It was a party like many others that I had hated going to. Dragged along by friends that I liked better in other contexts, then abandoned to a suburban home full of strangers. I meandered past the table lined with unappealing drinks and inconvenient hors d’oeuvres half a dozen times at least. My shirt felt too tight, and my pants felt too loose. Three abortive chit-chats flared up and died abruptly in the front hallway and the living room, conversations I’d mostly spent thinking about how I was supposed to hold my arms. There were three moments of noncommittal silence, then three too-sunny goodbyes. I was picking my way back to the dining room for my tenth survey of the buffet table when I first saw the werewolf hunter.
On the one hand, the fringed buckskins and carefully maintained middle aged mullet didn’t seem like hallmarks of a person I would get along with. On the other hand he was next to the only open chair, and looked half asleep. I chewed my lower lip, and tossed a glance back toward the deviled eggs and hummus plates. I sat down.
As soon as I did so, the seated man locked eyes with me. There was something carefully rehearsed about the glare that made me unsure whether I was supposed to grin or cower. I settled on a neutral expression for about three seconds, then looked away as if I’d recognized someone across the room.
“What is it?” he growled. It was as much an admonition as a question, and it came grinding up from a part of his larynx that sounded more like a turn of the century gramophone than a human voicebox.
“Nothing, sorry.” I looked down, but I could see he was still glaring at me. His hair was a white-blonde, but by his eyebrows – russet red – I could tell it was bleached.
“Don’t be a dumbass,” the man said. “You didn’t come over here to twiddle your thumbs.”
I stared at him blankly.
He shook his head, and his eyes gleamed for a moment as he dug into the pocket of his fringed jacket. “Naw, you came over here to hear the story!” He stuck out his left hand for me to shake. “Simon Kendanski.” He paused dramatically. “Werewolf hunter.”
I got a peculiar itching sensation on the back of my neck that was one part uncertainty about which hand to return the shake with and two parts sudden panic about being seated next to a crazy person. I shook the hand, and he pulled out a blackened tobacco pipe like Sherlock Holmes might have smoked and began methodically loading it.
“It’s a dangerous life,” he began, “As you might imagine.”
“Sure…” I replied, dazed.
“Lonely, too. Lots of time on the road. But, I can’t let myself get too close to anyone, know what I’m saying?” He aimed a conspiratorial elbow at my side, but the chairs were too far apart, so he transitioned into a kind of shrug. “Any one of these months could be my last, no matter how much experience I got.” Simon shoved the pipe in my direction. “You got a light?”
“No, sorry, don’t smoke. What do you mean, ‘experience?’”
“Twenty years, give or take. Well, twenty years and three months.”
“You saying you don’t believe me?”
“No, no, no, I’m not saying that.” I swallowed. “So, you uh, how many… of them, have you killed?”
He seemed to bite his tongue for a moment before he answered. “Every last one of them I ever met.” He said it emphatically, challengingly, punctuated by jabs of his pipe, still unlit. I decided not to press for details. “And it ain’t exactly like there’s a standing bounty for them, so I do my work pro bono, which ain’t cheap. For the common good!”
“Yes, that’s very nice.”
“Goddamn bureaucrats and politicians. Doesn’t matter how many times I tell ‘em, they refuse to admit the threat is out there! Won’t toss so much as a silver spoon my way when I come around looking to keep them and their, whatchacallit, constituents from being eaten – or worse!” Simon leaned back in his chair with an expertly furrowed brow and tucked the pipe into the corner of his mouth. Scowling, he noticed it still wasn’t lit, and removed it again.
I cleared my throat, unsure of how to proceed. “Sounds frustrating.”
“It’s a goddamn pain in the ass, is what it is. Do you know how much time and effort goes into just one silver bullet?”
“So, you uh, you go through those quickly.”
He gestured dismissively with the pipe. “Agh, well, I’m pretty conservative with ammo, but I gotta build up a stock, you know? Just in case. And there’s more to this business than just the silver, I’ve got to keep stocked on nets, bear traps, floodlights, gotta keep my gilly suit repaired, gotta make sure my stock of virgin urine is fresh…”
I choked a little.
“…The point is, there’s a lot of overhead. I’ve got my savings, and people donate to the cause every now and then, but that doesn’t mean it don’t sting a little when some puffed up Nebraska mayor decides he’s better off dumping the entire thing in my lap.” He brightened a little. “D’you want to hear about the most dangerous one I ever bagged?” He didn’t wait for me to reply before diving in.
“It was the summer of ‘95, and I was twenty nine years old – the prime of my life,” he began with a carefully measured cadence, “I’d been making good money as a dentist for a couple of years by that point, and I had my whole life mapped out ahead of me. Then, on July the 11th, fate struck.”
