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Short story 48

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  1. inayat

    inayat Head Game Master Moderator

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    The taxi lurched across the snow-blanketed road, the windshield a wet blur between creaking strokes of the wipers. The cabbie was nervous. Terrified. That much was clear from his refusal to go above fifteen, despite having the highway completely to himself at this unbearably late hour. It wasn’t exactly a blizzard, but they just weren’t used to snow in this country. Of course, he was on his third cigarette – with the windows rolled up – since the two foreigners had piled into his cab. So much for health and safety.

    In the back seats, past the metal mesh, sat his fare: two foreign women named Rebecca and Freya. Rebecca had come to this country to teach English at an elementary school. Her flight had been booked weeks before the breakout and long before the nationwide lockdown. Before arriving, she had debated with herself in agonizing repetition about the dangers and consequences of following through with her journey. As it often did, logic won out; the virus had been around for decades, was only now being overreported in the news, and would inevitably make its way to her own country, where she didn’t have any job or prospects. And there was a less than one percent chance of her ever coming within a twenty-block radius of an infected therianthrope. Therianthrope – hard to believe that word was now trending on social media, and that images of ravenous, marauding beasts were being broadcast every night into people’s living rooms. Plus, there was no way she would get reimbursed for her plane ticket. Not if she didn’t honour her arrangement with the school and arrive on the previously agreed upon date. As neurotic of a hypochondriac as Rebecca was, she was also cheap.

    Beside her was the woman named Freya, whom Rebecca had only known for eleven hours. They both arrived on the same flight and sparked up a conversation after making their way through customs. Lockdown being as ironclad as it was here, the government had imposed a curfew: no nonessential travel past nine. With all the government checkpoints straining traffic, it was a six-hour wait for a cab. During that interminable delay, the two had discovered they were heading in the same direction and agreed to split a taxi.

    Rebecca Palmer, a sickly, petite woman, with lank mouse-coloured hair and tectonic-thick bifocals, was used to going unnoticed. So, it was of some bewildering surprise that Freya was the one to approach her. Rebecca had noted Freya from a far some time ago: her tall, curvy frame, her tumbling chestnut hair, her olive-tone skin. She looked more like a magazine cover girl than a child psychologist – as she had told Rebecca was her profession. In her mile-a-minute bloviating – not that Rebecca cared to get a word in edgewise – Freya informed her she had gotten her job and visa to treat young children affected by the recent spread of therianthropy in that country. Children who’d been torn from their homes in the fallout and panic – had been scarred witnessing the epidemic and its aftermath. Apparently, she was some sort of an expert back in her home country of Sweden. Truth be told, Rebecca didn’t care what Freya’s reason for coming was any more than she desired to share a conversation with this perfect stranger. But, seeing the queue for a cab, and liking the idea of splitting the fare, Rebecca agreed to brave the snowstorm alongside her. Again, above nearly all else, Rebecca was cheap.

    Through the melting ice on the passenger door window, Rebecca could just make out the odd vacant building, and the black wilderness stretching endlessly beyond the side of the road, unmolested by light. Rolling her fifth cough-drop over her tongue, she stared dully at the scenery, too jet-lagged and too poorly to care. She’d had a bad cough for the past three days – and was now feeling the glow of an oncoming fever.

    When she saw bright lights up ahead, she knew it would be trouble.

    In the middle of the road, under glaring industrial bulbs mounted on tripods, were two men wearing hazmat suits, each holding something heavy in his hand. On the side of the road, sat a large government-issued van, and a white tent with a half dozen other men huddled underneath.

    Rebecca felt her heart drop when the cab ground down to a stop.

    “W-What’s happening?” she whined though panted breath.

    “It’s fine,” said Freya in staid, husky voice. “It’s a check stop. We’re past curfew.”

    “Curfew?” Rebecca’s head swivelled as though stuck on the tip of an oiled pike. She didn’t know why she was so surprised; this was a totalitarian communist state – with a less than inspiring human rights record. “What do we do?”

    The cabbie rolled down his window and began speaking in rapid-fire diction to the hazmat-suited men.

    “Relax,” assured Freya. “It’s only a problem if we don’t have a valid reason. We just show them our visas and our plane tickets. You kept your plane ticket, right?”

    Frantically, Rebecca tore into her bag, tossing aside clouds of tissues, then sighed with exquisite relief upon finding her stub.

    She then jumped at the patter of knuckles against the window. From the outside, looking in, the hazmat-suited man gestured with his hand, making a circular motion. Rebecca promptly rolled down the window.

    The man spoke in the local dialect, which Rebecca didn’t understand.

    “He says this is the southeast checkpoint. We have to go out to that tent on the side of the road,” said Freya with confidence. She pointed to the open tent, where half a dozen men in biohazard-wear were congregated around a shabby table. Obviously, it was helpful having someone who spoke both the language and English with her. Still, for some reason, Rebecca would have preferred remaining ignorant.

    “It’s fine,” said Freya, laying her hand on Rebecca’s wrist. Reading her thoughts. “They just want to make sure we have reason to be out past curfew and that we aren’t infected. It’ll probably only take five minutes. Ten minutes tops.”

    The hazmat-suited man beside her window spoke again, his tone hurried. Freya said nothing but opened the door and climbed out. Seeing no other option, Rebecca followed.

    A small man wearing glasses and a gun-metal grey parka sat prominently behind the shabby table. On the table, beside his elbow, was what looked to be a ledger, on the pages of which were written what looked like thousands of names. Beside the names were long numbers and the time of their arrival. There were also clipboards, pens, radios, and an assortment of other gadgets, many of which strewn on top of milk cartons.

    “You have friend here?” grey parka spoke in broken-English. “You have some friend here you can call? Translate.”

    “I can speak the language,” muttered Freya, who then said something that sounded similar in the local dialect.

    The man nodded indifferently, then began speaking to her. Freya did not interrupt and did not break eye-contact either.

    Fretfully, Rebecca watched on, chewing her bottom lip, her tongue tingly and sickly sweet from her last cough-drop. She stood erect before the ragged desk, standing between Freya and the twitchy, pear-shaped cab driver.

    The man in the grey parka mumbled something, and Freya produced her documents. She then looked at Rebecca, so she knew to do the same.

    Grey parka scanned the items with lackadaisical concern, like a pawn-shop owner examining a Rolex. He began writing something down on one of the paper sheets in front of him.

    Shivering from the frigid night air, Rebecca battled to keep her teeth from chattering – or at least from chattering too loudly. She scanned the faces of the other hazmat-suited men and saw one pair of eyes that looked warmly – sympathetically her way. They belonged to a younger looking man, who was shorter than the others and seemed powerfully built. His face – which wasn’t masked – was pleasantly rounded and soft, like a Harvey Comic Books character. He actually smiled at Rebecca and gave her a little nod. No doubt a feeble attempt to set her mind at ease. Regardless, Rebecca frowned and averted her gaze.

    Grey parka then said something briefly to Freya.

    “They’re going to take our temperatures now,” Freya translated.

    Rebecca looked back at her desperately.

    “They have to examine your pupils as well if you have a fever,” Freya assured her, reading Rebecca’s mind. This was true. An infected therianthrope was not only reported to be inflicted with a burning temperature, but also severely diminished pupils, the irises of which gleamed unnatural colours for humans.

    Rebecca watched as one of the older looking men in a biohazard suit approached Freya. In his hand he had a white, plastic device, which looked like a .38 but with a flat, concave barrel. Rebecca watched him point then press it to Freya’s forehead, the curve of her skull fitting the concave end. After about a dozen seconds, a tinny jingle sounded, and the man withdrew the device. He looked at it, seeing the recorded temperature, and nodded approvingly. Grey parka handed her back her passport and ticket.

    It was now Rebecca’ turn to have her temperature taken. Despite the callous chill in the air, she could feel sweat accumulate on the small of her back.

    The tinny jingle sounded almost immediately. The man looked at the device with visible concern then muttered something to grey parka. Grey parka looked up hard at Rebecca. The cabdriver then had his temperature taken. Rebecca did not receive her documents. Something was wrong.

    After the third jingle from the temperature device, the man gave another affirming nod at grey parka. The same he’d given after checking Freya.

    Grey parka looked up at Freya and said something Rebecca didn’t understand. For the first time, Rebecca read worry in Freya’s exquisite face.

    Freya said something back to him with an edge in her voice. The man in the grey parka responded in kind. Rebecca could tell they were arguing.

    She looked at the cabbie beside her, who was now looking at her as though she had leprosy. Her eyes sought out the kinder soldier with the Richie Rich face. He looked at her as though she had just been sentenced to die.

    “She has high temperature!” grey parka shouted from the table, perforating his local tirade with English.

    “That’s not enough to prove she’s a therianthrope,” retorted Freya. “You have to check her pupils to be sure.”

    Their shouting match in the other language resumed.

    Abruptly, the shouting ceased. Grey parka looked up at Rebecca and pointed. “Go over there,” he growled, pointing to where the four other hazmat-suited men were standing. Rebecca hadn’t noticed until then that each of them was cradling a machine gun.

    “What?” bleated Rebecca before being pulled aside by the arm. Her eyes rivetted with terror, she looked up at the three men holding her, their faces were stony and unmoved.

    “No!” she heard Freya insist. “No, she has the flu. A high temperature isn’t enough to prove she has the virus. You have to check her irises. She just has the flu!”

    Grey parka stood, halting the others with his upraised hand. He then addressed Rebecca.

    “You have money?” he asked in his slanted English.

    Rebecca squinted her eyes and cocked her head to the side. “What?”

    “You have money?” he repeated.

    Freya barked something in the language then in English said, “She doesn’t have to pay. A fever isn’t enough proof she’s a therianthrope. You must check her irises.”

    The two men from the road surrounded Freya, absorbing her from Rebecca’s sight. A third man crowded her further.

    The cabbie, apparently free to go, ran to his automobile. Without hesitation, he hurled both Freya and Rebecca’s luggage from his trunk into the snow, before speeding away into the night.

    Great, thought Rebecca. Even if we make it through this, we’re stranded.

    Rebecca was then kicked in the leg from behind, forcing her to bend at the knee. Like an accordion, her legs collapsed under her. The barrels of three rifles were pointed above her puny shoulders. Richie Rich stood in front of her, his weapon draped over one shoulder, his mouth forming a small O.

