A lifetime of bad experiences has left Iddy homeless and wary of shelters.
Rumors of a monster hunting the city streets at night surface, but between the cold and predators of the human variety, Iddy has more important things to worry about. That is until he comes face-to-face with the monster and survives. Now, it has him in its sights.
She was pretty in a white-bread, picket-fence way. Idal didn’t want to be creepy, but those floor-to-ceiling windows provided the frozen world below such an excellent voyeuristic view. His gaze kept drifting right back up.
If she sensed him watching, she gave no indication. He envied that. A warm, placid bubble of unguarded ignorance. Living that pretty, happy life as if she had no idea how ugly and cold the world could be.
Felt pretty damn cold down there though with nothing but a flattened cardboard box between his frozen ass and the snow.
A footstep crunched behind him. He looked back as his friend, Calaca, slipped into the small space of his cardboard shelter. The guy looked more gaunt than usual. More ragged. But the steam wafting up from a tall paper cup in those bony hands stole Iddy’s attention.
“Are you fucking stupid?” Calaca grumbled as he plunked down next to him.
Iddy’s frozen little heart fluttered. He sucked in a shivery breath through his teeth and snuggled in close against Calaca’s side. “Oh my God, that smells amazing. Can I touch it?”
Calaca scowled at Iddy through his thick emo fringe, but he handed the cup over. “Four more last night.”
That sounded ominous. Iddy would have loved to riddle it out, but his mental faculties were blocks of ice, and the heat that seeped through his threadbare gloves made everything else so much less important.
Calaca glared at Iddy for a long moment. “They found four more bodies, Iddy. All of ’em hobos like you. You should be at the shelter.”
It was sweet that Calaca cared, but Iddy had enough to worry about without adding urban legends on top of it. He hung his nose over the lid’s vent and let the steam caress the numb tip of his nose for a good couple of seconds.
“I’d rather take my chances with the mothman than lock myself in a gymnasium full of violent homophobes.” Iddy closed his eyes as he inhaled the bitter aroma. “Mm, dark roast.” He exhaled with an exaggerated moan.
Calaca let out a derisive laugh. “Fuck, just drink it.”
Iddy’s eyes popped open. He looked excitedly up at Calaca and flashed a broad, frozen-stiff grin. “Oh my God, I love you.” He took a greedy sip. It burned his tongue but felt so damn good going down, he immediately took another.
After a moment, Calaca’s stubborn grumble broke through Iddy’s coffee-flavoured haze with more doom and gloom. “It’s not ‘mothman’. Animal attacks actually happen, you know. It’s not fucking fiction.”
“I definitely heard someone say ‘mothman’.”
“And I heard someone say Chupacabra.” Calaca rolled his eyes. “Fuck, my dealer thinks he saw a UFO, and now he’s got his whole apartment block crying ‘aliens’. Take the word of crackheads and schizos with a grain of salt, you know?”
Iddy snickered. “Damn, there goes my whole news network.”
Calaca curled his lip in a frustrated sneer, and his attention drifted out to the frozen pedestrians bustling by. “Shit… Just get off the street tonight, okay?”
Iddy smiled warmly at him. “That, I can do.”
The sun dropped so fast Iddy felt its desperate descent in his bones.
He stood against the wall with his shoulders hunched up to his burning ears. His teeth chattered. Frost teased at the tips of his fingers. This cold snap wasn’t the first this bitch of a winter had thrown at the city, but it promised to be the longest. As if he didn’t already have a thousand knocks against him, it would be a miracle if he survived the season without a permanent hunchback and a few frost-blackened digits.
The clock had struck six o’clock. Pity hour where people with tables full of hot food waiting for them occasionally let their guilty consciences pry a couple of quarters from their thick wallets.
A young girl with a head full of ringlets skittered up to him. She flashed an adorable, pinched-nose smile, sans two front teeth. “Aren’t you cold?”
Iddy let out a shaky laugh. He tried to still his chattering and puffed out his chest. “Of course not. I’m Jack Frost.”
“No, you’re not!” The girl’s nose pinched tighter. “Daddy says bums are boozers. Jack Frost can’t drink—it would freeze!”
“That’s what boozecicles are for.”
The girl giggled. “Boozecicles.” Then her pinched little face turned stern as she pulled a crumpled dollar bill from her pocket. She wiggled it in the air and ordered, “No boozecicles! You need to eat!”
