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About the Author

John Kirkpatrick has published short fiction and has seen his plays produced on stage. A few years back he bounced around the atmosphere of the scriptwriting world and now he's back where he belongs, fighting the freelance fiction wars from the American Midwest.

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Unnatural Aptitude

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The world was a blur of rooftops, a slow-motion rush of fire escapes and hard brick angles. In his ears, the rasping of his breath competed with his heartbeat for the only sound. It had become the pursuit. Keeping the death-grip on his sidearm, he hurtled another low wall, straining himself into the thick, late-night darkness. And of course it was starting to rain.

Then, another fractured glimpse of the shadow ahead of him, moving. He couldn't stop, not for backup, not for the ache that felt like fire in his lungs and in his legs. If he let himself there would only be another crime scene, just like the one he could still feel behind him, refusing to recede. The roofing sounded like gravel under his feet and he pushed faster, fighting the shrouded obstacle course of vent turrets and sagging pigeon wire. No one had been this close before.

Fayette hadn't been first on the scene this time, not like the initial call, but he'd recognized the look on Webster's face. He'd felt the mask of it himself and he'd seen it gaping back at him from windows under the garish strobing of the police lights. It was strange how those lights always had the power to drain away color, along with the last touch of reality in an unreal scene. The third time around, two bodies this time—a mother and her toddler child. Blood sprays and jagged throats, but no pooling, there was never enough to pool. The torn Bible and the child's clothes looked so poignant in the glittering wreckage of the bedroom. Fayette had stepped outside. That's when he'd seen the tall man standing in the street and looking interested.

"Who are you? What are you doing out here?"

The man gave him the slightest smile and Officer Fayette had felt the intensity with a sudden tightness like nothing he could name.

"Tell me what you—"

And the man was gone, the simple speed of it as startling as a shout. There was time to blink—a specific impression that the man wasn't really even fleeing—then every instinct had set Fayette moving, racing in pursuit. A broken door, a staircase, and now the rooftops. Fayette felt alone in all the city. Just he and his shadow.

A sound as soft as a touch jarred him to a stop. Frozen, he fought to listen over the noises of his own exerted body. The sound came again, beside him, close. There was a flimsy wall of wood and he backed against it, edging toward the corner, moving to his left with his gun in the wrong hand. Pausing at the edge, he held his breath then whirled around into an explosion of white wings and feathers in his face that threw him ducking backward. He almost cried out. Wings behind wire. Someone's racing pigeons, disturbed in the night. Good God, he was jumpy.

At least he hadn't fired this time. Like when he'd come out of that first stairwell and the shadow had been right on top of him. It had just come from nowhere and the shot was as reflexive as a gasp. The muzzle flash had shown him a pair of wild, flaring eyes, then nothing. He'd be hearing about that round when he made his report. Especially since, somehow, he'd missed.

A gray hint of something grabbed at the corner of his eye and he straightened to watch the shadow glide out of hiding, somewhere close, and dart away. With the heartbeat he was in pursuit again, running hard after the movement more than the shape. And abruptly the shadow was in flight between buildings, leaping the alley-wide gap with the silence of a dream and nothing of the grace. What was showing now to remind Fayette of the tall man in the street? But the brutish leap carried the gap and Fayette knew he was going to follow. He was too close to stop, or at least not to try. One running step—the drop came up too quickly in the rainy darkness—and he almost missed his last, desperate push. Then he was in the air, four stories up in the middle of jump he never would have tried on any other night.

He landed hard, slamming with a loud bang onto a metal lock box atop the second, slightly lower roof. A rush of relief, then at the same instant the helpless, heart-stopping sensation of his feet slipping ahead of him, out from under while the black alley pulled at his back. It took a second of eternity, reeling and flailing, before the momentum of the jump caught up to push him forward, stumbling off the box and onto the roof. That was what it had to be, because there was no way he felt a hand plant itself in his back and push.

It was quiet around him. Holding the pistol in that never-questioning grip, he pointed it ahead of him like a flashlight and half wished it were a flashlight as he looked around. He knew this was the old Heller building, and he knew it was the last in its row before Jefferson Street cut a broad valley between it and the low-rises beyond the pavement. Nothing was going to be jumping that.

But if the other rooftops had been obstacle courses, this one was a maze. From where he stood he saw two stairwells jutting up into angles, both of them well boarded off against more than one city code. Scattered about, he checked off discarded crates and ratty deck chairs, not to mention a multitude of high metal boxes like the first, all meant to lock away air conditioning equipment, access panels, and God knew what. Looking for a shadow, he saw more than he could count.

Threading into the accidental corridors, he took up the search, stepping carefully as he held an unconscious crouch, always following his gun. Somewhere. The killer was still here.

What do I do when I catch it?

The thought hit him like a blow, sudden and alien, as if it came from someone else. What did he do? Well, what did he always do on the job? It wasn't like he'd never seen the dogwatch hours before. It was going to be a pleasure taking this guy down.

But he rounded the first stairwell and a solid wave of stench slammed him so hard he threw his arm up against it and reeled backward. It was that lost body reek, turned up behind a dumpster in August, only so thick he could feel it on his skin. Coughing from deep in his lungs, he knew it wasn't like the crime scene where he'd thought he'd caught a whiff of it—those bodies were far too fresh. This wasn't any stress reaction. Doubling over, he backed away, fighting not to gag, and when he finally caught his breath and found he could straighten up, the tall man from the street was standing in front of him, watching on with some interest.

"Fortunately for us," the man said, "the aroma is highly localized."

Fayette snapped the pistol at his head. "Don't move! You're under arrest!"

"We should talk first."

"Stay where you are."

The man smiled that smile again and Fayette, still battling the spasms in his throat, kept his eyes locked on him. Then the man directed his gaze to the left and Fayette found he had to look that way. When he looked back the man was gone.

The strangling sensation dropping to clench around his heart, Fayette whirled. The man was beside him now and he leveled an arm to take Fayette's wrist in his hand with a grip that set the gun in stone. That was all the movement it took. Fayette struggled, but the man simply held him and before he gave away everything he might have, Fayette stopped trying and met the man's eyes.

"Tonight," the man told him, "upon this rooftop, your gun is not going to help you."

And then Fayette found he could move. Not being moved, he was able to bring his arm down and his pistol to its holster, that was all. When the gun was seated and strapped into place, the man let go.

"Who are you?"

"My name is Hoch." There was a touch of German thickness, but the main of the man's accent was elusive.

"What were you doing at my crime scene?"

"Questions, Officer Fayette. Curiosity."

"What did you do to those people?" The words boiled out of him through some direct connection.

Hoch lifted a brow. "Inhuman murder, the claiming of blood—tell me, officer, what did you think you were chasing?"

The scenes flashed in Fayette's mind and he growled out nothing like a reply. His hand twitched, wanting the gun.

"Curiosity," Hoch said again and disappeared into the darkness.

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