The Wolves of MidwinterAnne Rice
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK
PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Copyright © 2013 by Anne O’Brien Rice
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, LLC, New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, Penguin Random House Companies.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, LLC.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Rice, Anne O’Brien, [date]
The wolves of midwinter : a novel / Anne Rice.
“This is a Borzoi book”—T.p. verso.
ISBN 978-0-385-34996-3 (hardback)
1. Werewolves—Fiction. 2. California, Northern—Fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Jacket photograph © Robert Llewellyn/Corbis
Jacket design by Carol Devine Carson
Nancy Rice Diamond
Father Joseph Cocucci
What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.
—From “In the Bleak Mid-Winter,” by Christina Rossetti (1872)
The Story So Far
A Note About the Author
Other Books by This Author
The Story So Far
Reuben Golding, a young San Francisco reporter, finds his life changed forever by a visit to Nideck Point, an enormous mansion on the Mendocino coast, where he is bitten by a mysterious animal after the murder of the beautiful owner, Marchent Nideck. Reuben, grieving for Marchent, soon discovers he has inherited the house and also he has become a form of werewolf.
Fully conscious in his lupine form, Reuben is drawn to protect innocent victims of violence against evil attackers. Soon hunted by the police far and wide as the California Man Wolf—a popular superhero—he finds love with Laura, a woman who accepts him in wolfen form. They make their home at Nideck Point where an old portrait of “distinguished gentlemen” on the library wall seems somehow connected to the Wolf Gift that Reuben has been given.
Sinister scientists appear who seek to gain control over Reuben, pressing Reuben’s suspicious parents, Dr. Grace Golding and her husband, poet and professor Phil Golding, with urgent claims of concern for their “disturbed” son. Reuben’s brother, Father Jim Golding, having learned Reuben’s secret in the Confessional from Reuben, is powerless to do anything about what he knows.
Meanwhile Reuben, the inexperienced superhero, blunders in bringing yet another innocent into his realm when he accidentally bites Stuart McIntyre, the teen victim of a murderous gay bashing.
Reuben and Stuart are soon cornered at Nideck Point by the scientists who would take them prisoner, only to have the plot foiled by the surprise appearance of another Man Wolf before astonished law officers, paramedics, family members, and the newly arrived “distinguished gentlemen” from the library portrait.
Nideck Point becomes the haven of Reuben, Stuart, Laura, and the Distinguished Gentlemen, with elders Felix and Margon offering answers to all Reuben’s questions about his new nature, the defeated scientists, and the origin of the ancient tribe of Morphenkinder to which Reuben and Stuart now belong.
IT WAS THE BEGINNING of December, deeply cold and gray, with the rain pounding as always, but the oak fires had never burned brighter in the vast rooms of Nideck Point.* The distinguished gentlemen, who had now become in Reuben’s argot the “Distinguished Gentlemen,” were already talking of Yuletide, of old and venerable traditions, of recipes for mead, and food for a banquet, and ordering fresh green garland by the mile to adorn the doorways, the mantelpieces, and the stairway railings of the old house.
It would be a Christmas like no other for Reuben, spending it here in this house with Felix Nideck, Margon, and Stuart, and all those he loved. These people were his new family. This was the secretive yet cheerful and embracing world of the Morphenkinder to which Reuben belonged now, more surely than to the world of his human family.
A charming Swiss housekeeper, Lisa by name, had joined the household only a couple of days ago. A stately woman with a slight German accent, and a very well-bred manner, she had already become the mistress of Nideck Point, seeing to countless little details that gave everyone more comfort. She actually wore a uniform of sorts, consisting of soft flowing dresses in black silk or wool that fell well below the knee, and wore her blond hair in what used to be called a French twist, and smiled effortlessly.
The others, Heddy, the English maid, and Jean Pierre, Margon’s valet, had apparently been expecting her and they deferred to her, the three of them often whispering together almost furtively in German as they went about their work.
Each afternoon, Lisa turned on the “Three O’Clock Lights,” as she called them, saying it was Herr Felix’s wish that they never be forgotten, and so the main rooms were always cheerful as the winter darkness closed in, and she saw to the fires that had become indispensable for Reuben’s peace of mind.
Back in San Francisco, the little gas fires of Reuben’s home had been pleasant, yes, a luxury certainly and often entirely neglected. But here the great blazing hearths were a part of life, and Reuben depended on them, on their warmth, on their fragrance, on their eerie and flickering brilliance, as if this were not a house at all, Nideck Point, but the heart of a great forest that was the world with its eternally encroaching darkness.
