Wolf in the Wind
by Sharon Lee
“What took you so long? It coulda killed the whole town!”
Cael opened the door, and slid out of the truck. Oscar, in the passenger seat, watched attentively, mistrustful of the woman with her loud voice. He would have caught the smell of fear as clearly as Cael did.
The woman was blocking access to Storage Unit Number L9, holding a broom across her chest in a two-handed grip. Behind her, the roll-up door was rolled down.
“You didn’t let it out, did you?” Cael asked, walking softly forward.
The woman wore an orange plastic jacket, with a picture of a glashtyn rising from the water, and “Swamp Thing Storage” on the right breast; “Manager” on the left. Cael’s own jacket carried the seal of the town of Archers Beach, “Animal Control” above it, and his name, “C. Wolfe,” below.
“Didn’t let what out?” the manager asked, frowning.
“The snake,” Cael said. “It couldn’t have killed anyone, if it was confined in the – unit.”
“Wise ass,” the woman snapped. “You dawdle your way down here, and now you’re making jokes?”
It hadn’t been a joke, but Cael had learned not to correct such statements, or to protest that he had been at another job when her call had come in, which he had been constrained to finish first. Fear made time run faster, and if, indeed, the captive was as dangerous as she represented, the manager had done well to keep it confined.
“Please stand aside,” he said now, walking past, and bending down to grab the handle of the roll-up door. He didn’t want her in the line of a rush, or a discharge.
Fingers around the door handle, he turned his head to look up at her.
“Stand aside,” he repeated. “You don’t wish to be hurt.”
“Right,” she said, and hastily withdrew, stopping with her back against the animal control truck.
Cael nodded, spinning to the right as he threw the door up – and waited.
Nothing happened. There was no odor of brimstone, nor stink of poison. He sensed no enmity. Indeed, he sensed only the most minor tingle of life – slow, cool life.
“Kill it!” shouted the manager behind him. “What are you waiting for?”
Cael frowned. The interior of Unit L9 was crammed with large pieces of furniture, boxes were piled near the front, and a leather footstool had been placed atop the pile nearest the door.
On the footstool, curled in the puddle of late September sunlight that had found its way into the unit through the window in the roof —
Was a snake; a very sleepy, contented snake.
“Kill it!” the manager snarled into his ear.
Cael turned to her.
“Why?” he asked, genuinely puzzled. “It’s sleeping, and it is harmless.”
“It’s a snake!”
“Yes,” Cael said patiently. “It is a snake. A northern water snake. It is harmless – no. It is better than harmless. It eats vermin. Its presence has been preventing mice from eating the boxes and fouling the furniture.”
“A – look, you, I know a cottonmouth when I see one! They’re mean-tempered and they’re poisonous.”
Cael frowned. He had studied hard to learn all the creatures of this land. There were, however, other lands, and other creatures, of which he was ignorant.
No, he reminded himself – while there were other lands, snakes were much alike, everywhere they were found. They did not travel far, save by accident, or the intent of those other than themselves. Unless this snake had arrived with the rest of the storage bay’s furnishings, it was what it appeared to be – a northern water snake.
On the footstool, the snake moved, light glinting along its scales. Its head rose.
Cael reached for his link to this, his own, land. Through it, he murmured to the snake.
“Tell me true: are you of this land?”
“Yessss…” the snake answered, head moving slightly, its thoughts drugged with warmth.
“Lie easy,” Cael cautioned it. “There is one here who calls your life forfeit; she believes you to be a poisoner.”
There came an unsteady hiss, as if the snake found this amusing, then it spoke, less drowsy now.
“That’s not unjust; my mouth’s a weapon, but my bite’s for mice and vermin.”
“Though I’ll make an exception, if my life’s on the line.”
“Yes,” said Cael. “Lie easy and hide your teeth. I will need to move you, but I will preserve your life.”
“‘preciate it,” said the snake, and lowered its head.
“Why haven’t you killed it?” The manager’s voice was shaking. “It’s a cottonmouth.”
“There are no cottonmouths here,” Cael said, projecting absolute certainty.
He felt the manager’s fear ease, somewhat. She went so far as to smile at him.
“Fine; it’s not poisonous,” she said agreeably. “Kill it anyway.”
“No,” Cael said, and held up a hand. “I will remove it. It is a useful creature in its proper place.”
“Which ain’t a storage bin!”
“Precisely. I will remove it to its proper place. Stand away.”
“You ain’t half a smart-mouth are ya?”
“I lack the appropriate measuring stick,” he told her. “Stand away; I will not have you harming this creature.”
The manager stared, lips parted, face white with rage. She stepped forward, and he heard Oscar growl from the front seat of the truck. Cael made another small request from the land.
The manager drew in a shaky breath, and used the broom to point at the drowsy reptile.
“Get that thing out of here,” she said, voice raspy. “If you wanna take it home and keep it for a pet, that’s all right by me. It’s got no place in my storage park, understand me?”
“Yes,” said Cael, patiently. “I understand. Please stand back. I will bring a container from the truck, and remove the snake.”
She eyed him, and he clearly saw her desire to end the innocent life with her broom.
“Where you taking it?” she asked.
“To a safe place,” Cael said evenly, and walked back to the truck.
The snake slithered out of the box at swamp side.
“Fare well,” Cael told it. “Perhaps do not go into the storage units again. You might not be so lucky twice.”
The snake paused, and lifted its head, cold eyes meeting Cael’s gaze.
“There’s some good eatin’ over there,” it commented.
“Is dinner worth your life?” Cael asked.
It moved its head, and the land brought Cael the impression of a sigh.
“Guess not.” It paused. “You don’t mind my askin’, deah, what d’you happen to be, zackly?”
“I am an animal control officer.”
