Sarah A. Hoyt
The sun was setting in a splendor of red and gold over the Rocky Mountains, glistening like a fire over the remaining snow on the mountain tops when the young woman drove into Goldport in a brand new red pickup truck.
No one watching would have been particularly struck by her or by the pick- up truck.
Nestled against the peaks of the Rockies, Goldport had once been a settlement of miners and frontiersmen and it was now a city of students and computer technicians, with a Victorian core forming the center of a town that was gentrifying and growing, acquiring a few spectacular glass-fronted high-rises and a vibrant art and tourism scene.
In that environment, a college-age woman driving a four wheel vehicle was the most common of sights. That she was Asian or partly Asian would startle no one since Goldport was host to a vibrant Asian community. And no one would have thought anything was particularly strange when she parked outside a low slung building atop of which a neon sign blinked the words Three Luck Dragon.
Someone might have thought it a little odd, though, when she entered the shiny red lacquered door and a hand reached out to the window and turned the Open sign to Closed, right at the beginning of the dinner hour.
* * *
Beatrice Bao Ryu, better known to her friends as Bea Ryu, didn’t find it funny, when they closed the restaurant as she came in. She found it distinctly unsettling. But she managed a small smile, striking a pose of nonchalance as she said, “I don’t actually intend to shift and start a battle with Himself in here, you know?” Her warm Georgia accent drawled out onto what seemed for a moment to be the uncomprehending server – a skinny young man with Asian features. But he bowed to her, looking scared. “No,” he said. His accent less obvious but no more Asian. But he didn’t flip the sign to Open again. Instead, he led her to a door next to the one marked “restrooms” and knocked politely, then said something in rapid-fire Chinese.
Bea didn’t understand it. Her maternal grandmother was Chinese, but her maternal grandfather was tall, blond and of Germanic ancestry. As for Bea’s father, he was the great-grandson of Japanese immigrants to the United States. Bea’s parents spoke English and their daughter had never learned either Chinese or Japanese till college, where she’d taken two years of Japanese – which meant she could catch the occasional word and say almost nothing.
A curt Chinese word answered from inside the mysterious door. The server opened the door and remained bowed while Bea walked into the room.
If she’d thought about it, and she’d never done so in so many words, she’d have expected the place to be a sort of throne room, perhaps with some ancient gilded chair in the center.
That would have fit with what she’d read in the letters in her father’s desk drawer.
Whatever this criminal organization was, it dressed its leader in very pretty words: “Himself”, “Revered One.” “Ancient One.” It seemed to denote silk and gold and the sort of culture that required both.
Instead, the room she entered was small – only big enough to contain a desk-like table and two chairs, one on either side of it. It might have been an interrogation cell, except that the person on the other side of the table had a vast metal bowl in front of him into which he was shelling peas. With a pile of unshelled peas to the right of the bowl, and a pile of shells to the left, the sleeves of his white button-down rolled up to his elbows, and his hands working busily at the homely task, the man could have been any of a hundred middle-aged Chinese employees at a hundred different Chinese restaurants.
Bea cleared her throat. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I think I’ve come to the wrong room. You see, I was came to talk to The Ancient–”
The man looked up and Bea took a step back and caught her breath, not scared exactly but startled, because his eyes were older than the middle-aged face. They were older than any face. Looking out of barely creased features, they appeared old as time and twice as deep, as though he’d existed through the uncounted ages of mankind and kept track of every slip, every error humans had made on the way to civilization.
“Oh,” Bea said.
The man said three brief words in Chinese and then his eyes widened, as though in shock. He closed his eyes a moment. “You don’t speak Chinese.” It wasn’t a question. He raised an eyebrow. “Japanese, then?”
She cleared her throat. “I– No. You see, I took a year in college, but—”
He shrugged, dismissing the matter. “It’s of little importance,” he said. “Our people have spoken many tongues, throughout the centuries. What we speak doesn’t matter, except for comfort and a sense of heritage.” His own English was almost unaccented, save for a faint hint of something British and very high bred. “What I need from you requires no great linguistic competency.”
Bea swallowed hard. She’d rehearsed this, all the long drive from Atlanta, and the nights in motel rooms, but somehow, suddenly it seemed very hard to say the words she’d planned. It was the look of immense age in the man’s eyes, she thought. But she swallowed again and said, her voice sounding strangely wavering in her own ears, “I don’t care what you require from me. I came to tell you to leave my parents alone– To leave dad’s business alone.”
