CRESCENT MOON

The Nightcreature Novels Book #4

 

   A life spent fulfilling a vow to a dead man is really no life at all, but I’d loved Simon Malone, and I’d promised.

   I’m a zoologist by trade, a cryptozoologist by choice. If I’d followed my training, I’d be holed up in a zoo or worse, studying giraffes and pygmy goats. Instead, I trace rumors of mythical animals and try to prove they exist. A frustrating exercise. There’s a reason no one’s captured a Bigfoot. They don’t want to be found, and they’re a lot better at hiding than anyone on earth is at seeking. Or at least that’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it

   Most cryptozoologists attempt to find undiscovered species or evolutionary wonders—real animals, nothing paranormal about them—but not me. I’d made that vow. Foolish, but when a woman loves a man the way that I loved Simon, she does foolish things, especially when he’s dying in her arms.

   So I follow every legend, every folk tale, every scrap of information, trying to uncover something mythical and prove it real.   Though I’ve never believed in magic, my husband did, and the only thing I’ve ever believed in was him.

   I was having very little luck with my quest until the night the phone rang at 3:00 a.m. Insomnia and a very empty checking account made me answer it despite the hour.

   “Dr. Malone?” The voice was male, a bit shaky, old or perhaps ill.

   “Not yet."

   I needed to find a cryptid—translation: unknown animal—prove its existence, write a thesis. Then I could attach those lovely letters—Ph.D.—at the end of my name. But since the whole vow incident I’d been too busy chasing lake monsters and Sasquatch clones to spend time finding a new breed of anything.

   “Is this Diana Malone?”

   “Yes. Who’s this?”

   “Frank Tallient.”

   The name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t figure out why. “Have we met?”

   “No. I got your number from Rick Canfield.”

   Swell. The last guy who’d said those immortal words, “You’re fired.”

   Rick was a lawyer who’d gone on a fishing trip with a bunch of other lawyers near Lake of the Woods, Minnesota. In the middle of the night he’d seen something in the lake. Something slick and black and very, very big.

   Being a lawyer, he was smart enough not to tell the others he’d lost his mind. Instead he’d gone home, searched the Internet and made some phone calls, trying to find someone to help him discover if what he’d seen had been real or imagined. He’d found me.

   “Rick thought you’d be free to help me,” Tallient continued.

   I was free all right. Unemployed. Again. A common occurrence in my life. I was very good at looking for things, not so good at actually finding them. However, I was one of the few cryptozoologists willing to travel on a whim for cash.

   I wasn’t associated with a university—not anymore. Not since Simon had gone over the edge, tarnishing both his reputation and my own. I depended on the kindness of strangers—hell, let’s be honest and just call them strange—to fund my expeditions. Right now I was fresh out of both expeditions and funds.

   “Since you didn’t locate Nessie—” Tallient began.

   “Nessie’s the Loch Ness Monster. I was searching for Woody.”

   Which was the name Rick had bestowed on the thing. People have no originality when naming lake beasts, always opting for some variation of the body of water they supposedly resided in.

   As usual, the moment I’d arrived at Lake of the Woods with my cameras and recorders whatever Rick might have seen had gone poof. If it had ever been there in the first place.

   In my expert opinion, an obscenely large muskie was responsible for the tales, not a supernatural lake monster, but I hadn’t been able to prove that, either.

   “I have a job for you,” Tallient continued.

   “I’m listening.”

   I had no choice. Though my parents were incredibly wealthy, they thought I was nuts and had stopped speaking to me the instant I married Simon. After all, what could a handsome, brilliant, up-and- coming zoologist from Liverpool see in a not-very-pretty, far too sturdy grad student unless it was her parents’ millions? He already had a green card. That Simon had told them exactly what they could do with their money had only made me love him more.

   In truth, I fit into Simon’s world better than I’d ever fit in my own. I stood five-foot-ten in my bare feet; on a good day I weighed a hundred and sixty. I liked the out-of-doors—didn’t mind dirt or sun, wind or rain. I’d joined the Girl Scouts just so I could camp. I’d done pretty much anything and everything I could think of to emphasize my differences from the never-too-rich, never- too-thin lifestyle of my mother.

   “Can you access the Internet?” Tallient asked.

   “Hold on.” I tapped my laptop, which sprang from asleep to awake much quicker than I ever did. “Okay.”

   Tallient recited a www-dot address. An instant later, a newspaper article spilled across my screen.

   “ ‘Man Found Dead in a Swamp,’” I read. “Not unusual.” Swamps were notorious dumping grounds for bodies. If the muck didn’t take them, the alligators would.

   “Keep going.”

   “Throat torn. Feral dogs. Huh.” I accessed the next page. “Child missing. Coyotes. No body. Seems straightforward.”

   “Not really.”

   Tallient recited a second address, and I read some more. “Wolf sightings.”

   My heart increased in tempo. Wolves had been Simon’s specialty; they’d turned into his obsession. Now they were mine.

   “Where is this?” I demanded.

   “New Orleans.”

