It was far too cold to be working outside today.
Cole took in the dozen or so thugs standing around him with an irritated glare of contempt. If the money for this job hadn’t been as good as it was, he’d be back in his loft curled up underneath a nice, thick blanket enjoying a replay of his old copy of Blood Omen right now. As it was, the rent was due. Katalina had already reminded him of that twice this week. The first gust of New Year air had nearly been enough to make him turn around and go back inside. Only the fact that Awar the troll paid good money made him keep going Now, he was lurking underneath a trash-strewn bridge that reeked of raw sewage as members of the attacking gang closed in on him.
Cole took half a step backwards, crouching down slightly as the red-hot end of his double-headed blade, Aed Deigh, extended out from the hilt. The thug that was nearest caught a swipe across his abdomen as Cole feinted forward, and then turned into a sweeping spin that caught two more with the opposite end, the one endowed with the power of arctic cold. There was perhaps a half-second where nothing occurred, as though his attacks had missed. His first target, however, suddenly clutched his belly in pain as fire exploded all over his skinny frame, incinerating him in an instant. The others went rigid at the same time as ice crawled like ravenous spiders all over their skin.
Cole never let up, even as the remaining members of the gang began having second thoughts. Two more found themselves the victims of spontaneous combustion as Cole drove his twin-bladed weapon with the hilt in the middle down into the chest of the boy who he assumed was their leader. The shocked expression on the man-child was actually somewhat comical. Cole withdrew his blade as the ice claimed him, then tipped the frosted statue over with his finger and smirked to the remaining few thugs as it shattered on the ground. The head wound up rolling down the incline and stopped at his feet. Cole placed the heel of his boot atop it and stared his audience down.
No one blinked. They were all too terrified to move.
“I was asked by a friend to ensure none of you harass him any further,” Cole spoke, standing with a practiced ease. “This can go one of two ways. Either I slaughter the lot of you and walk off without breaking a sweat, or you can all go back to wherever it is you came from, and leave the nice troll alone so he can finish his homework and get over his head cold in peace.”
“This is our hood,” one bravely spoke up, yet Cole could distinctly hear the rapid beating of his heart. “Freaks like dat should stay da fuck away.”
A handful nodded their affirmation. “He kind ain’t welcome here no mo.”
Cole was on the speaker in the blink of an eye. “Would you prefer to be frozen, or burned to a little pile of ash?” he whispered in the young man’s ear. “I’d be happy to oblige with either.”
There was the unmistakable sound of a hammer being drawn back from a gun. Cole waited, waited until he knew the shooter was about to pull the trigger, then moved. At the same time, he jerked the boy in front of him forward slightly, putting him directly in line of the bullet as it left the chamber with what sounded like a thunderclap. Had it been rush hour, the sound would’ve been muffled by oncoming traffic. It was with his ears ringing that Cole released his grip just as the young man’s head exploded. Turning around, he saw that the shooter was holding, of course, a .357 Magnum.
“Those things make such a mess,” he muttered as blood and other things ruined his clothes. “My dry cleaning bill is going to be outrageous.”
Everyone else was still taking in the sight of their spokesman crumbling to the ground with most of his head gone. Not one to miss an opportunity to finish a job quickly, Cole dashed forward and took out the one holding the gun first. It was made of metal, and given the decidedly high iron content, it would do the most damage to him. One swipe with the fire edge of his swallow reduced the bastard’s arms to smoldering bones. Cole stabbed him with the ice edge for good measure, then carved a path through the scattering crowd as though he were the wind and they were caught in molasses. Less than a minute later, his job was finished. Ominous footsteps pounded the ground heading in his direction as he slowly stood upright.
“That should do it, then,” he said, willing the blades back into their shared hilt. “I’d like to collect my pay now, if you don’t mind.”
“No problem,” sniffed Awar, grunting from chest congestion as he fumbled around for the opening to his back trouser pocket. “Thanks for coming on such short notice.”
“I hated to ask you to get out of bed given your current condition,” said Cole, graciously accepting the bag of gold from him. “But I wanted to make sure they were indeed the ones harassing you. It would make me look bad if I’d murdered the wrong ones.”
“It’s no big deal,” Awar assured him. “I’m feeling much better, but the runny nose is killing me. I’ve got a calculus final to study for, and my correspondence term paper for American History is tomorrow. All I wanted was some peace and quiet, but those little shits just wouldn’t leave me alone. And it isn’t like I can just phone in the police, not that it would do me much good….”
