Page 10

Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:53:53

Deputy Al Truman was tall and thin, with disproportionately large hands and feet, as if he'd hit that growth spurt in his teens where the extremities are big and clumsy and his body never caught up with the rest of him. It made me expect him to be awkward, but he wasn't. He wasn't grace personified, but he was normal, and I was betting I wasn't the only person who had been fooled into thinking he'd be clumsy. I wondered how many suspects had expected him to move badly and gotten surprised.

He took off his cowboy hat with its official-looking band. In another part of the country it would have been a more typical Smokey Bear hat. Those big hands rubbed the hat brim over and over like a nervous habit of long duration. His brown hair was crushed by the hat but looked like it had some wave to it, but whoever cut his hair had managed to butcher it so that it was just a mess, hat or no hat.

'I hate that you're coming home to this, Mike.'

Micah nodded. 'Me, too, Al.' He turned to me and Nathaniel. 'Al and I went to high school together.'

'I was best friends with Richie. We went through boot together.'

Al assumed I knew the family tragedy that had turned Micah into a wereleopard, and he was right, but I thought the assumption was interesting. I was betting that Micah's mother, or someone, had told him who I was, and then he said, 'You must be Anita,' and he offered to shake hands. Yep, someone had been talking.

'How did you know ...' Micah started to ask.

'Your mom said you'd be bringing your fiancee. Congratulations, we were all thinking you were going to be an old maid.'

It took me a second to realize he was still talking to Micah and not me.

'I just had to meet the right people,' Micah said. I don't know if anyone caught the 'people' part, but the next officer stepped up and offered his hand and introduced himself.

Sergeant Michael Horton kept his Smokey Bear hat on; it went with his Colorado state trooper uniform. He was younger than all of us, except Nathaniel and Dev, though I'd noticed that people assumed Dev was older than he was, because he was tall. The taller you were, the more years people added to your age at an earlier age, just like they thought you were younger if you were shorter. Most people would have added years onto Sergeant Horton's age because he was over six feet, but I didn't add them; I knew better. He was twenty-five tops, which would actually make him a couple of years older than Dev and Nathaniel.

The hair that showed around his hat was buzz-cut short and if he hadn't spent a few years in the military I'd lose a bet with someone. I would have bet even money it had been the Marines.

'Sheriff Callahan is a good man,' Horton said as he shook Micah's hand.

But Horton looked behind us all at Dev and Nicky, one big, physical guy sizing up the competition. That he discounted the rest of us made me take points off his I-would-depend-on-him-in-a-crisis card.

Sergeant Ray Gonzales stepped into the silence. He was with the Boulder Police Department. He was just under six feet, but built big like Nicky so he seemed taller. His shoulder width didn't come out of a gym, and there was even a slight stomach bulge starting to fight with his equipment belt. Gonzales was just a big-framed man, built like a huge rectangle. He was going a little soft with age, which had to be closing in on sixty, but most of him was more solid than he looked. He reminded me of one of our guards, Dino, who looked out of shape and ran like a lumbering elephant, but all that bulk was solid and he was one of the few guards who I never, ever wanted to hit me for real.

He hugged Micah. 'I'm glad you came, Mike. It'll mean a lot to Rush.'

'I just wish I'd come sooner.'

'You're here now, that's what counts.'

'I know,' Micah said, and something about Gonzales had made him more emotional.

'I've known Mike since he was a baby,' Gonzales said, 'and Al, too, come to think of it. Rush and I are the old guys now.'

'I don't know,' the plainclothes cop said, and offered his hand to Micah. 'Detective Rickman, Ricky; I work with Ray up in Boulder and I wish the younger officers were half as tough as you and Rush.'

'I didn't say we weren't tough,' Ray laughed. 'I said we were old.' He reached a hand out to me and used two hands to shake it. His smile was warm and open. 'I'm glad you're here with Mike.'

Detective Rickman said, 'Your reputation precedes you, Marshal Blake. Nice to know one of our hometown boys could make you settle down.'

I didn't like him, and I didn't like the phrasing. I looked at Micah, asking with my eyes how he wanted me to play it.

'I need to get them inside before Aunt Bea hunts me down,' Juliet said. She actually started walking, trying to move us along.

