Strange how half the briefing room chairs were empty and still there was no place to sit. Kyle surveyed his choices, trying to pick the least of several evils, mindful that he was ten minutes early with greater evils yet to come.
He decided on a chair far to the left, in the row behind Loveless and in front of Zacchini. That way he might have odd cravings or sudden flashes of disconnected images for the next two hours, but he could handle it. Neither of these would harm anyone around him. The precinct didn’t have enough officers to fill the room, so no one would need to sit near him.
Someone always seemed to forget.
Krisk shambled in, blinked slowly at Kyle with his slit-pupiled golden eyes, and wandered to the other side of the room. No one could explain to him how Krisk had made it through the police academy, or why he had wanted to. The lizard man seemed to understand human speech, though he never spoke, and the legality of his arrests had to be questionable.
Gatling, Lourdes and Wolf all wandered in with early-morning bleary eyes but were aware enough to avoid Kyle’s side of the room. Only Lourdes should have been worried, but it was becoming habit for his department colleagues to give him a wide berth.
The steady, military tick-tick-tick of Lieutenant Dunfee’s heels reached them from the hallway and everyone scrambled to settle, eyes front and at least pretending attention. She patted Kyle’s shoulder absently as she stalked by, perhaps reminding him that she, at least, had no need to fear his abilities.
The lieutenant tapped her papers straight on the lectern at the front of the room, her hard gaze pinning her officers one by one. “Good morning, ladies and gentle—”
Running footsteps interrupted her as Officer Virago skidded to a halt in the hallway then changed course to rush into the briefing room.
“Damn it, Vance, if you can’t get here on time, don’t make such a production out of gracing us with your presence,” Lieutenant Dunfee snapped.
Virago shot her an unrepentant grin and plopped down two chairs over from Kyle. Normally, Kyle would have moved or warned him off, but the lieutenant was speaking again. Interrupting her a second time, now that she’d started roll call, didn’t feel like the best idea. I can hold this together. Just a few minutes. Nothing has to happen.
In front of Kyle, Carrington Loveless III raised his marshmallow-white hand languidly. “Here.”
See? Nothing’s happening. It’s fine.
Kyle raised his hand in acknowledgment and a gout of flame rocketed from his fingers to slam into the ceiling. He yanked his hand down, tucked both hands under his thighs and cringed amid a rain of burned ceiling tile shreddings and mortification.
“Here,” he choked out.
“Vance! Move!” the lieutenant bellowed. “Damn it, you know better!”
Virago scrambled out of his seat and claimed a spot standing along the opposite wall. “It’s raining out, ma’am! How’m I supposed to know Kirby can suck up my shit when I can’t even get a spark?”
“Watch the language, and what did I tell you about that nickname?”
Virago ducked his head with a muttered apology, but more than one person in Kyle’s hearing grumbled that the nickname fit too well.
“Not something you can control, Monroe. But these other chuckleheads can be a little more cognizant of where they are in relation to you.”
With an exasperated shake of her head, she finished roll call, confirmed assignments, then waved someone unfamiliar up from the front row. “Boys and girls, this is our newest officer, Vikash Soren.”
Kyle sat up straighter, shifting to see between the heads in front of him. Soren looked like a poster boy for the model police officer, tall and straight, uniform crisp and sharp. He stood at parade rest beside the lieutenant, impassively surveying his new colleagues. A little knot of resentment lodged in Kyle’s stomach. At his own introduction to the 77th, he’d been nervous and fidgety, freaked out by the collection of…freaks. How can he be so calm?
“Officer Soren transferred from the Harrisburg PD—”
“Don’t they have enough freaky shit of their own up there?” Wolf called out in his rasping growl.
“Since Harrisburg is in our jurisdiction,” she continued with a quelling glance, “he’ll start out partnered with Monroe.”
“What does he do, ma’am? That it’s safe to put him with Kirby, er, Kyle?” Shira Lourdes asked as she flicked nervous glances across the room at Kyle. An empty chair slid away from her and fell over. Her partner, Greg Santos, shook his head and righted the unfortunate piece of furniture.
“Officer Soren’s abilities are his business, which he may or may not choose to share if you ask. And don’t bully him about it either, any of you.” Lieutenant Dunfee swept the room again, pinning each of her officers like captive butterflies with her needle-laser gaze. “Monroe, my office after briefing. Info on your current case.”
