Criss Cross - PsyCop #2

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It was a pretty good day, for October in Chicago. The weather was warm enough that I could get away with wearing just jeans, a T-shirt, a flannel shirt, and my threadbare jean jacket. I could see my breath as we set the rowboat in the water, Maurice in his knee-high rubber boots, steadying the small aluminum boat so I could climb in. Water squished through my black Converse. Not the best shoes to wear fishing, I gathered.

But I’d never been fishing before, so how the hell would I know?

Maurice heaved himself over the side, thrust an oar into the slimy green water on the bank of the Calumet, and shoved off. And he did it with an ease that reminded me that even though he was graying, he was still in reasonably good shape.

Maurice Taylor had been my partner in the PsyCop Unit for a dozen years, and now he was retired. We’d been quintessential opposites when the force had matched us up: him, a mature black man without a lick of psychic ability, who’d inched his way up to detective with years of hard, honest police work. And me, an impulsive white kid with no friends, whose sixth sense was always tuned to eleven unless I was on an anti-psyactive drug cocktail.

Maurice was still old. And he still had his common sense, far as I could tell. Me? I wasn’t a kid anymore, but at least I’d managed to make a few friends. Other than that, I couldn’t really vouch for myself.

“Give that oar over here,” Maurice said, stretching his hand out to me. “We be goin’ in circles all day, if I let you just splash it all over the place like that.”

I didn’t argue. Maurice is more stubborn than I am. I know this.

Maurice took several deep breaths as he rowed us farther from shore. The Calumet’s current wasn’t particularly fast in the fall. It had pockets of reedy marsh along the banks that seemed like ideal places to just sit in your boat and while away the day. A train clanged by to the north of us and the scream of a siren drifted by from a stretch of elevated highway. Nature.

“Smell that fine air,” Maurice said.

I grunted. It smelled like algae and exhaust fumes to me.

Maurice pulled a few more strokes with the oars and then eased our anchor—a hunk of metal that’d been part of a barbell in another existence—over the side.

“Shouldn’t I have, uh...a lifejacket on?”

Maurice smiled and started fiddling with his rod. Or reel. Or whatever the fishing pole thing is called. “S’okay, Victor. Water ain’t but waist high.”

I glanced over the side of the boat. The water was opaque green. Hard to tell if Maurice was exaggerating.

He put the fishing pole in my hand and pulled out another. “Just set there and wait until I show you how to cast. Else you’ll tear your eye out with the hook.”

I looked down at the hook. Maurice had squished a worm onto it. A worm spirit didn’t appear and immediately start telling me about the moment of its death, so I presumed I was safe from the spirits of bugs. But then it moved and I realized it was still alive. Gross.

Maurice cast his own line with a fairly straightforward explanation of what he was doing, then exchanged it with me for the first fishing pole, which he also cast.

I stared out at the little red floaty things that marked where our hooks had sunk and waited for more instructions.

Maurice wedged his fishing pole into a groove on the floor of the boat and unzipped his duffel bag. He pulled out a thermos and a battered plastic travel mug.

“What next?” I asked him.

Maurice poured some coffee into the mug and handed it to me. The early morning sunlight filtered through the steam that curled up from the surface of the coffee, and I felt like the two of us were in a Folgers commercial. Maurice poured another cup for himself, screwed the stopper back onto the thermos, and sighed. “We wait,” he said.

I noticed he was smiling, a soft, kind of distant smile as he gazed out over the water, conveniently ignoring the beer cans and plastic shopping bags that floated around us. Retirement suited him.

We drank our coffees together in silence, and we stared at the water while I tried to control the shivering, me sitting there in wet canvas sneakers in October. It was warm for October, but not that warm. I wedged my fishing pole into the groove in the floor as I’d seen Maurice do and poured myself another coffee. I contemplated pouring out the rest of the contents of the thermos onto my freezing cold feet, but I figured it would only feel good for about a minute, and then the coffee would cool and pretty soon my feet would just be wet again. I saved the coffee for drinking, instead.

“So,” Maurice said, after he finished his coffee. “Warwick find you a new partner yet?

“Yeah, a couple days ago. Some guy. His name’s Roger Burke.”

I really couldn’t think of much to say about Detective “please, call me Roger,” Burke. He was kinda like white bread. When I was a teenager, I would have been pretty eager to get him down my throat. But now that I was looking at forty, I found him a little bland.

Don’t get me wrong, Roger was cute. He had a ready smile that he lavished on me at the drop of a hat. His thick hair was naturally blond, cut short and smart. His eyebrows and eyelashes were a darker blond, framing greenish hazel eyes.

I’d never seen him in anything less than a sport coat, but judging by the way it sat on his shoulders and buttoned smoothly over his nipped waist, I was guessing he probably exercised regularly, and was hiding a set of washboard abs under his perfectly pressed dress shirt.

It was difficult to say if he’d pitch for my team or not. Once upon a time I assumed that all the other cops except for me were straight. That was before Detective Jacob Marks cornered me in the bathroom at Maurice’s retirement party.

I was still too fixated on Jacob to really give a damn if Roger Burke slept with men, women, or inflatable farm animals, for that matter.

“What’s this Burke guy like?” Maurice asked.

I decided it would be far too gay to tell Maurice what color Roger Burke’s eyes were. And besides, Maurice wouldn’t give a shit. “He always buys the coffee. Seems decent enough. He was a detective for five years in Buffalo.”

