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Authors: D. J. McIntosh

The Winter Wolf

BOOK: The Winter Wolf
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an imprint of Penguin Canada

Published by the Penguin Group

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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

Published in 2013 as a digital edition only

Copyright © D.J. McIntosh, 2007

The Winter Wolf” was first published under the title “The Hounds of Winter” in the anthology
Blood on the Holly
, edited by Caro Soles, Baskerville Books, Toronto, 2007.

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

Publisher's note: This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either

are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

ISBN: 978-0-14-319001-1

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or call 1-800-810-3104, ext. 2477.

ilacs border my front walk, the bushes so aged they've reached the size of small trees. I scrape a hole in the window frost with my fingernail and see they're hunched over like old men, coated with ice. Our street, lined with majestic maples, is a cool forest of shade in summer and a long flash of colour in the fall. Now, with each trunk, limb, and branch enveloped in ice, the trees seem to be made of glass. Beautiful but treacherous. Buffeted by gusts of wind, their coatings of ice crack like rifle shots.

The power has failed and the storm's icy fingers have stolen through loose window frames and under doors, snaking around the wires and pipes that finally burst last night. No serviceman will come to my rescue. My only choice is to make the trek over to Grandmother's on Rue Dorien. There'll be a cheery fire burning in the grate when I get there and lights instead of the few smoky candles I've had to use here. Walking to her house in the wake of the storm will be difficult, cold and lonely—but I have no choice. I can't stay here. Even under the best conditions, I'm afraid to venture out alone after dark.
Keep to the safe streets
A woman can never be too careful
, Grandmother often reminds me.

Her words seem to echo off the narrow walls of the hall as I put on my red parka with its snug hood and pack leftover Christmas cake and a bottle of her favourite sherry in my little hamper. I step out onto ice-glazed pavement, slippery underfoot, and a cold
wind snatches the breath from my lips. I put my head down and concentrate on my treacherous path, taking some comfort in the knowledge that soon, Grandmother will fold me into flannel sheets and goose down pillows. A cup of hot apple cider and this hardship will fade away like a bad dream.

The storm fights me every step of the way. A huge willow moans when it splits down the centre, telephone poles teeter like drunken soldiers on some arctic battlefield. Huge ice chunks fall off the sides of buildings like tiny avalanches spilling over cliffs. For a few wild moments I panic, fearing the ice will rise up in an angry wave to claim me. Of course that's impossible.
Calm down
, I tell myself.
You'll make it. You will.

Turning onto a street so narrow it seems more like a laneway, I notice the familiar store signs:
Boulangerie, Dépanneur.
Night has fallen fast, as it does at this time of year. The glass trees stand against a midnight blue so deep it looks like velvet. The buildings on the street before me are black and deserted, windows empty holes, doors frozen shut. All the businesses are closed. Everyone's at home, brushing the icy chips offtheir coats, breaking out the whisky in the light of one or two candles, trying to keep warm.

Keep to the safe streets.
Grandmother's words of warning seem to hang suspended in the frozen air. But I'm still weak from my recent hospital stay and bone-weary from struggling through the tempest. I decide to take a shortcut through the little lane. I'll be careful. Cautious.

Looking up to get my bearings, I see a flicker of lights after all, coming from a narrow storefront halfway down the lane. As I approach, they grow stronger. Christmas lights. A string of bulbs— red, white, and green—circling a store window. Inside the window, a fibreglass Santa raises his mittened right hand in a wave; in his left, he grasps a bag of toys. Above this, a small neon sign flashes on and off:
Bar Café, Bar Café.

I stumble and slip on the glassy sidewalk and grab at the knob of the paint-peeled door. A weak
Ho Ho Ho is
emitted by the dusty Santa when I cross the threshold. Ashamed of how I must look— even my eyebrows are caked with ice—I stop and shake off my hood and shoulders. My eyes grow accustomed to the dim interior. It's a small place, ten or twelve tables at most, each covered with red gingham oilcloth. Oilcloth. Haven't seen that since I was little.

The Christmas and New Year's decorations are still up. Someone made a half-hearted attempt to string red and gold balloons—like a row of limp sausages—below a rope of icicle lights. A lingering scent of balsam drifts over from a small Christmas tree in one corner, decorated with faded, homemade paper chain and scraps of tinsel. Its dry needles litter the floor.

