            With that, the white-eyed man mounted the red thing.  The thing spread vast wings and leapt into the air like a springbok.  A few mighty flaps, and what appeared to be a dragon out of a fairy tale vanished over the trees with Varna as its rider.

            [make sure. . .]

            The two remaining white-eyes watched the horizon even after Varna vanished from sight.  In the distance a dozen bolts of lightning flashed in as many seconds.  A brisk wind sprang up from the south, carrying the rustle of a million branches.  Overhead, clouds scudded across the moons.  The night grew darker.

            "The very elements celebrate the re-ascendance of Arisen Tyrk," remarked Fringe-Hair.  The bald one grunted.

            *I have no wish to be caught aloft in such a storm,* hissed Klaktar.  *Osfiric!  Rani!  Let us hurry the prize to our master!*

            Two skeleton-men bent over to the inert form of John Jameson.

            [NO!]

            The word had not been spoken, yet it was louder than the thunder and wind and rustling leaves.  There was a snap of ropes parting, and two white-furred hands cupped themselves on the sides of Osfiric and Rani's skulls.

            [What have you bastards done?]

            The skeleton-men's heads came together and shattered like eggs.  John Jameson sprang to his feet, but he was Jameson no longer.  In his place stood an ivory-furred creature with the head of a wolf.  A Man-Wolf, with gleaming fangs and eyes like coals.

            "Look!" cried Thool.  "He takes the form of the blasphemous wolf-god!"

            "I've had sport enough with him?" asked Urlak.  "He needs a stronger lesson, I say."

            With that, the bald warrior charged.   The Man-Wolf leapt forward to meet him.  He did not even notice Urlak's blow to the muzzle.

            [If you've hurt her I'll kill you all!] the werewolf cried telepathically.

            The Man-Wolf plunged his clawlike nails into Urlak's abdomen.  The bald man screamed.  The white-furred creature lifted the warrior over his head with one hand and hurled him through the air as he might have tossed a softball.  Urlak came down upon Thool, and both soldiers of Tyrk sprawled on the grass.

            *Hold, False One!*  called the lich.  *We have wasted enough time on you!  Klaktar of the Undying Legion will tame you his way!*

            The skeletal warrior drew his sword from its scabbard.  Beyond the bronze hilt flickered a jet of fire in the shape of a blade.  The other Undying Ones approached from the edges of the camp, wielding more mundane swords.  An order from their leader halted them.

            [Tame this!] cried the Man-Wolf.

            He leapt for Klaktar, clawed fingers reaching like eagle's talons.  The Undying One sidestepped and slammed the flame-blade against his ribcage.  There was nothing human in the lycanthrope's howl of pain.  He crashed to earth, panting.

            *Where are your brave words now, cur?* asked Klaktar.  Fat raindrops splattered on his skull, changing its color from chalk-white to yellow-brown.  *I am tempted to risk Arisen Tyrk's anger, in order to rid the Realm of -- eh?*

            A palpable tension filled the air, then a shaft of fire lanced from the sky to strike the Man-Wolf.  The shock of the thunderclap knocked Klaktar backwards, but the Undying Ones knew no pain, so he simply climbed once more to his feet.

            He was not beyond surprise, apparently, for the sight that met his empty eye sockets bade him pause.  The Man-Wolf stood unscathed, though even yet wisps of smoke rose from his fur.  His human garb had vanished, and now a scaled corselet clothed him.  At his hip hung a scabbard of red and gold, and from this the beast-man drew a long blade.

            [Well, well,] he commented with a toothy smile.  [And I didn't even say 'Shazam'!  What was that about ridding the Realm of me, Bonehead?]

            Klaktar merely raised his fire-sword again.  The Man-Wolf met the flaming blade with his own weapon.  The fire-sword was surprisingly solid, but it bent beneath the lycanthrope's blow, straightening as Klaktar readied himself for another swing.

            John knew many forms of combat, but he was no swordsman.  A blow against his furry knuckles caused him to drop his weapon. Klaktar cackled as the lycanthrope clutched his hand to his breast, but then the Man-Wolf launched himself forward.

            [Laugh this off, Skullface!]

            The beast-man's fist shattered the upper half of the Undying One's torso.  Klaktar's arms, one with the fire-sword still clutched in its fingers, fell to the earth.

            The Man-Wolf turned to face Thool and the four skeletal warriors remaining.

            [Who's next?] he demanded.

            Before anyone could accept the challenge, another thunderbolt shattered the air.  The werewolf fell flat, howling in pain.

            Tyrk's underlings looked up.  The clouds flowed in from all directions to converge overhead.  They seemed to climb on one another, forcing the lowest nearly to the ground.  A third bolt of lightning smote the Man-Wolf, then a fourth.

            The fringe-haired warrior and the Undying Ones ran for the trees.

            "Thool!" cried Urlak.  The bald warrior climbed painfully to his feet and hobbled after the others.

