Home > Wolfsbane and Mistletoe (Sookie Stackhouse #8.1)

Wolfsbane and Mistletoe (Sookie Stackhouse #8.1)
Author: Charlaine Harris

Chapter One

Fresh Meat

Alan Gordon

Alan is the author of the Fools' Guild Mysteries, published by St. Martin's Minotaur Books, continuing the adventures of Theophilos, a thirteenth-century jester. Titles in the series include Thirteenth Night (now available from Crum Creek Press), Jester Leaps In, A Death in the Venetian uarter, The Widow of Jerusalem, An Antic Disposition, The Lark's Lament, The Moneylender of Toulouse, and the upcoming The Parisian Prodigal. Alan sold his first short story to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in 1990. Since then, he's had numerous mystery, fantasy, and science fiction stories in Hitchcock, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine , Asimov's Science Fiction, and several anthologies. By day, Alan is a criminal defense attorney with the Legal Aid Society of New York, with over a hundred trials to his credit. He lives in New York City with his wife, Judy Downer, an editor, and son, Robert. He is a graduate of Swarthmore College, where he received the William Plumer Potter Award for Fiction, and the University of Chicago Law School.

"Your order's ready, Mister Lehrmann," called Bert, emerging from the back room wiping his hands on a bloody towel. "Two sides of beef, so fresh they were mooing yesterday."

"Thanks, Bert," said Lehrmann. "That should keep us through the twenty-sixth. Okay if I bring the van around back?"

"No problem, Mister L," said Bert. "What are you doing for Christmas? Family coming over?"

"I'm expecting some tonight. Maybe."

"That's nice," said Bert. "Nothing like having family on Christmas Eve. Let's see, you just paid me for the month, so we'll put this on your tab for January, okay?"

"Works for me," said Lehrmann, signing the proffered receipt. His nose crinkled happily as he scanned the display case.

"Those lamb chops look good," he said. "Maybe I should get the dogs a treat for Christmas. Got a lamb you haven't cut up yet?"

"Sure thing," said Bert, adding it to the invoice.

Lehrmann stepped outside to where the cargo van was parked, the LEHRMANN'S GUARD DOGS ad on both sides. He pulled it around to the loading dock where Bert was already waiting with the beef and lamb on a dolly.

"Those dogs eat better than most people," commented Bert as Lehrmann hauled the meat into the van. "Not that I'm complaining to my best customer. You really think they should get fresh, raw meat every day?"

"Part of their training," said Lehrmann. "The bloodier, the better. Brings out the hunter in them."

"Sure wouldn't want to run into one of your puppies on the job," said Bert.

"You really wouldn't," said Lehrmann, slamming the rear doors shut. "See you Monday, Bert. Have a good Christmas."

Lehrmann raised and trained his dogs in a converted warehouse ten miles out of town, not far from the woods. A large, white sign marked the turnoff onto the farm road that led to it. The Spinellis came in at two for their last training session with Waldo. They were a family of four, living in one of the McMansions in the new development. The Doberman sensed them before he could even see them, and started baying a greeting.

"Waldo, hush," Lehrmann said to the dog, and he quieted down immediately. Lehrmann opened the cage and attached the lead to Waldo's collar, then brought him out to the training pit while the other dogs watched with professional interest.

"Afternoon, folks," he said. "Everyone ready?"

"Ready as I'll ever be," said Mr. Spinelli nervously.

"Hi, Waldo," said Sally, the fearless eleven-year-old, and Waldo wagged his tail. Sandy, her little brother, watched from behind her, his thumb in his mouth.

"You can hang out for a few minutes while I get my padding on," said Lehrmann. "Here."

He tossed the reward bag to Mr. Spinelli, and the lead to Mrs. Spinelli, who gave a quick whistle. Waldo immediately sat at her feet.

"Good dog," she said, patting his head.

Lehrmann strapped the quilted padding over his arms and torso, then faced them.

"Any time," he said.

"Waldo, come," commanded Mr. Spinelli, unclipping the lead from the dog's collar, and the dog followed him as he walked around. "Good dog. Waldo, perimeter."

Waldo ran around the edge of the pit.

