THE phone was ringing.
It took Cole several tries before his hand closed around the infernal device buzzing mindlessly on the nightstand next to his bed. Several more seconds passed as he struggled to find the right button that would answer it. In any other situation, he would not have bothered. The phone would have likely wound up bouncing off the wall at the far end of his private chamber, far from him, while he nestled back deep under the covers.
One thing prevented him from doing that, however. The clock on the nightstand next to his phone was showing the time. It was after three in the morning. No one ever called at 3:00 a.m. unless it was important, and Cole had been hoping for a certain call these past three weeks.
“Hmm?” he grunted, his voice thick with sleep. “Hello?”
The voice on the other end of the phone belonged to Inspector Joss Vallimun, the commander in charge of Section Thirteen and Cole’s maybe/maybe-not boss… and lover. Cole had been a special detective with Section Thirteen, a clandestine group of officers within the NYPD working to solve the unsolvable. The Section had been brought back together just a little more than two months ago, revived after a decades-long sabbatical. Their job was to keep supernatural crime at an all-time low while providing the ignorant with plausible explanations for why strange things happened.
Internal Affairs, it turned out, had been watching them from the get-go under orders from the higher-ups. It had led to more than one sticky situation, one involving a rampaging ogre in the holding cells of the precinct where they were stationed and another all the way out on Staten Island. Cole had been placed on indefinite suspension without pay as a result, right after he’d just managed to secure a decent team to work with, and Joss Vallimun, his lover, had been seriously hurt.
Joss was doing fine now, though. A quick kidnapping from the hospital where Joss was under constant surveillance had ended with him regrowing a whole arm in the depths of the sithen that was Cole’s home. They hadn’t seen much of one another since then. Now Joss was calling him in the wee hours of the morning. Somehow, Cole seriously doubted he was getting news of where they could meet for what humans these days called a late-night hookup.
“Get dressed?” Cole was usually far sharper on the uptake. At the moment, however, his brain was finding it difficult to string his thoughts together into something that resembled sense. Blinking a couple of times, he cleared his head and tried again. “Why?”
“There’s been a robbery,” Vallimun told him in a clear tone. “Someone broke into a high-tech storage facility a few hours ago and made off with a canister. The company who owned it has been reluctant to identify what was inside.”
“Right.” Cole nodded even though Joss couldn’t see him. “And how does that concern me, or even you for that matter? It sounds like your basic case of theft.”
“The sealed doors were torn right out of the walls,” Joss elaborated gravely. “Whole chunks of concrete are missing. The inside of the storage area looks like it was swept clean by FBI agents riding on tornadoes, but the crime happened in the space of less than two minutes. No room could have been gone through like this in such a short period of time, at least by anything human.”
Sleep was leaving Cole’s brain in a hurry now. “Very true,” he said.
“Oh, and forensics found claw marks all over the place. Preliminary analysis suggests they might have been caused by a tiger, or a whole bunch of tigers.”
Cole sat up fully now and began processing what Joss had just told him. “So a bunch of tigers riding on tornadoes broke into a heavily fortified storage building and stole something? I’m beginning to see why you called. The chief must be having kittens by now.”
“He is,” Joss replied. “For the moment, though, we aren’t his biggest concern. He’s too distracted by the mayor pitching one hell of a hissy fit. It seems your suspension has been lifted.”
Now Cole was completely awake. “What?”
“Someone called the governor last week,” Joss went on. “I know only a little more about it than you do right now. Word is, the governor received a phone call from somebody important. They insisted you were being wrongfully punished for what happened on Staten Island and insisted he investigate.”
“No one would go to bat for me,” Cole said, even as he crawled out of bed. “Nobody that important, except….”
Joss was silent as Cole stared blankly at the wall ahead of him in the dark room. “Except?” he prompted when Cole didn’t finish.
“Nothing,” Cole said. “Absolutely nothing. I can be dressed and out of here in fifteen minutes.”
“Make it ten,” Joss advised. “Nobody down here is happy to see us, as usual. Internal Affairs sent some of their boys over as soon as word got out that we’d been called in. I’m sure they’ll be thrilled to see you.”
“I’ll dress to impress, then,” Cole told him, smiling now. “Now that I’m officially a member of the NYPD again, does this mean we can be seen in public together?”
“We can probably arrange something,” Joss said coyly. Then his voice grew serious again. “We need to be careful. You might be back on the team, but IA won’t hesitate to look for an excuse to run you off again. I haven’t quite figured out why but they seem to think you are a serious threat.”
“I’ll be careful,” Cole swore.
“Behave,” Joss warned. “That’s what I need to hear.”
“Fifteen minutes,” Cole told him, avoiding the unspoken question. “Once I collect my next paycheck, we’ll have to do something special together to celebrate. Just the two of us.”
“We’ll talk about it later,” Joss said, sounding rushed now. “I have to go. Speaking of your paycheck, though, you’re being given retroactive pay from the time you were suspended.”
Joss gave Cole the address and hung up before he could say anything more. After laying the phone down, Cole marched over to the closet for a change of clothes. Because of the amount of junk Cole had accumulated over the years, the sithen had made a walk-in space for him. As Cole searched for something to wear, there was an abrupt gust of air out of the floor next to him, despite no vent being present.
Mal materialized beside him dressed in army fatigues and wearing face paint. “Up and at ’em, soldier!” he shouted before blowing on a bugle. “That there war ain’t gonna be fought on its own!”
“You were listening in on my calls again,” Cole stated, giving Mal a dark look. “What did I say about that before?”
Mal’s wardrobe shifted to an evening gown worn by a 1950s starlet. “I’ll never tell,” he insisted melodramatically. “Never!”
Cole fought to maintain an even temper. There were moments when the ex-sorcerer could really try his patience. It had gotten especially bad these past few weeks, with him having so little to do.
“I realize you are connected to the sithen,” Cole said, breathing in deeply. “And being that my cell phone was a gift to me from the sithen, that means you can naturally hear whatever is being said on it. Still, I can’t believe that such a powerful sorcerer, even the spirit of one, would have such a hard time blocking out incoming signals.”
“I’m bored,” Mal stated, shifting back into the butler uniform he wore as a default setting. “There hasn’t been anything to do these past few weeks. I was hoping the phone call might be good news.”
