Page 27

Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:54:00

The body lay in a grove of aspens so that the bare white trunks rose around the dead man like ghostly sentinels. It was a pretty place to leave the body; sadly, what they'd done to the body wasn't pretty at all. It was one of those crime scenes where the eyes don't want to make sense of it at first. If you look away and don't look back, then your brain will protect you. It will keep you from seeing the true horror of it, but it was my job to look, my job not to look away, my job ... I gazed down at what was left of one of the missing men. I'd never known either of them so I had no idea which it was, only that it was one body, not two. I tried to believe that meant that one of the missing was still alive, but looking down at the remains it was really hard to be hopeful.

From the build and size of the body it was male. The clothes were disarranged as if someone had redressed him after he was dead, or because they'd only moved the clothes enough to get to his flesh. Either way, zombies didn't do that. Ghouls didn't do that. Wereanimals could do it, but why? They could just eat the evidence. Vampires could redress a corpse, but again, why? Also, hunks of flesh had been bitten off of the body. Vampires didn't eat flesh; they couldn't digest it. People could have done it, but even when you had humans who bit flesh off bodies, it would be a few bites. I counted at least ten bite marks. I couldn't be certain, but it looked like at least two distinct bite marks, so two different monsters. Was it the two that had attacked the people in the morgue? The worst was the face; it wasn't there anymore. I'd need to look closer to be sure, but it looked like they'd bitten off everything that made a face a face. Disfiguring didn't begin to cover what they'd done to him. The techs would be here with floodlights soon, so I'd been told. We'd have enough light that we wouldn't be able to unsee anything.

I'd made Nicky take Nathaniel to sit where he couldn't see it, though I wasn't willing for him to be far enough away from me for the smell not to reach him. For all I knew it told him more things than my eyes told me. I'd compare notes later when he could talk again. Right now, I just didn't want my boyfriend to see the really bad stuff I had to see on the job. Nicky had agreed only if Ares stayed beside me. I didn't argue. Ares was a combat veteran; either he'd seen as bad, or worse, or he'd take it and not bitch. Make all the jokes you want about the Marines, but they won't pussy out. I like that in a person.

He stood at my left, because Deputy Al was to my right. Ares and he were the same height, but where Al looked like he'd been stretched too thin for his body, Ares wore it well. He was thin-framed, too, but he'd put on enough muscle so that he just looked tall, lithe, and strong. His brown eyes had gone empty. I would have said he was wearing his cop face, but he'd never been a cop. Was there a Marine face?

A lot of the police and rangers had taken any job that would keep them at the periphery of the crime scene and farther from the body. There'd damn near been a stampede to go back and tell their respective branches and see if there were other duties that needed them. I didn't blame them, but I kept track of who couldn't take it, a little mental list of tough enough, or not.

'Oh, my God,' one of the younger police officers said in a breathy voice.

I glanced at him. Al put his flashlight on his face. 'You okay, Bush?'

I said, 'Go over there,' and pointed.

He looked at me, his eyes bulging a little, throat convulsing. I grabbed him and turned him the other way. 'Don't you fucking throw up on my crime scene! Go!'

He stumbled toward the dark edge of the trees but started throwing up before he made it.

'How did you know?' Al asked.

'I see a lot of bad stuff,' I said.

Someone else started throwing up on the other side of the clearing. Crap. The sharp smell of vomit joined with the smell of drying blood. The body had been fresh enough that it hadn't really smelled that bad. We had two more officers throw up in the woods.

I heard Al swallow convulsively.

He nodded, but I watched him struggle. There was something about other people throwing up that can bring it on. Once I'd have been puking my guts up, too, but that had been years ago. I didn't throw up at crime scenes anymore.

Horton came up on the other side of Al. 'Your crime scene?' he said.

'You've got preternatural shit killing people and I'm from the preternatural crimes branch.'

'We didn't invite the Feds in,' Horton said.

'No,' I said, 'you didn't.' I was suddenly tired.

'I think it's our crime scene until we say otherwise.'

'Fine, knock yourself out.'

He frowned at me. 'You know, you are not the hardass that some of the other staties said.'

'I'd rather get back to Micah and see how his dad is doing than stand here and have a pissing contest over the body.'

'Yeah, sorry again about Sheriff Callahan.'

Travers yelled at me across the clearing. 'You're supposed to be some hotshot expert. What killed Crawford, and where the fuck is Little Henry?'

I looked at the big man where he stood in the near dark, hands in fists at his side. He was trying to be enraged, but there was a flinching around his eyes that said the anger might be hiding other emotions. I remembered him saying that he and the son were friends. He had to be looking at the mess on the ground and thinking about that being done to his friend.