    Tears welled up in Rebecca’s eyes; she didn’t have enough money. Not enough to satisfy what these men wanted. They would probably just take it off of her perforated corpse anyway. It then occurred to her – the reality of the situation smacking her in the face – that she was actually about to die. They are really going to kill me, she thought. Will anyone find my body?

    Grey parka spoke to Freya over the shoulders of the other men holding her back. “You give money? We spare your friend’s life, you give us money. No?”

    Even from her obstructed viewpoint, Rebecca could see the cindering glare Freya shot at grey parka. Or perhaps, in the palpable silence, she just imagined she had.

    Grey parka then turned and said something to Richie Rich. The latter muttered something short with audible trepidation.

    Grey parka hollered the same order, this time more sharply.

    From the sleeted ground, Freya watched and listened to the heated exchange between the two men. Evidently galled, grey parka sprinted over to him, pulling out a Glock from inside his coat and shoving it in the other man’s hands. Cradling the gun sheepishly, his chin drooping down like a scolded dog, Richie Rich was silent, listening to grey parka squawk and point emphatically at Rebecca’s head. Rebecca didn’t need to be bilingual to understand. Do it. Shoot her. Now. Now!

    His eyes almost as moist as hers, Rich Richie looked down at Rebecca, and slowly pointed the gun at her chest.

    Accepting her grim fate, Rebecca closed her eyes.

    She was smelling her late nana’s peach cobbler, hearing The Beatles for the first time, feeling the warmth of the sun on her face while lying in the grassy field of her youth, when her mind was snapped back to the present by an ear-splitting scream ten feet away. She looked in the direction of the noise, seeing that Freya had disappeared, and was replaced by an eight-foot-tall, thousand-pound obscenity. The scream had come from one of the three hazmat-suited men, who now lay nearly decapitated in a red mound of snow.

    The two others near the creature were thrown aside like locks of hair in the hulking, shaggy-furred monster’s wake. Its silhouette was silver and quavering, illuminated by the blazing floodlights in the road. It then made a lumbering beeline for Richie Rich, who stood paralyzed, the Glock almost falling from his hand. Within seconds, the animal had tackled him to the ground and eviscerated his neck – from chin to collarbone – with its thrashing jaws.

    Squirming away, her ass dragging across the wet floor, Rebecca watched the creature stand toweringly on its hind legs, maiming the three remaining men with brutal paw-swipes, before a single volley of gunfire could sound. A metallic odour filled the night air.

    Her veins singing with adrenaline, Rebecca turned her head, hearing a shuffling commotion to the side. Behind the table, burrowing in the corner, was grey parka, hunched over. He was rummaging for something. He then stood and turned, holding his own semi-automatic rifle. At that moment, Rebecca could not place with any reasonably accuracy which outcome she preferred: the monster shot to death, or grey parka eaten alive.

    The monster must have seen what Rebecca had, because it was now charging the man, who just managed to raise the rifle and squeeze off a round. Clamping her palms to her ears, Rebecca ducked her head into her knees, knowing that it was over once the gunfire had ceased and the screaming had commenced. The ground rumbled. Peering through splayed fingers, she saw the monster – which she had just now realized resembled a grizzly bear – had pinned grey parka to the ground and was now crushing him with its front paws. There was another thunderous stomp, a wet crackle of bone, and no more screaming.

    Seeing the creature’s back turned, Rebecca scrambled to her feet, fleeing from the tent and into the nearby wilderness. Beyond the hazy gloom, she could make out a dark woodland, just past the wide field of snow.

    Once enveloped in the thick foliage, she didn’t stop running until her legs burned the way her lungs did, and she could taste copper at the back of her throat. Shaking and sweaty, she ducked behind a tree trunk, and waited until it was safe. But when would it ever – ever be safe?

    It wasn’t long until Rebecca heard the car horn. At first, she ignored it, assuming it was an alarm or some passing motorist. But then she noticed a pattern. Long beep – short beep – long beep – short beep – three long beeps – pause – two long beeps – short beep. Morse code. Come out. She listened to the next series of beeps. All’s safe. The pattern repeated and Rebecca was certain of the message: Come out. All’s safe.

    Her teeth were no longer chattering but she was cold, her feet wet to the ankles. She stood up from behind the tree and padded out toward the noise.

    Past the edge of the forest, she could tell the sound was from the checkpoint, and could just make out the faint glow of headlights in the distance. She stood where she was, debating her next move. But seeing her fingernails start to turn blue, the fear of freezing to death overcame her terror of the creature. And somehow, standing in a forest, afraid, waiting to starve or succumb to hypothermia just rubbed her the wrong way. It made it her think of a partridge standing in place before being shot to death by a hunter’s Remington.

    Arriving at the white tent, she was so repulsed by the splattered carnage, she almost didn’t notice the van – and Freya’s pale face staring out at her through the passenger window. Of course, it was the van’s horn with which Freya had sent out the message.

    Tilting her head down and squinting inside, she could make out Freya in the driver’s seat, beckoning her closer. Again, not seeing any other options, and wanting to get as far removed from the bodies as possible, she obliged.

    When she opened the passenger door, she could see that Freya was naked, covered only by a thermal blanket, and that she was bleeding profusely from her left shoulder.

    “Load our luggage then get into the driver’s side,” she said in a staid voice.

    “What?” said Rebecca.

    “I’ll shuffle over. I need you to drive. And we need to get out of here as soon as possible before backup arrives. Go on.”

    Rebecca crossed the front grill, retrieved both of their suitcases and dragged them to the van’s open cargo door. She loaded them and – not seeing any other option – walked over to the driver’s side door.

    Finding the congealing blood on the ignition key, she winced before reaching down and turning the engine. There came a deafening whoosh from the vents, indicating the heat was turned on, though it would feel like AC until the vehicle had properly warmed up.

    “How-How did you know I knew Morse Code?” she stammered, stalling for time.

    “I didn’t,” muttered Freya. “I just hoped you’d be attracted by the car horn. Also, I figured there was no harm in sending a message, just in case.”

    “Where are we going?”.

    “Just drive up ahead.” Rebecca observed that she had a first-aid kit propped on her lap. Clearly, she needed Rebecca to drive.

    “We’ll figure out where we’re going as we go,” Freya said, opening the kit’s lid.

    “That’s not going to work for me,” said Rebecca.

    “I know this is spur of the moment, but so far I haven’t made too many mistakes.” Freya indicated the bushel of blood-edged papers by her feet, on top of a large open booklet. The logs. The only definitive proof the two of them had gone through the checkpoint.

    Still, Rebecca was unsure. “I-I don’t know,” she stammered.

    “You want to stay here until reinforcements arrive? I just killed eight federal officers. The only reason I was able to save you is because they thought I was clean, and they were paying all their attention to you. If they send more people with guns – which they will, we will not be so lucky.”

    Rebecca stiffened. So, it wasn’t her imagination. Freya was the therianthrope. The hideous mutant grizzly bear that had slaughtered those men.

    Again, not seeing any alternative, Rebecca gradually put the van into drive, and peeled out onto the icy road.

    “Those-those men,” stammered Rebecca, having driven some distance from the lain carnage behind them, “they were going to kill me. Just for having a high temperature.”

    “They wanted to extort us for money,” muttered Freya. “Animals.”

    “Do you think they were bandits?”

    “Possibly. Not likely, though. There’s a lot of corruption that goes on. Government workers don’t make a lot of money, are under incredible stress and danger during this epidemic, so there are some rogue outfits trying to strong-arm people to make extra cash.”

    “You knew this was happening in this country and you still came here?”

    Freya shrugged.

    They drove on in silence.

    “We need to get off this road,” said Freya. “This is the Shin-Tong Expressway, a major highway. We need to avoid more checkpoints.”

    Knowing Freya could understand the local language, Rebecca followed her orders to take a series of back roads – headed in no particular direction. As she did, she watched peripherally as Freya exposed her bare, bloodied shoulder, hissing through her teeth as she did so. She first poured some clear, sharp-smelling liquid over the wound, which caused her to grimace and hiss even louder. The odour of coagulating blood mixed with pure alcohol made Rebecca’s head fog. Especially in such a close space. Then, with astonishing calm, Frey took out a sheet of clean gauze and pressed it firmly to the wound. When the gauze was red and soaked through, she discarded it and applied another. She did this three times until the blood flow was stable, then taped the edges to her skin to keep the dressing in place. She seemed to be healing quickly. Was this also part of her power?

    Squeamish around any hint of violence or bodily fluids, it was a battle for Rebecca not to faint. With great effort, she managed to keep her eyes on the road.

    Within an hour, Freya seemed healed – or as healed as one could be – and was wrapped inside the thermal blanket like a cocooned insect. The car had also warmed up, to the point that Rebecca could actually feel herself sweat under her armpits.

    Then, she heard a slight whimper beside her. She peered over and saw that Freya was sobbing quietly, her mouth agape like in some silent scream. Understandable, thought Rebecca. She didn’t bother asking what was wrong.

    Another hour passed, well beyond midnight, before the two spoke again.

    “So, you have the virus?” asked Rebecca, seeing that Freya was no longer weeping.

    No reply.

    “You caught it during the outbreak?”

    “No,” muttered Freya, staring at the misty windshield. “I’ve had this condition since I was twelve.”

    Twelve?”

    “That’s correct,” she said, her voice devoid of emotion. “They could see by the unnatural colour and inhuman dilation of my eyes – the fluctuation in my temperature – that I had it. They could tell that, by the time I was older, I would morph into an animal.”

    “Into a killing machine.”

    Freya spun savagely on Rebecca. “Don’t say that,” she snapped. Rebecca said nothing.

    “I don’t know how I got it,” Freya continued, turning her head forward. “I don’t know where it comes from, or how you get it. No one does.”

    “Is it airborne? The virus?” asked Rebecca. She then felt something crawl up the side of her neck. She smacked at the spot, pulling back nothing in her hand.

    “It might be,” answered Freya.

    “Is that why those men were wearing biohazard suits instead of Kevlar?”

    “They probably were wearing Kevlar underneath those biohazard suits.”

    Freya exhaled sharply from her nostrils.

    “Is it true that you can’t fully morph if you’re seriously injured?” needled Rebecca.