“You already know it was.” Cole paused as he located something promising. “I’ve been reinstated.”
“And with retroactive pay.” Mal appeared thoughtful for a moment. “Does that mean what I think it does?”
“It means I’ll be receiving pay for the time I was suspended,” Cole said. “They’ll pay me even though I didn’t do any work.”
“Woo!” Mal cheered. “I love this country.”
That wormed a smile out of him. “Yes,” Cole admitted. “It does have the occasional perk from time to time. Would you mind getting out so I can change now?”
Mal gave Cole a once-over. “You’re already naked. We’ve been talking for the past five minutes while you were in the raw. Why should it matter if I stand here and watch while you put on clothes? Besides that, I thought the sidhe didn’t have a problem with casual nudity?”
“We don’t,” Cole replied. “And ordinarily it wouldn’t bother me, but I have to get ready and go to a crime scene now. The more you talk, the more it distracts me. Therefore, please leave.”
Mal bowed and then disappeared without further comment. Seeing as how his soul had once been trapped inside a book, then later a computer hard drive, Cole supposed it only made sense that Mal would act more exuberant now. Still, having nothing to do for these past three weeks had meant that Cole was forced to endure his spastic personality. He could always have gone for a drive, left the sithen for a couple of hours, but the Internal Affairs goon squad was forever on the lookout for him.
So Cole had stayed inside and watched TV. He had seen more of it in the past three weeks than he had in the previous three years. The experience had left him feeling soiled and reminded of why he’d given up on it more than once already. Pushing the thought aside, Cole began to dress himself. He had gone with the traditional black leather pants that were usually a staple of his attire and a long-sleeve shirt that laced up the front and on the sleeves. Lastly, there was the hat over the long silvery hair that trailed down to the small of his back. Long hair was a symbol of pride among the sidhe, whereas the hat was an accessory he’d picked up and worn in the fifties for a brief period of time. Cole had found it in his closet the other day while searching for an old Super Nintendo that had somehow gotten lost. The sithen refused to help him find it. The hat still fit well over his head.
Satisfied with his clothes, Cole marched back out to his chamber and snatched up his cell phone, wallet, and the keys to his car up off the table. More importantly, though, he gathered up his weapons. His two bastard guns, Bandersnatch and Jabberwock, fit in the holsters hanging just below his hips while Aed Deigh, the ancient faerie weapon whose twin blades fit into one hilt, fit neatly in the horizontal sheath he’d had made for it years ago. The sithen was kind enough to rearrange itself so he could reach the garage faster. Apparently, it sensed how important reaching the crime scene was to him. Mal had already beaten him to the garage. Being able to traverse the labyrinth that was their home at the speed of light was a perk, of course. Mal had done Cole the favor of warming the modified black Camaro up for him. The driver’s side door was already open and waiting.
“Have a safe journey, sir,” Mal said in a snooty, faux-British accent. “Shall I have some tea waiting for you when you get back?”
“Please,” Cole replied, climbing into the front seat. “Maybe a fresh bagel while you’re at it.”
“Very good, sir.”
The Camaro was actually a carriage left over from one of the old Wild Hunts. It was a minor power, nowhere near as strong as the handful that Cole had seen growing up, before his exile. In the mortal realm, however, it could still punch straight through a stone wall without getting so much as a scratch. The engine roared as he stuck the keys into the ignition. On his signal, the garage doors opened, showing themselves to be somewhere in the lower half of Northern Manhattan. The garage had the ability to appear anywhere it felt would be convenient to Cole.
Usually, anyway. The powers of the sithen were often unpredictable or flighty at best. Cole had learned the hard way not to depend too much on them. He suspected the sithen just didn’t like being taken advantage of, which was something he could relate to. Joss had asked once right after Cole was suspended how the sithen could be located beneath Bowling Green and still have the garage appear halfway across the island.
The short answer Cole had given was “it just could.” Cole never tried explaining faerie physics to a mortal. It gave everybody a headache.
At this hour, traffic was manageable. The bigger problem was the snow falling steadily on the asphalt. New York City had been having strong snowstorms for the past month. It was another reason he hadn’t left the sithen a whole lot. Driving alongside humans who didn’t share the same reflexes as him made Cole nervous. He had resisted buying a car over the years for that very reason. Having one that could mystically glide over the surface of ice made things a whole hell of a lot easier.
Cole managed to reach the address in good time. He did a quick drive-by to assess the situation before getting out. Cop cars were everywhere. Many members of the NYPD were standing outside on the sidewalk looking at what may have been a door at one point. Now it was just a huge, gaping hole that looked to have been torn right out of the building. Cole slowed down enough to where he could scan the faces of the uniforms there. Joss wasn’t among them, or anyone else from the Section, for that matter. Either they were waiting inside for him or somebody else had already run them off.
Cole parked his car behind one of the patrol cars at the curb and got out. One of the officers was coming his way as Cole came up the sidewalk. The man stopped short as he got a closer look at Cole and appeared dumbstruck for a moment. Cole already had his badge out and held it up to the man’s face while walking past. The uniformed officer shook his head as though trying to clear fog out of it and followed in Cole’s footsteps.
It was a common side effect for humans. People in this realm still spun tales of his ancestors, who had fled here to escape Oberon’s tyranny centuries before. One of the things most talked about was how beautiful his kind appeared. Humans who looked upon a sidhe for too long could sometimes become besotted by them. It especially happened in those who were deeply linked to the spirit plane or weak of mind and heart. Their befuddlement faded after a while, normally, but Cole had noticed it happening a lot more often lately. Something told him the officer dogging his steps would be enduring quite a few tasteless jokes after he’d left.
No one tried to stop Cole when he held his badge up and stepped over the police line. A few of the dirty looks they’d been throwing his way even softened a little. Now that he was at the entrance, he could make out several familiar voices from deeper inside the building. It looked like the others had gone in without him. Cole stood at the opening for a moment and listened as the sound of Rainette’s sharp tone drifted toward him, letting him know where they were. The inside of the storage building had indeed been demolished. Everything was scattered all over the place, to the point that Cole couldn’t begin to guess what had once belonged where. Packages and crates had been smashed open, and expensive-looking electronics were scattered in pieces. Moreover, several areas were coated in a colloidal gel. That was something Joss had neglected to mention. One sniff told Cole what it was, which brought his hackles up instantly. Sweeping the area now on full alert, he spotted Rainette DuBois having an argument with Marcel halfway down an aisle.