"Waldo, here," said Mrs. Spinelli. The dog made a beeline for her. She looked at Lehrmann. "Are you sure about this?"

"Go ahead," smiled Lehrmann.

"Waldo, arm," she said, pointing at Lehrmann.

Waldo turned into a snarling, speeding set of teeth, hurtling toward Lehrmann. The dog leapt, and his jaws closed around the padding on the trainer's shoulder.

"Waldo, here," said Mr, Spinelli.

The dog relinquished his hold immediately and returned to the family.

"Good dog," said Mr. Spinelli.

"Don't forget the meat, Daddy," said Sally.

"Good dog," repeated Mr. Spinelli, handing him a chunk of beef from the reward bag.

Waldo wolfed it down.

"Dog biscuits won't do?" asked Spinelli as Lehrmann stripped off the padding.

"You want to keep him on your side, make it fresh meat," said Lehrmann. "You do want to keep him on your side, don't you?"

"Oh, yes," said Mrs. Spinelli.

"You've invested time and money to get not just a guardian, but a companion and a friend," said Lehrmann, coming forward to rub Waldo's neck. "A long time ago, dogs found us, and learned how to protect us. In exchange, we learned how to feed them, and we fed them well. Co-evolution. Any dog can be trained to attack strangers, but a great dog, like Waldo here, won't be attacking strangers. He will be defending you, because you're his family and he loves you. Remember that."

"We will," promised Mr. Spinelli.

"Let me get him his new collar," said Lehrmann. "Waldo, come."

Waldo swallowed the last of his food, and followed Lehrmann to his office in back. The trainer took out a thick, black leather collar and put it around the dog's neck. Waldo looked at him attentively.

"Sorry you can't be here for Christmas, Waldo," said Lehrmann. "But you get to spend it with your new family. They are good people, and they will treat you well. Make me proud."

The dog nodded, and Lehrmann planted a quick kiss on the top of his head.

"Here's your Christmas dog," Lehrmann said as he brought Waldo back out.

"And here you are," said Mr. Spinelli, handing him a check.

"We'll bring him back for visits," said Mrs. Spinelli.

"I'd like that," said Lehrmann. "It's been a pleasure."

Waldo woofed at him once as they took him to their car.

"Merry Christmas!" cried the children.

Lehrmann waved, then closed the door and turned back to the rest of the dogs. They looked at him in anticipation.

"Playtime," he called, pressing a switch on the wall, and the doors all swung open at once.

The dogs burst out of the cages and charged madly into the pit, racing and colliding with each other. There was a mad pileup at one end as several skidded into the padding on the curve, launching a number of wrestling matches. As they played, Lehrmann went methodically through the cages, cleaning each thoroughly. Then he went into the walk-in refrigerator and hauled out one of the sides of beef. Using an electric butcher's saw, he hacked it into dog-sized portions. He laid them out in inpidual bowls, then came back out to the arena.

"Chow!" he called, and the dogs abandoned their melee and raced to their cages. He closed the doors, then began distributing the bowls.

While the dogs ate, Lehrmann hauled out an artificial Christmas tree and began stringing lights over its branches.

From the woods at the rear of the warehouse, a man watched through a pair of binoculars, catching glimpses of Lehrmann as he passed by the windows, his arms full of wreaths and ribbons.

"Very festive," muttered the man.

He was wearing a ribbed black sweater that was fine for the Georgia winter, along with black jeans and boots. A ski cap covered his hair, but his chin and jaw were covered with a matted, gray beard. His legs were thick and powerful.

He had been keeping his vigil from the woods the entire day, making sure that Lehrmann would be alone tonight. He had watched the Spinellis leave, knowing they were the last customers before Christmas, and smiled. His palms itched. He wiped them briefly on his sweater, then scratched the right one with the corner of his belt buckle. He looked through the binoculars again. Lehrmann was hanging a wreath on each of the dogs' cages.

"Very festive indeed," said the man.

The dogs made this one a challenge. He couldn't risk breaking into the warehouse and planting any bugs. He had used a combination of a long-range listening device that bounced an infrared beam off the windows, and a monitor that picked up any nearby cell phone signals. The arrangement still left gaps in the sound. And any time one of the damn dogs started barking, the infrared could have been a flashlight for all the dialogue he was picking up.

