The alarm went off a full hour and a half earlier than normal. Wolf snarled and buried his face against Jason’s naked shoulder.
“That was a legit Big Bad Wolf sound,” Jason murmured as he rolled over and wrapped his arms around Wolf. Two seconds later, his eyes shot open. “Crap. You have to get to State today. Up. Get up.”
“But it’s nicer here.” Wolf turned his head away for a yawn-whine, conscious of unbrushed teeth.
“I’m not gonna give your mom a reason to say I’m a bad influence.” Jason, on the wall side of the bed, shoved hard enough to push Wolf to the edge.
“Fine. I’m up. I really don’t want to do this.”
The pip-tick of the central air starting up whispered from the vents. Great. Just great. Beginning of October and it was still hot and humid enough to kick the air on at four in the morning. Jason’s hand stroking his back was both a comfort and a temptation, but just as he’d resolved to lie back down for one more snuggle, the muted thunder of tiny paws came galloping up the stairs.
Audacity careened around the corner, meowing like a miniature air raid siren, her black tabby coloring nearly invisible in the darkened bedroom. She’d heard the alarm, of course, and was coming to scold him for still being in bed.
Wolf scooped her up to prevent her from setting her claws against his bare legs and carried her to the bathroom, where he placed her on the vanity. His kitten insisted on supervising his showers and would cry bloody murder if he locked her out. She seemed convinced he might drown if she wasn’t there to watch him.
The whole squad had been dreading this day. Going up to State Paranormal to answer the board’s questions about a case was never fun—not that it happened a lot. Unless Wolf’s squad had interesting specimens to send, State usually acted like the 77th wasn’t worth the attention a mosquito would rate. Every so often, they’d call someone up to answer questions about a weird case, like when Carrington had made the trip to Harrisburg to answer questions about the word-spitting books.
But this? This would be a board of inquiry and one of the 77th’s best officers was in the line of fire. Wolf found he resented that.
Just as he had finished rinsing off and was letting the hot water pound against his knotted shoulders, a black paw batted its way around the end of the shower curtain.
“All right, little girl, I’m coming.” Wolf shut off the faucets, wiping water from his eyes. “I don’t get an extra couple of minutes today?”
The answer was short and prim. Mew.
“That sounds like a no.” He reached over her for the towel while she swiped at the drops falling from his arm. When she stood on her hind legs to try to lick at the shower curtain, he pointed at her. “No shower curtain water. You have nice water in your dish.”
“I don’t care. It’s gross. And probably soapy.”
She sneezed and sat down on the bathmat to wait for him, not at all distressed as some cats might have been at the drips falling on her. When he got out his electric razor, she jumped onto the toilet lid and from there back to the vanity, where she purred as if encouraging the shaver while he ran it over his face.
“You can’t come to work with me today, you know.”
He didn’t think she understood everything he said but he still talked to her as if she did. Just in case. She certainly seemed to understand a lot.
Downstairs, Mom was already in the kitchen with a pot of coffee and eggs and bacon on the stove. Jason, in a T-shirt and pajama bottoms, puttered around setting the table and handling all the non-cooking parts of breakfast like toast and juice.
The domestic scene was so peaceful and cozy, so like family that the backs of Wolf’s eyes stung. It had been just him and his mom for so long… Well, it was wonderful. That’s what it was. Even though he felt guilty since Dad wasn’t there.
“Mom, you didn’t have to get up this early.”
She half-turned to give him a look. “And have you two eating cereal for breakfast? No, you need something fortifying today. I wasn’t sleeping anyway.”
Jason gave him a swift kiss and handed him a glass of orange juice. “Miriam’s afraid I’ll make a disaster area out of her kitchen if I try to cook for you.”
“I never said that,” Mom said with mock-severity.
“You were thinking it and you wouldn’t be wrong,” Jason chuckled. “Alex, you’re not in trouble, are you? With this hearing?”
