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Sucker Punch, Page 2

Laurell K. Hamilton

  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. Second-guessing 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?”


  “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?”


  “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?”

  “I don’t know, but it looks like the foot is a bigger shoe size than Bobby’s. If this was a normal human-on-human murder, there’d be time for forensics to gather evidence and tell me if I’m right, but because it’s a supernatural-on-human crime, they won’t even bother with forensics unless I can make a case for needing them.”

  “If this went according to plan, Bobby Marchand would be dead long before the forensics could be processed,” I said.

  “I know, and we’re too small an area to have much in the way of forensics. The sheriff would have to ask the state cops for their help with the forensics, and he doesn’t see the need for it.” Newman sounded deeply unhappy about the whole thing.

  “Once the warrant of execution arrives, you are duty bound to act on it.”

  “I know that, Blake. I know that the only thing that could add to the time limit is if Bobby escapes and we have to hunt him down.”

  “That doesn’t add to the time we have to finish a warrant, Newman. The suspect just gains the time it takes for us to hunt him down and execute him.”

  “He’s shackled and inside a cell. He’s not going to escape, which is why I called you. I don’t mind executing Bobby Marchand if he lost control and killed his uncle. If he’s that dangerous, then it’s for the best, but I do not want to put a bullet in his brain and then find out that the footprints don’t match, that the blood evidence all over him is wrong for the crime, that . . . It just doesn’t feel right, Blake.”

  “That’s why I just flew in the smallest plane I’ve ever been on to come and help you figure out if he did it.”

  “The warrant gives me the right to ask for the backup I need,” he said.

  “It gives you the right to deputize people if their skill sets will help you carry out your duty in a safe and timely manner, with the least possible loss of life.”

  “I know that normally that wording is for getting better hunters and trackers to help you find the monster, but I thought the wording would give me enough room to call in someone to help me make sure that Bobby Marchand doesn’t lose his life unless he deserves to lose it.”

  “It’s commendable thinking, Newman.”

  “You saved my life the first time I met you, and you just flew across the c
ountry to help me save a life. Call me Win.”

  “I’ve never heard that as short for Winston.”

  “I was Winston until sixth grade when I started my growth spurt. By the end of seventh, I was on the basketball team.”

  “A winning basketball team, I take it,” I said, smiling and shaking my head.

  “Yeah, everybody started calling me Win, and I preferred that to Winston,” he said, grinning at me.

  “Fine, Win. If I remember right, you helped ride to my rescue, too, but I didn’t fly here to save a life. I flew here to maybe save a life, but if we look at the evidence and Bobby Marchand is guilty of this crime, then the execution will have to move forward.”

  All hints of smiles vanished, and when oncoming headlights flashed across his face, he looked tired and years older. “I know, and if he’s guilty, I’ll do my duty. But I want to be certain that killing Bobby Marchand is my duty first.”

  I agreed with Newman, but I also knew that once the warrant arrived, there’d be a lot of pressure to finish it. This was probably the most horrible murder this tiny area had seen in years, if ever. They’d want the murderer caught and punished; they’d want to feel safe again. We had a few hours to figure out if there were enough grounds to vacate the warrant, or at least get a legal stay of execution under extraordinary circumstances while the evidence was processed.

  Hanuman’s sheriff’s station was roomier than I’d expected after the airport. It had a front area big enough for two desks with room to add another if they were careful around the coffee machine. There was one door in the back wall. I sort of assumed that if they had a jail cell, it was back there, but you never knew in a place this small.

  Sheriff Leduc had to be at least five-eight, because my head didn’t come up to the top of his shoulder, but the weight he was carrying around his middle made him look shorter. He’d had to fasten his duty belt underneath his stomach, so it fit more at his hips than at his waist. You don’t have to hit the gym like you’re on SWAT, but being able to run at a medium pace without having a heart attack seems like a minimum for a police officer. I wasn’t sure Leduc was at that minimum.

  He smiled and offered his hand, and we shook like we were actually on the same team. I liked that and hoped it was true. “Call me Duke. Everyone does.”

  In my head I thought, So your name is Duke Leduc, but I didn’t say it out loud. I didn’t want to tease the man. I could be taught.

  “Everyone pretty much calls me Blake when I’m working,” I said. I smiled when I said it, but I didn’t want him calling me Anita. That was for my friends, or at least acquaintances, when I was wearing a badge. Using last names also helped keep that professional distance that every woman in a mostly male-dominated field needs to keep.

  “Now, Anita—I can call you Anita, can’t I?” He smiled at me as he said it.

  I wanted to ask if he called Newman by his first name, but I didn’t. Sheriff Duke Leduc was being friendly, and that was good. We’d need him on our side if we decided the warrant needed to be delayed. It didn’t cost me much to let him use my first name.

  “Sure,” I said, and tried to make sure I smiled instead of gritting my teeth.

  Newman was smiling, too, and he looked like he meant it. We were all being so damn pleasant, as if they hadn’t found one of their leading citizens butchered fourteen hours ago. We were all being so nice, it was almost unnerving, as if we were there for a reason totally different from murder.

  “How’s Bobby holding up?” Newman said, and the smiles vanished from everyone’s faces.

  Leduc—I couldn’t think of him as Duke; unless you were John Wayne, you could not be Duke—shook his head. The light went out of him, and he just looked tired. “I think if we didn’t have him shackled to the bunk in his cell that he might do himself a harm.”

  “He didn’t seem suicidal when I interviewed him,” Newman said.

