Under the Skin (Ritual Crime Unit), page 1
An Abaddon Books™ Publication
First published in 2013 by Abaddon Books™, Rebellion Intellectual Property Limited, Riverside House, Osney Mead, Oxford, OX2 0ES, UK.
Editor-in-Chief: Jonathan Oliver
Commissioning Editor: David Moore
Cover & Design: Sam Gretton
Marketing and PR: Michael Molcher
Publishing Manager: Ben Smith
Creative Director and CEO: Jason Kingsley
Chief Technical Officer: Chris Kingsley
Copyright © 2013 Rebellion Publishing Ltd.
ISBN (.mobi): 978-1-84997-536-0
ISBN (.epub): 978-1-84997-537-7
Ritual Crime Unit, Abaddon Books and Abaddon Books logo are trademarks owned or used exclusively by Rebellion Intellectual Property Limited. The trademarks have been registered or protection sought in all member states of the European Union and other countries around the world. All right reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publishers.
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
In memory of Lesley Richardson,
my mother and my biggest fan.
THE POLICE VAN jolted over the potholes of the rough farm roads at speed. DCI Claire Pierce gripped her paper cup tighter before the coffee could spill over and slop down the front of her tac vest.
Might have been the best place for it. “Christ, what the hell am I drinking? Did you run it through a goat before you gave it to me?” She chugged down the rest of the coffee without waiting for an answer. Any method of caffeine delivery was better than none.
Sergeant Mistry gave her a brief grin from the other side of the van. “Not my fault, Guv,” he said. “North Yorkshire Police supplied the coffee.”
“Yeah? Well, next time we call for a raid remind me to pencil it in on the budget.” Pierce grimaced as she reached the bottom of the cup. It was all right for Deepan. He was barely closing in on thirty, still looking only half that with his chubby cheeks and artfully gelled hair. At fifty-four, she was considerably less bright and breezy. She wasn’t keen to be out as late as this, but they didn’t have much choice. The full moon was their best opportunity to catch the skinbinder they were after in the act.
There had to be one operating illegally in the area. They’d been chasing reports of unlicensed shapeshifters across Yorkshire for six months. This many enchanted pelts couldn’t all be heirloom pieces dragged down from the attic, and the maker’s rune on the one bearskin they’d seized didn’t belong to any of the country’s six authorised skin shops. Weeks of painstaking police work had finally led the Ritual Crime Unit to a farmhouse that the neighbours claimed had seen exotic animals delivered.
Pierce gripped the side wall of the van as the young driver swung them off the main road and through the farm gate. She didn’t know his name. This team was only half hers, the numbers made up by North Yorkshire Police. Necessary with the RCU’s limited manpower, but still not a happy thought. If there were shapeshifters on site, a group of untrained uniforms in hi-visibility vests were about as much use to contain them as a strip of POLICE DO NOT CROSS tape.
She could see the dark shape of the farmhouse coming up on their left, the stones lit by the headlights of the Armed Response Vehicle ahead. Beyond was a brick-built barn with a white van parked outside. The owners of the property were supposed to be in Spain.
Pierce reached for the radio on her vest.
“Leo. Your people ready?”
“Just give us the word.” The familiar gruff voice was cool and steady. Leo Grey she’d worked with before, the local Firearms Support Unit’s specialist in supernatural threats. At least he’d be packing silver bullets in his Glock, but the ammo was rare and expensive, and the rest of his team were only supplied with Tasers. Theory said they should work just fine on shifters.
Pierce wasn’t a great fan of trusting to theory.
“I want you with me in the barn,” she said. “If the skinbinder’s at work, that’s where he’ll be.” Skinning was a messy business. The animals had to be freshly slaughtered for the skinbinding ritual to be performed.
“I hear you. Henderson, you’re with us,” he told one of his team. “Baker will lead the rest of the team on the house clearance.”
Dividing their forces made her edgy, but with a site this big they couldn’t afford to risk their suspects escaping in the dark. “Constable Keane and I will be coming in behind you.” Pierce exchanged a glance of acknowledgement with Sally Keane, the RCU’s resident expert in shapeshifting pelts. A plump, easy-going woman with blonde hair and red-framed glasses, she looked out of place stuffed into a tac vest, but Pierce knew she could handle herself in a crisis. It wasn’t her own people that concerned her.
As she climbed out of the van, Pierce checked her belt for her silver cuffs and incapacitant spray. Limited use against a shifter that wasn’t already subdued, but that was why they had Firearms along.
“All right, you know your orders,” she said as the team assembled on the grass. “No heroics. You see a shifter coming at you, you get out of the way and call for Firearms Support.” She looked over at Leo, and he gave her a terse nod. “Okay, everybody get into position. We’re going in.”
Leo took the lead as they advanced on the old barn at a jog. He must have been past forty, but he kept himself in shape, a lean, craggy-faced man with the kind of sandy blond hair that didn’t show the grey. As she followed him across the grass, Pierce tried to tug her own ill-fitting tac vest into a more comfortable position, vowing yet again to give up living on microwave meals. Slim chance of that.
