Chest of Bone
The word “former” sucks. Former friend. Former lover. Former astronaut. Former anything implies that the past was better than the now.
I don’t believe that. All you have is now, and maybe a few tomorrows… if you’re lucky.
Destined for the Feed and Seed, I turned from pondering “big thoughts” and flicked on my audiobook as my Tahoe sped down Route 202 in Midborough. Stark and lonely in its winter cloak, the road was lined with snow-dusted pines, frozen marsh, and the occasional house. As I crested the rise of the small hill, something down below prowled onto the pavement. And sat. In the middle of the road. I pressed the brake on the downslope, slowed the truck.
I squinted into the bright morning sun. What the hell?
A huge black cat sat smack on the double yellow line where the road leveled off. Black cats were bad luck.
And this black cat was the size of a Harley. It was beyond bad luck. It was scary as shit. It also made me question my sanity.
I’d been doing that a lot lately, the sanity thing, I mean.
From twenty feet away, the cat lunged, a blur, landing inches from my bumper.
I jerked the wheel, careened off the road toward the snowy pines to avoid hitting the humongous black panther that shouldn’t exist in any reality, no less New Hampshire’s. I flung my sanity worries aside. If I crashed into the fast approaching pine tree, the point would be moot.
Splatting into a tree… I’d never show Dave my pink-tipped blond spikes… never watch his new mentalism effect…never read that book he’d promised me… never again see him. My mentor was “off,” something bad going on with him. If the meeting of tree and me happened, I’d never…
My Tahoe bounced, tipped sideways, and went airborne. The landing thud shook my bones. I slammed the gas, yanked right, avoided an alder stand. And that ginormous pine, looming closer and closer and…
I white-knuckled the steering wheel and braced for impact.
Savage anguish lanced through me, a sadist rearranging my atoms. Razors slicing my skin over and over.
No. No. No. Not now… not…
Blind. Blind. Blind. Can’t see, can’t hear, can’t think.
Tried to mantra my way to sanity.
Yeah, well, that didn’t work.
Being an FBI interrogator sometimes sucked. Being an empath sometimes sucked worse.
Frost iced my skull, my face, my mind, my body.
I blacked out.
* * *
I awakened. My head rested on my hands, which curled around the steering wheel. I blinked twice. Vision, check. Fingers and toes, check. Torso and legs, check. Brain, whatever.
The world refocused, a lens iris expanding. The truck sat in the middle of a frozen marsh, banded on three sides by pine, spruce and birch. I was uninjured, the truck, pristine.
I turned the ignition, and the Tahoe purred to life.
Fucking A. What the hell had just…
Screw it. I was alive. The truck was functional.
My phone read… Damn, Dave’s store had been open for an hour. I was late.
The day had grown cloudy by the time I pulled into the Midborough Feed and Seed. In the ashen light, shadows of marsh, meadow, and pine surrounded the large blue building shaped like a U, its “Blue Seal” banner snapping in the wind. No sign of any customers. Bonus. I’d have more time with Dave—mentor, my friend, and the only father figure I’d ever had. If anyone could make sense of my latest “adventure,” Dave could.
Except a Closed sign hung inside the door. And no twin mutts’ noses pressed the glass, awaiting the next exciting arrival.
A terrible wrongness leeched across my skin, coating me like boggy sludge. I jerked the car’s door handle.
You’re too impulsive. Caution. Always. My foster mother Bernadette’s words, carved on my soul.
They’d saved me more than once.
I phoned the store. The machine picked up, called Dave’s home, hoped he hadn’t had to close because of another problem with his teenage daughter, Lulu.
No joy on the home machine, either.
I slipped my Glock from its shoulder holster, slid from the truck and padded to the door. I listened, massaged my clammy skin. Silence. I pushed down the handle—locked—thumbed through my keyring, found the right one, unlocked the door. I eased it open.
Gun in my two-handed grip, barrel pointed dead ahead, I pressed my back to the wall. Inside, that oily wrongness increased. A grim ugliness pervaded the place, tendrils of it, like dirty smoke, coming from the sales counter that divided the store, maybe thirty feet away. And that smell.
Rotted geraniums and cat urine. Vile. I swallowed, hard.
If anyone hurt Dave, they were toast. I mean, seriously charcoaled briquettes. He was fine, knew how to shoot a gun, right? But how well? How good was his aim?
