Thursday, October 13, 2016
Here Comes the Judge
Continuing the circus story. This is as far as I got. Next week I'll have to write something new.
# # #
Bang on the money. Their expressions—primarily fear and variations thereof—told him he’d come to the right place. Only Magritte succeeded in keeping her face impassive. The lion-man continued to growl, with echoes from the tiger.
“Ingenious,” Shane went on. “A travelling circus. Three or four nights in a town, then gone. The perfect hiding place for a killer shifter. Let’s see … I’ve already seen your lion in action. We’ve also got tigers,” he said to the Indian couple, “elephants”—he swung his gaze to the roustabouts, then to the tall, skinny boy—“a giraffe, a—” He stopped at the boy in the baggy pants, and frowned slightly. No zing at all.
The boy raised a shaking hand. “I’m human,” he said. “Can I go?”
“You stay put,” Magritte snapped. She moved toward Shane. It was less a step than an undulation.
“And,” Shane finished, “a snake.”
Magritte grew very still. She couldn’t stay that way for long; her body insisted on weaving, even if only fractionally. She regarded him with fresh wariness. “You have the gift,” she said, not a question. “You are juiz. Of the old line.”
He’d never heard that particular word for it before, but he could guess what it meant. “From birth to death,” he recited. At her nod, he breathed more easily again.
“Why are we just standing here?” the lion-man burst out. “Why are we even talking to him? We know why he’s here. He wants to kill us.”
“Jonah.” She never took her steady stare off Shane. “Be still. I’ll handle this.”
“Juiz,” she cut him off. “The judge.”
“Literally, justice,” Shane said. “But yours is close enough.”
“Don’t look like no judge to me,” one of the elephants said.
Shane allowed himself a smile. “Looks can be deceiving. Can’t they?”
Magritte cut off the elephant’s good-natured chuckles with a hiss. “We’re not unfamiliar with your kind. Where I grew up, we knew judges as unwavering, but not wanton killers.” Her tongue appeared across her lips, a brief flicker. “Who are you here for, and why?”
Shane climbed carefully to his feet. He tried not to blink as he met Magritte’s glare. She held all the power here. Personification of justice or not, he’d live or die at her word. “I can’t give you the who yet, because I don’t know it, but I can tell you the why. I’ve been tracking a shifter who’s taken to murder. So far the body count’s at six, all adult humans. It took me a while to find the pattern and realize they were connected. Each murder happened in or near a place where your circus had set up.”
Magritte narrowed her unblinking eyes. “What makes you think a shifter was responsible?”
“The claw marks, for starters. The victims were torn apart. The wounds were too ragged to have been made by a knife. Everything points to a large animal, or a shifter in animal form.”
“And you think that shifter is one of my people?”
He could hear the young lion’s harsh breathing behind him, feel the leading edge of hot leonine breath against the back of his neck. If he so much as coughed wrong, he was sure he’d feel claws in his flesh. He kept his voice steady, his tone reasonable. “Your circus features large, dangerous animals. Wherever you go, somebody dies in an animal attack. With six victims, it can’t be coincidence.”
“Or it really could be an animal.” The lion-man’s voice came practically at his shoulder, closer than Shane had guessed. He leaned in to add in a silky growl beside Shane’s ear, “It happens.”
“Not six times in a row.” Shane risked a sideward glance, at the tiger cage. “Are there any real animals here?”
Magritte’s lips curved minutely upward. “There’s Susie.” She nodded toward the sleepy lioness. “She’s a rescue from a home menagerie. She’s perfectly harmless. She’s more at ease around humans than she is other lions, that’s why she’s not in a zoo.”
“And Ramar,” the Indian man spoke up. “We rescued him from the black market. My wife and I raised him from a cub. He’s practically our son.”
“He never leaves the circus grounds,” the Indian woman added fiercely. “When he isn’t in his cage, he’s with us. Always.”
“And the horses,” Magritte said. “All of our horses are real. Horse shifters tend to follow the rodeo circuit.”
“Thass ’cause they after the women.” The elephant-man who’d spoken earlier laughed. “All them lovely ladies on the prowl for cowboy ass. Ain’t no women go to the circus, just families and teens on dates. What stallion gonna sit still for that?”
“I knew a man whose mama was a donkey,” another elephant said. “Boy did everything half-assed.” The quartet guffawed loudly, until Magritte silenced them with a pointed glare.
“I didn’t see any horses,” Shane said.
“They’re coming later, with the rest of—” Too late, Magritte cut the admission off.
“Then there are more of you.”
With the game up, she fluidly shrugged. “The rest of the troupe will be arriving throughout the day. We also have several human employees, both short-term and part of the family. I doubt any of them stopped to kill anyone along the way.”
So did Shane, or he’d have heard about it on the scanner. The other six victims had been found out in the open, like the shifter was flaunting his kills. Or hers, Shane amended, well aware of the stony glare on the face of the Indian woman. “Are any of them cats?” he asked.
“We’re expecting the rest of the lions, two more tigers, and two bears,” Magritte said. “The others aren’t carnivores. Their animal forms have no claws. You will harm no one except for the guilty party, should you find one. The rest are to be spared.”
“Magritte!” the lion wailed. Clearly he did not agree. “You’re not really going to let a hunter—”
“Jonah!” Her voice cracked liked a whip. “He isn’t a hunter. A judge kills only in the name of justice.” Her eyes got thin again as she turned them on Shane. “Is that not so?”
“It is.” Shane half-turned to address the furious lion directly. “My kind is almost as old as yours. We were never intended to be killers. In the beginning we were protectors, of shifters as well as of humans. When a shifter went feral, we were the ones charged with stopping them. When humans took arms against shifters, it was our job to settle the matter—in the shifters’ favor, more often than not. Our powers made it easier for us to tell shifter from human, and feral from innocent. Over the centuries we’ve saved more shifters than we’ve killed.” He smiled grimly. “If it helps, think of me as a cop.”
It obviously wasn’t helping, if that fury burning in the young man’s eyes was any indication. He chuffed under his breath. And what did a hunter do to you, Shane wondered, to inspire all that rage? Or was it just humans in general?
He turned partially back to Magritte, keeping the lion at the corner of his eye. “When I’m done,” he said, “I won’t betray you. I just want the killings to stop. I’ll need to meet the other shifters in your group.”
“You will,” she said, “and I know you won’t betray us. Because you’ll be staying here, where we can watch you.” She held up her hand before he could speak. “Yes, I know. You’re a man of your word. When these people joined me, I promised to protect them. I also keep my word. Jonah?”
The lion stepped up to Shane’s side. He was a couple of inches taller than Shane, and bristling with power. He flexed his naked muscles in a show of intimidation. Shane refused to show any reaction.
“Jonah will watch over you, to make sure both you and my family remain unharmed until this is resolved.” Magritte’s lips did a serpentine twist at the lion-man. “Try to keep him relatively intact.”
“No promises.” Jonah purred against Shane’s cheek. “Welcome to the circus.”