****

            John dug his fingers through the dirt until his sharp nails bit into his palms.  The lightning bolts burned like the skeleton's sword, only they seared his whole body at once.

            Why? he asked himself in the seconds between two blasts.  Why me?  What have I done to deserve this?

            No answer came.  Only another thunderbolt.  He wondered why the electrical bursts didn't kill him.  He opened his eyes upon the massing storm clouds above.  The clouds rotated at the point nearest the ground; soon they formed a tornadic funnel.

            Rather than sucking him up, the funnel infused him with something like an monstrous hypodermic needle.  His head and body seemed to swell, and the pain became so great that consciousness fled him again.

****

            Eventually John Jameson woke, amazed to be alive.  He opened his eyes and could not help but see the ivory-furred snout jutting out from under them.  He couldn't even hope it had been a dream.

            He rolled over and sat up, rivulets trickling from his furred and armored form.  He felt no pain, his corselet was unbreached, and the golden sword lay several feet away.  A few final drops plopped on him from the clouds, which thinned as he watched.  Soon the twin moons peeked down as if the storm had never been.

            He rose to his feet.  Human bones lay strewn around him.  The rest of the living skeletons were gone with the white-eyed warriors.

            The Man-Wolf retrieved his sword and staggered across the grassy field.  The storm had not lasted long enough to wipe out the scents of Urlak, Thool, and his human self.

            He fought his way through the underbrush and followed the trail back up the slope.  At the end would stand the Portal through which they had carried him . . .

            And Kristine!  The white-eyed men spoke of her.  The one who flew away on the dragon said --

            The Man-Wolf broke into a lope, as tireless as the animal whose likeness he bore.

            Memories passed across his mind as the leaves brushed his lupine muzzle, images of the long, strange string of events that led him here.  Colonel Jameson had been the last U.S. astronaut to walk on the Moon.  He discovered a blood-red gem on the lunar surface that he felt compelled to keep.  He stole it from NASA and wore it on a pendant around his neck.  The gem implanted itself there like a parasite, and on nights of the full moon it transformed him into an unreasoning lycanthropic monster.

            After years of fear and wandering, the moonstone had been destroyed by radiation treatments.  He and Kristine had their ups and downs since, but they found each other again at last.  They were now married.

            Happily ever after.

            But that was not the whole story.  His recollection of events that occurred when he wore this werewolfish form were hazy.  That was understandable on Earth, where the Man-Wolf was no more than a raging beast, but it was also true of this world, the Other Realm, where John retained his human intelligence as the Man-Wolf.

            He might have spent the rest of his life in ignorance of the Other Realm, but Kristine remembered, and a deejay named Richard Rory had recorded a broadcast "from space" -- actually from a dimension near the Realm -- made by Jameson himself during a months-long exile from Earth.  Finally Dr. Ashley Kafka drew the story forth using experimental hypnotic techniques.

            He remembered more as he ran through the forest:  passing through a Portal on Earth's moon, being greeted by the oppressed populace of this world as the living incarnation of “Stargod”, and defeating the minions of Arisen Tyrk.

            He recalled the explosion that destroyed Tyrk's stronghold.  The white-eyed tyrant had survived it only to be blasted down with one of his own ray-guns.  Did he survive that, as well?

            The Man-Wolf burst out of the woods into the rocky clearing before the Portal-cave.  Questions could wait, for now he caught a scent he would have recognized even with a human nose.

            [Kristine!]

****

            The cave was empty.  The Portal had been destroyed.  No Kristine.  No way home.

            John dropped to all fours to inspect the jumbled scents  They told him their stories.

            There had been six persons altogether, John himself being one.  Two men had carried him to the skeletons' camp; that was the trail he had backtracked.  A third man-scent left the cave alone and paralleled the first trail.  Kristine had apparently started in the same direction, but she went off on a tangent at the edge of the trees.  Thank God, the warrior on the dragon had missed her.

            That still left scent number six, however.

            This mysterious character's scent never strayed far from his wife's.  However, that was not why the Man-Wolf whined in fear and uncertainty.  It was because his lupine instincts could not identify the scent.  This -- person -- wore size nine hard leather shoes, but he or it was not human.

            The beast-man loped off, following his wife and her strange companion with the persistence of a bloodhound.

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Six

 

 

The Other Realm

 

            "What -- where is this Other Realm?"  I asked at last.

            "I'm not sure, Mr. King," answered Kristine Jameson.  "Another planet, or another dimension."

            Now, I'd been in what you call your other dimension before, with Dr. Strange.  However, the Doc wouldn't go off without having a way back.

            I indicated the cave behind us with my thumb.

            "And without that mirror, we're stuck here?"

            Kristine nodded weakly.

            I crouched down a few yards from the cave.  The ground hereabouts was sandy.  I located the Stooges' trail in the light of the lunar orbs.  They'd taken off north (or what would have been north on Long Island) into the trees.

            I studied the forest with some trepidation.  It looked ordinary enough, but I couldn't tell the difference between a truffle and a Triffid.  And no telling what might be lurking in the forest . . .