Wolf shook his head as he took his seat at the table. Audacity climbed into the chair beside him, watching proceedings with her ears swiveling. Mom had already fed her or she would have been batting at the fridge for her breakfast. “Not directly. No. I have to testify, though. I hate this.”
“I think Kash did the right thing,” Mom said as she scooped eggs and bacon onto three plates and broke up one small piece of bacon into tiny pieces on a fourth. “And if those snooty people at State think they could’ve done better, they should come and help out here once in a while. Not that they care what I think, of course.”
Audacity started on her bacon as soon as Mom set the plate in front of her. She was meticulously polite, only putting one paw on the table and taking a piece at a time. Jason had frowned at encouraging a cat to eat at the table but Mom had said her granddaughter could have something with the grownups if she behaved. So Audacity did.
“Kinda wish I could take you with me, Mom,” Wolf mumbled around a bite of toast.
“I wish I could go too, sweetie. But then all the other officers would want to take their moms and the poor board of inquiry members at State probably wouldn’t survive.”
“Makes me shudder thinking about it,” Jason said with a laugh. He turned the conversation to a new restaurant and Wolf was grateful for the distraction, reaching across to cover Jason’s hand with his.
Warm. Loved. Staying right here all day would suit him just fine.
He couldn’t, of course. Breakfast over, he trudged back upstairs to get into his summer uniform, all crisp and sharp from being ironed the night before. It wouldn’t be a fun trip, but he was determined not to be an embarrassment to his department.
Jason let out a low wolf whistle when he came back down, so he knew he looked good. Or maybe Jason was trying to make him feel better. Mom held Audacity in her arms, explaining once again that she could not go to work with Daddy that day, while Jason handed him his hat and keys and gave him a soft kiss for the road. Even that brief kiss melted the ice lodged in his stomach so he could manage a smile for them.
Everything felt backward and upside-down. On days when Jason had stayed over, it was usually Wolf and his mom seeing him out the door so he could get home, let the dogs out, feed all his animal friends and still make it to work on time.
The warm light from the doorway and his little cobbled-together family waving from the top step only served to heighten his sense of dislocation and isolation. All his instincts screamed at him that this wasn’t going to be a good day.
* * * *
“No. No strategies.” Kash stood ramrod straight, his face etched in stone. “Be honest and don’t think about what someone else might have said or didn’t say. They will expect some discrepancies from eyewitnesses.”
Kyle, in contrast to his serene-seeming partner, looked close to a stroke. “But we need—”
“If anyone goes down in flames here, it’s me. No collateral damage.”
They stood in the lobby of SPHQ, under the black marble columns chased in gold and the rotunda thirty feet above them, decorated with battling figures Wolf couldn’t make out. The décor was meant to intimidate and impress but it struck him as out of place for a police headquarters. Too… There was a word he couldn’t think of. Started with an O. Carrington would’ve known.
Only Carrington and Vance were missing from their group, since Carrington had been at the hospital that evening, frantic about Erasmus, and Vance had been in no shape for any more action after burning the giant dust bunny to cinders. Two members of their squad safe, at least.
“Kash, I get that you want to be noble and take the fall for us,” Jeff said softly. “But I was senior at the site that day.”
Kash stepped over to Jeff, the movement sudden and shocking as he loomed, crowding Jeff. “Why didn’t you stop me? They’ll ask that, Jeff.”
“I… You know why,” Jeff whispered.
“Hmm.” Kash stepped back, the unassuming statue again.
This wasn’t the Vikash Soren they knew—reserved, yes, but he was always polite and friendly. Despite his calm exterior, Kash’s sharp, chilly treatment of his squad mates had to be a signal of how nervous he was. Wolf chewed on his lower lip, his jaws aching to gnaw on something with more abandon like a rawhide or a table leg to ease his own nerves. Yes, he knew what Kash meant. He’d been the only one of them to have a full year as a detective before he had been flagged as an unclassifiable paranormal, his rank knocked back and his assignment transferred to Philly because State Paranormal didn’t know what to do with him. Except for Carrington, they had all gravitated toward thinking Kash outranked them. It just felt right.
