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

Juliet and Al took us up in the elevator so we didn't have to ask where to go or what we were doing. Al said, 'You got your badge with you?'

'You know I do; I have to,' I said.

'Maybe put it where the other cops can see it.'

'Won't that make them think Anita has come to butt in on the case, just like Rickman fears?' Micah asked.

'Some of them are going to think that anyway, but cops like other cops, and you being the son of one and the boyfriend of another will make them like you better. It'll make them like you all better.'

The elevator stopped, doors still shut.

'You think we'll need the extra likeability?' I asked.

'You might,' he said.

I looked at him, wondering what I was missing, but Al was on our side, and he had the flavor of the local cops and I didn't, so I paid attention. The doors opened, we stepped out of the elevator, and I dropped the men's hands long enough to move the little walletlike badge cover to the front of my belted skirt, so the badge was visible. I'd have preferred the lanyard that I used at home to display my badge, but I hadn't brought that badge, or the lanyard. Silly me, I hadn't thought I'd need it.

Juliet and Al took us down a short hallway, turned a corner, and half a dozen cops pushed away from the walls, or just turned like magic toward us. One, cops keep their eye on movement, because it can be bad guys. Two, Nicky looked like a bad guy, and Dev looked like a large, physical smart aleck; either one was the kind of person that most cops learn to keep an eye on. With the two of them behind us attracting the cops' attention, it was like being invisible, a magician's trick of misdirection, or maybe they just couldn't see Micah and me behind Al and Juliet? Nathaniel was tall enough that some of him had to be visible.

There were actually only two people in the hallway who I knew for certain weren't cops. They were a man and a woman, a couple if I was betting. The woman was wearing a black polyester pantsuit that had fit twenty pounds ago. The white button-down blouse with its little ruffled collar didn't help. Her glasses were large and black framed so they dominated her face. Her hair was shortish and going from brunette to a tired gray. She'd also brushed her curls out in an attempt to straighten them, and it gave her hair the consistency of wool. When you have hair as curly as mine and Micah's you can never, ever brush your hair. It breaks the curl and makes a mess of it. Jean-Claude, with his only slightly less curly hair, had taught me that. The woman had to be over fifty; you'd think somewhere someone would have taught her how curly hair works. Her only jewelry was a silver cross and a lapel pin in the shape of a crosier, the shepherd's crook that is supposed to mean that a bishop or above is a guardian of his flock, when it's carried in the life-size version. I'd never seen one as a pin.

'Aunt Bertie,' Juliet called out, and went toward the woman, who had flashed an unfriendly look past her to Micah and me. Maybe I was being paranoid about that whole 'me' thing, but fundamentalists of several flavors had hated me on sight; why should Aunt Bertie be different?

It meant that the man with her was probably Uncle Jamie. He was at least five-nine, but he seemed shorter because he was carrying his weight from chest to groin, with only his legs still thin. The legs gave an echo of what he must once have looked like. I knew women who took pride in their legs staying thin, even with the rest of the weight up top. I wondered if men thought the same thing; I'd just be worried about heart attacks.

The man was wearing glasses almost identical to the woman's, but his suit fit better than hers, which probably meant he'd been at his present weight for longer. I just kept thinking I hoped there wasn't any heart disease in the family.

Juliet and Deputy Al tried to intercede for Micah with the pair, but they were having none of it. He was not going to get to see his father without passing through them first. Oh, joy.

Juliet tried, calling out, 'I thought you guys were down in the cafeteria making sure everyone got some dinner.'

Aunt Bertie said, 'I told you we wanted to go with you to meet Mike at the airport, and you snuck off.'

'I didn't sneak off, but I told you they had people with them and there wouldn't be room for you and Uncle Jamie.'

'And how did you know there would be extra people with him?' she asked in a voice that was unpleasant, strident.

Uncle Jamie was in front of us. He had a lapel pin that I thought for a second was a tiny, silver candy cane, then realized it was another crosier. Al stepped back with a shrug and a look of mute apology to Micah.

'So, the prodigal son returns,' Uncle Jamie said.

'I just came to see my father,' Micah said. He let go of my hand and took a step in front as if he wanted to make sure he was taking the brunt of it, or maybe he thought holding hands was a way of cowering? I'd ask him later, maybe.

Nathaniel and I kept on holding hands. It made me feel better and since I couldn't shoot Micah's aunt and uncle for being rude, it gave me something to do with my hands.

'Who are these people with you?' And Uncle Jamie managed to make people sound as if what he meant was fuckers, but was too polite to say it.

Micah introduced Nicky and Dev first.

Jamie eyed them up and down like he was thinking of buying them and didn't think much of the sale. 'What are they?'

'People,' Micah said, his voice cold.

'Are they unnatural?' he asked.

Unnatural? 'Wow,' I said softly. It hadn't even occurred to me that Micah's being a shapeshifter would be a problem with his family. I'd only worried about the sex part. Stupid me.

'Yes, just like me,' Micah said.