Iddy smiled as warmly as he could manage and tipped his knit hat. “Yes ma’am.”
“Hey!” Someone barked. A middle-aged man stormed across the road towards them. “Get the fuck away from my daughter!”
The evening rush froze still. Every pair of eyes on the street snapped to him with a wave of mass judgment and fear. He froze too, like a deer in the headlights. He wanted to run, but he knew that would validate all their ugly assumptions.
The man snatched the dollar from the little girl. He shoved his way into Iddy’s personal space to tower threateningly over him. “If you touched her, you perverted piece of shit—”
“I—I didn’t,” Iddy stammered.
The girl shrieked, “Daddy!”
Daddy grabbed Iddy by the throat with one hand and threw him roughly against the wall of a derelict bookshop. Iddy barely got out a gasp as his head banged against the brick and he collapsed to the salted sidewalk.
Iddy stayed on his hands and knees. When a splatter of thick, yellow spit hit his cheek, he flinched, but he didn’t move. Much as he desperately wanted to avoid his pants getting soaked through, he didn’t want the guy to think him getting up was a challenge. So, he waited with his head hung low as the guy grabbed the little girl and strutted off. And he kept waiting until the spectators dispersed.
When he finally picked himself up and dared a glance around, people were still watching. Most were subtle about it, but their disgust hung in the air. Their minds were made up in clenched fists and flared nostrils.
There was no way he was getting any more pity money out of that crowd. Time to find somewhere to crash anyway—every minute the temperature dropped more and more. So with a resigned sigh, he collected the bits of change from the Styrofoam bowl at his feet. Two dollars’ worth if he was lucky.
Sam Clover has been writing for over 15 years on online archives. She started out in the fanfiction community and made the leap over a decade ago into original queer fiction. She has a passion for representation, for kindness, and for encouraging new writers first putting their pen to paper.
She is a pansexual feminist with a penchant for pirates and horror, and she lives waaay up North in Alberta, Canada with her furbabies.
CEO Maine Braxton and his invaluable assistant, Colby, don’t realize they share a deep secret: they’re in love—with each other. That secret may have never come to light but for a terrifying plane crash in the Cascade Mountains that changes everything.
In a struggle for survival, they brave bears, storms, and a life-threatening flood to make it out of the wilderness alive. The proximity to death makes them realize the importance of love over propriety. Confessions emerge. Passions ignite. They escape the wilds renewed and openly in love.
When they return to civilization, though, forces are already plotting to snuff out their short-lived romance and ruin everything both have worked so hard to achieve.
Colby LaSalle never dreamed his life would end in a plane crash over the Cascade Mountains in Washington State. But here he was, whispering fevered petitions to the Lord as the plane screamed, plunging downward…faster, faster.
Out the windows, all he could see was white. And the only outcome he could imagine was that once that white cleared, the last thing he’d take in would be towering pine trees and the cold side of a mountain hurtling toward him. It was almost too horrific to comprehend.
In those few moments, as Colby braced himself in his seat, head down near his knees, he found himself thinking what a loss this was. The man across from him, his boss, Maine Braxton, would never know the most important thing about Colby. And that thing was not his proficiency as an administrative assistant, keeping Maine on track and on schedule in all his business affairs, but that Colby was passionately—and secretly—in love with him. With all his heart and soul.
That fact, and the unspoken words that hid it, seemed tragic to Colby, maybe even more tragic than the life he was about to lose. What kind of life, Colby wondered, did you really have if you’d never truly loved and been loved in return?
Colby, at twenty-eight, had never been in love before. And now it looked as though he would never have the chance to act on his desire, on that feeling that made his heart flutter whenever Maine walked by his desk. Was love like a tree falling in the forest? If the object of that love never knew of it, did it really exist?
Colby looked up for a moment, maybe to have a final look at Maine, but was distracted by the view through the cockpit window of the six-seater plane they were traveling in—a Beechcraft Bonanza. The opaque fog of white cleared for a moment, and Colby could see, to his horror, that his imagination was correct.
They were hurtling toward the side of a mountain. The view was surreal. Shock kept him from thinking it was anything other than a very vivid nightmare.
He then looked over at Maine and saw he had slid from his seat to the floor. The strong, powerful man cowered there, hands over his head. His lips moved in what Colby could only assume was silent prayer.