Someone had moved a display, blocking the aisle. I pushed my senses to feel if anyone else was here and caught a faint echo of… pain.
Crouched low, I moved to my left, up an aisle flanked by display shelves. I heard nothing, until…
A ragged whisper. Dave.
I jerked toward the sound, needed to dash. Bernadette’s wall of caution slammed into me. I moved silent and smooth down the aisle, toward the counter, toward…
Dave. His back against the counter, legs sprawled. I ran.
Stumbled to a halt, vision blurred. What…? Red? A Rorschach of red. On Dave, the floor, the back of the counter. Legs, torso, arms, face, coated in blood. Shining. Glistening.
I strangled my scream and fell to my knees beside him.
Eyes swollen shut, breathing shallow. Somewhere under all that blood, naked but for a pair of red-soaked boxers…
“Dave,” I said, tone hushed.
The man I adored smelled of death. Dozens of cuts slashed his legs, his sleeve-tattooed arms, his torso, his face. His discarded clothes lay in a bloody pile beside him. They must have stripped him before “working” him over. Oh gods. I reached for him, curled my hands. I didn’t dare.
“What happened? What can I do?” I fumbled for my phone to call 9-1-1. His bloodied fingers clawed around my wrist.
His eyes slit open, their soft violet capturing me. “No.” A whisper.
“No.” Firmer. Impossible to ignore. Blood trickled from his mouth to his scruff, beaded there.
“Fine. Locked away.” He panted for a moment.
I breathed in a sob, lifted a hand to caress his hair, the one part of him that didn’t seem injured. His pain splintered through me. “What hap—”
“No time.” He lifted my hand and pressed it to his ruined cheek. “Listen.”
A faint smile. “Listen, kid.” A wheeze. “I’m your guardian. A Guardian.”
So soft, I strained to hear. I leaned closer.
“I knew you’d come,” he said. “I waited. For you. So much still to do. Shield Lulu. Protect you. Take the chest. A… thing… of… power.” He grinned then. Always so quick with that grin. “I know, crazy, huh?”
“Yes. Crazy. Whatever you say.”
“Damn straight. The panther. She arrived in time.”
“She did.” How could he know?
And those gentle lips melted into an almost-smile. “Good. Would have taken you. Killed you, too.”
“Who, Dave?” My voice hitched. With each of his breaths, viscous blood oozed, stealing his life. “Who did this?”
A long silence, then, “The Storybook. Find it. Green cover you bit. Take it. Read…”
His lips barely moved. I leaned closer.
“Spell. Magic.” Dave’s grip on my wrist constricted.
Psychic pain crashed over me.
“Tell no one what you hunt.”
“Promise.” He gritted it out between his teeth.
“I promise.” Something shifted inside me.
With his free hand, he cupped my cheek, a tear strolling from his eye. “Love you.”
My body shook. “I love you so much.” I almost blurted the word “father,” for that’s what he was to me. Always there. Always present. I couldn’t lose him. I couldn’t. Live, Dave. Live!
His vise on my right wrist tightened. Electric current zapped up my arm, shocking me.
Pain, so bad my back bowed. As if through a glass, darkly, his sleeve tattoos moved. The Ouroboros morphing into The Dragon sliding into The Eye, then twirling, twirling, a cosmos, a galaxy, a spiral nebula that spun faster and faster, and…
Agony rocked me forward. I screamed, each molecule of my being stung by invisible wasps. Blind. Deaf. Stop. Stop. Stop!
A cooling balm washed over me, like a winter’s stream burbling over rocks, soothing my pain, again and again, until it dissolved.
I panted, pressed my free hand to the floor, steadying myself. My head was buried in his shoulder, my body flush against his. Gingerly, I pushed off him and sat back on my heels.
“I’ve unlocked it.” His hand fell away. “Good. Acknowledge and accept. You are the magic.”
My breath stuttered, my wrist burned. I rubbed it again and again, as blood seeped through my fingers. Changed.
It was changed.
I was changed.
His violet eyes dimmed, he panted, thirsty-dog breaths. “I didn’t finish. Forgive me.”
I cupped his cheeks. “There’s nothing to forgive!”
A susurrus of breath. His essence left his body, hovered, then dissipated, raindrops on a lake.