A TV fixed to a grimy wall of no discernable colour flickers as a weather forecaster speaks earnestly into the camera against a backdrop of freezing rain. She wears a hooded anorak, and too much mascara. Behind her, a massive tree is splayed across a deserted downtown street, splinters of wet brown wood as horrifying as a compound fracture.

As my eyes become adjusted to the weak light, I spot a dim figure hunched over a table next to the rear wall at the end of the bar. His back is turned to me. I can't help but think I know his type—someone who's occupied the same chair every night for as long as anyone can remember, with beer breath and a bloated gut spilling over his trouser belt. Not even the storm can get in the way of his date with a Bud. I shake my head. What an unkind thought.

I flip offthe hood of my parka, push my matted wet hair back from my forehead, and wipe my face with my scarf. A rustle sounds from the dark hole behind the counter. A wave of relief washes over me when I see a woman emerge. She looks in her twenties, but with the pinched face of a rodent. Small bright black eyes and a twitchy little mouth. All the same, the last thing I care about right now is
appearances. I'm just happy someone else is here besides the man at the bar.

“Vous êtes venue par l'orage.”

I read a little French but have never mastered the spoken word. I'm embarrassed.

“You came through the storm,” she repeats in English, without exasperation.

I force up the corners of my mouth to fabricate a smile. “Thank God you're open; I couldn't have made it much farther.”

“Are you on your way home?”

“No, I'm going to my grandmother's place on Rue Dorien. I don't have power, but she does.”

The woman glances out the window and shakes her head sympathetically. “You must be freezing. Can I lend you a sweater?” She takes in my dripping hair. “Or a towel?”

“Don't bother with that. Can I get some coffee, some hot food? What do you have?”

She shrugs her shoulders. “Sorry, no. We ran out hours ago and nothing's open I can get to. Booze only.”

Before I beseech her to ransack her cupboards and find something—anything—to eat, she reaches behind the counter and pulls out a package of chips and some peanuts wrapped in ancient cellophane. At this point I'll take anything to staunch the ache in my stomach. As I rip open the package of chips, a voice floats up from the end of the bar.

“A hot toddy is what's needed on a night like this. Nothing else drives away the winter spirits quite as well.” His speech has a brittle quality, like the sound of glass breaking—all shards and broken points.

I'd forgotten about the man at the table. He scrapes back his chair, reaches into his pocket, and tosses a five on the bar. My heart sinks.
Please don't talk to me.
He glances at the mousey
woman behind the bar and ignores me. “Do you know how to make one?”

Without waiting for an answer he says, “Two ounces of liquor. I prefer rum to whisky but double that amount on a night like this. Mix in a teaspoon of honey and the juice of a quarter lemon. You have that at least?”

She nods. “Lemon juice in a bottle.”

“Top it offwith hot water and make sure the glass is good and hot before you put it in,” he grunts. To me, he says, “You'll join me.”

I struggle to come up with a quick excuse, but I'm not leaving the warmth of this bar just yet. I don't have the energy for an argument and something about him frightens me. I decide not to challenge him. I'll be polite yet distant.

He moves over to a small table near the bar and holds out a chair for me. Faking a tight smile, I shrug off my parka and take the proffered chair. It's the one next to the wall. I'll have to push past him when I want to leave. I take it anyway. A pair of kid gloves is tucked into the side flap of my purse. I pull them on to warm my hands and put a little more distance between my bare skin and the germs that I imagine stick to the patterned oilcloth.

He drapes his army surplus coat over the back of his chair and sets his glass down, half empty. There's a folded newspaper on the table. I get a better look at him when he sits down across from me and I realize he's not as old as I'd initially assumed, early forties at most. A rather dull face. But what big ears and eyes he has! It makes his entire countenance appear oddly distorted. His hair and eyebrows are a spiky brown-grey and his skin has a pale, almost translucent quality. He doesn't spend much time outdoors—either that or he's been ill. He gives me the once-over, his eyes dropping to the outline of my breasts. I cross my arms over my chest, grateful for the bulky shirt I wear over my turtleneck.

BOOK: The Winter Wolf
9.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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