Colby longed to slide over, to cover Maine with his own body and shield him from the impact, but he was paralyzed, a butterfly pinned to a board, and could only add his own whispered prayers to those of his boss.
“Please, God, help us get out of this alive. Let Maine know how very much I love him. Give me that chance.”
The private pilot, a blustery, gruff man named Gus Pangborn but whom everyone just called Rooster, shouted, “We’re gonna try and go up! We’re gonna try and go up!”
Colby didn’t know if he was talking to him, Maine, or himself, but the desperation in the pilot’s gravelly voice was clear. The despair in Rooster’s words communicated one thing to Colby and one thing only—he had no hope.
Colby squeezed his eyes shut tight and placed his head back down toward his knees again, covering it with his hands, although he wondered how much good it would do once the plane crashed, once it was consumed by a giant fireball.
What Colby LaSalle didn’t realize, though, was that the plane crash would signal not the end of his life, but the beginning.
Rick R. Reed is an award-winning and bestselling author of more than fifty works of published fiction. He is a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Entertainment Weekly has described his work as “heartrending and sensitive.” Lambda Literary has called him: “A writer that doesn’t disappoint…” Find him at http://www.rickrreedreality.blogspot.com. Rick lives in Palm Springs, CA, with his husband, Bruce, and their fierce Chihuahua/Shiba Inu mix, Kodi.
Vivien Dean has had a lifetime love affair with stories. A multi-published author, her books have been EPPIE finalists, Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Nominees, and readers favorites. After spending her twenties and early thirties traveling, she has finally settled down and currently resides in northern California with her British husband and two children.
The first time Lumie had seen Goldie in the flesh was one of the oddest moments of Lumie’s life. Lumie knew Goldie. He knew that shining golden hair, rosy in the sun like the gold was touched by fire. And those big golden eyes surrounded by dark-gold lashes were something Lumie had seen in his mind’s eye for years and years. He knew the moment when Goldie would come into his life, when Dane and Mercury would rescue him, but Lumie hadn’t understood what five years of captivity with the enemy would do to Goldie. Lumie had been lucky. He had barely been a day out of his egg when Mercury had come for him. Goldie had been held captive for far too long, and it had destroyed something inside of him.
Lumie had tagged along with Mercury, his daddy, when Mercury went to check on a mother dragon that had been rescued along with Goldie. When Mercury went into the house where the mother was staying with her new eggs, Goldie had snuck out the back door.
Looking back on that moment years later, Lumie realized Goldie was shaking in utter fear, but at the time, all Lumie had seen was the boy from his waking dreams.
“Hi!” Lumie had chirped happily. Goldie, on the other hand, had let out a shriek. He had stumbled back from Lumie, holding up his hands as if warding off a blow. Mercury and Martha, an air dragon in charge of the village, had come hurrying outside, and together they had coaxed Goldie back into the house. Goldie wouldn’t look at Lumie even once as he hurried up the stairs.
The encounter had left Lumie horribly confused for years. He knew what Goldie’s eyes looked like when he was smiling at Lumie: shining and bright. He had foreseen that happiness, but only in a dream rather than real life. Lumie didn’t understand the fear he saw inside Goldie. For the next thirteen years, Lumie had visited the village at least once a week and made a point of saying hello to Goldie. Eventually, Goldie stopped screaming and running from Lumie, but his fear never vanished.
Lumie had yet to see Goldie’s smile in person.
“Which wire?” Alloy hissed. From the slightly frantic tone of his voice, Lumie realized it wasn’t the first time Alloy had spoken. Lumie took his eyes from the gleaming gold-colored plate he had pulled off the security alarm, got his thoughts back to the present, and focused on the two different wires Alloy had pulled out of the guts of the alarm.
“It doesn’t matter which wire,” Lumie replied with a shrug. “Just heat them both really fast, then cool them off suddenly. Total wire failure won’t set off that sort of alarm.”
“Don’t even think about it,” Mercury snapped from behind them. The overhead light flickered on, bringing the foyer of the house Mercury owned with Dane into focus. Mercury had bronze-colored hair that fell just below his ears, and his bronze-colored eyes were sharp as he glared at Lumie and Alloy. He was angry. Lumie looked at the alarm box they had stripped and were about to destroy, and then back at Mercury’s glaring face.
Oh, he was mad about the alarm thing.
