Taz Bell #1: Dead Heat

Chapter One

The ghoul slashed at me with his knife, and instead of blocking the swing I avoided it. But I avoided it a touch slower than I'd been moving, starting to dangle the hook I hoped to catch the ghoul on. Along with the freely bleeding wound in my left side, the act ought to look real.

Had damned well better look real. The three ghouls I'd emptied my gun into had been farther along the path to complete ghouldom, meaning they were more shriveled into themselves, had longer claws and teeth, shambled more than walked. It had taken a few rounds but they'd died, their bodies lying on the warehouse floor about ten feet away from where I faced the fourth ghoul with knives. This one still looked almost human and didn't shamble, and if my trick didn't work then the next body to hit the floor might be mine.

The ghoul I faced grinned, showing teeth that had started to go pointy. I would have bet that he was thinking about tearing into me with those teeth once I was down, preferably before I died. Ghouls don't just prefer human flesh they crave it, and a lot of ghouls will do just about anything to get that flesh. Which was mainly the reason I was here fighting with a knife in my fist in the first place.

The ghoul slashed at me again, pretending to give me an opening, but I ignored the phony opening and moved just a touch slower than I had the last time. I still avoided the slash, but with a bit less room. I also let some desperation enter my eyes for a moment before pushing it away, and that made the ghoul grin even more. He had me, he knew he had me, and the next instant he went for the win.

The minute the ghoul tried to close with me I stopped pretending to be human slow. My left arm blocked the sidearm slash the ghoul had aimed at me, and my own knife flashed into his gut and cut upwards. Seven inches of sharp, pointed steel slammed into his body and up into his heart, and the ghoul screamed in rage and tried again to reach me with his own knife.

I was just able to block his blow again as I shredded his heart with my knife, and finally, finally he found it impossible to hold it together any longer. His mouth opened to snarl at me, but no sound came out. He just dropped to the floor with the rage gone from his dark eyes, showing that he really was dead at last. I went to one knee next to the body, not quite trusting that the fight was really over, but needing to rest for a minute or so. I had lost a lot of blood, and -

"You sneak!" a shaky male voice filled with anger and outrage exclaimed from my left. "You killed him with trickery, but you won't be allowed to do the same to me! You're the one who's going to die, and right now!"

The man who'd appeared out of the dimness of the warehouse looked completely human if a bit prissy, which was probably why he was holding a gun. The farther you move from full humanity, the less you tend to rely on weapons other than your own. His hand shook just a little as he aimed the gun at me, and whether the trembling came from anger or nerves didn't really matter.

Without moving I gathered myself, not about to just let him shoot me down once he got his trembling under control. A knot of coldness in my middle said I knew well enough how much damage his bullets could do, but I still had to try to stop him. Trying couldn't end me up any more dead than just kneeling where I was, so there was no reason not to try. Even if I didn't expect the try to work.

And then I got the break I hadn't even reached the point of hoping for. A wavering film of distorted light wrapped itself around the man's head, causing him to scream in fear and raise both hands to protect himself. As soon as that gun wasn't pointed at me anymore I launched myself at the man, reaching him in two strides and grabbing his gunhand. One sharp twist broke the wrist and let the gun fall to the floor, and then I got a surprise. The man's second scream cut off, and he folded to the floor not far from his gun.

"I think he fainted," George said, forming completely next to the man's unmoving body. "Are you all right, Taz?"

"Thanks to you I am, George," I said, shifting the fallen gun to the right with my foot before sitting down and leaning back against one of the few crates standing in the warehouse. If I ended up needing the gun I'd pick it up, but if not there was no sense in confusing the police by putting my fingerprints on the weapon.

"I don't understand why the police aren't here yet," George fretted from where he floated a couple of inches off the floor. "I heard you call them before we entered this warehouse, and that was more than an hour ago. Why aren't they here yet?"

"Maybe they were on coffee break and have a rule against being disturbed," I said, trying to gather up all the strength I had left. "If they aren't here by the time I can stand up again, I'll use my cell to give them another call."