    Freya threw her another sharp look. “An injury like this wouldn’t stop me,” she answered. A subtle warning. “But yes: if our bodies are deprived of enough blood, oxygen, or sustenance, we don’t have the energy to morph. Why do you ask?”

    No reply.

    Visibly vexed, Freya let out another sharp exhale. “I’m not going to kill you,” she assured her driver. “If you’re worried, it’s not like the movies. I can control it.”

    “I sure hope so.”

    “What does that mean?”

    “Well, I’m not exactly driving you willingly, here. I mean, the only alternative I had to you eating me alive was to freeze to death.”

    “Don’t say that,” said Freya, a damp tremor in her voice. She looked as though she were about to start sobbing again. “You don’t know what I’ve been through.”

    “Huh?”

    “Like I said, I’ve had this condition since I was twelve. I didn’t get bit by some accursed wolf. No covenant of witches put a spell on me. I just woke up one day, and there it was – the hunger, the hair, the animalistic colour in my eyes when I get scared. Just there, like your first period.”

    “Okay.”

    “My parents disowned me,” Freya carried on as, Rebecca had learned, was her habit. “They would have nothing to do with some freak, like me. Can you imagine that? Your own parents thinking you’re this evil thing to dispel from their home?” Rebecca felt flush, recalling the time her parents had caught her – at age five – trying to suffocate her newborn brother in his crib. She elected not to share the memory with Freya.

    “I was out on the streets for months,” continued Freya. “Starving. But one night at a child shelter, I met a man, who worked there as a youth supervisor. He was older – pitch white hair, gaunt face, steel-blue eyes. He had the same condition I have. Had caught it at eight-years-old.”

    “Did he live in the same city you grew up in?”

    “Yes.”

    “So, this virus has not only been around a lot longer than a few months, it’s a lot more concentrated and prevalent that I had thought. And that it seems to start at any time – including childhood! Is this information supposed to set my mind at ease?”

    “This man was my master,” interrupted Freya. “And despite being a therianthrope, he was perfectly harmless. He taught me that I can control when I morph into my other form. You see, for all therianthropes, our transformation is triggered by fear.”

    “Fear? Really?”

    “That’s right. Not a full moon like you see in those God-awful movies. It’s an instinctual defense-mechanism. Like a blowfish enlarging itself or an octopus shooting ink at a predator.”

    “You’re actually calling the people you maimed back there the predators?”

    “Why not? They had the guns.”

    Taking a moment to reflect, Rebecca replied with, “Fair enough.”

    “The rash of violence caused by the therianthropes is connected to a lack of training – a lack of discipline. Therianthropes, not knowing they have it, not being able to control their fear. And with the massive unemployment and unease around the world now, it’s no wonder they’ve become so visible lately. People don’t know they have it – sometimes they never find out. It’s…sort of…like a spectrum.

    “My master – the old man from the shelter – taught me how to centre myself. How to not resort to my animal form unless it is absolutely necessary. That’s how I was able to go undetected when they checked my temperature. That’s how I’ve been able to function all this time, despite my condition. I –”

    Damply, Freya broke off. She wasn’t sobbing but tearing up quite desperately.

    “I – I should have been able to control myself so as not to kill the fourth one.”

    “The fourth one?”

    “The young one with the big forehead and the chubby cheeks. The one standing in front you? You know, the one they ordered to shoot you.” Rebecca’ mind flashed back to Richie Rich. “I could tell, in his eyes when I charged him – when I had him pinned – the fear in his eyes – that he wouldn’t have hurt me. Wouldn’t have hurt you if he wasn’t being forced to.”

    “Bullshit,” Rebecca demurred softly. “You’re saying he was just following orders?”

    “You didn’t hear the words exchanged between him and the commander – the one wearing the grey jacket. Or at least, you didn’t understand their exchange. He didn’t want to go through with it. He was scared. If the easy pull of a trigger weren’t so deadly, he wouldn’t have been able to hurt anyone.”

    “You could tell all that? Just by looking in his eyes?”

    “Yes.”

    “Well, I disagree. You did the right thing. You saved my life.”

    “I could have done it without killing him. My master taught me to control my fear – my defense-mechanism, even while occupying the body of my other form.”

    “The giant grizzly? That’s your other form?”

    “Yes.”

    “So, what’s your master’s philosophy? Control your fear or your fear will control you? You can’t let fear guide your destiny? Some Kung-Fu sensei bull crap like that? Like from the movies?”

    Freya stirred, tugging the blanket around her shoulders. “Not as trite as you put it. But yes. In a way.”

    “So, I guess you think these lockdown measures are just mass hysteria, right? People letting their fear get the best of them?”

    “Not at all. Fear is a tool – a guide, if used correctly. If not controlled, it’s a weapon, harming everyone, including the person wielding it.”

    “Whatever, girl.”

    The road ahead had somehow drawn darker. Craning her neck, Freya peered hard and searched the windows.

    “Take a right here,” she instructed. “Onto that path. The dirt road off the shoulder there.”

    “You sure?” asked Rebecca. “There’s no light.”

    “Just do as I tell you.”

    Rebecca took the path. It was rough and unpaved, the van rocking and staggering over the sleet and muddy ground.

    “There’s a house up there,” Rebecca protested, starting to panic. “Someone lives here, we’re going to be seen.”

    “It’s probably a crematorium or something,” said Freya. “Buildings this far out of the way in this country are often for such services. Municipal regulations for the fumes.”

    “Well, what are we supposed to do?”

    “Take the first amenable road from this path that takes us into that wooded area. Try to get as far from that little house there as possible.”

    “What if someone sees us?”

    “If they see us, they’ll do nothing; this is a government van in a repressive, totalitarian state. Everyone here will recognize this van as government-issued, in which case, the people living there will be just happy that we didn’t bother them.”

    “What if an alert has been sent out? For this van?”

    “That will take a few hours, probably. Besides, these vans all look alike.”

    “Yeah, but eventually someone might make a sweep of the whole area.”

    “Eventually, yes.”

    “So?”

    “So, I’m injured and exhausted. I need at least a few hours of sleep before coming up with our next move. So, could you please find us a spot in the woods there where we can camp out for the night so I can get some rest?”

    Begrudgingly, Rebecca silently conceded Freya’s point. She was having trouble herself keeping her own eyes open.

    She parked the van in a relatively flat spot in the forest – as deep as she could go before the brush was too thick for them to get out.

    Clutching the blanket to her naked form, Freya clambered into the back cargo, finding and unfolding two paper-thin gymnasium mats and laying them flat on the steel floor.

    “I’ll take first watch,” she said to Rebecca. “You get some sleep. I’m going to put some clothes on and then burn the logs I took from the checkpoint. If we’re lucky, no record of us was sent out to anyone.”

    “No, it’s okay,” Rebecca insisted. “I’ll take first watch.”

    “Rebecca”

    “You’re tired and injured. It’s all right. Get dressed and get some shut eye. I’ll go out and burn the files. Really, I don’t mind.”

    Rebecca could see in Freya’s smoky eyes that she was too knackered to argue. Without another word, Freya opened her suitcase, put on a set of pajamas, then collapsed onto the mat.

    ***

    Freya had been dreaming about her first-time at a swimming-pool when she was an infant – the time she’d almost drowned after jumping in without water wings – when she awoke, realizing she couldn’t breathe.

    At first, her rudely awakened mind couldn’t understand it. Had she gone blind? Why couldn’t she see anything? Then, feeling the cottony texture against her cheek, and smelling the odour of dry sweat intermingled with bleach, she realized what was happening: someone was smothering her. Growing more aware of her compromised state, she felt a heavy knee ramming down into her sternum. Rebecca. It had to be Rebecca. That bitch was trying to smother her to death.

    Panicked – desperate, she racked her brain for alternatives. There were none. There was only one option: morph into the grizzly.

    Thrashing, grabbing blindly at her assailant, Freya felt her flesh boil, the dark fibres sprouting from her pores. But she couldn’t finish the transformation. There wasn’t enough oxygen in her body. That and the loss of blood from her shoulder – no! She had to keep trying. Hope that Rebecca would freak from her partial transformation and relent her attack. But – she didn’t. She only mashed the pillow down harder into her face. Freya felt her body grow weaker and weaker.

    Then, thinking back to the lessons of her master, she realized what she had to do. The fur receding into her skin, her fever subsiding, she let her body go limp.

    Limp. Motionless. Cold.

    Slowly, Rebecca peeled the pillow from Freya’s head, then pulled back to a seated position. She then jumped to her feet from the cushion being ripped from her hands, Freya’s previously prostate form leaping up before her.

    Enraged, oxygen flooding back into her lungs, Freya watched the now trembling woman backpedal to the wall. She advanced, trapping Rebecca, seeing the mortal terror in her eyes – even through those dense bifocals. In the reflection of Rebecca’s glasses, Freya could watch her own feverish transformation, as the familiar, exquisite pain spread through her flesh. Her mouth elongated into a fanged snout; her fingernails lengthened into claws. Her shoulders rounded, her back hunched and grew fur. Her clothes disappeared in shrinking shreds against her darkly thickening coat; her body mass ballooning with copious, homicidal muscle. With an iron whine, the van dipped sidewise under her new weight.

    Rebecca’s flat chest rose and fell, her breath catching in her throat. She tried to make a run for the cargo door but was promptly pinned by Freya’s right paw. Her left forepaw, being injured still, was coiled off the ground near her hirsute stomach. Freya didn’t press any more of her weight than was necessary to keep her pinned there. She wasn’t going to crush her to death. No, nothing so merciful. Her jaws frothing over, her cavernous gullet rumbling, Freya had made up her mind to devour her, starting from the feet.

    But then, she saw something. Something glimmering just beyond those dense bifocals. Something in Rebecca’s eyes that wasn’t fear. Something that told another story. Through the looking glass of the eyes of her prey, Freya peered into Rebecca’s soul. And even in her voracious, animal-form, she could see there was no threat. Rebecca no longer appeared to her as that stuffy, would-be spinster – but instead as a helpless, doe-eyed girl.

    The voice of her old master echoing in her skull, Freya managed to shift her body weight to the floor. She reclined and sat before Rebecca, the frame of the van staggering and squealing. She could still see that glimmering message in the woman’s eye. That contrite pledge to do no harm.

    Seated, subdued and innocuous like a trained circus-elephant, Freya huffed, her hot breath forming tiny mushroom clouds against the frigid night air.

