On the Prowl Inhuman Chapter 4

It was still dark when Nathan woke to three bars from the William Tell Overture. He rolled into a sitting position, reached for his jeans, and pulled his cell phone out of the pocket.

Six-oh-five, he noted. And the call was from dispatch. "Hunter."

The phone had woken Kai, too. She drifted out to stand in the doorway to her bedroom while he listened, acknowledged his instructions, then disconnected. He stepped into his jeans, which were clammy and damp still. She didn't ask any questions, but they hung, suspended, in her eyes.

"There's been another killing," he told her, running a hand over his chin. Bristles. He'd have to shave. "The body appears to have been exsanguinated, like the others. It's about three miles from here, just off County Road 60."

Her eyes widened. "But that  -  that's our road. Nathan, who was it?"

"I don't have an ID." She'd had friends over last night. Gifted friends. She'd worry that the victim was one of them, and with reason. Last night's party and the proximity of the body might not be coincidence. "All I know is that the victim was male."

"Pete... Pete was with Meagan. They wouldn't have gone that way. Neither would Ryan, but Mark  -  he and Andrew live in Odessa. They might have taken 60. It runs into 1788, which would bring them back to 191, so  -  but you know all that." She scrubbed both hands over her face as if trying to rub sense in, sleep out. She dropped her hands. "I'm babbling. You know all those roads."

He could see the fear swimming in her eyes, could all but feel the cold breath of it on her neck. Impulsively he reached out, took her arms. She was warm beneath the flannel. He didn't want to let go. "I don't know when the killing took place. The body could have been there awhile. I don't know yet."

She nodded, mute in her fear.

"I'll call. As soon as I'm able and have an ID, I'll call."

"That's right  -  you'll be investigating, won't you? That's outside city limits."

"Yes." The sheriff's office would handle this one. He'd be able to hunt openly. Eagerness burned in him, a cold fire since he lacked a target. But not, he hoped, for much longer.

Reluctantly he released her. He seldom touched her, as touch made things harder for both of them, but he couldn't regret it this time. He paused at the door. "We don't know that the killer only strikes at night. Be careful."

She shoved her hair back. "You, too."

"I'm not in the kind of danger you are."

"You may not be Gifted, but you... whatever you are, you're of the Blood. It might want your blood, too."

He couldn't argue with her logic. "Of the Blood" meant one of the inherently magical races, and he surely fit that description. Whatever was drinking blood seemed to be after the punch of magic some carried in their blood. His would do very well for that. Better, probably, than any other in this world.

He nodded. "Maybe it will. That would simplify things."

A flash of temper lit her eyes. "Of all the stupid, macho bullshit  -  "

"I'm not being... macho." He'd been about to say "vainglorious," but the newer word suited. "It's unlikely the killer could damage me seriously." And it  -  or he, or she  -  couldn't kill Nathan. If something powerful enough to do that had crossed, he would have known.

Anger still flew flags in her cheeks. "Define 'seriously.' Oh, never mind." She waved at the door. "You have to go. I know that. But I'm going to ask, Nathan. I thought I wouldn't need to, but I do."

Emotion washed through him, tightening his chest. Words, never his strength, failed him entirely. He nodded at her, acknowledging that she would ask him what he was without having any idea how he would answer. And he left.

Nine minutes later, Nathan started his vehicle. His apartment was directly below Kai's; he'd run down and emptied his bladder, washed quickly, and pulled on a clean uniform. As he pulled out of his parking spot he took his cordless razor from the glove compartment.

For the ten thousandth time he wondered why his queen hadn't arranged things differently. She seldom overlooked a detail, but he could see no advantage to the erratic way his beard and hair grew. Sometimes he went a week without shaving. Sometimes he had to shave three times in one day.

Of course, men had mostly worn beards back when she'd sent him here. Perhaps she'd simply failed to anticipate fashion.

Haircuts were more trouble than shaving, given the need to catch every hair that fell, but less frequent. Kai had cut his hair last time he needed a trim.

Once more feeling sluiced through him, rich as wine and more baffling.

What would he tell her? How much would he be able to say?

Dawn was the vaguest of promises in the sky behind him and the county road taking him west was empty of traffic. Nathan turned on the flashing light but left the siren off. He hated the stupid thing. He kept his speed to a reasonable seventy, wanting to finish shaving before he arrived.

He managed that, barely. The flashing red light on top of a sheriff's department car disturbed the darkness just ahead when he cupped the head of the razor in one hand.