Marcel was the ogre who had broken into their precinct last month. He’d been under the influence of a device Cole had dubbed “black rings.” The fey on Staten Island had been enslaved, thanks to them, as part of a larger plot. Cole had been able to wrestle Marcel free from jail and convince both him and Rainette to join the Section. Rainette was a witch whom Cole had become acquainted with a couple of years back, thanks to a mutual friend. At the moment, Rainette didn’t look happy with Marcel. She was also on the verge of being crushed to death.
Cole charged forward without thinking and snatched Rainette up in his arms. The witch barely had time to shriek in outrage at being manhandled before the crate that had been falling toward her smashed to pieces on the floor. Cole stopped, set Rainette back onto her feet without another word, then turned around to check Marcel.
“You okay?” he asked.
Marcel dusted the shrapnel off his chest. “Just a few scratches,” the ogre replied calmly. “I notice you didn’t try to save me.”
“You’re a lot tougher than she is,” Cole told him. “Rainette would have been flattened by that thing. And she might have complained all the way into the afterlife.”
Marcel nodded as Rainette scowled. “Very true.”
“You’re back,” she stated flatly.
“I’m back,” he affirmed. “Joss called me less than an hour ago and filled me in. How have things been going so far?”
“Horrible,” she snapped, stomping back over to the crate that had almost crushed her. “It’s been like that ever since the normal forensics team told us we were free to check the place out. Things have been falling off the shelves left and right. What wasn’t smashed by whoever did this, anyway.”
“A number of the falling items have gravitated toward Officer Rainette,” Marcel added, adjusting the big-and-tall jeans he was wearing. “Inspector Vallimun asked me to go with her to ensure nothing else happened.”
“I was almost buried under a bunch of cheap junk earlier,” Rainette groaned. Rainette looked like she was dressed for a party. Her clothes were inexpensive but stylish.
“I think they were parts for somebody’s computer once,” she went on. “Anyway, there isn’t much left, and I’ve been wandering around the place trying to get a reading on whatever did this.”
“How has that been working?” Cole asked.
“Terrible,” she said. “There are some very faint signals, residuals from when whatever did this was still inside the building, but I can’t get a fix on them. It’s like… whatever did this just gave up and left or was never here to begin with.”
“Nothing at all?” Cole surveyed the damage in their area again. “That isn’t possible. There should still be something even if the human forensic team couldn’t locate it.”
“There is,” Marcel told him. “We’ve been finding it all over the place. It just hasn’t done anyone much good.”
Cole looked at the ogre. “Ectoplasm?”
“Right,” Rainette said, looking surprised. “This whole place is covered in ectoplasm. The forensics team was finding it in nooks and crannies everywhere, enough to where it’s actually visible to people with no Sight whatsoever. They can see, feel, and smell the stuff.”
“That’s how I knew about it,” Cole informed her. “It’s thick enough to where the smell is difficult to miss.”
“I’m still not convinced a bunch of ghosts did this,” Rainette insisted skeptically. “A ghost’s body, for lack of a better term, is made up primarily of ectoplasm, and the substance always carries a fragment of the ghost’s persona with it. None of the ectoplasm carries any kind of signature whatsoever. It’s completely blank.”
Cole was confused. “That doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “You found ectoplasm, a lot of it, for that matter, all over the crime scene, and yet you don’t think ghosts were responsible?”
“The ectoplasm doesn’t have a signature,” Rainette repeated, like she was speaking to a kindergartener. “All ghosts leave behind a kind of footnote of themselves, similar to how humans have auras. A ghost’s ectoplasm will share an imprint of who it was. If you can read that imprint, you can learn more about the ghost and what it wants. Ectoplasm is just the substance ghosts are made of, after all. The principle is more or less the same when using thaumaturgy in location spells.”
“We keep coming back to the same conclusion,” Marcel added, sounding bored. “Rainette has explained this to us several times, but the only conclusion we’ve been able to draw so far is that ghosts were responsible. Not that there is much evidence to work with, for us or the regular forensics team.”
Cole surveyed the area again. “I just don’t see how there could be ectoplasm in a crime scene and no ‘signature’, as you call it,” he said after a moment. “If ghosts did do this, and that’s highly uncharacteristic of ghost behavior as I know it, you should be able to track them easily.”
“And yet we have nothing,” Rainette declared, throwing her hands up. “There’s nothing here for me to sense. It’s like the ghosts don’t exist to begin with.”
“I find it all very confusing,” Marcel confessed. “Is there an expert in the field of ghost study we could ask? The police data bank has consultants on just about everything.”
Cole gave Marcel a look, followed by a wry smirk. “You’re really getting into this detective work, aren’t you?”
Rainette surprised Cole by defending Marcel. “He’s been a big help,” she insisted. “I hate having to fill out police reports. Marcel makes it look easy.”
“So why were you two arguing?” he wondered, looking back and forth between them.
“Oh, that.” Rainette didn’t look as though she wanted to answer at first. “I was having trouble getting any kind of reading from the ectoplasm, like I said before. He thought it might help if I stuck my hands in the stuff. I refused on the grounds that it can overload a witch’s senses.”
Cole nodded. “I’ve heard that,” he said. “Something about it overpowers untrained witches and makes them susceptible to a spirit’s influence.”
Rainette looked less than pleased at the mention of “untrained witches.” “And it’s gross,” she added.
Curious, Cole stuck his head in closer to one of the shelves. He didn’t have to look far at all for the ectoplasm Marcel and Rainette were talking about. Whole clumps of it were stuck between the metal girding of the shelves and between whatever fragmented remains had been placed there. It was indeed so condensed that a regular human would find no difficulty spotting it. Most humans ignored this kind of thing. With the room in chaos, however, it would have been almost impossible to ignore.