Wolf sighed, trying not to breathe too deeply. He hated the smell of the place. Not that the pristine building stank, not in any way a normal human would pick up, but it disturbed him. The dry cedar smell of the oldest vamps was bad enough—the presence of powerful predators always raised the hairs on his arms. The stench of werewolf musk was even worse. They were just so mean. Mom said they had testosterone poisoning, even the females.
A cadet in SP black skidded around one of the columns, trying to keep a ball in the air above his palm. With a dark frown, Shira sidestepped the kid. She was probably having all sorts of feelings about someone who could control their telekinesis. Sort of. A vamp captain concentrating on a sheaf of paperwork as he headed for the stairs wasn’t as lucky. A sudden lurch after the ball slammed the cadet into him and sent them both sprawling while the red rubber ball bounced gleefully away.
Wolf had to lock his knees not to chase it. Krisk’s hand on his shoulder helped.
“So much for vamp grace,” Amanda muttered, though she knew better than anyone how good vampire hearing was.
There was a bit of flailing amid the tangle of black uniformed limbs before the captain freed himself and leapt to his feet, hissing and showing fangs. He spared a sharp glare for Amanda but saved his full threat display for the cadet, now scrabbling backward along the black marble, clearly desperate for distance. Acting on instinct and not much sense, Wolf stepped between them, his first impulse being to protect the cub.
The vampire captain met his interference with a deep-chested, apex predator growl. Wolf tried to stop himself, horrified when a louder growl crawled up his own throat. I should back off. I can’t back off. He’ll lunge. I need to back off. He outranks me.
“Oh, my goodness. Sir, are you all right?” Shira popped up between them, doing her best blonde and blue-eyed innocent impression and holding out the captain’s scattered notes. “That was quite a fall. The cadet’s fine. I hope I haven’t disarranged your notes too badly.”
Across the lobby, an ornamental iron lamp clattered to the floor. The outer doors crashed open. Shira might have seemed calm but her stress telekinesis had gone into overdrive.
“Thank you, my dear. I’m unharmed.” The captain took the papers from her, his demeanor shifting from feral to puzzled gentility. “I do suggest you keep a tighter leash on your dog, though.”
The insult irritated Wolf but even he knew it was childish. Tense relations between vamps and werewolves had always been a problem at State, but Wolf wasn’t some surly were. He backed off now that the threat level had de-escalated.
“Cadet Nelson!” the captain leaned around Shira to yell. “You addle-pated hoser! What in the gods’ names did you think you were doing?”
Shira shot Wolf a ‘he did not just say that’ look that he completely understood. The older vamps had some weird language issues but hearing Shakespearean insults snuggled up against 80s slang was jarring.
“Sir!” Nelson scrambled to his feet to offer a shaky salute. “Instructor Carpenter said I need to practice whenever I can. She said if I can’t get control, I’ll get sent down to the freaks in the 77th.”
“Nice,” Kyle said under his breath.
The vampire captain—Valbuena, his nameplate read—made a strangled sound and turned it into a cough. “Ah, cadets. Sometimes I’d like to drown the lot of them.” He raised his voice to address the hapless youngster still standing at attention. “You will not practice in any common, populated area, Nelson. You are a menace. And learn your damn insignia. These officers are 77th.”
All the color drained from Nelson’s face. Poor kid looked like he was going to be sick as he stammered through a disjointed apology.
“Go on. Retrieve your toy and get out of my sight, Cadet.”
Almost as one being, they watched the cadet scramble for his ball and hurry off. When he was out of sight, Captain Valbuena turned back to Shira. “Can I help you find something, Officer Lourdes?”
“No, sir. Thank you. We’re on our way up to the board room for a hearing.”
His eyes narrowed and the cedar scent rolling off him sharpened. “Disciplinary?”
“Board of inquiry,” Kash answered.