'Who are your friends?' Rickman asked. 'And what's with the dark glasses at night? It's a little Hollywood for here.'

I decided to be a distraction, because I wasn't sure I wanted to give full names to Detective Rickman of our friends and sweeties. Nobody was wanted for anything, but it didn't mean that everyone had unblemished records. I didn't want to mess with it, and I'd just realized that no one here had seen Micah's leopard eyes. He told me he'd had brown eyes once, and that was the color that everyone here would be expecting. 'Detective Rickman, Ricky, no one makes me do anything, and as for settling down I'm not sure what you mean by that.'

'Marriage, Marshal Blake, Anita; that's usually what settling down means.'

Gonzales said, 'Horton, go do the errands that Bea needs.'

Horton opened his mouth as if to tell Gonzales he wasn't the boss of him, but something in the older man's face made him stop. He looked at Rickman. 'You okay with that, Detective?'

'Yeah, we can handle it.'

Horton did what he was told, which was pretty obedient for a sergeant who wasn't in their chain of command and wasn't an old family friend. Either Gonzales had a great reputation or Horton was hoping to get on the Boulder PD and politically he was trying to keep both Ricky and Gonzales happy.

Micah said, 'No one makes Anita do anything, but as for the dark glasses, did you know that if a lycanthrope is forced to stay in animal form too long that sometimes their eyes don't come back to human normal?'

Gonzales and Al said, 'No.'

Rickman said, 'Are you saying your eyes aren't human anymore?'

'Yes. I know that most police are told to watch a lycanthrope's eyes and if they change color then it's the beginning of the shift, but my eyes don't go back to human anymore.'

'What color are your eyes now?' Juliet asked. Her voice was full of some emotion that I couldn't quite read, maybe sadness?

Micah slid the glasses off his face and turned toward the brightest light from the streetlights. Juliet made a sound that was almost a sob and put her hand over her mouth. Gonzales's dark face looked like a world of sorrow had just climbed onto him. Al looked away and seemed sadder than before. Rickman flinched, but he wasn't sad.

'If you could all pass the word to the other local officers, I'd appreciate it,' Micah said. 'I'd really like to be able to concentrate on my dad and family without having to worry about being shot because someone sees my eyes and misunderstands.'

'I'll call up Gutterman and let him pass the word to the cops outside Rush's room,' Al said, and reached for his shoulder mic.

'Good idea,' Gonzales said.

Al spoke low into his shoulder mic and we all waited, while he said, 'It's the sheriff's son, Mike Callahan, and his eyes are stuck on animal.'

A crackly voice said, 'How the hell are his eyes stuck?'

'Just one of those things that can happen with shifters,' Al said. 'Tell the other guys up there. Mike doesn't need someone pointing a gun at him, thinking he's about to shift while he's here.'

'Weird shit,' the voice, I presumed Gutterman, said. 'I'll pass the word around.'

'Thanks, Gutter,' Al said.

Rickman asked, 'You ever have anyone think you're shifting when they see the eyes?'

'A time or two,' Micah said. He slipped his glasses back on, hiding the exotic flash of his eyes.

This was news to me. I turned and looked at Nathaniel, and the look on his face said it was news to him, too. If we hadn't been with so many unknown people I'd have asked Micah to elaborate. Nathaniel gave a small nod, and just like that I knew we'd both be talking to our shared boy later.

'I'm going to walk them in,' Deputy Al said.

'You do that,' Gonzales said.

'Why do you need bodyguards, Marshal Blake?' Rickman asked.

Micah answered, 'There have been threats because of my work with the Coalition for Better Understanding Between Human and Lycanthrope.'

'So they're your bodyguards,' Rickman said.

'Do you really think I'd bring guards to the hospital where my family could see them, if I didn't need them?'

The question seemed to throw Rickman for a minute. He changed tactics and said, 'He's not a bodyguard.'

Micah reached back and took Nathaniel's hand in his and drew him up beside him just like I was on the other side. He gave Rickman solid eye contact as he said, 'Detective Rickman, this is Nathaniel. He's our third, our significant other.'