            "These mystery men of yours, Mrs. J," I said.  "Would they happen to have any spare Portals sitting around?"

            "I really don't know that much about them, Mr. King --" she began.

            "Ya know more than I do," I snapped.  "In fact, Mrs. J, I've gotten the impression that you were withholding a few vital bits of information.  Like the fact I'd be going up against white-eyed goons from Planet Arous."

            Mrs. J got a little steamed.

            "We couldn't be sure who they were, Mr. King.  Anyway, if I had come to you with a story of white-eyed goons with ray-guns, what would you have done?"

            She had me there.  I let out my anger in a long, slow exhale.

            "I'd have glued a shit-eating grin on my face until I could put a call through to Bellevue."

            She smiled a little.

            "Seriously," I continued.  "Do you think there's any chance they might have another of these Portals?"

            "They've come to Earth before, Mr. King, or at least their leader has.  It's possible."

            "Then I guess we follow them.  Besides, they still have your husband."

            We started for the trees; I did a little thinking out loud.

            "Our biggest problems are going to be their numbers and our lack of fire-power.  And the fact they have a hostage.  On the other hand, they must think we're dead.  If we could only get the drop on one of them and snatch his ray-gun . . ."

            Mrs. J glanced back at the cave.

            "Mr. King -- I grabbed for your gun -- but there was that explosion, and I dropped it."

            "Don't feel so glum, Mrs. J -- I found it, see?"  I held up my .38, then I holstered it.  "And it stays with me, this time."

            Mrs. J gave an embarrassed grin.

            "Sorry.  But I just had to --"

            "Yeah, sure.  It would have been hard to explain in time.  But that was an idiot stunt, Mrs. J.  From now on, I'll do the idiot stunts."

            "All right."

            By now we'd almost reached the trees.  A breeze picked up, and the branches beckoned us like skeleton hands.

            "I may have to try bluffing them," I remarked.  "I try to keep track of how many shots I pop off.  Unless I miscounted, there're only two left.

            "The Stooges went that-a-way," I continued, pointing to the trees ahead.  "They can't travel too fast, lugging your husband, but we'd better hoof it, or we'll lose their trail."

            Mrs. Jameson might have wanted to say something, but she didn't get the chance.  She was cut off by a voice from on high:

            "You shall lose more than that, Earthling!  For your impertinence, you forfeit your life!"

            It's difficult to take seriously anyone who refers to you as "Earthling", but when I glanced up, my jaw dropped around my knees again.

            Above, higher than the tree-tops but lower than the flying mountains, there wheeled a furshlugginer dragon -- big, red, ugly, and mean.  Sitting between two vast crimson wings was Moe in his Logan's Run uniform.

            I pulled out my revolver, then I paused.  If I wasted my ammo now, we were screwed.

            The dragon dove like a Messerschmitt.  Moe held his Buck Rogers pistol ready.

            "Get down!" I yelled.

            I fired off one round as I threw myself in front of Mrs. J.  With a loud ZAAK!, a sparkly beam of light sprang down and hit me.  My every nerve and muscle jangled, and Mrs. J and I collapsed like Raggedy Anne and Andy.

            Out of the corner of my eye I saw the dragon angling around again.  I barely had time to drag myself over Mrs. J's body before another sledgehammer blow hit me in the kidneys.  The electric cloud that burned through my nervous system was too much even for my vampiric resilience; the night grew black again, and it was a toss-up as to whether I was undead or just plain dead.

                                                                             #

            Wind whipped over me.  Fat raindrops plopped onto my face.  I rolled off Kristine Jameson groggily and stared up into the sky.  Some sort of freak storm was in progress -- clouds slipped over and under the sky-mountains, spitting out red, orange, and blue lightning.  The mountains bobbed like icebergs around the Titanic, and to the north -- or what had been north on Long Island -- there was even a twister dipping toward the ground.  Well, why shouldn't the weather be as weird as everything else here?

            I tore my gaze from the storm when I remembered Kristine.  She didn't look too good.  I lifted her gently and hugged her to me.

            Her breathing was shallow but steady, and her pulse strong.  She'd probably feel worse than I did when she woke up, but she'd pull through.

            A gust sent a barrage of broken limbs down from the trees.  The storm grew wilder, and I didn't like the looks of that funnel.  It seemed to be the center of the storm, and all the clouds  flowed toward it like suds towards a drain.  I was loath to move Mrs. J, but I wanted to get her away from the eye of this nightmare tempest.  I lifted her inert form carefully and carried her back the way we'd come.

                                                                             #

            I'd made maybe a hundred yards when I realized we had company again.  We watched each other by the flashes of multicolored lightning, which were so frequent now, you'd have thought we were in the world's biggest roller disco.

            There were three of 'em, two men and one woman, all decked out like extras from Conan III.  The first guy was tall, handsome, muscular and clean-shaven, and he had long, blond hair down to his shoulders.  The perfect Aryan; Hitler would have been proud.  He wore some sort of chainmail sweater, and boots that went all the way up to his crotch, and in one hand he carried a sword at least four feet long.

