The rally was being held downtown in Centennial Plaza. It was a pretty spot for much of the year, with a fountain perched in tiered stone basins and several oaks slowly growing their way toward stature. In the warmer seasons the trees stood ready to flutter their leaves and freckle the ground with shade.
Not today, though. Today the trees were bare, the fountain dry. But everything else was full.
"There's a lot more here than I'd expected." Ginger sounded torn between anxiety and delight. "I expected to see mostly students. And the coven - several of them promised to come. But this..."
"You did a good job of getting the word out. There must be a couple hundred people here. Maybe more." All of them talking at the same time, all of them revved - uneasy, angry, excited. To Kai, the air was a colorful din. "The TV people showed up, too."
"Are you doing okay?"
"I'm fine." Aside from the guilt. Had Kai been a true empath, such a large crowd would have been uncomfortable at best. Kai hated the deceit, hated worrying Ginger for no reason. But not enough to tell her the truth. Ginger would feel sorry for her.
Kai could handle the sting of rejection - and had, plenty of times. She understood why people feared the loss of privacy. But pity labeled her pathetic, and she couldn't tolerate that.
In the eleven years since the accident, Kai had moved seven times. In each new place she'd hoped to find friends. And she had, until she tried trusting them with the truth about herself. Whenever she told someone she saw thoughts, they changed. Most withdrew, fearing judgment or invasion. Those who didn't withdraw physically did so in other ways, watching for signs of insanity... because everyone knew telepaths went crazy sooner or later.
Everyone but Nathan. She didn't know how she'd found the courage to tell him, but she knew why. He didn't lie to her, not even a rosy little social lie. How could she keep lying to him? So six months ago she'd told him. He'd nodded, asked a few questions, and said he'd never heard of a telepathic Gift like hers, but it sounded easier to live with than the usual sort. And that was it.
"You sure you're okay?" Ginger put a hand on Kai's shoulder. "I need to make my way to the front. I'm supposed to speak after Charley."
"You didn't tell me you were one of the speakers!" Kai patted her hand. "Go on. I'm going to hang here at the back." She might not have the problems a real empath would, but the excited crowd made her nervous. "You might see if you can calm folks down a bit. They're wired."
Ginger grinned. "Charley will help with that. He can put a class to sleep in under ten minutes."
"Hey, I'll bet his students stay awake. They'd want to see if he does." Charley, like Ginger, taught at the local community college. He was actually a wonderful speaker, but so laid-back he looked like he might doze off mid-word.
Ginger started threading herself through knots of people. The moment she left, Kai dug her nails into her palms.
She might not feel the emotions swirling around her, but if she weren't careful they'd still suck her in. Kai called it fuguing, the way she could slip away, entranced by the colors and shapes of the minds around her. As a baby she'd apparently been lost in fugue so often that she'd been diagnosed as autistic.
Grandfather had known better. When she was three he'd taken her to another shaman, and together they'd performed a rare ritual that suppressed Kai's Gift. For eleven years she'd been normal - until the day she woke, weeping, from a week-long coma. She'd had no memory of the accident, but from the instant she awoke she'd known her parents were dead.
Therapy had saved her in more ways than one. Therapy and Grandfather. She'd needed the intense physical focus to learn how to mute the Gift that had woken, full-force, while she was in a coma. She'd needed Grandfather to teach her how to go on.
Fugue had never captured her completely, the way she was told it had when she was a baby, but it brought other dangers. When in fugue, she could play with the patterns, change them, intrude her patterns into others. When in fugue, she wanted to. She'd see something in the patterns that needed fixing, and -
Startled, Kai swung around to see Jackie a few feet away, trouble writ as large on her face as it was in her colors. "What is it?"
"Damned ghosts." She scowled. "I'm supposed to get you out of here. Or Ginger. Or both."
"Afternoon, Doug. This is Sergeant Hunter," Sheriff Browning said. "He has some information you need to listen to."
Midland's chief of police made Nathan think of a whip - quick, taut, and snappish. He even looked the part, being over six feet and under one-sixty. His hair and eyes were dark, his forehead high and getting higher. His mustache might have been laid out with a ruler.
"Randy." Chief Roberts nodded at the sheriff. He had a nod for Nathan, too, but no word of greeting. Nor did he offer either of them a handshake, remaining behind his wide desk, its shine interrupted by very few objects - reading glasses, a file folder, a pen, a phone, a wire basket holding papers. "I imagine you're here to complain that I'm intruding into your territory. I'm behind, so I hope you can make this quick."
"Quick enough." Browning took the seat he hadn't been offered, so Nathan sat, too. "Knox hauled off a possible witness to my case. You want to explain that?"
"If you're talking about the Shaw murder - "
"You know I am."
"There's no evidence he was killed outside city limits, and every reason to think his death is connected to the two Knox is already handling. He found a witness. He brought the man in to make a statement. That's his job. However" - he spared Browning a thin smile - "I'm not trying to keep evidence from you. Here's a copy of that statement." He handed Browning the file folder.