There were very few in this realm who would be able to make use of his hair, particularly such tiny scraps of it. And none, he believed, who knew what he was. But he wasn't one to take chances. With a wisp of intention he crisped the bits of hair caught in the razor.

Seconds later, he pulled up behind the other official car. It was the only vehicle in sight. He reached for his jacket from habit rather than necessity and climbed out.

The patroller had left his headlights on with the car parked at an angle to illuminate what lay in the trampled grass beside the road's shoulder. The air smelled of car exhaust, wet dirt, and humans  -  and, very faintly, of something else. An alien scent that raised the small hairs on the back of his neck.

He looked around, tested the air. Already that whiff of otherness was fading. Whatever it was, he decided, it was gone now.

The patroller was surprised to see him, but swallowed it. "Sergeant Hunter."

Technically, Nathan handled the day shift personnel, and didn't come on shift for another forty minutes. This pup was on the night shift, so Nathan didn't know him well. He had caught a few comments not intended for his ears, however. Raines, like several others, suspected that Nathan was lupus, just as Kai had. And he didn't approve.

Nathan gave him his name for greeting, then asked, "Who found him?"

"Fellow named Jeffrey Bates. Lives over yonder." The patroller nodded at a small cluster of houses set back from the road about half a mile. "Says he likes to run early, before traffic's a problem. He's in my car."

"How long since Bates found him?"

"Maybe fifteen minutes. He had a cell phone with him. I was over on 1788, so I responded quickly."

"You touch anything?"

"No, sir. Uh... I held a mirror in front of the victim's mouth, checking to see if he was breathing. Just to be sure, you know?"

Nathan nodded. He'd suspected those were Raines's footprints next to the body; they were clear, obviously left after the rain had stopped.

Checking for life would have been instinctive for the young patroller, but Nathan knew the look and smell of death. Even without touching the corpse he could estimate how long this one had been dead: no more than six hours, no less than four.

He moved closer without stepping into the muddy, trampled grass directly around the body. Off in the distance he heard the wail of an ambulance. Wouldn't be long before company arrived, and there were things he preferred to do unobserved. He crouched for a closer inspection.

The body lay on its back, one arm flung wide, the other at its side. No noticeable rigor yet, but it had been a cold night. He'd been young... well, they all seemed young to Nathan, but this boy had been in his early twenties. African American, though the blood loss left his skin an odd, ashy color. He wore jeans, a T-shirt, and a denim jacket, all of them soaked through from last night's rain. Tony Lama boots, Nathan noted. Pricey and fairly new.

The jeans had been pulled down. His penis, flaccid and bloodless, hung out of the opening in his shorts. Two visible wounds: one in his neck, another near the groin, over the femoral artery. The wounds were unnaturally neat, with no blood or tearing  -  a circle of punctures about the size of a human mouth opened wide, but nothing a human mouth could make.

He'd seen something like them once. Another time, another place... when? Where?

Memory didn't return an immediate answer, so he focused on what he saw now. No blood  -  not in the corpse, not around it. Maybe the killer was exceptionally tidy. Or maybe it had killed and drained this boy somewhere else.

Nathan looked at the arms and hands again. No defensive wounds. He checked the ground around the victim another time. "You pass any parked cars on the way here?"

"I  -  Yeah, I did. Why?"

"How far away?"

"What does it matter?" Raines's sandy mustache didn't hide the thrust of his lower lip, which made him look like a sulky two-year-old.

Nathan's head came up. He didn't say anything. Just looked at the boy.

"Sorry, sir. I... uh, there's a Mustang parked a couple miles west of here, near the turnoff."

"Run the plates. It's probably his."

Raines stood as stiff as the corpse would be soon. "Yes, sir. I'll have to go back there. I didn't memorize the plates."

"Do it." Nathan looked back at the body, not minded to explain his reasoning, but added, "The sheriff will be here soon. Be nice if we could give him a possible ID without disturbing the scene, wouldn't it?"

"Yes, sir."

As soon as the other car pulled away, Nathan stretched out a hand and touched the skin near the wound on the neck, confirming his guess about the time of death. He concentrated briefly, then brought his hand back to his nose, sniffed  -  and froze, his eyes widening in surprise. Not at what he smelled. At what he didn't.

Surprise unlocked memory. Time, place, and cause tumbled out, making his stomach tighten. Now he knew when he'd seen bite marks like that and what had made them. "Well, shit."

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