            The second guy was a flat-out barbarian.  He wore little more than a furry loincloth, held up by a wide yellow belt, and brown mukluks.  He was shorter and stouter than the Aryan, but his reddish-brown hair was just as long, and he also had a beard that reached way down his chest.  He carried a staff of some sort, about six feet long; otherwise he was weaponless.

            The woman wore a chainmail bikini straight out of Tina Turner's closet, and she carried a sabre in her left hand.  Her right hand was gone, replaced by the business end of a pickaxe.  It might have been an effect of the rainbow-lightning, but her hair looked -- purple.

            "Whaddaya know!  Lambert was right for once!" yelled the bearded barbarian -- in English, yet.  "There are outworlders here!"

            "By their clothing, I mark them Earth-folk!" cried the blond Aryan.  "Halt, you, and tell Garth of Mournhelm what you know of yon sorcerous storm!"

            I had halted, and I was pretty confused.  What the hell did I know about the weather on their world?  Did I look like Al Roker?

            "Garth!  Gorjoon!" yelled the Amazon, pointing with the tip of her sabre.  "That woman he carries like spoils of war -- do you not recognize her?"

            The men's eyes grew wide, like I was Frankenstein carrying off a village beauty.

            "Duna's eyes are sharp!" cried the Aryan.  "'Tis the Bride of Stargod!"

            "He's got Stargod's wife?  Get him!" yelled the Barbarian.

            Bride of Stargod?  I didn't like the sound of that, and I sure didn't like the way these rejects from Lord of the Rings were advancing on us.  They probably wanted to toss Kristine into a volcano or something.

            I lay Mrs. J down and placed myself in front of her, glaring my patented hellfire glare.

            "The lady's with me, boys and girls," I yelled above the wind.  I pulled out my revolver.  "And she's stayin' with me."

            "'Ware, Gorjoon, he has an Earthian firearm!" cried Blondie.

            "Not for long!" the barbarian yelled back.

            The auburn-haired Neanderthal flipped up his staff and aimed the end at me like a spear.  I smiled my toothiest at the brute's audacity, but then the smile was wiped from my lips.

            There was a loud noise, more of a shhhha-tow than a ZAAAK, and another damned energy ray spewed out of the rod.  My arm felt like it had been yanked out by the roots.

            I stared down numbly.  The barrel of my revolver had been melted off as if with a blowtorch.  My hand was black and smoking up past the wrist, like a well-done steak.

            I fixed the hairy savage with my evilest vampire-look.

            "Brother, you just pissed me off!"

            There was maybe thirty feet separating the three warriors from me.  I ran three steps and broad-jumped the rest of the way.  The smirk on the barbarian's hirsute face disappeared as I bore him to the ground.

            "Gorjoon, is it?" I snarled, entwining my fingers in his beard.  "How's about I call you Goon for short?"

            I dragged him up with both hands.

            "Better yet, how's about I don't call you at all?"

            I swung the Neanderthal's head around like an Olympic ball on a chain.  He was lucky it stayed attached to his neck.  I let him go, and he crashed into Blondie with all the grace of a Brontosaurus.

            I turned to the lady with purple hair.  She was rearing back with her curved sword, but a vamp's reflexes are fast.  I caught her by the wrist, and she couldn't wriggle free.

            "Look, Miss, it's against my code to beat a woman into a bloody pulp --"

            I grunted involuntarily as the cut-rate Red Sonja sank her pickaxe-hand into my abdomen.

            "Correction:  it was against my code."

            I cuffed her on the side of the head so hard she did a couple of cartwheels before she landed.

            "Turn, knave, and face the blade of Garth," came Blondie's voice.

            So I turned, hands out and fingers crooked like the Boston Strangler coming in for the kill.  My whole body jerked to the left, and a searing pain flared across my chest.

            We were both stunned.  Blondie had swung his broadsword into my side with all his might.  The blade cut its way to my spine before stopping.  The hilt, still gripped in Blondie's hands, jutted out of my solar plexus.

            I stared down at the sword embedded like Excalibur in my torso.  Then I fixed Garth with a stare that would've melted a submarine.

            "That hurt."

            Blondie backed away and tripped over Goon.

            "By Stargod -- he is a demon!  'Twill take Lambert's magic to deal with such as he!  We must report this at once!"

            "Aye," called Goon.  He scrambled a safe distance away on all fours before getting up.  "And methinks I left my steed unhobbled."

            The purple-haired Amazon was the last to get to her feet and the last to back off.

            "Don't press yer luck, sister," I warned.

            "Aye, we go," she muttered, her sabre cutting slow infinity signs in the air.  "But mark me, demon, you have not heard the last of us!  We shall persevere -- for honor!  For the Other Realm!  For Stargod!"

            "Duna, come on!" cried Goon from the edge of the trees.