    Manipulating her drooling maw, Freya strained her garbled voice to produce one word: “Go.”

    Not needing to be told twice, Rebecca leapt off the wall. She scampered past Freya, grabbing her bag and suitcase, struggled with the door latch for a few agonizing seconds, then was gone. From the open rear of the van, Freya watched Rebecca’s stumbling form disappear into the forest.

    Her grizzly form beginning to dissolve, she looked on to see the first speckling of dawn, breaking through the foliage. She still had her passport, her visa, and her luggage, but didn’t know what the day would bring. But whatever it would be, she would meet it head on. And without fear.

    Agent Kwai-Su hated coming to the office of the Public Security Minister. Mainly because he hated Public Security Minister Tamen, a fat little man in a suit who was decidedly cold – even abusive, to his subordinates. Minister Tamen was a bully to his staff and an ass-kiss to the General Secretary. In fact, he was an ass-kiss to anyone who could elevate his career or eliminate him from the party ranks.

    Despite only just making rank, Kwai-Su had already learned Minister Tamen’s story: he was the son of a party man who had been ostracised in the mid 50’s and had to live out his childhood in obscure poverty. After moving back to the capital as a young man, he had slowly and quietly maneuvered his way back into the good graces of the Communist party. And he was now the Minister of Public Security, a likely shoo-in for next party leader and thus head of state. Knowing how easily one could fall out of favour to the regime, Tamen calculated each move by its potential consequence, always opting for the path with the minutest risk of failure. Given the minister’s background and experience, it was little wonder he ran such a brutally tight ship. Still, being attached to such an ambitious careerist had its benefits: namely, being brought along with him in the event of promotion.

    Sitting in Tamen’s office, ten feet from his desk, Agent Kwai-Su was not optimistic about the minister’s mood that morning. There had been a therianthrope attack 48 hours ago on a southeast checkpoint, not two miles from the international airport. Eight were dead. All of them federal officers. Also, the supposed therianthrope – or therianthropes, had gotten away. Worse, news of the attack had leaked to the media, prompting public panic, putting Tamen’s ass right on the chopping block. He would need Kwai-Su to resolve this problem as soon as possible, as quietly as possible. He would need to find and kill the therianthrope who’d evaded termination – and had killed all those men.

    As Tamen prattled away on the phone – likely speaking to an irate General Secretary, Agent Kwai-Su’s eyes scanned the room. To his right was a twelve-inch flat screen, nailed five feet up the wall, turned off. He then observed either wall in the unoccupied space between him and the minister’s desk, realizing there were several gun-turrets, with small but lethal barrels pointed his way. If he were infected – if he were in fact a therianthrope, he’d be eviscerated before coming within six feet of Tamen. The room wasn’t warm, but Agent Kwai-Su felt his brow grow moist.

    “Yes, of course, General Secretary, sir,” Tamen pleaded into the receiver. “I’ll see to it at once.”

    Tamen cradled the phone. He eyed the agent coldly, while pouring himself a drink from a crystal decanter. Without a word to Agent Kwai-Su, he swallowed the drink whole, then poured another. The liquid was colourless. An acrid stench found its way into Kwai-Su’s nostril.

    “I assume you’ve heard,” Tamen grunted, lacing his stubby fingers over the desk.

    Not wanting to test the minister’s mood, Kwai-Sun only nodded.

    Tamen cussed under his breath then took a lethal pull off his drink. “Eight dead. All of them our people at the southeast checkpoint off the Shin-Tong Expressway. Forensics say there’s no doubt: a therianthrope tore them apart.”

    “A new outbreak?” asked Kwai-Su, testing the waters now.

    Tamen glowered over the rim of his cup.

    “Maybe not,” he answered, his voice strained. “There were three international flights that came into the nearby airport that night, the last of which from Stockholm, Sweden. With any luck, this therianthrope is a foreigner. If we can hunt this monster down, we might be able to spin the story so that the blame falls outside of the republic. And outside of this office. My office.”

    Agent Kwai-Su nodded, despite the urge to shake his head. Always about perception, he thought, sardonically. Always the politics. What was left unsaid between he and the minister was that six of the eight slain men were of some notoriety. In fact, one could qualify their records as disgraceful. The commanding officer of the checkpoint – found crushed to death and clinging to a smoking semi-automatic rifle – had been transferred to eight different divisions in as many years, had no less than a dozen brutality complaints, and was twice investigated on suspicion of corruption.

    “We have to find this monster within the week,” said Tamen, stabbing the desk with his forefinger. “This week. With the media reporting it, we need to give the public a story that will put them at ease.”

    “I understand, Minister, sir.”

    Glib but unhappy, Tamen reclined in his chair, his double-chin protruding over his shirt collar like paunch over a belt buckle.

    “My receptionist will give you the passenger manifests of the international flights that night. I want you to run down all foreign passengers. Track them down then test each of them. If there are no signs of therianthropy, then go after the rest. Hopefully, that’ll be enough to catch this monster.”

    Agent Kwai-Su knew which test the minister was referring to – the Hongmo Truat Sop test, a device which checked for unnatural colours in a human’s eye. Colours belonging to a therianthrope. It likewise checked for inhuman movement in the pupils. The government had tried in the early stages of the breakout to force mandatory DNA tests for all their people. But with the citizens – both the traditionalist seniors and the democracy-pining youths, such an endeavor proved infeasible. The government was likewise in the process of creating a complete DNA database of all their countrymen, enabling immediate identification should any tissue be left behind at the scene of a crime. This ambitious process was – for the time being – incomplete.

    “I don’t want you to delegate this mission to any agents under your command,” Tamen continued. “I want you to see to this matter personally and to make it your sole priority. Put one your lieutenant in charge of supervising any other pending cases. For the next seven to fourteen days, you work for me on this only. Understand?”

    Kwai-Su grimaced, shifting in his chair; he hadn’t been on patrol in years – ever actually – and hadn’t canvassed a scene in months. It wasn’t like he didn’t know what to do, it was just that with his rank and immaculate reputation, he had been insulated from all that. Unexposed to the ugly, macabre side of the job.

    “Yes sir,” said Agent Kwai-Su. “I’ll track down the offending creature personally and terminate it. And I’ll be sure to take a blood sample to compare it to whatever DNA is found at the scene.”

    “No, DNA matches takes too long,” Tamen protested. “We need this solved publicly within the week. And too many of our citizens don’t understand DNA. No, I’m going to need you to get bullet-proof evidence linking the monster to the attack. Hell, get a confession out of it.”

    “Sir?”

    “When you go down to the first floor to get your hazmat suit and the manifests, my receptionist will give you a metal briefcase. Inside will be the Hongmo Truat Sop device and an audio recorder. Get the creature to confess its crimes and record the confession.”

    His eyelashes fluttering, Kwai-Su tried to process Tamen’s orders.

    “Sir,” he said, bewildered. “How am I to convince a creature to confess its crime, when it will know that doing so will mean being put to immediate death?”

    Tamen shrugged. “Offer to make it quick.”

    They were silent for a beat. Kwai-Su tried to exhale lightly, but it came out as a mirthless chuckle.

    “Look,” barked Tamen, impotently. “Coax the confession. Lie to it. Torture the forsaken thing if you have to. Just destroy the therianthrope and make sure we can prove it’s the one that killed our men.”

    “Yes sir,” Kwai-Su then nodded, not wanting to seem insubordinate. “Should I visit the site of the attack first?”

    Tamen bore a hideous smirk that seemed to mock Kwai-Su. He reached down underneath his desk.

    A light appeared in Kwai-Su’s peripheral vision. He turned, finding the flat screen was now on, showing a bird’s eye view of a middle-aged man wearing a plain button down and slacks, a side holster on his hip. He was rail-thin and slightly stooped with a concave gut – like an imploded pot belly. From what Kwai-Su could see, the man was in the reception area, first floor.

    “You know Mr. Nee, don’t you?” grumbled Minister Tamen. Kwai-Su peered at the screen, recognizing the figure.

    “Yes, Minister, sir,” he said, turning back to Tamen. “By reputation, only, sir. He’s a bounty hunter.”

    “He’s a monster killer, is what he is,” Tamen corrected. “He’s going to accompany you on this mission.”

    “Sir?”

    “He’s tracked and destroyed fifteen of these monsters all ready. We were going to hire him alone, but seeing as this new therianthrope might be foreign, we’re sending you along with him.”

    Digesting this, Kwai-Su nodded. “He doesn’t speak English then?”

    “He doesn’t speak English, or any other language than that of the republic. So, you’re to accompany him, help him interrogate this possible therianthrope.”

    Kwai-Su, like so many others in law enforcement, had heard of Mr. Nee, the bounty hunter – or therianthrope killer. He was regarded as ruthless, fearless, and extremely unstable. Nonetheless, what Minister Tamen had mentioned of his record was true: fifteen successful termination. There were many ugly rumours about the man and his background. None of which, Agent Kwai-Su cared to entertain.

    “Pardon me, Minister, sir,” said Kwai-Su. His nape bristled, knowing he ought not to contradict a superior. Minister Tamen’s eyes were wide. “Wouldn’t it be preferable for me to work with another party agent? Seeing as this Mr. Nee works outside of the party and – if you’ll excuse me – has a less than desirable reputation?”

    Surprisingly, Tamen did not bite the agent’s head off. Instead, he leaned back farther into his chair, his hands lain across his ample abdomen.

    “When you meet with Mr. Nee,” Tamen said. “You’ll notice there are many scars on his face. Don’t mention them to him.”

    Kwai-Su said nothing, waiting for the punchline.

    “You do know that this is the second wave of therianthropy our republic has endured, right Agent Kwai-Su? The first wave occurred before you were born: we lost over 50,000 people to those monsters during a three-month stretch. Mr. Nee was an infant during that first wave. He was an orphan in one of the facilities that was attacked by the therianthropes. Somehow, but some grace of the gods, he escaped with his life – despite being maimed and permanently disfigured. Those vicious monsters make up his very first memory. They’re why he has all those scars. So, the reason I’ve hired him? He’s got the drive to bring down these therianthropes, because they tore his world apart to begin with. So, help him out, keep him in line when necessary, but don’t get in his way.”

    At that moment, it occurred to Kwai-Su that he was hired not for his ability or understanding of English, but for the immaculateness of his reputation. Of course, he thought. Always the perception. Always the politics.