“Ah. I won’t keep you then.” He offered Shira an ironic little bow and a dazzling smile. “Ma’am. Lovely to meet you.”
Someone was growling as Captain Valbuena walked away and it wasn’t Wolf. He looked around at his colleagues and found Greg to be the growl source.
“Self-important, jumped-up leech,” Greg spat out.
Wolf hadn’t thought the vamp had been that bad. Oh, wait. Shira was fire-engine red, her jaw locked tight. Captain Valbuena hadn’t just been polite to her, Wolf guessed. He so often missed human flirting. Vampire flirting was apparently even harder for him to pick up.
“There, there, Greg.” Kyle slung an arm around Greg and started them all walking toward the grand staircase again. “Just because he was better looking and had better diction.”
“Oh, shut up, Monroe.”
“He was plastering it on with a putty knife,” Shira offered. “I’ll take our vampire over these SP creeps any day.”
“And ours is super gay, so no competition,” Amanda said with a laugh. “Oh, that poor kid. I remember how not fun being a cadet here was.”
“Were you?” Kash asked in a distracted fashion.
“Yeah. Did it backwards, though. Most times, you cadet first, then go through the police academy. I’d gone through the academy before they figured out I could do extra shit.”
“Wait. So you had to go back to being a cadet?” Kyle gaped at her. “That’s not right.”
Amanda shrugged, her gaze focused on a point at the top of the stairs. “The pre-cogs get fast-tracked. Everyone else—people who can tell stuff from touching shit, I can’t ever remember the word for it, other people who can see stuff in the past like me—we all get tested. If it’s not good enough, they put you in training.”
“They did it with me, too,” Shira murmured. “Lack of control.”
“I didn’t know that.” Greg bumped shoulders with her.
“Anyway. Didn’t mean to bring everybody down.” Amanda frowned at the stairs and started taking two at a time. “My paranormal stuff was too wonky, too unpredictable, and they figured out I only see a day or two back into stuff that’s happened if I get anything. So they let me get back to being a cop.”
Shira craned her head around, searching from face to face. “Nobody else?”
“Not me.” Jeff shook his head. “They knew the day they hauled me in for testing that I was a freak. I’ve been throwing fruit around with my brain since I was a kid and knew I couldn’t move anything else. Got labeled DPT—defective paranormal talent—and reassigned the same day. Same story for Vance. To come to us, you’re either defective, unclassifiable or what they so kindly call physiologically alternative, like Wolf and Krisk.”
Greg raised a hand. “Defective.”
“Unclassifiable,” Kash chimed in, pointing between himself and Kyle.
“So is our vamp defective or alternative?” Kyle asked.
Amanda rolled her eyes. “Don’t you ever ask that where he can hear you unless you want a long rant filled with big words. State has Carr down as defective. He fought them on it, saying he was just a new kind of vamp. He lost.”
“Ouch.” Kyle cringed. “But wasn’t he stuck here at State for a while? Did they bump him to cadet?”
Jeff shook his head as he reached the top step. “Carr’s issues aren’t ones you can train away and that was before they formed the 77th. He was the first officer assigned. I was the second. Before our department came along, they would’ve just fired us when we were outed as paranormal.”
“At least we have our 77th here.” Shira huffed. “Other states’ 77ths take the local paranormals for that city, the regular ones. They don’t keep defectives on the force at all.”
Kash stopped so abruptly on the landing that Wolf nearly ran into him. “Yes. Why is that?”
No one had an answer for him, so he shook his head and strode on, the small crease between his eyebrows the only sign that he struggled with something. Wolf figured he was worried. He got that. Visits to State always made him uncomfortable, and a visit where they had to explain an incident worried him, too. All this talk about firing. He knew the board wouldn’t fire them all. Probably not. But losing Kash would be awful.
They signed in with a desk sergeant in the antechamber and were told to wait. Wolf had only been up to the boardroom twice, once right after graduating from the Academy and once to stand witness to what had happened the night a monster alligator snapping turtle had exploded. He was convinced that the vampires at State had done all the building’s interiors. Everything was so dark and…dark.
