Avery was a bundle of bandages, tubes, and drugs. I could see where sliver of skin around his face, hands and fee, but even one of his eyes had been covered. Instead of looking less like a corpse he looked more like one. Or rather a reanimated one. It was almost like we’d summoned a necromancer to help us talk to Avery about his death. I wasn’t sure if it would’ve been more morbid if that were possible or if it was worse because we were going to interrogate a man who’d, for all intents and purposes, been murdered, even if the reaper hadn’t stopped by yet.
Avery’s remaining eye cracked open and traveled slowly from me to Alex. A man in a navy suit stood clicked a briefcase shut on the wheeled table by the side of the bed before turning and walking out with a nod to me and Alex.
Avery opened his mouth to speak and the near whisper would’ve been completely inaudible to a human, but made us just move closer. “He’s not here.”
“We know,” Alex said softly. “We came to see if you know where he’d go or why he was here.”
His head moved minutely left then right with a grimace. “No. Bastard just said not to tell.” He coughed and took a few shallow breaths. His voice was like pouring dry stones into a pit. “Shoulda listened.”
I grimaced. It was my fault. If I hadn’t been so distracted that day… Well, there was nothing I could really do for him. There was nothing I could say. There was nothing.
“Maybe.” I looked sharply at Alex who was nodding his head in serious thought. “If you hadn’t told us where he was you’d’ve probably been fine.”
A scoff snapped my head back to the bed. “Fucker woulda still killed me; I mean most people don’t look up. Least this way I was able to set up my will.” He went silent, staring at the ceiling. “You know. I still had the invincible belief going for me. Thought I had time.”
He turned his eye toward me. The pupil was dilated with painkillers and he seemed to look through me.
“I’m so tired.” His eyelid drooped.
I nod once, slowly. “We’ll let you rest.”
“Wait,” his eye shot open, “I don’t know if this helps but he used to work for Jeanine Mor.” He’d worked for the Architect, too.
Alex put a hand gently on Avery’s shoulder. “Anything helps. We’ll talk later okay? Get some rest.”
There was no answer as we padded from the room. We’d just gotten to the elevators when we heard it. The code alarm.
We got to the room just as they were pulling the sheet over Avery’s head.
“Hey, Kiik,” Alex said quietly into the phone. “I’m on patrol tonight… No, I know you wanted to go… Sorry, Kiik, I can’t just… Yeah, it’s that… Okay, have a good run, but be careful, and remember to stay in a group… Love you, too… Bye.” He stared at the phone in his hand for a minute. “Shit,” Alex hissed. “We’ve gotta get that asshole.”
I flashed him a wry smile as I turned onto Elm. “Feeling a little ‘frustrated’ over there?” I teased. We were almost to Mystic Lake.
“More than you, I’m sure,” he grinned, eyes flashing. “How is Keelan anyway? Can he walk today?” I grunted, grateful I had to turn left, allowing me to turn my head away. “Oh-ho, I see you need the run more than me.”
“He swore! Wow, must be serious.” He dropped the chiding manor as we pulled into a parking space. “But seriously, Haven. I know what happened at the hospital really struck a chord. Just… be careful.”
He was right. I had been thinking about Avery. He’d put off so much because he thought he had time. Then he was gone. I had a chance with Keelan again and I felt a driving force to pursue it. An urgency that hadn’t been there before. But it had also provided clarity. I wanted Keelan. Not as we were or for who he had been. He was different now and I wanted to learn about him all over again.
However, tonight I had a job to do and no idea who Murrell’s next target might be.
We climbed out of the car and headed toward the crowd wandering around several tables of food and half a dozen large metal rings containing burning logs. Not everyone here was a shifter and some of the shifters were aquatic. They wouldn’t be going on the run and would maintain the food and fires, and watch over children.
The lake had several inches of ice on top and dozens of kids and adults alike slicing into it with their skates. There weren’t as many people on the ice though and I wasn’t sure if it was Murrell or the fact that the sun had set and the official start time of the run was near. There were many already in their animal forms from wolves to bears, hawks to horses.
I noticed Basil, already in his wolverine form, watching us as we passed before heading toward a pack of wolves who were picking through a table loaded with steak. The only time food wasn’t provided for a run was during hunting season and that lasted one night on the reservation.
“Lovett! Riley!” We stopped and turned toward Captain Thurgood where he stood at the nearest fire in a warm parka issued to humans and shifters in the Guard who weren’t as winter hardy.
“Sir,” we said as we jogged up to him.
“I want you boys wandering the perimeter tonight.” Captain Thurgood had an air about him that brooked no nonsense and only rookies made the mistake of challenging him for dominance just because he was human. “We don’t have as many that can go out as we’d like, so I’ll need you each on your own route.”
“Sir.” I nodded. I knew it would be like this; there weren’t many guardsmen whose animal form were as big as mine and Alex’s.
“But make sure you check in.” He looked each of us in the eye to reinforce his command. “I don’t want to think you’re being lazy only to find you dead in the morning. Clear, Lovett?”
“As a laser cut crystal, Cap,” Alex said with a wink. Captain Thurgood just grunted and waved us off.
We got our assignments, grabbed our gear and started for the far side of the lake. When Thurgood took over, any Guardsman who patrolled a run had to shift separate from everyone else. At first there was resistance from the officers who thought a neighborly approach was best, but as the Guard’s authority in the community grew, regulating disputes, supervising runs, and maintaining the law became less like pulling a rotten tooth from the back of an alligator’s mouth. Everyone knew what happens during a change, but somehow doing so out of sight gave us more mystery, as if we were doing something more than a simple shift.
Out of sight of any civilians we removed our clothes, tucking them in the bottom of our respective packs. Next in were the glocks and clips. A pair of knives and a radio were clipped to the outside before slinging the strap around my neck. These packs were specially designed to each sized shifter so alex and I had the same kind. Along with the neck strap, there was a waist strap, both of which were speciall fitted to our shifted forms. Doing so kept the pack and it’s contents within easy reach for a quick shift to human while keeping it from knocking around our legs in animal form. Alex had already started his shift so I waited, keeping an eye on the surrounding area.
The nine foot tall polar bear that replaced Alex wuffed at the air and sat back on its haunches. He waved a paw at me to go ahead. Shifting isn’t painful like humans seem to think. Yes, our bones morph, our muscles stretch and contract into new shapes, and our brains rewire themselves for animal senses. But that’s the things. The brain during all this becomes disconnected from all the nerve ending in the body as it forms new paths itself eliminating pain. Well, except that we get pain perception back at the end of it. But the change itself is an almost intoxicating kind of bliss.
When I stood on all four hooves, I was about a thousand pounds heavier than the polar bear. But bigger doesn’t always mean more dangerous. We nodded to each other before each heading to our respective assignments. Other shifters would patrol the perimeter in pairs but we’d be wandering the interior solo. It was quiet with enough snow to hide any green but so soft it seemed to absorb sound. I’d come across several groups of shifters and a few individuals. I encouraged the loners to join a group or head back to the campground. It was almost dawn and I had started to make my way back when I smelled it.