Lehrmann was unfolding a six-foot cardboard Santa Claus and hanging it on a wall.

"Now, that one is just plain tacky," said the watcher.

The cell phone monitor chirped. He squatted down and turned the volume up.

Lehrmann picked up his cell phone from his desk.

"Lehrmann's Guard Dogs," he said.

"Hi, Sam," said a familiar voice, and he clutched the phone hard for a moment. "You still there?"

"Hello, Mona," he said.

"It's Christmas Eve, Sam," she said. "I thought you might like some company."

"I've got company," he said.

"You know what I mean," said Mona. "Dogs don't count."

"Man's best friend," said Lehrmann. "Didn't you know that?"

"Only when the man has no woman," said Mona. "You're in Georgia, Sam. Not Alaska. Georgia. A man in Georgia doesn't need to spend the only Christmas Eve of the year with a bunch of dogs."

"You been drinking, Mona?"

"It's going to be a beautiful night," she continued. "Crisp and clear, with a full moon. A full moon on Christmas Eve, Sam. That doesn't happen that often. Maybe we'll see Santa's sleigh flying across it. Yes, I have been drinking, Sam. I'm alone in Georgia on Christmas Eve, and I'm drinking. Can't I come over? You shouldn't be alone with a bunch of dogs."

"Dogs are loyal, Mona," he said. He wished immediately that he hadn't.

She was silent. He thought for a moment that she had broken the connection, but then he heard her crying.

"How's Nicky?" he asked, awkwardly changing the subject.

"Nicky's a great, big, warm, wonderful pal," she said. "I am going to cuddle with Nicky tonight. I could be with you, roasting marshmallows in the fire . . ."

"I don't have a fireplace," he said.

"Please let me back into your life, Sam," she said softly. "You can't shut me out forever."

"Good night, Mona," he said. "Merry Christmas."

He broke the connection.

The man in the woods checked his watch, then glanced up at the sky. The sun was nearing the horizon. It would be an hour until nightfall. He looked through his binoculars to see Lehrmann sitting disconsolately at the desk, staring at his cell phone, then turning it off.

"Poor Sam," said the watcher. "Full moon and empty arms."

An alarm signal went off, and Carson, a five-year-old German shepherd, looked up.

"Easy, boy," said Lehrmann. "Still got an hour. Plenty of time. Finish your dinner."

The dog went back to his meal, but kept glancing up at the windows.

She was drinking early today, thought Lehrmann. God knows that the holidays will do that to a person. Hell, he was all shook up from a two-minute conversation with her, and he was the sober one.

"Hell of a time to call, Carson," he said, and the dog grimaced sympathetically.

Lehrmann thought back to when she'd first walked through his front door. What was it, three years ago? Three and a month. It was mid-November, and he was training a Rottweiler, a ten-month-old female.

The woman was slim, brunette, and built like a runner. Her clothes were carefully casual in a way only large amounts of money could accomplish. She had ruby drops dangling from each ear, with more strung along a gold necklace that plunged between her br**sts.

He was playing tug-of-war with the Rottweiler, using a broomstick wrapped in several layers of cloth. The dog had clamped on tight, and was digging its claws into the mat, trying to pull the broomstick out of Lehrmann's hands. She looked like she might succeed. The woman leaned forward, resting her hands on the wall of the pit, and watched.

"Here!" Lehrmann said suddenly.

The Rottweiler looked up at him, but refused to relinquish the broomstick.

"Here!" Lehrmann commanded her again.

The dog reluctantly let go, and moved to sit by Lehrmann's right foot. She stayed there, a resentful glare on her face.

"Good girl," Lehrmann praised her, and he handed her a small piece of beef. "Can I help you, ma'am?"

"If I'm not interrupting," said the woman, smiling. "Is that raw beef?"

"It is," said Lehrmann.

"Then you won't mind if I don't shake hands just yet," she said.

"I have been known to wash them on occasion," said Lehrmann. "Give me a minute. You could shake the dog's paw while you're waiting."

"Will she do that without attacking me?" asked the woman.

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