The antechamber matched the boardroom with its deep-umber wood paneling and its—he hated to say it—blood red carpets. Wrought iron sconces lined the walls, but the only real light was the pool around the sergeant’s desk with its computer and friendlier desk lamp. Normal vampire tastes didn’t seem terribly subtle, or maybe the décor was just meant to intimidate. It did manage that.
Wolf muffled a sneeze against his arm. Damn it. No way to get around being in the same room with the board vamps and weres, but he’d hoped he wouldn’t start sneezing so soon. Krisk handed him a tissue with what might have been a sympathetic nod.
The sergeant finally let them in twenty minutes after their appointed time and they all filed into an even gloomier room than the antechamber. No sconces or windows interrupted the boardroom walls. Four pools of light provided the only illumination—the lamp fixed to the left side of the single desk facing the board members’ long table and the three desk lamps at each of the human board member’s seats in the middle of that table. The two vampire board members sat on the far right, the two werewolf members on the left, as far away from each other as they could while still sitting at the same table.
“Please take seats, Officers.” The older human woman at the center of the table, Commander Rahway, if Wolf remembered right, pointed to the rows of chairs at the back of the room. “We’ll call you as we need you.”
With several murmured yes, ma’ams, they filed into seats, waiting while the board members conferred in lowered voices and shuffled papers.
The commander peered over her half-moon glasses at the paper in her hand. “Hmm. Yes. Let’s have Officer Gatling first, please.”
Jeff’s cheeks expanded on a blown-out breath as he rose reluctantly. He stalked to the desk in the middle of the room like a man going to the gallows where he offered the board a sharp salute before the commander told him to sit.
Commander Rahway had returned to paper shuffling. “Let the record show that this board of inquiry has been convened to examine events that occurred within the closed riverfront powerplant known as the Delaware Station. Please state your name and department.”
“Officer Jeffrey Gatling, ma’am. 77th precinct, Philadelphia.”
“No need to ma’am me into next week, Officer. You will be addressing the board.” She waved a hand to indicate the people at the table as she rattled through names. “In addition, let the record show the following presiding over this board of inquiry—Colonel Valbuena, Major Firenz, Colonel Hawthorne, Major Pak, Colonel Bjorstad, Major O’Donnell, and myself. Officer Gatling, I understand you were the senior onsite that evening?”
“Yes, m—that is, I was.”
Wolf lost most of Jeff’s run through of what had happened that day, both at the engagement party where the huge dust bunny had attacked, and later at the abandoned power plant where Kash had destroyed the arcane laboratory in which the rabid dust bunnies were being created. He was still stuck on Colonel Valbuena and the captain they’d met downstairs. It wasn’t a human name one heard a lot, like Jones or Rodriguez. Were they brothers? Cousins, maybe, since they didn’t look anything alike? And both of them vampires? Did that happen with some families?
By the time he resurfaced from his wondering about hawk-nosed, Mediterranean vampires versus golden, more WASP-y looking ones, Jeff’s testimony was nearly complete. Wolf was glad for the dim room and hoped his heated face didn’t glow in the dark.
They only had two more questions for Jeff and if his fists suddenly clenching on the table were any indication, it hit like a bat to the back of the head.
“Officer Gatling, are you aware that destroying a site of arcane working is against regulations?” Colonel Valbuena purred with barely hidden contempt.
“Then as the senior officer present, why didn’t you stop it?”
Jeff’s chin came up a hair. The scent of his nervousness rolled back to Wolf in waves but his voice was steady when he answered. “Sir, regs are clear that it’s up to the officers onsite to decide whether an arcane working is a clear and present danger to civilians.”
“Well.” Colonel Valbuena tapped his papers straight in an obvious dismissal. “I suppose we should all be grateful that you don’t have to make those decisions often then.”