The sheriff took the folder but didn't open it. "Doug, in your rush to make this your collar instead of mine, you've screwed up. I know the gist of this. Knox found a witness who identified the woman Shaw left The Bar with last night."
Though the smile remained thin, the dark eyes were smug. "That's right."
Nathan's heartbeat didn't speed up this time. He knew Knox had Kai in his sights and assumed the chief was backing him, so he had his body under rigid control. But deep inside, in a part of him that had never been and would never be human, he was howling.
Beings in thirteen realms would have known that howl, in their blood and bones if not their conscious minds. And feared.
"That's right," Roberts said again. "I assume someone in the judge's office tipped you. I wonder who that was?"
Browning continued as if the other man hadn't spoken. "You persuaded Judge Walker to issue a warrant for her arrest based on that witness's testimony. But you screwed up. Aside from the sheer lack of evidence - "
"I've got plenty to link her." Roberts leaned forward now, his eyes glowing with suppressed excitement. "Delia Rodriguez - the first victim - lived just two doors down from one of Michalski's patients. The second victim used to date another of her patients."
"Good God, Doug, this is Midland. Half the people here have some second- or third-hand connection to one or more of the victims."
"But half the people here aren't witches. She is."
"No," Nathan said, his voice steady. "She isn't. Not that it would be an indictment if she was, but you've got your facts wrong."
Roberts's gaze flickered to Nathan - then darted away. Probably hadn't liked what he saw in Nathan's eyes. "She sure as hell is. Michalski is friends with that witch out at the college. And don't tell me Ginger Hemmings isn't a witch. She's open enough about her perversions."
Nathan kept his voice from descending to a growl. "Wicca is a recognized religion. Ginger is Wiccan. Kai isn't."
Roberts had decided to pretend Nathan didn't exist. He laced his fingers together on top of his desk and spoke to Browning. "We've learned that they had one of their coven meetings last night. Held it at Michalski's apartment just a few hours before she picked Shaw up at the Bar. That's when they prepared for their black rites, when they drained Shaw of blood."
Browning shook his head. "That's all assumptions based on prejudice."
"Don't you accuse me of prejudice. No one has a better record of hiring and promoting - "
"Prejudice against the magical part of the population! Dammit, Doug, you and I have had our differences, but you've always been a good cop. You're so far off base this time you can't even see the base!"
"It isn't prejudice when it's based on facts. I know they met at Michalski's place last night. I know Shaw was later drained of blood. I know Michalski left The Bar with Shaw shortly before he died."
"No," Nathan said. "You don't."
Roberts still wouldn't look at him. "I've got a witness who ID'ed her and three more who gave a good description."
"What the hell is your man talking about?" Roberts demanded of Browning.
Nathan had had enough. He didn't change position or offer threat openly - but he used a voice the other man would not be able to ignore. "Kai Tallman Michalski was with me at the time your witness claims to have seen her at The Bar."
Roberts jerked. He narrowed his eyes and for the first time looked directly at Nathan. "You're lying."
He was, actually, but the chief had no way of knowing that. "She was with me the rest of the night, too. You think you can get a conviction with an officer of the law swearing he was with her all night?"
The man's lip lifted in a sneer, but underneath it Nathan saw the fear. Smelled it. "You think a jury's going to care what you say? I don't know what you are, but you aren't human." Relief shaded his voice when he turned back to Browning. "That's going to cost you in the next election, Randy. Keeping this - this man, for want of a better word - on as a sergeant even though you have to know that..."
Nathan didn't hear the rest. He was already out the door and closing it softly behind him.
He stopped at the desk where Roberts's secretary sat and forced ease on his voice and body. He gave himself a moment to appreciate the soft floral scent of her perfume so he'd have a reason to smile at her. Humans smiled when they didn't feel it, but, that trick was beyond him. "While my boss dukes it out with yours, I thought I'd see if I could catch up with Knox. Maybe if I'm in on the arrest, the sheriff won't take it so hard. Do you know if Knox has served his warrant yet?"
She tapped her pen against the desk, then said, "Guess it won't hurt to tell you. I haven't heard from him, so he probably hasn't."
He thanked her and left, taking the stairs, urgency riding him and instinct guiding him. Thoughts floated on that sea of need and knowing, crisp and useful.
Knox didn't know where Kai was. Chances were he'd go to the clinic, then to her apartment - and she wasn't either place. Nathan scented her as much closer. Downtown. He could get to her first.
He didn't ask himself what he would do when he found her. He had no plan, felt no need for one. He knew enough: Knox and Roberts intended to arrest her, to lock her away. It didn't matter at this moment if conviction was likely. The arrest itself would damage her. Jail would damage her. A trial would damage her.
So he would prevent the arrest. She was his. His. No one was allowed to harm her.