Movement behind him tore Cole away from his observations. Looking up, he felt his heart skip slightly as Inspector Vallimun stormed down what was left of the aisle toward them. It had been a while since Cole had seen the mortal, though that term was still debatable. His eyes drifted down to the right arm hanging casually at the inspector’s side. The same color flesh as the rest of his body coated it. By outward eyes, there was nothing different about it whatsoever. Cole knew better, though, since he had been the one who aided the Goddess in regrowing it.
Joss was avoiding looking at him. It shouldn’t have bothered Cole at all, yet it was. The fact that his heart fluttered as Joss had approached irked him fiercely. The man shouldn’t matter that much to him so soon, yet he did. Cole should have known from the start not to let his feelings for Joss get the better of his judgment, yet he had. He was growing soft, and that frightened him. Fey who were exiled to the mortal realm had to be very cautious, particularly when it came to humans. Surprisingly, however, none of that bothered Cole as much as the fact that his boyfriend, whom he hadn’t seen in days, hadn’t said hello to him yet.
“Anything?” Joss asked. His voice was tense, and he didn’t sound happy. Cole had to remind himself that it was probably after four in the morning now and not a good time for overworked inspectors to be awake.
“Nothing,” Rainette told him, sounding unhappy herself. “It’s the same here as it was everywhere else.”
“Hm.” Joss sounded angry, though not specifically with Rainette. “Well, maybe when the forensics team analyzes the stuff, they can tell us something.”
“Not likely,” Rainette countered. “I tried to warn one of them before. The ectoplasm will dissolve quickly, even faster once it is taken from the place it condensed at. The minute I used that word on them, though, I got ‘the look’ and they pretended like I wasn’t there.”
“We have to be careful about what we say in front of them,” Joss reminded her. “They won’t take us seriously if we talk about ghosts tearing up storage buildings.”
“Despite the fact that it seems as though this is what actually happened,” Cole chipped in, looking at Joss directly now. “How have you all been, incidentally?”
Joss glanced at Cole. “Lousy,” he replied, turning away again. “Internal Affairs has tied us up in so much red tape that we can’t even piss without them breathing down our necks. The chief informed me personally that we aren’t to speak a word of things like monsters, ghosts, zombies, or fairy-tale creatures committing crimes in this city ever again. Our job is to find out what really happened and report it in a believable and scientific way.”
“He actually used the word ‘scientific’,” Rainette added for Cole’s benefit. “I wanted to laugh.”
“It was a good thing you didn’t,” Joss said, looking strained now. “I haven’t seen him or the mayor so wound up in ages. If I didn’t know better, I’d say someone higher up is putting serious pressure on them.”
“The Order,” Cole said flatly.
“We can’t know that for certain,” Marcel replied quickly.
“We can,” Cole insisted, leaning against the shelf. “They were involved with the incident on Staten Island last month. It was their technology that Daniel Whittaker used to establish himself as the Lord of All Fey. They had me suspended indefinitely to cover up the incident inside the police and get me out of the way.”
Everyone looked at Cole now. “I was left to rot in the sithen for weeks,” he pointed out irritably. “Anytime I left, someone from Internal Affairs or probably the Order itself found me and had me followed. There was nothing to do but sit on my ass and think.”
“It does make a weird sort of sense,” Rainette admitted. “And it would explain why we’ve been spied on so much since that whole Staten Island fiasco. Why is the Order so intent on keeping you out, though?”
“The Order despises the fey,” Marcel answered automatically. “It is how they have always worked. The fey are a threat to them and their power as master magicians of the human Craft. So long as something exists in this world that is stronger magically than they are, the Order will never rest.”
Cole nodded emphatically in agreement. “The fey, especially a sidhe, working in the NYPD must have set them all off. They can’t have us inside the law enforcement. It would be regarded as a taint, and I was the one who insisted Marcel be allowed to serve the Section as a way of paying off his debt to society.”
“Which makes me wonder, why didn’t they just get rid of Marcel?”
The question seemed to be for Cole, though Joss still wasn’t looking at him. “I don’t know,” Cole said finally. “I could harbor a guess, though I’m sure Marcel would prefer I didn’t.”
Marcel looked at Cole. “Go ahead,” he insisted. “I am listening.”
Cole chose his words carefully. “The sidhe were the highest ranking race in fey society. That didn’t change once for hundreds of thousands of human years. Even the people of this realm know it to be true. Perhaps the Order saw Marcel as the lesser threat and easier to control.”
Marcel frowned as best he could and nodded thoughtfully. “It does sound like them,” he admitted. “And by the by, I take no offense from that statement.”
“What was offensive about it?” Rainette asked, looking up at Marcel. “I don’t understand.”
“You wouldn’t,” Marcel said. “You were never raised in Faerie. Neither was I, for that matter, but some of my older family still recall a time when the sidhe treated us as slaves and little more. They are still sore about it. I doubt very much they would be thrilled to hear I was working alongside one now.”
“I never agreed with the Order,” Cole stated flatly as he felt his temper rise. “Even less than the other fey did. Their methods reminded me too much of how Faerie worked before I was exiled.”
“I see.” Rainette was giving Cole a look the whole time. “Well, if we’re done with the PSA on Faerie racial relations, there’s something all of you might want to know.”
“What’s that?” Cole wondered as he felt something behind him shift.
“The ectoplasm behind you is moving,” she said, pointing. “In fact, now it looks kind of… angry!”
Cole backed away from the shelf very quickly and drew out Aed Deigh. The red-hot blade extended from the hilt as Joss took point with his .357 Magnum. Joss aimed his gun at the goop as it moved around as though surveying each of them. When its head, or the lump that passed for it, settled its gaze on Cole’s smoking blade, it abruptly went berserk. The goop flattened itself into a puddle, then went wild, bouncing around and stretching itself out in all directions at once. With a squeal, it shot off away from them like a jackrabbit.
Joss lowered his gun. “Go after it,” he said. “It might be a clue as to what happened here.”
“Even if it isn’t,” Rainette said, giving chase with Marcel hot on her heels, “it’s still fascinating.”
Joss watched them go, keeping a safe distance between himself and Cole as he put his gun away. “I wonder what set it off?” he said quietly. “Was it you?”
Cole didn’t answer. “Can I see you for a minute in private?” he asked instead. “There’s something we need to discuss.”