George nodded before he floated away to look around, the expression on his transparent face kind of grim. For a ghost George tended to think a lot like what he'd been before he died, which had been my partner and a cop. George Raymond Lees was still my partner, but neither of us was still a cop.

With all the fighting over, the warehouse was very quiet. A few large crates were scattered here and there across the floor, most of them standing in dimness. The overhead fluorescents were turned on only in one section of the warehouse, the section near the large walk-in freezer. There was also a refrigerated truck parked not far from the freezer, a truck that was already partially loaded. The place was neat for a warehouse, but it was also relatively new. Warehouses, like people, probably aged into sloppiness and mess.

"They're finally here," George reported, suddenly appearing in front of me. "But they're sneaking up on the place so it'll be another few minutes before they're actually inside. Were we ever this late getting to a crime scene?"

"We worked in New York City, George, not Masson, Tennessee," I pointed out. "Masson may be only twenty miles or so north of Nashville, but even Nashville is a lot smaller than Manhattan. The Masson police aren't likely to be used to shit like this, so cut them a break."

"Maybe," George allowed, but still not giving an inch. "I'll wait to see how they act once they're in here, and then I'll see if they deserve a break. If not, they'll hear from me."

His flickering outline faded as he went to check on the progress of the police, but I still kept my smile on the inside. George had been a fair man while he lived and death hadn't really changed that. Dying just seemed to have made him more impatient with things, and in a way I could understand why. There weren't a lot of free-roaming ghosts in the world, so people still tended to be nervous if not downright scared in the presence of one. For someone who'd dedicated his life to helping people, being feared rather than welcomed wasn't easy for George to take.

A couple of minutes later the police appeared, walking cautiously rather than sneaking up on the trouble. Great detective that I am, I guessed that George had waited until the cops were inside in the dimness and then had shown himself to them. It was a lot harder to see him outside in the daylight, which was most likely why he hadn't given them a piece of his mind sooner.

"I'm told that you're the one who called us," the cop in the lead said as soon as he was close enough, his suit announcing that he was a detective rather than a patrolman. "I still need you to get to your feet and put your hands behind your head, and if you have any weapons just tell me where they are."

"Sure, Detective, no problem," I said, forcing myself up and then locking my fingers behind my head. The way he held his gun on me said he wasn't as calm as he sounded, but raising my arms hurt the deep slash in my side. "My gun is over there near the three dead ghouls, and my knife is the one still inside the fourth ghoul. This guy at my feet has a broken wrist, but he's still alive. His gun is over there, on my right."

I nodded in the direction of the gun as well as I could, which wasn't easy with my hands locked behind my head. I'd managed to get quite a bit of my strength back, but there was no reason to mention that. All of these Masson cops were nervous, and I really couldn't blame them.

"Damn, Bill, they really are ghouls," one of the uniforms said from where he stood over the first three bodies. "And pretty far gone from the looks of 'em."

"But it still isn't open season on ghouls, so you got some explaining to do, girl," the detective, apparently named Bill, said to me without turning his head to the cop who'd spoken. "That TV news story about ghouls from a couple of days ago has everybody jumping at shadows and screaming for us to come protect 'em, which is why we thought at first that you were just another crank… Damn, you're bleeding real hard, so sit back down where you were and tell me what happened here."

"Thanks," I said, taking my arms down slowly and then sitting again even more slowly. Most of the blood the detective saw on my shirt was from earlier, but it looked fresh enough to get the man to ease up some. Another suit was muttering into a walkie-talkie, probably sending for the coroner, an ambulance, and whatever they had in the way of a forensics team. It was careless of Bill not to search me for unmentioned weapons first, but that was something else I didn't mention.

"Oh my God!" another uniform gasped out, and we all turned our heads to see that he'd opened the back of the refrigerated truck. "There's bodies in here, people's bodies! What in hell is goin' on?"

"You want to answer that one?" the detective Bill said to me. He'd put his gun away, but he was still standing far enough back from me that he thought he was safe. No sense telling him he was wrong, not when he was finally calming down some.