The man looked up and frowned a little. His hands resumed his work of shelling peas. “Your parents,” he said at last. “Finally saw the light and sent you over. Now they have nothing more to fear from my people.”
She shook her head. “My parents did not send me over. Not that it matters. I have no intention of doing whatever you want me to do. And why you think—”
“Sit down,” the man said, gently.
Bea shook her head. Those soft words had sounded like an order, but she had no intention of obeying. In fact, despite all her best intentions and everything she’d decided to tell this creature about himself and his criminal organization, face to face with him, she found the best she could do was disobey. Just – disobey and hold on to her rebellion with every fiber in her being, even as she felt him trying to bend her to his will.
He raised his eyebrows at her. “Surely,” he said. “Your parents have told you what you owe me.”
“No,” she said. “Owe you? I don’t even know who you are except someone who has been messing with dad’s business.”
“Truly? Then you don’t know we’re an organization of dragon shape shifters?”
“Sure,” she said. “I know that. But the only reason I even knew you existed and that you wanted something with me was that I overheard mom and dad talking. I found out you were the reason dad’s office got vandalized and about the calls to his clients. The reason dad has had so much trouble keeping afloat as a veterinarian. And that to make it stop you wanted me to come and… And do something. I wasn’t sure what.”
“I see. Well, you came. That’s what matters.”
“I came to tell you it must stop.”
The man looked up at her and smiled. “Ah. Spirit will serve you well, but do sit down. I have a long explanation to make, and I despise having to look up to do it.”
She hesitated, but the truth was she wanted to know why anyone, even a criminal organization of shifters would require her presence urgently enough to interfere with her father’s business to get it.
She knew she was attractive. She had a mirror. She knew that the combination of her varied heritage had resulted in an oval face, large green eyes, and a pleasant combination of other features, all of which became even more striking with her long, glossy black hair. Since about the age of sixteen, she’d become used to looks of admiration from the male half of the species.
But the truth was too that she had no illusions about the full extent of her beauty. She was pretty and striking, but not so out of the normal leagues in attractiveness that dreams of modeling had ever occurred to her. The campus of the college where she studied art could count at least a hundred women more beautiful than her.
None of her other characteristics were any further out of the ordinary. She was smart and talented, but was not going to set the world on fire with either her intellect or even with her art talent. She hoped, someday, to make a good living in commercial art and design, but that was about it. So why would this criminal organization want her that badly?
She knew it had something to do with her turning into a dragon, but it was just now and then. Occasionally. Truly, hardly ever, since she’d turned twenty and learned to control herself.
“So?” Bea asked. “Why is it so important that I come here? And why do you think I should obey you? Or that I owe you anything?”
The man smiled. It was a surprisingly engaging smile. It seemed to her as he narrowed his eyes that a sense of amusement touched them too. “I think,” he said, softly. “That I’m about to shock you very much. However, I trust you’ll let me explain my motives before dismissing them.”
She swallowed, wondering what he meant by that.
“Forget what I said about owing me. That was… You see, where I come from, it is assumed you owe your ancestors unusual respect, and I’m the ancestor of most of the dragon shifters alive today.”
“That is hardly likely,” she said. “I know all my grandparents, and I—”
“I am not your grandfather. Not even your great grandfather. It’s much… older than that. Thousands of years. How many, I’m afraid I’ve lost track.
“But that’s imposs—”
“Please, Miss Ryu.” He paused, his hands holding a pea pod over the bowl, looking at her. Then he said, “Hear me out.”
It wasn’t a command – or it shouldn’t have been, spoken in that voice as soft as crackling flame. But she stopped and listened.
His nail ripped the pea pod apart and his finger swept down the green envelope, trickling glistening little globes into the bowl. “I have… that is… I don’t suppose your parents told you that I am your ancestor in—” He seemed to be counting in his head. “Your mother’s mother’s side and your father’s mother’s side.”
