Among the Living

I'm a strong believer in try-before-you-buy, so I invite you to read the first half of Among the Living, PsyCop #1, for free! I hope you enjoy it! -Jordan
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Among the Living - m/m paranormal thrillerOnce upon a time if you told doctors you heard voices, they’d diagnose you as schizophrenic, put you on heavy drugs, and lock you away in a cozy state institution to keep you from hurting yourself or others.

Nowadays they test you first to see if you’re psychic.

_____

Maurice was a sixty-two year old black man who had a lot more gray in his hair at his retirement party than he’d had when I first met him. We’d never been close in a way that some partners at the Fifth Precinct are. We didn’t hit sports bars after our shift for a shot and a beer. We didn’t watch the game at each others’ houses. We didn’t invite each other to family functions—not that I have any family to speak of.

Maybe it was the race difference. Or the age difference. But despite the fact that we didn’t connect on any sort of deep, soul-searching level, I was gonna miss working with the guy.

I stood behind the kitchen island and watched through the glass doors that led to the deck as Maurice ambled by. He laughed as he tried to balance a Coors Light, a styrofoam tray of bratwurst and a small stack of CDs. He looked genuinely happy. I supposed he was ready to retire—not like those guys you hear about that are forced out, along with all of their years of honed experience, in favor of some young buck who’ll work for half the salary.

Maurice set the CDs in a sloppy, listing pile next to a tinny boom box and drained his beer in one pull. I wondered if being retired would entice him into a long slide down the neck of a bottle, but then I felt a little guilty for even thinking it. Because Maurice never, ever made comments about my Auracel—whether I had taken any, or was out, or was rebounding after a weekend of “accidentally” doubling or tripling my dosage. Nothing.

Maybe that was the actual reason I was gonna miss him so much.

I turned away from the deck and made my way back down the hall, and tried to remember where the bathroom was. I veered accidentally into the rec room and a bunch of black kids, mostly teenagers, all fell silent. I nodded at them and wondered if I’d managed to look friendly or if I just came off as some creepy, white asshole, then headed toward the basement where I remembered there was a half bath off Maurice’s seldom-used woodshop.

“That’s him, Victor Bayne,” one of the kids whispered, so loud that it was audible to my physical ears. Not that my sixth sense would’ve picked it up, given that I was pretty far into a nice Auracel haze, and besides, I wasn’t particularly clairaudient. “He was my dad’s partner on the Spook Squad.”

I quelled the urge to go back into the rec room and tell Maurice’s kid that his dad would probably shit a brick if he heard that expression in his home. But that’d lead to a long-winded discussion of civil rights, yadda yadda yadda. Plus I’d be absolutely certain to come off as a creepy, white asshole then, in case there was any doubt at all.

I groped around the cellar wall at the top of the stairs for several long moments for a light until I realized the lights downstairs were already on. I made a mental note to rib Maurice about the availability of light bulbs greater than 40 watts come Monday. Except Maurice wasn’t gonna be there on Monday. Damn.

My eyes adjusted and I took the cellar steps two by two. I imagined what Maurice’s kid was probably saying about me to his cousins and friends. It was pretty plain that I was the psychic half of the Maurice/Victor team, since Maurice was about as psychic as a brick wall, and damn proud of it.

A pair of opposites forms a Paranormal Investigation Unit. The Psychs—psychic cops—do the psychic stuff, just like you’d expect. And the Stiffs—look, I didn’t name ’em—are oblivious to any psychic interference a sixth-sensory gifted criminal might throw out there. It was rough at first getting used to riding around with a guy who put out about as many vibes as a day-old ham sandwich. But I got used to it, and eventually I grew to see the practicality of pairing us with each other.

Halfway down the steps I reached into my jeans pocket and found a tab of Auracel among the old gum wrappers and lint. I felt around some more, but only managed to locate the one. I’d brought three with me. Had I taken two earlier? I only remembered taking one in the car. Oh, and there was the one I took when Sergeant Warwick came in. The irony. Popping pills within spitting distance of someone capable of cutting off my precious supply.

I swallowed the Auracel, grabbed hold of the bathroom door and barely caught myself from slamming face first into Detective Jacob Marks, the golden child of the Twelfth Precinct Sex Crimes Unit.

He was a big, dark-eyed, dark-haired hunk of a guy with a neatly clipped goatee and short hair that looked like he had it trimmed every single week. He’d always looked beefy to me from afar, standing in the background, tall and proud, as his sergeant praised his work on high profile cases during press releases while the cameras flashed and the video rolled. But up close it was obvious that he was as wide as two of me put together, and it was all solid muscle.

I think I excused myself and staggered back a step or two. The Auracel I’d taken on the stairs was stuck to the roof of my mouth and I swallowed hard, worried that its innocuous gelatin coating would dissolve and give me a big jolt of something bitter and nasty. The Auracel didn’t budge.

“So,” Marks said, deftly swerving his bulging pecs around my shoulder as he maneuvered past me. I stood there gaping and trying not to choke. “Lost your Stiff.”

A comment about the crassness of calling Maurice a Stiff stuck somewhere around the last Auracel, as I realized that Marks not only knew who I was and what I did, but that he seemed to be flirting with me. Detective Marks—queer? Who knew? And besides, he was a Stiff, too.

Or maybe he was just a jerk and the flirting notion was merely something that my mind constructed from the high it’d gleaned from two Auracels and a few fumes.

I shrugged and raised my eyebrow. Nothing like being noncommittal. Especially when I only had access to five senses, and even those were pretty fuzzy around the edges.

Marks leaned back against Maurice’s workbench and crossed his arms over his chest. That pose made him triple my diameter, and his tight black T-shirt was stretched so taut over his biceps that it probably wanted to surrender. “New partner lined up yet?”

I wondered if “partner” was also supposed to be flirtatious, as in “sexual partner.” But even my Auracel-addled mind figured that’d be a pretty far stretch. I had nowhere to lean, so I stuffed my hands in my jeans pockets and hunched a little, as kids who are taller than their classmates tend to do. Marks was as tall as I was. I like that in a man. “It’s all hush-hush,” I said, belatedly thankful that I didn’t make a tongue twister out of those last couple of words. “I think they had like a hundred applicants.”

Marks cocked his head to one side, considering me. The bitterness of Auracel spread over the back of my tongue and I swallowed convulsively—smooth move. “Probably more like a thousand,” Marks said, “but they screen ninety percent of them out before the interviews start.”

A thousand people wanted to be the Stiff half of a Paranormal Investigation Unit—homicide, no less? I imagined I’d be flattered, if I weren’t choking.

I stifled a cough and dry-swallowed three, four more times. My eyelashes felt damp.

And Jacob Marks had pushed off from the workbench and pressed right up against me. “What’s in your mouth?” he said, and his voice was a sexy, low purr. He pulled my face up against his, pried my mouth open with his and skimmed his tongue across the inside of my upper lip. “Auracel? Isn’t that the strongest anti-psyactive they make?”

How would he know what Auracel tastes like? I probably would’ve asked him myself, except I wasn’t quite fit for speaking. Or even breathing, for that matter. I squeezed my hand up between us and managed to push back from Marks before I hurled all over him. The bathroom sink was only a yard away, and I turned both taps on, scooped up tepid water with both hands, and struggled to dislodge the pill from my soft palate.

Finally, the foul thing tore free and made its way down my throat. It felt like it’d left behind a chemical burn on the roof of my mouth and the back of my tongue. I cupped a few more handfuls of water from the tap, drank them, and then splashed one on my face for good measure.

I stared down at the sink as the water dripped from my hairline. Cripes. Jacob Marks kissed me, sorta, and I was too busy choking on a pill to get into it. I assumed I’d just blown a perfectly good shot at some hot, nearly-anonymous sex when I heard Marks’ voice again coming from the doorway. Apparently I hadn’t succeeded in scaring him off. His reflection met my eye in the medicine cabinet mirror.