“I was just teaching.” Lumie grumbled. He held out the gold-colored plate, and Mercury yanked it from his hands.
“A, you’re both nineteen and should know better. B, you both promised me a thesis statement for the essay you have to write and one page from your algebra workbook before bedtime. You can teach Alloy about alarm systems when you’re not supposed to be doing other things.” Mercury growled. Magic flashed through the air, and the gold plate flew back into place on the alarm. The four screws Alloy had dropped to the floor flew into their slots and twisted until they were in place. “Plus,” Mercury continued in a softer tone, “you both left fingerprints all over the alarm system. Eventually someone would have noticed your tampering, and you both would have been caught.” He pulled one sleeve down over his palm and wiped at the gold plate before reaching out to snap the outer housing with all the buttons back onto the frame.
Alloy bounded off, and Lumie reluctantly followed. He had actually finished the math, but he hated essays. It would only take ten minutes to scrape together the one-sentence thesis statement, but he didn’t want to. At all. He had taken the damn test Mercury had wanted him to. His results weren’t back yet, but he had thought he was done with school with the damned GED out of the way. Mercury having the tutor continue to pile on more homework was ridiculous.
Instead of following Alloy upstairs, Lumie headed to the kitchen. He deserved a cinnamon bomb before having to go do his work.
Dane was already in the kitchen when Lumie walked in. He was on the phone, though, so he couldn’t speak up to stop Lumie from raiding the candy basket on top of the fridge. The happiest day of Lumie’s life was the day he realized he had finally grown tall enough to get to his candy on his own. Somehow Lumie thought that might have also been Dane’s unhappiest day, but he tried not to dwell on trivialities like that. Dane was super special in the magic world. Whatever. So was Lumie. That wasn’t even arrogance talking. Dane was the son of a god and a crazy lady from across the pond. Grandma came to visit every once in a while. Lately she had started bringing along her spell books. Those were interesting to read. Lumie had nicked a few since they were so much more interesting than the books Mercury had him reading.
Lumie’s powers, on the other hand, were… Well, he didn’t really have a way to define what he could do. As far as he knew, no one could explain why his magic was so odd. He was a fire dragon, so playing with fire was his favorite pastime—he liked it even better than tormenting Dane—but sometimes he saw things he shouldn’t, he could travel in ways a fire dragon shouldn’t be able, and he generally confounded Dane with the things he could do. That was part of the fun, really, and Lumie tried not to dwell on things that weren’t fun.
With his long blond hair pulled back into a tail at the base of his skull, Dane looked severe. His blue eyes glared pointedly at Lumie, so Lumie picked up the cinnamon bomb wrapper from where he had dropped it on the counter and put it in the trash. Taking care of the wrapper now was better than Dane’s magic yanking him back into the kitchen to do it later. Plus, if Lumie left too many wrappers lying around, the basket suddenly had a dearth of cinnamon bombs for a few days. It was punishment that Lumie did not enjoy.
Dane hung up the phone before Lumie could escape.
“That was the new secretary of defense,” Dane said. He was frowning down at the screen of his phone as he spoke, but he looked up at Lumie, and Lumie couldn’t help freezing in place.
He had seen this before. Daydreamed it, really. In the kitchen with Dane looking so serious. Dane was about to tell him something that would change his life forever.
Lumie didn’t want to hear it. He didn’t want to know. He liked his life right now. He was comfortable living in Dane’s home and eating the food Daisy, their caretaker, prepared for them. Nickel, Lumie’s adoptive brother, liked living away from home in the house he shared with his boyfriend, Platinum. All Lumie liked about that was since Nickel and Platinum had moved out, he had been allowed to take their bedroom for himself. Not having to share with Chrome any longer—not living in the constant mess Chrome was unable to ever properly clean—was amazing.
“He offered you a full scholarship to the college of your choice with the caveat that you come work for one of the defense agencies under his purview,” Dane continued before Lumie could stop him. “He apparently has an issue only someone of your skills can handle and is willing to do just about anything to get you to sign on.”
“He doesn’t know I’m available to hire through your consulting firm?” Lumie asked grumpily, used to speaking clearly around the cinnamon bomb stretching out one of his cheeks. It was too late; he had already heard what Dane had to say. His life was irrevocably changed. All he could do was try to keep the things he liked best safe when the turmoil hit.