She dismissed them, stalking from the room with thunderclouds in her eyes. Kyle found himself approaching the new guy and trying his best not to be awkward. Did he offer to shake hands? Was it safe? Would the guy flinch like so many people did at the sight of Kyle’s scarred hands? Soren was even taller up close, six-foot-three of lean inscrutability, his blue eyes startlingly bright against smoky bronze skin.
“Um, hi, I’m Kyle Monroe.” Kyle fidgeted when Soren didn’t offer his hand either. “You’re with me, I guess. I’ll show you our spot in the squad room.”
Soren followed him silently and Kyle was starting to wonder if he was like Krisk in the not-speaking department until he finally spoke in a smooth, soft baritone, making Kyle startle and miss a step. “Why do they call you Kirby?”
“You’d hear it sooner or later, I guess.” Kyle shrugged. “It’s this thing I do, absorbing other people’s talents temporarily. If they’re close to me. Or touch me. Like Kirby, the little pink dude in the video game.”
Just that? Soren didn’t edge away, or change expression at all. Was he made of stone? “It’s a thing. Everyone here has a thing.”
After a few more steps, Soren asked, “Always?”
“What… Oh, was I always like this? Who knows? I mean, maybe I’ve picked up stray thoughts or something, but no. It’s pretty recent. Knowing that I do this.”
Kyle took a wide arc around Vance as he entered the squad room, pointing to the double desk in the far corner, well removed from everyone else. “That’s ours. Coffee’s over there, but you might not want that coffee. Let me grab my file and we’ll go see the lieutenant.”
A flutter of wings sounded overhead—a brilliant flash of feathers shooting in front of Kyle to land on Carrington’s desk at the back of the room. With a raucous call, the pink and neon-blue raven folded his wings and waddled over to snap at Carrington’s pen.
“Stop it, Edgar.”
“You couldn’t get laid at a clusterfuck!” Edgar squawked, making another grab for the pen.
Carrington sighed and handed the ballpoint over. “There. Go play. Try not to get ink all over your feet this time.”
Edgar seized the pen in his Pepto-Bismol-colored beak and flew to his perch on the other side of the room where he called out, “Fuck you very much!” then proceeded to draw random lines on the paper tacked up beside his perch for Edgar’s art projects.
“So what’s your story, Soren?” Vance called across the squad room. “What flies your freak flag?”
“Yeah, what do you do?” Jeff Gatling stopped teleporting his banana from one corner of his desk to the other.
“I don’t really do anything,” Soren answered as he hefted the empty coffeepot. “Guess I’ll make fresh since I’m the new guy.”
He opened the top to remove the filter and every human voice in the squad room yelled out, “No!”
Most people would have startled, maybe dropped the carafe. Soren just blinked at the roomful of people gesturing wildly. He took the filter out and emptied it over the trashcan. “Why not?”
“You don’t want to do that.” Kyle stayed by his desk, a nice safe distance from the coffee station. “That’s Larry’s job.”
“Larry’s not keeping up then.”
The container of sweetener packets began to rattle. It shivered across the counter and leaped to a messy end, ceramic shards skittering across the floor. The desk that Krisk and Wolf shared rose from the floor several inches then slammed back down. Wolf fled with a squeaking yelp just before the desk flipped on its side.
Soren glanced toward Kyle. “Larry’s not a cop, is he?”
“He is…he was! A dead cop. Larry’s a ghost. He gets ticked if anyone else makes the coffee. Put the stuff back, please!”
“Larry?” Soren raised his voice but to all appearances remained completely unruffled. “I’m new here. I’m very sorry I invaded your jurisdiction. See? I’m putting the carafe back. Closing the top. Are we good, Larry?”
A breeze ruffled through a stack of papers, but no further mayhem ensued. The carafe slid from its pad on the coffeemaker and floated to the water cooler where Larry, who never manifested in a visible form, whistled tunelessly while he filled the carafe.
From his dim corner of the room, Carrington said in his dry, genteel way, “Welcome to the Island of Misfit Freaks.”
