© 2023 by Jordan Summers

RED CHAPTERS 1-3

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Not many people can handle the pain of being ripped apart, of having their limbs twisted and morphed until they are convinced their mind will shatter into a thousand tiny shards.

I can.

And I am tired of hiding my true nature so that humans can sleep better at night, convinced they’re actually in control of this tiny blue-brown planet.

It’s time they know the truth.

They need to realize that they are not at the top of the food chain.

I am.

We are.

A permanent shift in power is necessary and I intend to bring about that change one bodyat a time...

Pain sears my flesh, flaying it from the bone. I scream and throw my head back as blood sprays across the inside of the car, painting the dirty windshield crimson, moistening it for the first time in months.

Pressure explodes beneath my gums, as a sharp row fangs push out my blunt teeth. My arms and legs snap, breaking bone, tearing sinew, to reshape.

The change feels like it is taking an eternity as I drown in a flaming river of agony, but I know it’s only been seconds. One last cry rips from my raw throat, and then suddenly I am reborn.

Lungs heaving, I sit up and look around. It takes a moment to adjust, when you go from blindness to absolute clarity.

The coppery odor of blood assails my senses, along with something feminine and delicate.

Memory evades me, but the scent intrigues. I try to catch it again, but it’s quickly overwhelmed by the stench of synthetic fabrics. Something in the center console jabs me in the ribs. It looks like a stick, but there are other things protruding out. Things that hinder my movements.

The urge to escape the caged confines is great. In my struggles, a paw hits a latch. There’s a hiss. I bare my teeth and prepare to attack an unseen enemy, then the night air comes rushing in. Claws scrape against the unnatural material as I leap out the newly formed opening. My feet touch the ground with a soft thud and I circle my prison, snarling and growling my displeasure.

Outside the high desert comes alive, as a breeze stirs the air. The musk of scurrying vermin and rusting metal collide until it’s hard to tell one from another. Bare branches groan and creak, their dead arms extended to the sky in supplication. 

A twig snaps in the distance. My ears perk up in an attempt to locate the source of the noise.

The sound comes again—louder.

My steps are silent as I lope through the snarled woods to investigate. Nothing green lives here anymore. Not the trees. Not the bushes. Not even grass. It isn’t long before my attention is distracted by something else. The feminine aroma I’d caught earlier is stronger now. Sweet, and delicately alluring. I seek its source.

Quickly scanning my surroundings, I glimpse something running ahead of me.

Prey.

Something about the unusual sight pricks my memory, reminding me that I am not alone. I came here with a guest—

Lisa Solomon.

Her long, curly auburn hair flaps in the wind as she scrambles through the dead underbrush.

Where is she going? She can’t possibly hope to find sanctuary amongst the bones of the trees.

Branches moan in the darkness, their sad voices vacant of life. Ghosts of the leaves rustle, haunting my footsteps as I give chase. Despite her determination to get away, it takes no effort at all to track Lisa’s movements. Even if I couldn’t see her, I could still hear her heart thud and her breath wheeze. It’s obvious she wants me to catch her. 

Prey.

The sun-scorched ground is hard and oddly cool beneath my rough pads, the perfect consistency for hiding my presence from those who wish to discover my kind. I could run for miles, but she can’t.

“Get away from me! Go away!” Lisa screams when she catches sight of me.

The harmonious sound reaches my sensitive ears. The notes soar into the night, then abruptly cut off as she labors for air. I yip excitedly in hope that she’ll cry out again. Lisa doesn’t disappoint me.

Such beauty.

Such shrill perfection.

And she’s all mine.

She rushes on without looking at where she’s going. In her haste, Lisa trips over a stone imbedded deep in the ground, sending her crashing to her knees. She cries out, but the pain doesn’t slow her. Lisa claws at the earth, leaving deep furrows behind. Clumps of clay fly up behind her, then rain down like arid teardrops as she tries to regain her footing.

Her ripe ass lifts enticingly. She stays in that position for a few seconds, then pushes off and scrambles forward. I recognize the invitation. Suddenly, the urge to mate supersedes all others.

I thought I’d found my perfect match before, but in the end she failed me. This time will be different. Lisa is different.

Special.

A growl rumbles out of my chest like thunder from a distant storm.

