Yellow eyes illuminated a spot in the dark underbrush where moonlight couldn’t penetrate. Spooked, a lone coyote bounded across the path behind Ramona and vanished into the brush on the other side. Leaves and dead branches crunched under the coyote’s paws, and then faded into the night to be replaced by croaking frogs, in a nearby pond, and singing katydids.
Ramona stopped and listened for preternatural sounds in the night. Lightning bugs flashed on and off around her as their little green butts threw off faint light. No stealthy steps or ominous twigs cracked. So far, so good.
Her nostrils flared and she sniffed the wind. Wet dog smell gagged her with its powerful scent, which meant the beast lurked a little too close for comfort.
“Damn it.” She drew in a sharp breath and adjusted the microphone in her ear. “Tinker don’t do that. You scared the crap outta me.”
“How else am I supposed to guide you?” She envisioned Tinker’s raised eyebrow. “You need to get used to the voices in your head.”
Another voice piped in, “Because we’re always there.” Crazy laughter followed.
Tinker laughed. “Cut it out before Ramona stomps back here and knocks us in the head with that basket draped across her arm.”
Exasperated with the men she considered family she said, “What is it?”
“Do you really think a werewolf is stupid enough to fall for the Little Red Riding Hood thingy?”
“Ramona, it’s not a thingy, it’s an operation. And, yes, new ones always do. They’re not in control yet. Haven’t learned it. Besides you’ve wanted to kick wolf butt since the day one tried to eat your grandma years ago.” Tinker pulled away and said something to one of his men that she didn’t quite catch, and then he came back. “You’re ready for this, kiddo, now relax.”
“Shush, I need to concentrate.”
“Zipping my lip. Remember, you’re not alone out there.”
“We’ll be there in an orgasmic second if you get into trouble,” Tinker said to the sound of snickering behind him.
Orgasmic second? Only a wood cutter’s son would come up with something like that. “Gotcha, now be quiet.”
Ramona shoved back her red hood and moved through the quiet night. The forest had gone as silent as an empty, broken down building at midnight and nearly as spooky. Easing the basket of no-existent goodies to the leaf strewn path, she reached beneath the red-checkered cover, meant to keep cookies warm, pulled out a silver dagger, and slowly rose. Eyes wary, she glanced from one dark shadow to another.
An electric current pulsed in the air. Something watched her from the edge of the trees. Its malevolent gaze raked her body, mind hungry for more than just a bloody kill.
Murderous and full of blood-lust.
Not the werewolf she sensed behind her.
She shrugged out of the red cloak and let it slide to the ground. Ramona touched her ear, but before she could contact Tinker with her concerns, a fury bundle of confused rage sprang out of the bushes and tackled her with a fetid snarl.
A swift, upward kick to the stomach with her both legs dislodged the werewolf, tossing him several feet away. She rolled and scrambled to her feet, turning with a roundhouse kick to the chest as the animal leaped for her again.
The creature tumbled into the laurels, but bounded out almost as quickly as it had gone in. With a growl, it attacked again, slapping the breath from Ramona’s lungs as two huge paws smacked into her chest. Beast and woman landed with a bone-jarring jolt, as its weight crushed her into the soft ground. Yellow, slobbering, razor-sharp teeth snapped closer and closer to her throat.
Ramona gagged. The damn thing had been at something rotten earlier, and its breath nearly fried the hairs in her nose as she tried not to breathe through her mouth and taste the foul odor. Puking on her first mission would not be dignified. Neither would dying.
“Tinker! If you want this cursed thing alive, you’d better bag it now.” She held the werewolf’s jaws from her neck at arms length, pushing against its shoulders, her strength waning as the wolf growled above her, dripping drool onto her face. She released one shoulder and groped for the dagger, ready to plunge it through the beast’s heart if the team failed to get to her in time.
Suddenly it arched its back, howled in pain, and loosened its grip on Ramona. Another drug-laced dart sank into the wolf’s neck. It snarled and clawed at the offending stink, swayed above her, and shook its head from side to side as if trying to dislodge a hornet. Another dart, and then another launched into its hide, burying under its fur to sink deep into the flesh below.
Ramona rolled out from under the werewolf right before it landed face down with a thud and final spasm.
Men in camouflage and army boots trampled through the bushes, dart guns pointed at the motionless animal at their feet, hands on triggers, waiting to see if it would move again. It twitched one last time.
“Ramona, you okay?” Tinker reached down and offered her a hand.
“Yeah, just peachy.” She grasped his fingers and let him tug her upward. “Cutting it kinda close there, don’tcha think? Another second or two, and you’d be wearing this little red cape--hunting me.”
“Naw. You make a much prettier Riding Hood. Wolves can’t resist that sweet, innocent thing you got going on.” He scooped the cape up off the ground. “Besides, I don’t think I’d fit in this thing.”
Ramona stared back at the werewolf, feeling sorry for it even though one had tried to kill her grandma over twenty years ago. A human dwelled in there somewhere. Probably a good human unlucky enough to get bitten by a werewolf. “Will they be able to help him?”
“I hope so. I hate to think we’re putting your life at risk for no good reason.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
Tinker threw his arm around her shoulder and said, “How about we leave these boys to what they do best and head to Grandma Base for some milk and cookies.”
As they moved down the path, a chill worked its way along Ramona’s spine. Something still lurked in the dark trees just out of sight.
Something more dangerous than a newborn werewolf.