“I don’t understand,” she said. “My father is Japanese and you—”
“Oh.” He dropped another spent pea pod on the growing pile and made a gesture, either dismissing that restaurant or the entire world. “This is an identity of convenience,” he said. “I told you my people predate most such things. Dragons—Dragons belong to the whole world, even if our type is mostly of Asia. There are other types—”
He resumed shelling peas, now very fast, as he spoke. “It is the immutable rule of our people that the Great Sky Dragon must be a descendant of the previous Great Sky Dragon in the male line. Unbroken male line. And that he must be a Dragon shifter. We don’t know why but that’s how… that’s how it works.” Peas tinkled into the metal bowl like falling rain. A green smell filled the room. “That was me, the many times grandson of the Great Sky Dragon, growing up on the banks of the Yalu River at a time when—” He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter, except to say that in my very long life, and sometimes I forget how many thousands of years it is, exactly, I’ve had wives, concubines and lovers, but—” He looked up and smiled at her. “There is no reason to blush. In a life as long as mine, well, there will be friendship and love, and, occasionally, less honorable associations. But what I meant to say is that of all my connections with human and shifter, many daughters were born. My line is threaded through dragon kind, Ryus and Lungs and many other family names are honorably descended from me. But in that time, only one son was ever born to me.” He looked up again, and amusement pulled at the corner of his mouth. “He was not born of a normal marriage. It was more… a treaty and a ritual pairing. Years ago, there was a … another dragon tribe. Near the frozen… ah… I believe what is now called Scandinavia. Their ruler was a woman, a female. She was called the Queen of The West, as I was the King of the East. We made a treaty, to keep our people from fighting each other, and.. There was a symbolic marriage. Which resulted in a son, who was not a shifter. I thought our blood didn’t work together, that we’d never have children who were shifters from that line, so I ignored it.
“Until someone stole the Pearl of Heaven and I found that while I could touch his mind, I could not control him as I could other dragon shifters. And it wasn’t just because he had dragon-blood from the tribe of the west, for I could sense he had my blood too. I had people trace back through his ancestry and found that he was descended from that long ago forgotten son. And he is my only male descendant on the unbroken male line, the only one with a power close to my own. The only one who can carry my burden. The one who will carry my burden.”
A fleeting poor bastard crossed Bea’s mind, but she did her best to look attentive and blank.
“His name is Tom Ormson and he is…” The man she was now sure was The Great Sky Dragon shrugged. “Very young. I think in his early twenties. He lives here in town and owns a diner, the George.”
“Yes?” Bea said.
“I’d like you to marry him.”
For a while, Bea was speechless. She’d heard of arranged marriages, of course, particularly in Asia, but her parents were American and thoroughly modern, and they would no more think of contracting a marriage for her, than they would think of binding her feet. When she found her voice, she said, “And he’s agreed to this?”
“Oh, no. He doesn’t even know about it.” A frown pulled at the old dragon’s mouth. “In fact, I think he has plans of marrying a panther shifter. He’s living with her. Completely unsuitable, of course. Her people are not our people.”
“But you think he’ll agree?” Bea asked.
“I think he’ll tell me to go to hell,” the old dragon said, and looked up with a faint smile. “And so will his girlfriend. She’s feisty enough, and she has no fear of me.”
“But… you want me to marry him? You said you can’t make him do what you wish, so…”
“No. You’ll have to find how to make him do what I wish.”
Bea stood up. Her legs were trembling. She couldn’t let her father lose the business he’d worked for all his life, but neither could she agree to this. The elderly man-dragon wanted her to seduce a total stranger one who was in a serious relationship. No. There were limits to what she was willing to do, even for her beloved father. They’d get tired of trying to force his hand eventually. They’d leave them alone. Bea couldn’t sell herself for life for the sake of her father. That was prostitution and slavery, combined.
Standing, she glared down at the Great Sky Dragon. She could feel power rolling off him, though she could not have explained what type of power or how she felt it.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “You’ve got the wrong person. I’m sure there’s someone else you can call on, who will be willing to do it. I don’t want to trick a man who is in love with someone else into marrying me. I don’t want an arranged marriage.”
There was a long silence. “I’ll let myself out,” Bea said.
“Stay!” It wasn’t so much an order as a sudden plea. She’d turned to leave the room and now turned again. The Great Sky Dragon was looking up at her, and his eyes held an expression she’d have thought impossible: raw, undiluted fear.
