Out of the coffee shop, through the second of the establishment's two doors, Martin said: "Subject has been tagged. I repeat: Subject has been tagged." What he thought was something altogether different.
Come on, Big Boy, don't let me down---time for you to step up and shine.
Barlow did not stand when the human outstretched his hand. He felt it was beneath him to do so even though he continued to play with his prey. A funny little man, he thought, as he watched the human scratch its right ear as it exited the coffee shop. Perhaps weird would be the better description, he decided. Because, really, what was that about?
In all his years, Barlow had never had such an encounter; the human as different as different could get. Not that it mattered; not really, it just wasn't something Barlow was used to. Not a bad thing when you got down to it---just…weird; the situation not unlike the human itself.
But that was where the fun came in, was it not? Yes, it was. And was it not the entire reason he began answering the ads in the first place? Another yes, the reason for this nothing more than tedium, boredom---that Barlow longed for something new. That wasn't entirely true, not all of it, because most of what the hunt entailed remained the same. All that had changed was the way he went about it now; thought it might prove more intimate a setting if he lured his prey into a manner of friendship before striking it down. In Barlow's opinion, this did something to the meat, producing a product far tenderer than anything he had eaten before. Not in his three hundred years.
Centre mass, he thought, his mind again turning to the human, this Martin. The more he thought about it the more he began to smile. What the hell was that? Really, what? For the second time he found himself wondering about the story the human put in his hands not minutes after they sat down. Who does that sort of thing? A human, apparently, and Barlow again produced a smile. If anything, he had to agree with certain parts of Martin's story, especially about the centre of a prey's chest. From experience, Barlow knew it to be where the flavour pooled, there within the heart and lungs. More than delicious, it was why evisceration had become the norm. In all honesty, it was better than cake.
And soon it would be time, he thought, finally rising to go. Leaving, he went over what he might say to Martin tonight, perfecting what lies he would spin in regards to the preparations he had made for the engagement the human wanted him to speak at. Barlow chuckled at that, pleased at just how slick he had become in all his years. Why hadn't he thought of it fifty years sooner? He didn't know, but then thought better of it, thinking he might. Fifty years ago the world wasn't as it was now, not as knowing; what the humans called the information super highway a far off thing yet to be built. What people knew of werewolves was received through books and movies and plain old word of mouth. Nowadays everything was viral, where not a stone could be left unturned. Chat groups formed; groups becoming clubs. These clubs would come to have chapters, Barlow noticed. Ones like Martin's, who met every second Thursday of every second month. Barlow found that some of these chapters took out ads requesting speakers. When he did, he began to think of cake, and then of the one thing to him which always tasted better.
Soon, he thought, soon.
"No, I really do," Barlow remarked. "With a little more polish, and once it is finished of course, I can't see why it wouldn't be published." They sat in the front room of the house, a coffee table full of magazines and comic books between them. To his left, tight to the chair in which he sat, was an end table piled high with even more comic books, more magazines. On the walls were framed pictures of dogs playing cards, and one of a bird eating what Barlow took for being a mouse. The human was disorganized, slovenly in fact; dirty glasses there, empty plates here. In the couch across from him, Martin beamed. It was a look Barlow had seen many times before, on more than many faces.
"Now I know you are feeding me some horseshit." Martin Udeski challenged, but only playfully so. "Another beer?"
"No, thank you. I have to drive."
"Smart man. Can't be too careful these days."
"You want to run it by me then, what you're going to say?"
"That would be fine," Barlow said, thinking of where to begin. He wanted to time it just right; wanted the human at the peak of surprise. "Since your chapter isn't that big I'd like…"
"Hold on there, Chief. What do you mean we ain't that big? Dude, we are eighteen thousand strong. Nationwide! Between you and me, I'd say that's a fair chunk a change."
"Martin. Come now. Out of fifty-two states? Do the math; seriously. I do not do this to poke fun. I do this because I'm a realist. Can we come to agree on that?" The stocky man looked at him, stared at him, finally smiled.
"Settle down there, partner. I was only messing with you." Martin said and leaned forward, elbows to his knees. "I know we ain't a large group, not like some of those others. We ain't the Vampire Nation, that's for sure. The League neither. Just a strong bunch of guys infatuated with what the werewolf might embody. Hell, some of our members actually believe in them! How's that for crazy?"