I squirmed. At that point, I could either sit here and listen to his whole demented tale, or I could risk him taking offense by excusing myself. He was an insane hunter who might snap at any moment that I was sitting there, but leaving would make it, like, super awkward.
“There I was, in the parking lot of my office’s building, just moseying over to my car, when I heard something from the shadows – a scraping sound. Now, at this time my senses had not yet been honed into the medical instruments that I possess today, but even then I still had a certain animal instinct – a nose for danger. Hah!” he half jumped at me with a flair of his fingers, and I recoiled, groping momentarily for a lamp I might defend myself with. Simon just fell back into his chair cackling, though, taking a draw from his – and I feel the need to repeat this – still unlit pipe.
“Y’need that – animal instinct – when dealing with animals!” He exclaimed.
I briefly pondered what he was even doing at this party.
“Course, a werewolf’s like no natural animal. ‘s not as smart as a man, but it’s as cruel – it likes its meals afraid.”
Who at this party did he know? What about the inoffensive landscape paintings and cooler of shitty lite beers endeared him to this particular household.
“Almost before I knew it, the damn thing was bolting right for me. It was black as coal, man, but its eyes…!” Simon seemed to seize up for just a moment. “I swear, I’ll take that sight to my grave.”
“Yeah, I’d imagine.”
“Anyway, I managed to get into the car – lot of good that was likely to do, damn thing was almost as big. I slammed the door, then it slammed me – rocked the whole thing up onto two wheels, broke half the windows, I was just about pissing myself -” he paused. “Just about, you understand.”
“Oh, yes, sure, I understand.
“Well, it broke off long enough for me to get the car started. Thing was circling, like a shark tasting blood, y’know? And when the car started moving, it broke forward again, jumped right up on the hood! I was no fool – I was spooked, but animal instinct sees you through, man. I just put my foot down and rammed that sumbitch right into a lamppost. Let out a hell of a sound, let me tell you.” he shook his head. “Bone chilling.”
There was a long silence, and he finally put his pipe away. “Uh,” I said. “Then what?”
“Then nothing,” Simon seemed irritated. “Thing was dead. I killed it.”
“So… no silver? No… wolfsbane?” I struggled to remember what exactly could kill a werewolf, theoretically.
“Ah… no, no, not really.” He avoided my gaze, but swiftly puffed back up. “Guess folk stories didn’t really take cars into account, man, I don’t know what else to tell you. Unless there was something up with that lamp-post.”
“Oh. Yeah, sure.”
Simon pressed on. “After that night… I was a changed man, y’know? Knowing those things were out there… I couldn’t sit by, doing root canals and scraping plaque, not when I had what it took to bring the fight to those monsters…” he trailed off, adrift for a moment. “for the common good!” he concluded.
I coughed. “It’s, uh, I’m sure it’s great work, too. How, how long until you found another one? I guess…” I considered how I might put it gently. “I’m surprised I haven’t heard of this sooner.”
“Well, the hunt hasn’t been easy. They’re crafty bastards, like I said.”
“Hasn’t been…” a thought occurred to me. “Um,” I said, “Simon, exactly how many werewolves have you killed? You know, maybe, rounded to the nearest five.”
Simon shifted a little in his chair. His expression was that of a man brooding on a dark and troubled past, or perhaps struggling with constipation, I wasn’t quite sure. “Five, I guess.”
I opened my mouth for a moment. “Okay, what about rounded to the nearest one?”
He shot me a warning look. “Why, how many have you killed, buddy?”
“Have you… I mean, was that the only…?” The warning in his eyes turned to the same practiced glare he had greeted me with. There was a tension in his shoulders that, if I was reading it right, spoke of twenty years and three months in a camper van with plastic jugs of urine and tools for casting bullets and handmade net-traps and a single memory, polished like a gemstone until he could see his reflection in its brilliant facets.
“If you’ve got something to say, man,” he growled, “Then say it.”
I stared at Simon a moment longer. “I think I saw my friend waving to me,” I said, and got up.
I put two rooms of distance between myself and the werewolf hunter, until I was back in the front hall and could no longer smell his tobacco or his musky aftershave. It felt permeated into my clothing, somehow.
I didn’t talk to anyone for the rest of the night. I gave my old friend the buffet table a couple of passes, but mostly I was just lost in thought.
Eventually, I worked up the nerve to take another look at where I’d had the encounter with the werewolf hunter. I half expected him to have vanished, like a living ghost story. But there Simon was, chatting with some other partygoer who seemed absolutely enraptured by the story. While I watched, the new listener eagerly passed Simon a book of matches, and from a safe distance I saw him light up that blackened pipe at last, saw him swirl the smoke around in his mouth like an old woodsman telling his stock of tall tales, and saw him wishing, so hard that it made me ache just to look at him.