“He wants to take out the middleman,” Dane explained with a shrug. “It will probably also cost them less overall to pay for your college and provide a steady work salary than to hire you through me.”
That didn’t surprise Lumie. Dane made the government pay through the nose. It allowed him to give people with fewer means the same service at a much more affordable price.
“Lumie, this is big for you. Your grades aren’t anything to laud, and you took an extra year to finish high school. Plus, a lot of colleges might discriminate against you because you’re a dragon. They’ll think you’ll wash out within a semester and not want to put any time or effort into accepting you.”
Everything Dane was saying was true. Dragons were one of the most uneducated creatures in the world—not because they were stupid or lacked the mental capacity for it, but because they didn’t have access to education in the wild where the majority of them lived. When they did venture into human civilization, their ignorance often caused someone to get hurt. Having someone from the secretary of defense’s office step in on Lumie’s behalf meant that none of those issues would be in his way, but Lumie had never been interested in college. He had taken his GED test only because Mercury and Dane had literally dragged him across the finish line. He didn’t even know if he had actually passed it yet.
“Alloy wants to go to college,” Lumie stated. He wasn’t sure if he was voicing a complaint that they hadn’t approached Alloy instead—even though Alloy lacked the specialized skills that made Lumie so distinctive—or whether he was grumpy that they thought they could buy him so easily.
“So we ask the secretary if he can get two college entrance letters,” Dane replied with an easy shrug. “Alloy might also have to agree to a few years working with the government too.”
“But he’s always liked what Daddy does and would apply to work for the SupFeds in a heartbeat if he could,” Lumie finished.
Mercury worked as a special agent for the Federal Bureau of Supernatural Investigations, which investigated issues that stemmed from the supernatural world. Dane worked with them often in his capacity as a private contractor with his Supernatural Consulting Firm, and Alloy had always wanted to join Mercury. Again, something Lumie wasn’t interested in. He liked his independence—and his laziness, to be perfectly honest. He picked the jobs he wanted to do whenever he felt like doing them. Getting tied down with an agency would end all that freedom.
“Let me think about it,” Lumie finally said after a few moments of silence.
Dane nodded. His smile was completely understanding. “You know Mercury and I only want you to be happy. If college isn’t for you, we can probably still work something out. Let me know what you think. Don’t take too long,” he added. “I don’t think this offer is indefinite, so we need to call the secretary back by Friday afternoon.”
Lumie nodded and rushed to escape the kitchen. He went upstairs to his private bedroom and flopped facedown on the bed.
It was too good an opportunity to pass up. College would suck, but it would make Mercury so happy. Afterward Lumie was guaranteed to have a good job where he could use his special skills to their fullest. It really was an amazing opportunity, but it meant the end of his simple and easy life.
And there was also Alloy to think about. Alloy, who was running down the very long driveway—over two miles long—every afternoon to check the mailbox to see whether his GED scores had arrived. As soon as he had his official letter, he was going to start applying to colleges. How would Lumie feel every time Alloy got a rejection letter from a school, and Lumie knew he could have saved Alloy from that pain?
Lumie snorted in disgust at himself. Was throwing away his freedom worth it for Alloy’s happiness? Probably, damn it, but it wasn’t fair.
He threw his body off his bed and twisted his magic around him in a way no other dragon could. His bedroom vanished from view, and he reappeared just outside a small town. The nearest house was just across the street. Lumie quickly rounded the building to get to the backyard.
The flash of golden hair in the sunlight caught Lumie’s attention first, and he eagerly hurried forward to Goldie’s side. Goldie wouldn’t have the answer Lumie wanted, but just being by his side for a few minutes helped soothe his roiling thoughts.
When Mell Eight was in high school, she discovered dragons. Beautiful, wondrous creatures that took her on epic adventures both to faraway lands and on journeys of the heart. Mell wanted to create dragons of her own, so she put pen to paper. Mell Eight is now known for her own soaring dragons, as well as for other wonderful characters dancing across the pages of her books. While she mostly writes paranormal or fantasy stories, she has been seen exploring the real world once or twice.
Blurb Bad things happen when supos go unchecked. That’s why Abarra needs The Ministry: to keep tabs on royals with powers run amok. Queen Maialen has entrusted the safety of her subjects to her nephew, Prince Xabier, placing the agency in his capable hands.
