Sucker Punch – Laurell K. Hamilton

THE TINY PLANE landed in the dark on a runway that felt way too short. When the plane finally skidded to a stop, I couldn’t make my right hand let go of the armrest. Literally I’d held on so tight that my hand had locked up, as if holding on tight would have done a damn bit of good if the plane had wrecked. The pilot turned his head to look at me and give me a thumbs-up. I just stared at him, my heart in my throat. I was phobic of flying, and this bumpy trip in a four-seater Cessna hadn’t done a damn thing to quiet my fears. He took off his headset and said, “Oh, come on, it wasn’t that bad, was it?” He smiled when he said it. I glared at him until his smile faltered. I was projecting badass while the only mantra in my head was I will not throw up. I will not throw up. Only knowing that a man’s life hung in the balance had gotten me to climb into the progressively smaller planes until this final one. “Well, welcome to Hanuman, Michigan, Marshal Blake,” the pilot said at last, and opened the door. As I pried my hand free of its death grip, I wondered again why I was doing this. Because it’s your job, I thought. I kept telling myself that as I gathered my bags and fitted the big one through the door ahead of me.

The pilot said, “That bag’s big enough to hold a body.” “Only if it was my size or smaller, though I guess I could cut it up and make almost anyone fit,” I said as I got the rest of me and the smaller bag through the door and down onto the tarmac. “Very funny,” the pilot said. I gave him the flat look until he said, “What’s really in the bag?” “Weapons,” a man said as he walked toward us in the last light of the setting sun. I’d had just a moment to see the forest, and then it was dark as if someone had turned the lights off. You know you’re in the boondocks when it’s that dark even before you step into the trees; in their shade, it would be cave dark. I smiled at Marshal Winston Newman. He was as tall as the first time I’d met him, as in over six feet, but had more meat on his bones as if he was either gaining weight or gaining muscle. I’d have to see him in better light to be sure whether he was hitting the gym or hitting the donuts. His hair was still short underneath his white cowboy hat, but the hat wasn’t brand-new anymore.

The brim had been worked with his hands so that it made an almost sharp point over his face. It fit him now. When I’d first met him, the hat had struck me as a present from someone who hadn’t really known him or wanted him to be more cowboy than he’d seemed. He offered to take a bag so I could shake his hand, and I let him take it. I’d have done the same for him. “Thanks for flying out at the last minute, Blake.” “I appreciate you reaching out on this.” I almost added “rookie,” but he wasn’t one anymore. He was newer than me, but then, most marshals in the preternatural branch were. There were only eight of us from the old days; everyone else was either dead, worse than dead, or retired.

“Thanks for helping me out, Jim,” Newman said to the pilot, who was standing by his plane watching us. “The Marchand family has been around here a long time, and Bobby is my friend, Marshal Newman. I appreciate you trying to give him a chance.” “You understand that if Bobby Marchand did this, then I will have to execute him,” Newman said. “If he killed old man Marchand, then he’ll have earned it, but Bobby has been an Ailuranthrope since just after we graduated high school. He had it under control.” I was surprised that Jim knew the politically correct term for cat-based lycanthropy. Sorry, for Therianthropy, which was the new term for all of it since it didn’t imply wolf like lycanthropy did. But a lifetime of using it as a general term was going to be hard to break for me. “That’s what everyone tells me.

Thanks again, Jim. Marshal Blake and I have to get over to the sheriff’s office.” He started moving toward a big Jeep Wrangler that was parked in the grass beside the runway. “Duke is a good man, Newman. He’s just never seen anything like this.” Newman kept us moving toward the Jeep as he called back over his shoulder, “I’m not questioning Sheriff Leduc’s competency, Jim.” “Good, but you watch out for his deputy, Wagner.” That made Newman stop and look back at the pilot. “What’s wrong with Wagner?” “He gets rough when he thinks he can get away with it.” “Does the sheriff know?” Newman asked.

“I don’t know, but everybody else in town does.” “Thanks for the heads-up, Jim.” “Not a problem. I hope you and Marshal Blake work this out.” “Me, too, Jim. Me, too,” Newman said as he opened the back door and tossed my bag of weapons in. Since I already had the Springfield EMP 9mm in an inner pants holster, with my marshal’s badge on the belt next to it—so if I had flashed it on one of the larger planes, they’d see my badge—plus two extra magazines in the cargo pockets of my pants, a folding Emerson wave knife from Gerber in another pocket, a small tactical flashlight, a very slender man’s wallet, and my smartphone, I was okay being out of easy reach of the rest of my weapons and body armor. I went around to the passenger-side door and let myself in. I’d add two more knives and switch the EMP for my Springfield Rangemaster full frame .45 in a drop leg holster when I got the chance.