Lisa whimpers. “Why are you doing this? I thought you l-l-liked me. We were friends.”

Friends?

We were meant to be more than friends. Why would she think such a ridiculous thing? I shake my head. If I could laugh in my present form, I would. All I can do is snort in derision.

Lisa has to know what she means to me. Perhaps her coy teasing is a form of human foreplay? In my present state, I can’t remember. Nor can I tell.

The ravaged remains of bushes surround her. Lisa doesn’t slow. She collides with their fragile corpses. They crackle and break under her weight, turning to dust.

Her legs are long-limbed perfection, even with the red welts and scrapes from the bushes forming macabre celestial designs on her skin. In her panic, Lisa’s heart surges with blood, pumping madly in her chest.

I close my eyes and listen to its melodious cadence.

Thu-thump.

Thu-thump.

Thu-thump.

It’s all I can do to keep from drooling. If I thought Lisa would appreciate the compliment, I would.

Licking my muzzle, I try to recall if I ever saw Lisa in anything other than her navy blue Quadrant Inspector’s uniform. Funny how the details fracture and slip from my mind’s grasp.

Lisa glances over her shoulder and screams in terror.

My tongue lolls out of my mouth in an attempt to convey my affections. My thoughtfulexpression tells her that it won’t be long now. Lisa needs to prepare herself.

Her oval face turns ashen in the burgeoning moonlight and her shrieks grow even louder.

Such beauty.

Such frailty.

Too excited to wait, I close the distance between us.

“Get back.” She keeps running.

Lisa’s rejection stings but does little to dampen my desires. I don’t think anything can.

“Stay away from me,” she snarls. “Y-y-you...monster!”

Monster?

My ears ring with the word. Like a slap across the face, it stops me in my tracks. Shock is short-lived. A wave of anger that’s so consuming I can barely breathe sweeps through me. My vision bleeds red until the world around me turns scarlet.

How dare her! I’m not the one who made me this way. I did not ask to be turned into an Other. The procedure was forced upon me, but I accept what I am. No longer will I cower in the shadows. The days of pretending to be inferior are over.

Lisa’s fear laps over my lightly pelted skin, hardening my shaft. She’s taunted me for the last time. I continue my pursuit.

The distance between us diminishes as quickly as the remaining fragments of her hope. I know this because Lisa’s slowing.

The wind howls, sending the sweet scent of her sweat-covered body to my nostrils.

Ahwoo! Ahwoo!

I’m close, I say.

So close.

Lisa darts frantically left and right, her hands out in front of her, as she gropes for a weapon to defend herself. She finds a branch.

She should know I’m not easy to kill.

The branch’s bark breaks off in her grip, crumbling like ash on her fingertips. She drops it with a frustrated cry and keeps running.

Prey.

My muscles quiver in anticipation. Should I fuck her first or after?

There’s still plenty of time to decide.

I move in.

My long claws extend when I swipe at her. Material rips. The tatters from her blue shirt fall to the ground, but Lisa escapes my taloned grasp. No matter. I’m relishing the chase.

Prey.

Lisa bounces from tree trunk to tree trunk, then stumbles once more. Her body makes a loud thwack as it hits the earth. She rises, but not fast enough.

Leaping, I cover the ten feet that separates us. My weight instantly throws her to the ground, knocking the breath from her lungs. Lisa’s head smacks the earth, tearing her delicate skin. Blood coats her beautiful auburn hair.

I close my eyes and inhale.

Delicious.

The smell intoxicates.

“Get off me.” Lisa struggles, managing to turn over. She scratches, claws, and bites at my skin like a wild cat. Her long nails break as her attempts to penetrate my thick hide fail.

Doesn’t she realize her actions only excite me?

Mate.

Prey.

Mate.

Prey.

The urges swirl through my head until I can’t tell which one is stronger. I rip Lisa’s useless skirt and black panties from her body, then quickly toss them aside.

Wrenching her bleeding hands above her head, I hold her still so I can bury my wet nose between her legs. She stiffens, then her body weeps.

For me only.

I’ve wondered what Lisa would smell like for months. It’s better than my wildest imaginings. The musky spice envelops my senses and my body trembles as I fight to maintain control. I give her folds a quick swipe with my long tongue.

