I touched his face and looked into his eyes from inches away. They were still big and lavender, like spring lilacs. He smiled at me and leaned in for a kiss. I gave it to him, but he pulled back first, which was unusual for him. He was the touchiest and feeliest of all of us. His gaze slid past me to something farther away. I turned to see what he was looking at, but there was nothing to see, not really, not yet. There were people and movement and too many police, and I finally realized there were too many police for just a missing person's case, even with two women missing.
"That's a lot of police," Rodina said.
"Too many, and there's an FDLE car here," Edward said.
"FDLE?" Ru asked.
"Florida Department of Law Enforcement. They have a local field station, but if more of them show up it's because the locals needed more resources."
"Have they found something?" Micah asked.
"If they have, it's nothing good," I said.
Nathaniel shook his head and then shook himself on the car seat, almost like a dog shaking off water, but there was nothing for him to be shaking free of that I could see. He took a couple of deep breaths and blew them out slow and steady.
"Are you okay?" Ru asked.
"No," Nathaniel said. "It's only thinking about what Anita said, that the police are here because they found something bad, that maybe Denny or the other girl is dead. Only concentrating on Denny and how much I like her as a person and that all that could be gone, dead; only that is helping me clear my thoughts."
"Clear your thoughts of what?" Edward asked.
"What do you mean, Rankin?"
"The moment I saw him I wanted to get closer to him. I can remember what he said to me, that I should tell him what I did with the woman, and I want to tell him."
Edward asked, "Did you do something to Bettina Gonzales?" I was glad he asked, because I wasn't sure I could have.
"No," Nathaniel said, and his body language said just how absurd that was, but then he frowned and tried to look through the crowd back to Rankin. "No, I swear I didn't touch her, but he thinks I did--no, no, that's not it. He wants me to say I did. He wants someone to say they did and he makes you feel like you want to confess to things that you didn't do."
"Do you feel a need to confess, too?" Bram asked Micah from the far backseat.
Micah said, "I didn't feel compelled to confess, but I did have trouble leaving. I'd be at the door, and then suddenly Rankin would say something. I don't even remember what, but then I wouldn't open the door; I wouldn't quite finish leaving. It happened more than once, but I can't remember what he said to keep me in the room."
"He just kept asking me different variations on what had I done to Bettina? Where was she? I remember what he said to me," Nathaniel said, "but that isn't why I didn't leave. I'd think, I should stop talking and get out of here, but then he'd brush his hand against my arm, or his body would rub against my back, and I wouldn't want to stop."
"Wait, he touched you? He, like, caressed you during an interrogation?" I asked.
"No, nothing that obvious. He literally would brush against me as he paced behind me. He patted my hand or clapped my back a couple of times, but most of the touches were really small ones."
"I didn't see him do more than touch Nathaniel's arm like he was trying to be his buddy. It didn't look sexual or inappropriate at all," Micah said.
"The effect was," Nathaniel said, almost a whisper.
"Then we need to keep you away from him," I said.
"Why didn't you say all this before?" Edward asked.
"I didn't remember until I saw him, and then you said that there are too many cops here and I thought about Denny. I mean, I don't want anything bad to have happened to Bettina, but I didn't know her. Denny is my friend. The thought of something really bad happening to her is helping me keep my head clear of whatever Rankin did to me."
"Are you having any issues, Callahan?" Edward asked.
"No. I knew he was doing something to me in the interrogation. I knew he was messing with both of us. Anita connecting with me gave me enough willpower to walk out on him and bring Nathaniel with me."
"You had to grab me by the arm and drag me out, didn't you?"
Micah put his hand on the back of Nathaniel's neck underneath the fall of his hair, the way he'd done when there was so much more of it, and leaned their faces close together. "I thought you were just nervous being questioned."
Nathaniel leaned in, resting his forehead against Micah's. "I was nervous, but that wasn't why I didn't want to leave. You touching me helped; all of you touching me helped more. It's like whatever is wrong with Rankin, whatever he's done to me, is the promise of touching, so real touching trumps it. Does that make any sense?"
"It does," I said.
"Yes," Micah said.
"Is it just Micah and Anita touching you that helps, or will any real touch help?" Edward asked.
