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Dead Ice (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 24) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 17:01:21

"That was toward the end, right?" I asked.

"I'm afraid by the time we got there I was sort of glazed over with too much horror porn, but I remember it vaguely."

"It is hard to watch this stuff and keep a fresh eye," Manning agreed.

"That's why we watch it over and over," Brent said, and he looked tired at the thought, "so we can be as sure as possible that we don't miss something that might help."

"They've grown more sophisticated in story, and more ambitious on the kink," Manning said.

"Don't call this kinky; it's an insult to everyone who lives an alternative lifestyle," I said.

"Like yourself?" Gillingham said.

"I didn't mean to insult you, Marshal," Manning said. She gave Gillingham a dirty look.

"What I do, or don't do, in my private life is none of your business, Agent."

"Yes, of course, I'm sorry."

"I can't tell if you're this stupid, or if it's all an act so no one sees you coming psychically," I said.

"It's both," Larry said. "She is a disaster socially sometimes, but they dressed her so she'd look like this."

"Like the favorite second-grade teacher that we never had," I said.

"Or Sunday school teacher, yeah," he said.

"Tell them it's too much. They'd do better if she was just dressed like a normal American woman of her age and socioeconomic level," I said.

"Duly noted, I'll let them know."

"Did you know that's why she was here?" I asked.

"No, I just know she can follow psychic ability like a dog on a scent. I honestly thought she was here to help us aim our talents at the bad guy on the videos."

"It only works if the feed is live," Gillingham said. "I mean, I might be able to get impressions, but to follow it back to the bad guy it has to be currently happening."

"Have you tried to follow this bastard before?"

"Yes, and it didn't work."

"We're not sure, but higher-ups think maybe it's just too different from most psychic ability."

"What does that mean, too different?" I asked.

"It's like I don't understand the necromancy enough to trace it."

"Or he's better at detecting you, like Anita," Larry said.

"He doesn't feel as powerful over the computer as she does sitting here," Gillingham said.

"It's not as strong over the computer sometimes," Brent said.

"You pick it up, too?" I asked.

He nodded. "I'm not nearly as gifted as the three of you, but I actually seem to get more via electronics. One of our instructors says that he's found other computer techs who actually have more talent to feel things over the computer than in real life. They don't even have a name for it yet, but apparently it's a talent just like the others."

"That might explain why so many techies spend all their time online; they get addicted to feeling the buzz," I said.

"We think so," Brent said, smiling as if I'd said a smart thing. It just seemed logical to me.

"So what's a live feed?" I asked.

"It's real time," Brent said, "and in this case the customers can call in and suggest what they want the zombie to do. Depending on what they want, they pay more money to get their idea onscreen."

I blinked at him. "Okay, ick, but okay."

"The more odd your request, the more they charge you, and if it damages the zombie they charge a lot more."

"Damage the zombie, I don't remember them doing that."

"There's been a new film. It was never live to the general customers, but only put online once the customer who requested it saw it live." Brent's face was a little gray around the edges.

"I don't like the look on your face right now. How much worse could it be than what we've seen?" I asked.

"Technically even though they look alive, they're zombies, so it's not murder, and it's not convictable for the customers really. Now that the word has gotten out about how lifelike the zombies are, the films are attracting people who usually haunt more serial killer sites. By that I don't mean real serial killer videos, but people pretending to film things that you could only do once in real life. Pretend torture and snuff films, and some real torture with willing victims."

"Real torture, or real BDSM?" I asked.

"Technically, the only way we got these films to be investigated this seriously was to raise the question of, if the soul is in the body, then is it a zombie, or is it a person?"

"You got to investigate this by raising a spiritual debate at the FBI?" I asked.

She made a little shrug and wobbled her head at the same time. "Yes, no, sort of, but once a voodoo priest told us that they had to be capturing the soul at the moment of death, then we treated it like any other serial killer case with magic added."

I looked at Gillingham. "So, if I can trace this via a live feed, then what do we gain? I mean, it's not like I'll be able to trace it back to an address. At best I'll get a taste for his power."

"Would you know the feel of his talent again if you felt it?" she asked.

"If I got a good enough feel for it, yeah."

"It might not work in court, but it could help us narrow it down once we have some suspects," she said.

"Okay, when's the next live event?"

"They only announce it close to the actual event."

"So what, you keep me on speed dial, and then what?"

"We have someone undercover as a customer. You'll be in the room while he types at them."

"Is this a group live event, or one of the special customer things?"

"It's group, but if this doesn't get us the information we need, then we're trying to find something for our undercover agent to request that is different enough that they think it would work as a film."

"Do we want to know what this new video is?" Larry asked.

"Do you think what you've seen so far is awful?" Manning asked.

"Then you probably don't want to see the next one, because you've got about another three hours of watching the milder stuff," she said.

"If I think I'm going to throw up, I'll just leave, and come back," he said.

"I thought I was the one that threw up at crime scenes," I said, trying to lighten things up.

"I never saw you do that, but this . . . I don't think it's the sex, I think it's the terror in their eyes. This is just so wrong, no, so evil."

"I'm not sure the FBI lets us use the word evil in official reports, because it's hard to prove something, or someone, is evil in court," Manning said.

Brent added, "But what they're doing is evil."

We all just nodded, even Gillingham. "If you can stop messing with me long enough I might be able to tell you if this guy is the animator who raised the zombies, or just a client of the animator."

"I promise to behave until you tell me you've got all the information you can this afternoon."

"Okay, then let's watch this shit and try to find a clue."

Brent hit the pause button and made it go again. The zombie's scream cut through the quiet of the room. "Why is she screaming in this one, but not the others?" Larry asked.

"She's tied up," I said, "so she could struggle, or scream."

"So they ordered her to lie down, let herself be tied up, and then removed the orders, and just let her be afraid like anyone," Larry said.

"We think so," Manning said.

We went back to watching the films, and I cracked my shields again, enough to try to sense something from the videos. I looked at the films not with my eyes, but with that part of me that could see the colors of Larry and Gillingham's auras out of the corner of my eyes. The man in the corner ordered the zombie to go down on the man on the bed, and

there was a flash of something. I so wouldn't have wanted that rotted mouth on my junk, but it wasn't my kink. Either the man was a good actor, which I doubted, or it felt good. It was hard to concentrate on seeing with the corner of my eye when what my main vision was showing me was so damn disturbing. When the white stuff spilled out through a rotted hole in her cheek, Larry got up and went for the door. Leaving sounded really good, but I stayed and tried to learn something useful. But I had trouble concentrating on the man in the corner and his possible tie to the zombie, because what he was ordering the zombie to do was just so terrible and sad.

I finally got close to the screen and put my hand over the man's image. It was all I could think of to help me concentrate more on him and less on what was happening to the zombie. I felt a little silly with my hand over the screen, but when he gave an order I felt the pulse of it in my hand. I did it a few more times with different zombies, but it was there with all of them.

I had Larry try, but he couldn't sense anything through the screen. Teresa Gillingham tried, too, but she could only feel the barest energy from all of it. "It's like static to me."

"I'm eighty percent sure, maybe ninety, that this guy is the actual animator."

"Why not a hundred percent?" Manning asked.

"Because I've never tried to sense this kind of thing through a computer video, so I'm not going to say a hundred percent until we catch this guy and he really is the animator."

Manning nodded. "Okay, we'll never be able to use it in court anyway."

"We want you there for the live feed," Brent said.