The Forest Whispers Excerpt
Protocol was such a royal pain in the ass, Ranger Lana Eloy thought as she knelt and bowed to the monarch of Ata Prime, in the Kilkain Galaxy. "Your highness, I am Ranger Lana Eloy of the United Confederation of Planets’ Intergalactic Rangers. I have tracked a killer to your world and seek permission to apprehend the criminal on Ata Prime soil."
Rex Pimetrius, an ancient with steel colored hair and fierce eyes, studied her skeptically for several moments. "A female killer?"
Lana’s lips tightened. She knew what was coming. The patriarchal society of the barbarians of Ata Prime was well known for their attitude toward women—which was why she’d been ordered to stand down when she’d tracked the serial killer, Sadin Quyz, to Ata Prime until another ranger could be sent—a male.
She wasn’t about to let the son-of-a-bitch have the chance to slip through her fingers again, however—and she sure as hell wasn’t letting someone else make her bust when she’d been trailing this bastard for three years.
Resisting the urge to glare daggers at the man for his condescending attitude, Lana kept her gaze trained on the Rex Pimetrius’ hairy toes, left bare between the leggings and the scandals he wore. "He is a murderer of women, sire," she said coolly.
"Perhaps his woman displeased him," Rex Pimetrius responded, equally cool.
Rage boiled through Lana, suffusing her pale skin and giving her anger away even as she fought to control it. "Sadin Quyz is a predator. He has raped and killed more than a hundred women—that we know of—on ten worlds. He will continue killing—because he enjoys it—until he is stopped."
"He will not dare to harm one of our women," Pimetrius said confidently. "I can not fathom why they would send a female to do the work of a man if this Sadin Quyz is so dangerous."
He sounded genuinely curious, which was almost as bad as when he was being deliberately insulting. She felt like informing him that she’d been assigned the case because she was the best ‘man’ they had, but not only did she doubt that he would believe her, most likely he would be amused, and she wasn’t certain her temper could handle much more of his superior male attitude. She lifted a limpid blue gaze at him. "Because they had no one else, sire," she said, smiling with a tremendous effort.
His brows rose, then his eyes narrowed on her face. After a moment, he turned and lifted a finger, summoning someone from the rear of the royal audience chamber.
A shadow fell over Lana that was so massive she couldn’t prevent the instinctive glance she sent toward the mountain of a man that had come to kneel beside her. Like all the Ata Prime males she’d seen since she’d arrived a couple of hours earlier, his skin pigmentation combined with their sun had produced dark red flesh tones. Typically, they seemed to be dark haired. This one’s hair was as dark as a black hole, glinting with silver and bluish highlights in the light from the torches that lined the chamber walls. Though his hair was darker than most, the style was the same—plucked, or shaved, from all but the center of his head and running from the front hairline to the base of his skull, but allowed to grow long instead of trimmed to a spiky ridge as the statesmen wore theirs.
He wore the armor typical of the Ata warrior—the stiff but flexible hide of some armored type of animal—which consisted of leggings, lower arm and elbow guards, shoulder guards and a cod piece.
The specimen beside her was wearing a shoulder guard and cod piece ‘trimmed’ with the teeth of one hell of a beast and she wondered if the tattoo on the upper right of his chest, which disappeared beneath one shoulder guard, was the same that sported those wicked four to six inch teeth.
The cod piece was impressive enough without the teeth—if the anaconda sleeping inside of it looked anything like the rest of him….
The muscles of his upper arms were massive—certainly as big as and very likely bigger than her thighs—his body was a mass of muscle, period.
Reluctantly, she conceded that Rex Pimetrius might be right about the women of Ata being safe from Sadin Quyz. He was insane, but he wasn’t stupid—she didn’t doubt in the least that Quyz had headed for Ata primarily to get her off his tail.
Unless these monsters were in the habit of allowing their women to roam unprotected—which she doubted—it seemed unlikely Sadin would get the opportunity to snatch a female here.
She hadn’t seen a female since she’d arrived and had to wonder what the women looked like.
"The captain of my guard, Corin Thantos, is an excellent tracker. He will capture this criminal and we will give him to the rangers when they come for him." He waved a hand at her. "You may go and tell your people."
Lana ground her teeth at the dismissal and sent a narrow eyed look at the man beside her.
A jolt of surprise went through her when she discovered that he was looking directly at her now. His face had the lean, chiseled look of the high testosterone male, made even more fierce by the dark, predatory eyes and the red war paint that covered the upper half of his face.
