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Novel 1 of the Human Hybrids series

Coexistence

By Clare Solomon







Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2017 Clare Solomon

All rights reserved.

Thank you for downloading this free ebook. Although this is a free book, it remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be reproduced, copied or distributed for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy at Smashwords.com, where they can also discover other works by this author.

Thank you very much for your support.

All names, characters and incidents in this book are fictional and any resemblance to any person, business or event is entirely coincidental.

Cover design by Kanaxa.

Dedication

I would like to dedicate this novel to my mum and sister for their constant support of my writing over the years. I also want to thank The Pen & I writing group, particularly Karen Webster, for months of help, advice and proofreading. Finally, thank you to Nat at Kanaxa for designing the beautiful book cover.

CHAPTER ONE

September 2093

ANOTHER GUN shot rang out from close to the house – far too close – and Pal muttered, “HyCO bastards.”

He walked to the sink and washed the blood from his hands, soaping several times then drying them. When he turned round Torrin was touching the skin around the stitches on his arm – he was only fourteen and innocent of any crime but the mob had still shot him. “You’re going to be okay,” he told his packmate, patting his shoulder.

The boy gave him a shaky smile which froze when the door of the communal bathroom was shoved open. Pal tensed and stepped in front of Torrin while, out of the corner of his vision, he saw Mist grab a knife from the edge of a sink. They all waited to find out if they were going to be attacked again and if they would survive it this time.

Sara walked through the door heaving a backpack and Pal started breathing again. “Here, this is your stuff, Pal,” she said and he took the bag from her. The recent deaths had left a hollow expression in her eyes at odds with her normally upbeat character. “The rest of ours is loaded into my car. We have to leave now.”

“This is our home,” he objected, anger flaring up at the thought of letting the mob drive him away from everything he had ever known.

“It was but it isn’t any more,” she told him, the argument having become an old one in the last week. “The fighting’s getting closer – come on.”

His packmates’ safety was more important than this place, however much he loved it, so Pal gave in. He put the bag over his shoulder and he and Mist put an arm round Torrin who was still weak from loss of blood and woozy from the surgery. They headed down the spiral staircase of the Victorian building – it had once been some kind of boarding school but that was long ago. It had been home to his werewolf pack for two generations – ever since they’d been let out of the laboratories that created his species – and he knew every room, every panelled wall, every piece of furniture. His soul screamed out against the thought of leaving.

They got out to the driveway and another shot exploded from the trees that enclosed the building. Mist winced and said, “If I had a rifle I’d gun down every member of that sodding HyCO.”

“Then the mob would take revenge and even more of us would die,” Sara said as she walked to the waiting cars. She turned to Pal and said, “You should come with us.”

He shook his head. This was another old argument. “I’m heading for Scotland.”

“That’s the other side of the country – you’ll never get there,” Mist told him.

“I’ll be fine.”

He hugged each of his three friends, uncertain of his decision now that the moment of separation had come. He had known them since birth, been raised alongside them. They were pack: family. It didn’t seem possible that he wouldn’t see them again.

Mist touched his face, expression intense as if he was trying to memorise the way Pal looked and felt in this moment. “Just take care…” There was a crack of noise – loud like lightning overhead - and Mist’s body jerked then he fell to the ground. His face was turned towards them, blood blossoming out over the back of his jacket. His eyes were open but lifeless.

Pal bit back a denial as he stared down at his friend, refusing the evidence of his own senses. Part of him registered as Sara pulled Torrin to the other side of their car, away from further bullets. It hit him that the two of them could be next and he dragged his gaze away from Mist. He swallowed down the lump in his throat and yelled to his two remaining packmates, “Go – I’ll contact you. Just get away from here.”

A stranger jogged round the side of the building, caught sight of them and shouted to someone behind him. He ran towards them, shotgun in his hand, and Pal called out again to his packmates to escape while they had time, unable to face losing them too. After a desperate look at him, tears pouring down her face, Sara got the car doors open. Torrin crawled into the back as Sara dropped into the driver’s seat.

The stranger raised his rifle and aimed it at the car’s windshield and Pal yelled, making the man swing round. Pal heard the car starting as he threw himself behind his own vehicle. A shot rang out over his head as he fumbled in his jacket pocket for his car keys. He pulled them free as a large shape rounded the car and stalked towards him. He pressed the keys and heard the car unlock then he was looking down the barrel of a gun.

He raised his eyes to an oddly youthful freckled face and knew he was about to die just because he’d been born a werewolf. He thought of all the things he had wanted to do in his life: the lover he would never find; all the dreams he would never achieve.

The man’s finger tensed on the gun’s trigger. Pal froze and waited for everything to end, the second stretching until he could almost see the hourglass of his life running out of sand.

With a growl of the car engine and gritty sound of its movement over gravel, Pal’s packmates’ car swung past his so close as to nearly hit it and the man leapt out of its path. Heart pounding at the narrow escape, Pal wrenched his car door open with shaking hands. He heard the other car pause and knew Sara wouldn’t leave until he was safe even if it cost Torrin’s life and her own. More of the mob who had been hounding them poured out of the trees towards the driveway and the man who had arrived first got to his feet, gun still in his hand and looking more determined than ever to kill.

Pal put the keys in the ignition, turned them and heard the engine come to life. Sara’s car sped away and he followed, hearing a shot hit his car before he drove off, the mob fading from view as he left his home behind.