“One in every five hundred people is certifiably psychic, and they’re all clamoring for something to shut their talent off. What kind of sense does that make?” he asked. There was a friendly lilt to his tone of voice, but the look in his eye made his words feel like more of a challenge.

Well, didn’t he know his facts and figures? I ran my hand up through my half-wet hair. The mirror reflected it back at me. It stood up in a crazy, black thatch. I needed a haircut. 

I flipped open the door to see if maybe there was some Listerine in there to wash away the taste of the Auracel, but found nothing but a bottle of Jergen’s lotion and a few yellowed aspirin left over from the Reagan Era.

“You’re a PsyCop.” I turned to face Marks. “Why don’t you ask your partner?”

“Carolyn’s all natural,” he said. And I wondered if they were fucking each other, though I guessed it was really none of my business.

I think his prying would normally have pissed me off. But I’m not normally three Auracel to the wind, so I played along. “Good for Carolyn,” I said. “Do dead people like to talk with Carolyn? All day, all night? Describe how they died? In excruciating detail?”

“Carolyn can tell if people are lying.” 

“A human polygraph,” I said, and I supposed it was clever. You didn’t need someone’s consent to use your psychic ability, not if you had a federal license. But you did need a court order to hook someone up to a lie detector. “No wonder you collar so many perverts.”

Marks broke into a smile that was almost more of a leer, and I realized he was probably a lot more fun than I’d ever imagined he’d be. “It helps,” he said. “But Carolyn’s only a level two, and criminals can be incredibly evasive.” He pushed the bathroom door shut with his foot and locked it behind us. The tiny doorknob twist lock seemed pathetically inadequate, considering that any cop upstairs could kick the door in without even breaking a sweat, but maybe the sanctity of the bathroom would protect us from discovery.

Marks eased up to me and then stopped, that infuriating—yet sexy—grin plastered on his face, framed by his impossibly neat goatee. I wondered what he wanted. More witty repartee? The third Auracel was kicking in and I hardly had two brain cells to rub together, so I closed the distance between us, slipped my arms around his neck and initiated a kiss of my own.

His tongue tasted beery, but pleasantly so, like he’d just had a drink or two at the party. I wished I could drink, but while alcohol loosens me up just like anyone else, it also amps up the voices. I don’t drink.

He got a hand around my waist and slipped the other around the back of my jeans, kneading my ass hard, showing me his strength. I grazed his lower lip with my teeth and he grunted a little into my mouth, ground his fly against mine.

Marks backed me into the towel rack, which settled right beneath my shoulder blades, and started kissing me hard, rubbing up against me while his sweet tongue swept over my bitter one.

I was the one to fumble with buttons and zippers, to expose our stiff cocks to the ambient light of my ex-partner’s bathroom. Marks seemed pleased enough to let our experience take him where it would and to have me call the shots. But then again, Marks could probably pick people up whenever he was horny. I had to jump on any chance that presented itself to me and hope I was on Auracel—or at least able to get my hands on some. I really hate threesomes when one of the participants is dead.

Marks had a thick, fat cock, rock hard and ruddy. Mine had a certain delicacy and grace beside his as he took them both in his hands and pumped them, hard, even strokes, while I cupped his jaw between my palms and languidly tongued his mouth.

He knows, I thought, and though his grip was harder than I might have liked, my body still responded to it, thighs clenching and warmth building at the base of my spine. He knows who I am. And he knows what I do. And he’s willing to jack me off anyway.

I trailed my fingertips over his scalp, through his closely-shorn hair, and he groaned into my mouth, his hands moving faster on us. My breath hissed in and I caressed the tips of his ears and the curve of his jaw with a feathery touch. I sucked on his tongue.

He pulled back to watch himself as he came, his jiz rolling down over his knuckles as he clenched his cock hard, and I suddenly liked his face a whole lot better. Open like that, and vulnerable. Not the handsome, self-assured detective who always got his man, but just a guy jacking off with me. His mouth was so pretty—a little swollen now, from kissing me. I imagined it closing around the head of my cock, taking me into its soft, wet warmth, and then my hips gave a twitch and I was coming. It was a pretty energetic spurt, given the amount of drugs in my system, and the first rope of come managed to paint itself down the front of Marks’ T-shirt and across the leg of his black jeans.

I sniggered a little as I shot again, more weakly though, just over his bare forearm, and again. Marks stared at me, our sticky cocks loose in his grip, and then he broke into a big grin, too. My vision was going all starry around the edges and I was glad of the towel rack behind me, and the big cop in front of me. I still had my arms draped over his shoulders, and couldn’t think of any good reason to let go.

Someone banged on the door. “Bayne? You in there?”

I pressed my forehead into Marks’ shoulder and exhaled carefully. I could’ve ignored it, if it was anyone else but Sergeant Warwick. But that voice, in that tone, would need to be answered. “Yeah, Sarge.”

Marks gave my cock a slow, teasing stroke. It gave up a final bead of semen.

“I need you at the station. Now.”

On a Sunday? When we were all at a party, some of us drunk, some of us pill-buffered, and some of us getting lucky? Whatever it was, it wouldn’t be pretty. “Okay,” I said. I considered dropping something into the toilet to make it sound like I was taking a big dump, but then I’d either have to fish the object back out or leave it in there to screw up Maurice’s plumbing. Instead, I tugged at the toilet paper roll and tried to make it rattle. “I’ll be out in a minute.”

We both listened to Warwick’s footsteps as he headed back upstairs. Marks’ face had shifted back into cop-mode, his shrewd, dark eyes scanning the empty air in front of him as he analyzed whatever theories he was assembling inside his head. “Something big just went down.” He pulled a yard of toilet paper from the roll and wiped my jiz off his leg.


Chapter 2

Sergeant Warwick was a square, middle-aged man with a thick neck. His graying blond hair was thinning on top, but at least he had the decency not to subject us all to a bad comb-over. He sat behind his clunky metal desk, rolling a pen between his thumb and forefinger like he did every time something really pissed him off. “Bayne, this is your new partner, Lisa Gutierrez. She’s worked homicide four years now, in Las Vegas and Albuquerque. Gutierrez, Victor Bayne.”

Lisa Gutierrez looked as Latina as she sounded, her long, dark hair pulled back from her fresh-scrubbed, no-makeup face so hard it almost made my head hurt to look at it. She was young, mid-twenties, and my guess was that she’d been a uniformed cop in her previous job. She must have done something extraordinarily special to land her current assignment—a job that a thousand other people lost out on, at least according to Marks. 

I tried to look really focused as I shook her hand, but maybe I was just kinda making my pale blue eyes bug out at her instead. Three frigging Auracels, three, not even counting the one I’d had the night before, and the whole world seemed like it was made out of cotton candy with some interesting sprinkles thrown in for shits and grins. I’d come right over from the party and I hoped to God I didn’t smell like sex. I thought our encounter was brief and furtive enough that I probably didn’t. I considered taking up smoking to cover any inappropriate smells I might someday harbor. I didn’t necessarily have to inhale if I didn’t want to.

“Are you medicated?” Warwick said. Because it’s so professional to accuse someone of being high right as you introduce them to their new partner. It’s some kind of newfangled team-building exercise, all the rage in L.A.

“I was at my partner’s retirement party,” I snapped, deciding I would have to admit to one Auracel, but not three. They couldn’t prove I’d taken three without a really expensive and time-consuming drug test. “What do you think, I wanted that idiot who hung herself in his garage to follow me around the whole afternoon? That’s my idea of a great party, lemme tell you.”

Warwick twirled the pen harder while his jaw worked. “Detective Bayne is authorized, when he’s off duty, for the use of Auracel…” he started to explain.

“An anti-psyactive,” said Gutierrez. “I know what it is. Now tell me what’s so unusual about this case that you’d call Bayne in instead of assigning it to the team on call.”

Warwick blinked, and then pulled out a manila folder, opened it, scanned the contents and began gathering his thoughts. I stuck my hand in my pocket in order to stop myself from giving Gutierrez a high-five, since she seemed so clipped and professional that she’d probably leave me waving in the wind. But damn, I liked her.