Barlow laughed; chuckled, really.
"What's so funny?" asked Martin, a crease now across his brow.
"You," Barlow answered. "And all who are like you."
"Did you or did you not tell me that my appearance tomorrow night was a surprise; that you and only you know I am your guest speaker?"
"So what? What's your point?"
"No point. Just playing my part in the game."
"Look, Barlow. Maybe I'm a little confused here…"
"Then by all means, let me shed some light. I am going to eat you, Martin. All of you. Starting with your chest and ending with your lungs." And there it was: terror. Barlow witnessed it upon the human's face as its eyes widened, widened more. He would only have to change now, the transformation doing what it did best: drawing the fright, releasing the fear. Once screaming, he would only have to pounce…
Funny, he thought, wondering why he had yet to register the scent.
"The sweat gland," Martin told him. "It's what you're trying to figure out, right? Why you can't smell the fear on me? It's because we're not afraid of you, Barlow. Me or my crew. In fact, I pretty much despise what you and your kind represent." Strange. The human's heartbeat remained the same. Steady. Flat. He was telling the truth. Interesting.
"I must admit, I am intrigued," Barlow informed. "It's far from every day that a human like you appears."
"Oh, I will give you that---you have never met someone near the likes of me."
"Quite an actor, too, I must concede." He was referring to Martin's voice and how the delivery of it had changed. The human itself as well, if he was to be honest; the man-boy no longer as self-deprecating as it once was, and far from the bundle of wires it had appeared to be when first they met. No. The meat was proving to have layers.
"I am not a modest man, Barlow: I have been hunting you for years."
"The advertisements you placed in the paper---these were your way in?"
"Figured a creature like you, I'd play to your vanity. Sooner or later I knew we'd catch up."
"It seems you have all the answers."
"No, Barlow. Just the ones I need."
"There are others, you know. More like me."
"A few, yes. But they're young and we know they are yours. We call you Infector Prime; Patient Zero. It also stands to reason that by killing you, your lineage ends. This was the goal. To find you: the First one. And by the way, I have to ask: what's the deal with only one name, seriously?"
"I am a trend setter, what can I say? And long before your celebrities found it fashionable, I might add. And despite what your information tells you, I am not the First one. Old? Yes. He who is the First? No."
"Not what the history shows."
"It would appear we have reached a stalemate, then. In a story, quite near the time a physical confrontation would ensue, no? When your team of men storm the house, their entrance preceded only by their breaking of the door---each member hoping against hope it is they who slay the beast? Is that about right? What Hollywood has ingrained?"
"Not particularly, no---planned on doing you myself." Barlow laughed at that, chuckling as if amused. And then he lunged, leaping up from the chair, his hands now claws extending for purchase, his mass doubling as he went, tripling, bones breaking through all of him and reforming just as fast. Transformed, the creature roared, his true teeth long and sharp.
"I will have your throat!" It growled, low and between the noises it made. Martin only watched the creature, waited for the opportunity he knew would arise. Over him, on him, Martin brought out the Taser just as the werewolf slashed through his shirt and into his vest. The beast went down hard with a thud, its weight smashing the coffee table into pieces and shards. Like challenged birds, comic books flew upwards in response, glasses and bottles doing exactly the same.
Standing over the thing which called itself Barlow, Martin smiled, taking pleasure in seeing the creature unable to stop the spasms running through its frame. "That's ten thousand volts there, sport. How you like me now?" Then, putting his hand to his ear and enabling the com: "Subject is down! I repeat: Subject is down! I want a collar and manacles on site asap! I repeat: I need a collar and manacles in less than five!"
Bending down, he spoke directly into the wolf's ear, "It ends here, Barlow; now and today. You will take no others, not one more child. I promise you, we have taken back the night."
From the floor, still in his true form, Barlow could only listen and observe; watched as the humans stormed forward with their metal and chains, every hand they had upon him, the moment the very beginning of an imprisonment he knew he would be hard pressed to escape from, if at all survive. They wore jackets, these men, with big yellow letters imprinted upon their backs: M.E.A. He didn't know what these letters stood for, but he knew they were meant for him. And that they had been for longer than he could probably imagine.
Vanity, the human had said. Inside, Barlow howled.