Mist was dead. Tears began to sting his eyes as he took in the fact that he had lost his closest friend. His house with a thousand memories, his thirty packmates and the sacred grove of trees were all gone. His former life had been ripped away. Mist was really dead. The shock caught up with him and he pulled his car over, spewing out the contents of his stomach.

He knew he still wasn’t safe and, as soon as his stomach stopped spasming, he was back in his car, driving out of Oxford at full speed.

Within twenty minutes two soldiers beside an army truck waved him to a halt. He didn’t know which side they were on – stopping could be a death sentence but what else could he do when there would be soldiers everywhere he went and they could put out a call to arrest him?

He braked, stopping his car beside the truck and the soldiers approached. He could see rifles slung over their shoulders and swallowed down bile. “ID!” one of them said to him and he passed it over.

“Another werewolf,” the man said to his colleague and Pal tensed. The man turned back to him and said, “We’ve had a couple of dozen of your lot through here lately. What the hell set off that HyCO?”

“Nothing. They’re HyCO,” he answered because it was true: the name Hybrid Control Organisation said it all.

“Well, they’ve put us in a nightmare situation because we’ve got to go in and calm things down. If we kill civilians, even armed ones, we’ll get it in the neck from our bosses.”

“They started the murdering,” Pal said bitterly. “You can’t be punished for defending your life, can you?”

“Wanna bet?” his colleague asked. “Go on, you can leave.”

“Good luck,” the first soldier said and he nodded.

He thought about what the soldier had asked as he drove away. He wished he did know what had caused the HyCO to snap and lead people to attack all the werewolves and dragons. Nine days ago everything had seemed fine. Pal’s patients were mostly his own species, not because that was what he wanted but those were the people who came to him. There were quite a few dragons too and a few of the other species. No one had said anything about trouble or people being worse than usual. The HyCO had always caused their two hybrid species problems, talking of them to civilians as vermin that needed to be controlled. He stayed out of their way and tried to ignore insults in the streets. There had always been people who hadn’t wanted his species and the dragons living amongst them but he didn’t have a clue what had made that bigoted minority start murdering people. That lack of knowledge bit away at him – surely this could have been prevented.

A lot of hybrids had fled as soon as the killing started. The leaders and a few others had stayed to try to talk sense to the mob – they were dead now. Others had refused to leave their homes. Pal had stayed to tend those injured. Well, the mob had got their wish – there were no living dragons and werewolves left in Oxford. He hoped their consciences drove them mad for what they had done.

He saw another army unit ahead, sighed and halted in front of the road barrier. They checked his ID, asked about the fighting then let him leave. After that the army checks began to blend into each other. Every half hour or even fifteen minutes, if he was unlucky, he would have to produce his ID. Sometimes that was enough and at others the soldiers would insist on phoning the police in Oxford to check his identity and of course most of the police were caught up on one side or the other of the fighting so that took forever.

He stopped for the night at a B&B and lay on the single bed of the sparse room as he phoned Sara, “Did you get away safely? Is Torrin all right?”

“Yeah.” His pack-mate sounded worn out. “I got him to a hospital as soon as we got here. He’ll be fine. You could still come back: we’re your family.”

It was hard to resist the plea, especially when part of him wondered if she was right. “I know but if I have to leave my home then I want to go to somewhere I’ve always wanted to go.”

“It’s a name on a map. Della’s stories are twenty years old.”

“It’s where I want to live.” Della had been a teacher within the pack and had helped raise him. She had been murdered two days ago. He couldn’t explain it but he felt he owed it to her to go to the place where she had been happiest. “I’ll call you when I get there.”

By the next evening he wondered if he had been mad thinking he could travel so far. Every town had soldiers protecting them with barriers at the outskirts in case of a wendigo attack. By the next night – several thousand ID checks later – he was sure he would never get to his destination. The day after that he arrived in the town of Tairl just outside Invercade and prepared to begin a new part of his life.

* * *

The first thing Pal had to do was register at the local police station so his identity could yet again be confirmed. It was something done everywhere to protect places from being infiltrated and slaughtered from within by wendigoes. The visit wasn’t the best of starts. “You want what?” the police officer asked, still holding his ID and looking at him as if he was a new species entirely.

“I want to join the local werewolf pack,” Pal repeated. “If you could just tell me where they are?”

“We don’t have packs around here. People all live together.”

“Oh. Well, that’s good.” He was fairly sure it was good. After all, the isolation of the species had been part of what started the trouble in Oxford. So what should he do without a pack to support him? The idea was unnerving but he focused on the logistics of living up here. “I’ll need to find somewhere to rent then.”

“Speak to the Council. You can probably get emergency accommodation for a few weeks until you can find somewhere permanent.”

“I will. Thanks very much.”

He got this arranged and dumped his backpack in the small flat. It had bars on the windows and enough locks to resemble a prison as it was for use in a wendigo attack. The inside was pretty shabby too. Still, this was just temporary and it was better than having to pay out for B&B accommodation while he looked for somewhere to rent or buy. And finding a job. And getting to know his new home. He sat down and thought about Mist and the other members of his pack who were dead for no reason.

The next day he cleaned the flat, bought groceries and spent several hours out walking. He met a couple of werewolves and tried to talk to them but they seemed oddly wary and he returned to the stark flat disappointed then spent the evening on the phone to his Oxford packmates.