            The warrior woman crept backwards, her spine arched like an angry panther's, 'til she was hidden by the forest.  I allowed myself a grin of victory.

            "J-John?"

            I strode quickly back to Mrs. J's side.  I suddenly realized the storm-wind had died down.  The clouds that had piled up like football players on a fumble were now fading as if nothing had happened.

            "Mrs. Jameson?" I asked timidly as I knelt by her side.  "Kristine?"

            "John?"  She struggled to rise.  I took her hand and helped her sit up.

            "'Fraid not.  Just little old me, H. King, Boy Detective."

            "Oh . . . Mr. King . . ."

            Suddenly her eyes went from slits to doorknobs.  She was staring at my chest.

            "What's wrong?" I demanded.  "What --"

            Oh, cheese and crackers!  Garth's sword was still buried to the hilt in my old trench coat!

            I drew it out slowly, like a magician producing a line of silk hankies, and I babbled as I did so.

            "Oh -- this little thing?  It's just a flesh wound.  I mean, it's an optical illusion.  I mean --"

            Mrs. J wasn't buying it.

            "That sword in your chest  -- it doesn't even have blood on it -- and your eyes -- like a cat's -- and your teeth -- you're -- you're --"

            I sighed.

            "The word you're groping for is 'vampire'," I informed her helpfully.

            The woman drew herself up into a little ball, nodding in agreement.

            "Oh, gimme a frickin' break, Mrs. Jameson.  If I had my sites set on your jugular, I'd have been there by now.  I've never killed a living creature for blood, and I'm not going to start with a client here in La-La Land."

            I gave her a long spiel as to how Hannibal King, Detective, had tangled with a white-bearded blood-sucker named Deacon Frost and ended up Hannibal King, Vampire.  Mrs. J loosened a bit.

            "Now, I've spilled my -- er, I've let you in on my little secret.  How's about telling me about this Other Realm?  Like how did you come to know it even existed?"

            Mrs. J smiled in embarrassment.

            "I've been here before.  Briefly."

            "Huh?"

            "You see, the people here look upon John as a -- well -- as a deity of some sort.  They call him Stargod."

            I facepalmed.

            "That's what they meant by Bride of Stargod!"

            "They?" asked Mrs. J.

            I described my close encounter with the trio of warriors.  Mrs. J nodded sadly.

            "They were on our side, Mr. King."

            "Well -- the way they talked -- the way they wwere dressed -- I thought they were going to sacrifice you to a volcano or something."

            "Sacrifice me to a volcano?" repeated Mrs. J incredulously.  "Where do you get  that?"

            "Uh -- Gilligan's Island, I think.&quuot;

            "Oh, yes.  A veritable Bible of cultural anthropology."

            I smiled.  So did Mrs. J.  Underneath her matted blond tresses lurked a brain.  Mr. J was a lucky guy -- if he was still alive.

            "They ride those dragon-things too, I think, and they have a castle -- somewhere," she continued.  "And they obviously remember me.  They'd help us find John, if we can find them."

            "Yeah?  Well, the goon with the staff melted my gun, and we sure can't keep up with the Stooges' dragons on foot.  I guess we'd better try to find these warrior-people.  But next time, you do the talking."

                                                                             #

            Mrs. J soon felt fit enough to walk, and we started off like Dorothy and the Scarecrow -- except we didn't have a convenient yellow brick road.

            Out of curiosity, I carried along Goon's staff, trying to figure out the trick.  It appeared to be nothing more than a wooden pole, painted a goldenrod yellow.  I asked Mrs. J about it, but she just shrugged her shapely shoulders.

            "I don't understand this place any more than you do, Mr. King.  They dress and act like it's the Dark Ages, but some of them have weapons and machines more advanced than Earth's.  That staff may be a magic wand or a Phaser, for all I know."

            Mixed signals.  Magic or science?  Futuristic or medieval?  I never did like mixed signals . . .

 

 

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

 

Stargod

 

            As we tramped eastward (I considered north to be the direction of the brief twister), Mrs. J outlined the strange experiences of her husband and herself.  John Jameson had been sent up on a rescue mission to a space station, when somehow (the details were still classified), he managed to get hijacked to the moon.  Once there, he found one of these wacko Portals and ended up here.  In the Other Realm, Blondie and his cohorts took him to be their "Stargod" -- an Ancient Astronaut scenario, I guesssed.

            Meanwhile, Mrs. J -- back then, Kristine Saunders -- was abducted by Arisen Tyrk, would-be conqueror of the Realm.  He used Kristine as a hostage, trying to weaken Colonel Jameson's resolve to lead the Good Guys to victory.  But, like all baddies, he got it in the end, and the happy Realmites sent John and Kristine home.

            "I hoped against hope it couldn't be, but I know now that John's kidnappers are Tyrk's former followers.  I don't know why they waited so long for revenge -- or why they didn't just kill us outright.  I'm sorry I didn't tell you about Tyrk earlier, Mr. King, but -- well, it would have been a little difficult without bringing up the Other Realm.  And I was afraid that was a bit much to swallow."