I said softly to Al and Horton, 'Could this be your missing hiker?'

'He wasn't this tall,' Al said.

'Okay, how do we know which Crawford this is?'

'Little Henry has shoulder-length hair. His dad is almost bald.'

We all looked down at the corpse. Even through the blood it was obvious that the head was almost bald. 'Okay, this is Henry senior then.'

'Looks that way,' Horton said.

'Why did they eat his face?' Al asked, and it was the kind of question that senior police officers don't ask, because it's a rookie question; there is no why to the atrocities that the bad guys do. There may be motive, pathology, but it's not really a why, because the only real answer is always the same. Why did the bad guy do the really bad thing to this victim? Because he, they, it, could. That's the real and only true answer; all the rest is just lawyer and profiler talk.

'One of the corpses in the morgue had its face attacked,' I said.

'That was one bite. This is ... this is not just one bite.' Al had asked a question that most cops stop asking by his age, but the understatement, that was all cop.

'No, it's not,' I said.

'I haven't seen all the bodies in the morgue,' Horton said.

I saw Travers moving this way out of the corner of my eye. Ares moved a little ahead of me, so the taller man would have to come through him. 'No, Ares,' I said.

He glanced at me, eyebrows raised. 'He's five inches taller than me and outweighs me by at least fifty pounds.'

'Yeah, and twenty of that fifty isn't muscle,' I said.

'But thirty of it is,' he said.

'Doesn't matter, you only get to protect me from bad guys, not other cops.'

He looked like he wanted to argue, but he stepped to one side and let me meet Travers on my own. 'Come on, hotshot, dazzle us.' He was half-shouting, but his voice was thick with unshed tears. He hadn't even let his eyes shine with them yet, but I could hear them in his voice. He was fighting so hard not to cry, and anger could help you do that. It had been my coping method of choice for years.

'He wasn't killed here,' I said, voice calm.

'Yeah, there's not enough blood. This is their dump site. Tell me something I don't know.'

'Is Little Henry as big as his dad?'

'Yeah, it's one of the reasons we were friends, because we were both big guys. We were either going to hate each other or be friends. We were friends.'

'Al said that they called out, said they'd found something, and then nothing.'

'Yeah, I was there; why are you telling me shit I already know!' He yelled it at me. I just let the rage wash over me. This was the father of his good friend, who was still missing. I'd cut him slack.

'Did you hear fighting, shouts, cry for help?'

He shook his head. 'No, nothing.'

'Were they trained fighters?'

'Henry was a recon Marine and he worked out at the gym. He was the one who taught Little Henry and me to box. Little Henry was special forces.'

'Two big men - six-five.'

'Little Henry was taller - six-seven.'

'Okay, two very big guys, both trained to fight. There's no person, or zombie, that I know of that could take them both out so quick that neither had time to shout for help or shout a warning.'

Travers seemed to think about it. 'No, they wouldn't go quiet. They'd both fight. Little Henry was different when he got out of the military. He never talked about it, but something bad happened and he didn't like people so much. I think that's why he went into business with his dad. Fewer people and a lot of time out here; they both loved being out in the woods, on the mountain.' I wondered if he realized he'd used past tense for his friend; probably not.

'Then why did they go with the monsters?' I asked.

'I don't know!' He yelled it at me and came close enough to loom over me. At six-five to my five-three he loomed good, but I'd been the smallest kid in class all my life; I was used to being loomed over.

I did have my hands loose to my sides and had put one foot ahead of the other. It wasn't enough of a stance to give Travers a reason to up the violence, but I was ready to move if I had to. He was a cop, but he was also a big guy, and he was processing the loss of the man on the ground and his missing friend. Grief fucks with you; it makes you do things you wouldn't normally do, like take a swing at a coworker.

Horton stepped up. 'Officer Travers, let's take a walk.'

'No, Blake is supposed to be the monster expert. She hasn't told us anything. She's asked questions, fucking questions, and Henry's lying there ... like that.' He turned away and started walking so we wouldn't see the tears.

Horton started to follow him, but Al said, 'Let him go.' Horton looked like he'd argue and go after him, but in the end he let the older man's advice stand.

Ares asked, 'How did you know he wouldn't take a swing at you?'

Ares raised eyebrows at me again and gave me the look the comment deserved. 'You know, it's hard to protect you if you order me off every time large, angry men start getting up in your face.'

'This is the first time I've done that.'

'To me, but I've heard stories from the other guards who do your detail more.'

