IT WAS a cold and surprisingly wet instead of snowy January night that left the asphalt covered by a slick sheen of ice. It made keeping the wide ass of the tiller truck where it belonged near impossible at high speed. We were lucky to get to the scene in one piece.
Even though we weren’t battling a fire, the captain still required us to suit up. He didn’t want us to get cut up by branches, so it was pants and jackets, helmets, and even face guards. It made sense with what we were doing. What didn’t make sense was us being there to begin with.
I think the people who reported the whereabouts of the body called us instead of the cops because between the two, police or fire, we had the ladder to get up to the body. It was the whole kitten stuck in a tree thing. Firemen got pets down from trees, so a corpse qualified as well. All I knew was it was a gory mess I could have gone my whole life without seeing.
By all accounts, the man had been hang gliding when his equipment failed and he crashed. All of his limbs were broken and twisted at some grotesque angle, impaled by the branches, which in a fall from considerable height had become wooden harpoons into soft flesh. It wasn’t the gore but the sight of the poor bastard’s neck twisted around 180 degrees that made me grateful I’d skipped dinner.
“Jesus, Ty, be careful,” I growled at the guy to the left of me on the platform when he bumped me again, the second time even harder than the first. If I hadn’t kept my balance, he would have knocked me right off the hydraulic lift hovering more than seventy-five feet off the ground. Goddamn rookie. Urgency I respected, but not eager-beaver showboating—especially for a corpse that was just a retrieval job.
“Fuck you, Mace,” he snarled at me. “I’m being just as care—”
“The fuck you are!” I barked. The point was moot as I watched the rookie sail out of the basket into space only seconds later, after leaning out too far.
Of my two choices to grab—the hotshot rookie or the corpse—it was an easy decision. Firemen saved lives, even annoying ones. Tamping down my anger, I lunged for Tyler Cantrell, managing to catch his hand before he plummeted to a waiting death some three stories down.
Time slowed. I heard the cracking of the branches and watched as the blood-soaked body sank through the canopy and out of my view. I yelled for everyone to take cover instead of crying out in pain as I felt my left shoulder wrench violently from its socket when I flipped out of the bucket. My flailing right hand somehow managed to find a hold, saving us both from the concrete below.
I heard yells from underneath us as the platform shuddered and slowly begin to lower.
“Fuck me,” Tyler cried out, trying to reach for the bottom of the basket, but dangling too far beneath it to get a grip on anything but my wrist and arm. “Don’t let go, Mace!”
Like I would let him go. The guy was a fucking idiot for not watching what he was doing in the first place, but good or bad, the job made us brothers. I closed my eyes, ignoring the stretch on my tendons that threatened to give way because of Tyler’s 175 pounds, and concentrated on keeping my grip. There was still enough equipment below that if the fall didn’t cripple us, the gear on the ground damn well would.
What felt like hours blessedly wasn’t longer than a few agonizing minutes that caused me to break out in a sweat. The second I felt hands on my legs, I let go of the thin metal rail I’d been holding on to.
It was a fast tumble down as I was lowered roughly to the ground.
“Goddamnit!” Captain Ryers yelled, and when I opened my eyes, he was standing over me. “What the fuck were you thinking?”
I opened my mouth to defend myself, but my friend Frank Miller put a hand up to stop me.
“What the fuck did you learn in training? Anything?” Ryers snarled with sufficient rancor to pucker many an asshole.
His tirade was not directed at me, but instead at Tyler, who was panting for breath beside me.
“Aww shit,” Frank groaned as he helped peel me out of my jacket. “Brother, your shoulder is fucked up. I’ll bet you money you dislocated it.”
“That’s a sucker bet,” I said, smiling through gritted teeth.
AN HOUR later at University Medical Center, the ER doctor confirmed Frank’s diagnosis. It was, in fact, a separated shoulder, and it would be at least two weeks before I could even think about carrying equipment, pulling people from burning buildings, or lifting a fifty-pound hose.
“You know, of course, that Ryers is gonna transfer that fuckin’ probie back to fuckin’ Louisville, right? He’s a goddamn menace.”