Her stomach tensed as Leo and Henderson adopted positions to either side of the barn’s wooden door. Leo had his Glock held out before him in a two-handed grip, the barrel pointed down at the grass between them. Henderson had his hand on his Taser. They exchanged sober nods.
Henderson threw the door open and Leo charged in ahead of him. “Police! Get down on the ground!” he shouted. “Everybody stop what you’re doing and get down on the ground!” Pierce followed right on their heels, Sally and a swarm of North Yorkshire’s finest close behind her.
The barn was unconverted, a high-roofed open space with wooden beams and a dirt floor. Crates and vaguer shapes covered by tarpaulins were shoved against the walls to clear the centre. A square window in the rear wall allowed the full moon’s light to spill inside.
The pool of moonlight and the glow of their police torches lit up a gruesome scene. The bloody corpse of a grey wolf was strung up, dangling from a beam, the half-skinned pelt peeled down over the muscle like a fur glove pulled inside out. The dead-eyed face reminded Pierce of her neighbour’s pet husky.
No time to get sentimental. They’d caught the skinbinder in the act.
Focused on his craft, the young man didn’t even turn, swaying and crooning to himself as he moved around the hanging carcass. In the shadows he looked hunched, misshapen, until she realised that bound to his back were a great set of eagle’s wings, incongruous against a dark T-shirt and frayed jeans. His bare arms were covered with tattooed runes, and in one hand he held a curved silver knife with a hooked end.
“Drop the knife!” Leo demanded, moving closer but not yet ready to raise the pistol. Henderson followed a few paces behind, pivoting to look into the shadows as he passed. Sally moved
Pierce kept her eyes on the skinbinder, not willing to trust he was as absorbed as he seemed. He was still humming, maintaining his focus as he made ritual incisions in the carcass. She was damn glad Leo and his people were professionals, not trigger-happy hotheads looking for a chance to fire. This could still end without tears, if they were careful.
“Holy shit.” The curse from Sally drew her eyes away from the standoff. Pierce saw the young constable drop the raised tarp and jerk back. “Guv, we’ve got skins here,” she said, swallowing as she looked up. “But I think they’re—”
In the moment of distraction, the skinbinder made his move.
A flash of silver motion at the corner of her eye. Pierce spun just in time to see Henderson reel backwards, clutching his arm where the skinning knife had gashed it.
“Drop the knife!” Leo shouted again, raising his gun, but before he could fire a dark shape dropped from the roof beams, slamming into him and sending him staggering into the hanging carcass. As the thing bounded forward, launching from his shoulders, Pierce glimpsed gold feline eyes and a flash of yellow fangs.
A black panther.
Not a real one. “Shapeshifter!” she bellowed.
“Fuck!” Henderson scrambled backward, fumbling for the Taser at his side, but it was a clumsy move, reaching across himself with his uninjured arm. Before he could draw the weapon, the shapeshifter was on him, its jaws crunching down on his shoulder. It shook him like a toy and tossed him aside to slam against the wall. Pierce heard the crack of breaking bone.
“Officer down!” she shouted into her radio. “We need backup in the barn! Shapeshifter in the building!” Leo shoved the swinging wolf carcass aside to get a clear shot, but with everyone’s torches moving at once the barn was a blur of shifting shadows.
“I’ve got Henderson, Guv!” Sally said, darting across the barn toward the injured man. But the shifter spun about as fast as any real cat, claws flashing out to rake across her throat. Her cry of shock strangled into a gurgle as she staggered back, a spray of blood spattering the dirt floor.
“Shit!” Pierce saw the shifter’s head swinging towards her, and she grabbed for her spray. Wouldn’t stop the damn thing, but it might drive it out, save the casualties from any further harm...
The deafening blast of a close-quarters gunshot echoed in her ears. It plunged her into instant ringing, muffled deafness, like the world heard from the bottom of a pool. Even that didn’t soften the retort of the next shot.
The big cat jerked back as the bullet ripped into its shoulder—and, like an optical illusion, it was no longer a panther, but a man crouched on all fours with the pelt draped across his back. Taking no chances, Pierce lunged forward and slapped her silver cuffs on his tattooed arms, yanking his wrists together with no time to be careful of his shoulder. The man snapped his teeth towards her, still half lost in the mind of the beast.
But neutralised for now. If the silver bullet hadn’t ruined the magic of the pelt, the cuffs would definitely stop him using it. Pierce straightened up—and spotted the skinbinder she’d half forgotten running towards the back of the barn. “Freeze!” she yelled, her own voice dulled in her ears to the point where she could hardly tell how loud she was shouting. “There’s no way out!”
The skinbinder ignored her and took a running leap towards the window. It was an impossible jump... but as he left the ground, his body collapsed in on itself, bones folding away at impossible angles like a closing umbrella. The heavy wings on his back moulded into his outflung arms; his bent legs sunk inwards and curved into talons; his moonlit face elongated, stretching out into a hooked beak.
The great shape of the eagle soared away out of the window, disappearing into the dark night. Leo swore and ran forward to aim after it, but too late to take the shot.
