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Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:53:55

Morgues aren't usually my favorite places, but it had been a choice of the morgue or helping Micah talk to the hospital security and police about not having his mom and aunt hauled off to jail. Frankly, I'd have let them take Aunt Bertie if it wouldn't have sent his mom to jail, too. Richard Zeeman's mom, my other almost-mother-in-law, had also had a temper. What was it with the men that I loved having moms who were such ... live wires? Maybe they both liked women just like dear old Mom? In Micah's case, I was a cop like his dad, so he got a two-for-one deal. It was all too weird and Freudian for me.

I stared down at the first plastic-edged corpse and wasn't happier here with the dead than up trying to figure out the living, but I was less confused. I had felt guilty leaving Nathaniel with Micah and the mess of the living, but he couldn't come with me. Dr Rogers had barely gotten the okay from the local cops for me to see the first three victims. Including my boyfriends would have been asking too much, and besides, I didn't want either of them to see the horrors I saw in my job, especially not if this was what would be happening to Rush Callahan. Previews are a bitch. I pushed away that last thought and looked down at the body.

There would be paperwork somewhere that told me her name, maybe even her background. Had she had a family? But I didn't need, or want, any of that right now. The only way to stay sane was to think body, it; depersonalize. Background information got in the way of the pronoun it and made it more a her. Looking down at the body I didn't want it to be a her. I needed it to be a thing. Sometimes I worried that I'd become like some legal serial killer with my victims just rogue vamps and shapeshifters, but moments like this made me understand that my empathy was way too good for me ever to be a serial killer. Most of them saw their victims as things like a lamp, or a chair, or a tree, no more real than that. It was what allowed them to do their crimes with so little remorse. You don't feel bad about beating up a chair or breaking a lamp, right?

I stared down at the body and fought to keep in that Zen mind-set where it was all impersonal and I didn't keep seeing Micah's dad in the hospital bed, or think what this woman must have gone through before she died. I fought to keep all that in the back of my head, because in the front it would stop me from being helpful. I couldn't function if my emotions were fucking me over. Yay, I wasn't becoming some emotionless killing machine. Boo, I was staring down at a partially rotted corpse and all I could think was, What a horrible way to die.

'Dazzle us, Blake,' Detective Rickman said.

Did I mention I had an audience? Dr Rogers and the coroner, Dr Shelley, I'd sort of expected, but I also had Sergeant Gonzales; Rickman; his partner, Detective Conner; Commander Walter Burke; Deputy Al; and Deputy Gutterman. Al was apparently senior officer while Rush was hurt, but I wondered, if we had two of their officers, how many were left on their force to protect and serve while they stayed down here? It was a small-town sheriff's department, it couldn't be that big, but I didn't question Al's use of manpower. He was in charge and he knew his resources.

The audience had been part of what made Rickman not have a hissy fit about me looking at the bodies. Apparently, he was worried I'd mess up the victims or do suspicious magic. I'd run into officers like him before. Some were ultrareligious, so they thought I was evil, but others just had the same problem with me they had with all female cops, or with a federal cop of any kind butting into their case. I was a woman, a female cop, a godless user of magic, and a Fed - so many reasons for other cops to hate me. The fact that this many different flavors of police were cooperating was rare and good to see. I had a feeling it was Sheriff Rush Callahan's good rep and work that made them all willing to band together. Normally police fought over jurisdiction like dogs over the last meaty bone. It was better than it had been years ago, but it was still a general rule that cops didn't like to share, except when they wanted to pass the buck so that a messy or boring case was someone else's problem. This case was messy, but it wasn't boring, and one of their own was hurt, so it was personal, but more than that, solve a case like this and it could make your reputation. Fail at solving it and it could break you. I wasn't big on failing or breaking.