The day after this he began looking for a job – without success. Then it was his night for transforming so he drove out of town, looking for a large, open space where he could run about. There was plenty of choice and it was so beautiful here, different entirely from the flat Oxford landscape with its bright greens and familiar English plants. Here there were vast dark forests, knotty gorse and velvet heather with a wealth of vegetation he had yet to learn about. There were lochs surrounded by mountains and golden beaches. It touched something in his soul. It was the right decision, he told himself. As soon as he found some people he could connect with he would be happy here.

He got out of his car and began to undress, the cool autumn evening shocking and stimulating his skin like a cold shower. He locked his clothes in the car and placed the key beneath the front left wheel. Naked, he trod from road to grass which squelched muddily beneath his feet. He walked on the gorse-covered land for several minutes then sat down on a log to wait.

By coincidence it was almost a full moon tonight – it made no difference to his transformation as his species was just named after the mythical werewolves. They and dragons had been created in laboratories, the experimentation originally intended to create soldiers, but everything changed when journalists found out about them and they were suddenly free. There were five hybrid races but werewolves and dragons had as little in common with vampires and sensers – who’d been created within society and never faced the same constant prejudice – as they had with the cannibal wendigoes that the world was at war with.

The mossy log felt damp and flaky beneath him. He breathed in the scents of heather and Scots pine trees, eyes closing. Yes, this place was what he needed and he felt excited at the thought of soon being in the proper form to explore it.

His skin tingled. He breathed carefully in and out, accepting and controlling the pain until all at once it was over. He shook his fur-covered body and pounced on a stick, sending it flying through the air while he darted back and forth before catching it in his teeth. He was about to repeat the game when he caught a whiff of something that made uncertainty ripple through him. He rose up to full height on his back legs and sniffed the air, his werewolf nose picking up a range of scents that as a human he would never have known existed. Beneath animals, plants and pungent soil he detected the faint odour of a creature like himself. He loped off towards it even as the tiny human voice in his altered brain warned against a meeting in this new environment. He needed packmates, longed with body and soul for a companion, and that instinct overrode concern over the potential danger.

Several miles away he stopped as he found a moving shape on the dark moor. The werewolf turned towards him, claws scraping on a rock, and Pal froze. The creature was enormous and smelt male which always increased the chance of confrontation.

The creature sniffed at him, a sign of curiosity to get to know him, so Pal flattened his ears and lowered his eyes to show he wasn’t a threat and stepped closer. The creature rose up on two legs and growled and Pal stopped again, worried. He didn’t want to fight and since he was new here with no pack status he decided that the only thing to do was to accept the other creature’s higher dominant status. He rolled onto his back in surrender and gave a high-pitched whine.

Instead of walking forward to examine him and accept him as a new pack member, the creature hesitated. He could smell waves of puzzlement and aggression from the werewolf and it hit him that the creature wasn’t trying to start a fight: it simply didn’t know how to communicate with him.

After a long pause the werewolf slowly paced forward then leaned down to sniff him and he smelt a need for companionship as strong as his own. He lifted a paw and gently batted the werewolf’s nose and he jumped backwards, startled. Pal opened his mouth wide in a grin and the creature finally seemed to understand his intent and relaxed.

The werewolf moved forward once more and, when he leaned over him, Pal licked the brown furred face. He slowly turned, not wanting his actions to be misunderstood, and stood up on all fours then rubbed against his companion and sniffed him so he would always recognise his companion’s scent from now on. The other werewolf seemed bemused by all this but didn’t resist his actions. Pal head-butted his companion then danced backwards. After a moment the other werewolf paced towards him so he gave a short bark, turned and took off, ears telling him that his companion was right behind.

They passed the rest of the night gambolling and chasing each other. Pal began to get to know his companion who had a sadness that clung to him, although the creature was willing to go along with Pal’s games, revealing a humorous side of his own. Pal felt he had made his first Scottish friend and that thought strengthened his belief that he had found himself a home in this exotic landscape.

When they had succeeded in exhausting themselves running about, Pal and his companion fell asleep curled around each other on the damp grass.

The pre-dawn change back into human form awoke Pal but, as he changed, he caught an odd smell in the air. He waited until the pain faded and opened his eyes.

The other werewolf was now a human male with a compactly muscular body and bright green eyes and Pal felt a spark of interest. The man was crouched next to him but something made him raise his head and look about with a frown. "Did you smell blood?"

"Yes. An animal?"

"It must be but we’d better check. My name’s Brand Akins, by the way."

Pal smiled and shook the man’s hand, amused by this formal greeting after a night spent rolling about in the mud together and playing tag. "Jaspal Khatri but people usually call me Pal. I think the smell was from that direction." He pointed left towards a wooded area.

"Yes. That seems right."

"Inadequate human senses," Pal joked.

Brand returned the offered smile as they headed towards the tall pines. Pal noticed that there seemed to be fewer birds around than usual, as if something had scared them away from the area. After about ten minutes’ walk the grass gave way to earth covered in a layer of pine needles that pricked his bare feet.

The friendly mood between the men had changed to unease as they got closer to the area and the expectation of finding one animal killed by another vanished. The faint smell of blood they had detected while still werewolves was replaced by the stench of charred meat.

What were they walking into? Perhaps he was over-reacting thinking there was something sinister here. After Oxford his nerves were still raw but he had the worrying thought that this could be a trap. His companion’s presence beside him was the one thing that reassured him.

They kept moving, Pal braced for what they would find. It was taking longer than it should have. He had been right in criticising human senses – in werewolf form they could have found the source of that unnerving odour in minutes. They rounded a large pine and both of their footsteps faltered then came to a halt.

Pal stared at the grisly sight in front of them. Although badly burnt the object on the ground was still recognisable as a human body.