The snake waited. Cael waited.
The snake turned and flowed across the mud, and down into a murky pool.
Cael sighed and got to his feet.
He pulled the truck into the garage, opened the door and slid out, clipboard in hand, Oscar behind him.
It took only a moment to open the back of the truck and make his inventory, then he locked up and headed for the office, Oscar at his knee.
“Good evening, John,” he said, putting his clipboard on Karen’s desk. He went to the time clock hanging on the wall, pulled his card out of its slot, slid it into the machine’s maw.
He removed the card, slotted it, then turned to face John, who oversaw his work here. John was not a bad man, by Cael’s measuring. He had no tie to the land, but that could be said of most of the people who lived within the boundaries of Archers Beach. Despite that deficiency, he had a genuine care for the creatures of the land. John had once been what Cael was – an animal control officer – before his supervisor had stepped back from her duty, and John had been “kicked upstairs,” as he said it.
That was the circumstance that had allowed Cael to take up the active care of the creatures of Archers Beach, while John sat inside at a desk, doing paperwork, negotiating with those above him in the town administration.
And taking complaints.
“Made yourself a lifelong friend with Jerri Evans over there at the storage factory,” John said now.
Cael sighed, genuinely grieved.
“I am sorry that she called you,” he said.
“Comes to that, so’m I,” John said. He glanced down and held a hand out. Oscar being a gentleman who knew what rank required of him, he thrust his nose into John’s palm, hoofed gently and wagged his tail.
John smiled slightly, some of the tension going out of his shoulders.
“Thanks, Oscar,” he said, and looked back at Cael.
“You get that snake situated?”
“I returned it to the marsh,” Cael said. “I – think it will not venture into the storage rooms again.”
“Better not, if it values its life,” John said. “Jerri Evans tells me she’ll kill the next snake she sees on her property, don’t care what kind, the only good snake being, according to her, a dead one.”
“The snake today,” Cael said. “It was not – any more dangerous than another snake. Not poisonous. Not a – cottonmouth.” He looked to John.
“What is a cottonmouth?”
“A water snake, down Away. Sometimes you’ll hear ’em called water moccasins. Sooner bite either of one us than swim away. Similar markin’s to your northern water snake, which Jerri tells me you told her is what today’s player was.”
John looked thoughtful.
“Not that there’s any snake that isn’t dangerous, come down to facts. Filthy mouths. You get bit, the infection’ll be enough to kill you if you don’t get help quick.”
“Yes,” Cael said again.
“So that’s me telling you to be careful around snakes,” John said. Cael looked at him in surprise.
“Of course,” he said. “A snake cannot go against its nature.”
“Right you are, and you did right, moving today’s back where it belonged. Now –” John sighed, and rubbed the back of his neck.
Cael waited. Oscar leaned against his knee.
“Jerri tells me you were too long answering the call, and gave her some attitude when you did get there.”
“So, where were you before you went to see Jerri?”
Cael’s face cleared.
“I was half-way up a tree.”
“Pretty Boots got out again?”
Pretty Boots was not the true-name of the cat to whom Mrs. Angela Newton owed fealty, but that was to be expected; cats rarely shared their true-names. What was. . .distressing was that Pretty Boots made sport of her servant. Three times in the last two weeks, Cael had been called to bring Pretty Boots out of a tree. Today, he had remonstrated with her, trying to instill in her a sense of the obligations attached to her station.
Pretty Boots had tried to scratch him.
But none of this was John’s concern.
“Pretty Boots did get out again,” he said. “Mrs. Newton says that she unlatched the screen door with her paw.”
“Don’t doubt it; damn’ cat’s an escape artist.” John shook his head. “‘fraid we’re gonna have to downgrade Mrs. Newton’s calls to ‘respond at leisure.'”
Cael blinked, thinking of the elder lady’s face today when he returned the cat to her – pale and grateful to him for his service, her cheeks damp with tears.
“Mrs. Newton can scarcely climb the tree herself,” he objected.
The land brought him the taste of John’s distress – and the metallic tang of determination.
“Nope, she can’t. But she’s taking up too much of a limited resource – that’s your time – so she’s gonna have to wait ’til after you shift snakes outta storage pods, and round up your various strays. You got nothing else on the list, then you see to Pretty Boots.”
This, thought Cael, was not a practicable solution. There had been nothing else on the list when Mrs. Newton’s call came in today. He did not say this to John, however. Clearly, a solution had to be found for Pretty Boots, but that solving surely fell within Cael’s honor.
“Very well,” he said.
John gave him a stare. John was a man of determination and courage, and the stare might have produced a tremor in the heart of a man.
But not in the heart of a wolf.
“Maybe you don’t know who lives across from Mrs. Newton,” John said, “so I’ll tell you. Avis Marcant. You know, the councilor who wants you fired so her son-in-law can get put into your job?”
“Yes,” Cael said, and did not add that the councilor also failed to approve of his appearance, and the land of his birth, as recorded on his birth certificate.
“There’s a face says Maine,” he had heard her say to her henchwoman, Bethany Miller, who had laughed lightly and answered, pretty voice full of malice, “Spends a lot of time out in the sun, don’t he?”
He might have said to John that anything he did or did not do in order to please or placate Avis Marcant was doomed to fall short of hope – but he did not. John’s position also depended on the whim of this petty lady. Cael owed nothing to her, but he did owe duty to John.
“I will remember,” he said now, and Oscar thumped his tail on the floor, jaws parting in a particularly charming smile.
John’s shoulders relaxed a little more, and he smiled, very slightly.
“Comedians,” he said, and slid off the desk to his feet. “Go on along home, the both of you. You keep him outta trouble, Oscar.”
The dog thumped his tail again. Cael smiled and turned toward the door.
* * *
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