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Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:53:54

Micah had told me his dad was five foot six, but he looked smaller in the hospital bed. His hair was auburn, but whereas Nathaniel's hair was a rich brown with red undertones that sometimes you noticed and sometimes you didn't, Rush Callahan's hair was more dark red with brown undertones in it. I wondered if he'd say he had red hair? I hoped he'd wake up enough for me to ask. Right now, his face held that slackness that only heavy drugs can give it; even sleep doesn't smooth out the face in quite the same way as heavy-duty painkillers. His skin was pasty pale, so that the few freckles he had stood out like brown ink spots, but underneath the much lighter skin tone and hair the bone structure was Micah's. Micah was so delicate for a man that I'd just assumed he looked like his mother, but he didn't. He looked like his dad. The biggest difference, other than the faint lines around the eyes and across the forehead, was the mouth. Micah's lips were fuller, more kissable looking. His father had thinner lips, more traditionally Caucasian male. I realized that almost every man in my life had full lips. I guess we all have preferences in partners that we aren't even aware of ourselves. Micah's father's hair was almost as curly as Micah's, though cut a lot shorter. But his dad's reddish auburn curls haloed around his face in a thick circle. His curl was looser than Micah's, or mine, but it was curlier than Cousin Juliet's. She was waiting out in the hallway. She'd wanted to give Micah some privacy, and she'd said out loud that she'd try to head off any relatives so the privacy would last longer. I think she wanted Micah to have a few minutes before he had to deal with any more awfulness from his family. Uncle Jamie and Aunt Bertie had been enough for one visit, though we'd probably be seeing them again, unfortunately.

Micah said, 'That's weird.'

There were so many possibilities for weirdness in that moment that it felt odd to ask, 'What's weird?' But sometimes you have to ask the obvious question.

The room was dim, most of the light from the glow of one lamp near the bed. The drapes were drawn against the night, and the small beep of the monitors that let the nurses' station know Mr Callahan was still alive seemed loud in the silence.

Nathaniel came up behind us and put his hand on Micah's shoulder, because there wasn't room for both of us to hug him at once. Micah put up his free hand to cover Nathaniel's hand. There are pains too deep for words, but there's touch to say what words can't.

'Can you both smell it?' Micah asked.

Neither of us had to ask what he meant. Even with my human nose I could smell it: sickly sweet, but with a sourness underneath, so sweet seems the wrong word, but rotting flesh does have a sweet undertone to the smell of it. I'd spent most of my adult life smelling it at crime scenes and zombie raisings, though oddly the zombies that I raised didn't smell as bad as some. The amount of smell seemed to get worse the lower the power level of your animator. My early zombies had looked rotted, but they hadn't smelled that way. I'd seen other zombies raised that smelled as bad as a real corpse. The white sheet was raised on a framework so that it didn't touch Rush Callahan's body, like they do with some burn victims. Whatever wound was underneath that white, untouched dome of sheet had a faint scent of rot, like a preview of the corpse to come.

I swallowed hard; my throat was tight, and it wasn't because I was going to be sick. I'd smelled much worse. It was almost as if Micah were keeping such tight control on himself that someone had to cry for him. But damned if it was going to be me; I was here to be strong for him, not to be the first one to cry. I would not be this much of a girl, damn it!

Standing in that room with the smell of death already there, I hugged him tighter, because I didn't know what else to do. He rested his face against my hair and hugged me back. Nathaniel came in at our back, wrapping his free arm around me so that he could cuddle himself against Micah's back and touch us both.

There was a soft but authoritative knock on the door. It opened without our saying Come in, and in came a tall, thin man in a long white coat. He flashed a professional smile as he came through, cheerful and empty of meaning, because it makes people feel better when you smile. I knew the smile, because I had a client smile, too, and it meant about as much. You smile, because if you don't people worry more. He was a doctor, and people worried enough around him, so he smiled.

'I'm Dr Rogers; you must be Mike.' He held his hand out toward us, but mainly at Micah. He looked enough like his dad that there was no guesswork between him and Nathaniel.

'Micah. I haven't been Mike in a decade.' He let go of us enough to shake Dr Rogers's hand.

He turned to us, and I said, 'Anita Blake.'

Nathaniel shook his hand, too, and said, 'Nathaniel Graison.'

Rogers nodded and said, 'I'm glad you got here.'

Micah gave him very serious eyes. 'My mother told Anita that it was only a matter of time; is that true?'

'We've slowed the disease, but we have no way of curing it. I'm sorry.'

Micah nodded, looked at the floor, and reached back for our hands. I gave him my left hand, and Nathaniel hugged him on the other side, like I'd been doing when Rogers entered the room. The doctor's gaze flicked to the two men and me, then back up to the men. I thought he was going to say something unfortunate, but he was all professional.

'How long?' Micah asked.

'I can't answer that for certain.'