"As you said, there's no open season on ghouls," I told him after leaning back on the crate again. "But there is a bounty on ghouls who give up on eating animals and switch over to humans. Not to mention ghouls who kill the humans in the first place. This crew was harvesting Nashville and storing the bodies here until they could ship their harvest to wherever their headquarters is. It might have been that news story that spooked them into deciding to leave before they had a full load, or they could just have been playing it safe. Whatever, I stopped them before they could finish loading and drive away."

"Before they could finish loading," Bill echoed, a sickness filling his eyes. "Are you telling me there are more bodies in the warehouse freezer?"

"That's where they were keeping the bodies, so yeah, there are more," I agreed. "And before you ask, I only managed to track them here this morning. I decided to take a look before I visited you guys and asked you to help me go in after them, but that look showed me how close they were to leaving. That's why I called instead of showing up in person. If they'd gotten over the border into Kentucky it would have been a lot harder to get them stopped."

"And you would have had to track them again because you're a bounty hunter," the other detective said as he came up to stand next to his partner. "A bounty hunter with her own personal ghost. I don't like bounty hunters, and I didn't see the news story. Why don't you tell us why ghouls would go to so much trouble to do something that could be done easier and quieter if all the ghouls acted on their own?"

This second detective was younger than Bill, with a harder look in his eyes. Bill was huskier with a face that looked better fed than his partner's, and even though they were both brown-haired and brown-eyed they were really nothing alike. Bill wasn't hungry for a promotion, but I would have bet that his partner was downright starving.

"Not all ghouls are up to cold-blooded murder," I said after a very brief hesitation. "Don't forget that ghouls start out as ordinary people, and then something happens to begin the change. At first they can get along on any meat as long as it's raw, but after a while the craving starts. If they're strong and don't give in to the craving they can stay outwardly human for a long time. If they're not strong… "

"Then people in their neighborhood start to disappear," Bill put in grimly, interrupting whatever his partner had meant to say. "Yeah, the news story said that, telling people it was a sign to look out for. They also said it was some kind of virus that made you a ghoul in the first place."

"Did they actually come out and say that, or did they just kind of hint at the idea of a virus?" I asked, feeling the frown I wore. "Most of the experts who have actually committed themselves to a guess think it's something genetic, just the way cancer is, but people don't want to hear that. They want to hear that milk or cigarettes are to blame, and if they just stay away from whatever is being blamed then they'll be safe. They can't handle the idea that nothing will keep them safe."

"Which is all beside the point," the younger detective interrupted before Bill could come out with the protest it was so obvious he wanted to make. "Let's stick to business here and worry about medical theories later. If ghouls can eat raw meat and stay outwardly human, why would any of them want to change that? The craving can't be all that bad."

"I can't speak from personal experience, but I'm told that the craving can be that bad for a lot of them," I answered. "The ghoul gets to the point of not being able to hold off the need any longer, but the more human flesh he eats the more … ghoulish he becomes. If he eats only a little human flesh he can drag out the change, like that one over there with my knife in him. But they're still pretty damn hard to kill even if they haven't gone all the way. Once the change is complete they pretty much have to be burned to ash before they're actually gone."

"And once the change is complete there's nothing human left about them," Bill put in, mostly to his partner. "They stop wearing clothes and living in houses and start to form packs that will attack anything human coming near them. That's what the news story said, and is probably why we've been getting so many calls."

"But none of that explains how you ended up here," the younger detective said, speaking to me rather than to his partner. "The ghost said your name is Taz Bell, and I had my people do some checking. You've gotten quite a reputation in the last year or so since you left the force in New York. They call you a rogue hunter instead of a bounty hunter because ghouls aren't the only things you hunt, so how did you get onto this lot."

The way the man spoke said he wasn't likely to be native to Masson, Tennessee, but worse than that there was an undercurrent of jealousy behind his words. I had a fairly widespread reputation and he didn't, and I'd given up a job that he probably would have killed for. It was more than a little obvious that if he could find a reason to arrest me he would do it in a heartbeat.

"My partners and I were hired by a woman whose sister had gone missing in Nashville," I said, telling my story mostly to Bill. "The sister was homeless, preferring to live without her meds, so all the woman could do was keep close tabs on her sister. The woman reported her sister missing to the police in Nashville, and they told her there was nothing they could do. Tracing someone who's homeless is just about impossible, which is pretty much the truth."