Ambrosia.

I debate where to part Lisa’s succulent flesh first.

So much time, so many orifices to choose from.

With a flick of my jagged talons, I remove the remains of her torn shirt. I need to see every inch of her fervent skin. The nipples I’d only been able to dream about until now, stab skyward. Ripe berries on hills of creamy flesh, waiting to be plucked and harvested. I can’t resist one quick lick.

Delectable.

Lisa trembles. When her gaze focuses on my elongated face, her screams turn to terrified wails. She attacks me with renewed fervor, tearing her hands out of my grip, denying her destiny.

I fend off her blows easily and wait for her to tire, before settling my weight between her ample thighs. We’re now eye-to-eye, nose-to-snout, mate-to-mate.

Tears spill down Lisa’s cheeks, watering the parched ground beneath her. I lap at them, but they continue to flow like salty treats upon my tongue.

Don’t cry, I want to tell her, but I can’t. The words come out garbled like razors have slashed my vocal cords.

Lisa shakes her head back and forth in denial, though I don’t understand why. From the start, she pursued me. I thought she would be happy once I let her ‘catch’ me. But Lisa doesn’t look pleased.

Why does she continue to deny our love?

“I won’t tell anyone your secret. I-I-I promise. Just let me go. I’ll leave. You’ll never see me again.”

Let her go. Why would I want to do that? We’re made for each other. Doesn’t she understand that she’s perfect?

Peering into her tear-blotched face, I watch as acceptance fills her blue eyes. Her full lips part and her tongue darts out to moisten them in preparation for my embrace. It’s all the invitation I need.

I open my mouth and lower my head to taste her. Colors explode behind my eyelids upon contact, a kaleidoscope of emotions whirling in my mind. Disjointed nude images of sprawled limbs cloud my vision, erasing everything but the power gushing through my veins.

So this is love.

My heart swells.

Lisa flinches and twists, arching beneath my expert touch. I raise my head. She gasps for air. One kissis not enough...for either of us.

All thoughts of sex forgotten, I delve in again. Deeper.

Lisa gurgles.

Her cries stop along with her struggles, and she goes limp beneath me. My mate’s submission pleases me. Wanting to remember this moment forever, I sit up to get a better look at her face.

Lisa’s expression seems odd, unnatural. Steam rises from a carotid opening in the darkness. That can’t be right. I nudge her with my moist nose, but Lisa doesn’t move, doesn’t blink.

Sightless blue eyes continue to stare at the star-dappled sky, ignoring the approach of the three-quarter moon. Cocking my head, I wonder why she isn’t moving as my mind struggles to understand what has happened.

Blood drips from my face. My tongue swipes out, catching crimson drops before they can hit the ground. The air around me changes. It no longer smells like parched earth. An enchanting coppery sweet aroma has replaced the arid scent.

I want to bottle it, roll in it, capture it for all time. And it’s all thanks to my exquisite Lisa. I gaze lovingly upon her.

She doesn’t move.

Doesn’t speak.

My toothy smile fades as comprehension dawns. Lisa’s dead. I must admit I am disappointed. I chose her to be my one, my only. I had such divine plans for us. Our future all but mapped out.

Perhaps I’m mistaken. It’s possible she’s asleep. I dip my head to check her pulse. Blood runs down my chin and onto my hairy chest, burning my throat in an ecstasy unlike any other.

Hot, sweet, sticky, and delicious. I fight my instincts, but losing is inevitable when confronted with mortally wounded prey.

One claw at a time, I slowly release Lisa’s lifeless hands. There’s only one thing left for me to do. I proceed to gorge myself, taking care to relish each tender bite. My teeth rip and masticate with ease as I feast upon Lisa’s glorious flesh.

This is how it should be.

How it will be again.

Soon.

The sensory overload sends my body into an unexpected orgasm. I shudder as my essence spills onto the ground, mingling with that of my beloved Lisa’s.

I’m sorry we didn’t get to consummate our relationship, but under the circumstances, it’s probably for the best. I brush a claw over what’s left of her face, then greedily eat more.

Momentarily sated, I ponder the question that has been running through my mind for months. Tonight, I finally have an answer.

Lisa does taste as good as she looks.

