SynopsisVeteran detective Joren Terrell has a problem. The murder he is currently investigating has all the earmarks of having been committed by a shape shifter gone rogue, but it doesn’t smell right… and Terrell should know because his alternate form is that of a white tiger. The rest of the department has no knowledge of his alter ego, and they’ve assumed the body was left out in the woods and scavenged by an animal. Solving this murder might mean Joren has to reveal his true nature, which would at best might mean losing his job, or worse, being hunted down and killed. Matters get complicated with the arrival of beautiful FBI agent Siriana Dunnett and news that there have been several similar murders across the country. Now Joren and Siriana must combine their investigations, and Joren must decide how much he can trust this woman to whom he is strangely attracted.
It really was a dark and stormy night when his cell phone rang, startling Joren Terrell out of a deep sleep. He groped for it on the nightstand, found it in a flash of lighting from outside the window, and flipped it open. “Yeah. What’s up?”
“We’ve got a bad one, Joren.” The voice of Detective Ramon Santiago seemed very loud in the sudden quiet. “Dispatch got a call from a late night jogger – though God only knows why someone would be out jogging in this weather – that he’d found a body in Trinity River Park near the water. Dillon and Smith checked it out, and sure enough, there was a body. Male Caucasian, in bad shape, looks like animals gnawed on him.”
“Okay, send the GPS coordinates to my phone. I’ll meet you there in 30 or 40 minutes.” He swung his legs over the side of the bed as he sat up, his hand automatically combing through his shoulder-length white-blond hair. He glanced at the clock. 5:00 am. Almost time to get up anyway. Another flash of lightning lit up the sky outside. The rain was welcome, what with the long drought Texas had been experiencing, but Joren had to agree with his partner about the saneness of anyone jogging in this kind of weather. That would bear looking into, along with all the other information found at the scene. He grabbed a pair of jeans from the clean laundry pile and slid into them, along with a shirt that was actually hung up in the closet for a change, his socks and his boots. He pulled his hair back to a tail and secured it with a band and left the bedroom. His black leather jacket hung on a peg by the door and he shrugged into it on the way out the side door. Breakfast would have to wait until later.
The engine on the dark blue Lincoln Navigator roared to life as the garage door opened, and he backed out into pouring rain. Joren voice-activated his phone sync and downloaded the coordinates for the crime scene into the GPS. He partially ignored the sexy British female voice that came through the speakers and gave him the directions. He was quite familiar with the park and most of its running trails as he went there three or four times a week. All he needed was the exact location where the body had been found. He drove up as close to the crime scene as he could, then walked the rest of the way in. The rain had pretty much stopped by the time he got there.
Portable lights had already been set up around the scene, bathing the area in bright white. Awnings protected the body and the officers as they cataloged things around the scene. Santiago stood off to one side talking to a man in jogging shorts and a jacket. “Only in Texas,” Joren thought.
He let his partner continue to chat up the jogger as he walked around the area, gradually circling back toward the body. It was obvious that something had dragged it from the edge of the water across the jogging path and almost into the woods. No wonder the jogger almost fell over it. He raised his head and sniffed slightly. Coyotes. The canids weren’t common in the city park, but there were enough of them adapted to living on the edge of the suburbs that they still scavenged trash cans and the occasional homeless person who had the unfortunate fate of dying outdoors. Texas was a popular destination for some homeless because of its milder climate.
He came at last to the body. Pulling on examine gloves, he crouched down beside it. He drew the plastic cover back and studied it. As Santiago said, it was bad. The man’s extremities had been gnawed on and the gut chewed, and most of his jogging outfit was torn off. Not unexpected given that a couple of coyotes had dined on it. Other wounds on the body appeared to be stab wounds, but… His blue eyes narrowed as he leaned closer. Claw marks. There were large claw marks across the upper part of the torso. His fellow officers might not recognize them right away, but he did. Too deep and too wide for dogs or coyotes, they could only be some sort of big cat claws. He drew in a deeper breath, catching a very faint but familiar odor. Were… a were whose scent he did not recognize. Joren suppressed an urge to growl and stood up so quickly he startled the medical examiner.