* * *

I was happy to let Gutierrez drive since I was legally impaired, although a breathalyzer wouldn’t have been able to pick up on it. She was just in from Albuquerque and didn’t have a car yet, so we took mine. She had to move the seat up three whole clicks.

“That was…um…cool,” I said as I got into the car, wondering if I could possibly sound any more retarded. “The way you got Warwick off my case.”

She glanced at me. “Your pupils are totally dilated. You should put on some sunglasses before you damage your retinas.”

Maybe she was genuinely concerned, or maybe she wasn’t so lax on the whole drug thing after all. She had that deadpan delivery that was kind of hard to read. I rummaged around my glove compartment and found an old pair of shades crusted with mysterious dust. How did things get dusty while they were shut inside a glovebox? I also saw half a tab of Auracel cradled inside the hinge. I took a pen and flicked it out to stop it from being crushed when I closed the door, and then moved my registration over to cover it up. Gutierrez’ eyes were on the tiny GPS navigation screen. Also dusty, I noted.

“It’d be faster if you turned up Clark,” I said.

Gutierrez ignored my directions, preferring instead to trust the Magellan. She’d turned the audio down, but still glanced at the map occasionally.

“Were you a PsyCop at your last job?” I asked.

A little smile played on her lips, and she was actually kinda cute in that moment, like a kid sister. “They don’t even have ’em in New Mexico.” She pronounced Mexico with an “X” in the middle, like I would. I wondered if the “Me-HEE-co” pronunciation was reserved for the country.

We passed Clark again, a diagonal street that defied the grid of the rest of the city, and I sighed. “Then how’d you land this job? Not that I’m complaining, but I heard the competition was pretty…fierce.” I wondered if she thought I was crass enough to say “stiff.”

Gutierrez shrugged and turned on Lawrence. Her jacket didn’t quite fit her in the shoulders. She was petite and a little stocky, would probably need something tailored. I wondered how I knew that, given that I owned only two sportcoats and my sloppy dress shirts were about twenty years out of style. I figured it was the Auracel thinking for me. And then I realized I was still in jeans, a big no-no given the department’s dress code. That’s what they got for calling me away from a party on the opposite side of the city from my apartment.

“My track record’s good,” she said. “Beyond good. And besides,” she gave me a sly look. “I count as two minorities: a woman and a Hispanic. Your boss’s got his quotas to fill, just like everybody.”

I stared through my dusty plastic lenses at a string of Indian grocers and sari shops and noted that I could kind of see over one lens but not the other. Therefore, the shades were probably crooked as well as dusty. Charming. “Our boss.” I tried to straighten out the glasses and failed.

The Magellan beeped as Gutierrez missed a turn onto Artesian and then readjusted itself to plot her a new course to the scene. I figured she must’ve been sightseeing and just passed it by.

“The Auracel,” she said, taking the next right, “it works for you?”

“It makes the dead people shut up,” I told her. And, by golly, the high was just an added bonus. I didn’t tell her that. Oh, and it only muffled the ambient dead people. If I really, really wanted to, I could try real hard, pick one out and make him spill his guts. But I didn’t mention that, either. A guy’s gotta have some boundaries.

She nodded and pulled up behind a pair of squad cars. I glanced down Artesian and saw a pair of orange-striped sawhorses blocking the area and a surly resident getting nasty with the uniformed officers for not letting him park in front of his apartment building. Good thing Gutierrez missed that turn or we would’ve still been struggling to get around that moron to flash our badges and get onto the scene.

Even though it wasn’t my regular shift, I knew the men on duty, and thankfully they weren’t weird around Psychs. I introduced Gutierrez and let the officer in charge walk us through the scene.

“The victim was found by his downstairs neighbor. Says she pounded on the ceiling with her broom handle so long that she put a hole through the plaster trying to get him to turn his music down. Came up to tell him to his face and found him…well, you can see for yourself.”

“The door was unlocked,” Gutierrez said, more than asked, and the officer nodded. She stopped at the door to slip on a pair of latex gloves and plastic booties. I looked at my jeans as I slipped the booties on over my holey Converse All-Stars and wondered if I’d gotten any jiz on them in Maurice’s bathroom. I didn’t bother with gloves since I didn’t plan on touching anything.

Gutierrez paused in the victim’s vestibule and then stepped aside to let me enter. She stared straight ahead of her into a living room where a couple of techs were setting down numbered cards around a sofa-bed and snapping photos. I came in behind her and nearly had to scoop my jaw up off the floor.

The victim was splayed buck naked on his red velvet bedspread like a piece of fucking performance art. Shards of mirror surrounded him, at first making it appear that a disco ball had taken vengeance on an unsuspecting naked guy. But on closer inspection, it was obvious that every piece had been painstakingly placed around the body so that, from the proper angle, the whole thing became a glittering, psychedelic swirl.

It might’ve even been fun to look at, given my current state of medication, if it weren’t for the hot dead guy in the middle of it all. Not a mark on him, but obviously quite dead.

Gutierrez was already getting briefed. The victim was one Anthony Blakewood, twenty-seven, Caucasian, single, worked downtown in the Loop at a brokerage firm, no known enemies.

“Sexual penetration?” Gutierrez asked the Medical Examiner’s tech, a thin girl with a blond ponytail who was still snapping photos.

“We haven’t flipped the body yet, but it’s a good possibility. The Coroner will have the final word on that.” 

I fixed my gaze on a completely irrelevant nail hole on the wall and pretended they weren’t talking about anything gay. I always figure I’m going to get some kind of telltale look on my face and tip somebody off about my own “lifestyle.” As far as I knew, the only one besides Hotshot Marks who might’ve guessed about me was Maurice, and Maurice just didn’t talk about those kinds of things, period. That was that.

I then noticed that Blakewood had a little collection of miniature furniture with Scotty dogs painted on it, arranged on a semicircular shelf in the corner. Yeah. He was queer.

I wondered what I had in my apartment that would incriminate me to a casual observer. Not much, surprisingly. I tended not to hold onto stuff, because stuff usually held vibes, and vibes are a pain in the ass.

I almost ran my fingers through my hair again, but stopped myself just in time to keep from contaminating the crime scene by shedding. I jammed my hands into my pockets instead. The tech said that judging by the open container of lube nearby she’d just spotted, the victim had likely been penetrated, though the Coroner would have to verify that. A psycho murderer who lubed. How considerate.


Chapter 3

I stared up at my featureless white ceiling as I waited for the Seconal I’d taken to kick in. I’d loaned my car to Gutierrez with the stipulation that she wake me no earlier than noon. The victim hadn’t spoken to me while I was at the apartment, and I’d taken three Auracels I needed to sleep off.

And while three was a pretty high dose for me, it wasn’t like I’d never imbibed that many before. (Actually, my record is seven, but at that point you can’t walk anymore and you tend to start vomiting.) Even after three Auracels, I should’ve been able to talk to Blakewood. Yeah, that’s right. Even with my sixth sense trapped under all those meds, if I tried really hard, I should’ve been able to hear him. And I hadn’t—not even a peep. So I was beginning to get concerned.

Anthony Blakewood, collector of Scotty dog miniatures, reamed out and discarded among several thousand other glittery bits. I wondered if he kind of dug it, being snuffed out in his prime and displayed so lovingly…or at least exactingly. I might have asked him as much, if I’d been able to find his ghost.

I dreamt of shards of silvered glass, seven years’ bad luck and who’s the fairest one of all. I woke with a post-Auracel sandpaper tongue and a piercing pain behind my right eye. I considered downing a handful of aspirin, but knew I’d only be asking for heartburn after lunch if I did.

I was at work on my second pot of coffee when Gutierrez called on the intercom. I buzzed her up from the lobby.

“Coffee?” I asked her as she stared over my shoulder and into my three-room apartment. 

She hesitated for just a second, and then came in and took one of the two barstools by the kitchen counter. “Sure.”

