The young man in black sat at his desk, the same desk he had used since sixth grade. He studied the circle of stiff paper on the desktop, the star-sprinkled astrology chart so central to his activities.
He glanced toward the two windows of the outside wall as the old curtains ballooned inward with the breeze. The curtains hid the latticework of steel bars that kept out the criminals and drug users of East New York. It was like living in a cage, but it was better than being exposed to what lay out there.
He frowned. Orion the Hunter and the Seventh Sister, the only cosmic forces who could stop him, rode high in the October night. As for his more human adversaries, the pressure from the police had forced him to curtail his activities for months. He hadn't set out on a night mission since June.
Factors weighed in on the other side, however. The Zodiacal light, that odd luminescence that tilted up from the horizon in the spring and fall, would send its energies down to him. Indeed, it would appear for only a few more days this year. If he was to act, he had to act soon.
He focused on his small TV as the news began. There was craziness tonight. Channel Five ran footage of a weird cult, Santeria or some such, based at a dog pound of all places. A camera crew arrived in time to catch a bizarre half-game, half-ritual: a huge wolf fighting a pack of German shepherds, as a houngan and a yelling audience looked on. Somehow the wolf escaped its arena, and the crowd ran in all directions.
A handsome newscaster warned the public to stay indoors: "Remember, this animal is fast-moving, intelligent and savage. It has already seriously injured one of the Dukes' neighbors. You could be next. John Lye, Newswatch Five."
Barely had the man finished when live shots broke in. It looked like every cop in New York was chasing the beast through a residential neighborhood.
The young man smiled beneath his thick black mustache. The police all looked for the wolf. Most people -- witnesses -- would be inside if possible. But the hated ones -- the homeless, the drug dealers, the fornicators -- they would still be out.
In his closet, from behind the stacks of Soldier of Fortune and Guns & Ammo, the weapons called to him.
The young man spread out three-ring-binder paper. He set a green magic marker, a blue BIC pen, and a wooden grade-school ruler on the desktop. Laboriously he wrote: "This is the Zodiac speaking."
Bright lights on high poles still burned over the baseball diamonds. Bob Duke heard furtive rustles and footsteps: not a game at this time of night, just the cliché Central Park graveyard shift: the homeless, the muggers, the mentally disturbed.
His pointed ears caught the tramp of heavy boots. The stride was determined, unworried. This was not one of the ragged men who slept on benches.
Bob scanned the tangled bushes and trees of the Ramble. He'd heard rumors of someone building a full-sized log cabin in the park, living here for years without discovery. Surely the brush could hide one oversized wolf.
He padded forward low, thinking of rabbits slipping under fences. He entered a thicket, wiry branches combing his fur.
Army Boots clumped by. Bob smelled leather, the sharp snap of blacking, mousse-like coconut oil, grease, and sun-baked vinyl. Also steel, cordite, and sweat, the last stringent with excitement. Probably an armchair Nimrod hot to bring in the Beast of the Waste and Desolation.
Bob sighed, his exhale becoming a whine. He hoped Army Boots had passed beyond earshot.
He lay his head on his forelegs. The smells of mold, pill bugs, squirrel droppings, nightcrawlers, and old bird's nests covered the earth like a woolen quilt. He fought his lupine interest in the musty-oily-boggy-coppery scent spikes. He had to think.
Man into wolf. Sure, there were legends -- Lykaeon in Greek myth, medieval folktales of shape-changers, and he believed there were werewolf trials several centuries back, like the witch-hunts. As interested in the animals as he was, Bob couldn't help running across werewolf stories occasionally. Lopez's Of Wolves and Men was full of them. Once he snorted at these fairy tales and flipped to the diagrams of pack interaction, yet there had to be some truth to the legends. Bob had only to peek into the nearest mirror to see the proof.
He bunched his eyebrows; he no longer possessed the high human forehead, so visible in Shakespeare and Einstein, that could wrinkle in Deep Thought. What did the legends have in common? The full moon, silver, "Even a man who is pure in heart --" All that came from the movies.
The Satyricon -- one of the classics he read in college instead of taking something useful, like Business Law -- it referred to its werewolf as a "turncoat" -- meaning, not a traitor, but a creature that turned its pelt inside out to change form -- fur-out, a wolf; skin-out, a man.
The Norse warriors, the Berzerks -- their name came from "bear-shirts". The Vikings actually believed those wild fighters became bears and wolves in battle.