    Despite knowing he was dismissed, Kwai-Su stayed seated. Seeing this, Tamen raised an inquiring eyebrow.

    “Minister Tamen, sir,” said Kwai-Su, answering Tamen’s look. “I am willing to assist Mr. Nee on this mission, assuming I have tactical command. I am also willing to do my best to see to it that we find, capture, and kill this offending therianthrope within the seven-day window you have allocated. I realize that doing so will help your office – and our republic – keep face. But, doing all these things will not be without difficulty. Should I accomplish this task in the allotted time, I hope that you will appreciate my efforts and remember what I have done later on.”

    Tamen leered over his desk, bringing his drink close to his face and sniffing the liquor.

    “So, you have ambitions of your own?” he said. Kwai-Su reddened, knowing he’d overplayed his hand. “That’s all right; I knew you did. And that you have a flawless reputation in this department and in the party. Perhaps, too flawless. Truth is, I want you on this assignment, not only to help Nee with the language barrier, but to offset much of the backlash we’ll surely face for having hired such a man. And the shame we already have for letting this attack happen. But don’t hold out your hand like that to me again. I’ll tell you what: You catch this monster within the week, I’ll see that you still have your job and rank in this agency when it’s done. Fair enough?”

    Kwai-Su nodded then rose from his chair, not wanting to dig himself into a deeper hole.

    After a curt exchange of pleasantries, Agent Kwai-Su and Mr. Nee drove down to the scene of the attack. They drove in painful silence, Mr. Nee’s eyes never leaving the windshield. Or blinking, from what Kwai-Su observed. He didn’t even look up when they were stopped at the roadblock two miles from the checkpoint, Agent Kwai-Su having to flash his credentials to get through.

    Once on the scene, Kwai-Su saw the forensics team in full form: yellow tape, hazmat suits, tweezers, cotton swabs, photo cameras, and two evidence vans. No ambulance though. None needed; no survivors.

    The head inspector approached the two men, wearing biohazard wear. Kwai-Su was likewise suited up, complete with a face screen and Kevlar vest underneath. Given the cutting weather, he didn’t mind the luminous plastic coveralls, or the heavy rubber boots, though they took some getting used to. Mr. Nee, on the other hand, only wore a windbreaker over his street clothes.

    “I’m sure you’ve heard by now,” said the inspector, through his face mask. “DNA left at the scene and swabbed from the exit wounds on the bodies indicates a therianthrope attack.”

    “Any record of who came through this checkpoint, besides the staff?” asked Kwai-Su.

    “No. The log sheets are gone. There are no embers, no scraps of paper anywhere, which leads us to believe that the therianthrope or someone with it, stole them.”

    “Very smart,” interjected Mr. Nee. He spoke with a slight lisp; half his lower lip being made up of grafted skin. The two of them looked odd together, Nee being scrawny, hunched, and disfigured; and Kwai-Su being, slim, fit and quite handsome. His sharp chin his most prominent feature – at least, when he wasn’t decked out in biohazard gear.

    “Did you find anything that could indicate a foreign visitor to this checkpoint?” Kwai-Su fished. “A passport? An ID card? A plane ticket of some kind?”

    The inspector shook his head.

    “We do have one possible lead,” he told Kwai-Su. “The government van that should have been here is missing. This van, like all government issued vehicles, has a tracking device, telling us its location should we activate it from the control centre. My people have already coordinated with the federals nearby and used the tracker for that van to find its location: Xiang Song Forest, just 200 kilometres from here.”

    “It’s still there?” growled Mr. Nee.

    “Yes. Our radar indicates it hasn’t moved in five hours.”

    His shoulders slumping in defeat, Kwai-Su met eyes with Nee.

    “Probably abandoned,” said Nee, reading Kwai-Su’s thoughts aloud.

    “Regardless,” said Kwai-Su, with a chipper tone. “Retracing the monster’s steps is necessary, especially if there were any eyewitnesses.”

    “Do you want me to call local authorities for backup?” asked the inspector.

    “No.” said Nee, too hastily.

    Kwai-Su did a double-take then turned back to the inspector.

    “We mean yes,” said Kwai-Su, throwing Nee a cindering glare. “Have a squad car follow us to the forest.”

    “What’s the point?” Nee barked, sending daggers Kwai-Su’s way. “The therianthrope will have moved on.”

    “We don’t know that.”

    “If it’s smart enough to steal the logbooks to make sure we don’t have a name or ID number – or even a timeframe for when it came through, then it won’t be dumb enough to stay in one spot in a stolen government van. If we’re going to seek out eyewitnesses, an additional car will scare them into silence.”

    Kwai-Su and Nee locked eyes in a glacial staring contest. Kwai-Su then turned to the inspector, forcing a rictus-grin of professionalism. “Is there a police station near Xiang Song Forest?”

    “Yes, Agent Kwai-Su,” he answered. “About a fifteen minute-drive away.”

    “Fine, tell them not to come to the forest but to be prepared should we radio them for backup.”

    In neutral compliance, the inspector nodded.

    Kwai-Su turned to head back to their company-issued sedan, but not before shooting Nee another admonishing glare. They drove together to the Xiang Song Forest without speaking.

    The stolen van was not deep within the woods. They found it parked at the end of a clearing. As expected, Mr. Nee was right; the van was unoccupied. Worse, there was no evidence anyone, other than federal workers, had been inside. Searching the surrounding vegetation, they found a burnt heap of cinders, buried under a mound of snow: the logbook – or what was left of it. This was a very clever therianthrope they were hunting.

    Beside the forest, closest to the clearing from where the van had presumably entered, was a pet crematorium. Kwai-Su spoke to the man and woman operating the business to little avail. They hadn’t seen anyone and weren’t even aware of the van in the forest next to their home. They didn’t seem to be lying as neither was any more afraid than anyone else who encountered law enforcement in their country would be. With little else to go on, Kwai-Su and Nee returned to headquarters to scour the passenger lists from the three planes. Silently, Kwai-Su prayed like hell their therianthrope was on one of those lists.

    Running down the names of the foreign visitors that night proved laborious but not impossible. Out of the three incoming flights, only 33 passengers had foreign passports, despite 107 foreigners being scheduled to fly in that day. For obvious reasons, the other 74 had either cancelled or didn’t show at their respective terminals.

    But before running down each foreign passenger at random, one name rose to the top of their list: Rebecca Emily Palmer, from Canada. On the Tuesday after the checkpoint massacre, Palmer was admitted into a nearby general hospital with complaints of a high temperature and a dry cough. She was the only foreign patient admitted that day, so it was easy for Kwai-Su to pick her out.

    The hospital recorded that she was ailing from nothing more than the seasonal flu and that she was discharged with a prescription for anti-biotics. Searching through the immigration records, Kwai-Su found out that she had a visa to teach English and was employed at the Number 28 Elementary School. Not seeing the harm in checking her out, Kwai-Su and Nee drove down to pay her a visit.

    Again, they drove together, just the two of them, in their company-issued sedan. It was a long trek to the school and Kwai-Su felt obligated to break the silence.

    “You know, you really should wear protective gear,” he said to Mr. Nee. “If you’re not going to protect yourself you should at least wear a mask; you could be a carrier of the virus, even if you yourself aren’t a therianthrope.”

    Nee scoffed, fingering the grooves of his mutilated cheek.

    “You think it’s airborne?” he rasped, eyes on the road.

    “Yes,” said Kwai-Su. “It could be. I mean, they’re going to make masks mandatory soon, anyway. We know it can be transferred without someone being attacked or even touched by an infected therianthrope.”

    “No one knows.”

    “Well…I mean, no one knows for sure-”

    “No one knows. No one cares. No one knew about me in that orphanage, and why I didn’t have a mother or father. And no one cared. No one knew that the other boys bullied me: tied me to the bedposts with my own socks, pissed on my mattress, put worms and tiny pebbles into my morning porridge. No one cared either. No one knew one of the other orphans was going to mutate into a beast and maraud through my dorm, chewing up children, social workers, caregivers – killing three hundred in a home that housed a thousand, motherless, hungry, unwanted little shits like me. And no one cared.”

    Kwai-Su’s gloved hands white-knuckled the steering wheel as he tried to block out the other man’s voice.

    “No one knows how this virus spreads,” Nee carried on, massaging scar-tissue. “All I know is that the therianthropes can’t kill me. But I can kill them.

    “Five years before the second wave, when there were only a few therianthrope sightings here and there, I worked with two other bounty hunters in the northwest province. They brought along one of those contraptions you got. What is it called? The one used to check their irises for irregular colour and weird pupil dilation?”

    “The Hongmo Truat Sop test,” sighed Kwai-Su.

    “Yeah, that thing. We each had pistols on us, one of us carried the Hongmo Truat Sop thingy, the other carried a temperature gun. Anyway, we hunted down this old smoke hound hiding out in an abandoned warehouse. The locals had complained about him; said that they saw his eyes glowing, that they’d seen him with his clothes torn – even worse than a regular hobo – and he’d been dowsed with blood, stuff like that. Also, he was nomadic – had moved from city to city and province to province all the time. He’d actually lived in twenty different towns in the space of one year.

    “Anyway, we tracked him down to this old, abandoned warehouse, used to store home appliances, or something. It was right on the outskirts of the city: nothing there but crackheads, derelicts, runaways, and scrap metal. And closeted therianthropes, apparently. This abandoned building was run down. I mean, a whole stairwell was exposed, like the building was half-demolished or something. Like those old, World War II photos of building after an air-ride, you know?

    “We crept up the jagged stairwell, flashlights burning a path in front of us so we could see, since we were breaching at night. We almost fell through a couple times, what with all the missing steps and the railing gone. We got up there to the shooting gallery and immediately recognized him from the photograph we’d been given: a toothless, gaunt old bastard with grey scraggly hair hanging from his naked scalp, his eyes sunken behind cavernous sockets.

    “When we found him, he was barely conscious; there was a glass pipe smoking by his hip on the floor, the bowel blackened from use. He was slouched down in the corner, a bed of soiled newspapers underneath him. There were about ten other scabby tweakers like him, all scratching and nodding off nearby. There were a few candles, so we had just enough light to see.