A blink of time. Now, only stillness. Utter. Infinite.
Clues. Of course, I needed to find clues. Who had done this? When? Why?
I scraped a hand through my hair, then stared at my blood-streaked fingers. I shrugged, singularly not giving a shit, then stood and stumbled, breathing deep, sampling the acrid, coppery scent of Dave’s blood. It coated my nose, flavored my tongue.
With a mechanical deliberateness, I pulled the nitrile gloves I always carried from my jacket’s inner pocket and snapped them on. I walked around the body, feet squishing in the fluids on the linoleum, to the counter. Must find why. Must find them.
I sifted through Feed and Seed papers, some dotted with blood, Dave’s blood. Huh. Had to be careful. Preserve the scene. I snorted. That ship had already sailed. The papers—invoices, bills of landing.
Behind the counter, I came up empty, walked toward the office, seeking, hunting, which is when the whining of Dave’s dogs from behind the storage room door brought me up short. He must have shut them in when he spotted the men approaching from the parking lot. Which meant he knew or recognized his killers.
Mutt and Jeff assaulted me when I opened the door to the storage room. I grabbed their collars and led them into Dave’s office, made sure to close the door, then slipped them biscuits from my pocket. I told the pair to stay. If they found Dave in his condition, they’d go nuts.
The office was trashed. Papers and broken mugs and loose kibbles strewn everywhere. File drawers open, emptied. Pens and ink and chaos. The techs would have a field day.
The techs. I hadn’t called it in.
I dialed 9-1-1 and in crisp words, detailed where I was, what I’d found, and barked they should get to Dave’s daughter, Lulu, fast.
I wet my lips. Such utter mess!
Maybe he’d hidden something beneath the kneehole of the desk. A clue that would point to his killers or the reasons they’d come a-calling. Yeah, sure, that would make sense.
I got down on hands and knees, face pressed to the desk’s edge, and felt beneath its underbelly. I groped. Nothing. Too obvious, for my clever Dave.
My fingers curled into fists, until I felt the bite of my nails, the pain of control.
After three heartbeats, I flexed them, losing balance, slapping them on the floor.
The corner of something hard rested beneath my palm. I wrapped my hand around the edge as I tipped back on my heels to stand.
I held a book. Mylar covered. Old. No jacket, but the blue cloth-covered boards were near perfect and the spine’s gilt lettering shined. The original hardcover of The Once and Future King, with a red sticky note: For Clea. And then, the joke. Always a terrible joke: What do you call a big pile of kittens? A meowntain.
I almost laughed, except my body began to shake. No. No. No. A tear dripped onto my coat sleeve.
Shit! Dave would kill me if I got tears on the book, he…
No, he wouldn’t.
As my tears came faster, my hands reflexively tightened on the book.
The brrring of the landline on the desk froze me.
Get your shit together.
The caller ID read “Lulugirl.”
Ring. Ring. Ring.
Soon, Lulugirl. Soon.
I snugged the book inside my leather jacket and left the office.
Back out front, I couldn’t look at him. I mean, if I didn’t look, he wasn’t dead, right? Except the place was so absent of sound. Of life. I allowed my eyes to seek Dave.
So still. So quiet. Dave defined energy, life.
Silence was never so deafening.
I walked over to the remains. The corpse. The non-Dave. Crap, I’d made a mess of the scene. I crouched down. Dave’s blood covered me, crusted my face, my boots, my jacket. I scraped my hands across a couple clean spots on my jeans, then reached for my phone, tapped out every word Dave had uttered and emailed the note to myself. Done, I photographed the remains, each slash of cruelty, and took closeups of a couple. How bizarre. Almost as if his skin had split apart from the inside.
And then, I sat on the floor beside my mentor’s body, held his stilled hand, and waited for the troops to arrive.
I had no memory of my parents. Not the brush of a hand, a cuddle, a scent. No pictures, no tokens, no tales. Just a void.
A family fostered me until they passed me off to Bernadette and her grandson, Tommy, who was four. So was I, and we were best friends from then on. That was when I met Dave.
He must have been in his twenties when he took me on as a “project.” I never knew why. He was a merry man, tall, and sapling thin. His tattoos fascinated me, and he’d laugh, making up stories about each one to entertain a kid starved for affection. He read to me for hours. And I could still feel our quiet joy as we hiked the forests and rock hills of New Hampshire.