"But you didn't find it impossible," the second detective said while Bill nodded his agreement with what I'd said. "Or did you forget about the sister after tripping over the track of ghouls?"

"What I found was that more street people than the woman's sister had gone missing," I answered. "Since the homeless are the victims of choice for ghoul harvesting bands, I hung around until I located those three sliding through the shadows during the night. They were the spotters, but they weren't supposed to move on anyone until the more human-looking one showed up with a van."

Staying calm in the face of the second man's deliberate tries to insult me were getting to the man, and I wasn't the only one who noticed that. Bill also noticed, but I wasn't sure if he would haul his partner in or just let him go his own way.

"How can you possibly know that?" the second detective demanded, pouncing with savage delight. "About their having to wait for the fourth ghoul and the van, I mean? Looks to me like you know things you really shouldn't, so why not come clean with the truth. You're part of this gang, aren't you? There was some kind of argument and you killed your partners, and now you're trying to play hero to get clear. But you aren't a hero, are you? You're - "

"Wilson, take it easy," Bill said, cutting off what was quickly becoming a tirade. "You can't get any answers from the girl if you don't let her answer. And if she was on the job the way you say, we owe her the chance to give those answers."

Wilson, the second detective, looked daggers at Bill, but he was the one who'd mentioned I used to be on the force in New York. It was becoming more and more clear why Detective Wilson wasn't the shining light on a much larger police force.

"I know that the spotters always wait for the more human-looking ghoul and a van because that's the way they usually do it," I said, now speaking only to Bill. "They take two victims at a time, transporting them during rush hour when everyone is going to work. Losing themselves in a flood of traffic is safer than driving alone on the roads with little or no other traffic to distract the highway police. But this time the fourth ghoul showed up late, and didn't let them take anyone else."

"Do you have any idea why?" Bill asked before Wilson could snap out something else. "And why would they always do the harvesting in the same way? Isn't that like asking to get caught?"

"Most police departments have no idea how harvesting is done, so sticking to the most efficient way of doing it just makes sense," I said. "As for why they didn't take a final two victims, I have no idea. Since they meant to be gone from the area in a couple of hours they could have taken a last load, so to speak, but that answer you'll have to get from the man who's now starting to wake up. I followed the van back here, and the rest you know."

The man whose wrist I'd broken had been moaning low for a minute or two, a sign that he was coming out of his faint. The man had to be extremely sensitive to pain to be out so long, which made me think he wasn't even an incipient ghoul. He was human, but he was still in business with ghouls to capture and kill other humans. Once the police put him into the system he'd have to be constantly guarded and even that might not save his life. No one likes a traitor, but there are some traitors worse than others.

"Here comes the ambulance," one of the uniforms announced. They'd opened a couple of the wide doors of the warehouse, probably to let in some daylight to dispel the gloom, and the ambulance drove in almost up to where the two detectives stood in front of me. Two men with large carry-bags got out, one going to the moaning man and the other coming over to me.

"Just take 'er easy and we'll have you fixed up good as new in no time," the paramedic said to me, but the look in his eyes didn't match the lighthearted dismissal of his words. He saw all the blood that soaked my shirt, and probably thought I was dying. With someone else he probably would have been right.

"If you'll just bandage me some I'll be fine," I told him as he carefully rolled under the bottom of my shirt to get a look at the wound. "The slash started out being pretty bad, but I've had a few minutes to heal."

The paramedic looked at the wound, glanced at me, then quickly reached to his bag for another pair of plastic gloves. He should have known he couldn't catch what I had just from touching my blood, but I'd be the last one to blame him for wanting to be safe instead of sorry.

"It's not possible to heal from a wound like that in just a few minutes," Bill said, staring at my side while the paramedic brought out gauze and tape from his bag. Wilson had gone over to supervise the other paramedic and the man who would end up being arrested, which seemed to be a relief to Bill as well as to me. "The only thing that would let you heal so fast is - "

"Now you know why I'm not still with the force in New York," I said, smiling wryly at the way his words had broken off. "George here and I were partners, but we got a little too close to a gang of rogue shapeshifters. George was killed in the ambush, but I lived."