CHAPTER TWO

 

Gina “Red” Santiago jackknifed up in her rest pad, her body drenched in sweat. Her heartbeat thundered in her head as she snatched her laser pistol off her side table. Red’s hand jerked wildly as she searched the darkness for an immediate threat.

Shadows leapt from the corners of the room, menacing her befuddled mind. It took a few seconds for her to focus. Home. She was at home. On her rest pad. Alone.

“Dung! Not again.” Red dropped back onto her pillows, the sound of her ragged breathing, echoing off the sterile white walls of her living quarters.

She set the gun back on the metal side table with a clank and shot a quick glance at the clock. Three in the morning. She’d only been asleep a few hours. What had woken her up this time? Nothing obvious.

Red punched her pillow and re-adjusted the mat on top of her rest pad to try to get comfortable, then turned to face the wall. Her feet came together with a heavy thump.

She glanced down, but didn’t trust what her ears were telling her.

“Lights on.” Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) complied, bathing the dormitory room in a cadmium florescent glow.

Red looked around the space, taking in the two-seater gray couch, her clothes locker, and personal food-dispensing unit. A flat-panel blank screen blotted one wall like a blemish on a baby’s face. The viewer was off, just like she’d left it. The twenty-by-twenty area wasn’t big enough for anyone to hide. She was alone, but still she hesitated. Afraid of what she might find. 

She took a deep breath and with trembling fingers lifted the covers until she could see her feet. Why was she wearing her combat boots? She shifted to get a better look and sent red clay onto the sheets. Confused, she whipped the bedding off and gaped in disbelief.

When had she gotten dressed?

Her tattered clothes looked as if she’d been fed through a meat grinder. Scratches and cuts marred her golden brown flesh and her muscles ached from overuse. Panic gripped her.

Red replayed the previous evening in her mind. She remembered filing tactical reports, watching the republic news, eating protein-enriched synth-noodles, then getting ready for bed.

The rest of the night was a blank, an endless void in the darkness without beginning or end. Red had assumed she’d spent it in deep REM sleep, but now...

She looked down at her clothes once more. Dried blood dotted her T-shirt. Red frantically pulled the cotton material away from her stomach, then yanked it over her head and tossed it on the floor.

Pressing a splayed hand against her abdomen, she examined her skin. Nothing. No cuts. No scratches. No gunshot wounds. Red stripped out of the rest of her clothes, adding them to the pile destined for the incinerator.

“Mirror!” she commanded.

A full-length mirror appeared on the far wall.

She scanned the rest of her body. There were no obvious signs of injuries. Just dried blood. Lots and lots of blood. Naked and confused, Red swallowed a lump of fear, feeling its icy tendrils claw their way down her throat.

“Identify blood source.” There was a rush of wind that rifled her hair and lifted the clothes off the floor as the A.I. began its analysis. Just as quickly as it started, the unnatural breeze stopped.

“Unknown,” the A.I. said.

She felt the color drain from her face. That wasn’t possible. Everyone and everything had been sampled and catalogued.

“Check again,” Red demanded.

There was a pause. “Unknown,” the A.I. repeated.

Her legs trembled, threatening to give out. Red staggered to her rest pad and pulled her knees against her chest, hugging herself as tremors wracked her body.

She didn’t understand what was happening. Where had she been? She strained to remember, but no answers were forthcoming. Red’s gaze strayed back to the crimson mosaic coloring her discarded shirt.

If the blood wasn’t hers, then whose was it?

CHAPTER THREE

 

The vidcom chirped disturbing Morgan Hunter’s erotic dream. Go away. He pulled the pillow over his head and groaned, trying to ignore the call and get back to the dark-haired woman he’d been about to fuck senseless.

He couldn’t quite make out his dream woman’s face, but he’d know her bodyanywhere. His hips moved restlessly against the covers, caressing his erection as he sought the comfort of her moist warmth. The vidcom chirped again, this time louder, more insistent. The dream slowly dissipated. 

Morgan snarled under his breath, then blindly reached out and pressed a button on a control panel near his bed. If there wasn’t a beautiful woman on the other end of the line begging him for his body, someone was going to get an earful.

“This better be important,” he snapped without looking at the screen.

“Sheriff, we have a problem,” Jim Thornton said, his voice low, secretive.