Only, the Prince would rather spend his days putting his own power to good use in the vineyards than to wither away on the bureaucratic vine. Tired of policing perpetrators and babysitting bean-counters, he schemes to groom his first lieutenant (and second cousin) the Duke of Shrubs. After months spent moving chess pieces, he is poised to convince the Queen to assign his cousin to his post.
But an unlikely pawn still stands in his way: the sexy Zain Otxoa is the pushiest pencil-pusher in all of The Ministry and head of internal affairs. Prince Xabier has plotted to have him fired at least thrice. Zain’s influence over the Queen—his only saving grace—is baffling.
When a master maneuver to have Zain reassigned exposes a shocking imbroglio, Prince Xabier learns The Ministry isn’t what it seems. And Zain isn’t a pawn at all.
A dead intruder. A missing scientist. A terrified child.
No one wants a dramatic case first thing on a Monday morning, but that’s exactly what Detective Inspector Jacob Ofori got. It should be open and shut, but scientist Tom Sanders is nowhere to be found, a dead man seems to have appeared from thin air, and the Temporal Research Institute—Sanders’s company—is strangely uncooperative about assisting with the case.
Jacob’s only source is TRI engineer, Kit Rafferty. He clearly wants to help, but there’s only so much the man can and will tell him. As more and more impossible questions mount up, Jacob finds himself facing a reality that could change his world.
The postman was the first on the scene. He’d arrived early in the morning to make a delivery to the house in question and found the front door wedged open. No one answered when he rang the bell, so he called the police. The two constables arrived to investigate, and they were the ones who found the body.
It escalated after that.
Not even noon, Jacob thought grimly. Hell of a way to start a Monday.
His autopod shuttled along, arcing off from the main highway. As much as he missed manual controls of old-fashioned cars and early autocars, he appreciated the driverless function of the pod because it gave him time to skim through the images from the crime scene en route.
He wouldn’t get a feel for the scene until he got there, but the images let him know what he was about to walk into. There were signs of a struggle in the room where the body was found, and plenty of blood, but the rest of the house seemed undisturbed.
“Control to Delta Seven. ETA to destination?”
Jacob leaned forward and cleared the images from the display on the windscreen, bringing up his location on the map. Beyond it, he could see the country roads through the glass.
“ETA fifteen minutes, Control,” he replied, then muttered under his breath, “Into the backside of nowhere.”
It was half an hour beyond the miles of sprawling suburbs of the city in the middle of green fields and close to a forest. The nearest amenities had to be at least four miles from the building. He shook his head. What kind of person chose to live all the way out there anymore? It wasn’t as if there were a shortage of housing in the city.
A chime indicated another image had been received.
Jacob opened it up and leaned forward, frowning.
A door, barely visible, blended into the pattern of the wall. No handle, no visible hinges.
“You seeing this, sir?” Constable Foley’s voice rang through the speaker.
“I am indeed, Foley,” he said, widening the image. “Is that a safe room?”
“Looks that way, sir,” the constable replied. “The dust in front of it suggests a box was moved and recently. Looks like someone might be in there.”
Smart girl, Jacob thought with approval.
“Not yet, sir, but if they were attacked—”
“They might not be capable of replying,” Jacob finished. “Keep trying.” He minimised the image and looked out through the windscreen. “I have visual on you, Foley. Be with you soon.”
Ahead of him, the house was visible between the trees. The red brick structure had to be at least two centuries old, but even from a distance, the modern touches were obvious. The windows were thick and secure. The roof had been replaced with faux slate.
The autopod purred to a halt beside the four other vehicles lining the gravel courtyard, and the door slid aside. Jacob stepped out and glanced at the other vehicles. He recognised the coroner’s transport pod, and the standard blue-and-white- patterned squad pod, but the other two were probably the homeowner’s.
Foley opened the front door to greet him.
Half his age, she hadn’t been with the force long enough to be as jaded as him yet. She smiled in greeting. “Morning, sir.”
He winced. “Say afternoon. It makes it a little more bearable.”
She laughed. “You want a summary, sir?”
“I read up on it on the way over. Any word on the owner?”
“Thomas Sanders,” Foley said, leading him toward the house. “Forty-eight. Widower with one young son. He’s a well-reputed scientist and engineer. High up in some kind of historical and scientific research program in the city, the Temporal Research Institution.”
“Have you been able to make contact with him?”