Despite the jolt of surprise, she met his speculative glance steadily. "You are most gracious, your highness," she said, dismissing Corin Thantos after a moment and returning her attention to the Rex. "I will report your suggestions to my superior. I’m sure he will appreciate the fact that, as a member planet of the United Confederation of Planets, which falls within the jurisdiction of the Intergalactic Rangers, you have graciously agreed to cooperate fully with the ranger assigned to the case. As the ranger assigned to apprehend Sadin Quyz, I will take possession of the prisoner—once I have captured him—and remove him from Ata. I appreciate your offering Captain Thantos as a guide since I’m not familiar with the terrain of Ata."
Rising, Lana bowed once more and backed across the chamber until she’d reached the point where it was considered polite to turn her back on Rex Pimetrius.
The ‘mountain’ fell into step beside her as she left the audience chamber.
Lana ignored him, stalking furiously down the corridor toward the great room of the Rex Pimetrius’ palace. Any hope she’d nurtured that she would lose him along the way was dashed when they reached the great doors of the palace. He followed her through.
She stopped once they’d put some distance between themselves and the palace, planting her hands on her hips as she turned to face him. "Look, I know you don’t want to be bothered with my little problem—and the truth is, I work best alone—so why don’t we see if we can’t come to an agreement that makes us both happy?"
He looked her over speculatively. "You are fortunate you are an outworlder and wear the badge of the Intergalactic Ranger, otherwise you would be sitting in the dungeon now. Are you a ranger?"
It was too much. Grinding her teeth, Lana poked him in the chest with her index finger. "I am not just ‘a’ ranger. I happen to be chief detective in the homicide division, Captain Thantos. I followed protocol as a courtesy to your government, but I don’t take orders from men, no matter how damned big they are! Got that? And you and I both know that the only reason Rex Pimetrius offered me any courtesy at all was because he didn’t want a war with the CPA.
"I followed protocol. I introduced myself, explained my mission—now, I’m going to complete my mission."
A bemused expression clouded his features as he stared down at her. Slowly, a frown gathered between his brows. "Rex Pimetrius has ordered me to find the man. There is no need for you to endanger yourself, little one."
Lana blushed to the roots of her hair, too stunned at first even for anger to set in. Little one? She was five nine and weighed a hundred sixty pounds, most of it muscle, and she could go toe to toe with just about any man and come out on top. Was the asshole calling her a child? She opened her mouth to annihilate him, but just what did one say to a barbarian twice their size who considered the fact that she wasn’t as big as he was made her inadequate and/or incompetent? After a moment, she merely turned and headed back to where she’d left her craft.
He didn’t follow her. That was a relief, at least.
Having gathered what she needed, Lana secured the craft and checked her tracker. She’d had the good fortune to gather a sample of Sadin’s DNA from one of the more recent crime scenes, which was the only reason she’d managed to stay on his tail for the past six months. Unfortunately, the device, a newly developed crime tool, didn’t have much of a range. It could pick up his DNA signature if he’d been in the general vicinity within the past sixty to seventy two hours, but that was about all it was good for—telling her where he’d been, not where he was.
She wasn’t knocking it. Whatever her fellow officers thought of the tracker, it had not only saved her a lot of wasted time, it had kept her so hot on Sadin’s tail he hadn’t had the chance to snatch a woman in months. She’d come within a hair’s breadth of catching him twice since she’d gotten it. This time, she would.
He hadn’t made a kill in months. He was bound to be on edge, desperate to find another woman—which meant he was going to slip up. This time, on this world, he was going to make a mistake and when he did she was going to nail his ass to the wall.
She had a mountain of hard evidence on the bastard. All she had to do was lay him by the heels and the court system would see to it that he paid for every life he’d taken.
Which was one of the main reasons she hadn’t wanted the barbarian giant along with her. She knew the brute mentality that typically went with that much brawn. If he caught up to Sadin, likely all she’d get was a stinking carcass.
She wanted to watch Sadin squirm when he was led to his execution. She wanted him to have time to think about the fact that he was going to die as horribly as those he’d murdered.
An eye for an eye. It might be gruesome as hell, but it sure made killers think twice about torturing their victims—most of them anyway.
Shaking her thoughts, Lana swept the area with the tracker. The strongest signature was coming from the narrow trail that led from the landing field into the forest.
Lana felt her nerves jump. He was on the hunt already—looking for a likely victim in an out of the way place where he could torture her at his leisure.
Lana took the trail at a jog. Ground transport would’ve been helpful, but somehow she doubted Rex Pimetrius would furnish anything for her. According to the computer, Sadin had landed two days before. She tapped the button in her ear jack. "Computer—call me up a map of this area."
The computer was silent for several minutes. "The most current map of this area of Ata Prime is ten years old."
"Well, shit!" Lana exclaimed in disgust. "That’s really helpful."
"Shall I try to communicate with the local computer?"
"There isn’t one."