Bob knew also the Navajo legend of the "skinwalkers", witches who wore the skins of cougars and wolves and essentially became those animals.
Bob shifted, wide forepaws splaying. Maybe if he imagined himself in a suit -- a fur coat, a mask, hairy mittens -- he could imagine himself pulling the wolf off like a costume.
It sounded absurd, but his predicament was absurd. Well, he had nothing better to do . . .
He concentrated on his pelt, with its thick, shifting hair. It was hot, all-enveloping, heavy. He panted again, which brought to mind his chops, and the harelip beneath his black nose. There was a basic split. If that rip spread longitudinally, up his snout, under his jaw, like a zipper line --
His face seemed to spread, cheekbones aching in opposite directions. The odors of the earth and trees muddied together, losing focus in a general turned-soil and musty-leaf smell.
It worked, yet Bob could not pause to congratulate himself. He thought of the wolf's muzzle as soft felt, rolling slowly back to reveal a round human head, flat mouth beneath a large but not unattractive nose. He felt pops and cracks -- he even heard them, like a house settling on a summer night. The roll of wolf-rug widened as slick, pink human shoulders emerged. Wind played across them, raw and hot, as if he were sunburned.
He pushed and wriggled out of the wolf's fur. His hands erupted from his paws, and for a moment he wore Dickensian fingerless gloves. Then the hairy sleeves shriveled back from his wrists.
He let out a single "Ha!" of triumph. The fur receded to his waist. He reared back and stayed up. The rest of the "costume" slid down his legs like a clown's oversized pants and vanished at his feet.
For a minute Robert Duke merely studied his fingers and palms, shiny with a clear liquid he thought of as metaphysical amniotic fluid. The breeze, now cold and damp with the recent rain, tickled his legs, buttocks, shoulders and breasts. He smelled only cut grass and the car exhaust aura of the surrounding city.
He laughed and fought his way through the brush, which scraped his naked baby-skin like barbed wire. Get out of the trees, he thought, touch man-made items: benches, cars, lampposts. Let human artifacts surround him, drive out the wolf.
He drew up abruptly. A man stood on the gravel path leading past the Ramble, only a few feet away. He was young, slim, possibly Hispanic, in gloves and jeans and knit shirt blacker than the surrounding night. He wore a beret like a member of some Special Forces team, and a heavy mustache curtained his upper lip. He stared in obvious amazement at Bob's nude form.
Unlike the incident in Atlanta, where he'd feared arrest and ridicule, Bob felt pure elation. He smiled at the slim young man.
"Now, I know this looks strange --"
"Death to the fornicators!" said the youth.
Bob expected any imaginable exclamation of disgust or confusion, but this curious sentiment momentarily stunned him. He stared mutely as the Hispanic youth lifted something like a slingshot made of kitchen plumbing and duct tape. One pipe glinted in the light of the distant Halogens, pointed directly at him.
The slim man yanked back a metal knob, pulling against braided lengths of office-file rubber bands. He released the knob, which struck the back of the pipe-thing.
Fire seared through Bob Duke's left lung and sloshed up against his spine. He fell backwards for what seemed minutes and hit the hard earth, which, curiously, felt like a downy mattress. He stared up at the night sky, the rain clouds slowly parting to reveal stars.
Time started up again as the red agony ricocheted through his torso. He breathed; the hole in his breast slurped.
The man with the beret set something on the ground. Bob heard the clatter of smooth pebbles and recalled for no good reason playing marbles with the neighborhood boys back in San Antonio. Then the black-garbed Hispanic youth stepped away.
Bob inhaled and gasped in pain, and the gasp caused more pain, so he flinched, and the flinch resulted in agony.
Was this the shock ending of his personal Twilight Zone episode? To escape from every cop, SWAT team and rifle-toting nut in New York, find his cure -- and die? Edward Hyde's ugly features smooth out, and Dr. Jekyll's face glows beatifically in death. "Then, without his consent, his head sank down to the floor, and from his nostrils steamed his last weak breath."
A man might lay dying, in the mud, in the bushes, in Central Park, but the wolf was alive and well and living in the stomach of Robert Duke. The shudders of the transformation crashed into the waves of pain, dampening them, reversing them. He writhed, thinking again of worms on fishhooks, and flopped onto his chest.
He coughed, long, deep hurrunks that started at the base of his growing tail and ended in spews of green goop from his lengthening jaws. He thought of the squishy insides of a chrysalis.