Foley shook her head, her sandy ponytail swinging. She offered him overalls to cover his suit. “We’ve tried his business and private numbers. His colleagues said he’s been on a leave of absence for health reasons for several weeks. Our best bet is the safe room.”
“Any sign of the son?”
“We assume he’s with his father,” Foley replied.
“Do we have an ID for the body yet?”
She hesitated in the hallway. “That’s the strange thing, sir. We can’t find anything on him. His prints aren’t in the system. No DNA trace either. We still need to run facial recognition, but so far, we’ve got nothing.”
“That’s not unusual.”
Foley looked at him. “There’s something off about it all. I’ll show you.”
The house was spacious inside. The lower level was split into four rooms, all branching off from a wide, sunlit hall. Foley led him down the hall and to one of the rooms at the back, her covered boots thumping on the wooden floors.
Jacob stopped in the doorway, taking a moment, then stepped across the threshold. The crime scene team was still at work.
The room appeared to be some kind of laboratory with workbenches running along one wall. Another wall was covered in old-fashioned whiteboards with all kinds of incomprehensible text and codes marked on them in half a dozen colours. Jacob studied all of it for a moment, but whatever Sanders was working on, it was far beyond Jacob’s barely adequate physics A level.
There were little machines here and there, suspended from the boards by wires. Spools of wire and gears were scattered across the floor. Several boxes had been upended from shelves and lay on their sides.
In the middle of it all, the body lay face down on the floor, a bloodied hammer close at hand.
Danni Michaels was working on the body and glanced up with a nod. “Sir.”
“Cause of death?” Jacob said, keeping his eyes off the dead man’s face.
“Looks like blunt force trauma,” Danni replied, nudging her magnifying glasses up her nose with her knuckles. “I don’t think it’s a wild guess to say the weapon was that hammer. It was a single blow, landed here.”
Jacob gritted his teeth and looked. The left side of the man’s forehead was ruptured. His eyes were open, and he had an expression of surprise on his rigid, bloody face. He was young. Maybe thirties. Dark-haired. His eyes were dark, the pupils flared wide open, but death sometimes did that. Blood had spread in a wide, sticky pool around his body. Jacob swallowed down the familiar rising acid.
Christ, he hated the messy ones.
He glanced around the room.
A pair of slippers, several steps away from the blood pool, had left bloody prints on the polished floor. The owner must have kicked them off, and they’d ended up at least three feet from each other. Not good shoes for running, slippers. If he—men’s slippers, size nine approximately—had already knocked down the man on the floor, then there had to be another assailant whom he was running from.
“Any sign of this man’s accomplice?”
“Accomplice?” Foley asked.
Jacob gestured to the slippers. It was easier than looking at the body. “You don’t try and run from an unconscious, nearly dead man. There was someone else here.”
“We haven’t seen any sign of anyone else,” Foley replied. “Sorry, sir. I didn’t even notice that.”
He offered her a brief smile. “That’s why I’m a DI, Foley.” He motioned to the body. “You said there was something off?”
Foley nodded, crouching by the body. “Take a look at his right eye.”
Jacob went down beside her, propping his forearms on his knees. It took him a moment, but then he saw what she was pointing out: The pupil wasn’t blown. There was no iris at all.
“What the hell…” He leaned closer. “Michaels, can I borrow your magnifiers?”
She handed them over and obligingly shone the torch over the man’s eyes. “Clever, isn’t it?”
Jacob peered down and frowned. “A synthetic bionic eyeball? Is that even possible?”
Michaels shook her head. “I’ve heard of people developing them, but I’ve never heard of any successful trials.” She squatted by the body and grinned. “I can’t wait to get it out and see what it’s made of.”
“And there’s one of those images I didn’t need,” Jacob murmured, peering through the magnifier again. The pupil seemed to be a focusing lens. High-quality, high-end technology. “Foley, have you checked anywhere that might carry tech this advanced?”
“We’re putting together a list,” she said. “But from what we’re hearing back, this is off the charts, sir. No one has heard of technology like this before, or if they have, they’re not telling us about it.”
He straightened up. “You said this Sanders was a scientist?”
“Doctor in physics and engineering,” she confirmed.
“Could he have made something like this?”
She hesitated. “From all accounts, he didn’t deal in human biology or bio-artificing.”