   If possible, my heart beat even faster. Once red wolves had roamed the Southeast from the Atlantic to the Gulf and west to Texas. They’d been sighted as far north as Missouri and Pennsylvania. But in 1980 the red wolf had been declared extinct in the wild. In 1987 they’d been reintroduced, but only in North Carolina. So...

   “There aren’t any wolves in Louisiana,” I said.

   “Precisely.”

   “There’s a legend, though....” I struggled to remember it. “Honey Island Swamp monster.”

   “I doubt that Bigfoot-like footprints found thirty years ago have any relationship to death, disappearance, and wolves where they aren’t supposed to be.”

   He had a point.

   “Could be an ABC,” I said.

   The acronym stood for “Alien Big Cat”—a cryptozoological label given to reports of out-of-place felines. Black panthers in Wisconsin. A jaguar in Maine. Happens a lot more than you’d think.

   Most of the time ABCs were explained away as exotic animals released into the woods when they became too hard to handle or too big to fit in an apartment. Funny thing was, no one ever found them.

   If they were pets, wouldn’t they be easy to catch? Wouldn’t their bones, or even their collars, turn up after a truly wild animal killed them? Wouldn’t there be at least one record of an ABC being hit by a truck on the interstate?

   But there wasn’t

   “This is a wolf, not a cat.”

   I was impressed with Tallient’s knowledge of crypto-terminology but too caught up in the mystery unfolding before my eyes to compliment him on it.

   “Same principle. Could be someone dumped a wolf in the swamp. Nothing special about it.”

   Except wolves weren’t vicious. They didn’t attack people. Unless they were starving, wolf-dog hybrids, or rabid. None of which were a good thing.

   “There’ve been whispers of wolves in and around New Orleans for years.”

   “How many years?” I asked.

   “At least a hundred.”

   “What?”

   Tallient chuckled. “I thought you’d enjoy that. The disturbances don’t seem to occur in any particular month, or even a common season. But they always happen during the same lunar phase.”

   “Full moon.”

   No matter what the skeptics say, full moons drive people and animals wacko. Ask anyone who’s ever worked in an emergency room, psych ward, or county zoo.

   “Not full,” Tallient said. “Crescent.”

   I glanced at the thin, silver, smiley moon visible from my window. “What was the date on those articles?”

   “May.”

   Five months ago. “And since then?”

   “Nothing.”

   “Could be because the bodies weren’t found.”

   “Exactly. Things that hunt under a certain phase of the moon do so every month. They can’t help themselves.”

   I wasn’t sure about “things,” but I was sure about animals. They were nothing if not creatures of habit.

   “A body was found yesterday,” Tallient continued. “Hasn’t hit the papers yet.”

   I looked at the moon again. Guess I was right.

   “What’s your interest in this?” I asked.

   “Cryptozoology fascinates me. I’d love to go on an expedition, but I’m... not well.”

   I stood. My feet literally itched. I bounced on my toes as excitement threatened to make me jump at this chance. I had to remember: What seemed too good to be true often was.

   “You want to pay me to find a wolf where a wolf isn’t supposed to be. Once I do, then what?”

   “Trap it and call me.”

   Not an unusual request in my line of work. The people who hired me usually did so in the hopes that they would become famous by revealing some mythical creature to the world, and they wanted to be the ones to do the revealing. I had no problem with that as long as the disclosure took place. All I wanted was to prove Simon hadn’t been crazy.

   “I can do that."

   “You do realize this isn’t just a wolf?”

   I hoped not, but my hopes weren’t often realized.

   “They call it a loup-garou. That’s French for—”

   “Werewolf.”

   The rush of adrenaline made me dizzy. Though I took jobs searching for any paranormal entity—beggars couldn’t be choosers—the true focus of my quest should have been a lycanthrope. As Simon’s had been.

   The only problem was, I just couldn’t believe. Even though my maiden name was O’Malley and my father’s family hailed from the land of leprechauns and fairies, in Boston, where I grew up, the only fanciful thing was the city’s rabid belief in a curse on the BoSox.

   In my youth there’d been no nonsense allowed—no Santa, no tooth fairy—I had to fight to read fiction. Which might explain why I fell so in love with a man who dreamed of magic.

   I glanced around our apartment near the campus of the University of Chicago. I hadn’t moved a book, hadn’t given away his clothes, hadn’t realized until just this moment how pathetic that was.

   “I find it strange,” Tallient murmured, “that odd things happen under a crescent moon in the Crescent City, don’t you?”

   I found it more than strange. I found it irresistible.

   “Are you interested?”

   Why did he bother to ask? He had to have heard how Simon had died. He had to know Dr. Malone’s sterling reputation had wound up in tatters. Tallient might not be aware that I’d vowed to make everyone who’d scorned Simon eat their words, but he had to suspect it considering what I’d been doing in the four years since my husband had died.

   My gaze fell on the only picture I had of Simon— knee-deep in a Canadian lake, slim, scholarly, blond, and brilliant—his grin still made me yearn. My stomach flopped as it did every time I remembered he was gone forever. But his hopes, his dreams, his work, lived on in me.

   “I’ll be on a plane in the morning.”

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