“Jesus! Scare a person, why don’ cha?” Dr. Danielle Prince glared at him.
“Sorry, I didn’t realize you were there,” he apologized as he continued to stare down at the body.
“Sugar, I don’t blend that well into the scenery,” the hefty black woman laughed. “What have we got here?” She pulled on her own exam gloves as she crouched down, and then pulled the plastic further down to get a better look. “Hmm. Glad I haven’t had breakfast yet. Time of death’s gonna be tricky… The liver’s damaged and the body looks like it’s been out here a while.” She went ahead and inserted a thermometer into the organ as she gently probed some of the wounds. “This is contradictory… We have the animal wounds, and there are knife wounds here and here… but these are most definitely not knife wounds.” She pointed to the claw marks that Joren had already noted and looked up at him. “No coyote did this, Detective Terrell.”
“No, it didn’t.” However, he did not elaborate on what might have done it. That would come soon enough in the investigation, but he wanted more information first. “Any guesses on the time of death?” He snapped a photo of the dead jogger’s face – it was the one part that hadn’t been chewed on, despite the fact that animals often went for the soft tissue parts of the face almost as soon as they went for the stomach.
She pulled the thermometer from the liver. “Not from this. I’ll have to get the body back to the lab and do a more thorough examination, look for bug larvae, etc.” She stood up as her assistants rolled the gurney over the grass, and they both watched them zip the body into one of the black bags and place it on the gurney. She turned to him as they rolled it away toward the waiting ambulance. “I’ve only seen claw marks like that once before, Detective. There was a woman out north of Roanoke had a big cat sanctuary. She rescued tigers, lions, and cougars that other people tried to have as pets. One of her assistants got himself mauled and munched.”
“I remember hearing about that case, Dr. Prince. It happened about the time I moved here from Denver, I think. Eight, nine years ago?”
“Something like that.” She shook her head. “At least with animals, you know that they aren’t killing someone out of spite. It’s just their nature. Still, it’s not a pretty death.”
“No, it isn’t,” he said quietly, “but murder of any kind is not pretty. This is definitely murder. Last I checked, animals don’t stab their prey first.”
Detective Santiago interrupted their conversation as he came up. “Jogger’s name is Richard Sykes. He says he runs out here all the time, usually just after dawn, but he had an early flight to catch this morning so he came out about 4:00 am. Thirty minutes into his run, he almost tripped over the body, called it in immediately. There’s not much else he can tell us, so I went ahead and cut him loose.”
“Good. Just make sure we’ve got his cell so we can contact him later if we need to. I doubt it’ll be necessary, though.”
“Excuse me, gentlemen,” Dr. Prince said. “I have a long day ahead of me, and I know you want the report as soon as possible. I’ll call you when I have anything.”
Joren nodded his thanks as she left then turned back to his partner.
Ramon muttered, “The press will have a field day with this one. ‘Jogger Eaten in Park.’ Not going to be a good day for the mayor and elections are coming up next month.”
“Well, we’ll just have to make sure the press knows he was eaten after he was murdered, and that he wasn’t murdered in the park. Doc counted several stab wounds under the bite marks and scratches, plus there’s not enough blood in and on the body for him to have been killed here.” The last part he had noted as he looked around the area. There was not enough blood scent lingering in the air for the incident to have happened in the park.
Joren wasn’t ready to divulge more information than that. He needed to canvas some of the other weres he knew in the area first, find out if they knew of any who were new to the area. He hadn’t heard any such news on the grapevine, but not all the weres would talk to him freely because he was a cop. Some of them didn’t consider it a suitable profession for a were, and if his fellow cops knew he was a weretiger… Well, they probably wouldn’t like it, either.
