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.”
Excerpt from The Pill Bugs of Time
Normal was something one left at the door when assigned to a paranormal police station. Officer Vikash Soren had seen that demonstrated the first time he had set foot inside the 77th. During roll call, the man who would later become his partner had accidentally shot fire from his fingers at the ceiling. Someone else’s fire, as it turned out. In the weeks that followed, he had encountered an animated leather jacket, worked with a vampire, a lizard man and various officers of dubious paranormal talents, and had helped stop the killing spree of an alligator snapping turtle the size of a sedan.
It would follow that nothing should surprise him anymore.
But when he walked into the squad room that morning, late due to a doctor’s appointment, his colleagues had gathered around the periphery of the room to watch Greg Santos in a fistfight with a puddle of water.
Coffee cup in hand, he wandered over to lean against the desk beside his partner.
“Hey, Kash.” Kyle gave him a quick glance, his attention fastened on the unlikely pugilists. “Everything go okay?”
“Yes. Shoulder’s fine.”
“You’re not even going to ask, are you?”
Vikash sipped his whipped cream-drowned mocha latte. “You’ll tell me.”
“You saying I talk too much, Soren?” Kyle nudged him with an elbow. “One of us has to. The suspect was originally an ice tree. Tree-ish. Thing. It was ice and looked like a three-year-old had built a tree out of Legos.”
Carrington Loveless III, the department’s nutritionally challenged vampire, came to lean against the desk on Vikash’s other side. “It was, as I understand it, standing on the Ben Franklin Parkway and hitting people as they walked by. Didn’t seem to be causing injury, but we can’t have an ice beast swatting tourists’ asses. Harassment, at the very least. Bad for the city’s image.”
“Why, yes. Yes, it did.” Carrington’s smile was just half a fang short of evil. “Melted through the net in which Santos had snared it, and the resulting puddle goosed him. Things escalated rather quickly from there.”
Greg didn’t seem to be making any headway, other than getting soaked. “Should get an Odo bucket,” Vikash murmured.
Kyle chuckled into his coffee. “Seriously, Carr? You never watched Deep Space Nine? The character who could only retain a solid shape for so long?”
Carrington sniffed. “Masters level courses in geek. Between the two of you, that’s what I’d need to decipher half your conversations.”
“This from someone who sings opera in the car,” Carrington’s partner, Amanda Zacchini, muttered as she walked past, her steps hindered by the piece of equipment she carried. Shira Lourdes, Greg’s partner, hurried after her with an armful of some sort of corrugated hose.
“I like a lot of music!”
“Moody, dark, emo music, sure,” Amanda countered, though her attention was on what she and Shira had brought in, most likely from Amanda’s truck, since they’d tracked in snow as well.
When Amanda attached the hose, Vikash finally recognized it—a Shop-Vac, of the sort people had in their garages or by their workbenches. He shook his head as he hurried over to get the vac plugged in for Amanda. While the male squad members had been standing around watching the struggle, some of them taking bets, their two female members had been deriving a solution.
Without another word, Amanda switched on the vac, sucked up the water combatant, removed the hose and jammed a rubber ball in the opening, effectively trapping the animated water and leaving Greg panting on the floor.
Lieutenant Dunfee had just emerged from her office, eyebrows raised. “Do I want to know?”
Perched on top of the lieutenant’s doorframe, a bright-blue and neon-pink bundle of feathers flapped its wings and let out a raucous croaking laugh. Edgar, the department’s foul-mouthed raven, finally decided to weigh in. “Water sports!” he called out. “Not safe for work! Fucking amateurs!”
Lieutenant Dunfee shot him a withering glare. “Enough with the editorial, Edgar. What the hell is going on out here?”
“Under control, ma’am,” Amanda deadpanned. “But I’m filing an expense report for a Shop-Vac. Just so you know.”
“Get it on my desk. I’ll sign it. See what the bean counters make of that.” The lieutenant pinned Greg with a hard stare. “Santos? You need medical assistance?”
Greg climbed to his feet hastily, wiping the back of one hand across his split lip. “No, ma’am.”
“Good to hear. Back to work, ladies and gentlemen. Try to keep the violent confrontations to a minimum today.”
A rather disgruntled and damp Greg Santos stalked off to the men’s room to clean up while Shira continued with booking the combative puddle.
“Just another day,” Vikash murmured as he finally took his seat at the desk he shared with Kyle.
“Hmm?” Kyle glanced up from his typing. “Oh. Yeah. Though I’m thankful for any day free of explosions and imminent death. Or are you having a paranormal existential crisis again?”
“An amused one.”
“Well, damn. If it’d been the other kind, I could get us takeout from My Thai, light some candles and put on Princess Bride when we got home.”
“Kyle. Work.” Vikash said it gently, but it was all he could do to keep his gaze from darting about to see if anyone had heard.
“It’s not like I’m yelling,” Kyle hissed. “God’s sake, Kash. The paranoia’s getting a little old.”
“Work is work and home is home.”
“Yeah, yeah, and never the twain shall meet. It’s not like I’m cornering you for a quickie in the conference room. Or locking lips over lunch.”
