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Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:54:11

Marshal Hatfield sat in Deputy Marshal Chapman's office on the edge of her chair with the warrant of execution spread on the edge of his desk. She wanted to sign it over to me. There was precedent for it, but for some reason Chapman didn't want her to do it.

Hatfield gazed up at him with hollow eyes. I wondered if she'd slept at all. Her hair was coming loose in strands as her ponytail sagged at the nape of her neck. She'd looked so crisp and together yesterday; now she looked like she needed a hug. I wondered if she had anyone in her life who could give her one.

'I don't understand, sir. It would have been Marshal Blake's warrant in the first place, if she hadn't been shot.'

'The warrant was assigned to you, Hatfield, and we expect you to fulfill it.'

A look of near pain came over her face; lines that hadn't been there before showed sharp and harsh. I'd have put her under thirty, but in that moment I put her over, but it wasn't age it was just stress. It'll mark you up. Sometimes the marks fade and sometimes they don't. Just as smile lines are the mark of every happiness you've ever had, so some lines are the mark of every disappointment carved into your flesh as surely as any scar.

'Technically, sir, Hatfield is a part of the Preternatural Branch of the service just like we are,' Edward said.

'I'm aware of that, Marshal Forrester.'

'Well then, sir, you are aware that we are not in your direct line of command because you're regular service and we're preternatural service.'

Hatfield blinked at Edward, as if she weren't tracking everything, but she'd heard something that seemed important.

'Hatfield was in my direct command for several years, Forrester; she knows her duty.'

'I thought our duty was to execute each warrant in the most efficient way with the least loss of life,' I said.

Chapman frowned at me. 'Of course,' he said.

'Then Blake should take this warrant,' Hatfield said. 'I'll still work with her and Forrester to complete it, but I'd feel more comfortable with her in charge of the overall investigation.'

'You have been a law enforcement officer longer than Blake. You have five years more experience than she does,' Chapman said.

'I do, and there are men on the force who are ex-military and she's never been that either, but none of us have her background in dealing with the undead, sir. I believe that my lack of experience in that area led directly to the five deaths yesterday.'

'You can't blame yourself because Blake and Forrester here didn't share information.'

I pushed away from the wall. 'I was unconscious in the hospital, Chapman. How was I supposed to share information?'

He looked at me, then gave a little nod. 'Perhaps that was unfair; if so, my apologies.'

'I didn't arrive in the state until after Marshal Blake was shot,' said Edward. 'I didn't know the facts of the case until dark the next night; in what way did I conceal information that would have prevented the deaths yesterday?' His voice was quiet, calm, but held enough suppressed anger to set fire to something. I'd never heard Edward sound this angry as Ted.

Chapman shifted on the balls of his feet, hands clasped behind his back like an echo of being at ease in the military. His gray hair was cut high and tight. I'd have said Marines, but it felt more like Army. Marines fucked about a little less and were less likely to rise as high in rank as Army, due to a certain cussedness that seemed to go with being a nonpracticing Marine. You had Marines who rose to high rank, and you had ex-Army who were as stubborn as a Marine, but it was usually the other way around.

'Sir,' Hatfield said, 'I knew about the rotting vampires in Atlanta. I read the same information that Blake and Forrester did, but I failed to make the logic leap that these vampires might need fire just like the ones in Atlanta did. I'd never seen anything like them, and I thought ... heads blown up, spines damaged, hearts ... I could see through their chests, sir. I thought that was dead enough; I was wrong.'

Hatfield's willingness to fall on the grenade for what had happened made me like her better, and it was even true. She should have erred on the side of caution, and she hadn't, and people were dead because of it, but ... she was letting the guilt tear her up.

'They were missing civilians, Marshal Hatfield. We owed it to their families to identify them before the bodies were burned,' Chapman said.

'Are you saying it's become acceptable practice to not burn vampires once we've taken their heads and hearts?' I asked.

'Outside of special circumstances, it has worked very well. We've closed missing-person cases that were decades old.'

Huh. 'I honestly hadn't thought about that, sir, that some of the vampires that go bad would be filed missing persons from decades and probably cities away.'

'It's given closure to families who had given up on ever hearing news.'

'But you need an intact head for dental records, so only decapitations, not blowing the face away with an AR or shotgun, right?' Edward asked. His voice was a little less hostile, but not much.

Chapman nodded. 'Exactly; many people don't have their fingerprints on file.'

'If you're looking at people missing for decades, then dental records don't always help either,' Edward said. 'It's routine that when a dentist retires, old patient records aren't kept track of if the patient isn't being referred to another dentist.'

'How are you identifying the dead vampires then?' I asked.

'DNA of surviving family members, female in particular.'

'Because the maternal line carries the most direct DNA,' I said.

He nodded. 'Yes, most people don't know that.'