“Eagle shifter coming out of the back of the barn!” Pierce shouted it into her radio, but she knew that no one outside would have a chance to stop him.
She turned to move towards the injured officers. It was clear that neither one would be getting up without help. Didn’t look much like they would get up at all.
Jesus Christ. What a clusterfuck.
IT TOOK LONGER than Pierce liked to get the injured off the scene and the prisoner on his way to the station. She sent Deepan back to accompany him; she didn’t trust jittery uniforms with a shapeshifter. The bullet should have rendered the pelt’s enchantment inert, but that was still no reason to take chances. The panther’s wound hadn’t transferred to the man; small injuries were repaired in the flux of shifting bodies. It took major organ damage to kill a shapeshifter in animal form.
Police officers weren’t so lucky.
Pierce would have liked to send one of their own off in the ambulance with Sally, but they were stretched far too thin as it was with a crime scene this size. In a perfect world, she’d have had two prisoners in custody right now, and Sally here to check the barn over for magical traps. Instead they had a loose skinbinder to watch out for, and she was stuck here waiting for Tim Cable to show up.
Tim wouldn’t have been her first choice to bring on a bust like this. Three months in the Unit and still earnest as a puppy, he was textbook perfect on all the procedures—which might do him some good if they ever actually drew a textbook case. The books weren’t even written to cover RCU work; when Pierce had first joined up, the only reference to consult was George, the cranky old sergeant who’d been around longer than God’s mother-in-law. What she hadn’t learned from him, she’d picked up through trial-and-error, and things that hadn’t killed her yet.
Tonight was a grim reminder there could always be a first time.
She chewed the lip of another cardboard cup of coffee as the forensics van pulled up. The crime scene photographer who got out was half familiar, a weary-looking blonde woman with her tripod in hand. “Why is it you lot from Ritual always call us out to scenes in the middle of the night and the middle of nowhere?” she asked.
“Ritual magic. Brings out your average criminal’s flair for amateur dramatics.” Pierce turned her torch toward the open barn door. “Through there.”
The photographer assessed the scene with a practised eye. “Just the barn?”
Slim chance they’d get much of value from the rest of the scene, with the number of feet that had been trampling over it. “Just the barn,” she echoed with a curt nod. “Bloodstains on the left and most of the footprints are from the attack on our people. We need pictures of the rear window and the rafters—one of our suspects went out the back, and the other one came from above. Make sure you get that knife there on the ground.”
The skinbinder had dropped the ritual blade in his escape—the silver would have stopped him from transforming. With any luck, they’d be able to lift some prints from it. In the shadowy dark of the barn she hadn’t seen if he wore gloves, but she doubted he’d have risked it. Complex magic took precision, and the smallest bit of clumsiness could compromise a ritual.
“The dead wolf is relevant too, I’m guessing?” the photographer said. She wrinkled her mouth at the gruesome sight. “Poor puppy.” She snapped off a few establishing shots.
Pierce turned to see Tim hurrying towards her from the collection of cars. A lanky boy with short spiked hair and glasses, he wasn’t quite as young and gormless as he looked, but sometimes it was easy to forget that.
“Sally was injured?” he asked, his eyes wide.
“They’ve taken her to hospital. You can call them for news later, but right now I need you to assess the scene. We need to know there are no magical surprises around the place before forensics start disturbing things.” Self-destructing evidence was her least favourite kind.
Tim nodded solemnly. “Right, Guv.” But he hovered for a moment, clearly at a loss for where to start. “Um... I should... check outside the thresholds for
She’d have to shake that out of him before she sent him off on his own to butt heads with local forces who thought rank outweighed specialist expertise. She flicked a hand to send him off to do as he thought best.
A cultured voice interrupted from behind them. “That won’t be necessary, thank you, Constable.”
Apparently being a DCI didn’t spare her from butting heads either. Pierce turned to face the new arrival.
He was a tall man in his late thirties, with thick dark hair and the kind of blandly handsome looks that were a nightmare of anyone trying to take down a useful description. He wore a black cashmere coat, the shirt collar and dark tie beneath as crisp as if he’d come straight from the ironing board.
Never trust a police detective who didn’t look like he lived in his clothes. Assuming this man was with the police; if he wasn’t and he’d still got through the cordon, heads would be rolling very soon. Pierce fixed him with a hard stare. “Sorry, you would be?”
He strode forward to meet her, unsmiling. “Jason Maitland, Counter Terror Action Team.” That was a new one on her, but then they changed the names on these things more often than she changed her sheets, and the ID that he flashed at her looked real enough. “I’m afraid my people are going to need to take over this site.”
And if that didn’t smell rancid, she didn’t know what did. She narrowed her eyes. “There’s no reason for Counter Terrorism to take an interest in this case.” A rogue skinbinder was a threat on several levels, but none of them involved national security.
“We have our reasons. I’m afraid I can’t discuss them.” Stock phrases, no apology behind them.
Dark suited figures were already moving across the site, herding the uniformed officers away. They even had their own forensics people, pouring out of an unmarked black van in coveralls. Terrorism was a buzzword with plenty of political clout—but Pierce had her own field of authority.
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