Freeway to Death
Or from, hard to say until you arrive.
My paws hurt.
Didn't matter if I walked on the dry brittle grass of the verge, or the rough pavement of the shoulder. Too tired to Change. To stubborn to quit.
If I had any sense I'd walk out into traffic and end it all. Death behind me and . . . nothing to walk forward into but a slower death than I'd dealt out to those back there. I had set out to find out what I was . . . and the answer was unthinkable.
I turned my head enough to see the cars and trucks coming up behind me. Not many, all going quite fast. I put my head back down and limped on.
Not because of the paws. I heal fast. Maybe because of what I am. I'd lain unconscious for . . . maybe a day? After the fight. All the cuts and bites had healed on the surface, but there was a lot still going on inside. Especially in the hip joint. Damn near lost a leg . . .
Another car passed me, swerved to try and miss some trash on the road, ran right over it. tossed it in the air. It clanged down a dozen feet away, then I could hear the thump, thump, thump of a flat tire. The car slowed and pulled over to the shoulder, a quarter mile down the road.
Another poor sod, dead on the road, going through the motions.
This was a pissed off blonde woman, kicking her car and glaring at the tire. Full of life, throwing her hands in the air and stomping around to pop the trunk of the car and start pulling stuff out.
By the time I limped up there was a pile of three suitcases, boxes, bags . . . nothing that smelled like food, unfortunately.
She stopped long enough to eye me, then turned back to the trunk to pull out a tool kit.
I flopped into the narrow bit of shade the biggest suitcase offered and watched her pull out the jack, the spare . . . So much energy, so much emotion. So alive and so real.
I closed my eyes. And "saw" with that faint sense, not quite sight but . . . the woman was a ghostly aura darting about. Nothing like the sick green of those people . . . my people.
Another car pulled over, stopped. Another faint white aura. I opened my eyes.
A man getting out of a bright red sports car. Grinning. "Hey Honey, need some help?"
Not one of the good grins. He swaggered up and loomed. "I can help you, if you're nice . . . "
I hadn't meant to growl. But I was careful to not limp as I got up to stalk closer.
The guy stopped. I'm a very large dog.
The woman smiled. "No thanks, I've got this."
The man eyed me, shrugged and walked back to his car. Slammed the door.
I watched carefully, but he didn't try to run me down when he drove off.
"Huh." The woman eyed me. "Thanks, pup. Pity you didn't wait until after he'd changed the tire, though."
She leaned over and looked at the tags clipped on the twisted fabric around my neck. "Stone, eh? And a phone number . . . isn't that a DC area code? You're a long way from home, Stone."
I wagged my tail and limped back to the shade.
"So am I. Why the hell my sister moved to Phoenix . . . eh, love. At least she found a good one." She changed the tire with no more than a few curses, loaded everything back into the trunk and offered me a lift.
"Werewolves?" Senior Inspector Peter Morgan shook his head. "The Forty-eight gang thinks they are actual shape changing werewolves?"
The head of the Louisiana FBI nodded. "The kids bragged, and laughed when the cops told them to stop being so stupid. They could only be charged with vandalism. No ID, but they claimed to be sixteen—and looked it—so the judge turned them loose. They'd sent in DNA to help identifying them, much too late to find the boys. They'd disappeared. The preliminary results—forty-eight chromosomes—meant nothing to them. But we get notified of any such results, and duplicated the genetic analysis, and the comparisons. At least, with the new tests we get results in a week. These came in yesterday."
Peter looked back at the photographs of the two boys. Five foot eight inches. Dark hair, wiry build. Sharp boned faces with a strong family resemblance. "What are they taking to give them delusions of being werewolves?"
The other man, who'd done the footwork, shook his head. "The lab said they were clean. We figure they're playing games because of the dog bites on some of the bodies. Trying to scare their rivals. We're looking—again—for large vicious dogs."
Peter snorted. "Faked, using dog teeth in some sort of crushing mechanism. Otherwise we'd have found canine DNA in the bites."
"True." The district head tapped one report. "The detailed DNA results are interesting. The boys', well, putatively young men's, extra chromosome pair is the same as all the rest of the gang's. And the same damned Y chromosome. Of the rest, lots of overlap, between the two of them and with the samples from the twenty-five rape-murder scenes. They aren't the rapists, but they are family."
"And they're gone." Peter eyed the pictures. A convex profile with the entire lower face thrust a bit forward, the dental arc prominent in a long heavy jaw with a long narrow chin. Auburn hair, short and straight in front, allowed to grow a bit at the nape of the neck and show a bit of curl.