“No need to explain,” Cole assured him, counting out the gold coins. “Go get some rest. You look like hell.”
“I haven’t been able to sleep because of this damned cold,” he muttered, weakly. “I’d love to have handled this myself, but this crud has sapped all my strength.”
Cole nodded in professional sympathy as he resumed counting. Awar, meanwhile, turned his rather lumpy head to the side and let out an impressively loud sneeze, which caused the bridge overhead to shake. Dust and icy frost rained down on their heads, signaling to Cole that it was past time to go. “Here,” he said, hold up three gold pieces. “You gave me three more than we agreed on.”
“Keep it,” Awar insisted, waving it away. Cole’s long hair was swept up as Awar’s hands inadvertently caused a small wind to kick up around them. “Consider it a tip for a job well done, since I wasn’t up for handling things myself. I honestly thought you’d just come down here and scare the little bastards, but this works out much better. The lot of them should fit in my meat locker with a little extra cramming. I’ve got food for almost a month now, and the bones should scare away anyone else that tries to hassle me.
Besides,” he added, “I was getting sick of chicken soup. It gives me bad gas.”
Cole accepted his tip and, with a wave over his shoulder, left the underside of the bridge very quickly.
A while later, Cole climbed the stairs leading up to his loft, shaking his hair to remove the bits of snow that hadn’t melted yet despite the warm temperature inside of the building. It was one of the many drawbacks to being a full-blooded sidhe living in New York. No matter how powerful he was, all the metal, glass, and man-made plastics hampered his abilities considerably. It was getting to the point where the changing temperatures really bothered him. Before long, he might even suffer from sinus problems like all the other red-nosed shoppers.
Shuddering at the thought, he waved a hand idly at the door and waited as the locks on the other side tumbled open. At the same time, the wards that had been placed years ago temporarily fell, allowing him passage. Shaking the rest of the snow off, Cole hung his coat on the rack and strode idly into his home. The place was quiet for the moment, which meant that Katalina had already left for class. Happy to have the place to himself for a few hours, Cole immediately stripped out of his clothes and stood naked in the living room for a moment, allowing the muted sunlight from the expanse of windows behind him to rake across his moonlight-colored skin. Sighing, he took a few steps over to the open kitchen area, grabbed a bottle of oak mead from the refrigerator, and downed it’s contents.
Having a roommate meant he was rarely able to go naked in his own home. The loft’s rent wasn’t cheap, however, so it was a trade-off he accepted on good terms, mostly. Feeling a nice light buzz from his drink, Cole made himself a sandwich from some leftover turkey, then made tracks for the shower. The gold from the job Awar had given him was strewn across the counter. He would put it away after he’d gotten clean and, more importantly, warm. Katalina could take it to the exchange bank on her way to class tomorrow. For now, though, his only priority was to stand under a steady stream of hot water for as long as possible.
There was only one shower in the whole loft. Luckily for him, Katalina rarely left anything of hers lying around for him to step on. Today, however, he nearly fell flat on his face because of a stray bra getting tangled around both feet. Raising up, he swept his eyes across the counter top, which was loaded with make-up and used cotton pads. There were puddles of water near the edge of the shower, and a used towel hanging on the bar alongside a drawn-back curtain.
Apparently, Katalina had been in a hurry this morning.
Disregarding all of it, Cole marched into the shower and closed the curtain behind him before turning the hot water all the way to the left. Steam rose quickly up toward the rafters as the jets beat down on his backside. Cole groaned; if there was one upside to being affected by cold weather, it was warming up afterwards. For years, he’d wondered why humans made such hype over things like hot chocolate and warm soup in the wintertime. Now, it made perfect sense, though he still missed the warm climate of Avalon.
An image of it, long buried, rose up in his mind. Cole found himself thinking of the last time he’d stood on its shores, looked out at the expanse of trees and distant fairy mounds, and realized he would never be coming back. Through the decades of his time amongst humans, Cole had countered his sorrow with thoughts of not wanting to return and the memories of his last encounter with Lord Oberon. The thought of returning to Avalon now seemed almost like a joke, but that didn’t stop him from crying. It didn’t stop the tearing in his chest, like something vicious was trying to eat its way out of his heart. It didn’t stop his head from swimming.
He must have been under the steam for too long. Even after Cole managed to get hold of his emotions, he still felt light-headed.
Cole blinked and turned around in response. It had been a while since anyone had called him by that name, but hearing it seemingly out of thin air was especially odd.