"Lived to become one of them," Bill said, and the horror was clear in his voice. "How can you - "

"How can she keep living and protecting people?" George demanded from where he "stood," turning his anger on Bill. "Just because she's a shapeshifter now and I'm dead doesn't mean we're different people! We don't blame the force for not keeping us on, or at least she doesn't blame them. Personally I think they were assholes for letting her go, but their loss is everybody else's gain."

"The bounties I collect is what lets me and our other partner keep eating while we hunt," I put in, refusing to mention that the paramedic's rush to get me bandaged was on the painful side. I also didn't mention the really weird part of my "condition." Bill was spooked enough; adding to it would have been stupid. "George doesn't need to eat, but he likes to watch while Freemont and I do. Can I take my weapons with me when I leave? You don't really need them for evidence when there's no argument about my having used them."

"I think that would be pushing it," Bill answered, glancing quickly in Wilson's direction to show what he meant without actually saying it. "If you have a local address you can be reached at you can go as soon as the paramedic is done with you, but we'll need a formal statement before you leave the area. Will you be available for the statement?"

"I'll be in to your station first thing in the morning," I assured him, finally able to breathe a little more freely now that the paramedic was through with me and packing up. "By tomorrow this gash in my side ought to be almost completely healed. I'll also need a signature on the bounty forms, so you know I won't just take off. If I don't get the signature I don't get paid."

"A reason for believing her that anyone ought to understand," George put in, his tone very dry. He was also talking about Wilson, and had chosen to be as discreet as Bill was being. "And where we are is the Embassy Suites just off route 65, between here and Nashville. You ought to know where that is."

"Do you need a ride back to the motel?" Bill asked with a nod of agreement as I got slowly to my feet. "You lost a lot of blood, and it isn't smart to drive when you might pass out."

"If one of your people will drive my rental, I'd very much appreciate the help," I said, pretending I didn't know the real reason Bill wanted to send some of his people with me. It's easy enough to mention some place as where you're staying, but that doesn't mean you're really staying there. Bill was cop enough to know better than to take my word for it, which raised him a notch in my opinion. And as soon as I agreed, Bill relaxed just a little.

"Let's get that taken care of right now," he said, gesturing me after him as he walked toward two of his patrolmen. Actually, one of them was female, but that didn't make a difference. Good cops are good cops no matter what flavor they happen to be.

The male half of the team was really quick to say he'd drive the patrol car, but all the female did was give him a dirty look before agreeing to drive my car. She and her partner were both about my size, five-seven or eight, and she had the attitude that said she had no doubt about being able to take care of herself. I'd had the same kind of confidence once, which was probably why I was now a rogue hunter. But I didn't say that.

Instead I pretended I was a little too weak to walk all the way to where I'd parked the car out of sight of the warehouse, so the two cops told me to stay where I was while they brought the car over. Once they were gone I could see/feel the way George looked at me, as if he didn't like that I'd decided to play weak and wounded.

"Stop glaring at me, George," I muttered, knowing he'd be able to hear me. "They're all happier thinking of me as an invalid, you know they are. Can you really blame them?"

"Yes." The single word was as soft as a breath of air passing on a breeze, loud enough only for me to hear it. He hated the idea that I was usually treated like a rabid animal by people who found out what I was, and I couldn't honestly say that the attitude didn't also get to me most of the time.

But these Masson police weren't really treating me that way, and so far no one had even made George's most hated joke about a black ghost. George had been pretty dark-skinned when he was alive, but as a ghost he was just as pale - in a manner of speaking - as any ghost. It also seemed to be his choice whether his clothing - usually a red turtleneck shirt, black pants and shoes, and black leather jacket - was clearly seen or nothing but a misty background.

Whichever, it wasn't easy to see him in full daylight outside, and even indoors he seemed to have the choice of being almost fully visible or no more than a wisp. I'd tried to ask him questions once about being a ghost, but he'd disappeared rather than answer. I still didn't know if he didn't want to answer or just couldn't.