There were few enough weres in the world and the general populace still mistrusted them. It didn’t matter that in order to be were, you not only had to carry the virus, but you had to have the genetic markers to allow the virus to alter your DNA. The virus had been around for centuries, perhaps nearly as long as humans had been fully human, but only about one person in 250,000 had the genetic potential to become were. That meant that out of the seven billion people on earth, there were maybe only 28,000 weres. Most weres tended to live in countries that had strong anti-discrimination laws, which meant there was an above average population living in the United States. Still, there were not many of them, and those few tended to live in small pockets within a community.
“I’m going home to get some dry clothes before I head to the station,” Ramon interrupted Joren’s thoughts. “Got reports to write.” The sun was finally peaking over the horizon and it glinted off the taller buildings in downtown Fort Worth.
“You go ahead. I’m going to do some more looking around here and see what else I find. There should be more evidence of where this guy came from. He had no wallet, but maybe he was killed somewhere else in the park. If it was a robbery, we may not find the wallet, but if I get lucky, maybe I can figure out who he was before the dental records get back.”
“Suit yourself,” Ramon shrugged. “The rain may have washed any other evidence away, you know.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” He flashed a grin at Ramon. “Tell Janice hello for me.”
His recently wed partner blushed and grinned back. “I’ll do that.”
After Ramon and the others had left, Joren took a deep breath, practically tasting the air. He allowed his eyes to shift just enough that his vision became sharper to compensate for the still dim light. It was far too early to do a full shift. Now that the rain had stopped, morning joggers would soon be hitting the trails and it would not do to let them catch a glimpse of a white tiger in the brush. He walked back and forth across the crime scene, looking and smelling for anything undetectable to normal human senses. The were scent was faint… Or was it because it was not really were? It just did not quite smell right. He needed to get another look at the body, preferably without the medical examiner in the room. Joren gradually widened the circle, walking out away from edge of the water, looking for more scraps of clothing, the wallet, or anything else that might provide more clues. He searched for nearly an hour without finding anything. That fact was telling in itself. The deceased may have been wearing a jogging suit, but he had not been killed here. That much was certain.
As he walked back to the car, Joren pulled out his cell phone to call his partner. “Ramon, have we had any missing person reports come in yet?” His partner’s negative answer didn’t really surprise him. It was early days yet. “Alright, I’m going to talk to the park rangers, see if they recognize this guy as a regular runner here. After that I’ll head in, see if Doc has any better idea on TOD.”
The talk with the park’s two rangers on duty yielded little information. One of them thought she had seen him a few times, but not enough to be sure. Neither had any idea of what the man’s name was. Joren hadn’t really expected that they would, but he had to ask. The drive back to the station gave him plenty of time to think on what little he’d learned. Were smell but not quite… As though the killer wanted someone to think it was a were kill. Or maybe it was a were that was doing his best to disguise the kill. Either theory had validity at this point. Both could mean serious risks to him and the rest of the were community in the area. Normal humans knew that were folk actually existed and modern science had long since proved that they were neither demons nor monsters, but genetic variations now known as homo sapiens were. Unfortunately, folklore influenced people more than they realized and knowledge had not completely alleviated their fears. Granted, countries such as the United States tended to have higher populations of were. There were around 200 in the Dallas-Fort Worth area alone. Relatively speaking, that was a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the population of the two cities but it was more that you found in some countries. Most kept a low profile and were law-abiding citizens, though like any other group there were a few exceptions. Joren knew most of the local were, especially the ones that had caused trouble in the past. This scent on this kill did not match anyone he knew. Granted, a were tiger’s sense of smell was not as keen as that of a were wolf, but it was far better than that of regular homo sapiens.
His cell phone rang. A glance at the stereo readout on the dash identified the caller as the medical examiner. “Hey, Doc. I wasn’t expecting to hear from you this soon.”
