The Subtlety of Understanding

an excerpt



He was going to die. Mason Richardson had come to terms with that fact about four blocks back when the natural humans had spotted him. He couldn't begin to guess how they figured out he was a shifter, but they did and the chase commenced. He'd already taken a knife in the ribs when one of them caught him in an alley. A feral smile graced his face. That one would never stab another shifter again.

He skidded around the corner and ran into another group. Shit, one of his pursuers must have radioed ahead and they were waiting for him. He fought the grasping hands, but he was caught. A fatalistic laugh bubbled from his lips. He'd managed to survive ten years on his own since he escaped from the lab. Now he was going to die at the hands of a bunch of redneck yokels.

He thought about shifting. No. Why give them another excuse to kill him? Mason doubled over as a steel-toed boot connected with his stomach. A rib broke. Not even his advanced healing capabilities would let him survive this.

"Make peace with your maker," one of his assailants growled at him.

He couldn't help the hysterical chuckling. Make peace with his maker? His maker was some scientist in a lab and he didn't want anything to do with him except kill the man. Another stinging swipe with a knife across his arm. He was lucky that one didn't hit an artery. Fists were pounding his flesh with each swing. His superior strength didn't mean anything against the mob.

He was losing blood and beginning to weaken. It wouldn't be long for him now. He took a swipe at the nearest man, feeling his knuckles crunch the man's nose. He wondered why he was fighting. Life didn't mean much anymore. Struggling to survive in a world that hated him hadn't been a picnic. A baseball bat connected with his knee and he went down.

How had they known he was a shifter? He'd escaped the lab before they could freeze brand his number on his forehead. When he had stopped running for a few days, he'd dug out the micro-chip the assholes had planted in his wrist. It had hurt like a bitch, but he didn't mind pain.

Darkness started to descend over Mason's vision. An odd sense of peace washed over him. It would be time to stop fighting soon and maybe then he could rest.

* * *

Heinrich Gunther stepped from the darkened doorway into the mob. He touched the shoulder of the attacker nearest him.

The man screamed and dove away from him.

Heinrich did nothing more than grimace. He'd gotten used to how people reacted to his touch. Each time one of the townsmen caught sight of him, they ran. Touching each man at the elbow, he soon stood behind the leader of the mob who was about to deliver the killing blow.

"Billy, I told you what would happen if you attacked another stranger without provocation." Heinrich's voice sounded harsh as if he'd smoked several packs of cigarettes a day.

The older man stiffened and stepped back from the unmoving creature at his feet. Billy turned with his hands out from his sides, trying to look non-threatening. Not that the natural human could actually hurt Heinrich.

"He's a stranger, Doctor Gunther. We can't be too careful with all those monsters running around." Billy's gaze rested at Heinrich's feet.

"Ah, yes, monsters. But Billy, not every stranger is trouble for the town." Heinrich knew the people of Haven, New Mexico sensed something else lived beneath the exterior of Heinrich Gunther's mild mannered appearance, but none of them were willing to risk agitating him to see it unleashed. It was bad enough they ran from his touch and wouldn't look him in the eye.

"He ran."

As if that were proof of his guilt. Heinrich shook his head, taking a deep breath while gathering his strength. "You were chasing him with violence on your mind. I doubt our battered friend is stupid. He knew you would kill him if you caught him and tried to get away from you." Heinrich gestured in the direction Billy's friends had run. "Go join your mob, Billy. Never do something like this again or the punishment will fit the crime."

Billy nodded and dashed off. Heinrich didn't expect him to stick around. He took a few steps to stand over the crumpled body. An unhappy hiss issued from his lips. Even bruised and bleeding, he could tell the victim was a shifter from the amount of damage the man had sustained and still lived. If Heinrich had to take a guess, the man was probably a member of the genus feline.

"Zev, come join me."

A tall dark man emerged from the shadows. Zev, his friend and bodyguard, had been keeping an eye out to make sure none of the locals circled around to attack again. Heinrich's lips moved in a wry smile. Zev didn't understand how much they feared Heinrich.

"We have to get him back to the ranch." He gestured to the stranger.

Zev's nostrils flared as he bent down to pick the man up in his arms. "A cat?"

"So it would seem. I hope you'll treat him as an honored guest, my friend." Heinrich led the way through the alley to where the Lexus was parked.

"Another of your strays?"

Heinrich knew Zev didn't understand why he expended energy he couldn't afford to lose and risk being discovered himself, all to help strangers. He glanced over his shoulder, fighting back the surge of envy at the effortless way Zev was carrying the stranger. It didn't pay to be jealous of things he'd never been able to do. He stumbled, reaching for the car.

"Be careful with him. His wounds will begin to heal, but I don't want to cause him more pain." He opened the back door so Zev could place his burden on the seat.

"Yes, doctor." Zev set the man down and then slid behind the steering wheel. "Will you sit up here with me or keep an eye on the cat?"

An odd urge to curl up beside the feline shifter threatened to overwhelm Heinrich. He knew any sort of kindness from him wouldn't be appreciated. He climbed slowly into the passenger seat, wincing as his back protested the bending.

"Why are you taking him to the ranch? It would have made more sense to allow the townspeople to kill him. Less likely to be discovered as a shifter." Zev kept his eyes on the road.

"The same reason why I took in one lone wolf a year ago." Heinrich stared out the side window, watching the sparse desert vegetation swirl by.

"Penance."

Heinrich thought about the word. Penance meant he took in shifters to help assuage the guilt he felt for his part in what happened to them. He wasn't sure if his actions were caused by guilt or not. He only knew each shifter he saved or gave sanctuary to was one more that might live to an old age. He was the reason they existed, so it was possible he wanted to make sure they continued to live without harassment.

"Maybe."

The pain shot through his head and he groaned, leaning it gently on the headrest behind him. Shutting his eyes, he let the pain wave through him. The pressure would build until he got home and took his medicine.

"How did you know he was in town?" Zev's hand took his and held it tight though the shifter's attention didn't waver from driving.

It always surprised him when Zev touched him. It had been years since anyone chose to do so. He knew how painful his touch could be.

"I'd asked some of the homeless to contact me when there were strangers because I know how Billy and his gang can be. I didn't want to run the risk of them actually attacking a shifter and biting off something bigger than they could handle." His grip tightened around Zev's and the wolf grunted. "It looks like they were lucky. This shifter didn't seem inclined to hurt them anymore than was necessary to achieve freedom."

"I hope he's sane. If he's not, I'll terminate him before he can hurt you." Zev snarled.

"Thank you, Zev, but I don't think he'll pose a threat to me. Or at least he won't find me a threat to his well-being." Heinrich glanced back over the seat at the unconscious body behind them. "Maybe we can give him some peace."

Zev snorted. Whether in agreement or disapproval, Heinrich didn't know.