CHAPTER TWO

“BETWEEN THE rain and the natural conflagration properties of the vampire body I sincerely doubt that we’ll get any forensic evidence against the killer,” Alan Jefferson, leader of the police forensics team said to the detectives and the HyCO team. “It’ll be hard enough to identify the corpse: fingerprints, hair and nails burnt to dust and eyeballs melted.”

Brand was still muddy from his night in werewolf form but at least he was no longer naked, even if he felt self-conscious. His werewolf side was something private, something he hated and tried to keep separate from his colleagues. He tried to focus on what was being said and grimaced at Jefferson’s enthusiasm which reminded him of children who relished stories of death and maiming, the grislier the better.

“Difficult but not impossible?” DI Waite suggested. He had just arrived to take charge of the investigation. He was a blond, bearded man in old-fashioned clothes, his lined face further wrinkled by a frown.

“We’ve photographed the victim’s teeth,” Jefferson said with satisfaction. “My computer’s compared them with the records in every dental surgery in the Highlands and found a match. Donna’s checking the name against police ID records. Och, here we are.” He gestured towards the tiny woman approaching them.

Donna had joined the forensics team around the time Brand had joined the HyCO so he tended to bracket her with the HyCO team in his mind, as a colleague. She still looked little more than twenty and was dressed, like Jefferson, in a white overall and gloves. She smiled in greeting to the HyCO people then said to the assembled group, “The name of the corpse was Calvin McConnell. There are four people with that name in Scotland but this one lived in Allersey with his parents.”

“The family certainly won’t be able to identify the body,” DI Waite said. “I don’t want our entire ID based on records in a dental surgery where it’s possible that a mistake could’ve been made and the wrong name put on the dental chart.”

“I did fax a holo-photo to the dental office and they recognised it and confirmed it as McConnell,” Donna said with her usual efficiency.

“Good, but I’d still prefer a second form of forensics ID. See what you can do, would you?”

The two forensics officers exchanged long-suffering glances then headed back through the mud and grass, churned up by numerous pairs of feet, towards the blackened form of the corpse.

Brand was not used to a body being so difficult to ID. Usually the identification could be made within seconds by the records on various police programs. As he watched the forensics officers duck under the police tape sealing off the crime scene, he said to his colleagues, “The murderer was either lucky or planned carefully so as not to leave any evidence.” He wondered what the killer’s next move would be and whether this would be the only victim.

* * *

A dead hybrid, Pal thought, and momentarily forgot how to breathe. Was the same thing happening here that had made him leave Oxford? He thought he had left the killing behind – this place was supposed to be safe, his fresh start. He couldn’t even cling to the hope of having a friend to look out for him – Brand, the person he had already started to think of as a packmate, was HyCO. It made no sense but two different police officers had confirmed it. He rubbed his tired eyes. Too much had happened these last two weeks: he couldn’t cope with much more.

He was waiting to give a statement at a police station in the city of Invercade about finding the corpse. Brand had remained behind with two people who had arrived – two more members of the local HyCO apparently. His stomach clenched at the thought, mind replaying taunts over the years by HyCO members and the way they had incited civilians to join their killing spree. The whole purpose of the organisations was anti-hybrid – why would someone as seemingly intelligent as Brand possibly want to be involved with them?

He sat on a wooden chair in a cold old-fashioned room, a police officer at the door. It occurred to him belatedly that he was being treated like a criminal but before he could dwell on what that meant the door opened and two officers in suits entered.

“My name’s DS Lara Shaw and this is DC Kent,” the woman said. The man didn’t so much as glance at Pal as this was said and the two of them pulled back wooden chairs which scraped against the floor then sat opposite him, just a table with a number of scratch marks on it between him and them.

“Hello,” Pal said warily. “I’m Jaspal Khatri.”

“Just a moment.” Shaw held up a hand to stop him and reached into the pocket of her navy one-piece suit for a thumb-sized digital recorder. She switched it on and placed it on the table as she read him his rights. "Now could you just repeat your name for the tape.”

He did so, a sick feeling rising in him. He didn’t feel as if they considered him a witness. This was more like the way a suspect would be treated. He told himself he was being ridiculous and tried to shake off his nerves. It had been a difficult few weeks and he was in shock; that was all.

What were you doing at the crime scene?" Shaw asked.

"I’m a werewolf. It was just a convenient open space to change form. I met Brand Akins within minutes of changing and we were together the whole night. We found the body together in the morning."

"Did you know the deceased person?"

Pal thought of the body with a shudder but managed to keep his voice dispassionate. "The corpse was entirely burnt – obviously a vampire. I couldn’t tell if the person was male or female let alone if I’d ever met them. It’s almost impossible that I have, though, as I only arrived in the Highlands yesterday."

The other officer looked suspiciously at him. "From where?"

"Oxford."

The two of them stared at him then Shaw said, "Why would you undertake such a dangerous journey?"

Because I’m an idiot, Pal decided. Nowhere was safe. That was obvious now. He’d been pursuing a dream of finding somewhere where his people weren’t hated. He thought with a pang of Brand who had been the first person up here he’d felt a connection with. Part of it was their shared werewolf nature but the man wasn’t like any of the werewolves he had met before. He didn’t seem to know normal werewolf behaviour, which Pal found inexplicable. And now the two of them were caught up in a suspicious looking death and Brand, apparently, worked for an organisation that hated hybrids. His dream of finding a home had become a dangerous waking-nightmare.