'Excuse me?' Rogers asked.

'Guess, give me an estimate how long my father has,' Micah said.

Rogers shook his head. 'I'm not comfortable doing that.'

'All right, then tell me what you're doing to treat my father.'

Rogers was comfortable discussing that. There had been a few cases on the Eastern Seaboard that were similar, but not identical. 'Those patients died within hours, but I used their protocols on our patients here and it slowed the spread of the ... infection.'

'Is it an infection?' Micah asked.

'Yes.' He sounded very sure.

'What kind of infection is it?'

'It's close to necrotizing fasciitis, and we've treated it the same way, with removal of the necrotic tissue, massive antibiotics, and time in a hyperbaric chamber.'

'How much ... tissue have you removed?' Micah asked.

'As little as necessary.'

'That's not an answer, that's an evasion.'

'If you insist I can show you the wound, but I wouldn't recommend it.'

'Why not?' Micah asked.

'It won't change anything and it won't help anything. It's just an unnecessary visual for you.'

Micah shook his head. 'I need to know what you've done to my father.'

'I haven't done anything to him, except the best I could under the circumstances.'

Micah let out a slow, even breath.

I said, 'This isn't my father, but you're scaring me. Where was the bite?'

'Does he still have his arm?' Micah asked.

Dr Rogers made a face. 'Yes, but if we can't get it stopped we may try amputation, though honestly I think it will just slow it down, not stop it.'

'Did you try amputation with any of the other victims?' I asked.

'Yes, but either we didn't do it soon enough, or once the infection is in the body it hits the bloodstream almost immediately and that takes it throughout the body.'

'I have to see,' Micah said.

Dr Rogers didn't understand immediately, but I did, and Nathaniel did, because he said, 'Micah means he needs to see the wound.'

'Really, I wouldn't ...'

'Would you really not look if it were your father?' Micah asked, studying the doctor's face. 'I'm betting you would insist on seeing it.'

'I'm a doctor; I would want to see it from a professional standpoint, to understand what was happening.'

'I'm not a doctor, and I'm hoping that what I'm imagining is worse than what you'll show me, but either way I need to see.'

Rogers made a soft, exasperated sound. He got fresh rubber gloves out of a little box that was beside the bed and walked to the far side of the bed with its tented sheet. 'Anything touching the wound site seems to be extremely painful, so we raised the sheet above it.'

'Like for a burn,' I said.

'For some burns, yes,' he said. He unhooked the sheet from the metal framework and looked across the bed at us. 'I honestly don't recommend this.'

'Please, Dr Rogers, I just need to see,' Micah said, his voice low and even. He had a death grip on my hand, and I assumed on Nathaniel's, too.

The doctor didn't argue again, just pulled back the sheet enough for us to see the left arm and part of the chest. I couldn't tell what the original bite had been like, because flesh was missing from the outer part of the lower left arm in a neat oval almost as big as both my fists side by side. The wound placement let me know what had happened. Sheriff Callahan had been attacked and he'd put his left arm up to defend himself and something had bitten him. I had my own share of defensive wounds like that, but none as deep. Even if he lived, I wasn't sure how much use he'd have of the arm. It was an awful lot of muscle and ligament to lose.

Micah's hand tensed around mine, his eyes narrowed, but other than that he showed nothing. His stress sang down his arm into his hand, but it showed almost nowhere else. God, he had such control in that moment. It was impressive and made me proud that he was mine.

He started to say something, swallowed hard, tried again, and just shook his head. I hoped I was about to ask the questions he wanted to ask. 'The edges of the wound look darker than they should, and there's discoloration in the wound itself; is that from the treatment?'

'It's starting to rot again,' Micah said, his voice sort of hollow.

'Yes, there are some bacteria in the mix that we've never seen before and they're not responding to the antibiotics.' He started refitting the sheet back over the framework without asking if we were done looking. Micah didn't say anything, so I let it go.

He looked at me and there was such pain buried in the green-gold depths of his eyes. In a voice that was only a little thicker than it should have been, he said, 'Ask.'

'Anything you want to know.'

'Not as your girlfriend, but as me?' I asked.

I raised an eyebrow, but I wasn't going to question it. I wanted to know what the hell was going on. 'Okay,' I said, 'what attacked Sheriff Callahan?'

'I heard it was a flesh-eating zombie.'

'Someone's been talking,' Rogers said.

'I am a U.S. Marshal with the Preternatural Division. This is kind of what I do.'

'The local police were worried you'd do just that and take the case away from them.'

'I don't want to take anything away from anyone, but I also don't want people to hoard information between different police agencies. That's a good way to keep the case from being solved and guarantee more victims.'

There was a faint flinching around his eyes when I said that. The other victims had been bad, for Rogers to react like that. If Micah's dad hadn't been the latest it would have been interesting, but now ... it was scary and interesting.