There was a sort of movement, or sigh, in all the police in the hallway. The uniforms, and the two in street clothes, all reacted almost like grass in a meadow when the wind stirs it. I wasn't sure if they were reacting to the growing unpleasantness or if they didn't like that at least three of us were 'unnatural.' We were in one of the handful of states where if someone killed Micah, or Dev, or Nicky, all they had to do was say they had feared for their life, and if the blood test on the dead body came back positive for lycanthropy, it would qualify as self-defense, without a trial or anything. If you had witnesses who said the shooting had been unprovoked you could be up on charges, but if the only other witness besides the shooter was conveniently dead, then it was a clean kill. I hadn't thought what that might mean for my men. My stomach tightened, my shoulders tensing, as I thought about that for everyone I'd brought with me. I was so used to the local police who worked with me seeing my boyfriends as people that I hadn't thought that not all police would be as understanding. That really had been stupid and careless.

I looked at the policemen in the hallway. Two of them were in a uniform like Al's, but the rest were a mix of different uniforms and two were in street clothes. They were all armed, and all had that cop look in their faces as they looked at Micah, Nicky, and Dev for threat evaluation. Was there a time in my career when I would have done the same thing? You hear someone is a wereanimal and you just automatically assume they're dangerous, right? Well, yeah. The cops in the hallway had just been told that Micah and two big, obviously physical, armed men were all faster, stronger, and harder to kill than any of them. I tried to see it from their point of view, but I just couldn't. The men in question meant too much to me for me to be okay with the evaluating looks from the cops. I knew that if anything went wrong they would probably shoot first and ask questions later. There'd been a time in my life when I might have done the same thing.

'Everybody take a deep breath,' I said, my voice calm but clear. 'I'm Marshal Anita Blake and the men who you're sizing up right now are with me.'

'We know who you are,' an older guy in a state trooper uniform said, and he didn't sound thrilled.

'The other beasts are with you in what way?' Jamie asked what the cops probably wanted to ask anyway, so they let him. Except for the beast part, I'd give the police the benefit of the doubt on that.

'First, don't ever call them beasts again,' Micah said.

'That's what they are,' he said, and he raised his hand and pointed at Micah. 'Just like you are.' His silver crosier winked in the light.

'Oh, God, you're wearing the shepherd's crook. Please tell me that the two of you didn't become Shepherds of the Flock?' Micah sounded disgusted.

I thought, The nut jobs on the news, but I didn't say it out loud. They were his relatives and I'd do my best not to make things worse, but the Shepherds were a new zealot group that went around to victims of preternatural attacks and tried to 'save' them by telling new lycanthropes they were now animals without souls and new vampires that they were demon-inhabited corpses, so becoming one of those made you an agent of the devil.

'We are here to be guardians for the victims of the beasts and demons,' Jamie said, which was a big yes.

'Sheriff Callahan wasn't bitten by a shapeshifter or a vampire,' Al said, 'so you shouldn't be up here.'

'We're Rush's family. We have every right to be here,' Jamie said.

'Then be here as family, not as Shepherds,' Al said.

'We're here to protect Rush, in case the monster that attacked him comes back,' Aunt Bertie said.

'Leave that to the police,' Al said.

'Not when the police consort with devil worshippers and soulless beasts. You cannot use the devil to protect you from the devil.'

I moved up beside Micah. 'Who are you calling a devil worshipper?' Nathaniel came with me, because he wouldn't let go of my hand. In fact, he had a double grip on my arm now, as if he thought I'd do something unfortunate.

'Don't feel bad, Anita, he just called his own nephew a soulless beast,' Micah said, and now his voice held an edge of anger. The first trickle of power slithered across my skin, raising the hair on the arm closest to him. He had the best control of any shapeshifter I'd ever been around, and sometimes he'd flare power to back down another shapeshifter, like I'd tried to do with Nilda at the airplane, but somehow I didn't think this flare-up was on purpose. His aunt and uncle couldn't feel the burst of power, and if they had it would only have confirmed their fears.

'Easy,' I said softly.

He whispered, 'I need a minute.'

He needed a minute to regain his iron control. I did the only thing I could think to do: draw their 'fire.' 'How dare you call your own nephew a soulless beast, you narrow-minded, poor excuse for a Christian.'

'How dare you question my Christianity, you devil-worshipping, evil-'

'That's enough, Jamie,' Al said, and tried to step between us.

'I'm Christian,' I said, 'and my cross glows just fine. When's the last time you bet your faith against something that could tear your face off?'

Nathaniel's grip on my arm tightened enough to almost hurt. I hadn't meant to step closer to Uncle Jamie, but religious bigots like him pissed me off. The ones who were so sure they were right were usually the most un-Christian of all.

Micah's energy was almost back to normal. The fact that he was having this much trouble getting to normal said just how angry and upset he was, and it wasn't just the crackpot aunt and uncle who were making him raw. His dad was in the room and they were delaying him with their bigotry that masqueraded as religion.

'She's Micah's fiancee,' Juliet said, 'and that alone should make you talk like a civilized human being to her.'

Aunt Bertie pushed up beside her husband and Juliet. 'Are you his fiancee, or is it Beatrice's fancy way of saying you're shacking up together?'

Oh, good, they were going to hate the sex part, too. 'Shacking up together?' I said.