I brushed a finger across that hand that had held mine so often.
“You’re the world’s most stubborn do-gooder.” I sniffled. “Study your math. Stand up straight. Yes, you are taking ballet.”
We had pure fun when we practiced magic tricks and mentalist reveals.
I squeezed his bloody shoulders. “You brought out the empath in me. Remember how you insisted we first practice on animals? Did I tell you I thought it was really dumb? Pretty sure I did. And people! Oof. Strangers were okay, friends were embarrassing, but the crowds, they were the toughest.”
What are they feeling? you’d ask. Are they angry? Sad? Lonely? Joyful?
“You made me open my senses, to feel what others feel, the obvious and the secret. Except, dammit, I feel too much. We weren’t done!”
A giggle, then a sob.
“You said it mattered. I should have listened better.”
Now what am I supposed to do?
I sat back on my heels and smiled, slow and mean. “I’ll catch your killer, Dave. And when I do, I’m gonna skewer him, barbecue him, and feed his entrails to the crows. Yeah, all right, pretty yuck. But I’ll get him. First, though, I’m going to go find that kid of yours.”
The troops poured in and, per procedure, I was interviewed ad nauseam. I’d put on my FBI persona, which managed to get me through until eyes bored into the back of my skull. I split my focus enough to unfurl my senses. Yeah, a lot of people were surreptitiously watching me, but this was different. One guy’s interest was so centered, prickles danced along my skin. As if I were a threat? No, not quite right.
Given my emotionally jagged state, getting a clear read on the watcher was proving problematic. I massaged my still-achy wrist, a physical prompt to aid my concentration, then fine-tuned my senses and lasered my probe.
And gasped, stunned by a mind singular and unique—fierce, calculating, savage in intensity. Other.
A blaze of protectiveness burned me, with low notes of compassion, and higher ones of quarry. Was I the prey?
At which point, a detective’s ceaseless questions intruded, going on and on and on. Finally, a state trooper interrupted the man. I pivoted just a hair to eyeball the room.
Gotcha. In a corner perfect for observing the scene, a large man in dark clothes, a shock of raven hair, bronze skinned. If he moved from the shadow, I would see him more clearly. And what was with that strange, almost unnatural vibe?
My watcher’s eyes met mine—a flash of blue, a tongue of heat—before he pushed away from the wall, headed in my direction. I mumbled, “Be right back,” to the detective and went to meet him. Moments later, the stranger and I faced each other, mere inches separating us. He towered over me, a mountain of a man who dwarfed my petite frame.
Everything receded, the noise, the smells, the emotional chaos. His face was a blur. All I saw, all I felt was the burn from eyes as blue as the Pacific Ocean, and as turbulent.
He cocked his head, confusion darkening those eyes.
An awakening inside me, where memories distant and terrible hid. My yearning reached for that, which was other in him, a harmonic resonance that sang a song I’d once intimately known, yet had long ago forgotten. Like electrons orbiting the same nucleus, we circled the source where that arcane otherness lived inside him. Inside me.
The melodic harmony intensified, my song rising in pitch, while his lowered, dancing wisps of melody, complementing, blending, to fulfill that perfect refrain.
The blue of his eyes became a sea as tears blurred my vision, the song’s beauty devastating.
He gasped. Or maybe it was me.
“Agent Reese,” a voice said.
I raised my hand to touch, to hold that song.
“Agent Reese!” repeated the voice.
I staggered, reluctantly turned my head at the sharp command.
Several feet away, the detective stared at me, frowning. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” I whispered.
I turned back once, just to confirm what my senses had screamed. The stranger was gone. So odd. I couldn’t even describe his face.
“Sorry,” I said to the detective when I reached him. “Where were we again?”
By the time the police released me, my watcher hadn’t rematerialized, but pale echoes of the song stayed with me long after I left the Feed and Seed. I headed out to find Lulu when I caught my reflection in the rearview mirror. Blood all over me, crusted and drying. Crap. I dashed home, set The Once and Future King on my dresser, washed the blood off the Mylar, then showered and changed into jeans, a turtleneck, and a vest of my own knitting. I massaged my aching wrist. Thankfully, no damage.