“New York?”

“Yeah.”

“Huh.” The plastic floaty on Maurice’s line dipped beneath the water. He reeled the line in carefully but all that was on the hook was a drowned worm. He cast it back out. “What about that Mexican girl?”

“That Mexican girl” was Lisa Gutierrez. She’d been selected to be my non-psychic partner, or Stiff, after Maurice retired. Things had worked well between us, until our sergeant figured out that she was a psychic herself. She’d rigged her test scores to get the job.

“She’s in California at some place called PsyTrain. Even if she decides to come back here once she’s done, they’d never pair us up. They’d have to put her with a Stiff.”

“Too bad. Heard the two of you hit it off.”

I froze, and not just because ice crystals were forming on my sneakers. I’d been wondering if we’d have this conversation, just me, Maurice and a bunch of garbage floating around in the Calumet River. The little talk where I told him I liked men.

“We, uh.... She’s nice.”

Maurice reeled his line in a couple of turns and gazed out over the river. He didn’t say anything more. I let my breath out slowly, relieved that I’d dodged the bullet, but maybe a little disappointed, too. A few moments of really, really awkward conversation, and then he’d probably never mention it again.

Heck, according to Jacob, Maurice probably already knew. Or at least suspected. Twelve years and no girlfriend? That might be significant if we were talking about an average guy—but it was me under the microscope. For all Maurice knew, I was just too messed up to have a woman in my life. I was probably too messed up to have a man in my life too, come to think of it. But since Jacob was a big, strong man with a gun, a cop who knew how to kick ass and take names, I figured he could hold his own.

The two cups of coffee I’d just sucked down roiled around in my stomach, and I hung my head over the side of the boat and tried to talk myself out of being sick. I’d swallowed a donut in three bites on my way out the door, but it wasn’t doing a very good job of soaking anything up. Acid licked at the back of my throat and I swallowed hard.

“Don’t tell me you’re seasick,” Maurice said, his eyes still focused on the floaties a few dozen yards away as if I wasn’t turning green and gulping air.

I seized on the chance to blame my nausea on anything other than my own internal freak-out. “Maybe,” I said. “Haven’t been on a boat since I went on that horrible cruise when I turned thirty.”

I stared down at the soupy green water sloshing against the side of the rowboat, and picked out tiny round shapes that were plants, or snails, or some other mysterious bits of life in the murk.

“Just set there,” Maurice said. “It’ll pass.”

A larger pale, round shape floated beneath the murky water, probably a shopping bag, or maybe a milk jug. I tried to distract myself by imagining a homie out drinking milk with his posse and chucking the plastic bottle into the river, but I didn’t find my own humor particularly entertaining.

It bothered me, not being able to tell what the thing was, and I leaned my face closer to the water and squinted at it. I noticed there was another one, about the same size and shape but maybe a little farther down, to my right. And another to my left. My vision seemed to open up and I realized these pale shapes were all around us, like cloud formations beneath the river’s surface.

Some kind of algae, then. Or maybe even pale, sandy mounds, with the Calumet’s bottom as close as Maurice had said it was, even closer, us bobbing in a couple of feet of water where we just could have waded instead, if I were dressed appropriately.

I pushed myself up on the side of the boat as my nausea receded. I was just about to ask Maurice about his trip to Fort Lauderdale when the underwater shape surged up toward me and coalesced into a pale, dead face.

I snapped up tall and the fishing pole leapt out of my grip. I managed to grab it before it fell into the water, but maybe I should’ve just let it drop. Maybe I wouldn’t have looked like I was shaking so hard if I didn’t have a big, telltale fishing line visibly quivering between me and the water.

The water that was full of dead people.

Maurice stared at me for a beat, glanced over the side, then took the fishing pole from my hands and wedged it into the bottom of the boat. “What you see?” he said calmly.

I knew what I must look like, whites of my eyes showing all around, face paler than usual. The Look. The one that said I’d just seen something. Maurice knew The Look.

I closed my eyes and images of pallid, distended faces bobbing to the surface filled my memory. Hundreds of them, eyes open and unseeing, a landscape of them stretching to the horizon—or at least the highway.

There wouldn’t be that many there. Not in real life. It was just my own mind fucking with me.

“It bad?” Maurice said gently.

I opened my eyes and stared hard at his brown, gray-whiskered face. I took another breath. It wasn’t that bad, I told myself. I’d just seen a handful of revenants and let my imagination run wild. It wasn’t as if I’d never seen dead people before, I told myself. It wasn’t like I’d never seen a ghost.

I peeked over the side.

A face peered back at me, rubbery mouth opening and closing like it was trying to talk—but the water didn’t move and no bubbles came out. The face next to it blinked. A hand moved toward the surface of the water like a pale, bloated spider, reaching for me. And beyond it, another hand. And another beyond that.

“Jesus,” I said. I jerked myself upright and started chafing my arms. “The water’s full of them.”

Maurice reeled in his drowned worm, and my empty hook, and then the anchor. I felt him shove the oar into the riverbed and give us a push toward shore.

“Should I make some phone calls, have ‘em drag it?” Maurice asked.

“I don’t know.” Was anybody missing? Yeah, probably. But dozens of somebodies? Maybe hundreds? “I just....” I sighed and made a “whatever” gesture. “I don’t know.”

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Translations: French

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contains Among the Living (PsyCop #1) and Criss Cross (PsyCop #2)

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