'Of course not,' Rogers said.

'Then help us,' I said.

'You are police, but right now you are the fiancee of a patient's son. That means that you are a civilian, as the police like to say.'

I had a thought. 'Has someone been treating you like a civilian and hoarding information from you, too?'

He looked away from us for a moment. I was betting he was both working to control his expression and debating what to say, or how much to say.

I felt Micah tense beside me, and I touched him, letting him know we needed to wait. This was the first tipping point, and it could lead to spilling all the information we needed, or to nothing; if we rushed it Rogers would clam up, I was almost a hundred percent certain of that. It was like hunting; you needed to be patient and move carefully or you'd step on a stick or a rock and scare the game away.

Nathaniel moved slightly beside us, but I didn't warn him. I trusted him to let us work and not to push.

He looked from one to the other of us, then looked at me and Micah, very hard. It was a good look, not a cop look, but maybe a doctor look. He was looking at us as if we were a mystery illness and he was trying to decide if he could figure out what we really were. 'Are you really his fiancee, or even his girlfriend, or is that just an excuse to butt in on this case, because the local cops would never have asked you in? One of the other doctors suggested you come in for a consult, because no one knows zombies like you do, and you would have thought she asked them to invite the devil in to help. They seem convinced you'll take over.'

'First, I am Micah's girlfriend and lover. Fiancee is a little harder, because you read the papers, see the news, and you know I'm also dating our Master of the City. I can't marry everybody.'

Dr Rogers looked at Nathaniel standing with us but being so quiet. 'And who are you, Mr Graison? I wouldn't normally pry, but if I help these two then the local police may make my life harder, and before I risk that I want to know who I'm talking to and why.'

'Who do you think I could be that would hurt you with the local police?' Nathaniel asked.

Rogers shook his head. 'No, we're not playing the game where questions get answered by questions. Answer my question, or we are done.'

'Do I look like a cop?' Nathaniel asked.

'No, but neither did Mike here, until he started asking questions and then the energy coming off Marshal Blake and Mr Callahan was very similar. I know he's the son of a cop, so maybe he learned it by osmosis, but your energy feels like hers, too, somehow, and I want to know why.'

Just from his asking the question I knew that Rogers was psychically gifted. He was probably an amazing diagnostician, one of those doctors who came up with leaps of intuition that were right about mystery illness and treatment. It could be luck, but in that moment I was pretty certain it was more than that. He wasn't just seeming to look right through us; in a way he was. It made me feel better that he was treating Micah's dad, but it also meant we couldn't play him. He'd feel the lie, the games, and he'd shut us out. Truth was our only option.

'You must be an amazing diagnostician,' Micah said, making the same logic leap that I had.

Rogers frowned at him, eyes narrowing. 'I am, but flattery is not a good idea on your part.'

'Tell him the truth, Nathaniel,' I said.

Nathaniel moved up and put an arm around both of us. We both put an arm around his waist, so that the three of us faced the doctor entwined. 'The three of us live together and have for nearly three years. I'm an exotic dancer at Guilty Pleasures and a wereleopard just like Micah.'

'That explains why your energy feels like Mr Callahan's, but not Marshal Blake's.'

'I'm their Nimir-Ra,' I said, 'their leopard queen. It's on record that I carry multiple strains of lycanthropy; one of them is leopard.'

'I read the paper that Dr Nelson did on you. You are a medical anomaly. One, multiple strains of lycanthropy, which is impossible since one strain protects you from all other diseases including lycanthropy. Two, you don't change shape. You have all the symptoms and many of the benefits, but you don't shift. I heard the military was very interested in that.'

'So the rumors say; no one's talked to me,' I said.

'Rumors,' he said, softly.

I nodded. 'Yes, rumors.'

'Maybe you're as good as you think you are, Marshal Blake, but I have to live here with the local police after you go home. I'd like someone's okay for talking to you about this.'

'Federal badge means I don't have to have an okay to see the bodies.'

'And talk like that is why the other cops don't like you, Marshal.'

'I'm not here to be liked, I'm here to get things done.'

'I thought you were here to be with Mike and his family.'

'I am, but I'm a cop and no one knows zombies like I do. It would be a bad use of resources for me not to at least consult.'

'I'll ask our local guys about you seeing the bodies in the morgue. Beyond that, talk to the cops.'

I started to try to persuade him to talk now, but the door opened without a knock. I turned automatically, giving myself room to draw my gun if I needed to; I hadn't done it for the doctor, but the last few minutes had made me tense, and I gave in to that tension. Logically I knew that nothing would get through Nicky and Dev at the door, or the cops outside, that I needed to shoot, but sometimes it's not about logic, it's about habit. I was habitually paranoid, like most police.

'I'll let you talk to your brother,' Dr Rogers said, and he left, passing the man who was Micah's brother.