“The increased alliteration when you’re upset.”
“I’m not upset. Just a little irritated that you keep jumping and twitching if I get too close anywhere outside one of our apartments. We’re both professional at work. I don’t insist we hold hands those rare times we go out to dinner. Ticks me off that you keep acting, I don’t know, embarrassed about us.”
“You promised to stick to professional at work.”
“Easy, Soren.” Carrington patted his shoulder as he strolled past. “Suggesting takeout for dinner is hardly unprofessional.”
“You heard?” Vikash’s heart thudded against his breastbone. The whole department knows. Everyone can see.
“Vampire ears, my dear. What don’t I hear? Seriously, though, relax. No one has time to care about your little illicit tryst.”
Vikash might have taken the advice if Virago hadn’t bellowed across the room, “Hey! What’re you girls whispering about? Going to some rainbow and glitter bar?”
“Only if you come with us!” Kyle made kissy face noises in Virago’s direction. “Don’t forget your purse!”
“Shut it, Vance,” Amanda muttered as she stalked past and smacked Virago on the back of the head. “Your conf…confucking…what’s the word, Carr?”
“Conflation,” Carrington called back without missing a beat.
“Yeah, that word…of gay men with actual chicks is offensive.”
Normally, Vance Virago, self-proclaimed tough guy, cringing as he apologized would have been amusing. Vance couldn’t have heard them from across the room. He was merely bullying Kyle as he always did. But the timing was horrible, and between those homophobic words and Vikash’s twitching, they had managed to erase the contented ease from Kyle’s face. It gutted him that Vance could do that. Worse still, Vikash had no idea what to do about it.
He didn’t have a chance for even a minimalistic explanation or apology though, since an alert popped up onscreen from the lieutenant, ordering them to a disturbance in Fairmount Park.
Vance shoved violently back from his desk. “Aw, man!”
And our resident homophobe is our backup. Irritation crawled up Vikash’s spine. Kyle had never done anything to Vance except refuse to crumple under his bullying. Some days it was bad enough that Vikash wanted to file harassment charges on Kyle’s behalf, though Kyle would resent the interference. Still, it was wrong and— Oh, damn.
Through his rising anger, Vikash felt the uncomfortable heated ball of power at his core heralding his strange talent manifesting. He nearly panicked, the urge to reach across the desk and grab Kyle overwhelming. Together, they had a chance to direct the lightning blast of anger somewhere harmless. Maybe the old paper shredder that jammed after every page. But touching Kyle also meant the power would amplify in some bizarre melding of their broken paranormal talents. Not to mention, touching Kyle in the squad room just gave Vance more ammunition.
Then it was too late for choices. The power surged from him as he sat stone still, fighting to keep any reaction from his expression. A pop and a distinct electronic sizzle sounded on his left and he cringed.
“Fuck me!” Vance shouted, batting at his smoking computer monitor.
Jeff stood to help him smother the tiny flames with a towel. “Damn it, Vance. What did you do now?”
“I didn’t do it! I swear!”
“Lieutenant’s gonna stop letting you have computers if you keep breaking them.”
Vikash turned back to find Kyle staring at him instead of watching the commotion, his lips clamped together in an angry line.
“I don’t need you to protect me, Kash.”
“It wasn’t…it got away from me.”
Kyle snorted. “Obviously.”
Tamping down a sigh, Vikash grabbed his hat and followed Kyle out to their squad car—white with the blue blaze like all Philadelphia city police cars. Their department had the black and gold 77th shield over the blue stripe as well, though, forever branding them as something different.
For once, Vikash wished the ride to a scene were longer. Not for the first time, he wished he could be light on his verbal feet. “Kyle…”
“Put it all somewhere safe for me, Kash.” Kyle reached over to pat his knee. “Hold on to whatever’s percolating and baking in there. Right now, we’ve got two phrases we need to worry about. Disturbance and attacked by a ball of sticks. Let’s not lose focus when we don’t know what the fuck we’re walking into.”
“Yep. I love surprises.”
“You hate them.”
“Shh. I’m trying for a bit of self-delusion here. Don’t spoil it for me.”
There it was again. Despite all his guilt and doubt, Kyle had bent the wire hanger of his words, jimmied his way in and hooked a smile from Vikash. Sometimes, like now, a little burr of irritation went with the smile—that Kyle could make him lose even that speck of control. But it still wrapped a layer of warmth around his battered heart. Kyle was like a blanket straight from the dryer on a winter morning. The rather sappy image made Vikash snicker.
“Nothing. Blankets. And dryers.”
“You are so freaking weird some days.” Kyle nodded to their onboard computer. “Please tell me we have an update on the last location. Saying in Fairmount Park is as bad as saying somewhere between here and Lancaster.”
“Thank you, gods of specific landmarks.”
Vikash turned his head as a street sign flashed by. “The GPS says to take Kelly Drive.”
“The G-freaking-PS can go fuck itself quietly in the corner. I’ve lived here all my life, Kash. Reservoir’s gonna get us there faster.”