Cole looked around desperately for something to hold on to, or at the very least, something to cover himself with. The spell, however, had already taken effect, and he was being drawn out of the shower through the very air towards the one summoning him.
Cole felt himself being forced through a sort of rubber tunnel, starting with his head. There was a loud splash as the water from the shower that had been teleported along with him came crashing down onto the head of Detective James Corhagen, who was conveniently kneeling at the edge of the chalk circle, directly in front of Cole’s groin. A small cut from the detective’s thumb indicated the blood he’d used to activate the summoning circle. The chalk, now soaking wet, was still clutched in his other hand.
Cole couldn’t resist. “While you’re down there….”
Immediately, Detective Corhagen rose up to his feet. Noticing that Cole was severely naked at this point, he darted his eyes heavenward at the same time that his head snapped sharply to the left. “Ouch!” he grunted. “Warn me next time, won’t you?”
“You could have called first,” Cole pointed out, not bothering to cover himself. “It isn’t my fault your bad timing persists even when you’re using that spell I taught you.”
“I am sorry,” he groaned. “I guess I caught you at a bad time. Are you busy right now?”
Cole rolled his eyes at the question, but Corhagen didn’t notice as he’d just covered his eyes with the hand that had the bleeding thumb. The sight of his former friend stumbling around slightly trying to regain his sense of direction with both eyes covered was enough to make Cole snicker privately to himself. It was only then that he began to notice his surroundings, and realize that the place where they both stood was unfamiliar to him.
“Where are we?” he asked, gazing around at what appeared to be someone’s bedroom. “Have we been here before?”
“Huh?” Corhagen asked, turning almost too fast to keep his eyes covered. “Oh, no. This is a crime scene. The murder that took place occurred in the baby’s room on the other side of that wall.” Corhagen pointed just behind Cole at the carefully made bed. “I think that’s the right direction, anyway.”
“You could take your hand off your eyes,” Cole suggested, coyly.
“No, thank you. This was the victim’s bedroom, anyway. Her name was Susan Brown. She worked as a cleaning lady at some subsidiary company of Microsoft. At approximately 12:01 last night, her heart somehow managed to explode out of her chest and splatter into pieces against the refrigerator. The babysitter discovered the body this morning when she showed up to look after the woman’s daughter while Mrs. Brown was at work. We’ve got her in the living room right now.”
“I thought you said the woman was murdered in the child’s bedroom?” Cole interrupted, confused.
“That was where the….” Detective Corhagen fumbled for a moment. “Where the ‘incident’, I guess, took place. Her heart somehow achieved escape velocity after exploding from her chest, sailed out the open bedroom door, and then splattered into pieces against the fridge.”
“Ah.” Cole nodded. “Now I understand. Please, continue.”
“That’s about it,” the detective finished. “Except that the baby is also missing, and this is the third case of such an incident happening. The chief is breathing down my neck, most of my department thinks we’ve got some kind of serial murderer-slash-kidnapper on our hands, except for the fact that all three crime scenes have been swept thoroughly with a fine-toothed comb, and nobody can come up with so much as a fingerprint. There’s no signs of forced entry, no sign of a struggle at all, unless you count the mess the victims made in their last few seconds before becoming an Aliens stunt double. So I’ve got a murderer who can make themselves undetectable to all forms of modern forensics, even down to DNA sampling, and people are turning to me like the answers are supposed to just come flying out of my ass.”
Cole studied his old friend for a moment. “You quit smoking again, didn’t you?”
“You’re always this cranky when you stop smoking,” he clarified. “It makes you stressed out. So, why did you summon me here?”
“You have to ask? I need help here, Cole. This is some serious shit going down, and I don’t know what to do about it.”
The bedroom door eased open just then. Both Cole and Detective Corhagen turned to find a very small woman look directly at James. “Sir, they’ve questioned the babysitter. She had a spare key to the apartment that was given to her by….”
The woman’s eyes finally took in Cole and widened. James turned around to face him, received another eyeful, and quickly jerked away. “Um,” he stammered, thinking fast. “Thank you, Officer Morrison. This is my…. old friend, Cole. He and I used to work on some cases together. He’s a police consultant who specializes in….”
Corhagen snapped his fingers quickly. “Unusual cases,” Cole finished for him.
“Unusual cases! That’s it.” Corhagen was blushing now, which Cole had to admit was fun watching. “I asked him to come down here and have a look at the crime scene. He might spot something the other forensics guys missed.”