Joss finally glanced his way again, but only after a moment’s hesitation. “There’s nobody else here but us,” he said. “Staffelbach is back at the station checking on some leads for us. I thought it wasn’t a good idea to leave the station alone without one of us there. It might keep Internal Affairs out of our files and personal effects for a little while, at least. Oh, and Corhagen has the night off. Something about him going to see one of his kid’s preschool shows.”
“I was wondering where he’d gotten off to,” Cole muttered. “How did he take having you put back in charge of Section Thirteen?”
“He was quiet,” said Joss. “I think it bothers him more than he’s letting on. He’s the one guy Internal Affairs seems least interested in. So far, though, he hasn’t given me any trouble.”
“That is strange.”
“Hold on, Marcel! I’ve got it cornered!” Rainette’s voice echoed from somewhere on the far end of the room. “Idiot, you missed!”
What followed was a “splorch” kind of sound, echoed by many things crashing to the floor at once. Joss had gone back to looking around the room. Cole observed this for a moment before deciding he didn’t have to take it anymore. Grabbing Joss by the collar of his shirt, he yanked him in until they were eye to eye.
“We have to talk,” he said flatly. “Outside, I think.”
Cole released him and stomped off toward the big hole in the building that had once been a door. He could hear Joss’s footsteps behind him, though at a distance, and tried to act as if none of it mattered. Cole was a carefully trained sidhe warrior, even though he’d barely been acknowledged as one among his own people. His movements should have been silent and unreadable, yet a nagging whisper told him Joss was monitoring his mood very carefully from farther back.
Cole didn’t stop when he reached the outside. A few of the officers guarding the place were still too close for his comfort, so he made a right and headed down to where there was a nearby alley. Once out of sight, he waited in the shadows for Joss to catch up. Joss had barely stepped into the alley before Cole was on him and pushed the inspector’s body up against a wall.
For once, perhaps the first time all night, the inspector gave Cole his full attention. “I almost shot you,” he stated in a tone that hinted at his anger.
“You would have to have aimed for me first,” Cole replied, staring daggers at him. Joss immediately looked away, which set Cole off completely.
“Look at me,” he growled. Though his voice hadn’t been much louder than a normal speaking tone, the words somehow reverberated off the walls.
Joss met Cole’s eyes then, and Cole was stunned to see the man appeared close to tears. Joss wound his arms around Cole’s back and clung to him like he was the only vessel at sea. Cole leaned in slightly and breathed in his lover’s scent as he felt several light kisses on his shoulder through the fabric of his shirt.
“I couldn’t,” Joss whispered softly. “They are watching us all the time. Yesterday, I was held inside an interrogation room for seven hours. They were asking questions about you. They wanted to know everything I knew.”
“About our….” Cole paused as the word stuck in his throat. “Relationship?”
Joss shook his head, moving back now to look Cole in the face clearly for the first time. “That was the one thing they didn’t ask. They didn’t want to know about us. They wanted to know where you went every day. Apparently, Internal Affairs is getting frustrated with the way you keep disappearing.”
“Did you tell them the truth?”
Joss smirked. It was the first time he’d looked the least bit happy all night. “Finally, I did. They weren’t too pleased with the part about how your house is under Bowling Green park, or that your garage door can appear anywhere in town. I think they thought I was making it up.”
“The Order will believe otherwise,” Cole said. “Don’t worry, though. They might have found out some other way, and knowing won’t give them any power to control me. You told them everything and nothing.”
“I’ve been scared,” Joss admitted. “It makes me sick to admit it, but this whole mess is scaring me. The monsters we deal with are nothing compared to the people we answer to.”
“I believe you,” Cole said, still holding onto Joss tightly. “And I feel like a fool for not realizing it sooner. It’s….”
“…just that we haven’t been able to see one another,” Joss finished for him. “I feel the same way. Before I found out you’d been reinstated, I was ready to punch someone. Rainette told me that if I didn’t loosen up a little soon, she would smack me upside the head, superior officer or not.”
The surprise was apparently evident on Cole’s face because Joss laughed. “She’s all right,” he told him. “I haven’t had any problems with her outside of her not having much experience. Really, she’s easier to deal with than most other new recruits fresh out of training.”
“That is a surprise,” Cole mused. “Perhaps it really is just me, then.”
The smug smirk Cole had come to recognize was adorning Joss’s face again. Cole brought him in for a slow, sweet kiss, then pulled away.
“Come over once we’re done here,” he said, pressing their foreheads together. “You can give me a detailed report on what’s been going on during my absence. Preferably while we’re naked and I’m fucking you into oblivion.”
“Can’t,” Joss said sadly. “I want to, but after all this, my ass is going straight to bed. I’ll probably be asleep for the rest of the day, and after that there are reports to fill out and so forth.”
“You could always move in,” Cole offered, gripping Joss tightly now. “There’s still plenty of room. The pixies barely take up any space at all, and Mal is… well, everywhere.”
Joss sighed as Cole pulled him in for another kiss. “Let me think about it.”
Cole kissed him again, harder this time. Joss responded, but all too soon he pushed Cole away again. Standing at one another’s sides, they marched back to the crime scene, walking for all intents and purposes like soldiers readying for battle. The only thing missing in Cole’s mind was some suitable background music.
“You and your boyfriend patch things up?” one of the officers called out sarcastically as they stepped over the tape.
“I had to ask him something,” Cole answered calmly. “We didn’t sneak away from the job to go make out, assuming that is what you’re implying.”
Cole distinctly heard one of the officers snort. “Yeah, right. He was over there taking it up the ass again.”
Cole turned around even as Joss tried to snag him by the arm. Sniffing the air, a smile began to spread across Cole’s face as he sauntered over to where the group was watching. The one who had spoken immediately went rigid and set his cup of coffee down. His hand was drifting toward his gun even as he tried to appear relaxed. Cole spotted the name on his badge as he drew in closer.
“I would ask your friend standing next to you about taking it up the ass, Officer Conclehnn,” Cole told him in a low voice.
Officer Conclehnn frowned and looked at Cole, confused. “What?”