He explained DS Shaw, "I was born in Oxford in a werewolf pack but it wasn’t safe to live there anymore. Members of the local HyCO went nuts and led a mob in attacks on any hybrid they could find."

Shaw asked him more questions about the discovery of the body then turned off the small recorder and stood up. He followed suit, relieved that the interview was finally over. “Jaspal Khatri,” she said, “I’m arresting you for the murder of the as yet unknown vampire found in Rackle Woods. You do not have to say anything …”

She continued reading his rights but his mind was numb. He was innocent – how could they accuse him of murder? An officer led him to a desk where his phone, watch and the PC wrapped round his arm were taken away and listed on a computer file. His finger prints were taken then he was asked if he wanted to make a phone call. It hit him then that he was in this unknown place amongst strangers and there was no one to help him. He turned down the phone call and was taken to a cell and left there.

He lay on the single bunk. They actually thought he was a killer. There must be some way to prove it wasn’t true. Forensics – surely they would lead to the real murderer. But it had been raining on and off during the night, he remembered. Perhaps there would be no evidence left of anyone else. Maybe he really was going to be put on trial for murder.

* * *

As he leaned against his car in the cold drizzle, Brand’s mind drifted back over the previous night once again. He had wanted to remember anything that had happened that might be relevant to the murder but his thoughts kept returning to the young man he had met. He had always avoided other werewolves when in that form, his inability to properly communicate with them causing problems, but Pal had seemed to instinctively understand him. Brand had always thought that a werewolf could look like nothing but a monster, its shape close to human but distorted, covered in fur, its face an unnatural blend of person and animal. Yet Pal had been strangely endearing in that form, with liquid brown eyes and soft black fur. It was the first time in his life Brand had ever enjoyed being in werewolf form and he wondered what it was about Pal that was so different from other werewolves he had encountered. He had never had fun in that form before.

He had also rarely changed shape with another werewolf present and never willingly. Part of Brand’s reluctance had been fear of his loss of control; fear that he could hurt someone. Yet with Pal he had felt more human inside than ever before in werewolf form; there hadn’t been that sense of danger. Brand had fought not to stare at the man’s regular form. The large brown eyes were even more attractive in the tan-coloured human face topped by wavy black hair and his body was slim without being skinny, its colour and texture that of flawless toffee. Brand had told himself he had just been noticing details as he would in any situation but he knew he had felt a flare of lust towards the man and that knowledge made him sick with guilt. It was less than a year since Kye’s death.

Brand’s colleagues investigated the area while he waited at his car, desperate to return to his room at the HyCO to shower and change. His skin, beneath the clothes he now wore, was covered in mud and grass stains and he dreaded to think what he smelt like. He usually did all he could to avoid being seen directly after a transformation.

He saw Daelin and Yvesse returning and looked away. Daelin’s hatred of Kye had somehow passed on to Brand after Kye’s death. They had never got on well but never this badly. Brand didn’t think he had done anything to provoke it but, with the state he had been in since his lover’s death, it was possible he had said something to offend Daelin.

His colleagues stopped in front of him and Daelin gave his dishevelled appearance a glance then said, “Tell me again why you came to this particular spot.”

“It was a mass orgy,” Brand said flatly, not in any mood to put up with the sniping tone today. He was cold, damp and could still hardly believe he had managed to stumble over a dead body on his evening away from work. These things just didn’t come out of nowhere like this. Unless he had been supposed to find the body – some kind of message or warning from the killer.

“Very funny,” Daelin said.

Yvesse glanced away, clearly trying to ignore the argument. After three years of working together he still didn’t particularly know her as she kept to herself when off-duty. While he had nothing against the senser she was the least helpful person to be here, her aloofness mingling with Daelin’s hostility. Brand felt exposed in front of them both.

“Why were you here?” Daelin asked again.

“I always come here when I change shape.”

“I see.” The man frowned and pushed his glasses – an anachronism in this day and age - up his nose. “I’m going to check with DI Waite.”

Yvesse turned back towards Brand as their colleague left. Her bronze skirt-suit was a flash of fiery colour amongst mud-brown and green of the landscape and, of course, she looked pristine, making him even more conscious of his own grimy state. “What about this man you were with? Is he a suspect?”

“No, not at all. We found the body together, that’s all.”

She put her hands up in a gesture of surrender. “I just asked.”

Realising he had snapped he gave an apologetic smile. “Sorry. It’s been a long day and it’s not even afternoon yet. I hate changing shape.” And he hated even more having to talk about it; hated having to admit that this was who he was.

Daelin returned and said to them, “The ID’s been confirmed: Calvin McConnell. Also the time of death was around nine last night.”

Before he even arrived here, Brand realised. He and Pal had been close to the corpse all night but had been too far north until morning when the wind changed and they caught the scent. He wondered how Pal was getting on with the police and hoped he was not too shaken by this whole experience, although the other werewolf had probably given his statement and returned home by now.

* * *

Pal lay in his cell and seconds, then minutes, then hours crawled by. The room was cleaner than he might have expected, spartan and plain. He couldn’t believe he was here like this. One moment everything had been fine then suddenly there was a dead body and people saying he had killed the person. How did anyone prove that they weren’t a killer?

He thought longingly of Sara and Torrin and the rest of his surviving packmates. He could have stayed with them and none of this would have happened. He must have been insane to travel here. Della had told him and the other children bedtime stories about a wonderful place near the sea, of a landscape unlike any they had seen, of kind friendly people. He snorted. It had all just been a fairytale.

