The Better to Hold You

By: Alisa Sheckley

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS





I wrote this book five long years ago and was helped in my research by a lovely young veterinary intern at a large teaching hospital of veterinary medicine in Manhattan. I've lost the intern's name, and the hospital asked me to lose theirs when I mentioned werewolves and mad scientists. But thank you both all the same. More recently, one of my local vets at the Pine Plains Veterinary Practice, Dorraine Waldow, helped me sort out my (fictional) sedatives.



This is the first novel I've written using the name on my birth certificate; I'd like to thank my father, the late, great science fiction writer and grand master of irony Robert Sheckley, for all the writing advice he gave me over the years.



My mother, Ziva, believed in this book from the first, but I might never have taken it out of its drawer if Neil Gaiman hadn't prodded me by asking what had become of it, and if my marvelous and motivational agent, Meg Ruley, hadn't believed in it and helped find it a home. Liz Scheier, my editor, inspired me to go back into this world and helped me to realize how much larger and more complex it really was, and Holly Harrison kept me from getting lost, freaking out, and forgetting how everything tied together.



Kim Canez and my son, Matthew, have braved snow, rain, ticks, mud, snakes, and a very aggressive fawn to go dog walking with me in the woods, which is vital when writing a wolfish book; Liz Maverick and the rest of my bat guano posse helped keep me a prisoner of Starbuck's until it was written. Last but not least, a special mention for my wolf-loving daughter, Elinor, who slammed her pinky finger in the car door just as my agent was telling me about Ballantine's offer, thereby sealing my fate in blood.





ONE





There are many different Manhattans. Which one you happen to live in depends partly on geography and partly on perception. I live on the Upper West Side, in the midst of an eccentric animal kingdom.



In my Manhattan, people like their animals big: aristocratic hunting dogs with wide, soft mouths, overfed guard dogs and pit bull mixes, sled dogs that have kept the look of a wolf about them. These are large animals for large apartments: six-room prewars, with a couple of children and possibly a weekend home in the Hamptons. Nobody has time to go jogging with the dog anymore, and the nanny refuses to pick up feces from the sidewalk, so a walker is hired.



Elsewhere, on the East Side, are toy breeds with their adorably hydrocephalic heads. The owners are older; the children have grown up and been replaced by skittish canine midgets with the appeal of perpetual infancy. Downtown are the elaborately designed fashion victims, entrancingly ugly breeds with faces wreathed in wrinkles, their noses squashed up between their eyes. They are dragged behind their fit and fabulous owners, panting from their deformed jaws.



And then there are the exotics: lizards, parrots, rabbits, the odd squirrel monkey or de-glanded skunk. I don't usually see these outside of work, but then, they're not my specialty: They belong to someone else's Manhattan. So I suppose I was a little startled to see the man with the baby barn owl on his shoulder, although not as surprised as the other subway riders.



The man had a quality of alertness about him that didn't quite seem to match his appearance. He had that look you get from sleeping rough: T-shirt not quite clean, the worn cotton molded to his wiry chest. I noticed that the man's eyes were a pale hazel, almost yellow, as he kept moving his gaze around the subway car, careful not to make eye contact with anyone. I wondered where he had found the little gray bird, which had sunk into itself, but stopped myself from asking him. Most people think they're rescuing owlets when all they're really doing is stealing the baby on its first day out of the nest. My friend Lilliana can explain this to people and they'll frown and say they had no idea, but when I open my mouth, people tend to get red in the face and become defensive.



The little owl huddled closer to the man's neck and he reached back and patted it, shifting his other hand from strap to pole. A blond businesswoman sidled away and I saw the man notice.



Then, for a moment, the man met my eyes, a half-smile on his lips, as if he had something amusing to impart. I turned away from him, because I don't approve of people wearing animals as accessories. Particularly wild creatures, which are far more delicate than you might think.



I knew this because we get the odd raptor at the Animal Medical Institute. We're the only veterinary ser vice in the New York area that caters to exotics, so we're pretty much the only game in town if your anaconda loses its appetite or your parrot breaks its foot. We ‘ r e also the only place in the tristate area that can do dialysis on cats and the best place to give your dog chemo. But somehow I didn't think the raggedy man was taking his little pal in for a checkup. I was wondering if I owed it to the owl to intervene when the subway screeched to a stop and the doors opened. There was a reshuffling of bodies and I realized that the person pressing against my back had gotten off, giving me room to breathe again. Reflexively, I lifted my hand to adjust my pocketbook strap, only to find that there was no pocketbook there.



I felt a moment of disorientation. Was it possible that I'd left home without it? Had it fallen to the floor? And then, on the heels of these thoughts, the realization: Someone had stolen my bag. I said it out loud, half in disbelief, just as the subway gave a hiss and a jolt, the doors closed, and the train began to move again.