* * * *
Half an hour later, with Soren briefed on the case and instructions to meet Chris Hardin from homicide at the ME’s office, Kyle led his new partner down to their assigned squad car. Vikash Soren remained a puzzle, which didn’t help Kyle’s already jangled nerves.
Soren sipped the coffee he’d snagged from a nearby food truck, apparently having reached the conclusion everyone else did with one sip of Larry’s coffee. It was on par with wood varnish. “You sure you can reach the pedals?”
Kyle stared at him. If he hadn’t seen the man’s mouth move, he would’ve sworn he’d imagined those words. “I am not short.”
One perfect black eyebrow rose a fraction.
“I’m average. Sure you’ll fit in the car?” Kyle shot back, knowing it was childish.
Soren merely smiled without showing his teeth. It wasn’t even a pissed-off, tight smile—more like the serene expression on a statue of some ancient, smugly contented god. He folded his long frame into the passenger seat without another word.
I think I hate him. He’d better have some serious flaws, or I’m really going to hate him.
Even his posture sitting in the squad car was perfect. Kyle kept his attention on the Market Street traffic, trying to unclench his jaw.
They’d almost reached the Schuylkill River when Soren, in a voice barely loud enough for conversation, asked, “Island of Misfit Freaks?”
“That’s what you’ve been chewing on all this time?”
“Yes.” Soren sipped his coffee, a little V forming between his perfect black eyebrows. “I think I was expecting something…else.”
Kyle blew out an explosive breath. Yeah, he got that. “I did, too, when they transferred me. I mean, you hear about other cities, and it’s more X-Files, right? And if there’s any paranormal cops from Philly with useful talents, they probably get shipped somewhere else. But here, sorry, no. You’re stuck with the rejects.”
“I understand why you’d be a problem.” Soren held up a hand when Kyle sputtered. “Dangerous thing you do, which you can’t control, it seems. But the others?”
“Yeah. All of them. Us.” Kyle winced at the slip. Four months in this precinct and he still felt like an outsider. “Virago? The one who got chewed out this morning? He’s a firestarter.”
“All right. But that doesn’t sound so odd.”
Kyle snickered. “He can only do it when it’s dry. Rain, snow, too much humidity, and poof! Nothing. Shira Lourdes is a stress telekinetic. Shit flies around when she gets jumpy or upset.”
“We’re not sure what his deal is. He came with the lieutenant. My theory is he got caught in some magical crossfire to get the Technicolor feathers. Where the foul mouth, er, beak on him came from is anybody’s guess. And Jeff Gatling? Guy with the banana?”
“He does apportation. I could see that.”
“Yeah, but he can only teleport fruit.”
“Oh.” The V-furrow had deepened. Mr. Perfect could be blindsided, apparently.
“That’s why they wanted to know what you do. ’Cause seriously? We all do something and we all suck at it.”
The Schuylkill, sparkling in the October sunshine, lay behind them before Soren answered. “I don’t really do anything.”
“Then why the hell did they send you to us?” Kyle’s voice cracked as his volume rose. He hadn’t meant to get snappy, but damn, it was like pulling mastodon teeth using two spoons.
Another sip of coffee, another long silence. “Bad things happen around me.”
“Oh, great. That’s just great.”
“Not all the time.” Still Soren managed that soft, even tone, no show of temper, no defensiveness. “Just…when I’m angry.”
At the next stoplight, Kyle turned to stare at him. “Soren, do you even get angry? Ever?”
“Oh, I do.” That smug little smile was back. “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”
Well, crud. Avengers. Sense of humor. And I was just starting to really hate him. “Ha. Can I call you Bruce?”
“Only if I can call you Tony. Though I’d rather Vikash.”
Kyle mulled that over as he turned down 34th, heading into university territory. Hard to get a good vibe from someone so reserved, but he finally decided that Soren—Vikash—was trying his best to be friendly. Maybe he was shy, or maybe he was seriously weird. Whatever. Kyle had been partnered with some real bastards over the years. Weird, he could deal with.
By the time Kyle had parked the white squad car, Vikash had finished his coffee, and like a good Mr. Perfect, took the empty cup and napkin with him and threw them away in the proper receptacles.
“Have you ever even had a parking ticket?”
Vikash gave him an odd look. “No. Why?”
“Never mind.” Kyle led the way inside to where Detective Hardin was waiting for them. He nodded to the detective, who he’d worked with on the previous murder. “This look like the same?”