Nathaniel closed his eyes and leaned in against Micah. "I'm not sure."
Nicky put his hand on Nathaniel so that he was touching him, too. "Any better?"
"I'm not sure; I don't feel like myself."
"Are you saying that if someone isn't touching you, Rankin could lure you into his interrogation and force you to confess to things you didn't do?" Edward asked.
Nathaniel opened his eyes and drew back enough from Micah to look at Edward. "I'm not sure."
"But it's possible?" Edward asked.
"You're a wereanimal; you guys are harder to bespell than a plain human."
"Which makes me wonder how many humans have confessed to crimes they didn't do because Rankin told them to do it," I said.
"I'll bet his closure rate is a hundred percent," Edward said.
"No one's closure rate is that high," I said.
"What's closure rate?" Ru asked.
"How many cases you close, as in find the person you think did it," I said.
"So how many people you get convicted?" he asked.
Edward and I both shook our heads. "Convictions are for the lawyers; closure for us means we turn over the whodunit to them. What happens after that doesn't affect a cop's closure rate," Edward said.
"Are you telling me that if you give the lawyers a terrible case with someone who confessed but couldn't have done it, you still get the points for closing the case, even though it doesn't work at trial, at all?" Ru asked.
"Pretty much," I said.
"Yes," Edward said.
I added, "If you get a reputation for sending bad cases up the line, ones that fall apart consistently, then that will eventually hurt you, but short of that, you're good."
"If Micah hadn't come in the room and helped me, I might have said anything the detective wanted me to say," Nathaniel said.
"I'm betting Rankin uses his mind-fuck powers all the time," Edward said.
"You really think he'd force his closure rate to a hundred percent?" I asked.
"If it is that high, then we might be able to use that against him if we need to," I said.
"How could you use it against him?" Ru asked.
"It would be like getting a hundred percent on all your college finals year after year. No one is that perfect, so you have to be cheating," I said.
Rodina nodded. "I get it, but cheating on tests is easier to prove than whatever this is."
"It would be undue magical influence, or even magical malfeasance, especially if someone he coerced died. They have the death penalty in Florida," I said.
"Isn't magical malfeasance an automatic death penalty in every state?" Ru asked.
We all said yes, in unison.
"But if he'd done it in a state without the death penalty, then he might not be risking getting charged with magical malfeasance to the full legal definition, and that's what will get you executed," I said.
"It's unlike any other death penalty sentence," Micah said. "You don't sit for years on death row. The trial is almost unconstitutionally quick, and then the order of execution is issued and usually carried out in less than a week."
"I hadn't thought about it before, but sometimes you work on the other side of the issue from Anita and Ted," Ru said.
"I've tried to get a few lycanthropes out of the system alive, but once they get charged, it's almost impossible to save them."
"Which means that Nathaniel stays as far away from Rankin as possible," I said.
We all agreed.
A uniformed officer finally came to the window of our car. He had to lean down a ways to talk to us. Edward and I flashed our badges. The officer's comment: "I didn't think the preternatural branch got called in until we were sure it wasn't human."
"What made anyone think it wasn't human to begin with?" I asked.
"You'd need more than fingernails and teeth to do that to a body." His face got that distant look, as if he could still see whatever had put that haunted look in his eyes.
"Bad?" Edward asked.
"Worst thing I've seen, and I thought I'd seen bad."
"Which of the missing women is it? Do you know yet?" I asked. I prayed silently that it wasn't going to be Denny. I liked her, and the thought of her dying in a way that made a police officer look haunted . . . I didn't want it to be her.
"Dark hair, so we think it's the first missing girl, but you know how it is: We won't be sure until fingerprints or dental come back."
A tightness in my gut eased, and then instantly I thought, How dare I be relieved that it was Bettina Gonzales? I was happy it probably wasn't Denny, but I couldn't be happy it was Bettina. I hadn't liked her much, but she had seemed harmless enough. Pettiness and a tendency toward jealousy about men weren't crime enough for her to deserve ending up like this. I hadn't even seen the body yet, but just the little information we had was enough to make me know it had been a bad way to go. No one deserved that.