    “The one bounty hunter, Wang, nudged him awake with his boot. The smoke hound got to his filthy bare feet, rubbing his eyes, looking us over like he didn’t give a shit. Really looking like he couldn’t possibly be a therianthrope. Just a junkie. Wang took his temperature. Nothing. In fact, his body heat was too low, if anything. I wasn’t convinced, so I insisted that the other bounty hunter, Bao Ho, give him the test, to check his eyes. Again, the smoke hound didn’t look concerned.

    “He put that contraption onto the smoke hound’s head and looked through the lens, checking his red, marbled eyes. He saw nothing that shouldn’t be there. In a human, I mean. Me? I still wasn’t convinced. Not a bit. So, I took out my pistol and aimed it at the old bastard, told him I didn’t care if he was human or not; I was going to shoot him dead and take his perforated corpse to collect the bounty. And that’s when it happened.

    “His pupils contracted vertically into pinpricks, his eye whites glowed a feline yellow, and through his pores sprouted thick fibres of midnight black. Before Bao Ho had a chance to get the device off, the smoke hound had transformed into a feral jungle cat – something manifest from your most primal terror. It pawed us away with huge, razor-sharp claws. That’s how I got this scar on my right wrist, here. The creature buried its fangs into Wang first, whipped him down to floor by his neck, like a cheetah would an antelope. Had him pinned for less than five seconds before it was done with him – nothing but a wet, bloody mess.

    “That dusky, lithe animal had torn Wang’s throat out before Bao Ho could get out his pistol. It then pounced on him before he could defend himself. Me, I hit the dirt, pulling my 380 from my ankle holster, and aimed with deliberation at the creature’s worrying head from the floor. See, Bao Ho and Wang had never seen a therianthrope before; they hesitated, being awed by the thing. Probably what happened to those eight that were killed at the southeast checkpoint, you want the truth. Me, I didn’t have that problem; I’ve seen them ten thousand times in my sleep. Anyway, it was chomping on my partner’s throat, giving me enough time to take aim – find a lethal headshot. I put five bullets into its skull, tearing off its lower jaw, before it was able to make a third meal out of me. I killed it dead and took the whole bounty, which had previously been meant to be split three ways.”

    There was a lull in Nee’s story. A deliberate, pregnant pause from speaking.

    “What’s your point?” snapped Kwai-Su. His voice was tremulous from hearing Nee’s harrowing but credible tale.

    “Moral of the story,” sneered Nee. “A, that that Hongmo Truat Sop test is fallible. B, you want to find these monsters? You need to trigger their fear. C, the therianthropes can’t kill me, but I can kill them.”

    And D, thought Kwai-Su. You’ll let others die to get what you want.

    They drove the remainder of the way to the school without speaking.

    The truth was, Agent Kwai-Su was not eager to complete the assignment. In his five years as a police officer, he’d never shot or killed anyone. And terminating a therianthrope didn’t seem any less objectionable. Being well educated and from a good family, he had not slogged through the grit and grime of being cop but had instead ridden a desk all the way to an agent’s badge. He knew successfully completing this mission for a minister with the kind of suction Tamen had meant future advancement – district superintendent, director of internal affairs, replacement Minister of Public Security. But he didn’t know if he was up for the violent price he’d have to pay. Or the risk it involved.

    Number 28 Elementary School looked typical of such institutions in the province: clock tower, playground, mess hall, a dozen five-storey dormitories and schoolhouses. The entire schoolground was situated on five-blocks behind a steel gate guarded at select entrances by fat feckless guards, waiting out their last years of employment before a pension. That was before the epidemic. Now it was boarded up with only a bare skeleton crew standing by the main entrance, which was all but wired shut.

    After speaking to the men for a few minutes, Kwai-Su had the phone number of the coordinator for the international teachers. He called her. After some stubborn resistance on her part, she agreed to meet with them. Seeing her face to face at the stoop in front of her tenement building, he showed his credentials and explained the ongoing investigation. She stood thin-lipped and silent, her arms crossed over her chest. After nearly an hour, the woman relented, and gave them Rebecca Palmer’s home address.

    Her apartment was only three blocks from the school. After they had pounded on her door once, they were met by a frail young woman wearing thick bifocals. She was dressed in an oversize white T with wool pajama bottoms.

    “Y-yes?” she stammered in English, clearly frightened.

    “Miss, I’m Agent Kwai-Su from the Ministry of Public Security,” he said. Hanging from his right hand was what looked to be a briefcase. Inside was a temperature gun, the Hongmo Truat Sop test, a syringe, and enough venom to kill a herd of elephants.

    Her eyes shone with fright, her eyebrows knitting with confusion before smoothing out into terrible recognition. She knew something.

    “We have some questions pertaining to the date of your arrival,” he explained further. He saw her frightened eyes had found Mr. Nee and had promptly expanded. “May we come in?” he asked, shouldering his way through before receiving an answer. The question was only a social courtesy; no one could refuse law enforcement in this country – least of all a foreigner. And there was no such thing as a warrant; police always had probable cause.

    The apartment was compact: just a small living room/kitchenet attached to a bedroom and bathroom. Nee and Kwai-Su stood between the two-foot coffee table and the drab chesterfield. Palmer stood beside the door; her arms curled inward like a pair of broken wings.

    “You arrived in on Sunday February third, correct?” asked Agent Kwai-Su.

    Palmer nodded feverishly, the grey bun at the back of her head bobbing up and down.

    “Did you happen to go through the southeast checkpoint on the Shin-Tong expressway? It’s about two miles from the international airport where your flight landed.”

    Palmer cleared her throat. “I-I did go through a checkpoint, but I don’t know where it was.”

    “You don’t know?”

    “I don’t understand the local language, sir.”

    Kwai-Su and Nee met eyes.

    “We understand that you went to the Fung-Lu hospital a few days ago with complaints of a fever?”

    Her eyes were the size of saucers.

    “Do you feel any better, Miss Palmer?”

    “I-I’d like to talk with Miss Yang,” she said, referring to her coordinator from the school. “I’d like to speak with her before answering any more questions.”

    “We’ve already spoken to your handler, Miss Palmer.”

    “I’d like to speak with her before answering anymore questions.”

    Letting out a chesty sigh, his shoulders slumped, he nodded then watched as Palmer snatched her phone off her desk and dialed.

    It didn’t take long for someone to answer.

    “Amy,” Rebecca said into the phone, her voice cold and sharp. “Yeah, it’s me. Yeah, I got these two cops, saying they’re from Home Security – or something – asking me about my visit to the hospital yesterday.” She paused to listen to the woman on the other end, the voice just faintly audible to Kwai-Su. “What do you mean you gave them my address? Yeah? Well, I’ve already been to the hospital: I’m not infected. I haven’t even left this apartment for the last three days.” Another pause. “Yes, I’m upset, why would you give these people my address? What? What do you mean you can’t do anything about it? What? There are no laws in this country? I don’t have any rights? I’m a Canadian citizen, did you think of that? How do you think the embassy will react when I tell them this? What do you mean they won’t care? Cops here can just do whatever they want, huh? Yes, I said already I’m upset; I came here despite that outbreak and the lockdown when most people wouldn’t. A lockdown caused by a virus that started in your backwards country. Don’t argue with me, Amy, its universally accepted this current wave started here, in this country – your country.”

    Kwai-Su seethed, listening to the entitled foreigner natter on into the phone. In that moment, he imagined she was their therianthrope, and felt much better about completing their task.

    “Yeah?” Rebecca barked into her phone. “Well I’m going to be talking to your boss about this!” she then shut off the phone.

    “I’m going to take your temperature Miss Palmer,” said Kwai-Su, his lips pressed together into a thin line, his eyes not meeting hers.

    “They checked me there, at the hospital” she insisted, repeating what she’d said on the phone. “I’m not infected with the – the virus.”

    “I understand, Miss,” said Kwai-Su, knowing it wasn’t unheard of for hospitals to be coaxed into massaging their records. “This is merely protocol for Public Security. Please oblige us.”

    Kwai-Su laid his case on the coffee table then opened it. He first retrieved the white temperature gun. He approached Rebecca and pressed the barrel to her forehead.

    “Hmmm,” muttered Kwai-Su, after taking her temperature. “You don’t seem to have a fever, but your temperature is still high.”

    A single tear rolled down Palmer’s cheek.

    “I’m going to use the Hongmo Truat Sop test. That will tell us definitively if you are infected or not.”

    He walked back to his open case and fished out the device.

    The Hongmo Truat Sop test consisted of an arching headband meant to wrap around the subject’s head, with an electronic scope held less than two feet from the face by an attached metal arm. All contemporary scientific research suggested that the unnatural colours in the irises of a therianthrope would appear within a minute or two. Or the unnatural dilation of the pupil. It was also believed that no infected therianthrope could cheat it. Still, there was much they didn’t know about the virus.

    He set up the contraption without issue, besides taking a little while to adjust the headband to Palmer’s round, diminutive skull.

    “Stay still,” he ordered in an even voice, for Palmer was trembling. He then switched on the electric lens and examined the eye.

    After about 90 seconds, he was certain there were no colours unnatural to the human species. And no bizarre movement in the pupil.

    “She’s fine,” he said to Nee in their language.

    Glowering, Nee advanced toward her, putting his hand on his gun. “I don’t believe that,” he said, unlocking the strap above his pistol grip. Kwai-Su then heard a rapid clicking sound beside his ear: Palmer’s teeth had begun to chatter.

    “What are you doing?” said Kwai-Su. “She can’t understand you.”

    “Check her eyes now,” said Nee, pulling out his pistol and pointing it at Palmer. Palmer let out a small terrified breath, that wasn’t quite a squeak.

    Kwai-Su turned back to the lens and examined her eye. The sclera had widened, the pupil had dilated a bit, but there was no change in the iris. There was nothing there.

    “Put that away,” sighed Kwai-Su. “She’s not infected.”

    Nee lowered his firearm.

    “Okay, Miss Palmer,” he said to her in English, forcing a smile. “You’re clean.”

    Kwai-Su expected a sigh of relief but instead the woman stared breathlessly into space while he undid the contraption. Afterward, she fled into the bathroom. Nee and Kwai-Su could hear her retching on the other side of the door.

    While Kwai-Su folded up the test, placing it back inside his case, Nee ambled up beside him. “She knows something,” he hissed in Kwai-Su’s ear. “Why else would she be so afraid?”