Why was the director of the dissecting lab calling? And why was he whispering?

“Can’t it wait until morning, Jim?” Morgan removed the pillow, before glancing blurry-eyed at the screen. The image of the red-haired bespectacled man wavered before him. Damn radioactive storms. Morgan smacked the monitor twice and the picture cleared. 

“No, it can’t.” Jim’s gaze darted from side to side, then he leaned into the viewer until all Morgan could see was two magnified eyes, a bulbous nose, and a thick-lipped mouth. “You’re going to want to see this right away.”

“What’s wrong? You look ...” He squinted. “Scared.” The last of Morgan’s sleep haze faded from his mind.

“I can’t tell you over the vidcom. Come down to the lab immediately.” Jim’s pudgy face paled. “We have a serious problem on our hands.”

The hair at the nape of Morgan’s neck bristled. All thoughts of his dream woman were forgotten. What the hell was going on?

“I’ll be there in fifteen.” He glanced at the clock on his side table. The number three glared back petulantly. “Better make that twenty.”

“Hurry.” Jim abruptly severed the link.

Morgan threw back the covers and sat up, scrubbing his hands over his stubbled face and through his hair before glancing around. The air filtering system hummed in the background, the rhythm comforting like a heartbeat in the womb.

No other noise penetrated his living space thanks to the added thickness of the reinforced tinted glass windows and concrete walls. Those same materials also protected his home from assault. Not that there’d been much need these days with the IPTT, International Police Tactical Team, patrolling the world.

Even in the darkness, Morgan could still easily make out his home’s Spartan furnishings, a table, two chairs, and a couch.

Standard republic issue. 

Morgan stood and scratched his ass, then trudged naked across the concrete floor to the cleansing room, stroking his erection as he went. The slabs were warm against his bare feet, despite the built-in cooling system.

He stepped into the chemical shower stall and pressed the clean button. A harsh lemon spray rained down upon his shaggy head. Morgan wrinkled his nose and nearly gagged from the odor, but continued to stroke himself until he reached completion, then hit the off button.

He despised the new A.I. cleansing units with their built-in biomonitors that constantly checked his brainwaves. He didn’t need a goddamned machine deciding when he should wake up and when he should sleep. He was quite capable of making those decisions on his own. He missed the days when he could just take a plain old shower.

Morgan dried quickly and then threw on a pair of black utility pants and a matching shirt. He tugged on his boots, grabbing his gun and badge on the way out the door.

Seconds later he climbed into his vehicle. He placed his hand on the scanner to the right of the wheel. A low-level growl came from the engine. He always loved the sound a hydrogen motor made, when it came to life.

“Welcome, Morgan Hunter,” the onboard A.I. said. “Where would you like to go?”

Morgan flipped a toggle switch to manual and eased onto the accelerator. The growl turned to a roar. He smiled to himself and flattened the pedal. The power of the car threw him back in his seat as the turbo kicked in.

At this time of the morning, if you could call the middle of the night morning, Morgan could set the car at max velocity without attracting heavy tolls from the Republic of Arizona’s automated speed control system.

Once he joined the main road that led into town, he pressed the button to roll down the window. The glass descended with a pressurized hiss, allowing the desert air inside. The warmth brushed over his face and sifted through his hair, clearing his head.

Morgan imagined various scenarios as he drove to Nuria, but none that he could think of warranted immediate attention nor would any of them explain Jim’s frightened appearance. 

The small dusty town Morgan called home came into view as he rounded the final hill. The lights winked at the sky, flirting shamelessly with the night. From this distance, everything looked new. It was only when he drew closer that Morgan could see how the buildings sank their stony fingers into the ground to keep from being blown away.

Morgan’s gut soured as he neared the dissecting lab. He pulled into a parking space. With his thumb pressed to the scanner, Morgan set the doors to lock and the engines to shut off in five seconds, then climbed out of the vehicle.

Jim waited at the door of the dissection lab with a banned smoke stick protruding from his mouth. He puffed heavily on the stick causing wisps of smoke to swirl around his head, before reluctantly tossing it on the ground and snuffing its flame with the toe of his shoe.

“I saw that,” Morgan chided, glancing at the crushed remains.

“Who’s trying to hide?” Jim shuffled from foot to foot impatiently. “Took you long enough.”

