True Colors – Thea Harrison

Don’t move. Stay perfectly still. The enormous monster plunged through the apartment with the lethal speed of a stealth bomber. A Molotov cocktail of pheromones and Power spewed through the blood-tainted air, the classic signs of a strong male Wyr in a rage. Alice clung to her perch, her heart knocking so hard she thought it was going to burst out of her chest. Had the murderer returned? Then the monster slowed. Alice heard him utter vicious curses under his breath as he came upon Haley’s still-warm body. Alice took the New York subway daily to work, and thought she had heard it all, but she learned a few things as she listened to him. Did he curse because he saw the murdered woman for the first time, or because he realized he had made some kind of mistake? Alice had only just arrived at Haley’s apartment herself. She had found the door open and rushed inside to discover that her friend’s body had been laid out on her bed. Haley’s torso had been cut open, organs lying across the flowered bedspread like a child’s abandoned toys. Alice had gone numb at the sight, the normal cool, gentle logic of her mind seizing in shock. Then she had heard someone running up the stairs. She had barely gotten to her hiding place before the monster appeared. If he was the murderer and he had returned to clean up some clue he had left behind, neither Alice nor the police would know what it was now.

He prowled through Haley’s home in complete silence. Alice couldn’t even hear the soft pad of footsteps. Her awareness of him was excruciating, as though someone had stroked the flat of a razor blade along her bare skin with the smiling promise of a cut. His presence was a violation of Haley’s private space. He paused not two feet away fromAlice, so close she could see the pocket of his worn leather jacket out of the corner of her eye and hear the almost imperceptible sound of his steady breathing. She wanted to scream and strike at him. She wanted to run away and dial 9-1-1. The shadowed apartment hallway was a million miles long, the open front door too far away for her to make a run for it and hope she wouldn’t be noticed. She didn’t dare move, did not dare even shift her gaze for fear a glancing light might reflect off her eyes and give her position away. She hardly dared to breathe.

The only thing she could do was taste the air and know that, if nothing else, she could recognize this man again by his scent. Underneath the scent of violence, he smelled warm and clean. If they were in any other kind of situation, she would have found his scent sexy. She fought the sudden urge to vomit. Wait. If she could scent him, then what kind of trail had she left behind? Could he scent her as well? Would he be able to recognize her again, too? Oh gods. Riehl struggled with his rage and got it under control. His body settled out of the partial shapeshift. He couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was watching him. He kept one hand close to his holstered SIG P226, and an invisible six-pack of whoop-ass ready in the other.

Dead body with the same M.O., evisceration of the abdominal cavity. The killer never took the organs. He only set them out in a distinct pattern, like stars in a dark constellation. The average human body held 10 pints of blood. This woman’s once-pretty bedspread was drenched with hers. It dripped onto the carpeted bedroom floor in a thick, heavy pool. He wouldn’t be surprised if it had already soaked through the floor to the apartment below. Someone was going to have a bitch of a time cleaning that out.

Goddammit, the body was still warm. Her keys and half-opened purse were on the floor, and the ruins of a business outfit pillowed her mutilated body. It looked like the killer had surprised her as she arrived home from work. There was no sign of forced entry, which meant she had thought she had reason to trust him. Had the killer posed as a utility or maintenance worker, or was he an acquaintance? If Riehl didn’t find anybody else to open the whoop-ass on, he could always save it for himself. If he had made the connections a little faster, if he had heard back from the Jacksonville PD a little sooner, if he had run the internet database searches right away instead of jawing over ideas with his new boss, Wyr sentinel and gryphon Bayne, this pretty lady might still be alive. Goddammit, this was partly his fault. He needed to call HQ, but… Riehl did a slow swivel, his sharp eyes noting every detail of the place. The vic’s home was a tiny, postage stamp-sized one-bedroom on the top floor of a four-story walk-up. It was furnished with space-saving IKEA décor.