Though with this many people in the room it was damn near claustrophobic. I felt like I had a wall looming up behind me that kept bending closer. It was actually Dr Shelley who finally turned around and said, 'Gentlemen, you were allowed to observe, not to breathe down our necks. Now, everybody take two big steps back.' She pushed her glasses back up on her nose with the back of her gloved hand and glared at them when they didn't move. 'This is my part of the crime, my domain; you're here because I let you be here. If you don't give us some room to work, then I'll clear the room, is that understood? Now step the hell away from us.'

I liked her. The men exchanged glances as if waiting to see who would back up first. It was Gonzales who stepped back first, followed by Burke, then the deputies, and finally Rickman. Maybe it wasn't just me he didn't like, or maybe it was all women?

'Thank you, gentlemen,' she said in a voice that held no grudge. She turned back to me and Dr Rogers. 'Marshal Blake, now that we can move without bumping into people, do you have any questions?'

Rickman piped up. 'We want to know what she sees that we didn't, not just information that you've already given us.'

Shelley turned around, and I didn't have to see her eyes to know she was giving him her cold look. It was a good look, and we'd all seen it a few times already. It was a look that reminded you of that teacher in elementary school who could make thirty kids go silent with a glance, except this look was more hostile.

Rickman took the full weight and gave his own defiant look back; we'd seen that a few times, too. 'If you feed her information, Sheila, we won't know if she's really an asset to this case or just another Fed to get in our way.'

'This is my morgue, Ricky. I run it the way the way I see fit.' Her voice was very cold, but the fact that he'd used her first name made me wonder if they'd had more than a working relationship once. Of course, maybe he just wanted to point out that her name was Sheila Shelley. He probably didn't get to use names that were almost as bad as his own Ricky Rickman very often.

'She's supposed to be some hotshot zombie expert; let her prove it,' he said, undaunted.

'I can raise zombies from the grave,' I said. 'Can anyone else in this room do that?'

There was silence and a couple of nervous looks.

'Was I not supposed to remind everybody that I raise the dead? Sorry, but it's a psychic gift. I'd exchange it for something else if I could, but it doesn't work that way. I make zombies rise from the dead the way some people are left-handed or have the recessive genes for blue eyes. It's just the way it is; I raised my first one when I was fourteen, so yeah, that makes me a zombie expert, Detective Rickman.'

'Then like I said, dazzle us, Blake.'

'Get out of my morgue,' Dr Shelley said.

'Now, Sheila,' he said.

'Stop using my first name as if that will make us buddies, Detective. You have an issue with women in authority, you always have, and apparently you always will.' She turned to me. 'I'm sorry, Marshal, it's nothing personal, he's always like this.'

'How did he make detective this young if he's always this big a pain in the ass?' I asked.

'Unfortunately, when he gets his head out of his ass he's a really good detective. He solved some big cases early and saved lives by catching the monsters early. I mean murderers, not your kind of monster,' she said.

I nodded, that I appreciated the difference.

She pointed a gloved finger at Rickman. 'But right now you are being childish and unhelpful. Sheriff Callahan has helped everyone in this room do their jobs better. He's saved lives literally and by simply helping all of us do ours. He never grabs credit, but we all know we owe him. Now, we are all going to let the marshal here do her job and respect her expertise with the preternatural, but more than that I hear she's engaged to Callahan's son and that means she deserves respect on that account, too, and you, Ricky, will by God give it to her for one of those three reasons. I don't care which one you pick, but choose one and give her the same credit you'd give a man with the same badge, the same reputation, and the same connection to a wounded officer that we all respect and owe.'

I fought the urge to applaud. Rickman finally looked embarrassed; good to know he could be. The other officers looked shamefaced, too, as if the lecture were somehow contagious, or as if Rickman had made them all look bad. Either way, Rickman shut up and the rest of them were on their best behavior as if to make up for him.

'Zombies, when they do bite, usually just bite down like a person. The first male victim's shoulder is torn, savaged, more like a wereanimal or a vampire.'

'Vampires don't tear at you like a terrier with a rat,' Burke said. 'They kill neat, almost clean.' He didn't sound happy when he said it, but he sounded sure.