The man’s nervousness sent adrenaline surging through Morgan’s body. His shoulders tensed and he looked around suddenly uneasy. Normally, Jim was the epitome of laid back. Nothing ruffled him. He’d seen more in his tenure as the director of the dissecting lab than most biodweller directors see in a lifetime.

Morgan took a deep breath and released it. “What’s so important that it couldn’t wait until morning? And why couldn’t you tell me over the vidcom?” He’d just finished a twelve-hour shift and had finally managed to fall asleep. Not to mention the world-class dream sex he’d missed out on. Morgan didn’t bother to hide his frustration.

“Sorry.” Jim wiped his beefy hands on his dissecting apron. “But the situation required an immediate response and a healthy dose of discretion.” He glanced around the deserted streets, his eyes searching the darkness for unwanted attention.

Morgan automatically followed Jim’s gaze without understanding what they were looking for. “Jim?”

The director held his hand up, stilling Morgan’s questions. “Once you see it, you’ll understand the need for secrecy.” The ominous words sent a trickle of fear down Morgan’s spine.

He followed Jim inside. The odor of mint-scented disinfectant smacked Morgan in the face as they entered the lead-lined dissecting lab, causing his eyes to water. Bright lights spotlighted several gurneys, illuminating death in a kind of macabre showcase. In the center of the room, three stainless-steel tables held bodies in various stages of dismemberment for the recycling of parts.

Disposal shoots lined one wall, while cabinets containing dissecting equipment and disinfectants took up another. Ten large drains dotted the floors to catch recyclable fluids that escaped during the dissecting process.

Humans made up seventy percent of the liquid mulch used for plant growth in the industrial hydroponic chambers scattered throughout the world. Burials no longer occurred, the practice considered too antiquated and wasteful in a world where survival hinged on the ability to conserve.

Morgan missed the old days. There was something to be said for standing over a grave and paying your respects. The names of the fallen were a blur in his mind. The years had sanded down Morgan’s memories of the war until only the faces of the men under his old command remained. He’d buried the last soldier killed in action a lifetime ago, then burned his captain’s uniform and walked away. Morgan hadn’t looked back since...until now.

He inhaled. The cold air did little to mask the smell of death.

Morgan scanned the row of bodies, but nothing seemed out of place until he spotted the one at the very end of the room. Instead of being exposed like the others, it lay covered beneath a white medical tarp. Jim never kept the bodies covered. He said the dead weren’t concerned about modesty and it only slowed his dissecting speed down.

“Put these on.” Jim handed Morgan lab gear. 

Morgan donned the protective headgear and gloves, then followed Jim, who hadn’t bothered to suit up, to the table at the far end. 

“I found her when I was out doing a routine scan of the electro-magnetic boundary area for Unknowns. You know I like to get to them while they’re still fresh. She’s been dead for about a week, maybe longer,” he said, feathering the ends of the tarp through his fingers.

“We have a lot of Unknowns turning up dead. That’s nothing new.” Crossing the boundary was dangerous. The harsh elements and the predators took those who didn’t die at the fence out.

Morgan hated the boundary. The electromagnetic barbed fence stretched across the southern half of the North American continent, bisecting what used to be California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana in order to keep down illegal crossings from ‘No Man’s Land’ to the republics and keep unregistered individuals—Unknowns—out.

He never agreed with the reasoning behind its construction or the separation it stood for. The division between countries, religions, and men had been what started the war in the first place.

Everyone had been so busy pointing out their differences that they forgot how much they were alike. Morgan shook his head and looked at the tarp in disgust. Just because a person refused to be tagged with a computer chip didn’t make him a criminal. At least not in his mind, but it wasn’t his job to create the laws, only to enforce them.

“She’s not an Unknown.” Jim’s statement gut-checked him.

“She’s one of ours?” Morgan asked.

Jim nodded. “She’s registered with the Republic of Arizona, but she’s not one of us.”

Morgan stared at the white tarp unable to bring himself to touch it. “Who?” He forced himself to ask.

“It’s Renee Forrester.”

Oh, hell. He’d dated Renee the year before. They’d split amicably after a few months, their itch thoroughly scratched. She was kind, a tad on the shy side, but well liked. Morgan couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to harm her.