To Riehl, the vic had kept the apartment so warm it felt stifling. A flat screen TV was mounted on one wall. Every small-apartment dweller in New York must have cheered when that innovation came out. There were plants and books and shit, such as a tangle of female frippery on a bedroom dresser. He nudged closets open and they were full of normal stuff—clothes, shoes, coats and a few umbrellas, and small boxes. A Thursday paper was folded on a Barbie doll-sized dinette table, alongside an open box of holiday decorations with an elegant feathered and sequined half-mask perched on top. Christians had Christmas, Jews had Hanukkah, and the universal African holiday celebration was Kwanzaa. For the Elder Races, winter solstice was the time to celebrate the seven Primal Powers in the Masque of the Gods. The vic had been in the middle of decorating her home for next week’s Festival of the Masque. Maybe she had planned on attending one of the many balls that were held throughout the city.

The mask was a nice one, the kind one wore and passed down to one’s kids. It had set someone back a paycheck or two. Maybe she had looked at it with happy memories and anticipation. All in all, the apartment was pretty typical for the city, and a perfectly charming place for a petite, 135-pound single female like the vic. Riehl stood six-foot-five and topped 263. He had only recently decided to domesticate himself from ninety-six roaming years spent as a captain in the Wyr lord Dragos Cuelebre’s army. He was used to a rugged lifestyle and spending a lot of time outdoors, often in inclement weather. To him the small overheated place felt claustrophobic. There was no doubt in his mind the killing itself was the reason for the invasion. Her jewelry still lay scattered on the dresser and the corner of a wallet was visible in her open purse.

It looked like nothing had been taken, unless the killer had snipped off a little something from one of the organs to keep as a souvenir, which would have to be determined by an autopsy. He just couldn’t shake the sense of someone else being present. He was looking for some kind of fricking giveaway. Someone’s eye peering out from behind a closet door, or a webcam stuffed in a cute pink bunny. He even scoped the snow-covered scene outside the window to see if someone was watching from another building. As he searched he took in deep, even, deliberate breaths. The heavy copper scent of blood pervaded everything. It all but buried the vic’s normal scent. There were other odors that he classified as normal and dismissed, like the faint lingering scent of fried fish and some floral stink that came from a bowl of potpourri. If Riehl had been in his Wyr form, his wolf would have had a sneezing fit at the potpourri and looked for the fish to roll in.

He noted two other very interesting things. He could taste faintly at the back of his throat a chemical tinge that hung in the air around the vic, along with the smell of rubber. He would bet his next week’s paycheck that the killer had worn rubber gloves, and that the chemical taint was KO Odorless Odor Eliminator, handy tool of deer hunters and Wyr criminals everywhere. He would have expected the gloves, but using the KO meant the killer was either Wyr himself or at least he was familiar with Wyr investigative capabilities. The killer was organized, knew how to hide his scent, and planned ahead. That all fit with the deliberate care with which he had set out the victim’s organs, which was an exact match with the Jacksonville slaughter from seven years ago. The second, very interesting thing Riehl noticed was another scent in the apartment. It was a light, delicate, feminine scent that tantalized his senses. Haunting and delectable, it hinted at an unforeseen, mysterious reality he wanted to dive into headfirst, except that the scent had turned jagged with stress pheromones that set his teeth on edge and had his hand inching closer to his weapon. The scent hadn’t had time to sink very deeply into the surroundings and was already fading.

The body was still warm, and a woman had been in the apartment before him. Well, how about that. If the stubborn prickle at the back of Riehl’s neck was anything to go by, the woman might even still be around, although if she was, he didn’t have the first clue where she could be hiding. He came to a sudden decision and strode out of the apartment. Last week’s snowfall had turned to dark sludge in the streets and on the sidewalks, but the chill, wet December wind brought the promise of more. Fluffy flakes of white were just beginning to drift down. They looked innocuous and fairy-tale pretty, but they were the precursor of a major winter storm that would smother the city by the early morning hours. Snowplows had already begun working the streets. The wind tasted of exhaust fumes, fried food, salt and grit. Riehl did a fast recon when he hit the street.

