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Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:53:58

Back in the family waiting room, Micah sat on the small couch staring off into space, clutching our hands. Nicky, Dev, Ares, and Bram were scattered around the room trying to look harmless and failing. The police talked to Ares and Bram, and Dev had gotten some of them laughing a little. Nicky just found a piece of wall and held it up in classic bodyguard pose near our couch. He didn't usually sweat socializing with the police. He expected them to dislike him. Micah had slipped his sunglasses back on, not to hide his eyes, but so we could all pretend there weren't tears sliding slowly down his face. He made no sound, didn't wipe at the tears, and just let them fall. He sat quiet between us, crying silently. The police and our guards obeyed the guy rule: If a man is crying utterly quietly and pretending he's not crying, you pretend, too.

Deputy Al walked into the room. He started talking low-voiced to some of the other cops. Their stoic, sad faces perked up and went serious. Two of them nodded and left the room like they had a purpose.

I asked, 'What's happened?'

Al looked at us. His gaze lingered on Micah, and his face showed sympathy for a moment, and then he fought it off. He walked over to us with his pleasant cop face in place. He hesitated looking down at Micah, his lips going in a thin, tight line as he debated on being a cop or a friend.

'Mike, is there anything I can do?' he asked finally, deciding on friend.

Micah just shook his head, wordless, not even raising his head enough to make eye contact through the dark glasses.

Al took that as the dismissal it was and said, 'Remember the hiker that Gutterman and the rest were looking for?'

'I remember you saying something about other police business.'

'The hiker was missing two days; this is number three, so we called for volunteers who knew the mountains in that area to help the police with the search.'

I nodded. 'I'd think that's standard in a wilderness area. You don't want more civilians getting lost.'

'Exactly, so everyone we took out with us knows what they're doing. The two men who are missing now, honestly, I'd trust them in a wilderness survival emergency more than most police I know. They are both high-priced hunting guides and can do serious hike-in and hike-out camps with pretty inexperienced hunters.'

'Good teachers, then,' I said.

Nathaniel asked, 'What happened to them?'

'They're missing,' Al said.

Micah roused himself enough to look up at Al. 'Who is it?'

'Henry Crawford and Little Henry.'

'They're some of the best in the area, or were ten years ago,' Micah said.

'Henry senior is nearly sixty-five, but he can still hike farther with more in a pack than anyone on our force except your dad, and that includes me. Little Henry is just scarier and quieter than he was, but I'd trust both men in any emergency outside a city.'

'Is Little Henry still an EMT?'

Micah finally let go of our hands enough to wipe at the drying tears on his face. 'I can't leave the hospital, Al, I'm sorry. Mom and Ty are still in with Dad, and I'm hoping to be able to talk to him again.'

'I wasn't asking you, any of you, but after the two Henrys going missing I don't want more civilians out there.'

'Is this the same place that the earlier people have gone missing?' I asked.

'Close enough,' he said.

'Something really bad has to be out there for them to be missing,' Micah said. He hunched forward, his elbows resting on his knees. He was staring at the floor thinking nothing good. Was he thinking of the wereleopard that attacked him years ago? It had happened in the mountains around here.

'How long have they been missing?' I asked.

'Three hours. Normally, we wouldn't think anything of it, but one minute Henry and Little Henry were within shouting distance of some of the other searchers and the next thing they were just gone.'

'What do you mean, just gone?' I asked.

'Gutterman says they called out, "We found something." But when the men tried to confirm if they'd found the killer, there was no answer.'

'Did you find anything to let you know where they were last?' I asked.

'It is pitch-black up in the mountains. We can't see shit, and the only tracking dogs are scattered looking for a missing kid and an elderly man who wandered away from his home. Kid is three, man has Alzheimer's, and you know how cold it gets at night here.'

'If they don't find shelter they'll die by morning,' Micah said.

'Our missing hikers are both adults in good health, with some wilderness experience. The Henrys could make shelter and survive a night easily.'

'Did you have dogs here searching for the hiker earlier?'

'One, but it was like its nose went dead. The handler had a word for it: nose-deaf. The dog seemed totally confused, as if it didn't know what the hell it was smelling. He said he'd never seen the dog behave like that.'

'Did it act afraid?' I asked.

He shook his head. 'Why?'

'Some dogs won't track preternatural things, not without special training. They act afraid or just refuse to track.'