I looked around, not seeing the place anew, exactly, but reminding myself how stark it looks to a anyone who’s never been there. “I’m kind of a minimalist.”

Gutierrez’ shoulders relaxed a little at my admission. “Is everything in here white?”

I handed her a white coffee mug and then pointed out the cream. She shook her head and sipped it black.

“White matches white,” I said, and fiddled with my own cup, which had chilled and grown a skin on its surface. “I guess it seems easiest.”

“I talked to the Coroner,” she told me as I dumped my congealed coffee down the drain. “Our perp’s even sicker than we thought.”

You have absolutely no idea what I was thinking, I said to myself. But I didn’t know her well enough to tease her like that. And besides, I didn’t need anyone trying to read between the lines about anything I had to say on this particular case. With the gay and all. “Yeah?”

“The Coroner found pieces of mirror stuck under the victim’s eyelids. But they’d been placed there so carefully they hadn’t even scratched him.”

I tried to imagine why I hadn’t noticed that my victim had something angular beneath his closed eyelids, but since I was pretty much looking everywhere but at him, I wasn’t very surprised. “I was so busy trying to talk to him…” I said, thinking that it wasn’t altogether untruthful. I had tried.

“On Auracel?” Gutierrez asked. She drained her cup and came over to put it in the sink. “Why even bother?”

“I dunno.” I pulled a black sportcoat off the peg on the back of my kitchen door. “I had to do something.”

“We’ll go try again now. You, uh…. You have better reception at the scene or at the morgue?”

Reception. I liked the way she was trying to be so casual about it. “His spirit’s probably at the apartment,” I said. “Accidents, suicides and murders tend to be sticky.”

“Okay, we’ll start there.” She offered me the keys, but I waved them toward her. She’d get to know the city that much quicker if she was the one who drove. And there was that lancing pain behind my eye to consider.

Traditionally, the younger partner was the one to do the driving anyway. Maurice let me slide on that responsibility when I told him that on bad days I tended to get visuals of accident victims, and that on certain intersections they got pretty numerous. They didn’t look quite as solid as real pedestrians, but when you’re doing forty-five on a residential street you don’t necessarily have tons of time to study them. Maurice had said it explained a lot of the swerving I did. I’d let him think that. It seemed less incriminating than admitting that the Auracel didn’t help my driving any, either.

At the scene I donned the plastic booties, and this time, the gloves, too. It irked me that the night before I’d been in the same room as a homicide victim and he hadn’t said a word. But I was fairly clean now, having taken my last Auracel about twenty hours prior. I was ready to hear Blakewood’s side of the story.

A couple of guys from the lab were combing through the apartment with their powders and brushes and ultraviolet wands. One of them muttered “Spook Squad” in a voice so low I almost didn’t catch it, and the other one straightened his tie and looked nervous.

“Just tell me where we won’t be in your way,” I said. I was actually only paying them partial attention, because I was sure that any minute I’d be bowled over by Blakewood’s spirit.

“Can you work from the kitchen?” the tech who’d called us Spook Squad asked. “We’re done processing the kitchen.”

I figured he wanted to get rid of us so they could gossip, and I almost suggested that Gutierrez and I go have a sandwich and come back later, when it occurred to me that a dead queer might very well be hanging out near the fridge. I jerked my head toward the kitchen doorway and Gutierrez followed me. Undoubtedly she’d been given a job description the size of the phone book, but I thought I could summarize for her in a few sentences. 

“So here’s how it works,” I told her. “You record all the factual stuff, plus whatever impressions I give you. Then you record your impressions about my impressions.” I peeked into the kitchen, but didn’t see Blakewood in there. I was glad. I really didn’t want a visual on those mirror eyes. “You score points for being as skeptical as humanly possible.”

“So I’m supposed to shoot you down,” she said.

I stepped into the kitchen and opened the fridge. Chinese takeout, Diet 7-Up and fat-free yogurt. “If my impressions are right, the facts’ll back them up and you won’t be able to debunk me.”

“That’s bullshit,” she muttered. “We’re partners. We’ve gotta watch each other’s backs, not tear each other down.”

“Hey.” I gave her a smile over my shoulder. “Don’t take it so personally. I never do.” I liked hearing her swear. It left me free to do the same.

I walked into the kitchen and waited for that telltale sensation, like a drop in temperature that only I could feel, before the voices started. Except the kitchen was toasty, and the only sound in it was the motor on the refrigerator.

“Blakewood,” I whispered, but the kitchen felt as flat and spiritless as…mine. “What’s his first name?” I asked Gutierrez.

She flipped open her pad. “Anthony.”

“Anthony,” I said, figuring that maybe he’d died so horribly that he couldn’t leave the side of his sofa bed. “Tony,” I called softly. “You here?”

I planted my hands on my hips and looked around. Nothing.

Gutierrez stared at me with her pen poised over the tablet. She was a lefty. “Forget it,” I said, easing past her into the small foyer. “There’s nothing here.”

I stood there while Gutierrez scratched what sounded like lots and lots of notes onto her pad. I didn’t see the victim, didn’t hear him. I wondered if it was possible that he died of natural causes and was just set up pretty by some kind of necrophiliac. Sure, that would be weird. But I’ve seen plenty of weird in my time.

“What now?” Gutierrez asked.

I crept closer to the archway that opened into the main room where we’d found him. “Anthony,” I said, quiet, just barely moving my lips, but the tech who thought I was creepy blanched and started tugging at the collar of his shirt.

I listened hard, but didn’t hear anything but the sound of Gutierrez’ pen. “You’re not picking anything up,” she murmured, “are you?”

I shook my head just a tiny bit and we backed up into the vestibule. “We can come back when those guys are through,” she offered. “Maybe they’re blocking it.”

I looked at a set of keys hanging beside the door. There was an embossed Scotty on the key fob. “Believe me, it’d take a lot more than a couple of guys with powderpuffs to block a fresh murder victim.”

Gutierrez scratched out some more notes. “Okay, then. What if he didn’t die here?”

I considered her theory. No one had mentioned any evidence of the body being relocated, but given what I wasn’t hearing, it made sense. Her brow furrowed, as if she’d found a hole in her own logic, but I thought we should explore the idea more conclusively before we shot it down. 

“What if,” I said thoughtfully.


Chapter 4

My cell phone rang, displaying the number for the Coroner’s office. “The crime scene was definitely the victim’s apartment.”

Unfortunately, Gutierrez and I had come to the same conclusion, given that a neighbor had sworn he saw Tony walking back home that night with some new boyfriend he didn’t recognize and, predictably, couldn’t describe—except to say he was very handsome.

I sat in the passenger seat of my car and picked the brim of a styrofoam coffee cup into a dozen small, ragged pieces. I hesitated before letting them fall to the floor, and then I realized that it was my own damn car and I could do what I wanted. Styrofoam fluttered to the carpet around my shoes.

“That ever happen to you?” Gutierrez asked. “A dead guy that won’t talk?”

“Never.” I said it quietly, through clenched teeth, to keep myself from yelling at her. What did she know? It was her first time on the Spook Squad…er, PsyCop Unit.

She flipped open her notepad, rested it against the steering wheel and scanned it. “There’s gotta be a reason, then. Something unique to this case. We just need to figure out what it is.”

My cell phone rang. I pulled it from my coat pocket and flipped it open. “Bayne.”

“Gutierrez with you?” Warwick asked.

I refrained from asking him where the fuck else he thought my partner would be in the midst of an investigation. “Yeah.”

“Get back to the station. Both of you.” He hung up on me before I could try to figure out if he knew that the victim was giving me the silent treatment. What if one of the techs had overheard me talking to Gutierrez and had called him to tell him that I was a waste of taxpayer dollars? No, that was stupid. They had no idea how easy talking to dead victims usually was for me. They didn’t know the silence was freaking me out.

If Gutierrez had any smarmy platitudes to offer on the way back to the squad house, she kept them to herself. The GPS unit beeped every now and then and styrofoam squeaked under my heels, but at least my performance anxiety wasn’t exacerbated by a bunch of meaningless comforting phrases.

