CHAPTER FIVE - CONNECTIONS
“Now you have the list?” Grandmother Sophia asked for the fifth time as she pressed yet another twenty dollar bill into Jude’s hand.
“You’ve given me enough money, Grandmother Sophia.” He felt the burn of shame on his cheeks. He still had no money other than Tessa’ credit card. He wanted to take care of his Grandmother Sophia. He wanted to be the one to buy her groceries. He tried to hand the twenty back, but she closed his fingers around it and shook her head.
“That’s your walking around money. Every young man’s got to have some.” A broad smile crossed her beautiful, worn face.
“But I should earn --”
“You will earn it!” she laughed. “Don’t you see the paint on the list? The two by fours? The gardening supplies? I intend to have you so busy around here that you’ll drop into bed at night and sleep dreamlessly. That’s the best way.”
“Wine and cake?” Jude chuckled as he caught sight of those two items on the list on the same line. “Why are they together?”
“Because one MUST have wine with cake. You’ll try it tonight and you’ll see.” She smoothed a hand down his arm. “Now take my truck and go do the shopping, Jude. Shoo! Shoo!”
After being shooed from the house, Jude had driven in Grandmother Sophia’s powder blue pickup to town. The pickup had more dents and dings than undamaged surface, but the motor purred and he made it into town in no time at all. He managed to get all the home supplies like the paint and lumber from the local hardware store. Now all that was left was the food to buy. From the list it appeared that Grandmother Sophia was intent on making every single favorite dish of his. His mouth started watering just thinking about her famous cheddar burgers and flank steak.
He pulled into the grocery store’s parking lot and took a place near the front doors. He got out and froze just as he was about to shut the door. A man with thick steel gray hair and a military bearing caught his eye. The skin between Jude’s shoulder blades twitched. The man wore just a pair of jeans and t-shirt yet his straight, erect bearing proclaimed him as someone from the military even without the uniform. He was flanked by a girl of just ten holding onto a teddy bear in one fist. She had bright blonde curls that bounced as she skipped a few paces behind him. To the other side of the military man was a slender young man with a cocky grin on his lips and a rather dreamy cast to his gaze. Something about them had his sixth sense for danger bristling. Even the little girl caused him to flinch.
They’re not right. Really not right.
If he wasn’t there for Grandmother Sophia he would have jumped back in the pickup and never looked back. Enough danger found him all on its own without walking into it. These three were dangerous. But he thought of Grandmother Sophia’s perplexed expression if he came back without the food. She wouldn’t understand or, worse, she would think he was being paranoid and want to talk about the past. She likely would go to the store herself and then she would be the one in danger. So he had to go in. But maybe he could delay going in. Use some of that walking around money. But ...
It’s a grocery store. A public space. What could they do if they are going to do anything at all? And I’ll just stay out of their way, get the groceries and go. Nothing bad is going to happen.
His one hand on the top of the frame of the door tightened. He didn’t like his mode of thinking. It was the mode he always had, but now it seemed very unsatisfying. He probed his own feelings and figured out what it was that was giving him pause. If he was going to stay here he couldn’t just ditch out the moment something looked dangerous. Grandmother Sophia lived here. He was going to live here. At least for a time. These people could become his neighbors. They … they shouldn’t be left to fend for themselves. But he immediately rejected these thoughts. Grandmother Sophia deserved his help and protection, but these people? They were strangers and they would stay that way.
Pack, a voice whispered inside of him almost as if it were a rebuke. He blinked in confusion. Why would he think of that term? The memory of the wolf dream floated to the surface. Why won’t that dream go away? I never remember dreams in that detail for this long! They never stay with me like this.
At that moment, he saw the strangest pair of guys walk into the grocery store after the military man, little girl and arrogant young man. One was a well dressed Indian man whose suit likely was worth more than Grandmother Sophia’s truck. He only knew this because Tessa loved well made men’s suits. Even though she was a lesbian, she said there was nothing prettier than a man in a tailored suit. She’d bored him endlessly with pictures of such clothing, which had him now identifying the worth of a person’s suit. Not that he saw many fancy suits on the road until today that is.
In contrast to the man in the suit was the behemoth beside him. The behemoth stood over a head taller than the Indian man and was twice his width. A mane of dark curls fell down to his mid-back. He didn’t walk so much as stomp. They were truly the equivalent of the Odd Couple. While the differences between them might have drawn his attention anyways what really had him interested was the fact that he was certain they were tracking the other three.
They’re going after the military man, the little girl and the arrogant guy.