“How do you do, m’lady?” Cole bowed slightly, giving her a full view of his package. “Forgive my present state. I was in the shower when the detective called.”
Cole gave the detective a knowing look, and he promptly blushed red. “He got here really fast,” Corhagen tried, feebly.
Officer Morrison had been unable to tear her eyes off Cole during the whole exchange. Cole himself doubted the poor woman had absorbed anything that was said the entire time. “I’m very efficient,” Cole went on, deciding that he might as well enjoy himself. “As Detective Corhagen himself knows very well.”
“Could we maybe get the nice police consultant a pass so that he could examine the crime scene, Officer?” Corhagen pressed, his face turning redder. “And perhaps a towel, to hide his shame?”
“What shame?” Cole teased, as the door slammed shut. “I don’t feel any shame.”
Corhagen ignored him in favor of staring daggers at the opposite wall. A moment later, the door opened again just wide enough to allow a police pass entry. The plastic-coated tag sailed through the air and smacked the detective upside the head. A second later, one mauve-colored towel crossed the barrier forming the summoning circle, breaking it. Cole caught the towel and began drying himself off at his leisure. Officer Morrison eyed him for a second more through the tiny crack, then quietly slid the door shut.
“A very dedicated policewoman you’ve got there,” Cole remarked, taking longer than necessary to dry his balls. “I’d hold on to that one if I were you.”
Corhagen thrust the pass back behind him as he adamantly continued to avoid looking anywhere near Cole. Cole finished drying off, then wrapped the towel securely around his waist and took the pass from him. This one had a clip on it, so he fastened it to his towel just to the left of where his treasure trail ended. Corhagen risked a quick peek and sighed.
“Will you take the case?” he pleaded. “I could really use your help.”
“It’s obvious you need it,” Cole replied, avoiding his gaze now. “Why else would you have used that spell after so long?”
The weight of that sentence hung in the air between them. “I think I’d like to go home now,” Cole finished dryly. “And resume my shower. Do you think Officer Morrison would be willing to call a cab for me?”
“I’ll pay you double,” Corhagen spat out before Cole could step out of the circle.
“What?” Cole was sure he hadn’t heard right.
“If I have to pay it myself, I will,” he added emphatically. “Chances are, though, the Chief would rather cough up the extra cash than risk letting shit like this continue. And that’s really saying something, if you’d just stop for a second and remember what a tightwad he’s always been. Things on the force have been sour since…. well, for a year now. It’s not getting better, and since no one wants to admit what’s really going on, the problem just gets worse and worse. I’ve managed to get a few people at my precinct to come over to my way of thinking.”
It was impossible for Cole to mask his surprise. “I know,” Corhagen nodded. “Believe me, I know. It wasn’t easy, but some of them have had bad experiences themselves that they couldn’t explain afterward, or just didn’t feel other people would believe. None of us know what to do about it yet, but we’re trying. The Chief wants this case taken care of yesterday, though. It’s way too messy and would be a tabloid reporter’s wet dream. Imagine what would happen if word of this got out to the press. It wouldn’t be an outright panic, but the end result….”
Cole thought of Awar living under his bridge, thinking that all was peaceful now that the punks that’d been hassling him were dead. “If I have to, I’ll strong-arm the Chief into paying it,” James finished. “But we need you on this one. I haven’t been having the dreams yet, but I can feel it. It’s going to get a hell of a lot worse.”
Cole nodded. “You’d better not squirm out of paying for me,” he threatened lightly. “Or I’ll have the goblins on your ass for it.”
Corhagen laughed. “Right. So, where do we start?”
“Where else?” Cole replied, adjusting his towel as he headed for the door. “We talk to the victim. She probably knows a thing or two.”
None of the other police officers at the crime scene were happy to see Cole. Though he didn’t recognize many faces in the crowd of discontent stares, Cole had gained something of an infamous reputation among Corhagen’s fellow officers. He supposed word about Lieutenant Heisen’s sudden bout of erectile difficultly had spread very fast. That had been the last time he’d set foot in James’s precinct, so it was natural, he supposed, that people were less than thrilled by his return.
Fortunately, it didn’t take long for Corhagen to clear the room. Most of the police officers on the scene were male, despite the fact that humans today liked to think of themselves as equals. No one seemed in any big hurry to do more than glare reproachfully at him one last time before making tracks for the door. Once they were gone, Cole turned to his former friend and smirked.
“Nice bunch. Very people-skills oriented.”