'That's what I said,' Bertie said, and her face looked smug.

'It's just I haven't heard that phrase since I was a little girl; I didn't know anybody still used it.'

She blushed, as if I'd embarrassed her. Interesting, because I had not begun to embarrass Aunt Bertie.

'Are you his fiancee, or living in sin?'

'She could be both,' Juliet said, 'the way I was with Ben.'

'Just because Ben married you when he could get the milk for free doesn't mean it wasn't a sin.'

'Milk for free?' I asked. 'Are you guys for real?'

Jamie gave me a look of utter disdain. 'When a man can get what he wants from a woman, he uses her until he's done with her, and then he abandons her for the next woman who will open her legs for him.'

Nathaniel's hands tightened desperately on my arm, but it was Micah who stepped up beside us and said, 'I am ashamed that you are the kind of man who would fuck a woman and then abandon her, Uncle Jamie.'

'What?' Jamie said, and looked at Micah. 'I would never-'

'You just said that if a man can get sex before marriage, he uses the woman and then abandons her for the next woman.'

'Yes, that's why you marry first and show your commitment before God.'

'I love Anita and I would never abandon her for another woman. I don't need God to tell me that would be wrong, and I'm deeply ashamed that if you hadn't married Aunt Bertie first that you would have fucked her for a while and then abandoned her.'

'I never would ... I did not say that!'

Aunt Bertie yelled, 'How dare you! Apologize to your uncle! He is the best man I have ever known and he would never do such a thing.'

'And Anita is the best woman I have ever known, and she would never abandon me just because she could get all the sex she wanted without marrying me. She loves me for more than just sex, don't you, sweetheart?' he asked.

I don't think he'd ever called me sweetheart, but I said the only thing I could say: 'Yes, I love you for way more than just the mind-blowing sex.'

He smiled at me, and then he took off the sunglasses that he'd put back on in the lights of the hospital. He let his aunt and uncle see his leopard eyes. They backed up, gasping. Then Aunt Bertie yelled, 'His eyes! He's starting to shift! Oh, my God, help us!'

The police in the hallway knew about his eyes, so they didn't go for their weapons, but Aunt Bertie didn't know they wouldn't. She'd been willing to get Micah killed.

Al said, 'His eyes are stuck in animal form, Bertie. He's not changing.'

She and Jamie kept backing up. She turned to the other officers. 'Protect us.'

'Deputy Gutterman told us about Mike Callahan's eyes being leopard,' the older state trooper said. 'You don't need to be protected from Rush's son, your nephew.' In other circumstances he might have half-agreed with their attitude, but he'd understood, just like I had, that she'd been willing to get her own nephew shot in the hallway outside his dying father's hospital room. None of the police who had witnessed it were going to like either of them now. Some lines you did not cross, and they'd just crossed several.

Micah took my free hand in his, and I said, 'You aren't shepherds, you're sheep. The first hint of threat and you run for protection to the real shepherds, the police.'

The older statie said, 'We're not shepherds, Marshal Blake, we're sheepdogs.' He grinned, and it was more a flash of teeth, like baring fangs, than amusement.

I nodded, because I knew the essay. It was from 'On Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs,' from Lt. Col. David Grossman's book On Combat. 'We live to protect the flock, and confront the wolf,' I said.

He nodded and gave that flash of teeth again. It left his eyes cold. 'We do that. I'm Commander Walter Burke, Marshal Blake, and I'm sorry to meet you and Mr Callahan under the circumstances.'

He turned to Aunt Bertie and Uncle Jamie. 'Now, some of these nice officers are going to escort you down to the rest of the family.'

'We can't let them see Rush by themselves. He's already been attacked by one monster,' Bertie said.

Commander Burke let out a deep breath and said, 'Deputy Gutterman, Corporal Price, escort these two downstairs to the family lounge. If they resist, charge them with assaulting a police officer.'

'You wouldn't dare,' Jamie said.

Burke turned and let Jamie see his eyes, his face, his attitude, and like a good sheep the other man backed down. 'You're leaving this boy alone to see his father, one way or the other. It's your choice whether you do it in the family lounge or in the back of a police car.'

It was all I could do not to say out loud, Choose wisely.

They chose wisely and went with the nice police officers to the family lounge, which meant we'd be seeing them later. That was going to suck.

Burke looked at us. 'I'm sorry that your relatives are going to make this harder than it already is, Mr Callahan, Marshal Blake.' He glanced at Nathaniel's hand in mine.

'Mr Graison,' I said.

'Mr Graison,' he said. He looked at Nicky and Dev behind us. 'I'm sorry you can't come to visit your father in the hospital without bodyguards, but if that's your aunt and uncle, I'd hate like hell to see what strangers would do.'

Micah nodded. 'Thank you, Commander Burke. I appreciate that.'

'You're the son of a good cop and engaged to a U.S. Marshal; that makes you family. Now go see your father, and I am sorry that you had to come home to this.'

I wondered if he meant Rush Callahan being hurt or the crazy aunt and uncle? I guess it didn't matter; either way, not everyone in Colorado hated us. Good to know.