“’Fraid so. Wanted you to take a look, though, since you were on scene with the other one.”
“Where was this one?”
“Just past the Waterworks. Some of the kids out at rowing practice found her.”
There was always that moment of oh, shit, I can’t do this for Kyle when he walked into a morgue with a body on the table. He’d seen a number of corpses as a cop, but he could never quite disassociate as some officers did. That was a person on the slab, someone’s mom or sister, someone with dreams, who might have hated pistachio ice cream and might have stood near him at a fireworks display—and he had to stomp all those thoughts down hard.
Professional mask carefully in place, Kyle struggled not to flinch when the med tech pulled back the sheet. This young woman, like the previous victim, had deep, V-shaped gashes on her body, the one on her throat most likely the one that killed her.
“Doc’s placing the time of death at between midnight and two.” Hardin’s raspy, smoke-ruined voice raked through the terrible stillness. “Blood loss from the neck wound listed as cause of death, though there’s blunt force trauma to the head, too.”
“Do we have an ID yet?”
“Nothing. Killer may have taken the purse if there was one.”
“Any speculation on the weapon?” Kyle asked as he bent to examine the strangely shaped gashes.
“Almost looks like the shape of a bulb-planting trowel,” Vikash murmured. He had produced a neat little notebook and pen, and was taking notes in quick, precise strokes.
Kyle stared at him. “Why is that a thing you know?”
Vikash muttered something about his grandmother before he added, “Those shouldn’t be sharp enough for this, though.”
“ME doesn’t have any thoughts on the weapon.” Hardin regarded Kyle’s new partner with a sideways glance. “Gardening tools or otherwise. You have any doubts about this being related to the other one, Monroe?”
Kyle shook his head. “No. Same injuries. Time of death. Not the same area but still along the river. All right if we go take a look at the scene?”
“Joint investigation on this one, so go on down there. And don’t hold out on me if you find something. I don’t care if it’s some weird, psychic thing you people don’t think normal folks would understand.”
That you people dig. Kyle’s jaw tightened as his stomach did a slow roll. Four months ago, he hadn’t been anything special. Just another cop doing his job. Now, he was one of them, one of the freaks the department employed to handle the bizarre, unexplainable crimes, a necessary, distasteful evil to many normal cops.
Vikash glanced up from his notebook, pen still poised over the page. “Was that a racist comment, Detective?”
Hardin sputtered. “What? Fuck, no. But your precinct’s full of weirdos. You do know that, right?”
“I’ve no idea what you mean.” Vikash’s blank expression gave Hardin nothing to work with and Kyle wrestled down a laugh, nearly asphyxiating himself.
“All right, I think that’s all we need here. I’ll email updates,” Kyle managed when he rediscovered breathing.
They left Hardin sputtering and Vikash remained nearly stoic when they got back in the car. The only change? That damn smile was back.
“You just like messing with people, don’t you?”
“Yes.” Vikash tucked his notebook away. Not even a chuckle. “To the crime scene?”
“Well, we’re sure as hell not going to the Bat Cave.” That got Kyle a strangled sound. Maybe that was a laugh, or Vikash was stifling a cough. “I’m calling in to see if Loveless and Zacchini can meet us there.”
Back across the river, back to the strange silence Kyle was still trying to break. He wished Vikash would make a little effort. Silence was fine, but not this weird, prickly silence.
“So was one of your parents from India?”
Kyle actually had to tighten his grip on the wheel to keep from smacking his partner. “Um…your first name?” Your gorgeous, thick black hair. Your ridiculously beautiful skin. Your long, royal nose for looking down at people.
“Mom thought it was a cool name.”
“Uh-huh.” Kyle wasn’t buying it, but Vikash went back into statue mode and Kyle needed to recharge his social energies before trying to draw him out again.
There were forensics techs on the scene still, but Kyle got permission from them to nose around the edges. The body had been found at the river’s edge, still half in the water. Photos at the time of recovery showed that the young woman had died in a moment of abject terror, her expression frozen with her dying scream.
They made their careful, sometimes sliding, way down the bank, eyes to the ground as they scanned for anything unusual and in deference to the treacherous footing.