Again, the instinct for flight nearly overcame him. But he had groceries to get. He wasn’t going to let some weird people keep him from obtaining what Grandmother Sophia needed. He shut the truck’s door and strode inside, grabbing a cart without stopping.
He scanned the inside of the grocery store. It was pretty lightly populated, which made sense as it was the middle of a work day for most people. Yet there were a few scattering of women with squalling kids in tow. There were elderly men likely past retirement age who were checking items off of lists and then backtracking as they forgot something in the last aisle. Finally, there were the checkers and baggers that ranged the gamut from disinterested automatons to chirping well-wishers. He made a mental note to not check out with the woman that sounded like a chipmunk and seemed to make comments on every item she scanned. He did not see any of the five people who had drawn his attention.
That’s good. I’m going to keep out of their way.
He steered the cart into the vegetable aisle and started filling it up with what was on Grandmother Sophia’s list. Red and yellow bell peppers. Zuchini. Red leaf lettuce. Cherry tomatoes. Onions. Potatoes. His shoulders relaxed as he continued on shopping with no sign of any of the five. Maybe he would not meet up with them again. Whatever strangeness was going to happen might just pass him by.
But then he turned the corner into the canned goods aisle and saw the Odd Couple about twenty feet from him. He hesitated in the aisle’s mouth for several moments, debating whether to retreat or simply ignore them. Realizing that continuing to stand there or moving out of the aisle would only draw attention so he positioned the cart to the side of the aisle as if he were considering the canned goods.
He looked at the Odd Couple out of the corner of his eye. The Indian man was speaking low to the behemoth. Jude’s eyes flickered to the Indian man’s mouth. From the distance he was at he shouldn’t have been able to hear them. But he could. There was a high-pitched whine for a moment and then their voices popped into his hearing as clear as day. He was slightly alarmed by this, but then his attention was totally occupied with what they were saying.
“ -- told us not to follow! Mack will know he’s being tracked,” the Indian man hissed as Jude lingered at the end of the aisle, pretending to compare two cans of tomatoes.
“He’s not hiding,” the behemoth rumbled. “He doesn’t care if he’s being tracked.”
“Rogues are supposed to be arrogant and careless,” the Indian man said. “But Mack was always the best at knowing when he was being followed. He’ll figure it out and then he’ll go after us! Only Gareth can take him down!”
Jude frowned at the canned peas. Tracked?Rogue? What the Hell are these guys on about? It doesn’t matter. I just need to … why aren’t they saying anything more? He turned his head slightly to the side and saw that the two of them had left the aisle. Something like dismay bubbled up in his chest, but he said to himself, Good. I don’t care what this is about.
Yet he found himself walking swiftly down the aisle with the cart without picking up any of the things that Grandmother Sophia needed. The voice he’d heard in his head before didn’t whisper “pack” again, but he thought it just the same. The Odd Couple clearly didn’t belong in this town. But neither did the other three. And he really felt he didn’t want the mismatched pair to get into trouble.
This is insane!
That was his last thought as he turned the corner and entered the meat section of the supermarket. It was there that he found the military man grinning an unsettling grin at the Odd Couple. He froze. It was just the four of them in that area. The butcher’s door was swinging behind the meat counter. Likely, the employee had gone in the back to get something or maybe he had gotten out of Dodge. There was no sign of the little girl or the arrogant young man nor any shoppers.
Jude jerked back into the aisle, hands sweating and heart thumping against the wall of his chest even though the military man had been smiling as if pleased to see the other two. There was no violence happening. Yet he still thought of heading out, telling an employee that something was up by the meat counter, that maybe she should call the police. But he didn’t. Instead, he stayed and listened.
“Well, well, well, Jacob! Raj! It’s been some time since I last saw you both!” the military man chortled as he greeted them.
“Mack,” the Indian man, likely Raj, said. He pronounced the military man’s name almost like a curse. He spat it out quickly as if it left a bad taste in his mouth.
“Rogue,” Jacob rumbled even as his ham-sized hands fisted at his sides.
There’s that word again! Jude thought even as he peered at Mack from between cans of creamed corn.
Mack’s steely gray eyes narrowed. “Now, now, I don’t remember you being so juvenile to call people names, Jacob, though that one actually pleases me a bit.”
“How about monster, killer, traitor? Do those names please you, too?” Raj said in his musical voice that was tense with strain.
Mack stroked his strong chin as if considering his response to those titles. “Well, now, they do. They are accurate after all.”
“They are,” Raj’s voice held a raw grief that was painful to hear. He did not lunge towards Mack, but Jude could see he wanted to in every inch of his well-dressed body. Jacob must have seen it, too, because he put up a restraining hand in front of Raj to keep him where he was. “You killed members of your own pack! You killed your friends. You killed those who thought of you like a father!”