'Yeah, I'm a pain in the ass.'

'No, well, yes.' He smiled, shook his head, frowned. 'Anyway, you are a bad mark.'

'This has to be our killer zombies,' Al said.

'Because if it's not the zombies that hurt the sheriff we've got a whole new problem, and I just can't believe we have two different kinds of flesh-eating monsters up here. It's an isolated area. Don't you need a population to turn into your monsters?'

'If they started out human, yes.'

'Are you saying that something nonhuman, as in never been human, did this?'

'Then what are you saying?'

'I'm saying that I don't know what did this. If it's a zombie it's like nothing I've ever seen. The only flesh eater I ever personally took out ate bodies almost completely, much messier and more complete eating than this, more like shapeshifter kills. This looks almost human.'

'You mean a person did this?' Horton asked.

I shrugged. 'I mean people.'

'People did not do this, only monsters could do this,' Al said.

'You know that human rapists and serial killers bite chunks out of people sometimes.'

'Yes, a bite mark, maybe two, but not like this.'

'Some serial killers take enough to cook later,' I said.

'Yes, but not one bite at a time. When they cook their victims' flesh they butcher the meat off the body.'

'You've done your research, so you know that human beings do horrible shit to each other all the time.'

'I'm not saying people couldn't do this; I'm saying I don't think they did.'

'Why, because you don't want it to be people?'

'No, because human beings couldn't make the Crawfords leave the search for the hikers and go off with them. It has to be something supernatural to have taken them totally quietly and so fast. There were members of the search party who were only yards away from them, Marshal. I don't believe that human beings could have done that.'

I nodded. 'Zombies are just walking corpses, Deputy. They have no special abilities other than being harder to kill, and some flesh eaters are super-fast, and they're all stronger than human-normal.'

'Why is that?' Horton asked.

'Why are all the human undead stronger than living humans? I mean, they start out as us; why does being undead make them stronger than we are?'

It was an excellent question. 'Great question, wish I had a great answer, but I honestly don't know. They just all are.'

'I don't mean to complain, but you are supposed to be the expert and so far I'm not hearing a lot of expertise.'

'The attack isn't like anything I've seen. It's not even like the bodies in the morgue, except for the bite marks, but even there it's not the same. Those bodies had one bite apiece. They both died of an infection, a weird infection, but still that's what killed them. Henry Crawford didn't die of a disease, not even a supernatural one. I can tell you it wasn't shapeshifters because the bite marks aren't animal teeth; they look human. A flesh-eating zombie could take chunks, but they eat the body, too. I'm seeing at least two different bite radiuses, and that's without getting down close to the bites. Flesh-eating zombies are solitary. They don't work together.'

'Don't ghouls run in packs?' Horton asked.

I nodded. 'Yeah, but they are tied to the cemetery that contains their graves. It's very rare for them to be able to go outside those boundaries and usually requires some sort of necromancy, or spell, something.'

'But if ghouls could travel out this far, could they do this?' Al asked it.

I looked back at the body and thought about it. 'They could, but again, they usually eat the body. It's food for them just like for the flesh eater. This wasn't done for food.'

'How do you know that?' Al asked.

'Because they didn't eat enough of him.'

'What if they ate the other Henry and just tortured Henry senior?' Horton asked.

I thought about it and finally said, 'Ghouls have no gaze or mind control of any kind. How did they kidnap or lure away the two men without giving them time to call out?'

'Vampires have mind control,' Horton said.

'Yes, but they don't eat flesh. At a glance I don't see fangs, just human teeth marks, or humanlike teeth.'

'What has humanlike teeth and could do this?'

I sighed, and it was too deep a breath. I could smell that the body was already beginning to smell bad, like meat that's gone past its expiration date. I shouldn't have been able to smell it that strongly yet. Had my bonding with Nathaniel's leopard given me better sensitivity to smells? I sort of hoped not, because I wasn't sure it would be an asset in my job.

'There are a lot of things that are more folklore-based that have humanlike teeth and attack people,' Horton suggested.

'Like what?' Al asked.

I shook my head. 'Honestly, this doesn't remind me of anything in myth or folklore. If I think of something that would kill like this I'll share, but nothing springs to mind. I'm sorry, I really am, and I'm not used to coming up this empty.'

'You helped us find Henry, that's something,' Al said.

Horton agreed. He looked past me and said, 'Your other men are coming this way. Maybe it's time for you to go check on Mike and his family?'

Nicky was coming this way with Nathaniel gliding at his side, the leash almost dragging the ground between them. Ares said, 'I motioned Nicky over, Anita.'