I had a hip holster for it, but if I had to wear the body armor, I’d have to change to the drop holster anyway, just like the EMP would switch to a holster on the MOLLE strap system on the chest of the vest. Inner pants holsters were for concealed carry when you didn’t want to spook the civilians. On an active warrant, by the time I was all geared up, concealed carry was an impossibility. “Did you know that this Deputy Wagner had a rep for roughing people up?” I asked. Newman settled himself behind the wheel of his Jeep and shook his head. “I hadn’t heard the rumor, and as far as we know, that’s all it is.” “How well do you know Jim the pilot?” “Well enough to roust him out of bed on a Saturday and get him to fly you from the main airport to here.” “You knew he was Bobby Marchand’s friend, so he’d be motivated.” “I did.” “Is this your home base now?” “It is.

” “It’s not exactly a great post for a marshal. Did you choose it, or did you piss someone off?” He smiled wide enough for me to see it as he pulled the Jeep out on the runway and drove like we were a plane getting ready to take off. I realized that there didn’t seem to be any other paved area nearby. We passed a shed with a windsock, but that was it. It was the definition of middle of fucking nowhere. “I chose it.” I looked at him and he laughed. “Don’t look at me like that, Blake. I know it’s not a hotbed of career opportunities, but I met a woman on a case, and it sort of rearranged my priorities.” I grinned at him.

“And she’s local to here, I take it.” “Yeah.” “So, you sank your career to follow the love of your life to the Michigan wilderness?” “No, but I decided that a quick rise through the ranks wasn’t as important as being near the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.” I spread my hands and said, “Hey, I don’t throw stones at anyone’s love life, Newman. My house has too much shiny glass on it, which reminds me, I promised to text them when I finally landed.” That made him laugh. It was good to hear the sound; it meant things hadn’t gone completely to hell. It was bad, but he could still laugh. Some crime scenes stole laughter along with everything else. “It’s nice I’m not the only one that has to text home.

Some of the other marshals give me grief for it.” “Fuck them if their relationships aren’t as good as ours,” I said. He laughed again. I smiled reflexively, typing on the phone. I was metaphysically tied to all the people I loved, which meant I could have just dropped my psychic shields and contacted at least some of them mind to mind, or they could have reached out to me, or in an emergency they could crash my shields, but that was damn distracting in the middle of a fight, so the deal was I’d text and call more like a regular Joe or Jill. Also, the other police were giving me enough grief about dating supernaturals, which was one of the politically correct terms for vampires, wereanimals, and anything else that wasn’t strictly human. Once I’d have said straight human, but I’d been chastised for using the word straight. Between actual vocabulary guidelines for the job and civilians getting butt-hurt because of my word choices, I was thinking of just substituting the word fuck for the word they didn’t like to see if they liked that better. If I was going to be offensive, I might as well go for broke. I erased several texts and finally settled for “Landed safe.

Love you. Miss you already.” It seemed inadequate, but it was all true, and at least I’d remembered to text. Staying in touch when I was on the job out of town wasn’t one of my best things, to say the least. Micah Callahan, one of my fiancés, was as bad as I was about it and traveled as much. Our mutual lovers had recently done an intervention to let us know we needed to do better. The first return text binged on my phone. I wasn’t surprised that it was Nathaniel Graison, one of my other fiancés, because he had been one of the main instigators of the intervention. His text said simply, “Thank you for texting. I know you don’t understand why I need it.

Love you back. I like that you miss me. Looking forward to the call tomorrow, or you back home before that.” And there it was, the loving text turned into a nagging push. We had all agreed that I’d text when I arrived and that I’d call once a day if possible, or text again. Nathaniel was reminding me of what I’d agreed to do, which turned a loving text or phone call into an obligation, which kind of bugged me. The return texts came fast and furious after that, because the group text contained eight people, not including me. I’d actually been surprised at some of the lovers who had insisted on getting more long-distance attention and at the ones who were content with the status quo. Some of them answered in the group text, but others answered privately. I typed an answer to each one of them; only two made me smile.

Jean-Claude’s “Je t’aime, ma petite,” and Nicky Murdock’s “I know you love me. You don’t have to keep texting me to prove it.” “I know it’s none of my business, but how many people are you having to text while you’re gone?” “Enough,” I said, and sighed. I scrolled through all the texts and realized I wasn’t sure whom I had to call tomorrow morning if I was still here. I wouldn’t know how long I’d be on the ground here until I knew more about the case. I put my phone away and said, “You didn’t invite me here to talk about our personal lives, so what’s up first on the crime busting?” He smiled as he said, “Sheriff Leduc requested I introduce you before we head to the crime scene. We have to drive right by the sheriff’s office, so it’s not out of the way. Hell, you can see Bobby Marchand. Maybe you’ll think of smarter questions to ask than I did.” “You were exactly what your name says when I met you, Newman, but that was a couple of years ago.