“The GPS isn’t really designed for that.”
Kyle flashed him one of those beautiful, crooked grins Vikash adored so much. “Probably not. But it could have a lot of fun trying.”
Four inches of snow had fallen the night before, coating the browns and greens of the park in a uniform layer of white, softening the aggressive lines of statue plinths, hiding the imperfections that the spring thaw would reveal in shameless stripper fashion. Bright winter sun plucked golden sparks in Kyle’s red hair. Kyle Monroe, with his once-broken nose and his burn-scarred hands, who couldn’t have been more beautiful to Vikash if angels had burnished his skin.
I’m in love with him. I’m in love with my partner and I can’t tell him. Don’t dare tell him.
For Kyle, being with a man wasn’t a big deal. Nothing relationship-wise seemed to be with him. As far as Vikash could tell, Kyle had never had a serious, long-term boyfriend. While Vikash? He had always struggled—to explain to his family that he was bi, to re-explain that fact constantly to every significant other he ever had, to hide who he was at work with meticulous care. Bad enough to be a gay cop, but an out bisexual cop? It would be like tossing a chocolate unicorn in a locked room full of starved squirrels. Picked apart bit by bit until there was nothing but crumbs.
Every time his reserve, his well-hidden anxiety, his inability to pick a side—as his last girlfriend had put it—had scuttled his relationships. They had seen it as a lack of commitment, as if his bisexuality were an automatic gateway to infidelity and promiscuity. Kyle wasn’t asking him to change. Kyle at least said he understood, but the restlessness had begun, the irritation with the fact that he simply couldn’t be open and out in public, that he had to keep work and home life in hermetically sealed boxes. It wouldn’t be long now before Kyle reached his limit.
Vikash had insisted they each keep their own apartments. He insisted they come to work separately. He was the one who twitched away when Kyle tried to take his hand across a restaurant table. Self-sabotage? Probably. He was good at that. Though this time it was a choice he didn’t want to make between relationship and career, and the longer he avoided facing that choice, the more he guaranteed spectacular and messy relationship failure.
When Kyle turned onto the normally peaceful, tree-lined avenue of Mount Pleasant Drive, there couldn’t be any doubt they were heading in the right direction. Small clusters of screaming people rushed past their squad car, one man nearly running straight into Vance’s bumper directly behind them.
In the absence of tourists and park-goers, the circular drive in front of the mansion proper was deathly quiet. The main house of white trimmed in red brick with its matching outbuildings crouched in a forlorn huddle against the snow, fancy teacakes lost in an explosion of white icing. The deceptively peaceful scene sent a shiver up Vikash’s back. Unless the stampeding crowd had all reached the same sudden painful epiphany about the meaninglessness of existence and had run off screaming in a mass existential panic, something was lurking nearby.
Vikash scanned the grounds as he got out of the car, unwilling to make a move in any direction yet.
“It’s quiet. Too quiet,” Kyle muttered the old movie cliché and Vikash had to stifle a nervous snicker.
“We’re at about fifty percent humidity.” Jeff Gatling came around the car to Vikash’s side. “Vance? Got spark?”
Luckily, Vance was intent on the hunt and not on tormenting Kyle. He held up a hand, fingers pointed skyward. Smoke curled up, then a dark puff erupted before flames danced over his fingertips. “Oh, yeah. We got spark. Bring it on.”
“Contain if we can,” Jeff admonished softly. “Incinerate as a last resort. You hear me, Vance?”
His partner grumbled, but joined them as they all retrieved nets and bags from their squad cars. Movement caught the edge of Vikash’s sight. He turned slowly and spotted a quick flash of something vanishing behind the outbuilding on the left.
“There.” He pointed, moving slowly but deliberately across the snow.
“Did you see it, Kash? How big?” Kyle moved out a few feet to the left, in case their culprit decided to flee.
Vikash shook his head. “Didn’t see enough.”
The snow was new enough not to have a crunch to it yet, muffling their steps as they worked their way around the building, Vikash and Kyle to the left, Jeff and Vance to the right. When the thing broke cover, it did so with alarming speed, barreling from behind the building and knocking Kyle to the ground before rolling over him.
“Kyle?” Vikash called, even as he tried to herd the thing back to Jeff and Vance.
“’M all right.”
While Vikash wasn’t convinced, he couldn’t go back to check on his partner yet. Seven feet in diameter, the bizarre apparition that had caused a stampede appeared to be a giant ball of horticultural debris. It rolled and bounced toward the river, sticks, dried leaves and vines all tangled and prickling unevenly along its surface like a bad haircut. With his longer legs, Vikash outdistanced his colleagues easily and so was directly in the line of fire when the tumbleweed of madness stopped abruptly, shook itself, and hurled a mass of stick missiles his way. He dove to the side, his jacket taking the brunt of the assault. Behind him, he heard a sharp cry of pain.
The tumbleweed rustled again, apparently readying a second volley. Vikash covered his head and risked a glance back at Jeff, sprawled on the ground with a two-inch diameter stick embedded in his shoulder.