Jean Pierre and Heddy had become more confident since Lisa’s arrival in offering Reuben and Stuart every comfort imaginable, and bringing coffee or tea unbidden and slipping into rooms to make beds the instant that the groggy sleepers had left them.
This was home, taking shape ever more completely around Reuben, including its mysteries.
And Reuben really didn’t want to answer the frequent phone messages from San Francisco, from his mother and father, or from his old girlfriend, Celeste, who had in the last few days been calling him regularly.
The mere sound of her voice, calling him Sunshine Boy, set
him on edge. His mother would call him Baby Boy or Little Boy once in a while. He could handle this. But Celeste now used her old title of Sunshine Boy exclusively for him whenever she talked to him. Every message was to Sunshine Boy, and she had a way of saying it that struck him as increasingly sarcastic or demeaning.
Last time they’d spoken face-to-face, right after Thanksgiving, she had laid into him as usual, for dropping his old life and moving to this remote corner of Mendocino County, where apparently he could “do nothing,” and “become nothing” and live on his looks and the “flattery of all these new friends of yours.”
“I’m not doing nothing,” he’d protested mildly, to which she’d said, “Even Sunshine Boys have to make something of themselves.”
Of course there was no way under heaven that he could ever tell Celeste what had really happened to his world, and though he told himself she had the best of intentions for her endless and carping concerns, he sometimes wondered how that was possible. Why had he ever loved Celeste, or thought that he loved her? And more significantly, perhaps, why had she ever loved him? It seemed impossible they’d been engaged for a year before his life was turned upside down, and he wished for nothing more right now than that she would leave him alone, forget him, enjoy her new relationship with his best friend Mort, and make poor Mort her “work in progress.” Mort loved Celeste, and Celeste did seem to love him. So why wasn’t all this over?
He was missing Laura painfully, Laura, with whom he’d shared everything, and since she’d left Nideck Point to go back home, to think over her crucial decision, he had had no word from her.
On impulse he drove south to seek her out at her home on the edge of Muir Woods.
All the way, he meditated on the many things that had been happening. He wanted to listen to music, to daydream, to enjoy the drive, rain or no rain, but matters closed in on him though not unhappily.
It was afternoon and the sky was leaden and gleaming and the rain never let up. But he was used to this now and had come to see it as part of the winter charm of his new existence.
He’d spent the morning in the town of Nideck with Felix, as Felix made arrangements to have the entire main street decorated for Christmas with greenery and lights. Every tree would be wrapped and twinkling, and Felix would finance the lighting and trimming of every storefront, as long as the owners went along with it, which they very cheerfully did. He wrote a check to the innkeeper for special decorations in the main room, and conferred with a number of residents eager to decorate their houses as well.
More merchants had been found for the old empty stores on the main street—a dealer in special soaps and shampoos, a vintage-clothing merchant, and a specialist in laces, both antique and modern. Felix had bought the one and only old motion-picture theater, and was having it renovated but for what he was not certain.
Reuben had to smile at all of this ultra-gentrification. But Felix had not neglected more practical aspects of Nideck. He’d been in contact with two retired contractors who wanted to open a variety hardware store and fix-it shop, and several people were interested in the idea of a café and newsstand. Nideck had some 300 people, and 142 households. It couldn’t support the businesses that were coming in, but Felix could, and would until the place became a quaint and charming and popular destination. He had already sold off four lots to people who would be building appropriately designed homes within walking distance of downtown.
The elderly mayor, Johnny Cronin, was in ecstasy. Felix had offered him some sort of financial grant to quit his “miserable job” sixty miles away in an insurance office.
It was agreed there would be a Sunday Christmas festival soon to which handicraft people of all sorts would be invited, ads would be taken in the various local papers, and Felix and the mayor were still talking over a late lunch in the main dining room of the Inn when Reuben decided he had to break away.
Even if Laura was not ready to discuss her decision one way or the other, he had to see her, had to steal whatever embrace he could from her. Hell, if she wasn’t home, he would be happy just to sit in her little living room for a while, or maybe stretch out and nap on her bed.
Maybe it wasn’t fair to her for him to do this, but maybe again it was. He loved her, loved her more than he had ever loved any girlfriend or lover before her. He couldn’t stand being without her, and maybe he ought to say so. Why shouldn’t he say so? What could he lose? He wouldn’t make or break her decision for her by what he did. And he had to stop being fearful as to what he would think or feel about whatever she chose to do.
It was just getting dark when he pulled into her drive.
Another urgent message came in on his iPhone from Celeste. He ignored it.