Something thumped on the damp ground before him. His nose sorted through the smells of stomach acid, lymph, blood and spittle to find the dullness of lead, with a ghost of cordite. The bullet.
Bob pushed himself up with four paws. He shook with anger and sadness. The bullet from that idiot-looking zip-gun did kill something in him. The man? Perhaps not, but the slipping-off-a-suit trick would not work again; he sensed it, somehow.
He staggered forward, passing over a folded paper weighted with pebbles. It smelled of felt-tipped pen ink, gunpowder, and the mysterious youth's hands, a mixture of chicken soup, shoe leather, Pumice soap and -- potpourri?
He nudged the paper. Pebbles rolled off, and in the harsh shafts of light from the baseball diamonds, Bob read the word "Zodiac".
He set a paw on one corner of the three-ring binder page and unfolded it with his tongue and nose. He drew his head back, noting absently that he could still read -- and that he was slightly far-sighted.
THIS IS THE ZODIAC. THE SIGNS WILL DIE WHEN THE BELTS IN THE HEAVENS ARE SEEN. ONLY ORION AND THE BEAST HE HAS UNLEASHED IN YOUR STREETS CAN STOP ME. THE HUNTER IS HIGH, BUT I DO NOT FEAR HIM WHEN THE ZODIACAL LIGHT RISES BEYOND THE PLANETS. THE FIRST SIGN DIED MARCH 8 1990 1:45 AM . . .
Bob Duke sat up with a yip. Zodiac? The Zodiac Shooter, copycat of the California serial killer? Like Son of Sam had in the '70s, Zodiac held the whole city in a grip of terror. Asking for someone's sign jumped from unimaginative singles-bar query to a sure way to visit homicide detectives.
Bob shook his head. He didn't understand. The composite portrait of the killer in the Post and other papers had been of a round-faced black man with a receding hairline -- "Al Roker's Evil Twin," as New Yorkers dubbed him. Not this skinny punk lugging a homemade weapon!
Maybe the papers were wrong. Recalling the news reports, the only victim to see his attacker was an old man who carried index cards with his name and address on them so he could remember where he lived. The black-garbed commando did shoot him, after all.
He thought to carry the note to a cop. He barked then, a short, sharp laugh. Civic-minded Bob Duke might vanish physically from the earth, but his human absurdities still lingered.
His ears perked. The heavy tramp of army boots returned.
Zodiac had been marching away quickly but unobtrusively when he heard the angry "No!" He paused in the darkness. The shout came from the direction of the pervert, the naked man doing who-knew-what in the bushes. It did not sound like the last gasp of the dying.
It rankled him that most of his victims had not died. His magical pact called for deaths when the stars were right, not "getting better." He unscrewed the barrel of his zip-gun and dug another .22 cartridge from his pocket. The pervert would die.
He started back. The naked man dragged himself out of the brush. Then, suddenly, he was no longer naked. Some sort of gray parka clothed him.
Then he was no longer a man, but a beast -- the beast from TV, the one all the cops were chasing.
Zodiac stood frozen for nearly a minute, his mind awhirl. He'd shot what looked like a man, and it became a beast. A hunting beast. The Hunter, who ruled the autumn skies.
The youth felt icepick-stabs of adrenaline. He had dared the Hunter, and the Hunter responded by sending a hell-hound for him.
Curiously, the beast did not attack. It seemed fascinated by Zodiac's note. It seemed to be reading it, a display of the human in the inhuman that gave him gooseflesh.
Unconsciously he reassembled the zip-gun. He gritted his teeth. The magic worked; the zodiacal light burned down, invisible though it was against the glow of the city. The Hunter was distracted. Zodiac would triumph even over his cosmic enemy.
He marched forward. The beast lifted its head as if it hadn't noticed him until now. Possibly because he had been standing still; he read somewhere that predators sensed movement.
Zodiac raised the zip-gun.
"Sense this," he said.
Bob found it hard to take the man's weapon seriously, even though he'd already been shot. Nevertheless, he sprang hard to the left just as his attacker released the metal striker. The small slug in its gunpowder-comet missed by a yard.
Bob ducked into the undergrowth again, weaving through the tangle like a darning needle. The army boots crunched away.
The wolf gritted his teeth. He was allowing New York's new Son of Sam to walk, but what could he do? However much of a beast he looked, however sleazy "Zodiac" was, he would not attack a human being on purpose.