"Good looking boys, but distinctive." One of the local men showed his teeth. "We're wondering if the whole family looks like this."
Peter raised his eyebrows. "Indeed. It would be nice to know what to look for. Forty-five multiple rape-murders, spread out all over the country. Mind you, that's over a twenty year time period. Some of it before DNA analysis was sufficiently developed. But the old samples were kept, and the scene analyses. Most serial rapists and murderers are loners. But with these people . . . gang rapes, torture, dismemberment . . . Cannibalism. Some of the killing grounds very well concealed, only discovered accidentally, years or decades later. There are probably a lot more we haven't found.
He looked down at the chart. Each member of the gang had a letter and number designation. The letters from the scene where that specific DNA had first been found. And lines of relationships. Brothers, fathers and sons. Uncles. Grandfathers. Cousins. A hundred and fourteen individuals.
And now these two boys.
"The son of FL4. A possible cousin of PL1. So, one of the southern gang and one from the northeast. Only the fourth time we've seen individuals from different regions together. According to the records, your area's been free of their activity."
Four subgroups. Northwest, Southwest, South and East Coast. DNA suggests cousins, all descended from the same man. The Mitochondria are a bit more diverse. Three female lines produced eighty-two of the . . . werewolves. Nine other mitochondrial lines for the other thirty-two killers.
"Yeah. We're really hoping they're out-of-towers, visiting the Big Easy. You've got a big problem in Phoenix."
"Yes. Hideous mess. Worse than the Carolinas. I was stationed there, then. They transferred me to Phoenix when they found the first mass grave, so they'd have an experienced investigator." Peter grimaced. "If they hit again. For better or worse the two other sites we've found since then were even older."
"Yeah. We've all read up on the reports. So they have a . . . spree every couple of years. And the most recent site is two years old. Right?"
"Right." Peter glanced from the head honcho to the agent who was working the case. "I'm surprised you could get the DNA profiles for juveniles."
A shrug from the agent. "The cops never ID'd them. They . . . sort of slipped into the system as being of uncertain age."
Peter nodded. "We keep trying to get permission to check juvenile records, and hitting a judicial wall. The new terrorism bill may help. Even though this is homegrown, and criminal."
The division head nodded. "Not that we have any idea if the gang includes its juvenile members in any of the rape-murders." He passed over a thumb drive. "Not that we couldn't have done this over the phone."
"True. I think my boss was hoping the police had a handle on the boys and I could get a look at them. The pictures will have to do." Peter shook hands around and headed for the airport.
Southwest had a one stopper to Phoenix, so he didn't have to change planes.
Nicole was waiting for him, worried. "Rachel isn't here yet. She called from Albuquerque last night and said she'd call if she decided to stop again. But she hasn't called."
"It's a long drive. She'll take breaks, and if she get tired, she'll spend the night in Flagstaff. Your sister's got good sense." Peter hugged her, his own worries easing. I hate leaving Nicole alone, so far from all of her old friends, her family. Having her sister staying with us will be a big relief.
Sisters, in-laws, exes
"Rachel! Yay! I was starting to worry."
"Oh, I got your message about going to pick up Peter so I stopped and had dinner. Hey Peter, long time no see!"
I was pretty sure we were in Phoenix. The house was all adobe and red roof tiles. The woman who'd come out to great my rescuer was red on top too.
"I thought you'd be here earlier."
My rescuer—Rachel, apparently—got out of the car and hugged the redhead. "Hey Nicole, had a flat, had to stop and get it fixed and . . . well. Here we are." She cast a look back at me, in the rear seat.
"What is that!”
"That's Stone. He's lost, and well, he ran off a . . . person of uncertain intent when I was changing the tire. Don't worry, he's got tags, I'll track his owner down, I just couldn't leave him in the desert, he'd worn his pads down till they were bleeding."
"You always were soft hearted. Couldn't you rescue a smaller critter though?" The redhead peered at me.
"That's not a dog, that's a pony!" A man had come up behind them and now he was the one reaching to open the door.
"Very funny. Just because he doesn't look like one of your fancy police dogs . . . "
I eased out, putting my paws down carefully. Eight hours without walking had been nice, but not long enough to finish healing.
"Good Grief, he must weigh close to two hundred pounds. Mastiff or Newfoundland, by the size, crossed with, well, something with short hair, at least. Mostly."
They all looked at me.
"He's not black like a Newfoundland." Rachel shrugged. "Do Mastiff's come in tannish brown? Maybe he's part Great Dane. He's got a little bit of a curly ruff."