The little steep-roofed house in the woods was warmly lighted against the great dark gulf of the forest, and he could smell the oak fire. It struck him suddenly that he should have brought a little gift with him, flowers perhaps, or even maybe … a ring. He hadn’t thought of this before, and he was suddenly crushed.
And what if she had company, a man of whom he knew nothing? What if she didn’t come to the door?
Well, she did come to the door. She opened it for him.
And the moment he set eyes on her he wanted to make love to her, and nothing else. She was in faded jeans and an old gray sweater that made her eyes look all the more smoky and dark, and she wore no makeup, looking quietly splendid, with her hair free on her shoulders.
“Come here to me, you monster,” she said at once, in a low teasing voice, hugging him tightly, kissing him all over his face and neck. “Look at this dark hair, hmmm, and these blue eyes. I was beginning to think I dreamed every minute of you.”
He held her so tightly he must have been hurting her. He wanted a moment of nothing but holding her.
She drew him towards the back bedroom. She was rosy-cheeked and radiant, her hair beautifully mussed and fuller than he’d remembered, certainly more blond than he’d remembered, full of sunlight, it seemed to him, and her expression struck him as sly and deliciously intimate.
There was a comforting blaze in the black-iron Franklin stove. And a couple of little glass-shade lamps lighted on either side of the oak bed with its soft lumpy faded quilts and lace-trimmed pillows.
She pulled the covers down and helped him take off his shirt and jacket and pants. The air was warm and dry and sweet, as it always was in her house, her little lair.
He was weak with relief, but that lasted only a few seconds, and then he was kissing her as if they’d never been separated. Not too fast, not too fast, he kept telling himself, but it didn’t do any good. This was hotter, all this, more exuberant and divinely rough.
They lay together after, dozing, as the rain trickled down the panes. He woke with a start, and turned to see her with her eyes open looking at the ceiling. The only light came from the kitchen. And food was cooking there. He could smell it. Roast chicken and red wine. He knew that fragrance well enough and he was suddenly too hungry to think of anything else.
They had dinner together at the round oak table, Reuben in a terry-cloth robe she’d found for him, and Laura in one of those lovely white flannel gowns she so loved. This one was trimmed with a bit of blue embroidery and blue ribbon on the collar and cuffs and placket, and it had blue buttons, a flattering complement to her dazzled, confidential smile, and her glowing skin.
They said nothing as they ate the meal, Reuben devouring everything as always, and Laura to his surprise actually eating her food rather than pushing it around on her plate.
A stillness fell over them when they’d finished. The fire was snapping and rustling in the living room fireplace. And the whole little house seemed safe and strong against the rain that hammered on the roof and the panes. What had it been like to grow up under this roof? He couldn’t imagine. Morphenkind or not, he realized, the great woods still represented for him a wilderness.
This was something he loved, that they did not make small talk, that they could go hours without t
alking, that they talked without talking, but what were they saying to one another, without words, just now?
She sat motionless in the oak chair with only her left hand on the table, her right hand in her lap. It seemed she’d been watching him as he cleaned the plate, and he sensed it now and sensed something particularly enticing about her, about the fullness of her lips and the mass of her hair that framed her face.
Then it came over him, came over him like a chill stealing over his face and neck. Why in the world hadn’t he realized immediately.
“You’ve done it,” he whispered. “You’ve taken the Chrism.”
She didn’t answer. It was as if he hadn’t spoken at all.
Her eyes were darker, yes, and her hair was fuller, much fuller, and even her grayish-blond eyebrows had darkened, so that she looked like a sister of herself, almost identical yet wholly different, with even a darker glow to her cheeks.
Dear God, he whispered without words. And then his heart began tripping and he felt he was going to be sick. This is how he’d looked to others in those days before the transformation had come on him, when those around him knew something had “happened” to him and he’d felt so completely remote, and without fear.
Was she that remote from him now, as he’d been from all his family? No, that couldn’t be. This was Laura, Laura who’d just welcomed him, Laura who’d just taken him into her bed. He blushed. Why had he not known?
Nothing changed in her expression, nothing at all. That’s how it had been with him. He’d stared like that, knowing others wanted something from him, but unable to give it. But then, in his arms, she’d been soft and melting as always, giving, trusting, close.
“Felix didn’t tell you?” she asked. Even her voice seemed different, now that he knew. Just a richer timbre to it, and he could have sworn that the bones of her face were slightly larger, but that might have been his fear.
He couldn’t get the words out. He didn’t know what the words were. A flash of the heat of their lovemaking came back to him, and he felt an immediate arousal. He wanted her again, and yet he felt, what, sick? Was he sick with fear? He hated himself.