"Only Orion and the Beast he has unleashed in your streets can stop me." Maybe Bob didn't have to kill him.
He padded out of the bushes, growling. Zodiac ran. Bob let the wolf loose.
He charged the gunman, his head level with the youth's hip pockets, and he thought it would be funny to sink his fangs into the maniac's cheeks. He closed the distance between them quickly, but to his surprise Zodiac skidded to a halt, turning as if on skates. He whipped up a huge, Bowie-shaped knife.
Bob slid as if into home plate, and before he could change direction, the mustached man jumped for him. He yelped as the youth's full weight smashed him down. He rolled with his attacker, but he felt the cold sear of the blade down his side. He kicked and clawed more like a tiger than a wolf, at last shoving Zodiac away with his padded paws.
Bob flipped over. The cool, targeting eye of the wolf found the silver flash of the dagger. The youth was quick, on his knees, then his feet, but crouched just as low.
Bob was quicker. He snapped at the knife blade as dogs did at flies, and he felt the impact of teeth on steel. He snapped at the hilt, and only by yanking his hand away did Zodiac avoid losing a finger. For an instant, like something in a cartoon, the huge knife hung motionless in the air, then Bob caught it delicately in his jaws.
He backed away, letting his fur drop, grinning around the cold steel and warm leather. The angry growl vanished as if shut off by a switch.
His attacker stood, also silent, his expression one of confusion, his scent aura shifting near to panic. Bob noted that the youth stood between grinning wolf and thick brush. Drop the dagger out there, and he wouldn't find it for hours.
He recalled Lawrence's In Praise of Wolves, the alpha snatching up gobbets of meat and snapping them unerringly, with a baseball pitcher's force, to members of his pack. An eye on Zodiac, Bob worked the knife around so that he held the blade in his teeth, the handle out to one side. Instinct calculated weight, shape, distance and needed movement in a second.
He snapped his neck and head like a whip, releasing the knife. It spun, silver-black, right at Zodiac's face. The gunman ducked away and churned his feet in the direction of his duck. He sprinted down the path towards Ninety-second Street.
Bob almost followed. A form shifted on a nearby bench, and a coarse yell of "Hey!" startled him.
Probably a homeless man awakened by the strange encounter, but Bob couldn't afford to let anyone see him. He fled in the opposite direction.
Zodiac folded his night clothes shakily and hid them in his closet. He'd wash the grass stains and dirt off later, after his sister left for work and his mother went shopping.
He disassembled the gun, removed his empty knife sheath, dug the .22 bullets from his pocket. He hid these at the very back, behind the magazines that had not helped so much after all.
He couldn't go out again, not at night -- which essentially meant not at all. He couldn't bring out the weapons any more. He had mocked the Hunter, and the Hunter sent his Beast after him.
And the beast had only taunted him, letting him go probably to catch and devour him later, like a cat playing with a mouse.
The youth sat at his school desk, but he did not study the astrology chart. He stared at his windows, sensing if not seeing the bars that made his room a cage.
For the first time he was glad for the bars. They kept the crime and sin out. They protected him from the night, the robbers, and the Hunter.
Inside, cage or not, there was safety, light and life. Outside -- you took your chances with the Wild.
At the beginning of The Wild we learn that it is the third Saturday of October. Bob's transformation and flight through Manhattan take place only a few days later. His son Kevin says of Kafka's Metamorphosis that "In 1990, it's a medical text." Thus the novel begins in October 1990.
In March of 1990 the string of shootings by the copycat Zodiac killer began, as described in Sleep My Little Dead (1996), by Kieran Crowley, and Zodiac Unmasked (2002), by Robert Graysmith. Due to increased police vigilance the killer called a halt to his attacks in June.
Like the original Zodiac, the New York killer sent taunting letters to the police and newspapers. Detective Sergeant Mike Ciravolo went so far as to contact NASA regarding a reference to "zodiacal light."
"It comes out early in October and it comes out again in March," he was informed.
"So this guy started shooting people in March, then he stopped. We got this October coming up, so it's going to be interesting to see if he comes back." 
He didn't, however. Now you know why.
 Zodiac Unmasked by Robert Graysmith (New York: Berkley, 2002), p. 284.
"The Hunter is High" is a fannish work presented for entertainment purposes only, and not meant to infringe on copyrights held by Whitley Strieber, Kieran Crowley, or Robert Graysmith.