“Doesn’t mean he couldn’t.” Jacob ran a hand over his face. “Well, if we can’t find this man by standard identification, maybe we can find him by the eye he doesn’t have. Danni, we need all the information you can get us as soon as possible.”
“Sir,” Danni said at once.
Jacob turned to Foley. “Where’s Singh?”
“Still trying to get into the safe room.” She jerked her head. “This way.”
The safe room was up the stairs in what appeared to be a playroom. Windows lined one of the walls, the others covered in posters and drawings. Kids’ toys and games were scattered all over the place. Singh was working his way along the one blank wall with a scanner.
Jacob took in the mess. “You said Sanders has a son?”
“Ben,” Foley confirmed.
Foley looked at him in surprise. “Seven and a half. Is this another one of those detective things?”
Jacob chuckled. “This time, it’s one of those dad things.”
Singh glanced over his shoulder at them, sighing in frustration. “Foley, I know you said to scan for a high intensity of fingerprints on the wall, but this whole wall is fingerprints.” He nodded at Jacob. “Afternoon, sir.”
“Singh.” Jacob approached, studying the wall. “It’s very smoothly done, isn’t it?” He rubbed his short beard thoughtfully with his fingertips. “No visible buttons or latches anywhere?”
“None we could find,” Foley said. “I thought it might be a pressure-point system, but seems not. We requested an expert, but they’ve been delayed.”
“I think we need to un-delay them,” Jacob said, touching his earbud to activate it. “If Sanders is wounded and inside there, we need to get him out. If not, we need confirmation, because this could be an abduction.”
While they waited, Jacob had gone down to the laboratory to take another look at the whiteboards. He didn’t see what it had to do with Sanders’s work at the Temporal Research Institution. A quick search suggested the institution specialised in identifying historical discrepancies and confirming historical events. It could be something to do with locating old records and creating algorithms, he supposed. You would need a specialised engineer to do that.
Jacob turned. “Foley?”
“The smith is here. I thought you might want to be present if he can open the door.”
They headed back up the stairs to the playroom. The body had been removed in the hour before the locksmith arrived, the crime scene unit now working their way out from the house across the grounds, searching for trace evidence of the intruders.
The locksmith was already working on the wall with a scanning device.
“Apparently,” Singh said, joining them, “all safe room doors come installed with a registration chip, in case the mechanism needs to be deactivated in an emergency.”
“Not unlike this,” Jacob observed. “Useful.”
The locksmith glanced over. “It’s a recent make. Give me two minutes.”
In the end, he took less than thirty seconds, and the door swung outward.
Inside, there was a room big enough for a family, but only one person was there. A small tawny-haired boy shrank back into the corner of the room, his arms wrapped around his legs, his face bone-white.
Jacob motioned for the smith and the two constables to back off, and crouched a couple of feet away from the door.
“Hey,” he murmured.
The boy was shivering, and tears rolled down his face from swollen, red-rimmed eyes.
Jacob took out his badge, laid it on the floor, and slid it across to the boy. “It’s okay. I’m a policeman. My name’s Jacob.” He watched as the boy tentatively leaned forward and looked at the badge. “Are you Ben?”
The boy nodded. “Where’s my dad?” His voice shook as much as he was.
“We’re trying to find him now.” Jacob offered a hand. “Do you want to come out? You don’t need to stay in there.”
“Dad told me to stay here.” Ben wrapped his arms tighter around his legs. “He told me to, until he came to get me.”
“I know.” Jacob knelt and sat back on his heels. “We want him to come and get you, too, Ben, but right now, I think he’d want you to be safe, don’t you? How about we keep you safe?”
Jacob nodded. “Promise.”
Ben got unsteadily to his feet. His trousers were sodden, and there was vomit on the front of his shirt. The poor kid must have been terrified. Jacob knelt up, offering both his hands, and Ben’s icy fingers wrapped around his.
“There you go,” Jacob said as gently as he could, drawing Ben back out. “You’re safe now.”
The little boy gave a sob and stumbled forward and wrapped his arms around Jacob’s neck, clinging to him. Jacob scooped him up and rose to his feet with the boy in his arms. He rubbed his hand in circles on Ben’s back.
C.B. Lewis has been making up nonsense since she was able to talk. Now, she puts it into computers and turns it into books. She is chuffed to bits to officially be yet another one of the collective of authors from Edinburgh. Find C.B. Lewis on Facebook.
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