  The sheriff shrugged his big shoulders, and again there was the hint of his size and how maybe once there’d been an athlete in there somewhere. “I think he’s beginning to believe he did it. Ray was the only father that Bobby really remembers. How would you feel if you woke up and found out what you’d done?”

  “You say woke up, but I’m told that Bobby Marchand typically passes out after he changes from animal to human form,” I said.

  “It’s typical of most lycanthropes . . . Therianthropes. The fact that they pass out cold for hours after they change back to human is the only edge we have when they start killing people.”

  “Not all shapeshifters pass out after they shift back,” I said.

  “Well, God help us if Bobby had been one of them. We’d probably still be hunting him through the woods.”

  “Is he a big outdoorsman in human form?” I asked.

  Leduc nodded. “He grew up camping with Ray. They were both big into anything they could do outdoors even before Bobby caught lycanthropy. The boy knows these woods.”

  “How serious do you think Bobby is about hurting himself, Duke?” Newman asked.

  “Well, now, it’s hard to tell. All I can say for certain is he sounded serious enough for me to mention it to you, but Frankie has been sitting in there with him for the last bit, so you’d need to ask her how he’s doing now. He’s all over the board emotionally. One minute he sounds like normal, like Bobby, and then he’ll start getting worked up about things, and there’s no telling what he’ll say. He said if he killed Uncle Ray, that he deserves to die. He said that a lot.”

  “That’s not exactly suicidal talk,” I said.

  “It’s been my experience that when folks start saying they deserve to die, it doesn’t take long for them to get around to making the wish come true. They may not succeed. It may just be a cry for help, but sometimes those cries turn out to be permanent.”

  “A permanent solution to a temporary problem—suicide, I mean.”

  Leduc looked at me, eyes narrowing. “Sometimes, but Ray isn’t temporarily dead, and nothing Bobby can do, or say, is going to undo what he did. There’s nothing temporary about the emotions that are tearing that boy up.”

  “I stand corrected, Sheriff. You’re absolutely right. I think you must deal with more suicides than I do.”

  “We’ve had more than you’d think in a town this size,” he said, and he looked suddenly weary. Tired didn’t cover it. He hitched his duty belt up again, as if trying to move it back where it used to ride. It looked like a habitual gesture that didn’t quite work anymore, like brushing your hair back from your face after you cut it short.

  “The only people that die on my watch don’t die by suicide,” I said.

  “The first uniform I wore was army. I saw combat. I thought that was bad, but sometimes I miss it. It’s cleaner than dying by inches in a backwater town.” Duke sounded wistful, or way too honest to be talking in front of a stranger.

  It was Newman who asked, “You okay, Duke?”

  It’s against the guy code to ask things like that, but sometimes when you start off talking about suicide and hear such bitter defeat come out of someone’s mouth, you break the rules. Most of us who wear a uniform have learned that we can’t keep the guy code of silence when one of our own is in pain. We lose too many people that way, both male and female. Twenty-two combat veterans die every day in the United States alone from suicide, and it isn’t just soldiers who have just come home from their tours of duty. There is no statute of limitations on nightmares and depression. With numbers like that, we need to start talking to one another more.

  I was still glad that Newman had done the asking. I didn’t know Duke well enough to be that personal.

  Duke shook his head. “I’ve known Ray for over thirty years. I was here when his sister and her husband died and left Bobby an orphan. Kid was two, three back then, and Ray had never had time for children of his own. He was all career after college, but he changed his li
fe so he could be a dad to that little boy. That’s when he sold his company, because he couldn’t be a CEO and a dad. He told me that once, just like that. Selling when he did meant he got the most money he’d have ever gotten for the company, and he was out of it when the crash came, but he didn’t know it when he did it. He loved that boy like he was his own, and now he’s dead, bad dead. Last thing I saw that bad was a bear attack, and that was nearly ten years ago. It was no way for Ray to die, and now Bobby’s going to die, too.” He shook his head again. His eyes were a little shiny as he got his hat and said, “I’ll take you out to the crime scene.”

  “I know the way, Duke,” Newman said, voice gentle.

  “I know you do, Win, but all the same, I’ll go along.”

  “I’d like to talk to Bobby before we go,” Newman said.

  I did not want to talk to the prisoner, because right now he was abstract, not as real as Leduc, who had just let us see his pain. I didn’t want Bobby Marchand to be real to me. I needed as much emotional distance as I could get, because I was beginning to realize I might be the only badge in town who wasn’t emotionally compromised. I still believed that Newman would do his duty in the end, but I was beginning to understand how much it might cost him. It would stay his warrant, but if we both agreed that it would cost me less to execute it, then it might be me staring down the barrel of a gun at the prisoner. If I was going to have to kill someone who was chained up and couldn’t get away, then I’d want all the emotional distance I could get. Give me a straight-up hunt after a monster that was trying to kill me, and I was fine, but shooting chained-up fish in a jail cell, that would be a new one even for me. I did not want to speak with the prisoner, not if I was going to have to shoot him later, but when Newman went through the door in the back wall, I followed him. It took a lot more courage than I’d have admitted out loud. There was no win here for me, or for Newman. Hell, there was no win for anyone.


  THERE WERE TWO cells, with a narrow hallway leading to a closed door at the end. A deputy sat in a chair by the wall with a shotgun across her lap. She stood as we entered, the shotgun held loose in one hand, the barrel pointed safely at the concrete floor. All the skin that showed around the uniform was a deep brown. I thought she might be Mexican like my mother, or at least some flavor of Hispanic, but a second look showed that the nice dark skin tone didn’t come from south of the border but somewhere more east.