“Don’t you understand?” the Great Sky Dragon said, his voice low. “Do you think this is something I’d want, throwing an untrained girl at a stubborn boy and hoping for the best? Compared to me you’re nothing but babies. I thought he could have his panther girl and be happy, and when it dissolved in a century or two, then I could guide him towards a marriage that will produce dragons.
“But there is a trial coming and I’m not sure I can– If I’m not here, he’ll need to be married to one of our own, recognizably our own. He doesn’t look like our kind. My people will rebel at his orders. And it will need to be known that he will have dragon children, to rule after him. In the battle ahead, there might not be thousands of years to spawn.”
Bea didn’t realize she’d sat down, but her trembling legs were about to not let her stand up anymore. “Why would he be giving orders?”
“My grandfather told me of the dragons-beyond-the-stars who could—who would one day attack the Earth.” The Great Sky Dragon shrugged. “I always thought it was a legend, nothing more. But– Lately I’ve had signs that it is not. There is a great power out there, encircling, trying to remove me, trying to…” He frowned. “I think trying to attack my people. I’ve lived very long, and death doesn’t scare me, but—”
“But when I go all my power, and the destiny of my people will fall on the head of Tom Ormson, a stranger, raised outside our traditions.” He held up a hand to keep her from interrupting. “Oh, I know, you also have not been taught our traditions, but everyone knows your parents, both of them, are descended from my first-born daughter. They will fall in line. And you can help your husband through the trial to come by winning for him the respect of our people.”
Riverside Park, at the edge of Goldport, was a thrill whose time had passed. Competing with the various flags, gardens and other franchised, national attractions which specialized in rides based on the latest technology, its main advantage was being cheap and therefore it appealed mostly to the young, the recent immigrants and the impecunious.
Slumbering quietly at the edge of a small lake – the River in the name being one of those mysteries no one could explain – it displayed a flashy entrance tower dated from the orientalist period of the nineteenth century when pseudo arabesques had been in vogue. It appeared quite nice at night, when bright little lights outlined its contours making it look like something out of a fairytale and when no one could see its flaking paint and the parts that were boarded up.
Its vast central pavilion, which once had hosted shows by all the big bands and dancing by all the fashionable local couples, now housed bumper cars. The hippodrome that had seen horse races back in the middle of the twentieth century had long since closed. Its sun-bleached carcass, encircled in a tall wall that stood, as incongruous and forlorn as the bones of a long-dead dinosaur, was posted all over with signs warning visitors off exploring its dark interior.
Not that many visitors were interested. Most came for the corny spider rides, the colorful dragon roller coaster, and the not very horrible house of horrors. A few aficionados and romantic souls came for the wooden roller coaster or the turn of the – twentieth – century merry- go-round.
But right then, early May, the only people in the park were there to work. Teams of men fanned out up slope and down path, cutting down the knee high grass and calling to each other in Spanish.
Jason Cordova straightened up, as the mower he’d been pushing choked on the knee high weeds. Man, the least they could do is get some riding mowers. Rent them or something. And if not, then with grass like this, we should be using scythes.
Despite the relatively mild weather, sweat glued his t-shirt to his body and his jeans felt like they had insects climbing up inside them. He knew it was probably his imagination, but he still had to suppress an urge to scratch and an even stronger urge to take off his jeans and shake them.
He listened to the chatter around him and frowned. It’s like they went to the day labor office and picked everyone with a Spanish name. Which was probably exactly what they’d done. And it wasn’t that Jason didn’t speak Spanish. He did. He’d studied it in college. For all the good it was doing him in the current economy.
A shout that he couldn’t quite understand but that seemed to mean he should be getting back to work made him say, “Yeah, yeah,” as he started pulling the cord to restart the mower. But the motor only sputtered, and then he realized the shout hadn’t been at him.
Instead, his coworkers were shouting to each other and running towards an area where tall grass remained. Oh, what the hell, Jason thought, as he ambled in that direction, wondering exactly what they’d found there. A credit card? Someone’s illegal weed patch? Or, judging by the trend of the conversations he’d heard before, and what seemed to really interest all his co-workers, perhaps there was a girl there who’d somehow lost all her clothes?
Before he got to the center of the excitement, he saw two of the guys running away, their face more green than olive, and another one throwing up into a recently mowed patch.