With Amanda, they concentrated on her post-cognitive work that had helped find the dust bunny site. Had she and Kyle tried a power boost before? How did it work? What had she seen? Again and again, asking for more precise wording, more complete descriptions. Amanda struggled, never the best with words. When they finally dismissed her, she slumped back into the chair next to Wolf, muttering about how next time she’d bring Carrington and his snooty vocabulary along.
Both Shira’s and Greg’s testimonies were more straightforward accountings of events. If the board members thought either of them would offer something new or would make accusations against their squad mates, they were disappointed. Krisk’s testimony nearly gave some of the less patient board members fits. They weren’t used to the way he said things and Wolf didn’t feel it was his place to translate. No one asked, at any rate, so he felt no obligation to. Krisk typed into the tablet on the desk and the words were projected on the dark side wall of the room. He had most of them thoroughly confused by the time he typed—
Partial use of organic matter. Cannibalization of life force for continued structural integrity. Issues of possible initial life force use were disturbing.
“What the hell?” Major Pak grumbled.
Commander Rahway wasn’t quite as easy to lose. She frowned at Krisk as she asked, “Is this your idea of speculation, Officer Krisk? Suggesting that live sacrifices were necessary to create the creatures?”
Krisk’s tail thumped the floor in a heavy, slow rhythm. Oh, he was pissed.
Not speculation. Analysis.
“Hmm. Unless you have data to support, we can’t accept it as such. Do you have anything further to add?”
All incidents are one. Only increase can be anticipated.
“Thank you, Krisk. You may step down,” the commander cut across mutterings about weird lizard philosophy. “Officer Wolf, if you please.”
Wolf got an encouraging pat from Krisk as they switched places. The spot in the center of the room felt so isolated in its little puddle of light and Wolf struggled to sit straight and still, trying not to let his nerves show.
The werewolf officers didn’t make things any easier as the colonel leaned close to the major and whispered, “I smell wet dog.”
Major O’Donnell whispered back, “Aren’t there leash regs in this building?”
Cool and cultured, Colonel Valbuena spoke from the other end of the table, “You do know the officer’s hearing is most likely better than yours?”
“Keep your nose where it belongs, you giant tick,” O’Donnell muttered to the table.
The humans couldn’t have heard the exchange, but Commander Rahway looked around in alarm as the other vampire, Major Firenz, rose from his chair to snarl, “Apologize to the colonel, you cur.”
“Gentlemen, please. Not now,” the commander hissed.
O’Donnell was up now, his green eyes giving off an unhealthy red glow. Wolf pulled in deep, even breaths as he tried to keep himself from echoing the growls issuing from the front of the room. It was damn hard. The air crackled with threat and his human friends behind him would be vulnerable if this got ugly. O’Donnell and Firenz were going to go for each other. Any second now.
As O’Donnell leaped, Commander Rahway moved much faster than her elderly body suggested she could. She sprang to her feet, hands snapping out to either side. Papers to her right rustled, seemingly on their own. They rolled up and rose to just above shoulder height. At the same moment on her left, a portable work light with its cord appeared from beneath the table like a metal cobra rising from a basket.
The rolled up papers smacked O’Donnell hard on the nose and he reared back, shocked and indignant. The work light switched on directly in Firenz’s face. He stumbled back with a sharp cry, one hand thrown up to block the light.
“Gentlemen, resume your seats,” the commander ordered in an icy tone.
Wolf snapped his mouth shut when he realized it hung open. He knew there were powerful psychics at State but he’d never seen such precise, lightning-fast telekinesis in action. Probably not something he should say to Shira later. Or ever. Major O’Donnell was still rubbing his nose as he subsided. Major Firenz had his head in both hands as he resumed his seat. Not someone a person wanted to tick off, Commander Rahway.
“Now then.” The commander smoothed her iron gray hair back. “Officer Wolf. Your colleagues have provided ample detail into most of the evening’s events. But I’m a bit puzzled by references to your leading them to the site.”
“I—” Wolf cleared his throat three times trying to rid himself of the leftover growl in his voice. “I could smell them, ma’am.”