            "Never mind that.  I'm more interested in the part where they sent you home.  Any chance of an encore?"

            "I don't know," admitted Mrs. J, ducking some skeletal tree limbs.  "But I'm sure that if anyone can help us, it's these Stargod worshipers."

            And I'd about killed the only ones I'd come across.  I groaned.

            We trudged on, backtracking the strange trio.  I had to pace myself to Mrs. J; not that she couldn't hack it, but there were plenty of logs and rocks and branches to trip over, and I was the one who could see in the dark.

            And I didn't like what I saw.  This was a kid's nightmare-forest straight out of Snow White, and I could imagine groping claws and glowing eyes everywhere.

            Imagine?

            I froze, holding the Goon's staff like a baseball bat.  There had been cricketlike noises all around, but they suddenly stopped.

            "What's up?" asked Mrs. J.

            "Rig for rough seas." I whispered.

            I glanced from tree to tree.  Nothing.  I was almost ready to chalk it up to my inflated paranoia, when I heard leaves brushing against something big -- overhead!

            I looked up to see blackness -- only a couple of feet away.  Several limbs like hairy boathooks reached down and sank into my body.  I heard Mrs. J scream, and whatever it was gave an answering shriek.

            I beat on a rubbery, bristly body, and I pulled futilely on the giant tarantula legs grasping me.  I heard a slurp, and something white and acid-stinky dribbled on my shoulder.

            I still gripped the Goon’s rod in my hand.  I aimed it upward and thrust several times, like someone trying to quieten the people upstairs.  The rod sank into something soft -- the mouth, I hoped -- and I sent out mental commands like my 33 1/3 mind had jumped to 78.

            C'mon, you stupid bastard stick, c'mon, do something!  Ya worked for the Goon, do something for your ol' Uncle Hannibal.  Do something or I'll smash you for kindling!

            There was a muffled Whoomp!, like a depth-charge going off, and the stick jerked down with the force of a piston-rod, despite my death grip on it.  More digestive juice or poison or whatever it was splattered on me.  The creature spazzed and dropped me like a used condom.

            I landed on my back, and I watched the dark outline of the Thing recede into the sky.  It was two parts tarantula and one part praying mantis, with a couple of scorpion-tails added for good measure.  It had been hanging down on a cord like a spider from a flying mountain.  I could see a white patch of webbing near the asteroid's inverted peak.  I guess the monster nested up there and went trolling for supper on the earth below.

            "Mr. King!  Are you all right?"

            Mrs. J gave me a hand up.  My legs jittered like a newborn foal's.

            "N-never felt better," I muttered.  I gathered a handful of leaves and rubbed as much of the digestive juice off my shirt as I could.  "I hate to say it, Mrs. J, but this Other Realm of yours is not going on my list of vacation wonderlands."

                                                                             #

            We came upon a clearing, and in patches of mud I found the warrior trio's footprints, along with some odd paw-prints that started and ended nowhere.

            "Flying dragons?" I queried.

            "Probably," Mrs. J answered.

            "Then we'll have to choose our own direction to go."

            We stared at each other like zombies.  Finally, I spat in my right hand and slapped my left index finger on it.  A string of spit flew off at two o'clock.

            "Thataway."

            Mrs. J was looking rough around the edges, but she smirked at my decision.

            "What do you call that?"

            "My detective's infallible intuition."

            "Looked more like blind chance."

            "That's another term for it.  But Blondie and company came from this general direction on foot.  Maybe they kept the same heading while flying."

            Mrs. J held her arm out stiff, palm open.

            "Lead on, MacDuff."

            "OK, Mrs. J.  But call me Hannibal."

            "OK, Hannibal . . . If you call me Kristine."

                                                                             #

            We traveled a couple more hours before Kristine reached the end of her rope.  I was getting tired, I should hope she was.  She certainly looked exhausted -- her breathing was ragged, her clothing was torn, and her stride became more of a limp.

            We stopped beneath a willow-like tree.  Kristine stretched out without a sound and made like Sleeping Beauty.  I sniffed the air; somewhere close was fresh water.

            "There's a stream nearby," I said.  "I'll see if I can find it.  Don't go away."

            "You're joking, right?" Kristine asked without opening her eyes.  Seconds later she was snoring.

            I climbed a small knoll, using the Goon's rod as a hiking staff.  I glanced back occasionally to make sure nothing crept up on Mrs. J.  I weaved my way past a number of white boulders that jutted out of the ground like thousand-pound molars.  On the other side of the hill I found a brook, its waters dancing in the twin moons' light.

            I pulled out my handkerchief, intending to soak it and carry it back to Kristine.  I figured the touch of it on her face would encourage her to climb those last few yards to the water's edge.

            As I approached the shore, a tickle like an electric current buzzed in my stomach.  It grew to a jangling pain as I reached the brook, and I could barely force myself to soak the hanky in the icy flow.

            Running water, I thought.  I could not pass it without help.