Gonzales made an inarticulate sound that was loudish. Deputy Al whistled and said, 'Wow, okay.'

'What is it with you and all the gay men, Blake?' Rickman asked.

I laughed, I couldn't help it. It seemed to startle everyone, because most of them looked at me, except for Micah, who was staring at Rickman. 'One, if the men in my life were gay it wouldn't do me a lot of good, would it? Two, why the hell are you this interested in my sex life?'

Micah said, 'Three, why do you have a problem with Anita? You just met her.'

'It's okay, Micah. I make him nervous.'

'Why?' he asked, as if Rickman weren't still standing there.

'My reputation intimidates him.'

'Which reputation, Marshal Blake? The one as a cold-blooded murderer, the one as a voodoo queen, or your reputation as a ... gentlemen's woman?'

It took me a few moments to realize he'd just switched the sexes on the term ladies' man and not called me a slut, though somehow gentlemen's woman sounded like a cleaned-up version of mistress.

'That's enough.' Gonzales stepped in front of Rickman, and he was big enough that he blocked all our views of the detective. 'You,' he said, pointing at Al, 'take them inside.'

'You don't outrank me,' Rickman said.

'Rush Callahan has been my friend for over thirty years. We served together, bled together, saved each other's lives more times than I can count. We both joined Boulder PD at the same time. He offered to take me with him when he moved to being sheriff. I don't outrank you sergeant to detective, I outrank you because you are forgetting that a fellow officer is down, dying, and this is his son.'

'We do not need Blake here with her hocus-pocus. We do not need the Feds on this case.'

'Make your reputation some other day, Ricky,' Gonzales said. 'Tonight isn't the night for it.'

'I don't know what case you're talking about, but I'm here as Micah's girlfriend, fiancee, whatever. We're here for him and his dad, that's it.'

'You say you're the girlfriend, but you have a federal badge and you're fucking Preternatural Branch, which means you can do any damn thing you want.'

'I am the girlfriend and I don't know what the hell you're talking about.'

'You go' - he motioned toward the hospital - 'go be the girlfriend, be the fiancee, meet the family, but if you try to take this case over I will fight you for it and do everything in my power to make sure you regret stepping on our toes.'

'"Stepping on our toes,"' I said. 'Really, that's the best you can threaten?'

'Anita,' Nathaniel said softly.

He was right, but I'd be damned if I'd apologize to Rickman.

'No, that's not the best I can threaten,' Rickman said, his voice rising.

'Get them inside, Al, now,' Gonzales said.

It was actually Juliet who started us walking, but Al brought up the rear as if he feared an attack from that direction. Gonzales turned to Rickman, and I heard the detective's angry voice rising as we walked away.

'Did you have to bait him like that?' Juliet asked.

I sighed. 'No, and I'm sorry. It was childish.'

Micah said, 'I've seen you have problems with officers who you had a history with, but you've never worked with Rickman, have you?'

Juliet's phone rang, and she stepped away from us to take a call from her husband. She apologized and mouthed something about her kids. We all nodded, and suddenly it was just us 'guys.'

'Honestly, after what happened to Rush I'd take any help we could get,' Al said.

'Help on what?' I asked.

'Killer zombies,' he said.

'We've had zombie attacks.'

'You have a rogue zombie?' I asked.

He shook his head. 'Not just one zombie. That's what's weird: It's not the same one. I mean, Sheriff Callahan talks about a flesh-eating zombie they had back in the seventies here, but they trapped it in a house and burned it, end of problem.'

'A flesh eater is incredibly rare; I've only seen one. You don't get herds of them, no matter what the movies and TV shows put out there.' To myself, I amended that I'd seen only one rogue zombie at a time. I had used cemeteries full of zombies that I had raised as defensive weapons against bad guys who were trying to kill me, three times. I carefully did not look behind me at Nicky. He'd been present for one of those moments.

'So it was just the same zombie-eating people when you had to deal with one, right?' Al asked.

'This is different ones. We've got at least three different descriptions.'

'Descriptions never match; you could still just have one,' I said.

'One man, one woman, and one child; we think they're a family that disappeared in the mountains about a month ago.'