It was hard to argue. Ty was young, younger than the rest of us, and basically a cocky asshole. I made it no secret that I didn’t like him, but I didn’t want to see him forced out, either. “I should talk to Ryers.”
“Talk to Ryers about what?” The man himself asked as he stormed into the ER cubicle. “The job’s dangerous enough without some rookie running over experienced line men to be first up the ladder.”
When people met Kevin Ryers, they had the distinct impression that he was big. He seemed tall, he seemed loud, and he sort of filled the space around him. In actuality he was shorter than my own six-one frame, and rounder, but whenever any of us, any of his crew, described him, we always started with “He’s really big.”
“That cocky fuck nearly killed one of my best guys,” Ryers snarled at me, tipping his head at Frank. “As it is, his stupidity dislocated your shoulder and made a big mess a fuckin’ catastrophe. With the cold, it took ESU an hour to scrape our vic off the damn sidewalk. No, he’s out. And you, kid, you need to get your ass home and heal up.”
I just stared at him.
“What?” he growled, hazel eyes darkening to olive green as he looked at me.
“I tried to stop—”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, James, give it a rest,” he said, patting my good shoulder. “I saw the whole thing. Goddamn probie leaned way out and lost his balance, pushed the body out of the tree, and almost flipped you right over. If you hadn’t grabbed hold of the rail of the platform, then you’d’ve both taken a concrete dive. I can’t believe you kept your grip with that big dumbass hanging off ya.”
On the surface, it was impossible. But I had more than just human blood running through my veins.
It was a discovery that had made everything in my life more believable.
It was only a year ago that my simple stop to offer a seemingly impaired old man a ride home spun my life into something totally bizarre. The elderly man was Fabron Chaloner; he turned out to be a gargoyle and, lo and behold, told me I was one too. Not that I had horns growing out of my head or bat wings or claws, but what I did have was the ability to move between two worlds: human and goji, or gargoyle.
I was unique among my newfound kind. I was a Romanus, and my job, as far as I knew, was to be the bridge between humans and the chasse, or tribe, of gargoyles I had discovered. I had already introduced my best friend, Finn, to the gargoyles and that had gone exceedingly well. I wasn’t counting Finn as a huge success or anything, though; he was just too weird to let anything throw him for a loop. The fact that he and the Rouen, the leader of the chasse, Raoul Orane, got along so well had not missed my radar.
What I had also not missed was that, to many members of the tribe, I was a disappointment. They were expecting me to do something, be something, but no one could say exactly what that something was supposed to be. A Romanus had a specific purpose within the chasse, but as far as I could tell, even Raoul was fuzzy on the details. It was the blind leading the blind. I was new to even being a gargoyle, and it was similar for Raoul, who’d only just settled into his new position as Rouen. He’d been researching the Romanus and making inquiries here in the US and abroad, but so far, nothing had produced a hit.
It was fine with me. Fighting fires took up most of my available time. I worked double and sometimes triple shifts at the firehouse as needed, so I really had no time to commit to finding out what kind of gargoyle I was supposed to be. There was no instruction manual. Of course, that didn’t stop the tribe from expecting me to do something, and every time any of them saw me… it was like being a headlining magician in Vegas where every person encountered on the street wanted to see a trick. The disappointment when I just smiled and waved was palpable. No one besides Luc understood that it wasn’t some failing on my part.
Just thinking about him caused an ache in the pit of my stomach. Work had taken him out of town, doing consultation on other construction sites for his boss, and I missed him like crazy. Luc was a leon—lion—a soldier of the chasse. He was a big, strong, beautiful man who liked me just as much as I liked him. Despite the fact that my world and most everything in it was upside-down, I had never been happier in my personal life. Luc just got me. We fit. He read me like no one ever had, and I had the same instinct with him. Just thinking about him washed calm through my entire being.
My head snapped up, and I was suddenly back from thinking about my lover to the here and now where I was looking at my captain’s face. He was scowling. “Sorry, what’d ya say?”
“I said,” he barked, “that your ass better be back at work as soon as possible. I don’t have time for this shit.”
I agreed quickly, and Ryers, for once, seemed appeased.