Jason jogged forward the next few steps. And froze. Laying on the trampled tall grass was one his co-workers. He was small, probably Mexican. What remained of his white t-shirt was torn and covered in red-black blood. The lower half of his body was unrecognizable – his stomach torn open, the guts spilling. It looked like something had eaten a good portion of the man’s insides.
Jason would never know quite how it happened, but he found himself throwing up, too, right beside the tall grass. But as he straightened, wiping his mouth to the back of his leather gloves, he realized there were a lot fewer men around. Like… none. Though he could see one or two in the distance, jumping the fence, and another desperately swimming across the lake.
Oh, good God, he thought, as he called aloud, “Stay, don’t go. We must report this to the police.” Which he realized was exactly the wrong thing to say, as they ran even faster.
A trail of moving grass near at hand called his attention, and he rushed there, determined not to face the police alone. “Stop,” he said. But then realized it wasn’t one of his co-workers he was looking at. It wasn’t any human. It had to be the largest feral dog he’d ever seen. Well… feral something. Immense, beastly, its maw stained with blood, it looked like what happens to big bad wolves who die and don’t go to heaven.
Jason felt his body clench and twist. His mouth contorting, he made an effort to speak, as he managed to pull off his jeans and t-shirt before they got shredded. “Nice doggie,” he said.
Rafiel felt like he was going stark, raving mad.
Okay, so no murder investigation – or in this case, what seemed to be the investigation of death by misadventure – was ever a good thing. Ever.
Goldport wasn’t exactly a crime capital, but as one of four senior investigators in its serious crimes unit, Rafiel saw his share of seamy underside: thefts, break ins, the occasional drunken Saturday night mutual shoot out, and the share of drug traffic that couldn’t be avoided anywhere in these days. They even had murders – quite a few recently.
But on this particular Friday afternoon, he’d been finishing his paperwork, and giving some thought to the girl his parents had arranged for him to go out with that night. His parents – heck, his entire family – were anxious to see him matched up. Nearing thirty and living in your parents’ house was not how the story should go. Particularly not when you were a successful police officer. But Rafiel’s parents should know better.
They knew that their son shifted into a lion at the drop of a hat, or sometimes even without any hats dropping. They knew he lived in fear of hurting someone while shifted, and also that normal people, who didn’t change shapes, wouldn’t understand that he remained throughout more than half human: that in either form he tried to do the best he could and serve justice.
What did they think would happen if a woman came home to find her husband – or fiancé – had changed into a giant jungle cat? Did they think she would take it as an inconvenient but endearing thing. Oh, well, he’s a lion shifter, but at least he makes good coffee?
He could only imagine his parents’ desire for grandchildren had overwhelmed their common sense. Leaving him with the task of taking this “daughter of old friends” on a first date, being polite and nice but cold, so she wouldn’t feel too disappointed when he never called again.
Some days he wished he didn’t know there were female shifters in the world, people with whom, theoretically, he could share both sides of his nature. He also wished he were unaware that Kyrie Smith, one of his two best friends, shifted into a panther. Some days he wished he could help thinking that he and Kyrie could have made a go of it, if the other one of his best friends hadn’t been around. But Tom Ormson had been around. And though he was quite unsuitable for Kyrie as a shifter – shifting into dragon – he was very compatible with Kyrie as a human.
Rafiel had had doubts about that, in the beginning, but once those two had got together, they’d stopped being individuals and become a whole that was bigger than the sums of its parts: they’d become Tomandkyrie, a composite creature more competent than either of them was separately, and so inseparable, that he might as well try to come between Siamese twins.
What made things worse, was that Rafiel wasn’t even sure he would have a chance with Kyrie if something happened to Tom. He had a feeling that a Rafielandkyrie creature would not be nearly as good as Tomandkyrie, and might in fact fail to gel at all. And besides, he liked Tom, the scruffy, scaly bastard that he was and he’d die ensuring nothing bad happened to Tom, if needed. The two of them had fought together enough, been through enough danger to develop a brother-at-arms camaraderie, stronger than any romance.
No. What Rafiel really needed to do was find a girl he could love and who wouldn’t mind his shifting. And the last requirement cut down the population of eligibles to a negligible number, most of whom would live too far away for him to ever meet.
He’d been contemplating that when his afternoon had got worse, with the phone call about the man found mauled at the amusement park.