I shook my head. 'No way, no one would raise a family like that as zombies; no one would do that unless you've got an animator who had a grudge against the family. But it would have to be a hell of a grudge to raise a whole family from the dead, and if they were murdered, then raised from the dead, they'd kill their murderer. It would be their one driving purpose and they would attack people who got in their way, but it wouldn't turn them into flesh eaters necessarily. Were any of the family psychically gifted?'

'Not that we know, why?'

'The only cases I've heard of flesh eaters were animators or voodoo practitioners who had been raised from the dead.'

Al raised eyebrows. 'You mean if you ...' He stopped abruptly. 'I am so sorry.'

'It's okay; there's a reason my will states I'm to be cremated, Deputy Truman.'

'You're afraid you'd turn into a flesh-eating zombie?' he asked.

'Why take the chance?' I said.

'Can we not talk about the woman I love dying just as we walk into the hospital to see my dying father?' Micah asked.

'Oh, geez,' Al said. 'I'm sorry, it's just someone mentioned calling in the Preternatural Branch, and Marshal Blake was mentioned specifically, before we knew she was with you. I'm sorry, I was being a cop. I'm just ... sorry, Mike, really.'

'I'm sorry, too,' I said.

Micah squeezed my hand. 'I forgive you, but for the next little bit can you just be my fiancee and not be Marshal Blake?'

'Yes, of course,' I said, and I was ashamed for forgetting that this wasn't a case, this was Micah's dad. But I had a thought. 'Can I ask one more cop question? Just one more while Al is with us?'

Micah sighed. 'One more.'

'Micah's mom said that Sheriff Callahan had been bitten by something preternatural. What was it?'

'One of the flesh-eating zombies,' Al said.

'She said that it was contagious, that he was rotting- Are you saying that the people bitten by the zombies are turning into zombies?'

'No, they just rot and die.'

'But zombies aren't contagious,' I said.

'These are,' Al said.

'Five, but we've had witnesses to the last three attacks, so we know what's doing it now.'

'The first two victims died pretty quick, until Dr Rogers found some cases back east that sounded similar. He used some of the information that they published about it and was able to slow down the spread in the vic before the sheriff.'

'That's more than one question,' Nathaniel said softly.

'No, it's all right, Nathaniel,' Micah said. 'Anita can't be anything other than what she is, who she is, and my dad doesn't have cancer, he has something ... preternatural, and no one is better at that than she is.'

'Are you saying I can treat this like a crime?'

'You've taught me that zombies don't rise spontaneously from the ground, so someone had to raise these, right?'

'People have already died, so isn't it at least negligent homicide?'

'Potentially, that's really for a court to decide, but someone raised the zombies and there has to be a reason they're out of control and attacking people, so it's either someone bit off more than they could chew and now doesn't want to fess up, or it's on purpose. Either way, when we locate the person who raised the zombies, it's a death sentence if they're convicted, because it falls under "using magic to kill people." That's an automatic real death sentence, no waiting on death row for years, but executed within weeks to months.'

Micah nodded. He turned to Al. 'You're saying my dad was attacked by a flesh-eating zombie and the bite is rotting?'

'Dr Rogers will explain it.'

'I'm asking you,' Micah said, looking at Al.

'I've said more than I should have shared with civilians.'

'Nicky went with Anita as her deputy on a warrant of execution.' Micah motioned at Nicky, who nodded enough for his bangs to swing out from his face a little.

'I know the preternatural marshals get a lot of leeway with calling in help in the middle of a vampire hunt, but this isn't a hunt.'

'Would you tell Anita more without us standing here?' Micah asked.

'And then she tells you later anyway?'

'She doesn't usually share details about ongoing cases with me, Al.'

'Swear to me she won't share details about your dad with you.'

Micah looked at Al and prepared to lie to him.

'No, Micah.' I squeezed his hand and turned to Al. 'I swear to you that everyone here will keep their mouths shut, and Nicky has been back up on a hunt, and I tell Micah and Nathaniel all sorts of personal shit that they don't blab.'

'What, you going to have them pinky-promise, cross their hearts?' Al shook his head. 'You know it doesn't work that way. I'm not usually this chatty about an ongoing case. Except it's Mike, and you have a badge.' He looked at Nathaniel, who was still holding Micah's other hand. 'Can I say something that is absolutely none of my fucking business?'