'No, it seemed to get the scent at first, but then it hit a clearing and just kept circling. The handler let it take the scent again from a bag of personal effects we had, but it just couldn't pick it out again. Damnedest thing I ever saw with a good dog like that.'

'One of us could follow the scent,' Micah said.

Al shook his head. 'No, no more civilians.'

'Anita isn't a civilian, and if we're in animal form she's our handler.'

'Are you really willing to leave the hospital and risk missing another visit with your dad?' Nathaniel asked.

Micah looked at him, and then back at the floor, shaking his head. 'No, I guess I'm not.'

'I could do it,' Nathaniel said.

Micah and I exchanged glances. What did we say - that he was more important to us than any missing strangers? That we felt protective of him, and this seemed like putting him in harm's way?

'What if I went with Anita and Nathaniel?' Nicky asked.

'Civilian, remember,' Al said.

'I'm not a civilian,' he said.

'You're not a cop, and you're not military; that makes you one.'

'I'm not a civvie in the way you mean. I'm not a victim waiting to happen, I won't slow you down, and in a fight I'll vote me.'

'He's good, Al,' Micah said.

Ares and Bram drifted over to us. 'Ex-special forces, remember?' Ares said.

'Micah needs people here with him,' I said.

'Why doesn't Nicky shift and track for you?' Bram asked.

Nicky looked at him, and they both just stared at each other. It was a long, serious look. Neither flinched, but Nicky finally said, 'In animal form I can only kill things; in human form I have more options that Anita likes. Why don't you do it?'

'I'm more versatile in human form,' Bram said.

'I can follow a scent trail in leopard form as well as anyone here, but I can't guard Anita's or Micah's safety, or anyone else's, as well as the rest of you,' Nathaniel said.

'You're one of the guardees,' Dev said, as he joined the conversation a little late. He'd left the other police officers laughing behind him.

'I see you're making friends,' I said.

'They like me now; before they didn't.'

'Dev's right,' Bram said. 'Nathaniel is one of the people we were guarding; that's why originally we were detailed six guards.'

'I'm harder to hurt than any police officer, and even in cat form I can let Anita know more about what I'm sensing than any dog.'

'Can you talk in cat form?' Al asked.

Nathaniel shook his head. 'Not exactly, but Anita will hear me.'

'What does that mean?'

'It means that Anita can read his body language and expressions in cat form the way we can read each other in human form. We know each other.'

'Like a couple or best friends thing?' Al asked, making it a question with the uptilt of his voice.

'Something like that,' Micah said. He'd just lied to his friend. Nathaniel was a black panther. My night vision was good, but not that good. In the dark I would barely be able to see his face let alone the expression on it, but I would be able to hear him in my head. I'd be able to catch his emotions, his thoughts. Hell, if I had the concentration to keep my human body moving through the woods at the same time, I could damn near be inside that huge, sinuous body stalking through the woods on four paws.

Al looked at me, not trying to keep the doubt off his face. 'Really?'

He nodded. 'Okay, Nathaniel in animal form, and you, because you have a badge.'

'Me,' Ares said, 'because my training is perfect for this, even without the beast inside me.'

'Scout sniper,' he said.

Al's eyebrows went up, and it was obvious that it impressed him. I'd never been in the military and didn't understand the combination of words. Sniper, yes, but what the heck was a scout sniper? I didn't ask out loud. I'd ask later, after Al had agreed to include everyone we wanted to go.

'I'm as good as Nicky in the woods, maybe better,' Dev said.

'I won't give you better in the woods,' Nicky said, 'but you're better at being charming with the police.'

'You can be charming when you want to be,' I said.

Nicky smiled down at me, and it made his face into something younger, though he wasn't that old, maybe just less cynical. 'I can pretend with the cops, but Dev is more like Micah. He's got better people skills.'

'You're better in the gym,' I said.

'We're all better in the gym,' Bram said.

'Hey,' Dev said, but smiled when he said it.

He just shrugged, but there was no more debate. The men had just agreed that Nicky and Ares would go with Nathaniel and me. We were winning, so I kept my mouth shut and made a list of questions to ask later.

'We'll need a couple of things before we head out,' I said.

'More weapons,' Nicky, Bram, and Ares said at the same time.

I actually blushed a little. 'I thought that went without saying.' I turned to Al. 'Where can we buy the biggest dog collar you can find, and a good leash?'

'Why do you need it? Is he dangerous off leash in cat form?'