We went straight to Warwick’s office. He motioned for me to shut the door behind us. “Interesting report came through from Albuquerque today,” he said.

Albuquerque? Gutierrez was from Albuquerque. I thought that was a pretty odd coincidence until I realized the whole face-to-face could very well be about her, and not me.

“Test results,” he said, spreading the pages of a gray, degraded fax in front of us. “Did you know that your scores were identical on every psy-test you took, Lisa? Different tests, different days, and on each and every one you hit the exact score of random probability. To the percent?”

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” I said, “but isn’t that a good thing for a Stiff?”

“Stiffs vary,” Warwick said, and I noted that a red flush had broken out across his formidable neck. “Usually between six and thirteen percent. This,” he said, gesturing at the fax, “this is not random.”

Gutierrez had ability? That probably explained what I’d seen in her right away that set me at ease. Normally I’d be happy to hear it, if she were my dry cleaner or my bridge partner. But certifiable psychics weren’t allowed on the force without spending half a year training at Camp Hell. Otherwise known as Heliotrope Station, to those who’ve never done time there.

“You’re off the case,” Warwick said. “In fact, you’re off active duty until I can figure out what to do with you.”

Gutierrez’ face was a bland mask as she handed over her badge and gun. She hadn’t said anything to defend herself. And she hadn’t denied her ability, either. She turned and walked out without a word.

“Where are you with this case?” Warwick said to me. His voice seemed normal, but his color was way too high.

“We, um.” I missed Gutierrez already. “The victim.” I shrugged. “It’s a tough one.”

“I’ll assign a pair of uniformed cops to back you up. Broaden your contact area and see what you can find.”

Great. I’d have a pair of superstitious flatfoots following me around as I went from the cemetery to the victim’s childhood home to anywhere else he liked to hang out while he’d been alive. I wondered if he had a favorite bar and, if so, the chances of eluding my babysitters and getting lucky. Ideally with Detective Marks, who’d just so happen to be there. Not that he hung out in gay bars or anything. At least, that’s what I assumed, though I didn’t hang out in gay bars either, so I didn’t actually know for sure.

Warwick turned back to his notes and picked up the phone. I was dismissed.He’d call me when he had someone lined up. I could go to my desk and start trying to make sense in writing of what was going on, but writing had never been my strong point. Even Maurice, with his two-fingered, misspelled typing, was Shakespeare next to me.

I went out to my car with the intention of grabbing a very late lunch when I saw there was someone sitting in my drivers’ seat. Since Gutierrez still had my keys, I realized that was a good thing.

“Wow,” I said as I got in. “That was….” The fact that she’d been crying stopped me dead in my tracks. I can’t stand it when girls cry.

“It’s not fair,” she said. “I earned this job.”

I tried to recall a time in my life where I would’ve gotten as worked up as she was over a job, and failed. But that’s just me. And then I had to remind myself that she’d needed to beat out a thousand other applicants to get it, and I could empathize at least a little.

“For what it’s worth, I like working with you.” 

She gave me a sidelong glance. Her eyes, nose and lips were all red and puffy.

“What if I want to be a Stiff?” she said. “I make a better Stiff than a psychic. I’m a good cop. Really good.”

“You got pretty far without being found out,” I said. “Give yourself some credit for that.” I realized that was a pretty stupid thing to say, since now that she’d been discovered, her career with the force was likely over.

She just hunched and looked down, getting tears on my steering wheel.

“Maybe they’d pay to retrain you. Your abilities might be bigger than you know.”

“You saying I should try for Camp Hell?”

Oh. I wouldn’t have wanted to be a woman there. It was hard enough being myself there.

“Look,” I said, desperately trying to change the subject. “We shouldn’t be sitting here like this in front of the station. Let’s go to Dairy Queen. I’ll buy you a milkshake.”

“That’s okay,” she said. “You’re gonna get called back in any time now. I’ll just go home and try to figure out what I’m doing next.” She pulled away from the curb into the lazy, midday traffic.

“Too bad I’m not precognizant,” I said. “I’d try to give you some advice.”

She smiled at that just a little, her eyes fixed on the road. “Your dead people got any ideas for me?”

I looked out over Montrose. “There’s this fat Korean guy, hit by a bus, who’s always hanging around the intersection at Damen. But I dunno that you want to follow his advice.”

Gutierrez had picked a place in an old brick hotel less than a mile from the station. It’d been converted into studio apartments thirty years prior. The old lettering had been taken down long ago, but they’d left behind pale impressions on the brick that still read “Parker Inn.”

My phone rang just as we got out of the car. She tossed me the keys over the hood and I had to juggle a little to grab them while I tried to flip my phone open. “Bayne.”

“Get back to the station.”

“Okay…?”

“There’s been another murder.”


Chapter 5

The vinyl miniblinds on Warwirck’s door were tilted open and I could see him at his desk with his fingers steepled in front of his face as I approached. I opened his door and staggered back to avoid plowing into Jacob Marks, who’d been lurking to one side of the doorframe. I noted belatedly that his partner, Carolyn, sat on the other side of Warwick’s desk with her hands folded on her lap. She was a neat, small blonde and her skirt suit fit a lot better than Gutierrez’.

“Got a call from the Police Commissioner,” said Warwick, “and it seems we’re gonna try something a little different.” He said the word “different” like some people say “colored,” or “alternative lifestyle.”

“Detective Marks,” Jacob said, sticking out his hand to shake mine. I took his hand in a daze and let him jerk my arm up and down. It was smart of him to pretend he didn’t know me, I realized. And I supposed I looked blank enough to pull off his little act. “This is my partner, Carolyn Brinkman.” Carolyn nodded. I stammered my name, wondering if she would notice that, technically, Jacob was lying to her. But maybe he wasn’t. After all, her name was Carolyn Brinkman.

Warwick piped up. “Now I know that all of your training—years of training—says that a Psych and a Stiff are like salt and pepper, yin and yang, or whatever metaphysical bullshit you want to call it.”

Ham and eggs, my brain said. Ernie and Bert. Shit and shinola. My brain could just go on and on for days. Apparently, it was panicking. Not enough to miss the fact that Marks looked like some kind of Italian supermodel in his suit. But enough to spew out random words that I had to struggle to keep from saying aloud. 

“But the Commissioner don’t give a damn what all your gurus and your mental masters say about the PsyCop pairbond. See, he don’t work with PsyCops, not directly. He’s old school. And if it were up to him, crimes would get solved with sweat and brains and elbow grease and luck.”

“And maybe a few hundred thousand dollars’ worth of the latest crime database technology,” Marks added smoothly.

Warwick made a little barking sound, and I realized that it was a laugh. 

I’d never made him laugh.

“But the Commissioner says we gotta do something,” said Warwick, “and unless it puts one of my men at risk, we do it.”

I looked at Carolyn with her hands folded on her knee, and at Marks, who may or may not have had a secret smile playing over his expression.

“He wants us to team up?” I asked. I’d almost used the analogy of a three-way, but considering that I’d had a literal petting session with Marks, I thought better of it.

“Exactly.”

Marks pulled a leatherbound notepad from his inside pocket and flipped it open. “The case does straddle both of our jurisdictions.”

“The second victim…?” I asked.

“Anal penetration and mirrors,” said Warwick. “Happened two nights prior to Blakewood, according to the techs. You’ll need to work out some kind of game plan to work the scene without stepping on each others’ toes.”

“Shouldn’t be a problem,” said Marks. “Carolyn and I would interview the victims ourselves, but our victims are usually alive. Seems natural for Detective Bayne to assume that duty. We’ll handle the witnesses.”

Warwick scribbled an address on a sticky note and handed it to me. The homicide was indeed on the border of the Twelfth and Fifth Precincts. It was as if the perp had specifically chosen the very method and location that would bring Marks and me back together in a sea of fumbling awkwardness. 

“I’ll meet you there,” I said quickly, and snatched the note from Warwick’s hand. I’d rather fly solo than ride along with Marks in the back seat of his car like a third wheel while prim little Carolyn sat up front and continually adjusted the air conditioning. 

