Midnight. The witching hour, some say. Since it was 12:07 A.M. and I was standing over a dead body, I had to agree.
The victim, William H. Steele, a thirty-six-year-old Caucasian male, six feet four, approximately two hundred and thirty pounds, brown hair, brown eyes, lay na**d across a bed of crisp winter leaves. Moonlight spilled in every direction, and withered foliage mockingly framed his muscular physique. He bore no open wounds, no bruises. In fact, not a single blemish marred the perfection of his skin. He was only recently dead; heat still radiated from him and curled into the icy night sky.
Alien Investigation and Removal agents, also known as A.I.R., were scouring the area, meticulously searching between every blade of brittle grass, every grain of dirt. The faint murmurs of their chatter echoed in my ears. I tuned them out and intensified my focus on the body. The man’s legs were slightly spread and bent at the knees. One of his hands rested behind his head, and the other was bound to his penis with a—what the hell was that? I crouched down. Eyes narrowed, I reached out with a gloved hand and slid one finger under the material. A pale blue ribbon, tied in a perfect bow.
I scowled. Was he supposed to be a gift?
Yes. Yes, that’s exactly what he was, I realized, my scowl deepening. Frost gleamed in his hair like diamonds against dark velvet, yet he hadn’t been outside long enough to acquire the frost from nature. He was a gift that had been posed to look carnal, seductive. Alluring. To the average citizen, he would have appeared eager for a long night of sexual gratification.
To me, he just looked like the corpse that he was.
His eyes were fixed straight ahead, his lips slightly blue, and he wasn’t shivering from the cold. A dead giveaway, if you will. Besides that, his testicles were as smooth and shiny as marble, not shriveled like I supposed every other man’s out here were.
With a wry shake of my head, I pushed to my feet.
Perhaps my assessment was callous and indifferent; perhaps my humor was misplaced. Dead bodies were the norm in my line of work, and I couldn’t allow myself to view this man as an actual person. If I did, I’d have to acknowledge that he once had hopes and dreams, thoughts and feelings. I’d cry for the family he left behind, wonder about the life that had once pulsed through his veins.
I couldn’t do that and still hope to function. With tears came distraction, and with distraction came death. My first year of fieldwork, I had spent more time crying for victims than hunting for their killers, and I had almost become a victim myself. I glanced down at my wrist. The inky blackness of my glove didn’t quite meet the cuff of my jacket, leaving a small patch of skin visible. That skin boasted a tattoo of the Grim Reaper’s scythe and was just one of my many reminders to remain unemotional.
I’d gotten the tattoo after recovering from a nasty beating, courtesy of a pissed-off other-worlder. While I’d been lost in my grief for a victim I couldn’t even remember now, an energy-absorbing Rycan attacked me from behind—and kicked major huntress ass.
I had vowed never to cry again. And I hadn’t. Tears were a weakness only civilians could afford.
I am an alien huntress. I am part of the A.I.R. team, working with or against the New Chicago PD—whichever suits me at the time. Every night I stalk and kill other-worlders, and whether I’m investigating a death or causing one myself, I have to shove sentiment aside, find humor where I can, and concentrate on the facts.
I love my job despite the blood and gore—or maybe because of it. I love solving puzzles, fitting each piece of evidence together. I love that one by one, I’m ridding Earth of our unwanted visitors.
Yes, some aliens are peaceful and are allowed to live and work among us. Those, I leave alone. But the others? The ra**sts, the thieves, the killers? I despise them.
Alien sympathizers often ask me if I, a hunter, a legalized killer, live with guilt. My answer: Hell, no. Why should I feel guilty for destroying a predator? I’m proud of my work. I’m privileged to do what I do. Other-worlders who survive on human carnage deserve the sting of my pyre-gun.
A glacial blast of wind whirled past my shoulders, scattering a thin sheen of snow powder in every direction. The hem of my long black leather jacket danced around my calves. Four inches of snow had been predicted, so I needed to work quickly. Twenty minutes ago, I’d received a call from my boss, Commander Jack Pagosa. He’d briefed me on the situation. He’d also informed me I had until morning to present him with a suspect, or I would spend the next year behind a desk.
William Steele, a happily married father of one, had been abducted from his home four weeks prior. His wife and newborn child slept peacefully throughout the entire ordeal, unharmed and unaware. Abductor’s point of entry: undetermined.
Four other dark-haired, dark-eyed men disappeared soon afterward. One had been taken from his workplace, and two had been snatched straight from a crowded street during their lunch hour. Oddly enough, there had been no witnesses and not a single shred of evidence left behind at any scene. Because of the enigmatic nature of each disappearance, aliens were the prime suspect.
Just half an hour earlier, a hunter on patrol had found Steele in this deserted Southern District field. Thankfully, the hunter had preserved the scene until my team arrived. The first thing I’d noticed was that Steele’s body showed no indication of torture, no sign of having been restrained.
Second, I’d realized his death had nothing to do with impulse or rage—just as I knew the murder had nothing to do with stupidity or amusement. The scene was too precise, too perfectly planned. Mr. Steele had been killed for a reason.
What? I couldn’t yet fathom.
I drew in a deep breath—and stilled. Slowly, I drew in three more breaths. As I exhaled the last, I smiled. Since the first kidnapping, no one had dared guess which of the forty-eight alien species were responsible, but I had just narrowed it down to three.
The victim had been killed by poison. Onadyn, to be exact. A deoxygenating drug used by the Zi Karas, Arcadians, and Mecs for survival on this planet. They couldn’t breathe our air without it. To oxygen-breathers, the substance was lethal. Worse, it was virtually undetectable. Virtually, but not completely. A rare few could identify Onadyn by its scent, a subtle fragrance similar to a dewy breeze during a summer storm.
I was one of the rare few, and I smelled it now. The scent filled my nostrils, intoxicating and sweet, as lovely as it was deadly, and somehow suddenly more obvious to me than the scent of waste, rotting food, and charred leaves that made up so much of this domain. My observation wasn’t as solid as a neon sign blinking over the killer’s head that read I DID IT in bold red letters, but it did point us in the right direction.