The grin on Cole’s face spread wider. “Two days ago,” he said as the color drained from Conclehnn’s face. “Tops. You don’t look like a submissive to me, so I’m guessing he must have been the one taking it in the ass. Besides, I can still smell the lube you used on him. You might want to consider switching brands. I could make a recommendation if you’d like.”
Everyone was watching as Conclehnn stepped back, away from Cole. The officer’s face was as white as a sheet. He looked as though he might be sick.
“Just a thought,” Cole added loudly before he turned around.
“What did you say to him?” Joss asked once they were inside the building again. “I thought he was going to start screaming.”
“You may recall that my nose does more than center my face,” Cole said as they continued farther in. “Conclehnn and his friend there have been seeing each other for a while now, from what I smelled.”
“Right,” Joss said, looking back over his shoulder. “Well, I’d heard rumors. Speaking of your nose, have you smelled anything strange in this place?”
“You mean like what did this?” Joss nodded, to which Cole responded with a shake of his head, causing his hair to sweep around him. “That is another thing that has been bothering me. Rainette could sense nothing from the ectoplasm left behind, and I cannot catch even a trace of scent left by anything other than the forensic team that searched this place before. This thing, or things, whatever did this, they can’t be detected by our usual means.”
“That isn’t good,” Joss said gravely. “No one is going to be happy to hear we’re dealing with something that can’t be tracked down. Internal Affairs wants us shut down, but no one can deny that we’ve gotten fairly good results.”
“Except for that one time with the slime cube in the sewers,” Cole reminded him.
“We agreed never to speak of that again,” Joss replied sharply. “The guys in vice squad still won’t talk to me. Anyway, we need to keep solving the cases handed to us quickly and quietly or they’ll use that as an excuse to separate us.”
“I have a more immediate concern,” Cole said as they rounded yet another corner.
“What is it?”
Cole stopped and gestured around them. “This isn’t an especially big place, at least as far as storage facilities go.”
“I’ve seen bigger,” Joss agreed. “What are you getting at?”
“We’ve nearly walked all the way through it,” Cole went on, his voice darkening. “So where are Marcel and Rainette? They were only supposed to catch that escaping glop of ectoplasm that came to life behind me.”
Joss’s face went stone cold. “I think I might have an idea,” he replied, pointing to something behind Cole. “Look over there. That wasn’t here before.”
Cole turned around and immediately spotted what Joss was talking about. Near the twisted remains of what had once been a metal shelf was a solid chunk of concrete. Cole walked down the aisle and picked the piece up off the floor, testing its weight.
“It looks like one of the pieces of the wall from the front,” Cole said to Joss as the inspector approached. “But how did it get here?”
Before Cole had finished his sentence, he was already looking up at the answer just a few feet away. Another large hole, not as big as the one they’d come inside through but big enough, had been torn into the side of the building. There were traces of goo around the edges.
It looked as though the ectoplasm had vacated the building and was now running loose on the streets of New York City.
Cole stuck his head out beside Joss’s as they surveyed the damage leading out through the hole onto the loading dock, where the unseen thing had escaped to, and beyond.
Cole turned back to Joss. “This is going to… ‘suck’, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is.”
Off in the distance, a car alarm rang out along with what sounded to Cole’s ears like screeching metal over a ton of swearing. “At least we know where the others will be. Assuming they’re alive, finding them shouldn’t be a problem. We just have to follow the carnage.”
“We will,” said Joss, stepping through the hole into the loading area outside. “And when we get back, I want to have a brief word with the boys who were supposed to be watching this place while we were gone.”
THE trail wasn’t long, nor was it hard to follow. Cole didn’t even have to use his nose. He had been tempted to shift forms as he took point beside Joss, but in his wolf form he wouldn’t have been able to use any of his weapons. Cole wanted to be ready in case whatever had broken out of the storage facility was watching from the shadows. “What are we dealing with?” Joss asked as they raced through the back alleys in search of their prey.
“It was likely the ectoplasm from before,” Cole explained, keeping his pace even so as not to outdistance Joss. “Given the size of the exit it made for itself, the thing must have gathered the rest of the ectoplasm lying around into itself and formed a body.”
“Great,” his lover muttered. “So now what?”
“That means we’re were dealing with a largely unknown creature,” Cole went on as they crossed an empty side street where several parked cars had been turned over. “Whatever this thing is, it can potentially assume any form it wants, provided it has the sentience to do so.”
“And Marcel left with DuBois without calling for backup?” Joss cursed loudly as they swerved around a mound of broken glass. “Rookies!”
“Rainette will have wanted the thing contained,” he explained. “Most likely, anyway. When you think about it, this thing is the only real clue we have to work with.”
“Of course,” Joss moaned. “So destroying it is out of the question unless we absolutely have to. I wonder what else will go wrong?”
Cole frowned as they turned a corner. “You should know better than to ask such things.”
The ground was slick with ice and snow. They reached the end of the trail a few minutes later. Joss nearly fell as Cole came to a stop. Up ahead was a large warehouse with another gaping hole in the side. Sounds could be heard coming from inside it. Cole pointed Joss in the direction of it and ran on ahead, sliding to a stop as he reached the hole.
There wasn’t much light to work with, but Cole didn’t require it. Parade floats and equipment, old tents, cotton candy machines, and carnival rides were shoved tightly next to one another inside. Cole recognized some of them as he slipped in under the shadows. This was where the city stored some of its parade floats when not in use. Apparently, Coney Island park had been renting the area as well, to tuck away some of their worn-out equipment.
Not far away, there came the sound of cheery circus music blasting over Rainette screaming at the top of her lungs. Cole made tracks for the sound of her voice as Marcel let out a furious roar. As he rounded a corner in front of Donald Duck’s head, he heard a crash that sounded like metal colliding with flesh and bone. Marcel roared again, this time in pain, and came sailing toward Cole just as he came up on the small open space where they were fighting. Marcel almost crashed right into Cole as he dodged to the side. “How is it going?” he asked as Marcel began pulling himself free from Snoopy’s nose. “I’ve been better,” Marcel grumbled, accepting the hand that Cole offered. “We chased it here after it escaped out of the storage facility. Rainette had it cornered, but then it leaped inside the merry-go-round.”
“Merry-go-round?” Cole turned to find Rainette holding on for dear life to one of the plastic horses as the hovering merry-go-round spun faster and faster toward them.