Lucky me, Bernadette was at her weekly Wild Spaces meeting, and I peered out at a drab-gray afternoon sky, determined to get to Lulu fast. I collected my throwing knives, strapped them on, and slipped my small Bowie into its boot slot.
I shrugged into my barn coat, bent on doing a quick check on the animals, my basset Grace trotting behind me.
Frigging magic and chests? What was all Dave’s woo-woo talk about? Was he hallucinating? Except Dave knew about the panther, as if he’d sent it to delay me, to save me. And that thing with my wrist felt real, too. I rubbed it. Let go. You could just tell when something was becoming a thing.
I stumbled—Dave Cochran, my protector, my mentor, my best friend. Truly gone. I caught myself and reached for the doorknob.
Bernadette materialized behind me, so fast, the pearl-handled derringer holstered at her waist flapped. It might not be loaded, but it packed a nasty wallop if she hugged me the wrong way.
“I thought you were out.” My lips moved to tell her about Dave. I smothered the words. I couldn’t give life to them. Not yet.
Her willowy form towered over me as she thrust a cup of yogurt-and-almonds at me.
“What?” I asked. “I don’t need—”
“Eat.” She stood in her fighter stance, legs akimbo, hands on knobby hips. “You don’t get enough protein.”
Gods. She was forever shoving food at me, as if being vegetarian equaled starvation. “I’m not hungry.”
She harrumphed, slammed my yogurt onto the counter, and crossed her arms.
I picked up the cup and spoon. And here it comes, the bada-bum. There was always a bada-bum.
“Sit.” Her grayed unibrow caterpillared when she pointed at the scarred Windsor chair beside the equally scarred pine table.
I remained standing, spooning the yogurt into my mouth. “I’ve gotta go, B.”
“The captain called,” she said.
Shit. “He’s a special agent.” A hell of an FBI agent, in fact, and aware Bernadette would answer the landline. Why had he called her? I slumped into the Windsor. “I’m returning to the Bureau on Monday, Bernadette. The doc signed off on me.” I had to tell her about Dave. At some point.
She shook her head. “You’re still fragile.”
My ass. I smiled, projected comfort and reassurance. “I’m fine. And I’ll be there on Monday, B. I need to work, to use my gifts. You’ve always told me that. I feel—”
“Too much, cookie. I know.” She sat across from me and took my hand. “The captain’s worried about you. Said so.”
“Well, what the hell is he calling you for?” I stared into those knowing hazel eyes. “His worry… I don’t like it. Look, I’m twenty-eight, not twelve. I’m plenty strong enough to swim those waters. I’ve done it for years.”
She squeezed my shoulder. “Last interrogation, cookie, those waters drowned you.”
“A one-off. It won’t happen again.” I glanced at my phone. Dammit. I had to get to Lulu. Now or never. “Dave’s dead.”
She closed those wise eyes, dropped her arms to her sides. Her hands fisted. “I know.”
I enfolded her in a hug, and she hugged me back. A quick squeeze, gone in an instant. She stepped away, but I leaned in, kissed her parchment cheek. I turned and twisted the doorknob.
“Zut! There’s more!” She followed me out the door.
“It can wait,” I hollered back, my words watery with tears, as I strode to my car.
Effusive swearing in French tracked me.
A “something” pinged my mind. No, not a something. Someone. Bob. Bob? Nearby?
Was that what Dave meant by magic? No way. While Dave had honed my sensory abilities, I’d just been given a double dose of what everyone else had.
The crunch and whir of tires lacking purchase on our ice-coated drive broke the winter silence, inciting the birds to flight and my basset to howling. I scraped snow across my face, unwilling to let him see I’d been crying. Didn’t want Bob knowing what a hot mess I was.
“Told you there was more, cookie!” Bernadette said. “Now buck it up.”
Bob at the wheel. Another, too, in the car, an unfamiliar psychic scent. Feminine and strange.
An SUV crested the drive and skittered into the dooryard.
I so didn’t need this right now.
The driver’s door opened and Assistant Special Agent in Charge Bob Balfour emerged, his blue suit polished and immaculate, per usual. “Hey, Young Pup.” His warm smile added wrinkles to his fifty-something face.
I walked over for a hug. “Hey, Old Man.”
He puffed out his cheeks.
“What the hell are you doing here in New Hampshire?”
He adjusted his FBI lapel pin, grinned. “Couldn’t stay away.”