No sign of a lingering perp, but then he didn’t expect anything else. Dude might be killer whack-job nuts but he was not stupid. Riehl was not going to get that lucky tonight. The dead woman’s apartment was located in the melting pot of North Brooklyn, where a variety of Elder Races mingled with an ethnic hodgepodge of humanity. The gray smear of early evening was dotted with bright holiday decorations in storefront windows. The nearby street corner had a delicatessen/grocery store that was run by a Wyr family. They were some kind of grazing animal that liked to cluster in groups. The grocery store was across the street from a liquor store run by an older Armenian couple. The open-air newsstand had the strong earthy scent of a dwarf lingering around the edges of the door and hatch. The newsstand had already closed for the day, and so had a dry cleaner’s half a block away.

The dry cleaner’s shadowed doorway was far too shallow a nook to hide his broad-shouldered physique. Actually there weren’t any good hiding places where he could hope to watch the apartment building and remain undisturbed. Riehl moved fast, dodging vehicles to reach the delicatessen. He thrust through the doors and stopped in front of the cashier station by the street window. The cashier was a lanky, middle-aged male who gave him a nervous smile that vanished as Riehl pulled out his badge and showed it to the guy. “Ignore me,” Riehl said. The male nodded, his eyes wide. Riehl went to the edge of the plate-glass window and flattened himself against the wall. At that angle he was hidden from the apartment building entrance. He tilted his head until he could see the front door.

Then he waited. Riehl made people nervous at the best of times and if a woman had been hiding in the apartment, she was going to be skittish. He considered. Could she have witnessed the murder? Even participated? The Jacksonville PD records made no mention of a possible partner. Had they missed something, or could it be a recent development? Would a killer that ritualistic make such a drastic change in his methodology? Nah, he was trying to put too many curlicues on the whole scenario. If the woman had been an active participant, she would have been gloved and her identifying scent cloaked, and she probably would have left with the killer. And if she had witnessed the murder, she would have had plenty of time to escape the scene before Riehl arrived. And what sort of person could remain still and silent while watching someone get butchered with such precision? Riehl’s already black mood darkened further. As he watched, he pulled out his cell and hit speed dial. Bayne answered.

“Yeah.” “He got her,” Riehl said. “It’s our boy and the body’s still warm. She couldn’t have been dead more than an hour, hour and a half.” He listened to the sentinel swearing. Bayne asked, “What do you think, is it the Jacksonville killer or a copycat?” “If you’re asking me to guess, I’d say yeah, it’s the Jacksonville killer. You have to eyeball for yourself the meticulous butchery he did here. A guy like that could have the self-control to wait seven years, if the wait had some kind of special meaning for him.” He gave Bayne the address and said, “Listen, I gotta go. I’m following up on a possible witness.

” “I’m heading over to the scene myself. Call me back when you can,” Bayne said. The sentinel disconnected without saying goodbye. Riehl started to pocket his cell just as the apartment building door opened and a woman stepped outside. He froze. Everything froze. Body, mind, spirit. The world tilted on its axis and repolarized. Though the woman’s torso was hidden in a thigh-length black woolen coat, it was clear she had a slender, elegant frame. An abundance of gold-tipped, dark brown corkscrew curls sprang out from her head.

She wore straight-cut jeans, boots, and wire-rim glasses, and her complexion was the rich, warm color of cocoa and cream. She carried herself with the tense fragility of someone suffering from deep shock. Even from across the street, her thin intelligent face looked strained. She reached the sidewalk and paused, one narrow, fine-boned hand holding the high collar of her coat together in a defensive gesture as she scanned the street. It was her, the woman from the apartment. He knew it. He didn’t have to catch her scent. Horror and tragedy still lingered in her eyes. Another kind of knowing settled into his bones, a strange, deep pool of certainty that he had undergone an undefined, irrevocable shift that he didn’t understand or have the time to explore. The woman turned and began to walk in the direction of the nearby subway station.

Riehl pushed through the delicatessen door and moved to cross the street, the whole of his attention laser-locked on her retreating figure. Alice’s feet started carrying her automatically on her normal route home after visiting Haley, toward the Bedford Avenue subway station. First Peter was killed. Then yesterday they found out David had gone missing, and now Haley was dead. David was dead as well. She knew he was, even though the police had not yet released any official word. Three of her friends, gone in as many days. The street looked innocuous but a hint of the monster’s scent still lingered, warm and sensual in the cold wet air. Alice couldn’t stop shaking. The image of Haley’s poor mutilated body was frozen in her mind.