He killed people. Oh, fuck, he really has killed people. I can see it on his face! The killing part almost completely overwhelmed the part where Raj said “pack”. It was an odd coincidence with the wolf dream and his own thoughts recently, but that was hardly as important as the fact that Mack was a killer. I knew something was wrong with him!
Again, Jude knew he should leave, but he couldn’t move. He half hoped that another shopper would come by. Maybe they wouldn’t be frozen in place. Maybe they would go for help. The air sizzled with violence.
“I did.” Mack’s gray eyes remained riveted upon Raj, but he didn’t seem to see the Indian man, but something beyond him. “Because I learned one thing after Eliza’s murder. That unless you’re strong you’re nothing. If you can’t protect what you love then you might as well up and die.”
“You don’t have the right to say her name,” Jacob said. “Eliza would hate the man you’ve become. She would be leading the charge to take you down.”
Mack gave him a strange smile. “She likely would at that.” His gray eyes went flat and dead. “But since the hunters murdered her there’s nothing she can do about it now is there?”
Jacob took a menacing step towards Mack. “Her memory and the memory of all those you’ve slaughtered gives us the strength to take you, Rogue. You’re coming with us. Gareth will deal with you.”
A rather expectant expression crossed Mack’s face. “Gareth! How is he doing as Alpha? I’m betting that he’s still struggling with the togetherness aspect of being the leader. Having to be present and accessible to everyone. He was alway been a bit of a lone wolf.” That seemed to strike Mack as funny as he began to laugh long and loud.
Where are the other shoppers? Where is the butcher?
“Gareth is a better Alpha than you ever were,” Raj said through clenched teeth.
Alpha? Okaaay …I guess that goes with the pack language.
Mack shook his head and chuckled. “Oh, I doubt that. Gareth is just beginning his path. Maybe if he were to live long enough he might be something in the end. But that’s unlikely since he’s so intent on going up against me.”
There was a dangerous lilt to Mack’s voice. He seemed obscenely eager to have this fight with this Gareth person. His gray eyes gleamed yellow for an instant like animal eyeshine rolling over them. Jude took in a sharp breath and nearly toppled some nearby cans of green beans as he jerked back. He caught them just before they tottered off the shelf and cold sweat beaded on his brow.
I should go get help. I really should report this.
But even as he thought those things, he stayed. He just couldn’t leave. It was then that Jacob and Raj began to move towards Mack in a pincer-like attack. Mack just stood there in his jeans and white t-shirt. His hands were actually jammed into the pockets of his jeans and he made no move to remove them to defend himself. In fact, he looked completely at ease except for the yellow nightshine that rolled across his eyes like storm clouds.
Jude again thought of the missing girl and young man. They were on Mack’s side. They wouldn’t let him be taken by Raj and Jacob.
But what can a little girl and a lanky guy do against the behemoth? And Raj looks pretty powerful there, too. More ropey muscles going on in his physique but still strong.
But he had this ridiculous idea of letting Raj and Jacob know about the other two, to warn them. He actually opened his mouth to speak, but his voice wouldn’t come and he was grateful for that. As crazy as it was to stay there, it was even crazier to speak up and draw attention to himself.
“You’re really going to try to take me in a public place?” Mack snickered and the two stopped moving. “Do you think I’m going to go quietly? Hell, I might actually shift right here and now. There’s even a security camera right there that will catch the existence of werewolves quite nicely.”
Werewolves?! Jude’s mind stutter-stopped at that statement. These people are looney tunes!
“Then all the Alphas would be coming after you and not just Gareth,” Raj said though he was not advancing any longer. “Whatever illusions you have about besting him, you can’t seriously think you can take on all the Council!”
“Do you really think the Council will get off its fat asses and act?” Mack let out a roar of laughter. “They’ve abandoned the Cold Moon Pack, haven’t they? Cut you off without a thought. Your very existence shames them because you come from an Alpha that finally stopped following pointless laws and took what is rightly ours!”
“I’m not listening to any more of this bullshit,” Jacob muttered and he lunged for Mack.
It was at that moment that the little girl appeared. She danced out of the aisle directly opposite Jacob with her tatty bear still held in one hand and a sucker stuck in her mouth. A normal child would have screamed and backed away from a violent scene such as this, but this little girl stepped between Jacob and Mack. She slammed her one free hand into Jacob’s stomach and he went flying back over ten feet. Jacob let out an oomph sound and staggered, nearly losing his balance.
Holy shit … holy shit … holy shit … what just happened?!