Wolf gripped his hat tight in both hands to keep them from shaking. He’d been nervous enough before and now the adrenaline shakes from the almost-fight had him in their teeth. “The dust bunnies, ma’am.”
The look she gave him was one part surprised and two parts tired-of-nonsense-today. “Officer Wolf, are you implying that you can distinguish between different kinds of dust scents?”
“Sometimes, ma’am. Yes. But this wasn’t a regular dust scent. It was sharp. Not something you’d want to smell. Officer Loveless called it a blue cheese and unwashed socks hit by lightning smell. That’s pretty damn—sorry, ma’am—close.”
“I see. That certainly sounds distinctive.” The commander gave him a long, thorough look. “Gentlemen? Anything additional?”
“Yes, Commander, if you’d indulge me,” Colonel Valbuena responded, his soft voice barely carrying across the room. “Officer Wolf, from how far away can you detect a scent?”
“Depends on what it is, sir. I can separate out everyone’s scent in this room and if someone walked away, I’d probably be able to pinpoint three rooms away.”
“Impressive, though still a short distance.” The colonel turned a page over, still staring at his papers rather than look at Wolf. “How is it that you were able to detect the dust creatures from more than half a mile away?”
One of the werewolves laughed and Wolf squirmed, fighting the urge to turn and glare. “There was a trail, sir. I can’t say how old. But that’s how I knew what direction to take us. I guess the dust bun—creatures were being let out to feed at some point.”
“Oh, you guess, do you?” The colonel finally glanced up without raising his head. “Is this how you approach all of your police work, Officer Wolf? By guessing?”
“No, sir. Just wondered why the trail was there.”
“Hmm.” Colonel Valbuena returned to studying his papers, apparently having lost interest in Wolf entirely.
There were a couple more questions about what they had found inside the power plant, then the board dismissed him.
Amanda patted his leg when he sat down. “You did good. Hard part’s over for you.”
He appreciated the support but the worry didn’t evaporate and the adrenaline shakes didn’t subside. Not yet. Probably not until they were out of this building.
They were harder on Kyle, pelting questions at him rapid fire about how long he had known about the power boost ability, why he had kept it secret and how consistently it worked. Kyle tried but their tactics were enough to rattle anyone. He was close to shouting when he finally said the combining of his and Kash’s talents had been in the account from the giant snapping turtle incident and if State couldn’t be bothered to read the reports, that wasn’t his fault. They got what they wanted with the confirmation that Kyle hadn’t tried it with anyone else prior to the evening in question, and the board allowed a frazzled, red-faced Kyle to return to his seat.
“Officer Vikash Soren,” Commander Rahway said without courtesies.
This was the part they’d all been dreading, but Kash took his place—cool, composed, a man carved of glacial rock. With meticulous care, the board took Kash through the whole event—where he had been, what he had done, what thoughts he’d had and what he had suggested at every point. They didn’t try to rattle him like they had Kyle. Maybe they knew it wouldn’t work. They did seem to be trying to wear him down, trip him up.
Kash stood firm on every point, never stumbling, never backtracking. It was a little scary. Finally, they got to the point.
“Officer Soren.” Commander Rahway folded her hands atop her papers. “Were you aware that what you were looking at was an arcane site?”
“Were you, perhaps lacking the years of experience some of your colleagues have in a paranormal department, confused about procedure regarding such a site?”
“No, ma’am.” If anything, Kash had pulled himself up straighter and looked even stonier. “The regulations are clear to report to State.”
The other board members had gone still and quiet, apparently waiting for the commander to go in for the kill. “Then would you please explain why you believed it appropriate, against regulations, against advice, to destroy the site?”
“Yes, ma’am. The creatures created at this site were a clear and imminent danger—to civilians, to my—our officers, to the local ecosystem. While it may have been necessary for the summoner to conduct each new creation onsite, I think it’s far more likely, given the setup, that the creation happened on a regular cycle. If that cycle happened nightly, we couldn’t take the risk of another creation. Also, I must protest the use of the word destroy to describe the condition in which we left the site. The circle was disrupted, yes, but most of the pieces should still have been retrievable.”