I arrived to see Marks parallel parking his Crown Victoria with stunning accuracy in a space adjacent to the scene. I found a spot a block away in front of a hydrant, slapped my police permit atop my dashboard and started jogging toward the duplex.

And since when did I ever walk any more quickly than was absolutely necessary? I slowed my pace as I felt the prickle of sweat in my armpits.

Marks was talking to the uniformed officers on the scene. Carolyn turned to face me. “Sergeant Warwick wasn’t very clear about what happened to your new partner.”

My initial impulse was to make something up about Gutierrez, help her save a little face. And then I remembered that I was talking to the human polygraph. “Turns out she has some ability.”

“That’s too bad. It would be better to keep our numbers even.” She tugged her impeccable suit jacket down, though it hadn’t needed straightening. “Next thing you know they’ll be giving Psychs double duty, trying to spread us over two or three NPs.” I hadn’t heard that old term for Stiffs—NPs, or Non-Psychics—in ages. I guess it was more respectful, but still. I had to quell a smirk.

“But our ratio’s tipped the other way,” I pointed out. “Two Psychs to a Stiff.”

“The brass won’t look at it that way,” she said. “Wait and see.”

The thought of being told to do more work didn’t worry me much. Overtime was fine by me. And when I felt overwhelmed, I’d just stand around and zone out, and everyone would assume I was talking to dead people. I think Maurice’d had his own way of doing the same thing. Sometimes I found pages and pages from his notepads covered in loop-de-loops.

Marks turned toward us and gave a little come-hither nod. I let Carolyn go first with the intention of tagging along behind the two of them, but Marks hung back so that he and I were side by side. “Sink or swim,” he said.

“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” I said, trading a maxim for a maxim.

Marks stopped in front of the victim’s outer door and faced me. “Do you need anything from me in there that I should know about? With Carolyn,” he said, gesturing toward her, “I’m the muscle. The people we’re interviewing don’t get inside her personal space unless she wants them to. But you?” He shrugged, and his crisp suit rode up and down on his broad shoulders. “I don’t know what you need.”

I needed Maurice, was what I needed. I struggled to articulate what, exactly, he’d done for me. He was solid. He didn’t judge me. He believed me. 

Maybe that was really it. He believed that when I mumbled to myself, someone replied, and that when I stared really hard, there was something there, even if he couldn’t see it himself.

“General backup is fine,” I said.

Marks gave me a withering look. I wasn’t trying to be cagey. It just came out that way.

Ryan Carson was a junior architect at a high-priced firm that dealt with gigantic corporate clients. His duplex was probably worth a cool half-mil, and the interior looked like a great big Ikea display. Queer.

I snapped on the plastic booties and edged into the master bedroom, mouth-breathing against the smell. The closet had once had mirrored doors, but what remained of them was scattered around the room. I squinted and saw that the shards were set in more of a burst pattern than a swirl this time around, as if the killer couldn’t stand to repeat himself exactly.

Ryan Carson was splayed in the middle, arms and legs outstretched like he was in the midst of winning some Olympic event, naked and triumphant, though starting to bloat in the middle. His eyelids looked wrong. Covering bits of mirror, I guessed.

But where was Ryan Carson’s spirit? I looked around the room and saw nothing but a pair of techs, one snapping photographs and the other taking notes. “Ryan?” I said, quiet, but the techs heard. I’d worked scenes with each of them dozens of times before, but there was still that little pause while they seemed to steel themselves against my presence.

And to make matters worse, Ryan wasn’t talking.

I usually got visuals on murders. The spirits were just so pissed off, they couldn’t wait to tattle on whoever’d done it. Cases where the victim knew the perp were practically open and shut. But there was no visual on Ryan. Or anything else, for that matter. Just a cold dead body on a bed surrounded by mirror fragments.

I headed to Ryan’s kitchen just in case he was hanging out there. On the way, I passed Carolyn and Marks. Carolyn was grilling a witness in a quiet and professional manner, while Marks loomed behind her, looking very big and threatening while he took notes. I had to give it to them, they certainly did have their method down pat.

The kitchen, a landscape of black enamel and stainless steel, was empty.

I cycled through the various rooms, edging around the perimeter and doing my best to fly under everyone else’s radars. The Auracel was ancient history by then, and I should have picked up Ryan about as easily as I could order a pizza. So where was he?

I strained so hard in the living room that I actually got a visual on a dead goldfish. He just floated there above the mantle, looking translucent and bored. If Ryan’s spirit was around, it wasn’t in the living room.

The duplex had an attic—not the finished kind where there’s a guest room and a spot for out-of-season clothes, but the creepy kind where you’ve got to pull a set of folding stairs out of the ceiling to get up there. I’d had no luck anywhere else, so I decided to see if maybe Ryan was haunting the attic.

The feeling up there was calm, though through the vents I could hear people on the street chattering, and the squeak of investigators’ feet treading up and down between the first and second floors drifted up through the trap door. Ryan had a lot of stuff up there, but it was all boxed and labeled. Christmas decorations, camping gear, a bunch of old board games.

I reached out to him with my mind, trying to composite the dead body on the bed with the snapshots stuck to the fridge and come up with a semblance of how the victim had really looked. “Don’t you want us to get this sonofabitch?” I asked aloud. “C’mon, Ryan. Throw me a bone.”

I listened, and I reached. Nothing. I walked farther in, crouching beneath the slope of the roofline and squinting to make out the blocky architect’s writing on the boxes: College. Badminton set. Mom’s House. As my gloved fingers brushed against the final crate, I thought I heard the distant sound of a woman crying. But it was gone so quickly I couldn’t have said for sure.


Chapter 6

We reconvened back at the Twelfth Precinct, since Carolyn and Marks were the only two with tangible work to show for our afternoon of digging. Neither of them seemed to think it was unusual that I hadn’t gotten a hit from the crime scene. And I don’t think either of them would’ve hesitated to question me if they had. They were both similar shades of blunt, though Carolyn tended to be so soft-spoken she almost came off as polite.

“So the guy from the newsstand saw Ryan the architect come home with a Chinese guy,” said Marks, “and the cab driver swears the second man was Pakistani. Is that what I’m hearing?”

Carolyn’s gaze went wide, like she was watching a movie screen inside her head. “They were positive, Jacob. Absolutely certain.”

“But given the timeframe,” said Marks, “about twelve thirty p.m., they had to be talking about the same guy.”

I broke in. “Maybe he was just, uh…tanned.” I felt like an idiot the second I opened my mouth, but Carolyn’s answer took the sting off.

“I thought of that,” she said. “But when I was reading the witnesses, it wasn’t a skin tone they’d noticed. From the guy at the newsstand, I kept getting images of his cousin back home. And the cab driver thought the subject looked exactly like some Eastern movie star.”

“Then something else is going on,” Marks suggested. “The perp’s got talent and he’s doing something to obscure his identity.”

“We don’t have enough to go on to work that theory,” Carolyn said.

“Not yet,” said Marks. “We’ll have to dig up some more witnesses.”

He looked at me. I wondered if he wanted me to find some dead people at the scenes, other than the victims, to canvas. How could I tell him that they’d both been total paranormal voids—except for the goldfish?

I hoped he could make do with a little show of support. “It’s worth looking into,” I said.

Carolyn flipped through Marks’ notes and made ticks by a couple of his observations. “It’s all we’ve got,” she said, “so we might as well try.”

We hit the street again and broadened our net. Anthony Blakewood, the Scotty collector, had likely picked up his date at a gay nightclub on Belmont that wouldn’t open for another four hours. We did trace Ryan Carson’s path back to a coffee house on Clark, though. 

I was parking-challenged yet again and found Carolyn and Marks already there, questioning a barista. The girl was college-aged and chunky, and intent on battering a piece of chewing gum into submission with her molars. Carolyn made little squiggles and ticks on Marks’ notepad while they talked.