    “Look in the mirror,” said Kwai-Su without making eye-contact. In his peripheral vision, he could see Nee cock his head back, as though insulted.

    He then snapped his case shut.

    “We’re done here. Let’s go.”

    Agent Kwai-Su had tracked down two dozen of the foreigners who had flown in on the three international flights that night. To no avail. Not one of them was his therianthrope – the one who’d killed eight officers at the southeast checkpoint. Half of them were trying to fly back to their home country, fleeing the nationwide crisis. The other half, like Rebecca Palmer, were teachers, accounted for, staying put, and obeying local law. There were little to no leads – and Kwai-Su had already been chewed out five times by Minister Tamen over the phone. He feared he’d be lucky to still by an agent for the Ministry of Public Security at all when this was over.

    Finally, there was one foreign visitor who had caught their attention: A Miss Freya Nilsson, PhD. An apparent expert in children’s psychology, she had been hired to help those traumatized by the scourge of therianthropy in their country. What interested Mr. Nee and Agent Kwai-Su, was that there was so little information about her own family, back in her home country of Sweden. As they did some digging, with the help of the Embassy of Sweden, she was identified as an orphan, with no contact to her biological mother or father. On the surface, being an orphan meant nothing. But for Kwai-Su and Nee, it was a possible clue to something far more sinister.

    Her office was on the top floor of a fifteen-storey business tower in the downtown area. Beyond the elevator lobby, the space was welcoming but sterile, colourful yet muted. In the waiting room were a stiff row of jungle-pattern chairs, a single table covered with an assortment of out-of-date magazines, and a minute children’s play area, nestled in the far corner. The reception room was empty when they arrived; they had called ahead to make an appointment as her hours of labour varied from day to day. And patient confidentiality must be respected, especially with regard to children. Or so Dr. Freya Nilsson had insisted.

    The stout, middle-aged receptionist sitting behind a plexiglass shield announced their arrival via intercom. The answer to let them through came instantly.

    The first thing Kwai-Su noticed was the shoulder sling, cradling Freya Nilsson’s left arm. It was another clue but, for the time being, he let it go. She wore a white rubber glove on her right hand. She also wore a blue paper mask, which did not distract from her flattering charcoal jacket and skirt combo. Her full chestnut hair was tied back, but still remarkable in its sheen and volume. Secretly, Kwai-Su was impressed by her light-coloured eyes and slim, womanly figure. Though half her face was hidden, she had to be the most beautiful woman he’d set his eyes upon. He tried his best not to gawk, remembering his duty and seeing Mr. Nee sending darts her way with his eyes.

    “Have a seat, please,” she said in a low, honeyed voice, gesturing vaguely to a leather couch and velvet armchair. She spoke to them in their language. Kwai-Su had read on her CV that she spoke a total of five different languages. She floated over to the edge of her desk and perched there. Kwai-Su and Nee stood like a pair of salt and pepper shakers, five feet from the door.

    “How long have you been in the country, Miss Nilsson?” Kwai-Su asked, knowing the answer but wanting to test the waters first.

    The crinkles in the corners of Freya’s eyes betrayed the smile behind her mask. “Call me Freya, please. I’ve been here for exactly ten days and have been practicing for eight.”

    “I see,” Kwai-Su nodded. “And you received your visa to work as a child psychologist in this office, correct?”

    “Yes. I work with Dr. Sun and Dr. Fei. They hired me and dealt with my visa application on this end.”

    “And you counsel children currently. Is that correct?”

    “Yes. Children dealing with trauma.”

    “Would that include children who have survived the recent rash of violence? Specifically, from the therianthropes?”

    “Yes. In fact, I exclusively treat children effected by the recent epidemic.”

    “Huh,” Kwai-Su remarked, feigning surprise. “I was not aware of that. Tell me more.”

    “Well, that’s why I have a visa to work her,” she giggled. Her voice then became stern: “As you must know, Agent Kwai-Su, there is an unending amount of orphaned and traumatized children in this country. The damage to these children’s psyche, their undermined sense of security, is something that I care deeply about. Children deserve to feel safe, to have peace of mind. Hence why there’s a demand for specialists right now – even from abroad.”

    Impressed, Kwai-Su absorbed this for a moment.

    “Are you suggesting our republic cannot sustain itself?” hissed Mr. Nee, letting Nilsson hear his voice for the first time.

    She glanced at him, coldly. Her look did not have the same fascination or disgust most had when observing the scored face of Mr. Nee.

    Kwai-Su seethed. Why would he ask a defensive question like that? he thought.

    The truth was, Kwai-Su, conscious of it or not, was slightly moved by Freya’s words. Her empathy for traumatized children – her passion and drive to make them whole again. Her selflessness. It may have had more to do with the shape of her hips in that skirt than he cared to admit, but he already liked her. And her voice it – it was hypnotic.

    “Are you aware of the recent attack on a checkpoint near the international airport?” he then asked, trying to move past Nee’s idiocy. “The southeast checkpoint off of the Shin-Tong Expressway?”

    “Yes,” said Freya. “Very unfortunate. Very troubling.”

    “You are aware that it occurred the same night that you arrived? In fact, not long after your plane had landed?”

    A dark cloud passed over Freya’s face. There was something there. Something she wanted to say. But she had thought better of it.

    “I am…aware of that now,” she said, innocently. That wasn’t what she had wanted to say, thought Kwai-Su.

    “Have you been tested for the virus?” he asked. “For therianthropy.”

    She nodded rapidly – repeatedly, like a bauble-head. “Yes. Every child and patient who comes through here has their temperature taken. I have mine taken every time I come in and every five hours if I stay that long.”

    “No other precautions, besides that? No protective glass? No weapons?”

    Freya shook her head. “We practice physical distancing and have various escape routes installed throughout the building. But no firearms. No weapons or means of lethal force of any kind. I insist upon it.”

    Agent Kwai-Su turned his head, trying to hide a smirk he knew was visible, even from behind his faceguard. He didn’t want to ask the next two questions.

    “When did you last have your temperature taken?”

    “An hour and a half ago. It was 35 degrees. My receptionist outside can vouch for that, if you like.”

    “That won’t be necessary. Ms. Nilsson-”

    “Please, Agent Kwai-Su,” she interrupted. “Call me Freya. If that’s a too familiar for you, then my proper title is Doctor.”

    Doctor Nilsson,” said Kwai-Su with emphasis, following a short beat. “I would like to subject you to the Hongmo Truat Sop test, which will examine your irises for any unnatural colours that may indicate infection.”

    The crinkles in the corners of her eyes reappeared. “Of course.” She then pivoted from the desk, tacitly offering it to Kwai-Su. Kwai-Su advanced into the room, laying his case down on the top of her desk.

    Within two minutes of staring through the lens, it was clear that she was not their therianthrope. No colours in her irises that didn’t belong to a human eye. No inhuman movement of the pupil. Kwai-Su then heard the creaking encroachment of footsteps behind him. He looked over his shoulder, finding Mr. Nee approaching with palpable intent. Making a show of it, Nee unbuttoned the strap on his holster then unsheathed his Colt 45 hand pistol and pointed it at Freya.

    “I’ll just kill you and take your perforated corpse to the Minister of Public Security,” he rasped. His voice like glass shards underfoot. “Even if you are not our monster, I’ll just kill you and collect the bounty. It’ll be my word and my partner’s word against one dead Swede.”

    Kwai-Su’s flesh prickled, his blood boiling. How dare this man act in such a way on behalf of the Office of Public Security? On behalf of the republic? But then, he saw a flash of something in the lens. In Freya’s iris. Something that – no, it was just his imagination. Whatever it was, it was too brief, no longer there.

    Freya, her iris still examinable in the lens, met eyes with Mr. Nee, evidently unmoved by his flourishing of a pistol. “I’m sure you don’t really mean that,” she said in a staid voice.

    Kwai-Su sighed, his shoulders slumping with relief and utter exhaustion.

    “She’s clear,” he said. “Put that gun away, Nee; she’s not our monster.”

    Mr. Nee kept it trained on her for a beat, the two of them locking eyes, before retiring the 45.

    “Sorry to have bothered you, Dr. Nilsson,” muttered Kwai-Su, unhooking the contraption from her head.

    “Not at all,” she said, her voice empty.

    While Kwai-Su disassembled the Hongmo Truat Sop device, and placed it back into his case, Freya instructed the two men to take a back exit from her office. She insisted they not leave the way they had come in. “I have a patient coming in the next fifteen minutes. He and his mother may have already arrived and are waiting in the reception area. I would appreciate the two of you respecting their privacy.”

    “Not all, Dr. Nilsson,” said Kwai-Su solemnly, his hopes of any future in the government dashed. “Please inform us of anything you may think of pertaining to the evening in question.”

    Without another word, Kwai-Su and Nee filed out of her office through the back door.

    As soon as they reached the stairwell, Nee dove down the steps, flying past each flight like a fugitive in a movie.

    “Mr. Nee?” Kwai-Su called after him, trying vainly to keep up. “Mr. Nee! What are you doing?”

    “There might be time,” he answered, still racing down the steps.

    “Time for what?” Kwai-Su called, his heavy hazmat suit, briefcase, and Kevlar vest slowing his journey, making him waddle. Making him sweat.

    Having reached the ground floor, Nee flew out the back exit, then circled the building with haste. Kwai-Su surmised he was headed for the front entrance.

    “What is your hurry?” Kwai-Su wheezed.

    “She said her patient arrives in fifteen minutes.”

    “What?”

    “Fifteen minutes. A boy with his mother. That’s what she said.”

    They stopped beside the glass vestibule, both of them out of breath. Kwai-Su especially.

    “What was this about a boy? His mother?” asked Kwai-Su, gulping oxygen.

    “She said her next patient comes in fifteen minutes. A boy and his mother.”

    “So?”

    “So, they are how we expose Freya Nilsson; she’s our therianthrope.”

    Kwai-Su rolled his eyes.

    “Were you not up there, just now?” he snapped. “Her temperature was reported at 35 degrees. We put the Hongmo Truat Sop test to her. Nothing out of the ordinary. She’s clear.”

    “I told you that test is fallible. I know she’s the one.”

    “How? What possible evidence do you have for that?”

    “She didn’t get scared when I pointed the gun at her. When I said I was going to kill her even if she wasn’t infected.”