Riverside Amusement Park, where, even at the height of the season, if one dropped a virus that selected for non-native-Spanish speakers, no one would catch it, had had some sort of death by misadventure and the police was called to investigate.
It had been hard to understand what the heck was going on, because the person calling it in kept lapsing into something that Rafiel suspected was Greek. But Rafiel had caught stuff about a mountain lion and Mexicans and – this was emphatic – definitely not the owner’s fault.
Now he stood in the middle of Riverside, while a medic, who’d accompanied the police, patched up one of the workers: the only one remaining. Well, the only live one remaining.
Not far from them, in the long grass, a forensic team went over the victim: Hispanic, late twenties and dead. Very dead. According to the forensic team several feet of intestine – and various other internal organs – were missing.
They hadn’t found the mountain lion, yet. But that wasn’t the worst news. The guy who’d been mauled and was being patched up, said it wasn’t a mountain lion but more like a dog, but even that he wasn’t sure of. He said it was a weird animal.
And Rafiel could smell shifter. It was a smell he’d decided only shifters could smell, metallic, with a salty tang, and unmistakable once you first smelled it. And it was all over the place.
“So, it was a dog?” he asked the guy who sat on the chipped cement bench by the closed spider ride – the big black apparatus with its cup-like seats frozen and vaguely threatening in the afternoon light.
The guy’s name was Jason Cordova, not withstanding which, he spoke English perfectly and without the slightest hint of an accent. His only Spanish words came flying out as as the emergency medic bandaged his arm and shoulder, which had been mauled by something. Something with sharp teeth. His white t-shirt, smeared in blood, lay on the bench by his side.
Jason was dark enough to be some variety of Hispanic, though most of it, Rafiel thought, would be due to his working outside in the sun. He wore his hair short, with the tips dyed white-blond, and he looked at Rafiel and shook his head then tried to shrug, which brought about another outbreak of Spanish, in which the word Madre featured prominently. “It looked like a dog,” he said, at last, looking at Rafiel out of narrowed eyes, though they seemed to be narrowed more in pain than in suspicion. “But it didn’t fight like any dog. And it didn’t bite like any dog.” He shook his head. “I was lucky I had my hunting knife, because the day labor office is in a bad area and– Anyway, I must have cut it halfway to pieces before it let me go. And its jaws were like… steel clamps.”
“I’ve never seen a bite like this,” the medic who’d come with the ambulance Rafiel had called, and who was probably a male nurse said. He blinked grey eyes behind coke-bottle glasses. “And I’ve treated all sorts of injuries, even people mauled by mountain lions.” He looked at Jason. “You’re very lucky to be alive.”
“Yeah, I feel lucky,” he said, in the tone that implied he didn’t. “I’m unemployed, divorced, crashing on a friend’s sofa, and, on good months, making enough to pay for my own food and fuel, and now I’m going to have to pay for the ambulance someone called. It’s not like the park has insurance.”
The medic grinned, and started to put his stuff away in a little bag. “Nah, the park will pay. It’s not like they want you to go to hospital and have to show papers. I’ve sent the ambulance back anyway, so it’s just my time.” He stopped. “And I suppose you do have papers.”
“Sure I have them. I was born in California, so I have a birth certificate,” Jason said, sounding vaguely amused. “I suspect I was the only one. I mean of the workers. But I didn’t tell the owners. They can’t pay minimum wage or do all the paperwork stuff, and if I’d told them I wanted that, they’d never have hired me.”
“Yeah, I won’t tell them. You keep a watch on that. I disinfected as much as I could, but there might be something left in there. It’s a deep wound. If you notice a ring of red form and start to expand, get yourself to emergency and fast. Oh, and…”
But Rafiel was no longer listening. Instead, he was smelling the air around him. It didn’t much matter to him – or not exactly – whether the creature was a dog or a mountain lion, or some mutant, undefined creature.
What mattered – and this was very important – was that he could smell shifter in the area, all around. There was a sweet-metallic tangy scent that he knew all too well. He smelled it everyday in his own clothes, and rising from his own body. And he smelled it from Kyrie and Tom and the dozen or so shifters who frequented the George – the diner Kyrie and Tom owned together.