“Help!” Rainette had to scream very loudly in order to be heard over the grinding of the machine’s gears. Her lungs, it seemed, were up to the challenge, however. “Get me off this thing!”
“Merry-go-round,” Cole affirmed, drawing out both guns now. “Got it.”
Rainette caught a glimpse of Cole taking aim as she clung to the merry-go-round spinning high over his head. “Don’t shoot at it!” she shouted, her voice growing hoarse now. “You might hit me!”
Cole fired anyway. None of his bullets came close to her, instead striking the interior of the ride’s mechanics. There was a high-pitched whining sound that made both Cole and Marcel shudder as one of the bullets got stuck between the gears. The merry-go-round ceased spinning so fast and began wobbling while still up in the air.
“Jump,” Cole said loudly to Rainette. “Before it starts back up again.”
Rainette didn’t hesitate. Releasing her death grip on the plastic horse, she flung herself over the side and plunged toward the dirt-covered concrete floor below.
“If one of you doesn’t catch me,” she shouted on her way down, “I swear I’ll never forgive—”
Rainette’s threat was cut off abruptly as she landed in Marcel’s arms. He was quick to set her back on her feet. Rainette wobbled for a moment as she struggled to regain her balance. Above them, meanwhile, the merry-go-round of doom was fighting for all it was worth to expel the intruder lodged within its gears.
Cole watched the mechanical beast, his hands slowly going toward Aed Deigh as the monstrosity began to force itself back to life again. Down below, Rainette was giving Marcel a strange look.
“Thanks,” she said, staring at him cross-eyed. “For catching me, I mean.”
Marcel frowned in confusion. “What else was I supposed to do?”
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Cole called out, holding Aed Deigh in both hands now. “But the two of you might want to move away from there.”
Marcel grabbed Rainette up in his arms again before she could move a muscle and hurled them both out of the way. The merry-go-round came crashing down, missing them by inches and sending Rainette falling forward on a broken high heel with Marcel tumbling after her in a desperate attempt to catch her again. Seeing they were safe, for the most part, anyway, Cole charged forward with a battle cry in his native tongue and Aed Deigh raised high over his head as both blades sprung out in opposite directions from the hilt in the center.
The plastic horse Rainette had been holding onto was promptly decapitated. Cole hacked and slashed his way around the false creature as the merry-go-round of doom began rising up off the floor again, spinning in a fast circle. Seizing one of the metal poles, Cole spun himself around and attacked what might have been a replica of Santa’s sleigh as he continued in a roundabout path for the center.
“Come out of there!” he shouted angrily, taking another plastic horse’s head off. “Come out and face me, you coward!”
Calling the machine a coward proved to make it angrier, exactly what Cole had been hoping for. He could smell the thing controlling it from deep inside. The ectoplasmic monster had too strong a defense while it lurked inside the carnival ride. Cole needed to damage it enough to make it think he was too serious a threat and make a run for it. This plan proved to contain a fatal flaw a moment later. Sidhe or no, immortal or no, there were some things Cole had no power against in this realm. When the merry-go-round increased its speed and then suddenly tilted sideways unexpectedly, he was caught by the anomalous movement. Something caught his eye as he was flung at an awkward angle down past the artificial constructs he’d destroyed before. Cole snapped his arm out and grabbed one of the headless horses before he could fall out of the merry-go-round completely, and he clung to it for dear life.
“Where’s Don Corleone when you need him?” Cole grumbled as he felt his hand slip due to the moisture in the warehouse. “Or Tom Hagen, for that matter?”
Rounds from a Magnum reverberated off the walls like thunder. Cole heard the shots strike the underside of the merry-go-round and let go. As his body glided through the air, he spotted a deflated parade balloon and aimed toward it as best he could. It looked reasonably soft, but upon landing, Cole discovered to his painful displeasure that it was merely a colorful piece of tarp concealing a float. The structure collapsed upon impact, leaving Cole to pick himself up out of what was now sure to be an expensive pile of junk.
Joss, meanwhile, was standing atop another parade float across from him and firing more bullets into the possessed merry-go-round. Cole got to his feet as quickly as he could and charged the merry-go-round with Bandersnatch and Jabberwock at the ready. Together, the two pumped the thing’s inner works full of lead. Joss had to reload several times, owing to the fact that his gun did not have infinite ammo. Each time Joss stopped to reload, the merry-go-round would swoop down and try to squash him flat. Cole managed to keep it away from Joss with the help of Aed Deigh until the contraption turned around and swatted him back like an annoying fly.
Cole rolled to a stop where Marcel was looking after a barely conscious Rainette. “Is she all right?” Cole asked wearily as he stood up.
Marcel watched as Joss fired at the merry-go-round again. “She is coming around,” he said. “But I think you need my help more.”
“We’ll manage,” Cole insisted. “She can’t fight in that state.”
“Shows what you know,” Rainette muttered, raising herself up slightly. “See for yourself.”
Cole drew his guns again and lay down cover fire so Joss could dodge another attack by the merry-go-round, then glanced back. On the concrete a foot or so from her hand, a magic circle had been inscribed into the dusty floor with Rainette’s blood. “Don’t you dare tell anyone from my coven that I used blood to do this,” she warned in a weak voice. “They’d never let it go.”
“You’re too weak,” Cole said, crouching down beside her. “Marcel, go help Vallimun. Whatever happens, do not let that thing get near him.”
Marcel stood up to go, but Rainette caught him by the foot and held him in place. “Don’t get hurt,” she said meaningfully. “I’ll never forgive you if you die fighting a merry-go-round.”
Marcel simply nodded and charged forward with a battle cry that shook the room. Cole took Rainette by the hand as the ogre tackled the merry-go-round with both arms spread before it could connect with Joss. Joss dove to the side as the machine collided with the floor where he’d been standing. Rolling back to his feet, the inspector fired off a couple of warning shots as Marcel pounded the mechanical beast with his fists.
“That’s my man,” Cole responded wryly.
“Indeed,” Rainette agreed. “Now, I think I can expel the thing inside. The problem will be mustering enough power. Usually, this wouldn’t be a problem, but I’m hurt, and the damn thing is moving around too much for me to get a lock on it. I need you to back the spell up. Can you do that?”