“Are you sure?” Heaviness settled in his chest as the loss sank in deeper.

“I’m sorry, Morgan, but I’ve made a positive ID.”

Morgan took a couple of deep breaths, then pulled the tarp back. The condition of Renee’s body punched the air out of his lungs, leaving him dizzy. He’d seen more than his fair share of dead bodies and learned there were a lot of ways a man could die. Yet he’d never seen anything quite like this. Renee had been brutalized. No more than that, she’d been savaged.

His stomach gurgled as he stared at the body, threatening to toss the remnants of last night’s dinner onto the floor. “What the hell happened to her? Where are her eyes?”

Morgan swallowed hard to fight the rising bile in his throat. The smell of decomp was stronger now, cloying as it insisted upon entering his protective headgear.

“She’s been eaten. Her eyes were torn out of their sockets,” Jim said without inflection.

“Eaten? This isn’t eaten. Renee’s been ripped apart.” Morgan stepped back. Attacks happened. He knew that. It was a fact of life near the boundary. But this was different. This was someone he knew. Someone he’d been intimate with. “What aren’t you telling me?”

“You know I wouldn’t say anything if I wasn’t sure,” Jim hedged. “I checked every weapon on record twice, before moving onto other possibilities. Nothing was a match. Not until ... ”

It couldn’t be happening again. No one was that stupid. Desperation clawed at Morgan’s chest, leaving him raw and exposed. Jim had to be wrong.

“No! You need to check again.” There had to be a logical explanation. Anything but that. “The zoos never caught everything that escaped. Food’s scarce. The predators have gotten a lot more aggressive lately. The upticks in calls from the ranchers confirm it.”

Jim’s shoulders slumped. “Take a closer look at the injuries. Pay particular attention to the area near her carotid artery. Knives are serrated, smooth or a combination of both. They don’t leave this kind of wound pattern.” He pointed to a nasty hole on her slender neck. “You have no idea how I wish I was wrong.”

Morgan stared at Renee. Her left arm was missing, along with her beautiful eyes and half her lovely face. Blonde hair matted with dried blood hung stiffly next to her remaining ear. Her intestines spilled from her abdomen like someone dropped synth-noodles on the floor.

He gulped, then bent to examine the area Jim indicated. “Tell me that’s not a tooth indentation.”

“Wish I could, but I’ve measured the damned thing from four different angles and ruled out everything else. There’s no mistaking the weapon. It’s definitely a fang.”

Jim walked across the room and opened one of the drawers along the wall. He took out a small gold case and brought it back to the table. His thick thumbs flipped the latch and lifted the lid, exposing seven perfectly formed incisors made out of plaster. He picked up the largest one and slid it into the wound on Renee’s neck with ease. It was a perfect fit.

“Hell!” Morgan yanked off the protective gear and tossed the equipment onto the end of a nearby table. The clanging sound reverberated in the silence. Ignoring his gloves, he ran his hands through his hair and began to pace.

Not again.

“You’re sure this couldn’t have been caused by anything else? A lion perhaps?” Morgan hated hearing desperation in his voice.

Jim gave him a sad smile. “You’ve seen the evidence with your own eyes,” he said. “Use your other senses, if you don’t believe me.”

Morgan didn’t want to shape-shift. The smells inside the dissecting lab would be overwhelming in his Other form, but shifting was his only option if he wanted to get to the truth. Bone cracked in his face and his skin stretched as Morgan’s jaw extended to form a snout. Blood dripped onto the floor as his blunt teeth were pushed out and replaced by deadly incisors. Dark fur sprouted from his skin, covering his upper body. The world blurred red, then swiftly turned gray. Sounds sharpened and so did his sense of smell.

He blinked, waiting for the pain to ease and the world to stop churning around him, then Morgan leaned over Renee’s body and inhaled. The barrage of odors immediately attacked his sharp senses. He could smell rat, insect larva, the musk of a wild dog, and something else. Something unique that stood out from the rest. The aroma was vaguely familiar, but the scent was too degraded by scavengers to identify. Morgan snorted to clear his nose, but the scent was gone.

Morgan allowed the pain to swallow him once more. Bones morphed and muscles pulled tight as his face regained its original shape. He grasped the side of the gurney and labored for breath.