The thing was that the scent lingered in areas where shifters had been. Sometimes for hours. It had been so strong around the dead man, that Rafiel was sure he’d been a shifter himself. But was the killer a shifter or not?
It made all the difference. As Rafiel stood here, away from the scene, he could hear the forensic team discussing their findings in the blood-spattered area with long grass, where the body had lain.
If the killer was just a wild animal on the loose, then Rafiel could let them figure it out in their own way. There would be the routine of a police investigation, the normal adding up of evidence till you could take the case to trial and corner whoever was responsible for the animal being loose: police, park or perhaps the owner of the animal. Then whoever was responsible would be fined or given community service, or something.
In that case, throughout all of it, Rafiel would be just be Officer Trall, a professional and well trained police officer.
But if the killer had been a shifter in his shifted form, it all changed. Because a shifter who killed once, rarely stopped killing unless he were caught. And it wasn’t as though Rafiel could bring the apparatus of the law to bear on him. You couldn’t really tell a judge “this isn’t a dog, it’s a werewolf.”
Well, you could. But then they put in a nice resting place, medicated to the eyeballs. And, given that Rafiel himself was a shifter lion, heaven only knew what the meds would do to his shifting. He might become a lion and eat a few nurses not-in-a-good-way. He took a long whiff of the air. There was the smell from the dead body, the smell around it, and another smell.
“Hey, something wrong? You allergic to something?” the medic asked.
And Rafiel became aware that he’d been sniffing for all he was worth, as though he expected to find his way with his nose. Which he probably could. In fact, he would swear the smell came from back there, from the path to the parking lot, past the closed up hippodrome.
“Ragweed,” he said, automatically. It had the advantage of being true, not that it mattered. “So, could you write me just an informal report on the wounds? In case I have to take this to trial.”
“You can’t take an animal to trial,” the medic said. Then grinned sheepishly. “Though I suppose you could take his owner. And maybe you should. But I bet you it doesn’t have one. I bet you it’s one of those wild animals that seem to show up further and further into town every year. Like that Komodo dragon that went around eating people, what was it? Two years ago? And did you hear about the bear who went through the trash dumpster behind the alcohol and tobacco kiosk on Fifteenth? He then ran through bar row, looking in dumpsters. When they tried to catch him, he ran through ten backyards and across five streets, before being struck by a car as he ambled across the road in front of Conifer Park. And I bet you that they treated him and freed him, too, probably not too far from town. Ready to do the same again next year. A miracle he didn’t kill someone.”
Rafiel made a perfunctory nod and said, “Nothing we can do, eh? It’s the way it is. But I still need that report.”
“Right. I’ll write up something. It won’t be Shakespeare.”
“No problem. Shakespeare didn’t really report on medical conditions and it wouldn’t do us any good to be told the wound is not as wide as a church door.” Rafiel said. The intensity of the smell was driving him insane. It was separating itself into strands, too: the dead body, or the area around it, and a trail leading to the hippodrome and another…
He should – to follow proper procedure – go over to where the forensic team was working and see if there was anything else they needed. Instead, Rafiel frowned as Jason put on his blood spattered but intact t-shirt over his badly mauled body. The shifter smell hit Rafiel full in the face, and he stared, his mouth half open.
The medic was walking away, far enough along the path that he wouldn’t hear anything that Rafiel or Jason said. And Jason had just turned a puzzled and slightly weary face to Rafiel.
“Hunting knife, uh?” Rafiel said. “I don’t suppose you want to show it to me?”
Jason blinked. A dark tide of red flooded behind his tanned skin. “I must have dropped it,” he said. “Somewhere in the grass, I guess,” and with a shrug. “Maybe your team will find it.”
Rafiel sighed. He dropped to sitting in the clear space of bench beside Jason. “I’d think you were the killer, you know, and that those wounds were received from whatever that poor bastard,” a head inclination towards the crime scene, “turned into, except that they say he’s been dead since probably really early morning, before you came to work. They think he was one of he guys they hired yesterday, and he decided to bunk here for the night. And your wounds are fresh. So it’s clear there’s yet a third shifter around – or maybe a second, if that’s his smell around the corpse – and that you got those wounds in a fight with him. But don’t go telling me about a hunting knife. You might have cut the shifter up pretty bad but it was all teeth and claws, wasn’t it?”