“I’m sure you see hundreds of people every day,” Marks was saying, “but just think back and see if this man is familiar.”

I flashed my badge and mumbled my name as I fell into place beside Carolyn. The employee gave me the briefest once-over and then focused on Marks’ photo of Ryan.

“Oh, I dunno. Working in Boystown, they all start looking the same. Especially these quiet, plain ones.”

I don’t know that I would have called Ryan plain. He’d had a nice build and a sincere, open look about him. But maybe she meant plain compared to the kids with pierced eyebrows, noses and lips talking computer games over their lattes.

“Three nights ago,” Carolyn prompted. “Maybe he lingered a while.”

The barista began to shake her head, but then went still. “Oh yeah. The chai. That’s right.” She pointed toward the window. “He was sitting up there with a Powerbook and he had a croissant special, no meat.”

“Them fucking fags. Maybe they’d get straightened out if they ate a little meat like regular people.”

I swung around but there was no one visible behind me. The gargly, decayed quality of the voice clicked in my head and I felt my mind shift to a different kind of listening. I recalled the idea I’d had earlier about interviewing a dead witness. Whatever I learned wouldn’t be admissible in court since technically it would be hearsay, but I was open to anything that’d help narrow down our search. 

I reached over Marks’ shoulder for the photo of Ryan and tried to pretend that I didn’t notice the barista looking at me funny. “Could I, um…? Thanks.”

I turned away from Marks and held the photo in front of my chest. “Did you see this man Friday night?” I spoke so softly that your average NP would think I was talking to myself.

“That one? Yeah. He comes in here two, three times a week and has a chai.”

“Mmm hm. And was he with anybody?”

Gooseflesh rose on my arms as whomever I was speaking to grew excited. “How could I forget? Some faggot wearing a Halloween costume in June.”

“Oh,” I said, disappointed. “Like a drag queen? A transvestite?”

“You know I had a clean bill of health not three months before I kicked the bucket? Then they cracked me open. Massive coronary, they said. Arteries seventy-eight percent blocked. It’s them HMOs that’s the problem, ya know. Turn people around like short order cooks.”

“What was she dressed as? The female impersonator.”

“Are you stupid? When’d I say there was a Cher with a pecker in here, huh? That’s nothing new. Them faggots do that all year ’round. I’m talking a real costume.”

I imagined a mascot gone astray—maybe someone dressed as a hot dog. “Describe it,” I said. I’d raised my voice a little, but Marks and Carolyn had shifted their bodies to block anyone from disturbing me. Their postures were casual, but their timing was fantastic.

“Scary,” said the disembodied voice. “I dunno. Lots of black, like a big cape with a hood.”

“What was he, a white guy? Hispanic? Young, old?”

“I…I dunno.” The voice wavered and grew softer. “I couldn’t see his face.”

“How to you know it was a man?”

“I dunno. I just do.”

A shiver coursed through me and my relative temperature returned to normal. I guess the dead blowhard couldn’t stand being asked a question that he couldn’t answer with obnoxious certainty.

I turned back to Marks and Carolyn, who were both staring at me, anticipation glittering in their eyes.

“The man who ordered the chai,” I asked quietly. “Was he with somebody in a cloak?”

The barista burst out laughing. “What, like Dracula?”

I felt my cheeks color. “Maybe something like a cloak. A rain poncho. A long duster.”

“I think I’d remember someone in a cloak,” she snickered, then turned her attention back to Jacob Marks.


Chapter 7

I made a mental note to reintroduce myself to the bar scene. Even if I’d had a drink or two in me, the music was so loud that I probably wouldn’t be bothered by disembodied sob stories. Unfortunately, no live person at the bar knew Anthony Blakewood well enough to have any idea who he’d gone home with. Any dead bar-hoppers were drowned out by the music, and no one even cruised me. So the trip to the GloryWhole was a total bust.

I split off from Carolyn and Marks around 11:30 and swung by a 7-11 for something to eat. I reached for an avocado wrap, but then I remembered what the dead creep at the coffee house had said about queers and vegetarians, and opted for a roast beef instead. Halfway back to the counter I turned around and exchanged the beef for the avocado again. And I did my best to ignore the mostly-transparent guy with the afro jacking off in the corner, and the voice coming from aisle three that kept repeating, “But he loves me. I can’t leave him.”

I ate as I drove home, wondering how it was that I was queer enough to pick out an avocado wrap, but not queer enough to get cruised at a gay bar. It could’ve been my badge that they were avoiding, sure. But I think the idea of laying a cop gets a lot of guys off. And besides, plenty of ’em were drooling over Marks, not that I blame them. I took a bite of the wrap and mayonnaise squirted out the end and dribbled down my lapel. I steered with my knee while I tried to wipe it off, but only succeeded in getting mayo all over my hand. Maybe it was my wardrobe that was the problem. Not that I had any intention of doing anything about it in the near future, since I think shopping’s about as much fun as going to the dentist.

I finished the wrap before I got home and spent an extra minute trying to get mayo off my sportcoat. I gave up when it became obvious that all I’d accomplished was embedding rolled-up fragments of cheap paper napkin all over myself. I realized that I’d dropped my other coat off at the dry cleaner’s about four months prior. And I wondered if they would give the thing to me without the pickup slip, or if they’d foisted it off on Goodwill by now.

To top things off, the ghost of Jackie the Loudmouthed Prostitute had ranged up from her normal turf about two blocks south to tell me, yet again, about the john who’d shanked her. If I’d known about Jackie, I might have picked a different apartment. But she hadn’t made her first nocturnal appearance until I’d completed my week long stake-out and written a check for the security deposit. Sometimes I thought about moving, but I reminded myself that she only harassed me a couple of times a month. The spirits around my old place had managed to waylay me every single week.

“So I said, ‘You got a place, baby?’ And he said, ‘Come on over here, sugar, no one can see us back in this here alley.’”

Though they were infrequent, her tirades tended to get on my very last nerve. “Go find someone who gives a shit,” I said, pushing open the gate to my walkway.

“Are you disrespecting me?” I felt a small chill, like Jackie might be gearing up for a temper tantrum, but it was weak enough that I was able to blow it off. “You hear me, white boy? I said, are you disrespecting me?”

There’s a technique Camp Hell taught people like me—spirit mediums, to use the technical term—for when we were done talking. We’re supposed to surround the entity with a bubble of light, white on the inside to draw them toward the light, and blue on the outside, to protect us from any potential malevolence. I thought real hard about putting one of those bubbles around Jackie. I formed it in my mind and I pushed until my ears popped, imagining my power coursing out to surround her and get her the fuck away from me.

But that was apparently all in my head. 

“No one talks to Jackie that way,” her voice continued. “You know what I’m sayin’? White boy—do you know what I’m sayin’?”

“Talk to the hand,” I said, and waved her off as I went into my vestibule. She’d never yet followed me into the building. I think it might’ve been too far away from the spot where she’d died. At least, I hoped it was.

About a foot of free newspapers and sales fliers were piled up on the floor. They’d drifted back against the security door, preventing it from shutting completely. One of these days I was going to fling all that crap out onto the lawn. But not while I was covered in mayonnaise and had a pissed off hooker ghost railing at me from the courtyard.

I stuck my mail key into the bank of mailboxes on the wall, wiggled it to get it to that precise depth where it would turn, and opened my mailbox. Sales fliers slipped out and I let them join the rest of the paper on the floor. I studied what was left. A phone bill. A free sample of shampoo and conditioner all in one.

The outer door swung open, startling me, and I half-turned as a bulky figure pressed me into the open mailbox. “You know how hot you look when you talk to yourself in coffee shops?” Marks said. The cellophane-wrapped plastic packet of shampoo crinkled between us while he leaned in for a kiss. The after-work stubble around his goatee scraped my cheek, and he tasted like cinnamon gum.

I pulled back from the kiss, though, wanting to make sure that I had things straight. “You’re not pissed off that you got stuck with me for this case?”