The computer didn’t respond to that. Either it was trying to figure out what ‘no computer’ meant, or it was trying to figure out another solution. "Shall I activate the ship and execute a fly over to map the area?"
"Good thinking. Send me the map as soon as you’ve compiled it."
A mile and a half into the dense forest, the narrow track Lana was following forked. One side continued pretty much as the trail had thus far. The other narrowed to little more than a foot path. Lana scanned the area, but it was impossible to pin down a precise reading. Sadin had obviously tried both. She didn’t want to waste her time on the trail he’d decided to discard and settled down to wait for the onboard to download a map.
Fifteen minutes passed. Just as she was beginning to grow impatient, the computer signaled that it was ready to download a grid image showing a ten mile radius of the area.
Lana studied it thoughtfully. There were three dwellings within the area. Two were good sized farms. The third, accessible along the footpath, was little more than a one room cabin. Plucking her bottom lip thoughtfully, Lana considered whether Sadin would have done as she’d done and mapped the area or used whatever was available.
She had located the ship he’d used to get to Ata Prime, but it had been hidden, and it seemed most likely that he’d spent his time hiding the ship, not using it to scout for him, particularly since he must have known she was right behind him.
"Give me a comparison between the mapping you just did and the one previously available."
The computer promptly overlaid the new map with the older one. The small cabin was the only structure of the three that appeared on the old map.
But the narrow track indicated that the closest of the two farms had some access to inhabited areas—which most likely meant a family.
"Give me a twenty five mile radius scan."
After studying the wider area for a few minutes, Lana decided to start down the cart track. Her gut was telling her Sadin was looking for a kill. If that was the case, it seemed improbable that he would’ve headed for the small cabin, which seemed less likely to yield a victim for him.
Deciding to take the cart track, Lana stowed her map in her pack and set out once more. The closest farm lay a good eight miles up the track she was following. The second farm was approximately twelve miles if she continued to follow the cart trail, which forked again several miles before it reached the first farm and veered north. She had time to check the first before dusk, but even if she cut across through the forest, it seemed unlikely she’d reach the second before full dark caught her.
She reached her first objective just as the sun dropped below the tops of the trees and stopped to observe from a little distance and check the readings on the tracker. The signature indicated that Sadin had been close, possibly even where she’d stopped to check the place out. Obviously, he’d decided to move on, however, and in a few moments, she saw why. The farm appeared to belong to an older couple with a number of grown, or nearly grown, children. As she stood watching, two strapping young men appeared in a distant field, herding some sort of domesticated animals toward the pasture nearest the main house. An older man and another young man were working near a barn.
While she stood watching, a woman exited the house.
She assumed it was a woman. She was draped from head to foot in some sort of flowing robe and scarves, with little more than her eyes exposed. She could’ve been young and beautiful, or ancient. She moved with the ease of youth, however. A daughter of the house?
Lana decided to approach and see if she could glean any information from them. It was possible that Sadin might have waited until the men were away from the house and snatched one of the women, but she could see no indication of distress. Surely, regardless of how they treated their women they would’ve been out looking if one had been taken?
As she neared the house, the men working at the barn stopped what they were doing and stood watching her. She stopped a few yards from them and displayed her identification.
"I am Ranger Lana Eloy of the United Confederation of Planets’ Intergalactic Rangers. I’m looking for a man not of Ata Prime. Have any strangers passed this way within the past several days that you saw?"
The elder of the two men ran a piercing, unfriendly gaze down her length and up again. "None have passed this way."
Lana studied him and finally decided that he was telling her the truth so far as he knew it. "Perhaps I could ask some of the others?"
If possible, his demeanor became even more unwelcoming. "I am master here. Naught happens here that I am unaware of."
Lana frowned, but she hadn’t really expected to gather any information. Finally, she nodded. "This man is fair, as I am. He is a killer of women. Take care that your women are guarded. They should not be left alone or allowed to go far from the house without a man to escort them."
He grew angry then and made no attempt to hide it. "The Confederation holds no sway here. I am master."
Lana’s lips tightened. The only thing she hated worse than domineering men was stupid domineering men. "That was not an order, only a warning for the sake of your women’s safety. He is hunting. If the opportunity arises, make no mistake, he will take one and you will not see her alive again—or in one piece."
Nodding, she turned and strode from the yard. She doubted seriously that any of the women were in danger. She couldn’t see much possibility that the women were ever out of sight of at least one male at all times.
When she’d reached the track again, she pulled the map from her pack and studied it in the dwindling light. There was a stream roughly half way between this farm and the next. It would be too dark soon to be stumbling about in the woods, but she wasn’t willing to waste the time it would take to follow the track back to the fork and take the track to the next farm. She decided to cut through the forest and make camp by the stream for the night and approach the next farm in the morning.
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