I tried to remember if I'd touched anything in the morgue that I wouldn't want touching my bare skin. I thought and just couldn't be a hundred percent sure. 'I'd have to take my gloves off and reglove, but after we're all done here I can show scars where a vampire did just that to me.'

Burke's serious cop eyes let me know he wasn't sure he believed me.

'I know the literature, and most of the databases treat vampires as sort of organized serial killers, methodical planners, and wereanimals as the disorganized serial killers, making a mess, choosing their victims more by chance like a wounded antelope that falls behind the herd. But I've known vampires that slaughtered and wereanimals that were more organized.' I thought about it for a minute and then shook my head. 'Okay, I've known more vampires that went all slaughterfest than shapeshifters that were methodical in their kills, but trust me, the antelope doesn't always leave the herd by accident. It may look like happenstance, but most predators cause things to happen that will isolate or test the herd, so they get to see who's weak or careless. It's so not accidental most of the time.'

'Predators are all the same, I guess, two legs or four,' Burke said.

'Human, vampire, shapeshifter, a predator is a predator,' I agreed.

'There's nothing in the federal database about vampires eating their victims like a shapeshifter does,' Rickman said. 'I thought they couldn't eat solid food.'

'The commander said worry at a wound like a terrier with a rat, not eat it,' I said.

Rickman looked blank.

'Didn't you ever see a dog savage something just for the hell of it, not to eat it?' I asked.

He shrugged. 'I don't know what you're talking about.'

Gonzales said, 'Did you ever play tug-of-war with a dog that was serious about it?'

Rickman shrugged again. 'Never had a dog.'

We all looked at him. 'Never?' Gonzales asked. 'Ever?' Al asked. 'Are you a cat person?' Shelley asked.

'No, but I hear that Blake is.' The words were innocent, but the tone was not, and neither was the look that went with it.

'Is that some kind of clever reference to Micah Callahan being a wereleopard?' I asked, and made sure that my voice held all the disdain I could manage, which was a lot.

'If the furry slipper fits ...' he said.

'Detective, I've been called the whore of Babylon to my face more than once; do you really think calling me a "cat person" is going to insult me?' I made little quote marks around cat person.

'Yeah, Ricky,' Gonzales said, 'for a ten-year veteran officer that was weak.'

'It was weak,' Al said.

'That was a pathetic insult, Detective,' Commander Burke said.

'Come on, Ricky,' I said, 'at least call me a blood whore since I'm sleeping with vampires. Oh, wait, that's not an original insult either; in fact, Micah's crazy aunt and uncle already called me that today.'

'Fine, fine, you've made your point.'

'No,' I said, 'I haven't begun to make my point. The vampire that tore me up the most broke my collarbone gnawing at me. The bend of my left arm has so much scar tissue that they said I'd lose the use of it, but enough weight lifting and stretching has kept me whole.'

'So, you're big and tough, we get it.'

'Shut up, Ricky,' Gonzales said.

Burke said, 'If the vampire wasn't trying to eat your flesh like a wereanimal, then why did he tear at you?'

'Because he meant to hurt me, because he wanted me to suffer before he killed me. You can see what human teeth can do to bodies on these.'

'I saw a ninety-pound cheerleader on PCP tear out a man's throat with her teeth once,' Burke said. He shuddered, and his professional cop look slipped a little and let the haunted look show through. Most cops had a haunted look; they hid it, but we all had it if we'd been on the job long enough. There were always things that happened that left stains on your mind, your heart, your soul. You saw the great, terrible thing and you couldn't forget it, you couldn't unsee it, unknow it, and you were never the same afterward. We had a moment of everyone's eyes remembering something bad, it didn't matter what, different memory, but same effect. We were all haunted; even Rickman's eyes had the look.

I turned and looked at Rogers and Shelley, and the two doctors looked just as haunted. Cops; emergency medical personnel; hell, emergency personnel; firemen; ambulance drivers; all of us ... you don't need ghosts to be haunted. Memory does that just fine without any supernatural help at all.