Yet he had felt at home here when he first arrived and no one had been particularly hostile to him as a werewolf before the murder. His mind returned to the charred body, trying to make sense of the discovery. Was there really no evidence to prove his innocence or were the police up here as happy as the mob in Oxford to blame anything bad on the nearest hybrid? Brand would surely be involved with the case. No, he couldn’t pin his hopes on that. He had been wrong about Brand who, as a member of a HyCO, couldn’t be trusted. It looked as if he’d been wrong about everything lately.

How long would they just leave him here? He had never been claustrophobic before but panic and fear were rising up in him now. This shouldn’t be happening to him. Why was he here?

CHAPTER THREE

SO THAT’S what you look like, Brand thought as he, Daelin and Yvesse watched the CCTV and internal camera footage which showed Calvin McConnell in the hours before his death. They had finally returned to the HyCO building in the centre of Invercade city and Brand had been able to shower and change in his bedroom here. He felt like himself again which, for once, was a good thing.

The police reports of interviews with friends and family had begun arriving on the HyCO computers, revealing who the vampire had been: eighteen years old, outgoing, cheerful. Calvin was shown laughing on the computer screen as he stood drinking with a group of friends in a pub. A handsome boy with untidy brown hair that sometimes fell in his eyes, dimpled smile and fashionable clothes of red and black one-piece.

Brand’s phone rang and, as he took it off the back of his hand and unfolded it, he walked out into the corridor, leaving the others still watching Calvin’s ghost. After a quick conversation he rang off and walked to his boss’s office which was also on this floor, the bedrooms above them and reception and various interview rooms below on ground-level.

Red’s office was messier than usual. Unlike his own Spartan area, she had made this room unique and personal, with its ornate desk and the abstract paintings hung on the walls behind her chair. He had already told her about the case so he just stood in the doorway and gave the update: “The police have the name and address of the lad Calvin left the pub with. I’d like to take Yvesse to sit in on the interview with me.”

“Why her?”

Because he hated working with Daelin. “Why not?”

Red paused, file in hand, as she sat looking across at him. Her half-dragon heritage had given her mis-matched eyes, one black and the other red with a vertical slash of pupil. She had never shown any of the insecurities about her background that he felt daily, although she must face even more prejudice than he did, given her past. The HyCO seemed to be her entire life and her decisions were always obeyed so he knew he couldn’t change her mind when she said, “Take Daelin.”

Bugger. “Right.”

He left her to her work and he and his colleague took Daelin’s car and made the short journey in unfriendly silence. When they arrived at the block of flats and met DS Lara Shaw their mutual dislike became even more obvious as Daelin became Mr Sociable and asked her how she was and how the job was and gave a credible imitation of an actual person.

Brand liked Shaw. She had joined CID after he left the police force so he had only ever worked with her through the HyCO, but she was good at her job and had always been friendly to him, not showing prejudice over his being a werewolf unlike some of the other officers. Today, like Yvesse, Shaw was wearing a brightly coloured skirt-suit, although the heels of her shoes were higher.

They headed into the grey block of flats, walked up a couple of flights and knocked on the door of the flat where the murder victim’s friend lived. They called out who they were. After a pause Shaw knocked again, more forcefully, and they heard footsteps approach from inside the building.

“I can’t open the door in daylight – I’m a vampire,” Pulrick Eddison yelled.

“Then leave it ajar and step back further into the flat and we’ll come in,” Shaw ordered.

“Can you not come back later?” the voice shouted, sounding irritated.

“No!”

There was some muttered swearing on the other side of the door then the click of the lock and the door was fractionally opened. They gave the man a few seconds to get well back then let themselves in and shut the door behind them.

Eddison, clad only in his underwear, glared at them then turned and walked into another room. They followed him into the kitchen with its protective tinted windows. His species had an allergy to sunlight which was why they had been named after the supernatural creatures, but that was the only resemblance. Vampires certainly didn’t kill to survive – unlike wendigoes – and were generally accepted by humans far better than Brand’s own species was. Eddison got a carton of apple juice out of the fridge and took a swallow from it then said, “So what’s going on?”

“When was the last time you saw Calvin McConnell?” Shaw asked. The kitchen was small, meaning that the four of them had to stand close together to fit, Brand behind Daelin in the doorway.

“Last night. Why?”

“What time?”

Eddison scratched a pale skinny arm then folded one over the other. “Early. He was s’posed to call me back to pick him up and go on to a club but he never. Is he okay? Has he done something?”

“Exactly what time was this?” Shaw persisted.

He sighed, clearly starting to get annoyed. “I’ve no idea. Eight or nine o’clock. Why?”

“Calvin McConnell was found dead this morning,” Brand said.

“Fuck!” Eddison’s hand clenched on the box of juice and it sloshed over his hand and wrist. He glanced at it then back at them, looking shaky. “What happened?”

“Someone stabbed him at around nine o’clock last night,” Shaw said.

“What?” He put the box down blindly on the kitchen ledge behind him and wiped his sticky hand on the chest of his underwear. “That’s impossible.”

“Is there anything you want to confess?”

“Confess?” In another second he seemed to realise what the question implied and went even paler. “No, of course not. Cal’s a friend. He was meeting someone. I don’t know who it was but he got me to drop him off at Rackle Woods. Said someone had something to tell him and he’d call me later to go on to the club together. Are you sure about this? He’s definitely dead?”