Micah said, 'You can,' but his voice made it clear that Al better be careful what he said.

'Introduce Nate as your significant other, or whatever, but don't meet your family for the first time in almost ten years holding hands. Please, Mike, I know your family, and your Aunt Bertie and Uncle Jamie are here.'

'Uncle Bertie and Aunt Jamie, you mean?' I asked.

'Bertie is short for Bertha. She's my mom's sister,' Micah said. He pulled Nathaniel closer. 'So I'm not supposed to touch him at all, is that it, and his name is Nathaniel, not Nate. I'll let you call me Mike, because that's what I grew up with, but I go by Micah now.'

'Of course you can touch ... Nathaniel, but can you just put Marshal Blake in the middle for the first meet and greet, that's all I'm saying. And I'll try to call you Micah, but not sure I'll remember.'

Nathaniel leaned over and kissed Micah gently on the cheek. 'Anita sleeps in the middle most of the time at home anyway.'

Micah looked up at him. 'You're okay with hiding?'

'No, but I want to be able to come back to see your family with you, and if you shove me into their faces constantly, then they won't like me. I want them to like me.'

Micah seemed to consider it for a minute. He turned to me. 'You in the middle means one of us has your gun hand.'

'We walk with me in the middle in St Louis when we have guards with us and I'm not on a case,' I said.

'Why am I the only one fighting not to hide?'

Juliet came back with her phone call over, and apparently she'd caught enough of the talk to comment, 'Because you've decided to shove your boyfriend in everyone's face, and once you decide to take a stand you don't back down; you never have.'

'That's more me than Micah,' I said.

He had a stubborn look to his face that I hadn't seen before. It was Nicky who said, 'Sometimes when we go back home to our family and hometown we fall back into old patterns, old actions, old feelings. They come back up like ghosts, and if you're not careful you sort of become your old self again.'

We all looked at him. Juliet said, 'Well, you're not just handsome muscle, are you?'

He shrugged as much as the muscle development would let him. I knew his comment had come from personal experience. It made me want to ask him how his visit home had gone and how long it had been since he'd visited. His mother was in prison, as far as I knew, and his siblings adopted out. Had Nicky visited his dad? Why was it hard to picture him going home to visit?

'No,' Micah said, 'Nicky is pretty smart,' and he looked embarrassed, which was something else I didn't get to see often. He put his head against Nathaniel's shoulder, more like he was resting against him than holding him, and then he let go of his hand and swung me around so I could walk between them.

I loved walking with both of them holding my hand, and I felt pretty secure that the few seconds it would take me to drop their hands and go for my gun would be filled with Nicky and Dev shooting first.

Micah said, 'Thanks, Nicky, I needed the reminder.'

'You're usually reminding the rest of us to be grown-ups; just returning the favor.' They shared a smile and a nod, which is a particularly male way of thanking and saying, it's okay.

Juliet led the way, smiling and more relaxed. Al dropped back behind us and I heard him say, 'Thanks, Nick, or Nicky?'

'Either one is fine,' Nicky said.

'Yeah, I'm Al, or Albert. What's Dev short for?'

'Devil,' Dev said, and I knew he would either keep a straight face or flash a devilish grin. The hospital doors whooshed open, or I might have looked back to see. The cool, antiseptic smell of the hospital wrapped us. I felt both men almost flinch. I glanced at Micah and found him wrinkling his nose, as if something smelled bad. I turned to see an almost identical reaction from Nathaniel. He actually shook his shoulders like a bird settling its feathers, or I guess in his case like a cat shaking something off its fur.

Micah's face was back to neutral as he spoke low. 'I've never gotten used to how hospitals smell.' And I knew he meant since he got super-scenting ability as a wereleopard.

I heard Al from behind us, saying, 'Oh, come on, your name can't really be Devil.'

'My twin sister's name is Angel.'

'I don't believe it.'

'Dev is short for Devil, and his sister is named Angel.'

Apparently, neither of them was going to tell Al that Devil was a nickname. We were going to need a little humor to get us through tonight, and bedeviling Al about Dev's name was a start.