'In my misspent youth I got a BS in biology,' I said.

'I read that in your file. There's been some discussion that your science background is part of what makes you so effective at this job; do you believe that's true?'

I thought about it, then nodded. 'I actually took preternatural biology classes and classes on myth and folklore beasts and beings that exist in the real world, so yeah, it gave me a jump on knowing what I was supposed to be up against.'

'You had no police background, no military, nothing but the biology, and yet new marshals who have come straight from the classroom to the Preternatural Branch aren't doing as well as you did at the beginning of your career.'

'I was trained in raising the dead and hunting vampires by a fellow animator, and by Marshal Forrester here when he was a bounty hunter specializing in monsters.'

'The animator you're referring to is Manuel Rodriguez.'

'He has no background in police or military either.'

'No, sir, he was an old-fashioned vampire hunter. What we call a stake-and-hammer man.'

'That's still standard for morgue executions,' Chapman said.

'Yeah,' I said, and couldn't quite keep my disdain for it out of that one word.

'You disapprove, Marshal?'

'You try putting a stake in someone's heart while they're chained to a gurney and begging you not to kill them, then come tell me how much you liked it.'

'It's supposed to be done during daylight when the vampires are comatose.'

'Yeah, it is, but when I was new to this business I let people bully me into executing as soon as possible; sometimes that meant the vampire was awake. A few executions like that, sir, and I lost my taste for it.'

He nodded again, rocking on the balls of his feet, hands behind his back. I think it was a nervous gesture. Hmm ... why was he nervous? 'I can certainly understand that, Marshal Blake.'

'Good to know,' I said, and studied his careful eyes and face. Either there was more and worse to come, or something else.

Hatfield looked at me from the chair, and her eyes were even wider. 'God, you mean you put a stake through someone who was begging and struggling?'

'I've shot ones that were begging, but that's ...' She turned back to the paper, pen poised.

She looked up at him. 'Why not, sir? Why shouldn't I sign this over to the best person for the job?'

'We've started fielding new preternatural marshals with older, more experienced ones, much as Forrester and Blake did on their own, but, Hatfield, you have the field experience. You're a good marshal, a good cop.'

'I am, sir, but I am not a psychic anything. When they did the mandatory testing in the Marshals Service, I came up as a total blank. Blake has a psychic ability with the dead and with shapeshifters. She has skills with the very creatures we are hunting that I will never have no matter how many more years I have with a badge. I cannot learn Blake's skills with the monsters.'

'Preternatural citizens,' Chapman corrected automatically.

'Whatever you want to call them, but no amount of time behind the badge will give me the skills Blake has naturally. A lot of the SWAT are starting to put psychics on their teams, and police forces across the country are pairing up cops with psychic ability with partners who have none. I believe that the preternatural service should do the same thing. I've spent all night trying to think how I could have done things differently, and the only thing I can come up with is that I needed someone who was psychic to tell me the bodies weren't dead, or warn me that it was a bad decision. With the information and the standard practices as they are, sir, I did my best, but I believe that I did not have all the information I needed to make an informed decision. I will happily work with Blake, and I am eager to see how her psychic abilities change how we do this job.'

'Forrester barely tested on the psychic profiling,' Chapman said. 'How do you explain his success?'

'I don't know, sir, but I know that the psychic testing isn't perfect.'

'You believe that Forrester is more psychic than the testing showed?'

'Or maybe he's spent years fighting monsters, and the rest of us just don't have his wealth of experience, but I know that he listens to Blake even though he started out as her mentor. They work as a team, sir, and I believe that's part of the key. They don't seem to care who gets the credit or rises in rank; they just do their job to the best of their ability, which I believe saves lives.'

She bent over the piece of paper again. He protested, but this time she signed it and handed the pen to me.

'I'm not sure this is the best course of action,' Chapman said.

I had to walk past him to take the pen from Hatfield.

'You aren't the boss of us,' Edward said, 'not even of Hatfield, because she's one of us now.'

I signed my name, then turned and held the pen out to Edward. 'Want to witness it?'

'Sure,' he said, and he had to walk past Chapman, too.

'And the fact that I am not the boss of any of you is precisely the problem. The Preternatural Branch of our service is like a speeding car with no one at the wheel; eventually it's going to crash and then we'll be expected to clean up the mess.'

'If by we, you mean the Marshals Service, don't sweat it; I heard we're about to be spun off into our own bureaucratic entity.'

'If they do that, Blake, you will be what amounts to legal death squads hunting legal citizens in the United States.'

'I didn't say it was a good idea, or even that I agreed with it, but it still looks like it's going to go through,' I said.

'I don't believe it will.'

Edward looked at the other man. 'The problem is that you keep trying to treat this problem like it's a police and civil liberties issue, and it's not.'