When the female cop drove up in my rented Saturn, I got into the front passenger seat and immediately put on the seatbelt. That made my driver feel a little better, but there was nothing in the way of smalltalk on the way to the motel. The woman seemed to be holding herself as far away from me as she could, and as soon as she pulled the car into a parking space I expected her to hand over the key and then leave really fast with her partner. Instead she turned to me after releasing her own seatbelt.

"My partner and I will walk you to your room," she said in a totally neutral voice as she handed me the car key. "We'd hate to have you pass out in the hallway before you get to the room."

"Appreciate that," I said in the same way, then waited for her to get out of the car before I released my seatbelt and picked up my shoulder bag from the floorboards near my feet. She'd probably been given orders to make sure I had a room the way I'd said I did, but just wasn't admitting why she and her partner were going with me. But that was okay. I also hadn't mentioned George's presence in the back seat, and she hadn't noticed.

Walking up the steps to the second floor was harder on the two cops than on me, but the actual walking had very little to do with how they felt. They just didn't like being that close to me, and it also bothered them that Freemont opened the door before we reached it.

"Taz, I was so worried," Freemont said, putting out a hand toward me. "Thank you for bringing her, Officers. I'll take care of her from here."

Freemont's delighted smile made the two cops smile as well, the usual reaction Freemont got from people. He was a little smaller than me and on the thin side, but his blond hair, soft blue eyes, and beautiful face made him look like an angel. But Freemont wasn't an angel, he was a human being with some of a human's very human faults, but that wasn't all he was. He was also a psychic and a very powerful precognitive, but my two escorts never stopped to ask how he'd known we were out here.

"Thanks for the help, Officers," I said as I walked toward the door Freemont held open. "Right now I need to get some sleep, but I'll be at the station tomorrow morning to make my statement."

The two cops nodded before turning away, and then I was inside the room with Freemont closing the door behind us. George was already inside, of course, and Freemont shook his head at me.

"I don't have to see it to know that you're starting to sweat," he said, putting out one hand. "Give me those clothes and I'll take care of them, and then you can sit down and eat the burgers I ordered for you."

I already knew about the burgers, and since Freemont was right about the fact that the heavy scent of blood was starting to make me sweat, I just took off the shirt and tossed it to him, then unhooked the belt that held both my holster and my knife sheath. With the belt gone and my sneakers kicked off it was easier to take off my slacks, and then I went in my underwear to the left where the food sat waiting for me in the sitting area of the suite.

There had been a time when Freemont wouldn't have been able to touch anything, let alone a shirt and pants covered in blood and shoes dotted with it, without sharing the experience, so to speak. But now, thanks to the heavy shields he'd learned how to generate, Freemont didn't get anything from what he handled unless he wanted to. Somehow my underwear had escaped getting bloodied, so I didn't have to strip down completely.

"It isn't her fault that the scent of blood is starting to get to her," George said before Freemont could turn away. "The closer to the full moon it gets, the more the scent of blood affects her. If they'd kept us much longer…"

"Of course I know it isn't her fault," Freemont answered, his tone faintly outraged. "But those very rare hamburgers will help her regain her balance, and then she'll be able to clean up without being pressured… I wasn't going to say anything until you finished eating, Taz, but you and George might as well know now. In just a few hours we're going to have visitors, but that's all I know."

"How can you know that much and nothing more?" George demanded while I finished chewing the bite of very rare hamburger I'd taken. If my mouth hadn't been full I might have gotten the same question out first.

"I - think someone might be blocking me," Freemont said with a good deal of hesitation, balling up my shirt between his hands as he half turned away. "I have no idea how they could be doing that, and I'm not sure I want to find out. I'd suggest that we leave, but I already know it won't do any good. Whoever it is has found us, and they won't lose us again."

And then he did walk away, heading toward the bathroom where he'd soak the shirt and pants until there was nothing more than a stain left. George stared after him and so did I, and if I'd been eating because of my appetite I would have stopped. But I wasn't eating just because I was hungry, so even the idea of an unavoidable meeting didn't ruin my appetite.

I just wondered how much worse our visitors would make things for us.