Strictly speaking, I probably wasn't even partly canine. Nonetheless, I wagged my tail, sat down and offered a paw to shake. I needed more than a couple cheeseburgers to regain enough energy to Change, to . . . reenter human society . . . somehow.
This looked like a good place to recuperate.
So the first thing that happened was I got hosed off, soaped down, and scrubbed. Really embarrassing. Not that it didn't feel good, but.
Oh well. I got a plateful of leftovers and a rug on the back porch and thought I was in heaven. The concrete patio had absorbed the heat all day, and felt wonderful as the sun set and the air cooled.
I could hear them chatting inside. Well enough anyway to piece things together. Rachel'd lost her job, been dumped by her boyfriend and been invited to come and stay with her sister and her husband.
And they phoned the numbers on my tags. Gran and Gramps number wasn't in service. I perked my ears and listened to the call to the vet.
"An old number . . . Oh, is that the Stone's huge tan dog? He must be . . . fourteen by now, a big dog like that I'm surprised . . . "
The Stones, my foster family. Once they realized I wasn't just a little boy, they'd made sure I had the other set of vaccinations too. Just in case.
"Do you have their phone number? I found the dog in New Mexico."
I couldn't pick up all the rest. ". . . heard their son Leonard moved." And then loud and clear, "After they both died a couple of years ago."
I put my head down and stopped listening. I know. I arranged their funeral, then their biological children tossed me out. "You're nineteen, you're an adult. Go live in the dorms if you're going to stay in college." And "Don't expect us to pay for it. Bad enough you conned Mother and Father into paying tuition while you freeloaded on their generosity."
Stanley and Harriet Stone. Wonderful people. Their kids, not so much.
So I was homeless before the only parents I'd ever known were buried. A backpack full of the bare necessities, a suitcase with everything else I could cram into it.
Fool that I was, instead of crashing at a friend's house and looking for a job, I'd decided to go find out what I was.
I didn't really remember much, from before the police picked me up, a naked boy, maybe five years of age, wandering the streets. There were places I could recall, with no memory of where they were. Names that rang a bell, things I dreamed. By then I'd accumulated quite a file of places to check, mostly from internet searches.
So I'd . . . just gone. And once the savings were gone, I'd picked up some work for awhile, then moved on to the next place on my list.
Five years of searching, and I finally found them in Albuquerque.
And the next day found myself out in the desert with a half-dozen shape-changing killers. And told them I wouldn't join them.
"The New Mexico State Police have found two bodies out in the desert. Preliminary cause of death dog or wolf bite injuries. No other indication that it could be related to the Forty-eights—no dismemberment and so forth--but we're keeping an eye on the DNA results."
"More like drug gangs clashing. They keep pit bulls for guard dogs, and sometimes those huge cane corsos. Teach them to attack and maul." Steven Chen shrugged. "Bet they find gunshot wounds as well."
Nods around the table.
Bren Masterson was the Arizona District head. He glanced over at Peter. "Senior Inspector Morgan has information on the Forty-eights. Peter?"
"From New Orleans. Unfortunately the two boys, or young men, we don't have an age for them, were released due to their young age and the minor charge. Long gone before they got the preliminary DNA results. Forty-eight chromosomes." Peter filled in the details.
"Good." They all studied the pictures.
"I'm running them through facial ID, see if we can find some family members with police records."
A solid night's sleep, and another day off my feet, and I was back in working order. I waited until twilight, then trotted most of the way to the Walmart we'd passed after we'd gotten off the freeway. Then I ducked behind a sign and triggered the change.
Deep breathing to help fuel the energy used, a mind set of half self-hypnosis to control the pain . . . it only took about five minutes, but it always felt longer. I pulled the "collar" over my head and unrolled and untwisted a pair of black running shorts. Checked the pocket. A plastic bag with my drivers license, social security card and, this time, almost two hundred dollars in cash.
So. Time to shop.
Walmart, being what they are, late night shoppers are infamous for the odd clothing their customers wear. My bare chest and bare feet barely raised an eyebrow.
Two tee shirts, two pairs of jeans, a packet of tighty-whiteys, socks, running shoes. All cheap generics. $75 and I was ready to rejoin human society.
Well, maybe tomorrow morning, after another good night's sleep. And I'd probably have to sleep on the Morgan's patio in dog form until I found a job and got my first paycheck.
"The two bodies in New Mexico have turned out to be members of the Forty-eight gang. The incident crew is taking over the scene, and has expanded the search area.
