Skin Trade (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter #17)(2)


by Laurell K. Hamilton

A woman answered the phone in Las Vegas, and I began the process of getting passed up the line to the person who might be able to tell me whose head I had in the box.

Chapter 2

UNDERSHERIFF RUPERT SHAW had a rough voice; either he'd been yelling a lot, or he'd smoked way too much, for way too many years. "Who did you say this was?" he asked.

I sighed, and repeated for the umpteenth time, "I am U.S. Marshal Anita Blake. I need to talk to someone in charge, and I guess that would be you, Sheriff Shaw."

"I will kick the ass of whoever gave your name to the media."

"What are you talking about, Sheriff?"

"You didn't hear about the message from the media?"

"If you mean television or radio, I haven't had either on. Is there something I should know?"

"How did you know to call us, Marshal?"

I sat back in my chair, totally puzzled. "I get the feeling that if I hadn't called you, you'd be calling me, Sheriff Shaw."

"How did you know to call us?" he said again, each word a little more defined, an edge of stress, maybe even anger in his voice.

"I called you because I've got a package sitting on my desk that was mailed from Las Vegas."

"What kind of package?" he asked.

Was it time to tell the whole story? I hadn't earlier because once you tell someone certain things-say, you got mailed a human head in a box-they tend to think you're crazy. I was in the media enough for someone to pretend to be me, so I'd wanted them to take me seriously before they discounted me as some crackpot psychotic.

"Someone mailed me a human head. The return address is your city."

He was quiet for almost a minute. I could hear his raspy breathing. I was betting on the smoking. About the time I was going to prompt him, he said, "Can you describe the head?"

He could have said a lot of things, but that wasn't on my list. Too calm, even for a cop, and too practical. The moment he asked me to describe it, I knew he had someone in mind, someone who was missing a head. Shit.

"The head is in plastic, packed in ice. The hair looks dark, but that could be partially from the way it was packed. The hair looks straight, but again, I can't be sure that it's not some leakage making the hair appear straight. Caucasian, I'm sure of, and the eyes look pale. Gray, maybe pale blue, though death can steal color from the eyes. I have no way of telling time of death, so I don't know how much discoloration could have taken place."

"Have you searched the box for anything else?"

"Is your man missing more than just a head?" I asked.

"A badge, and a finger. The finger should have a wedding band on it."

"I'm sorry to hear that last part."

"Why?"

"Telling the wife, I don't envy you that."

"You have to do that yourself much?"

"I've seen the grieving families of the vampire vics often enough. It always sucks."

"Yeah, it always sucks," he said.

"I'm waiting for forensics to look at it before I touch anything. If there are any clues, I don't want to f**k them up because I got impatient."

"Let me know what they find."

"Will do." I waited for him to add something, but he didn't. All I had was his breathing, too rough, too labored. I wondered when was the last time he'd had a physical.

I finally said, "What happened in Vegas, Sheriff Shaw? Why do I have a piece of one of your officers on my desk?"

"We aren't sure that's who it is."

"No, but it would be an awfully big coincidence if you've got an officer who's missing a head, and I've got a head in a box sent from your town that superficially matches your downed officer. I just don't buy a coincidence that big, Sheriff."

He sighed, then coughed; it was a thick cough. Maybe he was just getting over something. "Me either, Blake, me either. I'll go you one better. We're holding back the fact that we've got a missing head and badge. We're also holding back from the media that there's a message on the wall where my men were slaughtered. It's written in their blood, and it's addressed to you."

"To me," I said, and my voice sounded a little less certain of itself than I wanted it to sound. It was my turn to clear my throat.

"Yeah, it reads, Tell Anita Blake I'll be waiting for her."

"Well, that's just... creepy," I said, finally. I couldn't think of what else to say, but there was that electric jolt that got through the shock for a second. I knew that jolt; it was fear.

" 'Creepy,' that's the best you can do? This vampire sent you a human head. Will it mean more to you if I tell you it's the head of our local vampire executioner?"

I thought about that for a few breaths, felt that jolt again-somewhere between an electric shock and the sensation of champagne in your veins. "What word would make you happy, Shaw? Did he take any souvenirs from any of the other officers?"

"You mean, did he decapitate anyone else?"

"Yeah, that's what I mean."

"No. He and his monsters killed three operators, but the bodies were not used for souvenir hunting."

"Operators... so the vamp executioner was with your SWAT?"

"All warrants of execution are considered high risk, so SWAT helps deliver the message."

"Yeah, they're talking about that in St. Louis, too." I was still unsure how I felt about them forcing me to take SWAT on vampire hunts. Part of me was happy for the backup, and another part was totally against it. The last time SWAT had backed me, some of them died. I didn't like being responsible for more people. Also, it was always a chore to convince them I was worthy to put my shoulder beside theirs and hit that door.

"If our men killed any of the monsters, we don't have any evidence to prove it. It looks like our people dropped where they stood."

I didn't know what to say to that, so I ignored it. "How long ago did all this happen?"

"Yesterday, no, night before last, yeah. I've been up for a while; it starts to make you lose track."

"I know," I said.

"What the hell did you do to this vampire to make him like you this much?"

"I have no idea. Maybe let him get away and not chase him. Oh, hell, Shaw, you know there's no logic to these nut-bunnies."