'No, but we're about to go into the woods with a bunch of spooked and tired armed men. Off leash he's a big, black, predatory cat; I don't want anyone shooting Nathaniel by accident. With me holding his leash they'll adjust to the idea that he's helping with the search and rescue like a dog.'

'We don't need to buy a collar or a leash,' Nathaniel said.

'I think Anita is right,' Al said. 'You on a leash will help everyone adjust to you helping out.'

'It's not that,' Nathaniel said.

'You brought yours,' I said.

He nodded, managing to look both happy and shy about it. Asher and I had bought it for him. Asher, who had been Jean-Claude's second-in-command, his temoin, which was the word for a second in an old French-style duel. Asher of the golden hair and the angelic face and the devil's own temper. Asher had been Nathaniel's dominant and my top when we played bondage games, but that was before Asher was exiled to another city for behaving like a spoiled, insanely jealous centuries-old master vampire. The collar had been mostly Asher's idea, but Nathaniel loved wearing it. He said it made him feel safe and loved. Me, a collar and leash would just piss me off, but what makes your lovers feel loved doesn't always have to make sense to you, only to them. Some women feel loved if you do the dishes without being reminded; some men feel loved if you'll play a video game with them, others if you buy them a collar and a nice leash and occasionally lead them around by it.

Micah smiled and shook his head. 'I'm not sure I'm going to feel up to helping you use it.'

Nathaniel gave him a solemn face, touching his arm. 'I know that, Micah. It makes me feel better to have it with me, that's all.'

Micah smiled and looked a little puzzled. I think Micah understood Nathaniel's enjoyment of the collar and leash even less than I did; at least I liked to be topped in the bedroom, and he didn't. He let Jean-Claude take blood from him, and to donate blood you had to be willing to submit. I actually found the two of them together incredibly erotic and proved it more than once, but I'd never asked Micah how he felt about the submission. It hadn't occurred me to ask until this moment. Of course, this was probably not the time to ask; uh, no.

'Is it in the bags in the SUV or the ones back at the hotel?' I asked.

'Which bag was it in?' Ares asked.

'If I say the small black one, will that help?' He smiled when he said it.

Ares shook his head, smiling, too. 'No.'

'Let's check the back, and if it's not there we'll hit the hotel,' Nicky said.

We all agreed it sounded like a plan, but that meant we had to leave Micah at the hospital. It seemed wrong to leave him behind to deal with his dad and everything. He touched my face. 'It's okay, Anita. I've got this.'

I hugged him, putting our faces close together and our bodies closer, so that we fit against each other like puzzle pieces. I breathed in the closeness of him, let my body sink against his, and felt him do the same. We held each other, and I said, 'I love you.'

'I love you more,' he said back.

Nathaniel came up beside us, wrapping his arms around both of us, so that we all leaned into one another. 'I love you most.' We opened our arms and drew him in to us, so that the three of us fit together and held one another for a moment.

It was Micah who moved away first. 'Go, I'll be all right.'

We each had one of his hands in ours. I nodded and let go of him. Nathaniel held on a moment longer.

'Be careful,' Micah said. He turned to Nicky. 'All of you,' and he gave the guy handshake that turned into a one-armed hug. 'Bring them back to me.'

Nicky smiled and said, 'Always.'

'It's okay,' Ares said. 'We can just shake.'

Micah smiled and shook his hand.

Dev stepped up to me and said, 'I want a hug.'

I smiled and shook my head at him, but I hugged him. I started to pull away, and he put his hand along my face, cupping the edge of my face in his hand. It made me look up at him. The look in his blue-brown eyes was way too serious for our Devil. I might have asked what was up, but he smiled and said, 'Go. I'll be charming to the local cops, since Bram sucks at that.'

Bram said, 'I'm good at my job, that's all the charm I need.'

Dev went back to joking with Bram in that guy way that is affectionate and also hides whatever else they're feeling. What had that serious look been about? If I'd dropped my shields enough I could have known what Dev was feeling and maybe what he was thinking. I could know what the look had meant, but first that was like peeking at someone's diary without permission, and second once I lowered my shields that much, it could open me up to all the men I was metaphysically tied to, and sometimes it was harder to put the shields back in place lately. We had civilians lost out there in the dark; they had to be priorities, or that was what I told myself as I followed Deputy Al through the doorway and into the hall beyond. Nathaniel slipped his hand into my left hand, leaving my gun hand free. Nicky and Ares trailed behind.