On the Prowl Inhuman Chapter 5

Sheriff Randy Browning reminded Nathan of a mastiff. He had the heavy frame, the droopy eyes, and the temperament. Patient and unflappable, he was a guardian by nature as well as profession. He didn't like magic, didn't trust it, but he was a practical man. He'd use whatever was necessary to protect his people.

Nathan respected that. He respected the man, too  -  enough to work with him and allow Browning to consider himself in charge. In some things, he was.

"You want to tell me why you expected Shaw's car to be nearby?" Browning asked.

Jimmy Shaw, age twenty-five. He'd had a DUI six years ago, a couple of speeding tickets since, but was otherwise clean. The address on record was on the west side in a decent, working-class neighborhood that was mostly white and Mexican with a sprinkling of darker faces. He'd bought his 2003 Mustang new, and his body was being loaded into the ambulance now.

Kai didn't know Jimmie Shaw. Nathan had checked.

Nathan's relief about that made it easier to be amused by Browning now. The sheriff was hoping Nathan wouldn't tell him anything too weird. "Tire tracks," he said, nodding at the imprints in the shoulder he'd noticed immediately. They were blurred  -  made after storm muddied the ground, but before the rain ended.

"I know about the damned tire tracks. Someone pulled up, dumped the body, and drove away. What made you think the car was nearby? It would have made more sense for the killer to keep going."

"It probably doesn't know how to drive."

A muscle in Browning's jaw twitched. "It."

"It may look human, but it isn't."

Browning gave Nathan a disgusted look. The man wasn't happy about the new shape reality had taken since the Turning. Nathan didn't blame him. The sheriff had spent a lifetime learning how to preserve order under the old rules. It would take time to learn new ones, and while he and others figured out what worked and what didn't, some of those in their charge would be harmed.

But he was basically a fair man. Lips tight, he checked out the busy scene around them, then jerked his head at the road. "We'll take a little walk."

The sky was dull steel overhead with threads of rose and saffron in the east, where a hard ball of sun worked to warm the day. Nathan fell into step beside the other man.

Once they were out of earshot the sheriff spoke gruffly. "All right. Why do you think the killer isn't human?"

"It doesn't smell human."

"I'm not going to the DA with that. I'm sure as hell not telling Chief Roberts the killer doesn't smell right."

"No," Nathan agreed. He had other reasons for thinking the killer nonhuman, but Browning wouldn't want to hear them. Which was just as well. Nathan didn't intend to offer them.

This hunt was his, not the sheriff's. If he was right about the nature of this killer, sending humans after it would just result in dead humans. "The bite marks will provide physical evidence, though. You must have noticed. They're punctures, the sort made by sharp canines. Human teeth don't puncture the flesh that way."

Browning had his jaw clenched so tight Nathan could almost hear the teeth grinding. "It'll be a goddamn circus when that gets out. A goddamn circus."

"You going to notify MCD?"

"Damned well have to, don't I? When the autopsy report comes in, anyway."

In the wake of the Turning, Congress had passed a law making it mandatory for local jurisdictions to inform the FBI's Magical Crimes Division of suspected supernatural crimes or attacks. Not that MCD had the personnel to follow up on every report; there was a long waiting list for trained supernatural investigators. But so far, the police chief had resisted notifying them at all, claiming he was waiting for solid evidence a supernatural agent was involved.

Idiot. But a lot of humans swung between denial and hysteria these days, and Chief Roberts was highly territorial.

Browning chewed on his own teeth for a few more paces, then heaved a sigh. "Guess we've been lucky till now. We didn't have a lot of the weird-ass nasties come through in December the way some places did."

Nathan nodded agreeably, though the lack of nasties troubling Midland had little to do with luck. He'd hunted twice since the Turning. The first hunt had mostly been to create a climate for negotiation. Unlike their larger cousins, river trolls weren't entirely unreasonable once you got their attention, and this was a poor spot for them. No flowing water.

The other had been a hunt in truth. You don't negotiate with a ghoul.

"You think this whatever-it-is can't drive?" Browning asked. "Most nonhumans do."

"Lupi do, certainly. Brownies don't, but gnomes can... or so I've heard," Nathan added with a polite disregard for truth. "But as you said, this creature isn't native to Earth. It came through with the power wind. It wouldn't know how to drive."

"You think it's smart enough to learn?"

Now Nathan frowned. His picture was mixed. "Might be best to think of it as smart, but not in a predictable way."

"Clever enough to fool people into thinking it's human, though. Shaw engaged in sex with it. Her. Him. Whatever."

"Or the preliminaries to sex. Yes."

"So it looks human."

"Or can." This wouldn't be an easy hunt. The burn in his blood approved of that.

"Illusion? Do you... crap." Browning stopped moving to scowl at the plain sedan cruising toward them. "Should've known he'd turn up. You'd better go. We've got Shaw's place of employment  -  the Exxon station at Midkiff and Wadley. Talk to them, see what you can find out."

"The family?"

"That's my job."

The sedan was slowing. Nathan watched the driver, not the car. Slim and dapper, with a round face that looked like he buffed it after shaving, Eldon Knox was the detective in charge of the city's investigation. He was clever, ambitious, and bigoted, and he hated Nathan.

"Knox is my enemy," Nathan agreed. "But not an important enemy. He won't provoke me."

Browning gave him a look. "Yeah, it's that attitude that makes him love you so much. Fun as it is to see the chief's favorite lapdog froth at the mouth when he gets around you, I'll deal with him better if you're gone. Go on. Clear out."

"Yes, sir." He turned to go.

The detective's car stopped and he climbed out. His door thunked closed. "Hunter!"

Nathan ignored him. Browning could handle the man. When he got in his car he was thinking about enemies, prey, and Kai.

His immediate task was to interview Shaw's employer and coworkers. He didn't expect to learn much; at most he might find out if Shaw was known to be Gifted. That was the way of investigations. Most of what you learned wasn't useful.

But his gut had a different priority.

He'd do both, he decided. It wouldn't take long to swing by the apartments, and Kai wouldn't have a client this early. She'd be home.

Minutes later, he parked and ran lightly up the outside stairs. His shoulder barely twinged. He'd tell her that. She'd be glad to hear that her surgery had worked so well.

He knocked. Nothing.

Knocked again. No answer.

Fear was a startling acid. It flushed thought from his system so fast that for a moment he stood stock-still and saw her bloodless body instead of the bland metal of the door.

Only for a moment. Then his mind performed one of its more human tricks and sneered at him. Was he going to imagine her dead every time she wasn't where he'd expected?

His mind was less amenable to order than his body, but he hushed it as best he could. After a second it produced a more useful thought: She might be running.

Of course. Kai ran when she was stressed or upset. It helped her deal with her Gift as well as her emotions, and both had been given a workout last night.

She'd have her phone with her, he thought as he padded back down the stairs. His was in his car. He could call her, find out where she was. Or he could track her.

The decision floated up from his middle without input from his brain. Tuning in to her scents  -  both the physical and the psychic  -  was as automatic as adjusting the focus of his eyes. He set off at an easy lope.

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