I snorted. “Yeah, like I’m buying that. You hate the country.”
His brown eyes sparked with laughter. “Old dog, new tricks?”
“Waterfront in Arizona?”
A door slammed, and a whip-thin woman in a stylish parka minced around the SUV in three-inch heels. Heels? Really? She moved to Bob’s left, all bangs-and-bunned hair and steel spine, except for her slightly askew black glasses, which annoyed me for no good reason.
She bobbed her head. “Sorry to interrupt, sir.”
Bob gestured toward me. “Not at all. Clea, this is Special Agent Katie Taka, from Washington.”
She held out her hand.
I tried to sense her, slammed against shields tighter than Bob’s, artfully slithered around them, tasted. Ouch. She’d shoved me out, but I’d felt enough. Oily vibes.
“Nice to meet you,” I said as we shook, wondering why Bob had brought her to the boonies to meet me. “Bob, I—”
A door slammed, and my foster mother stood on the porch, one hand on her hip, the other resting on the butt of her holstered derringer. No coat, no boots, she shook like an aspen.
“Clea!” Bernadette said. “Zut! Where are your manners? Bring them inside. I’ve got tea, coffee, and scones.”
I took a step toward the house. Paused. A third presence? Over by the side of the barn, in shadow. Yes, a shadow, who waited and watched. I shuttered my lids and unfurled my mind.
The wash of hatred made me stumble back. But not at me, no. Directed at Taka and Bob. Vicious.
The shadow turned, lasered on me.
Concern, pursuit, determination encased in a shell of fierce protectiveness.
I drifted back toward the barn, as if I needed to check that the doors were closed tight. A pulse within the shadow, warm, inviting—it radiated sympathy and comfort and warmth. My mind stuttered. Was this the man with the song?
Adamantium shields slammed me backward, alerted by my clumsiness. Dammit. I raced to the barn, and found empty space and churned up snow. Not even a footprint.
“Clea?” Bob’s hand on my elbow. “You all right?”
I hated when people asked me that. “Fine,” I said.
The other. He’d stood there. That instant before he’d hardened his shields, I’d sensed fury, and that he’d come for me.
I should be alarmed.
Instead, I felt kinship.
We took over the living room. Me, in my worn red-leather chair, Grace curled at my feet, Bob and Taka across from me on the hideous plaid sofa that backed against the partition to the kitchen where Bernadette bustled.
I shoved Dave’s death and finding Lulu aside, shored it up, at least until the grief breached those walls.
A relaxed Bob unbuttoned his jacket, smoothed his silver-and-brown hair, and I mentally searched for where I’d put the sticky dog brush to lift Grace’s hair from his suit. The closet, maybe? The bath? Crap.
Taka scooched forward on the sofa. “I’m fascinated that you knit while you interrogate.”
“Really,” I deadpanned. Her insincerity was blatant. Maybe, I’d put the dog brush in kitchen tool drawer. Maybe, I won’t offer it to her.
“Yes. So cozy.”
I smirked. “That’s me, cozy as Madame Defarge.”
“Who?” she asked.
Gods. “My knitting’s proven an effective tool.”
“Your name is Clea,” she said. “And yet your nickname? Another oddity. Do you like being called Sticks?”
For reals? “Years ago, my coworkers at counterintelligence thought it apt. I knit when I interrogated then, too. They didn’t find it cozy in the least. It’s spelled S-t-y-x, by the way. Like the river to Hades and death and, of course, like the knitting needles so useful as tools to disconcert perpetrators when I interrogate them. But I prefer Clea.”
Her clueless act was bullshit. And her chilly demeanor would cripple her interrogation skills. She was a bad fit for that position. So why bring her to see me? Had to be one of Bob’s frickin’ arcane agendas. My warm smile countered hers. “You’ll see it in action come Monday.”
Bob cleared his throat.
I turned to him. “What?”
“How goes life on the farm?” he asked.
“Okay, Bob, fess up. Not that I’m not glad to see you, but what’s the real deal, huh? Bernadette told me you’d called.”
A soft chuckle. “Can’t I even make pleasant chitchat first?”
“Sorry, Old Man. Of course, you can. It’s just I’ve got stuff to take care of.”
“I’m afraid you won’t be back at the Bureau on Monday.”