Kyle slithered in the mud, flinging his arms out though there were no branches to catch here. A strong hand seized his elbow, steadying him. For a single heartbeat, Vikash’s face showed anxious concern before his smug serenity returned.
“Maybe you and your stumpy legs should stay up top.”
“Shut up.” Good one, Kyle. Really biting and witty.
Any further witticisms were scuttled by Loveless’ and Zacchini’s arrival. In a broad-brimmed hat and gloves despite the mild weather, Loveless stood at the top of the embankment, mouth set in an unhappy line.
“Amanda, dear, you’re going to have to help me if you expect to me to make it down there to Kyle.”
Officer Zacchini rolled her eyes but took her partner around the waist, one hand clamped under his elbow to support his shaky steps down the bank. Vikash did the one eyebrow thing at Kyle.
“Vampire,” Kyle whispered. “Daylight is really bad for him. But I think he likes the attention.”
“You know I can hear you,” Loveless said peevishly. “Want to tell me what I’m looking for?”
“Not sure. Any impressions of things that don’t belong? Something that doesn’t smell human?”
“On a riverbank. You are joking.”
“Wish I could be specific. Don’t have a lot yet.”
Carrington Loveless III, silver spoon only child of a wealthy Main Line family, sighed as he gazed at his erstwhile clean shoes squishing on the marshy ground. He closed his eyes and drew a deep breath in through his nose, crouched down, head turning, and breathed in again.
“There is…something.” Loveless held his hand out and waited until Zacchini had a good grip on him before he stood. Sniffing like a narcotics dog, he walked several yards downriver and stopped. “Something odd.”
“Kyle.” Vikash pointed and took Loveless’ other arm to prevent him taking another step. “There in the mud. Think we can get one of the crime scene guys to get some photos?”
With a hand clutching the back of Vikash’s uniform jacket so he didn’t tumble into the water, Kyle leaned over to see what had his colleagues in a frozen tableau. Right where water met land, with the river’s wavelets working on washing it away, was a print from…something. Maybe. Four long gashes closer to the water with an oval impression behind them. If it was a footprint, the foot was larger than a kitchen sink.
“Carrington? Is it a print?” Kyle asked softly, as if a loud voice might wash it away.
“Yes. Oh, very much yes.” Loveless shivered.
Kyle called over to the crime scene unit and soon had someone snapping photos. Not that it would help much if they couldn’t figure out what the thing was, much less find it.
“Any thoughts on what?” Kyle asked their vampire. “What’s it smell like?”
“Cold. Slimy. Hard.”
“How can something smell hard?”
“I don’t know,” Loveless muttered irritably. “Amanda, I can’t do this. Please.”
Kyle glanced up at Zacchini, realizing with some irritation that everyone present was taller than he was. “You picking up anything, Amanda? And is he drama queening?”
Zacchini shrugged. “I got nothin’. Water flowing. Things living in the mud. And no. He can’t fake that gray color. I’d better get him in the car before he face-plants in the mud. You need piggyback, Carr?”
“No, no.” Loveless tucked his hand into the crook of her offered arm. “I’ll make it, thank you.”
A quick survey of the ground nearby didn’t turn up any more of the strange prints and when Kyle turned to suggest they go back up, he found Vikash staring after Loveless and Zacchini.
Vikash hesitated before asking, “Are they a…thing?”
Christ on a cracker, is Mr. Perfect embarrassed? “Why, ’cause she’s so careful with him?”
“Does she need to be careful?”
Kyle shrugged. “He’s a little delicate, our vamp. Wasn’t always, I hear. Decorated officer, amateur boxing titles before he was turned. But no, they’re not a thing. He’s more into Neanderthal jocks and she’s into artistic, brooding women. They both get their hearts stomped on.”
“Ah.” Vikash started up the slope and Kyle thought that was the end of a long conversation for them until his partner spoke again, still in that puzzled tone, “I asked because I thought maybe she feeds him. If he does so badly in daylight.”
“Ha. No. Remember, we’re all kinda broken. Loveless can only drink skim blood. That’s what he calls it. The packets he gets from the blood bank are labeled washed RBC’s. No platelets, no plasma, low on the white blood count. He gets really sick on whole blood.”
“I think I need a program. With footnotes.”
“Nah. Small squad room. You’ll know too much about everybody inside a week.”