“You know what we have here.” Jim slid his glasses back on his round face and paused with the patience of an undertaker.

Yes, he did.

Morgan’s hands curled into fists around the metal frame. “Okay.” He sighed. “We’ve narrowed down the ‘what’, but do you know ‘who’ did this?” His voice held little emotion, knowing whomever Jim named would be sentenced to death.

Jim shook his head, while gathering the tarp to cover the body once more. “The tests were inconclusive, but we can safely rule out the vamps.”

“Why?” It would’ve been far easier to stake a vamp, than to take out one of his own. “Some of them have long-ass canines, too. They still need blood.”

He frowned. “Yes, they do, but the amount varies from vamp to vamp. Most prefer to ah ... feed during sex.” Jim blushed and shoved his hands into his pockets. “Renee shows no signs of having had sexual intercourse.” Jim sniffed and cleared his throat. “Speaking of sex-crazed vamps, I spotted Raphael Vega in town the other night.”

Morgan scowled. “What’s that two-legged bat doing back in Nuria?”

“I was curious, so I asked,” Jim said. “Raphael told me that he was visiting friends.”

“He doesn’t have any friends.”

Jim smiled indulgently. “I know you’d like to believe that, but he has a lot of female friends. Don’t you think it’s about time you get over the grudge you’ve been carrying?” he asked. “Raphael didn’t steal Karen from you. She went willingly to his bed. Half the town heard her passionate screams when he was—”

“This isn’t about Karen,” Morgan growled out between clenched teeth.

“Raphael has interesting timing,” Morgan said.

“So it seems,” Jim replied.

He leaned forward.  “And?”

“You know as well as I do that vamps don’t tend to ingest large quantities of meat or any other food for that matter. That was one of the tradeoffs for the boost in psychic ability.” Jim shrugged. “Besides, they’re very good at hiding their presence and even better at disposing of bodies. You can take the vampires out of the lab, but not the lab out of the vampires.” His genetic tampering joke fell flat. Jim coughed, his face flushing under Morgan’s steady regard.

“Yeah, well I’m still going to check Raphael out to be sure,” Morgan said. “Even if he didn’t kill Renee, he may be up to his old tricks.”

“Seducing women isn’t a crime,” Jim said.

“It is when you use psychic abilities to do so,” Morgan snapped.

“To my knowledge, Raphael has never needed to do that to get women into bed,” Jim said. “Though I’m sure it would help your bruised ego to believe that was the case.”

Morgan glowered.

Jim threw up his hands. “Do what you need to do,” he said, then gently touched Morgan’s arm, drawing his attention away from the body. “We may not know who, but you and I both know whatdid this.”

Morgan exhaled loudly. Indeed, he did know what had done this to poor Renee Forrester. A pureblood against a genetically enhanced, shape-shifting Super Soldier didn’t stand a chance. He hoped whatever hybrid predator had done this had moved on. A shifter who couldn’t control themselves was dangerous to everyone. Nuria didn’t need this kind of trouble.

“Has anyone else seen the body?” He looked warily at Jim, praying the man gave him the right answer—the only acceptable answer given the circumstances.

“No.” Jim pulled his glasses from his face and wiped them on his shirtsleeve. “As soon as I realized who it was, I covered her. I didn’t want any of my lab assistants stumbling upon her,” he said. “The only relative she has in town is her grandmother and I haven’t notified her yet.”

“Good.” Relief flooded Morgan, but it was short-lived. “Hide the body, but don’t dispose of it. We may need her remains later to identify the killer.”

“That’s what I’d planned to do after you saw her,” Jim assured.

“Also, can you hold off on the family notification?” Morgan asked.

“Sure.”

“You were right to contact me. I want to handle this quietly. We can’t afford to have outsiders involved, not with public opinion already turning against us. I don’t want to panic the town unless I have to.” The thought of the impending hunt chilled Morgan’s bones.

“Figured that would be the case.”

He glanced at Jim. “If Roark Montgomery gets wind of this, there will be no stopping his blood purity bill.”

“I know.” Sweat broke out across Jim’s forehead. “The republic leaders will send orders to IPTT to exterminate first and ask questions later. It’ll be wartime all over again.”

Morgan nodded. “My thoughts exactly.”

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