'What is it then, Marshal Forrester? You tell me.'

'Have you ever had a nightmare so real that when you wake up in a cold sweat, you look around the room and you feel that rush of relief to know that it wasn't real?'

Chapman shrugged. 'We all have.'

Edward nodded. 'Have you ever felt that rush of relief and then heard a noise that shouldn't have been there, because you're supposed to be alone?'

Chapman just looked at him, controlling his face and giving blank face back. 'I can't say I have.'

'I have. Anita has. We know that the nightmare can be real, and we have the skills, the will, and the tools to fight the nightmares and win.'

'You and Blake are tough motherfuckers, I get that, Forrester.'

Edward shook his head. 'That's not it.'

'Then explain it to me,' he said, and his irritation sounded in his voice.

'The newer marshals think like cops, which means they're trained to preserve life. Blake and I think more like soldiers; our job is to take lives, not save them. In killing the monsters we save lives, but our actual job is to take life. We aren't Officer Friendly coming into the classroom to reassure the kids. We aren't the person with a badge who the nice elderly lady can call for help when her cat's up a tree. We aren't the patrol officer who will give you directions when you're lost. We aren't the state trooper who will stop you when you're drunk so you don't kill anyone else or yourself with your car. We aren't any of those things and neither of us ever has been; we weren't trained for it. All the best executioners come from backgrounds that do not include police work but often include military, or a civilian background where they hunted and killed large game.'

'Blake is not a great white hunter,' Chapman said.

'No, but her dad took her hunting for deer, which was the biggest game they could hunt in her home state.'

He glanced at me. 'That's not in your file.'

'We hunt and kill things. When it comes to a stand-up fight like it did yesterday, we are soldiers first, cops second, because even if we negotiate with the bad guys, they know, and we know, that we are going to kill them. We are assassins with badges. We are death squads, and the fact that Hatfield and all the good police officers in our field don't understand that is why they aren't as good at the job as we are, and Bernardo Spotted-Horse, and Otto Jeffries, or ... All the best of us started out as bounty hunters, or vampire hunters who were supplementing the police.'

'You're admitting that you're just killers with badges,' he said.

Edward nodded. 'Yes.'

'I can't endorse the Marshals Service being a party to that.'

'I know,' Edward said, 'because being a police officer is about preserving life, liberty, and safety.'

'We put the bad guys away, so the innocent aren't hurt,' Chapman said.

'The police are really good at that if the politicians let them do their job, but the monsters are real, Chief Deputy Marshal Chapman. When the government decided that the monsters were too dangerous to put in jail and that executing them was the only way to keep the innocent safe, then it stopped being a job for the police.'

'You have badges; you are the police,' Chapman said.

'We have badges and we are police officers, but you don't really believe that. If you did, you wouldn't have cared that Hatfield was giving the warrant to Anita.'

'It's the lack of control, the lack of checks and balances for you and her,' he said.

'We make you nervous.'

'No, you don't make me nervous.'

I wanted to say Liar, but wisely kept my mouth shut.

Then Chapman looked at us, and finally at Hatfield. 'You're a good marshal, Hatfield; if you want to leave the Preternatural Branch and come back to our side of things I will fully support you. I'll personally see that you don't suffer any ill effects careerwise.'

'Thank you, Chapman, and I may do that, but I feel I have to stay with this case until it's done. I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I didn't.'

'When it's over, you can come back to regular service,' he said.

'Thank you, sir; I think I'd prefer that.'

He turned to Edward and said, 'You and Blake, Spotted-Horse, Jeffries, the rest of you, don't make me nervous, Forrester; you scare me, because you aren't cops, and I don't like people thinking that just because the monster has a badge it ceases to be a monster.'

'Are you calling us monsters, Chapman?' I asked.

'They've let two marshals who tested positive for lycanthropy keep their badges. They're in the field again, but I saw the damage that Blake's shifter friend did to the officers in the chopper. Are you really comfortable letting something like that have a badge?'

'I will hunt down the vampire that made Ares attack us. I will hunt him down and I will kill him.'

'No, sir, because it's my job.'

Chapman shook his head. 'You're right, Forrester; you're death squad soldiers with badges. I suspected that, and it was one of the reasons I was pushing so hard to have people like Hatfield join your branch. I was hoping it would help balance the rest of you, but now I'm afraid that instead of her balancing you, you will corrupt her.'

'I'm a little too old to be corrupted, sir,' Hatfield said.

He looked at her and his eyes were sad. In that moment I knew that Chapman had seen real combat; there's a look that only real violence, real survival, and real survival guilt can give you.

'Until the devil takes your soul, Hatfield, you're never too old to be corrupted.' With that he turned and walked out, leaving the door open behind him.

We gathered up our stuff and went to talk to witnesses, read over the police reports, and hope we found a clue.