“He was found in Rackle Woods,” Daelin said with a glance at Brand, who at once recalled the odour of burnt flesh and the sight of the charred body. He’d never seen anything so grim and, after an adult life spent in the military, the police force and the HyCO, that was saying a lot.

Shaw asked, “Did he say anything about who he was meeting? Someone he’d just met perhaps?”

Brand glanced at her, surprised at the question. Did she already have someone in mind for the murder? A horrible idea crossed his mind then wouldn’t go, niggling away at the back of his head as the conversation continued.

“No. He said…” Eddison frowned at the counter opposite as if trying to recall the conversation. Brand thought he might be hungover. “He said someone had something important to tell him. I said the woods were the middle of nowhere and asked if he wanted me to go with him. He laughed and said he wasn’t worried and would call me later.”

Shaw arranged for Eddison to give an official statement at the police station after nightfall then they left the dazed vampire. As they walked down the stone steps to the ground floor Brand asked Shaw, “Why did you ask if McConnell was meeting someone he’d just met?”

“I was hoping Eddison might have given Jaspal Khatri’s name.”

“The man Brand found the dead boy with?” Daelin checked.

Ignoring him, Brand said to Shaw, “Why on earth would you think Pal had anything to do with the death? What did he say in his statement?” He wished now that he had gone with Pal to the police station but this outcome had never even occurred to him.

“Nothing incriminating unfortunately but we’ve got officers asking around in Oxford and Khatri is safely imprisoned. Hopefully they’ll find out something useful.”

“Oxford?” Daelin exclaimed. “Would one of you tell me what you’re talking about?”

Shaw filled them both in about Pal’s background and the chaos in Oxford after the rioting. Brand hadn’t known what had made Pal come to Scotland and understood now Pal’s expression when he found out Brand was in a HyCO. The group in Oxford had put his pack through hell. As a werewolf Brand had been insulted, ridiculed, even spat at but at least no one had tried to kill him. After suffering all that Pal had come to Scotland to make a new start only to end up arrested and Brand still couldn’t see a reason for it. Shaw said, “I bet he killed someone back there as well.”

“Based on what?” When she shrugged he went on, anger growing, “I was with him when he found the body or do you think I’m a murderer too?”

“Of course not but Calvin was killed between nine and eleven o’clock last night, before you ever ran into Khatri.”

“And then Pal decided to stay in the same place all night?”

“He didn’t expect the body to be found so quickly.”

Brand shook his head, certain of Pal’s innocence, having got a good idea of his character over the night they spent in werewolf form. Pal shouldn’t have been treated like this. “So you’ve got him locked up in a police cell based on a vague hunch and no actual evidence?”

Shaw glared up at him. “I think the fact that he fled Oxford and travelled a ridiculous distance here gives plenty of grounds for suspicion.” While normally he might have been concerned about this, as people didn’t travel far with packs of wendigoes about, Pal had explained his reason for travelling to Scotland and Brand accepted it. He certainly didn’t view it as evidence against Pal and was disappointed that Shaw had thrown aside her usual method of following every lead on a case and accused the most convenient person.

“If Lara had released him it sounds as if he might have gone on the run again,” Daelin agreed, apparently willing to go along with this stupidity if it meant siding against Brand.

“Without evidence you’ll have to let him go tomorrow morning anyway and if he is guilty – which I don’t believe for a second – you’ll have revealed that he’s under suspicion.”

“We’ll have more evidence by then,” she insisted and Brand could see that she was determined to prove Pal’s guilt. It was crazy: a killer who went to such trouble to cover their tracks in terms of the forensics would hardly have stayed around all night shedding fur and other DNA evidence everywhere. Besides, every instinct he had said that Pal was innocent and if necessary he would prove it.

* * *

In the morning Pal was taken back to an interview room and was faced with the same female officer from yesterday. DS Shaw looked smart and fresh and he was a crumpled, smelly mess, exhausted and frantic after a night spent worrying about murder charges and spending a lifetime in prison for something he hadn’t done.

After checking again that he didn’t want a lawyer present Shaw and another officer sat down opposite him, a table between them, and she asked, “Are you ready to admit to the murder?"

He swallowed. “No. I still didn’t do it.”

“Where were you from eight in the evening?”

He rubbed his eyes. “I was at my new flat in Tairl. I ate dinner then drove to the area where I met Brand Akins.”

“No one saw you?”

“I didn’t see anyone but someone might well have seen me get into my car in Tairl.” It was a long-shot but a chance he wanted to believe in.

“What time did you get to Rackle Woods?”

“I’m not exactly sure. I drove about for a bit deciding what looked like the best place to change shape – a large area of land. I probably got there around eleven. About then. It was pitch-dark so no one would have seen me arrive but they could have seen me driving before that and recognise my car.” He knew this was even more unlikely than someone seeing him in Tairl and could hear the note of desperation in his own voice. He hadn’t known he needed a damned alibi or he would have made sure he had one.

“And when did you meet Mr Akins?”

“Twenty or thirty minutes after that. I changed shape and smelt his presence. I approached him at once.”

“I see.” She changed the subject. “You must see that suddenly leaving Oxford and travelling all this distance is highly incriminating.”

“No, wait,” he objected, his tired brain trying to keep track of what had and hadn’t already been covered in the last two days. “I explained that. Was I supposed to stay to die in Oxford?”

“There are other far closer places you could have gone to. Did you kill someone there and flee to avoid being caught?”

“No. This is crazy. I’ve never committed any violent crime in my life. You must have checked my background records.”

Her pursed lips confirmed that she knew he didn’t have a criminal record. “Things were chaotic when you left there. There’s no knowing what you could have done during the mob attacks.”