Silence went on so long, that if Rafiel couldn’t smell the scent of shifter coming from Cordova, made stronger by exertion, and mixed with his blood, he would have thought he was imagining it.
But then Cordova spoke, his voice very tired. “I see. The police know.”
“Eh. This policeman knows,” Rafiel said, inhaling for all he was worth, intent to the shift in adrenaline that would signal that the man was about to attack. Or shift and attack. It never came. There weren’t even any great movements. Rafiel extended his legs in front of him, doing his best to appear at ease
Turning, he found that Cordova was staring at him, studying him. “What… do you change into?” the man asked at last.
“Bear.” And to what must have been sudden comprehension in Rafiel’s face, “Hey, I’m broke, and I guess I like liquor? I don’t know. I don’t remember much when I’m already tipsy and then become… you know… That hike from the forest preserve about killed me too. Just happy we heal fast. And that the person who found me thought I’d got drunk and undressed while drunk, and got me clothes and food.”
“I have a cell phone,” Rafiel said. “Strapped to my thigh with one of those plastic coil things. Stays in place even when I shift. That way, if I end up too far from where my clothes are, I can always call friends.”
“Smart that,” Cordova said, and looked down at his feet. “Only you have to have friends who know, and I don’t have those. Even my wife didn’t know. She thought I kept disappearing and was having an affair, and when I didn’t want to talk to her about it, she said I was emotionally unavailable.” He shrugged.
They sat side by side a little while, then Cordova said, “But that guy, the dead one, I don’t think he was shifter. I think the shifter smell is from the killer. It’s really strong around all that area, and it goes that way.” He pointed the same way Rafiel had been smelling it.
“Could it be one of the other workers?” Rafiel asked. “Were did they go?”
A grin answered him. “It’s as I told you before,” he said. “They ran so fast, they’re probably halfway to Mexico by now.”
“Yeah, but what path did they take out of the park, do you remember?”
This got him a very odd look, as it should have, because Jason was not stupid. Clearly, from his diction, his vocabulary, the man was smart and well educated. He stood up on visibly shaky legs. “Three of them went that way. And a bunch ran that way. And then a few ran that way.”
He pointed in three directions, in which the park ended in a fence, bordering a little used road. Which made sense if you were an illegal worker trying to run away.
“Not that way?” Rafiel asked, pointing in the direction of the path to the parking lot.
Jason shook his head. “Nah. None of them had cars, you know? The owners picked us up in a truck.” He hesitated a moment. “Say, you’re not going to try to catch them or…?”
“I’m not INS,” he said. “And if I caught them, there would only be a mess and they’d end up on the streets again.”
“It’s just,” Jason said, gesturing with his head towards the ticket house where a motley group of people clustered who looked Greek and who seemed to be the extended family of the owner of the park. They were arguing – or perhaps just talking – in very loud voices. “That I don’t think they have much choice.”
“Any of them. The workers come because they’re hired, and these people hire them because they couldn’t afford minimum wage much less all the deductions and things.” He frowned. “The minimum wage law and the benefits and things, it’s all very pretty on paper, but it’s like legislating the weather, man, it does no good. All it does is make you think everything is fine until reality bites you some place or other.”
Rafiel nodded thinking that Jason was definitely over-educated, but just said, “So none of them went where the smell goes,” he said. “Which means… Shit. There is another shifter at large.”
Cordova hesitated. He lifted his hand, then let it fall. He looked over his shoulder and all around, to make sure he was suitably isolated and that no one could hear him. Then he sighed. “Man, I don’t want to tell you this. You look like you have troubles enough.”
“After… in the fight, you know… I had a pretty good grip on this dude, and I was biting and then…”
“He shifted and slipped out of my grasp,” Jason said. “He just became this skinny, young dude, maybe fourteen or fifteen…” He hesitated while Rafiel gave vent to a string of profanity, from which – his having grown up in Colorado and having Spanish-speaking friends, the word “Madre” was not entirely absent.
Jason Cordova just nodded at it, as though Rafiel had made an observation worth noting, then said, “Yeah, but… that’s not the worst of it. I grant you I was shifted myself, and I don’t remember what happened really clearly, but from the way he looked and how… well… I don’t think he’s all there. And I’m almost sure he’s not, you know… normal. His eyes, you know. They were more feral as human than in animal form.”