Susan Sizemore



Book Two of "Laws of the Blood"
Susan Sizemore

(From Ace - November 2000)

There was a mortal in the woods. Char could smell him psychically, and, frankly, she didn't think he'd bathed recently. All human senses were enhanced by the change to strigoi, and Nighthawk senses were keener still. This was not always an advantage where smell was involved. She had been able to smell the body in the clearing from a mile away, for example.

She stepped away from the body and took a few sniffs of the damp night air. Char detected leather and cotton as well as old sweat and the scent of liquor and cigarettes from the man coming toward her. The emotions she caught could best be described as concentrated curiosity, annoyance, disgust. He moved slowly and cautiously up the hiking trail. His caution gave her time to continue her investigation.

Char hadn't been around a lot of corpses. What was the point? She understood the need to hunt, it was the very core of vampire nature. There was pleasure in killing, but it wasn't something you needed to do all the time. You ate what you killed, killed only when you had to, chose the prey carefully, and treated the whole process with a modicum of respect. That was the way it was supposed to work, anyway.

She blamed modern media, the breakdown in society, and sheer childish irresponsibility for the way some vampires behaved, as no more than undisciplined spoiled kids who treated hunting mortals like it was a live action role playing game instead of sacrament and survival of the strigoi kind.

Mortals were even more irresponsible when it came to dealing out death. What had this woman done that she deserved to die? How had she been chosen? By who? Char supposed mortals killed more of each other because there were more of them. There were only a few thousand, maybe even only a few hundred, strigoi in the world and over six billion mortals. She didn't know if it was the sheer number of people available to commit horrific crimes that only made the mortals seem worse than strigoi, or if most vampires were a better class of killer. Maybe it was because Enforcers were more effective than mortal law enforcement.

And none of that had anything to do with her standing in a cold, foggy forest next to a dead body while sensing a mortal's approach.

She was thinking again. She should stop doing that so much and focus.

Char knew the woman had been ritually slain before she saw the wounds, but was it a strigoi ritual? All she had time for now was to quickly memorize the body's position on the ground, how the victim had been mutilated, whatever details Char could discern to help determine what sort of ritual had required the woman's sacrifice. At the same time she tried to pick up any residue of the sort of energy a vampire would leave. Mostly what Char discerned was a lack of energy. The woman had been mentally strong. She'd fought hard enough to psychically call for help that Char had been unable to ignore even a night after the murder. But the woman's murderer left no mental scent around the corpse.

Someone was covering their tracks, and doing a very good job of it.

Which was more than could be said for the approaching mortal. He'd left the path and was nearly at the clearing. Why was a mortal was on this part of the mountainside at this time of night? Criminal returning to the scene of the crime, she hoped. Some other part of the ritual yet to be performed?

Char moved away from the body, but kept it in view while she waited for the man to come into the clearing. His mental signature was rather overwhelmingly strong, actually. If he was the killer he wasn't using magic to disguise his presence at the moment. But if he wasn't the killer how did he know where to find the body?

"Why am I here?" Haven complained as he reached the place where some weird, unwanted premonition had brought him. He tucked the shotgun under one arm and took a small flashlight out of his coat pocket. He began a slow sweep of the clearing with the light.

His intuition told him he was in the right place.

"I'm full of it," he muttered. He hoped.

He hoped he was wrong, that he was delusional. Not so much because he hated finding an innocent woman's body, even if he told himself he didn't care about the fate of innocent women. He just didn't like what it said about him if it turned out the dream was real. Or what it said about the situation. He was in town to find an FBI agent's missing kid, not to get involved with the usual supernatural crap.

As much as he hated being blackmailed into tracking down Danny Novak he'd been thinking of the missing person job as a sort of vacation. He'd been way too intense in his hunt for vampires lately, and knew it. He was thinking too much. Analyzing. He'd even started reading books and making notes. Who needed that kind of bullshit?

If the woman was here, he thought as he quartered the ground with the thin beam of light, they had the usual sort of ballgame on their hands. If she wasn't here, he was just crazy, and he could live with that.

Char kept very still in her spot on the far side of the clearing as the flashlight beam was moved systematically across the ground. Light danced off the twining tendrils of fog, turning them briefly into silver ribbons, then moved on.

Either the man didn't remember where he'd dumped the body, she reasoned, or he wasn't the one who'd done the dumping. He muttered under his breath as he searched, obviously not afraid of being overheard. Interesting, she thought, and rubbed her jaw. If he wasn't the murderer, who was he? How'd he get here? Why?

Then the flashlight stopped by the spot she'd been standing not long before, and a deep, gruff voice growled, "Shit."

He moved to stand over the corpse, shining the light directly down on the sprawled body. The light clearly showed what Char already knew, that the woman's heart was missing, as was much of her skull.

"What the fuck is this?" the rough-voiced man asked.

Good question. It finally occurred to Char that she was fully equipped to ask this intruder anything she wanted and make him answer. She was, after all, an Enforcer.

He, on the other hand, had a shotgun. And almost superhuman reflexes. He dropped the flashlight, brought up the double-barreled weapon and fired it the instant she moved.

It was steel shot, she noted as the blast hit her. Then the pain drove out thought, and she got angry.

Just as he fired a second time.

A snarling wolf charged out of the darkness from under the trees while the roar of the shotgun blasts still echoed in the clearing. Upright on two feet. Wearing a raincoat.

Haven was not prepared to confront a werewolf. He had no time to reload. He turned and ran for the Jeep.

Char reached for him, claws and fangs at full extension as he spun away from her. She would have ripped his spinal cord out of his back, too, if she hadn't forgotten about the body and tripped over it. She landed hard on her knees in the wet undergrowth and caught herself on her hands as she pitched forward. She gave a frustrated howl and dug her claws deep into the soft earth.

Her forehead hit the ground and stayed there while the healing pain burned in her middle. It rolled over and through her and kept her down long enough for her to get her temper under control. At some point she heard the sound of a car engine in the distance. Her attacker getting away. A part of her wanted to get up and chase after him, to rip off the driver's side door of his vehicle, pull him out onto the ground, let him take a good look into the face of death and then have him for dinner.

But such behavior was exactly the sort of thing she most disapproved of in other strigoi and she wouldn't let herself give into the urge.

"Maybe he would be delicious," Char mumbled as she got to her feet. "But it wouldn't be a very nice."

He shot me! A nagging voice in the back of her head reminded her. But I frightened him first, she answered that voice. He probably thought she was the murderer returned to the scene of the crime. But he hurt her, and she still wanted to kill him. Char sighed.

She stood very still and looked up at clouds scudding across the moon for a while, turning herself back into human in physical as well as philosophical ways. When she was as normal as it was possible for one of her kind to be she checked the damage. Her sweatshirt was bloody and torn, but her open raincoat hadn't suffered any damage. The numerous ragged wounds from the shotgun blast ached, but they were already raw and tender scars rather than open entry wounds. The internal damage was fixed as well, though she supposed she'd be spitting out steel shot for a few days.

"Better than lead," she muttered.

She was tired now, too tired to follow her attacker, too weak from healing her own injuries to finish psychically probing for murder clues. All in all, the evening was a bust, and Daniel was no closer to being found. And the evening wasn't getting any earlier. It was time to head back to Jimmy's.

She did wonder, as she started back down the mountain, what sort of person really fired first and asked questions later?

Copyright © 2000 by Susan Sizemore