'Because I think I see tracks, but if I'm concentrating on reading the ground I can't guard you.'

'There are tracks all over here,' Horton said.

'It's a popular camping and hiking area,' Al added.

'Barefoot hiking?' Ares asked.

The two men looked at each other.

Nicky and Nathaniel had caught up with us. Ares explained what he was doing and Nicky went on alert, watching out into the darkened woods. Ares knelt down, resting on the balls of his feet, staring intently at the ground near us. He pulled a flashlight from one of the pockets on his vest. He shone it on the ground and began to work his way to the edge of the woods on the far left side of the clearing, if you were facing away from the body. He walked slowly, going to the crowd periodically as he moved back toward us.

'The barefoot print is paired with one that looks like boots. The impression is heavier coming into the clearing and lighter going out.'

'You think they carried his body in,' I said.

'Can you track them back?' Horton asked.

'The prints are less clear in the trees. There's more dirt here. I can tell you the direction they came and went, but it's going to be almost impossible on this surface in the dark. And if the other Crawford is alive now, he may not be by dawn.'

'If you have a suggestion, now's the time to say it, Ares,' I said.

'Nathaniel might be able to pick up the scent of one of the people who carried the body in. If he can trace them back that way, then I may be able to help track, too.'

'I don't want Nathaniel to get up close with the body.'

'Why, so he won't get spooked?'

I gave a small shrug.

The leopard gave a low, coughing sound.

I looked at him, and those pale eyes met mine, so serious, and though I knew the mind inside there wasn't exactly human, the look in the eyes was not a cat's look. There was too much intelligence, too much ... personality.

'What do you want to do?' I asked.

His answer was to pad toward the body, delicately, as if he were afraid to smear the evidence. He crouched close to the body and snarled. He rose up and looked ... puzzled, as if he didn't understand what he was scenting.

'What's wrong, Nathaniel?'

He looked at me mutely. I could have dropped shields and felt more of what he was feeling, but after last time I wasn't sure it was a good idea.

'Are you going to ask him if Timmy is down the well?' Horton asked.

'It's just you don't seem to be able to understand him much better than I can.'

'I understood him fine earlier, but the psychic contact was too intense; that's why we ran ahead like we did. I need more control than that.'

'If you can track this monster back to its lair, then we need you to stay close to us,' Al said. 'No racing ahead, okay?'

'I don't know what did this, but I do know that I don't want to take Nathaniel into the middle of it without as much police backup as I can get.'

Al smiled. 'Fair enough. Just don't get carried away with all the psychic stuff again.'

'I'll do my best,' I said. I turned to Nathaniel. 'Do you have the scent?'

His answer was to walk away from Nicky and me to stand in front of Ares. He gazed up at the tall, blond man. I knew they had no psychic connection, but Ares seemed to understand, because he said, 'He wants me to take his leash so we can track together.'

'You with your eyes and him with his nose,' I said.

I sighed and went to Nicky. I took the leash from him and then I knelt in front of the big leopard. I held his face between my hands and gave serious eye contact, trying to 'see' Nathaniel in there.

'I love you,' I whispered.

He purred and rubbed along the side of my face so hard it almost tipped me over. I threw my arms around his furred neck and hugged him, then pulled away and said, 'Be careful.'

He rubbed into my shoulder and wound himself around my kneeling body in an almost perfect circle, purring the whole time. I think it was leopard for I'll be careful, you be careful, too, and I love you, or maybe he was just scent-marking me. Calling 'mine' so that all the other wereanimals would know, or maybe it was all the above?

I gave the leash to Ares.

'Thank you for trusting me.'

'I trust you both,' I said.

He smiled and then turned around to lead Nathaniel to the edge of the clearing where he had lost the tracks. Nathaniel crouched, sniffing the ground, pulling his lips back so he could 'taste' the smell, too. Nicky put his hand on my shoulder. 'Nathaniel can do this, Anita.'

I nodded, because I didn't trust my voice.

Nathaniel snarled again and then moved purposefully into the trees. 'I think he's got it,' I said. I moved forward with Nicky at my side. Al and Horton followed us, and most of the other police. They'd leave only enough people behind to secure the crime scene; the rest would go with us hoping to have a Crawford to rescue instead of bury.

I prayed that we'd get there in time and that Nathaniel didn't get hurt. Ares, Nicky, and I took our chances with our jobs. Nathaniel stripped for a living. The worst danger he routinely faced was overzealous fans trying to rip his G-string on stage or stalk him off stage. Helping us hunt the things that had eaten Henry Crawford's face off was so not in my sweetie's job description.