Cole gave her hand a squeeze in answer and let his power flow through her. Being a sidhe, he had energy to burn, and handing a small bit over to Rainette so she could turbocharge her spell was child’s play. The circle on the ground glowed a ruby red color. The light covered Cole’s albino skin and reflected off his snow-colored hair. Rainette squeezed his hand in gratitude before moving their hands into the space above the circle. Quickly, she began chanting in Latin. Cole did not recognize the dialect, but the intent was clear.
Marcel had reached the merry-go-round’s center and was hammering into it savagely while Joss kept the machine busy by dodging its attacks. Each time the merry-go-round came near him, Joss would duck to the left or right out of the way. The merry-go-round appeared to regard Marcel as the primary threat, though each time it focused its attacks on the ogre, Joss would open fire on it again to draw its attention away.
On the ground, a red mist had formed around Rainette and Cole. Human blood mixed with sidhe power was a potent mix, one not to be taken lightly. The mist swirled for a moment before lashing out toward the battle not far away. When it reached the merry-go-round, the mist wrapped itself around the contraption and solidified, taking the shape of red chains.
“Marcel!” Cole called out as the ogre continued to rip out the machine’s innards. “Get out of there now!”
“Hurry!” Rainette added, getting the ogre’s attention.
Marcel shook off his rage and leaped free just as the spell took effect. Everyone watched as the chains rose up off the merry-go-round into the air above it. As they left the machine, so did something else. Rainette gasped as the creature within was torn free from its host. The merry-go-round let out a feeble tune as though taking one last breath before dying, then crashed noisily to the floor in a heap. Marcel and Joss both scattered as pieces went flying. Cole gave the ogre a silent word of thanks as he used his body to shield Cole’s lover from harm.
Then he got a look at the thing Rainette’s spell had extracted. Inside the circle of red chains, there were faces, thousands of contorted faces screaming silently in pain as they flowed in and out of a mass of writhing, quivering tendrils. Between the ropes of tentacles were mouths, each bearing razor-sharp-looking mandibles that snapped angrily.
Cole withdrew his gaze and focused on helping Rainette contain the thing. Though the ectoplasmic spirit had been drawn out of the machine, the battle was far from over. If the clicking mandibles and staring eyes were any indication, the creature was far from happy. Marcel’s assault on it had done little to take the fight out of the creature. Even bound by mystical chains, it continued to struggle as Cole added a bit more power to the spell, hoping that would be enough to subdue the entity.
The circle shone like a beacon now. Cole felt the energy pushing against his hand. Rainette was chanting faster, but it didn’t appear to be enough. The creature, its form changing every few seconds, fought against her spell as the chains surrounding it tightened. The more it struggled, the more visible Rainette’s pain was.
“It isn’t working,” Cole told her, drawing his hand away slightly. “You’re going to hurt yourself if you keep this up.”
“I can do it,” she insisted; then she went right back to the Latin chant.
“It’s out of the machine now,” Cole insisted. “I can destroy it.”
“We need to contain it,” Rainette hissed between words. “It’s our only clue.”
Something rippled in the space between where their flesh connected. The sensation was cold, like death, sparking Cole’s left hand awake. Feeling like a fool for not thinking of it before, he switched hands with Rainette and poured magic from the Hand of Cold Death into the spell. Ectoplasm was the stuff of ghosts. Though he couldn’t be sure that the thing had actually “lived” before, it was still made from the essence of spirits. Cole had dominion over all forms of the long dead. Therefore, it was possible for his power to exert some manner of control over it.
As energy from his hand of power entered the spell, the ectoplasmic monster let out a roar of pain. Light poured from the circle beneath them, forming a beam of red light that touched the ceiling. Both Rainette and the creature howled at the same time. Something rushed out of the ground and into Cole, making him go stiff. In that moment, he saw through the creature’s eyes. The warehouse was a dark, empty place, not unlike himself. He wanted out, wanted to be free.
Then he saw himself kneeling on the floor beside Rainette and knew the source of what was trying to contain him. The creature dove at Cole while he was still witnessing everything from the creature’s eyes. Someone cursed before the entity collided with him. Cole could hear Joss screaming his name, ordering him to move. There was a flicker of white light, and then something struck him in the gut. Cole saw the blow through the creature’s perspective at the same time he felt it slam into him.
The blow made Cole whip back, severing the connection between himself and the creature. In the process, Cole released Rainette’s hand from his. Looking around for Joss, he spotted the inspector behind the creature, pounding away at it. Joss’s right arm was glowing a mixture of silver and ebony. The flesh was like liquid silver poured over obsidian, forming a tribal design. Surrounding the arm was a bright glow that flickered each time Joss moved.
The entity roared as Joss attacked it again. Cole sat back in wonder as a phantasmal armor formed around Joss’s right arm and slammed into the creature over and over again, pushing it back. Joss’s face was screwed up in rage.
“This way,” Cole called out to him.
Joss didn’t appear to hear at first, but a moment later he landed another blow against the creature that sent it sprawling backward. Grabbing Rainette up in his arms, Cole moved them both out of the way as the creature landed over the blood circle. Aed Deigh was in his hand a second later, the frost-covered blade extended.
“Power of winter,” he called out in an authoritative voice. “Seal this being within your icy womb.”
As the blade tip touched the floor, its power flared to life at the same time the mist from the circle poured free. The anamorphic being roared one last time as it struggled to free itself. Each time it changed shape, the mists would adjust themselves accordingly. Cole watched as Joss and Marcel came over to stand beside him. Cole passed Rainette to the ogre without a word. When the mists had completely enveloped the entity, it began to shrink. All of them looked on as the creature was forced into itself. The shrinking didn’t stop until the creature had been reduced to the size of Cole’s fist. Without making a sound, the mists crystallized and fell to the ground as a chunk of red ice. Cole retrieved it and held the lump up to his ear curiously. Inside it, he could still hear the creature moaning softly. “I think it’s crying,” he explained to the others matter-of-factly. “When Rainette gets better, she’ll want to take a look at it.”
Joss looked over to Rainette, still being held in Marcel’s thick arms. “Any idea where we can keep that thing&