"Besides the two human bodies, we've found the remains of two large dogs. Much chewed by critters, but with a time of death very close to that of the human victims. The map of the area . . . This is a cattle ranch—four thousand acres of sparse grazing, rarely visited—a hundred and ten miles west of Albuquerque and eight mile north of Interstate Forty. They've got trained cadaver dogs enroute to see if there are any of the sorts of hidden graves we've seen elsewhere."
A map of the state, then a close up with the locations marked of the parked car and the two human bodies. The canine remains were a quarter and a third of the way back to I40.
"We're getting daily updates."
Peter Morgan repressed a sigh. If I was still in DC, I'd probably have been sent out there as the lead investigator. Now I'll have to wait for someone else to write the report and circulate it.
Dammit. However much nicer it is out here, otherwise. I feel like I'm in a backwater.
"We have a new detailed analysis of those extra chromosomes from the labs." Masterson clicked on the big screen and they watched the whole dog and pony show.
"Genetic engineering as the direct transfer of DNA from one organism to another was first accomplished by Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen in 1972. The first genetically modified animal was a mouse created in 1974 by Rudolf Jaenisch." The man on the screen shrugged. "So we've had fifty-five years, in theory, to do something disastrous to ourselves. In actuality, serious expertise has existed for less than half that, but it's clear from this Forty-eight Gang that it has been done."
Peter had seen presentations by the man before. Dr. ????
So the experts don't think it's a natural mutation. Something deliberate. But we're getting third generation DNA showing up.
"The two extra chromosomes are not natural. Not accidental duplications of other human chromosomes or even parts of them. They are hodgepodge collections of control genes from several species, mostly canine and feline, although we haven't pinned down the exact species. And there are some oddities that might be from invertebrates, or . . . something else. Other labs have suggested genetic engineering of those chromosome, but work of that nature has never been demonstrated. We have identified epigeneic switches on some of the odd genes that turn the genes on during adrenaline surges, then turns them back off. Of course, we're still studying them . . . what physical effect they could possibly have is hard to say. Faster reflexes? Stronger? Neither dogs nor cats are known for endurance, so possibly just in bursts?" Dr. ??? Scowled at the camera. "It would be nice to have an actual individual to observe and test. The evidence indicates that they are completely fertile with ordinary people, so find me some children from outside the criminal gangs, eh?"
He tapped at a computer and a new chart popped up. "And we know that because of these new results we've just started studying, from New Mexico. An all new, never seen before individual. Different Y chromosome, different Mitochondrial line. He has both of the extra chromosomes, and enough overlap with the other genes that the best match is grandson of both LA2 and SC7 with outside women who both had daughters, and two of those daughter's children married, or whatever, and produced this fellow.
"His DNA is from the usual fake dog bites. This is, however, the first time we've gotten actual bodies to study. This outsider apparently killed two of the Southwest group."
Peter leaned forward. "But the spitting on fake dog bites motif points to someone very familiar with the gang. Not an outsider."
The video rattled on with out pause. "Well, details of the autopsy . . . both the victims had odd skeletal abnormalities. Whether these are typical of the gang, an effect of the artificial chromosomes, more ordinary birth defects, or deliberate post natal restrictions of growth is an interesting question."
What? Like the old Chinese foot wrapping? Or unset breaks?
"So, in any case, they've been identified as KC5 and KC8, based on semen samples from the 2018 attack in Kern County California where at least ten men raped, killed, dismembered, cooked, and ate four women . . . "
The picture bore a definite resemblance to the boys in New Orleans. Outthrust face, dark reddish hair.
More DNA pictures . . . "our reconstructions of the women in the gang, from the DNA their sons have been leaving around . . . "
Peter barely paid attention as the technical terms flew.
West of Albuquerque? North of I-40? What date? Rachel must have driven past within 48 hours of the killing. I wonder if her dash cam would show anything interesting? At least I don't have to actually worry that the dog she picked up is a werewolf.
He mentally kicked himself and switched his attention to the screen.
". . . And so in addition to the one hundred and seventeen identified male members of the gang, we are postulating twenty-five adult women adding to the gene pool. Status in the gang unknown, number of children unknown."
The doctor glared out of the vid screen. "I need more samples. Do I have to find and hire a hacker to get into genetic data bases?"
And I need a description of those dead dogs . . . although it's hard to imagine Stone as trained to kill. And he has a tag, former elderly owners.
I'll start by tracking down that son of theirs. Leonard Stone.