    “Yeah, and her irises didn’t change colour either, imbecile. Nor did her pupils show any unnatural dilation. She’s not infected.”

    “Don’t you get it?”

    “What?”

    “Her irises didn’t change colour because she wasn’t scared. She forced herself into being composed. Into being fearless. Any other person – like that Palmer girl – would have showed fear. Would have been terrified. The fact that she wasn’t afraid, shows that she knew she had to keep calm. She has something to hide, Kwai-Su. She’s holding her hand too close to her chest.”

    Kwai-Su was silent, digesting Nee’s words. Running his logic over in his head. Perhaps he was right. Any other person would have shown fear having a gun pulled on them like that. He hated to admit it but – perhaps Nee was right.

    A few people passed them, strolling through the automated doors. Then, they spotted what they were looking for: a pre-teen boy and his mother, approaching from the parking lot.

    “Give me your badge,” hissed Nee, the couple still a distance away.

    “What?”

    “Just give it to me.”

    Pride swelling up inside him, Kwai-Su felt an urge to chastise Nee, to remind him who had tactical command on this mission. But, upon reflection, anticipating Minister Tamen’s wrath – especially given that they were now days beyond his deadline – he relented. This was a promising lead. The boy and woman stepped onto the curb before them.

    “Madame,” said Mr. Nee, flourishing Kwai-Su’s badge at lightning speed. “We are with the Ministry of Public Security. I’m afraid there have been some outbreaks related to some of the patients in this facility.”

    “Oh, dear!” exclaimed the squat, mid-50s woman, an open palm lain against her chest. Kwai-Su observed her son – the boy. He looked frail and frightfully ashen, his eyes staring off as if he were sleepwalking. He looked to be only eleven or twelve.

    “Not to worry,” Mr. Nee assured her, with candied sincerity. Quite the playacting on his part, thought Kwai-Su. “We are here to escort any young children to assure their safety.”

    The woman then inquired if she was permitted to escort her child but Nee insisted that she return to her car. “I’m afraid physical distancing is the best way to keep both you and your child safe. Not to worry, madame; we will escort him safely to his appointment and return him to you promptly.”

    “Oh, thank you so much, sir!”

    “May I ask which floor is his appointment?”

    “Of course. Fifteenth floor with Dr. Freya Nilsson.”

    “Very good, Madame. Right this way, son.” Mr. Nee put a hand on the boy’s shoulder and led him inside. The boy went along, seemingly oblivious. Kwai-Su said nothing, taking up the rear.

    Like before, they took the elevator. The ever so pale boy stood in front, Mr. Nee directly behind him. As they watched the floor display turn from 14 to 15, Nee laid his left hand on the boy’s shoulder, while his right gripped the handle of his pistol. He unholstered the weapon before the doors parted, resting the steel barrel against the boy’s shoulder blade. Kwai-Su’s skin crawled but he did not protest. He was already in too deep. Mr. Nee prodded the zombified boy forward.

    They brushed past the shrill, protesting receptionist, bursting into Freya’s office.

    Freya looked up from her desk, a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles resting on the bridge of her perfect nose. Her face turned as ashen as the boy’s.

    “W-what?” she stammered, seeing her patient in Nee’s clutches.

    “Now,” said Nee, with disgusting smarminess. “You show us your true form. Or we will kill your patient – this boy.”

    As if searching for reason and decency, her eyes darted to Kwai-Su. He looked back at her blankly, as blankly as he could muster. His stomach filled with rocks.

    “You wouldn’t,” she exhaled, just audible enough to carry from her desk to their ears.

    Nee didn’t say a word, the metallic snap of his Colt’s slide his only response.

    “No!” cried Freya, springing to her feet. In a sudden ecstasy of rage, she flipped over the massive mahogany desk, sending it sailing two feet in the air before it arched back to earth. It crashed on its head with a thunderous slam, betraying a weight too heavy for a woman Freya’s size to have lifted so easily (especially with one arm).

    She took a single step forward and was then doubled over, grabbing at her abdomen as though seized with pain. Her face was instantly beaded with sweat – twisted into a grotesque mask of agony. Kwai-Su watched what happened next, and nearly wet himself.

    Her shoulders expanded in breadth, then ballooned and tore through her blouse and jacket. Kwai-Su didn’t see what happened to her shoulder sling. Her flesh bristled with brown, shaggy hair that coated her entire body in an instant. Her face rounded then peaked into a dished, ursine shape. Her once large eyes were now tiny dots that shone a sickly yellow. She grew several feet and expanded hundreds upon hundreds of pounds. There was a distinct crackling, like that of bone, as she mutated, underscored by a moan that escalated into a growl.

    She stood before them, in her obscene bestial form, hunched over, trembling as if fighting to restrain herself. Kwai-Su knew that that was exactly what she was doing.

    They then heard something guttural, which made Kwai-Su and the petrified receptionist next to him jump. Kwai-Su’s mind then registered the words “The boy,” in the garbled, animalistic speech. It came from the juddering creature’s maw.

    “Yes?” answered Mr. Nee, having not been fazed in the least.

    The otherworldly voice, belonging to therianthrope, resumed: “The boy…I will surrender if you spare him. After this is done…you must let him go back to his mother…unharmed…promise me…”

    “Not until you meet our demands,” said Nee, with astonishing composure.

    “Promise me…”

    “Yes, fine. We’ll let him go. And your receptionist, too. But you have to do everything my partner says.”

    The enormous grizzly throbbed like an open wound, a strand of drool oozing from its nether lip to the floor. “Agreed,” it snarled out, with agonized effort.

    Kwai-Su did not hear Mr. Nee call his name the first time. On the second time, he snapped back to reality.

    “Agent Kwai-Su,” Mr. Nee barked at his partner. “Do the procedure so we can go.”

    Gingerly, Kwai-Su tiptoed toward the velvet armed chair, his eyes on the trembling monster. Snapping his head, back and forth, from the beast to his work in rapid repetition, he laid his case on the cushion. He cracked it open, then searched inside. He first took out a small device, about the size of a fountain pen. He pressed a button on its side, causing a red light to appear at the end.

    “We are now making a record of the destruction of the therianthrope,” he spoke into the mic of the device. He then inched toward the creature. “The date is February the 15th, the time is 11:36 in the AM. Please state your full name for the record.” He extended his arm, holding the device, toward the monster. The absurdity of his action, especially as seen from outside his body, did not escape him.

    “Freya…Ebba…Nilsson…PhD…” groaned the creature, with audible restraint.

    “Do you confirm, at this time, that you are infected with therianthropy?”

    “…Yes…”

    “And do you now confirm, that it was you who attacked and killed eight federal officers at the southeast checkpoint off the Shin-Tong Expressway, near the international airport, on Sunday February the 5th?”

    “…Yes…”

    Kwai-Su thumbed the button, the red light vanishing. “That’ll do it.”

    He then returned to his case, retrieving his second and third items: a syringe and tiny bottle of venom. With precision, he punctured the bottle’s foil cap with the needle, pulling back the plunger until the syringe was sufficiently full. He skirted a few drops, flicking the needlepoint to make it ready. Then, bracing himself, he edged his way right next to the massive, quavering mutant.

    Kwai-Su then leapt back, hearing the guttural voice beside him, bellow out: “Let him go. Now.”

    Contemptuously, Mr. Nee scoffed. “Your receptionist can go. The boy stays until you’re dead. When it’s done, I’ll keep my word. He will go unharmed.”

    The creature said nothing, the silence signaling consent.

    Mr. Nee turned to the pale receptionist, chucking a thumb in the direction of the lobby. Sluggishly, the woman turned. She then ran from their sight, her cries of fear and sorrow echoing from the hallway. The ashen boy watched on unmoved, his eyes glassy and glazed over. In that moment, he reminded Kwai-Su of an eerie ventriloquist doll.

    Not wanting to prologue the agony, Kwai-Su took a hold of the creature’s immense, woolly nape then buried the needle into the side of its throat. He squeezed the plunger until it was all the way down, the venom having entirely entered the creature’s blood stream. The animal groaned hoarsely, pitching forward, half-morphing back into human form. It then laid on the carpeted floor in a heap, a macabre parody of anything natural, wholesome, or decent. Looking down at the destroyed body, Kwai-Su realized the error in what he’d done.

    Misty eyed, Kwai-Su peered up toward the doorway, finding Mr. Nee. His pistol was pointed to the floor, his arms hanging by his sides. He was gazing down at the destroyed creature – lost in the vile euphoria of the moment. The ashen boy stood beside him. He had not run off, as was his pleasure. As had been negotiated with his psychologist – now deceased. What happened next, played out in surreal speed before Kwai-Su’s eyes.

    Without warning, the boy dove for Mr. Nee’s gun, grabbing it from out of his hand, and aiming it at its former master. The report of the first shot sounded the slug ripping through Nee’s thigh. As he turned to face the boy, there thundered a second and a third shot, both bullets passing through his belly and out his spine. Nee collapsed to the floor like a felled redwood, dead instantly.

    On instinct, Kwai-Su tore back a fabric flap from the front of his suit and drew a concealed 9mm. He raised the weapon to meet the boy’s aim on him. He heard three shots before discovering himself lying prostrate on the floor, watching the boy’s feet scamper off into the reception room and, presumably, toward the stairwell. He didn’t even notice that an artery in his neck had been opened from a passing bullet. Nor his own hand, slick with blood, applying pressure to the wound. He didn’t realize the entirety of what had happened until he was alone. Alone with the bodies.

    He could feel the blood gush out of him, his strengthen fleeting, his consciousness fading. He could smell the noisome beast, which was once that beautiful foreign woman, lying beside him. And from his supine position, he could just see the scored face of Mr. Nee, his eyes staring sightlessly at the ceiling.

    In his last moments before losing consciousness, Kwai-Su wondered what would happen to that boy. That pale, pale boy who had presumably survived a therianthrope attack, only to be held captive by two officers employed by the republic. The same republic that was supposed to protect him. And why had Kwai-Su gone along with Nee? To avenge those slain officers? To keep his job? To advance his career? None of it seemed justified. That boy had lived through unimaginable trauma and had now killed a man – soon to be two men – in cold blood. Nursing his last, evanescent breaths, Kwai-Su looked over at Nee’s dead, staring face, and knew, in that very instant, monsters do exist.
     
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