What was she supposed to do next? Oh yes, call 9-1-1. She dug in her pocket for her cell phone as her gaze darted around her surroundings. She glanced over her shoulder. A man in black jeans and a battered leather jacket was crossing the street. He was immense, as tall as a tree, built like a linebacker, and he moved like a killer. His white-blond hair was cut military short, and the sharp, ruthless lines of his face were weathered and harsh. His piercing eyes were some kind of pale color, either gray or blue, and they reflected the light as he looked straight at her. The bottom dropped out of Alice’s world as recognition slammed into her. Too many nightmarish epiphanies happened at once. They nearly knocked her to the ground.

It was the monster. He was no longer caught in a Wyr’s partial shapeshift, but she knew him. She knew him. He’d found her, just as she’d been afraid he would. He had caught her scent, and now he had seen her face. And she had seen his. He might be the one who had killed her friends. He was the most terrifying male she had ever seen. And he was her mate. Oh gods.

Oh gods. A hot wash of horror licked invisible flames along her skin. She had heard of such a thing before, two Wyr recognizing each other as mates at first sight. She had thought it was an urban legend. Deeper than love, more dangerous than lust, Wyr mated for life. This couldn’t be happening. It wouldn’t happen, not if she had anything to say about it. She whirled. Terror whited out her thinking and lent wings to her feet. Riehl lunged into a sprint after the woman.

Holy hell, that chick could move. Riehl was fast but he was big. She darted lickety-split between cars and people like nothing he’d ever seen, her slight, slender body able to take sharp turns and squeeze through tight spaces in a way he couldn’t hope to match. Then in a hopscotch skip straight into the land of weird, as she ran she faded into her surroundings. She didn’t quite disappear, not totally. Her clothing was too solid for that, but somehow it was harder to track her just by vision alone. Huh. That was fascinating as shit. Good thing he could track her with more than just his vision. He could catch her if he changed.

If they had been anywhere but the city, he would have. He was faster in his wolf form, and he could run literally for days. But if he changed into the wolf, he couldn’t speak unless they were close enough for telepathy, and he could already taste her panic on the wind. Besides, NYC might be the seat of the Wyr demesne, but it was also home to millions of others as well. He didn’t trust how people might react to the sight of a two-hundred-pound wolf hurtling down a city street. He took a deep breath and bellowed, “NYPD! Stop!” Of course she didn’t stop. He wouldn’t have stopped either just because some dumbass stranger yelled at him. Damn it, was she headed for the subway? She was. In a move that was so suicidal it took his breath away, she plunged almost directly under the wheels of an oncoming truck as she raced across the street. Riehl didn’t think the driver even saw her because the truck never slowed.

Riehl had no choice but to pull up for a few vital moments, which gave her an even greater lead. After the truck he kicked it in gear, kicked it as hard as he could. He blazed down the sidewalk like a heat-seeking missile, scattering pedestrians in his wake like so many squawking chickens. He listened to the sounds of his breathing, the sharp wind whistling in his ears. At the subway station, he didn’t bother with taking the stairs at a run. Instead he gathered himself and spanned the flight in one massive leap, but it wasn’t enough. Several yards ahead, the woman darted across the station platform and on to a train just as the doors closed. It was like something out of a goddamn made-for-TV movie. Unbelievable. Riehl spat out a curse as he came up to the closed doors.

They stared at each other through the barrier. The woman was panting and her eyes were dilated black in a face that was chalky white except for two hectic flags of color in her cheeks. As she took in his expression, she stepped back from the door, only stopping when she bumped into people behind her. The train lurched. He raised his eyebrows, pulled out his badge and showed it to her. She stared at it and her eyes widened. As the train pulled away, she stepped forward again and put her hand to the glass, her gaze rising to his. He pointed to her. “Nearest police station,” he mouthed. “Go there.

” The last sight he had of her was her peering at him as the train rattled away. He wondered if showing her the badge would get a better result than yelling at her in the street had. He had better go locate the nearest police station and find out.


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