Marks tilted his head. His features were harsh in the yellow buglight. “I’ve got two Psychs on my team. Why should I be pissed?” He leaned forward again and his lips were softer on mine, gently caressing my mouth and parting my lips for a slow, tender sweep of his tongue. My knees went all rubbery.

Evidently, he wasn’t worried about us getting caught fraternizing—and if he wasn’t concerned, then I sure wasn’t gonna make a stink. I’d always thought that rules were just for people who tended to get caught.

“Look,” I said when he let me come up for air. I was just about to tell him that I could hear Jackie screaming about her no-good pimp and it was a total buzzkill, but I decided it would be better to take the paranormal things slowly since my talents were probably much freakier than Carolyn’s. “Let’s go upstairs.”

We sprinted up to the third floor like we hadn’t just spent ten hours combing for witnesses. I had my key in my hand, poised at lock-level, when I rounded the top of my stairs and saw that some long-haired woman was slumped against my front door. I was fairly sure she was alive, too.

The girl sniffled. Marks stopped behind me on the second stair to the top. I stared at her and tried to place her, and then recognized the oxford-blue blouse that had once been hidden by an ill-fitting suitcoat. “Gutierrez?” I said.

She peered at me through the zig-zag waves of her unbraided hair.

I tried to act like it wasn’t all that unusual to find someone sprawled at my front door. “Marks, this is my partner, Lisa Gutierrez.”

Marks stepped up beside me and peered down at her. Gutierrez made no move to stand. She seemed kind of distant. I wondered if she’d been drinking. Or maybe if she’d slit her wrists and I just couldn’t see the puddle of blood due the lousy hall lighting.

She squinted at me and then nodded, as if she’d only just placed me. “Good, you’re here. Ask me a question.”

“Huh?”

“Just ask me,” she said. She seemed to have a Spanish accent that I hadn’t noticed before. “Something with a yes or no answer.”

I shook my head. “What, trivia?”

“Anything,” she said, drawing the word long and pronouncing the end like “theeng.”

“Am I married?” Marks asked.

Gutierrez swung her head around to peer at him. Her brow furrowed. I waited for steam to come out of her ears. “I don’ know. Ask something else.”

Marks glanced at me and raised his eyebrow. I shrugged. “Am I Jewish?” he said.

Gutierrez thought hard, and then nodded with a satisfied smile. “I don’ know.”

Marks pulled a pen light out of his suitcoat, crouched down in front of Gutierrez and shined the beam in her face. “She’s the one with the gift they just discovered, right?”

I nodded.

Gutierrez just sat there while Marks looked her over. “You give her any of your Auracel?”

“What, are you crazy? That’s way too strong for someone without any tolerance.” And then I took in her wooziness and her general ennui and I had to wonder. Where would she get ahold of something so tightly controlled—something for which I just happened to have a prescription? And then I remembered. The pill in my glove box.

Good thing it was only a halfsie or we’d probably be on our way to the emergency room.

I reached over Gutierrez’ head to unlock my front door with the goal of getting Gutierrez inside and getting rid of Marks. “I can…uh…take it from here,” I said.

Marks looked at me like I was nuts. “What, you just remembered you’re not single or something? I thought you invited me up two minutes ago.” He’d started helping Gutierrez to her feet as if caring for a massively stoned partner was all in a day’s work.

“I hadn’t planned on….” I gestured toward Lisa.

Marks managed to support Gutierrez with one arm and reach over me to push open my front door with the other. “But you know what to do, right? There’s some kind of hangover cure for anti-psyactives, isn’t there?”

“No,” I said, mostly to myself. “Not really.”

I hurried inside before them to flip on the light and made sure there wasn’t a kitchen stool in the middle of the floor waiting for someone to trip over it. Marks looked around as he pulled Lisa inside. “Postmodern Institutional. Nice.”

I bristled at the “institutional” remark, and did my best not to have a Camp Hell flashback. I supposed Marks thought he was being witty. Just because he was turning out to be a Psych groupie didn’t mean that a psychic had ever told him a Heliotrope story. Most of us did our best to forget them. 

“Put her on the futon,” I said, figuring I could just buy another plain canvas cover if Lisa ended up puking on it. Marks steered her into the living room. I ran the tap until the water was as cold as it was going to get and then looked in the freezer for some ice. Both ice cube trays were empty. I wondered why I’d just left them there like that.

“Vic,” Lisa said as she saw me come through the living room door. “You gotta do something for me.” Marks sat beside her on the couch, relaxed, but keeping an eye on her.

I handed her the glass of water and some slopped onto her knee. “I’ll try.”

She leaned forward and more water dribbled onto the hardwood floor. “Tell my Papa I’m a good cop.”

“I’m sure he thinks so,” I said. “Parents are always proud when their kids make the force.”

She shook her head, but the remainder of the water stayed in the glass. “Crackhead shot him down when I was seventeen. He don’t know.”

“He was a cop?” Marks asked.

Lisa nodded. “Twenty-three years.”

I closed my eyes and tried to figure out how to sound genuine without being too truthful. Because chances were that Gutierrez’ father was walking around in an outdated uniform complaining about the sonofabitch who’d shot him and reliving it down to the last freaking detail. Murders just are that way.

“They didn’t have PsyCops then,” Lisa said. “Not out west.” She stared at me through her hair and it disturbed me, seeing her like that, her control stripped away by the drug. “He thought I wouldn’t be nothing better than a fortune teller like my abuelita.”

Marks was listening intently. He’d followed me home to have a good time, and he was getting it—just not in the form he’d expected. “What’s your talent, Lisa?”

She clutched the water glass hard and turned her face toward him. “My sister and me call it sí-no.”

“Sí-no.”

“The yes-no game. We played it all the time. Will it rain tomorrow? Yes. Is Mama making chicken tonight? No. Will I like my new teacher? Yes.”

“Limited precog,” I said.

“Maybe not so limited,” said Marks. “I’ll bet she can work some pretty big questions into the sí-no.”

“And her psych tests,” I said. “That’s how she managed to come out completely average. She knew that anything consistently above or below would have filtered her into the positive or negative psychic tiers, so she got half the questions right, half wrong, on purpose. Maybe you’re right. Maybe her gift is incredibly accurate.”

Marks eyed her greedily. “Can you imagine what she’d do with some training?”

I closed my eyes and remembered the night at Camp Hell when the doctors in surgical masks blew my synapses wide with a powerful psyactive. They’d left me strapped to a gurney for three days until I stopped twitching. “Training’s a very personal thing,” I said, doing my best to keep my voice even.

“My Papa’d want me to be a real cop.”

I supposed I could’ve taken offense at the implication that I wasn’t one, but maybe I secretly agreed with her. “Don’t worry about that now,” I said. “Get some sleep.” I stood up to scrounge a blanket off my own bed while Marks managed to open out the futon with Lisa still on it.

Once we’d gotten her settled, Marks headed toward my bedroom. I followed him and paused in the doorway, watching him loosen his tie. “I don’t think you should stay,” I whispered.

“Why not?”

I glanced back toward the living room. “I’m not, um. Y’know.”

“What?”

I crossed my arms and sighed, and hated that he was going to make me say it. “Out.”

He smirked. “Not to anyone? You don’t strike me as a virgin.”

“Don’t be stupid. You’re a cop, too.”

Marks eased over to me a hell of a lot more gracefully than someone his size had the right to. “I don’t show up at the squad house in a pink tutu, no. But my family? My friends? My partner? I’m not gonna waste my time and energy playing games with them.”

I looked back at Lisa, wondering if she was asleep or just zoning out with her eyes shut. “I only met her a couple of days ago,” I said in my own lame defense. That was my excuse for not telling my partner. Family and friends? That was simple. I didn’t have any.

Marks pulled a business card from the breast pocket of his suitcoat and tucked it down the collar of my shirt. He pressed his lips against my ear and spoke softly, his voice a low buzz. “Call me on my cell if you need anything.” His tongue traced the outline of my ear and then darted inside to draw a long shiver out of me. “Anything.”

I stared at the kitchen doorway long after Marks was gone.

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