“The condition in which we left the site? Who do you include in this we, Soren?”
“In which I left the site, ma’am. My apologies. I misspoke.”
Commander Rahway heaved an aggravated sigh. “Go sit down, Soren. The board members will retire and discuss. We’ll return with our findings.”
Kash returned to them and sank into his chair beside Kyle. For all his calm, he still looked like a man waiting for the firing squad. He waited with a huge helping of courage, but the way he shushed Kyle’s questions said everything about how worried he was.
The board wasn’t gone more than fifteen minutes and Wolf had to wonder if that was good or bad. They all looked stern and disapproving when they came back in, so his money was on ‘not so good’.
“Ladies and gentlemen.” Commander Rahway settled with another sigh. “We understand that the dynamics of the 77th are necessarily not that of State Paranormal. It’s not an ideal situation but this is what our politicians have given us. We also understand that you often encounter things in your city, for reasons unknown to this board, which are far beyond previously recorded paranormal events. Therefore, State rarely interferes. However, regulations are there for a reason.”
She tapped her papers straight and folded her hands atop them again. “Officer Monroe, you will submit to further testing. The new developments regarding your rather odd talent are intriguing to say the least, and we are not pleased to be kept out of the loop.”
Kyle sat forward as if he would protest, but he subsided and only said, “Yes, ma’am.”
“Officer Gatling, when you are senior at a site, you are senior. You do not allow cult of personality or perceived experience to overrule your judgment.”
Jeff swallowed hard. “Yes, ma’am.”
“There will be a reprimand placed in your record in that regard.” She searched the gloom for her next victim. “Officer Krisk.”
Krisk gave a tail thump in acknowledgment.
The commander’s exasperation ratcheted up a notch. “For all the gods’ sakes, Krisk, please tell me there’s someone who interprets for you.”
With one scaly finger, Krisk pointed at Wolf.
“Well, thank Hecate for that.” She shook her head. “Let the record show that Officer Krisk will be permitted an interpreter, his partner, Officer Alexander Wolf, if he is ever called before this board again.
“Officer Soren, please stand.”
Slowly, Kash unfolded his long frame from his chair and went to stand at proper parade rest, hat tucked under his arm in the puddle of light by the desk.
“Officer Soren, your record with the Pittsburgh PD was exemplary. Commendations. Swift promotions. Never a single mark on your record. I understand that your reassignment may have been seen as a demotion and that you might harbor some resentment, no matter how well sublimated. But in matters of the arcane, we have experts here with years of experience. If you ever have a question regarding the safety of an inactive—yes, inactive—site again, you will place the call first. Our personnel will make the decision. And you will keep your rather impressive destructive powers locked away unless there is a clear, present and immediate danger that you are able to defuse.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Kash spoke calmly into the space she left for him.
“This is your first infraction of any kind, so we are inclined to be lenient. You are remanded to desk duty until further notice and we are placing you on a sixty-day probationary period. If I see so much as a whisper of your name come across my desk in conjunction with a broken regulation, I will have your badge. Do we understand each other?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Now there was the tiniest quaver in Kash’s voice, a hint of thickness, as if he tried to talk past a lump.
“Good. Out of my sight, all of you. Go behave like a proper department. We have two new officers to send you next week and I would appreciate it if they were not led astray by rogue officers who think they know everything.”
Kash saluted, executed a perfect about face and stalked out without waiting for the rest of them as they scrambled and tumbled over each other to try to get out the door as fast as possible. It could’ve been worse. No one got fired. No one got reassigned. Really, it had gone just like Kash had wanted. Jeff had gotten a smack but Kash had taken the fall.
Wolf frowned, watching that too straight back several yards ahead of him. Sometimes getting what you wanted could still hurt a lot.