You do okay on your cases.” “You checked up on me?” he asked, glancing away from the night black road; the headlights seemed to carve their way through the moonless night. “I keep an eye on the newbies I meet.” “And I keep an eye on the careers of the marshals that I want to grow up to be,” he said. That made me laugh. “If you grow up any more, I’ll need a ladder to shake your hand.” He joined me in the laughter, and we drove for a few minutes in companionable silence. “It’s a dark night up here,” I said. “The cloud cover is thick tonight, but if it clears off, you’ll see stars here like I’ve never seen outside of the desert or the ocean.” “It’s not just cloud cover, Newman.

Last night was the dark of the moon, and tonight won’t be much brighter. If Bobby Marchand has been a wereleopard—sorry, Ailuranthrope —for this long, he shouldn’t even shift form this far from a full moon.” “It’s one of the things that bothered me enough to try to delay executing him, and don’t worry. I’m having trouble remembering all the new terms, too. Besides, we know that Bobby Marchand is a leopard, so we don’t have to use the generic terms between us.” “Great. I appreciate that. I hate the new vocabulary. Do you have the warrant of execution in hand already?” “Yeah, the judge e-mailed it to the sheriff’s office and got it signed through DocuSign just hours after the body was discovered.” “I remember when getting the warrant faxed over was high-tech,” I said.

“Yeah, it’s all high-tech most of the time now. Fast and efficient, maybe a little too efficient.” “How much time is left on the warrant?” I asked. “About sixty hours out of the original seventy-two. I should have called you sooner.” “Should isn’t helpful, Newman. Concentrate on what we can do here and now. Secondguessing yourself just eats up your energy and time.” He glanced at me, then back at the road. “Maybe, but they’ve started to get really picky on extending the timeline on a warrant of execution.

” “Yeah, since they stretched the window for a warrant from forty-eight to seventy-two, they don’t like extending the time unless it’s a live hunt where you can’t lay hands on the murderer, and you’ve got this one locked up in jail. There won’t be grounds for more time, and if you don’t pull the trigger in a timely fashion, it will be seen as refusing to perform your duty as a marshal of the preternatural branch, and that will be a career killer.” “Better my career than an innocent man’s life.” “You told me you don’t believe he did it, but we didn’t have time for you to tell me all your reasons over the phone.” “No, I needed you here ASAP so you could help me figure out what’s wrong with this case.” “I’m surprised that the first police on scene didn’t just kill him on sight. They would have been able to make a good case for it being a clean shoot.” “If they’d found him covered in blood right beside his uncle’s body, they probably would have, but he was in his bedroom passed out. I’m not sure they’d have even suspected him if he hadn’t had blood all over him.” “I looked at the crime scene photos you e-mailed me.

First glance, the victim was clawed to pieces. Why wouldn’t the local cops suspect the only wereleopard living in the house with him? I’m not complaining that they didn’t jump to the conclusion, but it’s simple cop math to think it.” “Like Jim said, Bobby is a local boy. He’s well-liked. Doesn’t drink too much, doesn’t do much of anything to excess, and his family is rich enough that he could afford a lot of excess.” “A lot of shapeshifters are careful about doing anything that will lower their control of their inner beast, like drinking or drugs or even strong emotions,” I said. Newman nodded. “Which means that Bobby is careful and doesn’t take chances with his beast.” “He sounds like a model citizen,” I said. “He is.

I know you were traveling so you couldn’t just open the files without risking civilians seeing the crime scene photos, but did you get a chance to look at them, really look at them?” “Yeah.” “What bothered you about them?” “No bites, for one thing. If a leopard of any kind had killed him, it should have taken a bite or two.” “The family says that Mr. Marchand was on heavy painkillers for an old back injury and arthritis. The theory is that the wereleopard could smell the meds in his body and wouldn’t eat it.” “Maybe. I have some friends I can call and ask later if they’d smell meds on someone, but I’ll need to know the exact prescriptions.” “I’ve got it written down. I’ll give you the list.

” “I do know that people poison carcasses to illegally kill lions and other big cats, and they take the bait. People use poison to get rid of rats, mice, moles, and then the local cats eat them and die. I’m not sure a wereleopard would be any different.” “They found Bobby passed out cold in his bed, nude, covered in blood, but his bed wasn’t as messy as he was.” “You mean the sheets weren’t stained with blood, just his body?” “Yeah.” “Were there bloody handprints, knee prints where he crawled into the bed just before he passed out?” “No, there weren’t.” “Well, he didn’t levitate into bed. Even most vampires can’t do that,” I said. “I know, and also his human body should have been cleaner than that. It was his beast form, which killed the uncle, that should have been drenched in blood, but if he left the area before switching back to human, then the blood should have just been absorbed during the change.

” “Were there bloody footprints leading from the crime scene to the bedroom?” I asked. “Yes, but there’s something about them that’s off, too.” “What do you mean, off?”


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