            When I crested the hill again, I saw someone new crouching over Kristine's inert form.  I couldn't leave her alone for a minute.  Then I realized it wasn't someone, but something.

            It was built like a man, and it walked on two feet, but it had a head like a wolf's.  It had snow-white fur, a mink stole of a tail, and wicked fingernail/claws like guitar picks.  A frickin' werewolf!

            Wolfie bent over Mrs. J a little too friendly-like, so I made like the cavalry and charged.  I would have thought he possessed senses as keen as mine, but he didn't seem to notice me until I was on top of him.

            "Hey, Fangpuss!  Heads up!"

            The wolf-man looked up just in time for my shoe and his jaw to meet with a loud crack.  Wolfie somersaulted backwards, and for the first time I realized he wore clothes.  They grew 'em modest hereabouts.

            He had on some sort of armor made of green lizard scales.  His limbs were bare, except for gold wristbands that covered his forearms, and big green boots on his feet.  His boots were open at the front, which was just as well, because his claws would have probably poked holes in steel-toed work shoes.  He even had a long red scabbard hanging from a belt, complete with sword -- as if Beastie-Boy needed a weapon.

            Wolfie crashed on his yard-long tail, but he bounced like rubber to his feet.  He was snarling now, and I had the sneaking suspicion he was going to be a bigger pain in the butt than all three Realmites put together.  I hopped over Mrs. J, wondering if I could get Goon's zap-stick to work again.

            [You!]

            I didn't stop, but I did slow, when I heard a word that had not been spoken.

            [Yours is the scent I've been tracking!  You look like an Earthman, but you're not human!]

            He started toward me, the hair on his head and arms bristling.

            "Jeez!  It talks, too!"

            Goon's rod wouldn't give out a spark, so I held it horizontally, ready to give Fangpuss a smack with either end.

            [That staff!] came Wolfie's silent speech again, superimposed over a snarl.  [Where did you get it?]

            "None of your beeswax, Wolfie," I snarled back.  "But you're gonna get it if you don't back off!"

            Wolfie leapt then, and I fell forward into his pounce.  We collided and he grabbed the stick, and then we both pushed like Sumo wrestlers.

            Wolfie craned his neck and sank his pearly whites into my shoulder.  That gave me the impetus to shove him away.  I felt a painful rip as his fangs came out, but he lost his hold on the staff.  I let him have the end of it under the chin; he stumbled back and tripped over a chunk of marble.  This time he didn't bounce up.

            I launched myself in a flying tackle to keep him down.  Wolfie yanked out his sword in the blink of an eye and held it up like a stake in a tiger trap.  So it's detective-on-a-stick time again.  The sword wasn't silver or wood, though, so nothing much happened.

            Except I rose, royally pissed.

            [What?  You don't fall?] asked Wolfie.

            My answer was to hook my fingers over the neckline of his scaly armor.

            "Lissen, Fangs, this is the second time tonight I been shish kebabbed!"

            I grabbed a handful of fur 'round his thigh, then I hoisted him over my head.

            "And I'm gettin' damn tired of it!"

            I hurled Wolfie with all my might.  Even I was amazed how far he flew.  He flipped head over heels and hit a tree so hard that bark splattered in all directions.  The tree shook with a shoosh, and half the leaves came loose like confetti.  Wolfie slid down the trunk and disappeared behind a white boulder.

            I circled the rock.  Even now Fangpuss might not be out of it.  I curled two fingers under the crossbar of his sword and yanked it out with an ugly shluup.  It felt like I'd ripped out a handful of chest hairs.

            It was about this point that Mrs. J finally rejoined us.

            "John!  Where are you?"

            I looked hard to starboard.  Kristine was sitting up and glancing around wild-eyed, like a kid snapping out of a bad dream.

            [Kristine!]

            I blinked.  That came from Wolfie.  How did he know her name?

            I heard a loud brrrip, which dragged my attention back to Fangpuss.  He was up again.  His eyes blazed like the two moons above, and his hair stood out in a lion's mane around his head.  He had plucked the boulder out of the ground like a turnip, and now he lifted it as easily as I'd lifted him.

            [Enough!  We end this -- now!]

            Wolfie chucked the boulder up in the air.  I didn't think the Hulk could have done it so easily.  I had a second to decide what to do.  I could have dodged, but I thought, Anything you can do, so I scowled and met the rock with a stiff-armed volleyball save.

            THOOMP.

            I felt like the recipient of a Sixteen Ton Weight on Monty Python.  There didn't seem to be anything left of me but my head, shoulders, and arms; the rest was buried under a new Mount Rushmore.  My ears popped with the pressure of all my bodily juices shooting into my brain.  Every bone below the neck had busted, and the bits grated against all my nerve endings.  I flailed my arms and gurgled.

            Mist, some part of my throbbing brain whispered.  You can turn into mist, dope!

            True.  But back on Earth, when I first awakened with a new set of fangs, I swore never to change into mist or a bat.  I refused to acknowledge the curse . . . But even then circumstances dictated otherwise.

