Wolfsbane and Mistletoe

Page 1

Chapter One

Fresh Meat

Alan Gordon

Alan is the author of the Fools' Guild Mysteries, published by St. Martin's Minotaur Books, continuing the adventures of Theophilos, a thirteenth-century jester. Titles in the series include Thirteenth Night (now available from Crum Creek Press), Jester Leaps In, A Death in the Venetian uarter, The Widow of Jerusalem, An Antic Disposition, The Lark's Lament, The Moneylender of Toulouse, and the upcoming The Parisian Prodigal. Alan sold his first short story to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in 1990. Since then, he's had numerous mystery, fantasy, and science fiction stories in Hitchcock, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine , Asimov's Science Fiction, and several anthologies. By day, Alan is a criminal defense attorney with the Legal Aid Society of New York, with over a hundred trials to his credit. He lives in New York City with his wife, Judy Downer, an editor, and son, Robert. He is a graduate of Swarthmore College, where he received the William Plumer Potter Award for Fiction, and the University of Chicago Law School.

"Your order's ready, Mister Lehrmann," called Bert, emerging from the back room wiping his hands on a bloody towel. "Two sides of beef, so fresh they were mooing yesterday."

"Thanks, Bert," said Lehrmann. "That should keep us through the twenty-sixth. Okay if I bring the van around back?"

"No problem, Mister L," said Bert. "What are you doing for Christmas? Family coming over?"

"I'm expecting some tonight. Maybe."

"That's nice," said Bert. "Nothing like having family on Christmas Eve. Let's see, you just paid me for the month, so we'll put this on your tab for January, okay?"

"Works for me," said Lehrmann, signing the proffered receipt. His nose crinkled happily as he scanned the display case.

"Those lamb chops look good," he said. "Maybe I should get the dogs a treat for Christmas. Got a lamb you haven't cut up yet?"

"Sure thing," said Bert, adding it to the invoice.

Lehrmann stepped outside to where the cargo van was parked, the LEHRMANN'S GUARD DOGS ad on both sides. He pulled it around to the loading dock where Bert was already waiting with the beef and lamb on a dolly.

"Those dogs eat better than most people," commented Bert as Lehrmann hauled the meat into the van. "Not that I'm complaining to my best customer. You really think they should get fresh, raw meat every day?"

"Part of their training," said Lehrmann. "The bloodier, the better. Brings out the hunter in them."

"Sure wouldn't want to run into one of your puppies on the job," said Bert.

"You really wouldn't," said Lehrmann, slamming the rear doors shut. "See you Monday, Bert. Have a good Christmas."

Lehrmann raised and trained his dogs in a converted warehouse ten miles out of town, not far from the woods. A large, white sign marked the turnoff onto the farm road that led to it. The Spinellis came in at two for their last training session with Waldo. They were a family of four, living in one of the McMansions in the new development. The Doberman sensed them before he could even see them, and started baying a greeting.

"Waldo, hush," Lehrmann said to the dog, and he quieted down immediately. Lehrmann opened the cage and attached the lead to Waldo's collar, then brought him out to the training pit while the other dogs watched with professional interest.

"Afternoon, folks," he said. "Everyone ready?"

"Ready as I'll ever be," said Mr. Spinelli nervously.

"Hi, Waldo," said Sally, the fearless eleven-year-old, and Waldo wagged his tail. Sandy, her little brother, watched from behind her, his thumb in his mouth.

"You can hang out for a few minutes while I get my padding on," said Lehrmann. "Here."

He tossed the reward bag to Mr. Spinelli, and the lead to Mrs. Spinelli, who gave a quick whistle. Waldo immediately sat at her feet.

"Good dog," she said, patting his head.

Lehrmann strapped the quilted padding over his arms and torso, then faced them.

"Any time," he said.

"Waldo, come," commanded Mr. Spinelli, unclipping the lead from the dog's collar, and the dog followed him as he walked around. "Good dog. Waldo, perimeter."

Waldo ran around the edge of the pit.

"Waldo, here," said Mrs. Spinelli. The dog made a beeline for her. She looked at Lehrmann. "Are you sure about this?"

"Go ahead," smiled Lehrmann.

"Waldo, arm," she said, pointing at Lehrmann.

Waldo turned into a snarling, speeding set of teeth, hurtling toward Lehrmann. The dog leapt, and his jaws closed around the padding on the trainer's shoulder.

"Waldo, here," said Mr, Spinelli.

The dog relinquished his hold immediately and returned to the family.

"Good dog," said Mr. Spinelli.

"Don't forget the meat, Daddy," said Sally.

"Good dog," repeated Mr. Spinelli, handing him a chunk of beef from the reward bag.

Waldo wolfed it down.

"Dog biscuits won't do?" asked Spinelli as Lehrmann stripped off the padding.

"You want to keep him on your side, make it fresh meat," said Lehrmann. "You do want to keep him on your side, don't you?"

"Oh, yes," said Mrs. Spinelli.

"You've invested time and money to get not just a guardian, but a companion and a friend," said Lehrmann, coming forward to rub Waldo's neck. "A long time ago, dogs found us, and learned how to protect us. In exchange, we learned how to feed them, and we fed them well. Co-evolution. Any dog can be trained to attack strangers, but a great dog, like Waldo here, won't be attacking strangers. He will be defending you, because you're his family and he loves you. Remember that."

"We will," promised Mr. Spinelli.

"Let me get him his new collar," said Lehrmann. "Waldo, come."

Waldo swallowed the last of his food, and followed Lehrmann to his office in back. The trainer took out a thick, black leather collar and put it around the dog's neck. Waldo looked at him attentively.

"Sorry you can't be here for Christmas, Waldo," said Lehrmann. "But you get to spend it with your new family. They are good people, and they will treat you well. Make me proud."

The dog nodded, and Lehrmann planted a quick kiss on the top of his head.

"Here's your Christmas dog," Lehrmann said as he brought Waldo back out.

"And here you are," said Mr. Spinelli, handing him a check.

"We'll bring him back for visits," said Mrs. Spinelli.

"I'd like that," said Lehrmann. "It's been a pleasure."

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