“Me and my pack are attacked and a dozen people I’ve known all my life are murdered and you’re accusing me of violence! Do you think all hybrids deserve to die?”

“I’m the one asking questions, Mr Khatri.”

She didn’t even care if he was innocent. Seized by panic at the idea that she wanted him in prison whether he had committed the murder or not he said, “I’ve changed my mind. I want a solicitor.”

She stood up. “You can leave now, Mr Khatri. Thank you for your assistance.”

He wasn’t sure at first that he’d heard her correctly and he continued to sit on the wooden police chair staring up at her in confusion. “You’re releasing me?”

“For the moment.” Her mouth was set in a grim line. “I expect I’ll see you again soon enough.”

CHAPTER FOUR

BRAND FROWNED when he saw Pal. The werewolf was unshaven and his expression was dark as he walked in front of DS Lara Shaw into the police station’s reception area with its wooden seats and surfaces covered in posters and pamphlets. Brand got to his feet and said hello to Shaw, causing a suspicious look from Pal. She nodded and returned the greeting before heading back into the main part of the station.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“No,” Pal said, cold and wary in a way that seemed uncharacteristic after his previous friendliness. “I’m the chief suspect in a murder case. I’m nothing like all right.”

“Come on.” Brand put a hand on his shoulder. “I’ll buy you some breakfast.”

Pal managed a tired smile and at once looked more like the man Brand had met. “Thanks.” As they walked into the busy Invercade street Pal glanced about with interest then asked, “How is it that you know that police detective?”

"I used to work here."

"And now you’re with the local HyCO?" He looked as if he wanted Brand to deny this. A lot of hybrids didn’t have a high opinion of HyCOs but it was hard to always get this reaction, as if he was a traitor to his species by being part of the group. Somehow the idea of Pal seeing him this way particularly bothered him but perhaps it was inevitable. Brand hadn’t liked the man he saw in the mirror for months and simply getting through each day had been almost more than he could manage.

"Aye," he said simply, refusing to justify what he did. "There’s a café just round the corner that serves good meals."

"Okay."

They walked to the café, the city streets around them bustling. A holographic salesperson tried to entice them into a large bookshop and he and Pal exchanged amused glances, the smaller man seeming to relax for the first time. In the busy café they bought hot drinks and sat down either side of a small wooden table. He saw Pal glance round and nod to several people.

“Friends of yours?” he asked, not surprised at the idea that Pal had numerous friends.

“No. Just werewolves.”

“How do you know that?”

Pal gave him an odd look he recognised from his conversations with other werewolves during his life. It was the look that said he didn’t know something that all werewolves knew; that he wasn’t acting like a proper werewolf. “Just their scent,” the man explained then changed the subject and Brand was glad not to get the usual how can you not know this? questions.

"I remember when we had real coffee," he heard an ancient wizened man loudly telling the teenager behind the counter. The old man wore jeans, jumper and a denim jacket – an outfit five decades out of date and one that contrasted with that of the shop girl with her fashionable geometric hairstyle and all-in-one outfit in various bright colours and fabrics. The man added wistfully, "Nothing nowadays tastes as good."

Brand smiled at this and sipped his mug of caffell. He had no memory of a time when countries had been allowed to trade with each other and so couldn’t miss it, although he was curious. "Do you live in Invercade?" he asked Pal.

"I’ve just rented emergency accommodation in Tairl until I can find something better," he answered then briefly explained his journey from Oxford. Although Brand had heard the bare details of the story, it was another thing to learn about it from Pal. He never would have expected this unassuming man to do something so adventurous and risky. Even when he was in the army as a teenager Brand had never left the Highlands and wondered what it would be like to live in an entirely different place. He found himself growing more interested in Pal with every new fact he found out. "I work as a doctor," Pal added. "At least I will when I can find work here."

Brand lifted his drink to his lips before saying, "If you’re looking for a job I could try to get you one at the local HyCO."

Pal’s smile immediately vanished, the easy atmosphere between them melting away. "Why would I want to work for a group that goes around murdering my kind? In Oxford they bullied us, turned others against us then finally led a mob on a killing spree against us. That’s the reason I left."

"And in several other places hybrids have taken over the HyCOs and gone around murdering humans," Brand repeated the speech he had had to make many times before. People were often violent no matter what species or group they belonged to in his experience. Pal gave a grimace, not looking convinced, and Brand tried to make him understand: "We have humans and hybrids in our group and we work to keep a good relationship between the species. We even have a mediation officer to sort out human/hybrid disputes."

"What if hybrids act violently? Do you harm them then?"

"We arrest anyone who breaks the law, human or hybrid. We kill when there’s no other choice. We had a pack of wendigoes in the area a year ago…"

Pal breathed in sharply at this, leaning forwards. "And you’re still alive?"

"It took us about six weeks to hunt them all down. They butchered around three thousand local people including three members of our group." The fighting had been bad enough but to have got through all that and thought they were finally safe, then lost Kye...

Pal reached out and put a hand on his arm, shattering the bitter thoughts and memories with a warm touch. "I’m sorry," he said gently. "That must have been a nightmare."

Brand, looking into that sympathetic expression, nearly blurted out the entire mess of his life lately. But he’d never talked about it and the words got stuck inside him. Besides hearing his problems was the last thing Pal needed after everything he had just endured.

"Did the police say anything to you about the dead body?" Pal asked after a pause, removing his hand from Brand’s arm.


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