“There’s a lot that I don’t have yet, but I think you might want to drop by here on your way back to the station. I’ve got something you might want to look at,” she said.
“Sure. I already passed the exit, so I’ll need to turn around and head back your way. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“Good,” she said and hung up abruptly.
Well, that’s interesting. Joren took the next exit and took the turn-around and headed back the way he came. The exit to get to the coroner’s office was only five miles back. However, the morning traffic was already thick along I-35. The perpetual construction did not help the situation. The cars crawled along and he wished, not for the first time, that he had a hover car like those in some of his favorite futuristic video games. Then he could just rise up out of the traffic and fly straight to his destination. He changed one of the channels on the scanner, only to find out that a wreck had just occurred at the very exit he needed to take. He swore, turned on his police lights, and moved over one lane at a time until he got to the exit before the wreck. A loop around a few extra streets finally got him to the coroner’s office. Luckily, he found a parking place near the entrance.
He stopped to sign in at the front desk, then hurried down the hall to Dr. Prince’s lab. She looked up as he entered, her lower face covered by a mask. She waved him over to the table and handed him his own mask, then waited for him to put it on before she said anything.
“I wanted you to take a closer look at these wounds and give me your opinion on them. I had to get back here and compare them with some photos from an old case first, but I have a theory and I’d like to know yours.” She frowned as she spoke.
Joren felt a brief moment of alarm. “I haven’t really had time to form a theory, Doctor. It’s been less than two hours since I left to the crime scene and I haven’t reviewed all the reports yet or put together a murder board.”
“Oh, I think you have a theory. I saw the look on your face this morning when you stood up and nearly knocked me down. You were surprised and you looked angry. You take a look at this again, and then we’ll compare theories.” She moved out of his way.
It was Joren’s turn to frown. “I’m not a medical expert. That’s your field.”
“No, Detective Terrell, you’re not. But you know as well as I do that these are not stab wounds and that no coyote or dog made these types of slashes. They are too deep and too curved for those kinds of claws. I called the zoo already and they are not missing any big cats, and there are no privately licensed zoos operating in this county right now.”
“I haven’t had a chance to confirm that…”
“Oh stop beating around the bush! This is a were kill. Even the real animal bites can’t disguise it. I saw something like this before when I first started out down in Houston. The slash marks are the same type of pattern, similar depth. The kill in Houston was made by a were-cougar who was a drug addict and a rapist. He was a real bad one all around.” She looked at him hard, daring him to deny it. “I’m pretty sure that’s what you think it is, too.”
He hesitated before carefully replying. “Actually, I’m not sure that it is. The slashes are almost too regular. They are about the right distance apart, but it’s not likely a were would be that precise. It’s possible, but if it is, the victim would have to have already been unconscious. Otherwise, he would have fought to get away. The result would be more ragged wounds.”
She raised her eyebrows in surprise. “All right, I’ll give you that. But there’s also this.” She picked up a small, flat glass dish from the exam table and handed it to him. The half-inch, brownish black item lying in the bottom of the dish was undeniably the broken tip of a large claw.
He looked at the claw and then back to her. “I know you haven’t had time to complete a DNA test on this yet.”
“No, not yet, but it’s in the works. I’m pretty sure that the results will show it came from a were cat of some sort.”
He set the dish gently back on the table. “That’s an interesting theory, Doctor. We’ll have to see if the DNA backs it up. In the meantime, I’ve got to get back to the station and start piecing the parts of this puzzle together.”
“You do that, Detective Terrell. I’ll call you as soon as I get the DNA results back on this. I’m putting a rush on it. Hopefully, I will have it and the results of our victim’s dental work quickly.”
“Thank you. It would be nice to know who the victim is, as well as narrowing the search for the killer.”
After he got back into his car, Joren leaned back against the seat. This is going to blow up in my face. There are still so many people who don’t understand or trust weres… She either knows already, or she’ll find out, and if she does, she’ll probably think I did it. Damn.