            I had to do something before Wolfie got it into his head to lop off mine with his fancy pigsticker.  My pain became a mild vertigo as my body dissolved into impalpable fog.  I billowed out from under the rock and pulled myself together a few yards away.  As my ears solidified again, I heard a most unexpected exchange:

            "John!  I knew you were near!  I heard you, even asleep!"

            [Kristine!  Are you all right?]

            "Yes, but -- but you're the Man-Wolf again . . ."

            [I know, Kristine.  Some power of the Realm itself appears to use me as a receptacle.]

            Wolfie was John Jameson?  Well, knock me over with a boulder!

            Mrs. J got around to asking, "Where's Mr. King?", just as I became solid enough to speak.

            "THAT'S your husband?"

            [You!] exclaimed Fangpuss.  [Materializing out of thin air?]

            No telling what would have happened then, but Mrs. J jumped between us and played ref.

            "John -- Mr. King -- wait!  This is all a terrible misunderstanding!"

            Then she started babbling, alternating between Wolfie and me, and eventually we learned each other's story.  Wolfie found out how I'd been hired by his wife, and I found out how John Jameson had become -- the Man-Wolf!

            He had discovered an odd gemstone on his lunar expedition, which he kept as a souvenir.  He decided to wear it around his neck as a pendant, which proved to be a mistake.  The gem was alive, after a fashion; it grafted itself to his throat and transformed him into the Other Realm's lupine deity.

            Unfortunately, only a fraction of this "Stargod" power leaked down to Earth, enough to give Jameson his fiercesome exterior, but not the powers or wisdom of "Stargod".  Even his normal intelligence was usurped, and he roamed the land as a Grade B movie monster.  He decided to go AWOL before he injured or killed Kristine.

            Eventually, though, he turned himself in to the authorities at Cape Canaveral -- just about the time contact was lost with the space station Mrs. J mentioned earlier.  In a moment of supremely poor judgement, the NASA officials offered to have all charges dropped if Colonel Jameson would go on the rescue mission .

            So he did. . . and once up yonder, so close to the Moon, he became the Man-Wolf again with a vengeance.  He managed to crash his rescue ship on the lunar surface, near a Portal to the Other Realm.  Once there -- I mean, here -- Jameson's mind took control of the Man-Wolf's body.  The Realmites declared him to be the living incarnation of their god, and --

            "-- The rest is pretty much as I told you before."

            I held a staring match with the wolf-headed humanoid Mrs. J claimed as her husband.  Finally I addressed her.

            "Mrs. J -- after all we've seen tonight, you know I would have believed you.  You could have at least given me a hint!"

            [Do not blame Kristine, Mr. King,] said Wolfie.  [As far as we knew, the Moongem was the only cause of my transformations.  It was finally destroyed, and it is an episode of our lives we've been trying to forget.]

            I eyed Mrs. J again.

            "So you thought I could be spared these embarrassing details of your past?  Like Arisen Tyrk and the Other Realm?"

            She avoided my gaze and wrung her hands.

            "Er -- yes."

            "Mrs. Jameson -- are there any other details you thought I could do without?"

            She grinned in embarrassment and spread her hands as if to show she hid nothing.

            "No.  I believe we've covered most everything."

            "OK.  Just wanted to make sure."

            Wolfie glanced from his wife to me and back as he followed our exchange.  Then he advanced on me, his fur all ruffled again.

            [Mr. King --]

            "Yeah?"  I puffed up myself, like a Rhode Island Red.

            His muzzle split in a toothy smile.

            [I want to thank you for all you've done for us.  And apologize for --]  He glanced back at the boulder he'd chucked at me -- [-- any inconveniences.]

            I deflated again in relief.  I didn't want to get on Wolfie's bad side.  I followed his gaze and gave a snort.

            "Is that what you call it?"

            [This has been a long, trying experience for us all.  And it isn't over yet.  My captors spoke of Arisen Tyrk as if he still lived.  If he does, then Kristine and I will never be safe.]

            Wolfie -- that is, Colonel Jameson -- turned to his wife again.  They joined hands and looked into each other's eyes.  Beauty and the Beast time.

            [Kristine -- I must remain here long enough to putt an end to Tyrk and his followers permanently.]

            "I understand, John.  And I'm staying 'til we've seen this through."

            [But --]

            "But I should pop back through the first Portal that comes along?" Kristine asked, smiling.  "I almost lost you once, doing that.  Not again."

            This was all very noble, but it sounded mightily like we weren't going to try too hard to get back to terra firma.

            As if sensing my thoughts, the Man-Wolf and his Missis glanced my way.

            [Mr. King, it is not fair to drag you into all this.  As Stargod, mine is the highest authority in the Realm.  If there exists any way of returning you to Earth --]

            I raised my hand to stop him.

            "Ahh, who am I tryin' to kid?  I'm in it up to my neck, already.  Mrs. Mulberry'll have to wait for the rent again."

 

 

 

 

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