“Jacob!” Raj cried, his voice high and tight with shock and concern. He rushed to Jacob and steadied the big man.
Mack stepped up to the little girl’s side and put an arm around her slender shoulders. She continued to suck on her lollipop and Jude realized that she was humming under her breath a little tune.
“Raj, Jacob, meet Clara. Clara, say hello.” Mack patted her blonde curls with affection.
She took out the sucker and said in a sweet, high voice, “Hello. Can I kill them now, Mack? I’m hungry.”
That last sentence had Jude’s stomach curdling and, strangely, it made him angry.
“What have you done?” Raj breathed as he looked at the little girl with horror. “You’ve corrupted a child.”
“I’ve made her strong. She’s just begun her life in my pack. Imagine how strong she’ll be when she’s fully grown? A steady diet of human flesh and blood has done this. I imagine that werewolf meat will increase that strength exponentially.”
“You’re a sick fuck,” Jacob rumbled, a look of such scorn on his face, but Mack did not seem to care.
“Maaaaaaaaack!” Clara whined. “I want to kill them.”
“You can kill them for sure, Clara, but not here. Out back. You and Pierce should take them both away from the town,” Mack said agreeably to her. Then he looked up at Raj and Jacob even as he continued to speak to Clara, “Leave their faces untouched. I want Gareth to see them.”
At that moment, the young man -- Pierce -- suddenly appeared behind Raj and Jacob. Jacob growled low in his throat and Raj bared his teeth. He saw both men’s gazes snap between the little girl and the arrogant young man. Pierce was smiling in this eerie, dreamy manner. That was when Jude caught sight of his hands. Pierce’s fingers are abnormally long and were tipped with claws. Raj and Jacob got back to back to face each of their assailants.
This was the moment when Jude should have run for sure. He should have screamed his head off for someone to call the police. But that’s not what he did. Later, he would have no explanation for what happened or why he acted as he had, but he moved with grace and assurance out of the aisle and into the action.
He stepped out and said simply, “Stop.”
Maybe it was just shock at his appearance and the single word he spoke that had Pierce and Clara freezing in their attack. All eyes were suddenly on him. He hadn’t screamed that word. He hadn’t even raised his voice. He felt absurdly calm in fact.
This is crazy. But then he thought, This is what I’m supposed to do.
There was this lightness in his chest. It reminded him of the dream when he had raced through the woods after the deer.
“This isn’t any of your concern, son,” Mack said almost genially. “Pierce, take care of him.”
“Get out of here!” Raj yelled and gestured for him to run, but Jude stayed exactly where he was.
Pierce grinned and advanced on Jude. But Jacob stepped into his path. He struck out at Pierce, but Pierce was too fast. He dodged Jacob’s swipe and clawed the big man’s arm. Jacob only let out a grunt as four lines of crimson appeared on the sleeve of his flannel shirt. Pierce twisted towards Jude, ready to slice him to ribbons, too.
“Stop,” Jude said again.
And Pierce stopped. His one hand was raised above him, claws still blood-tipped. His mouth was open in a snarl. But he did not move. His eyes were blank as if there was no person behind them.
“What did you do to Pierce?” Clara’s voice was shrill. He heard the slap of her feet on the tile coming towards him.
He turned his head just before she reached him, her face screwed up in absolute fury, ready to shove him like she shoved the behemoth.
“Stop,” he said with finality.
She quivered to a halt and her eyes looked like Pierce’s.
“What are you?” Mack’s voice was dangerous. “What have you done? Release them back to me!”
Jude’s head snapped up and he could feel the connections between this man and Pierce and Clara. There were thin silver strands that he could almost see and he realized that there were strands between Clara and Pierce to him. These strands were gold. As soon as he made eye contact with Mack that sense of connection with the other two increased. Mack’s upper lip writhed back.
“You need to stop,” Jude said and licked his dry lips. More words bubbled up inside of him and he said, “You know that you need to.”
Mack’s gaze went unfocused for a moment and Jude thought that he would go still like Pierce and Clara, but then Mack shook his head violently and growled at Jude.
Just like a wolf! Jude almost wanted to laugh.
Fear and rage filled Mack’s gaze. Jude half expected him to charge and so he began to speak again, but then Mack whipped a can at him. He ducked, covering his head with his hands, and heard both Clara and Pierce let out gasps. The connections he’d had with them had snapped. Then Mack was screaming at them to run, run, run.
The silence after they were gone was profound. Finally, he lifted his head up to see Jacob and Raj looking at him with awed expressions.
“How did you do that?” Raj asked finally.
Jude stared at his handsome face for a long moment before he finally said, faintly, “I have no idea”