Authors: Jordan L. Hawk
Tags: #Gay & Lesbian, #Literature & Fiction, #Fiction, #Gay, #Romance, #Paranormal, #Genre Fiction, #Gay Romance, #Demons & Devils, #Psychics, #Vampires
What were they going to do with him now? Take him away, definitely. Lock him up somewhere, most likely. Wait for the monster inside him to take control permanently…maybe?
Something stirred within, a tiger awakened from a semi-doze.
“Why would I do such a thing?”
Caleb pressed his lips together, but he couldn’t silence his thoughts. Demons—NHEs—whatever the fuck you wanted to call them—possessed people. Everyone, mal and normal alike, was warned from childhood not to strike bargains, not to do anything to attract the attention of etheric entities. Community relations officers came into schools twice a year: don’t do drugs, don’t drink and drive, don’t play with loaded guns, don’t summon demons. He’d never thought much about it, except as one of the perils of life, like looking both ways before crossing the street.
And now here he was. Doomed.
“Are all mortals so illogical?”
It was trying to trick him. The thing in his head, the thing which had killed Ben—
“Mortals are not prey. Our prey is demons. And now we are too late, and I cannot even smell it anymore.”
Not “our,” there wasn’t any “our,” no matter what the monster inside wanted him to think. And yet the urge to get up and run into the night, to track the demon down, to bite and kill, twisted around Caleb’s spine.
No. He dug his nails into his palms, hard. He was still human. He wouldn’t give in.
He straightened with a soft hiss of surprise. The agent had returned unnoticed while he was arguing with the thing in his head. Starkweather dropped into a crouch, putting them on eye-level. Probably some sort of bonding technique they taught at the Academy.
He swallowed against the dryness in his throat. “What now?” he asked, and cursed when his voice shook.
“I’ve had a talk with my boss.” There were dark shadows under Starkweather’s eyes, but his smile hadn’t lost any of its wattage. Well, he’d find out Caleb Jansen wouldn’t be swayed by a nice smile and vividly blue eyes. Or broad shoulders.
“How would you like to go back to my place?”
A dozen scenarios sprang instantly into Caleb’s mind, all of them wildly inappropriate. “I…what?”
Starkweather arched his brow, as if he knew what Caleb had been thinking. “I’d like to keep a close eye on you for a few days, until we get this straightened out. You don’t mind, do you?”
Caleb tried to ignore the flirting—was it flirting?—and focus on the important part of the sentence. “You think there’s still a chance of reversing this?”
“Absolutely. I’m going to work on it night and day—you’re my top priority right now. My condo is fairly secure and has a nice guest room. It makes sense for you to come back with me.”
There was a trick here. Starkweather was definitely up to something. “No way is this standard procedure,” Caleb said, narrowing his eyes into a glare. “You don’t expect me to believe you regularly take possessed people home with you, let alone unregistered paranormals.”
A long breath escaped Starkweather, turning to steam in the cold air. Caleb realized the chill didn’t bother him in the slightest, and hadn’t since he’d…died.
No, since he’d awoken. “Awoken” sounded better. Like he’d just been knocked out, not…
“Can I be honest with you?” the agent asked. His voice was quieter now, more subdued.
“A Spec, be honest with an unregistered? Has hell frozen over?”
A spark of annoyance showed in Starkweather’s eyes. Good. “I don’t know what you’ve heard about SPECTR, but you don’t have anything to fear. Normally you’d go straight to SPECTR-HQ and into lock-up, until we managed to undertake a successful exorcism. But this case isn’t normal. We’re not quite certain what we’re dealing with, although we’re calling it a drakul for now. Since the situation is under control, we’d like to cut you some leeway. Come with me or go to HQ. The choice is yours.”
“Some choice.” God, this wasn’t happening. This morning, he’d been certain he was going to make everything right again, and now here he was, possessed and facing registration, even if the feds managed to get rid of the drakul.
“This was not how I expected this day to proceed, either. It is…an interesting change.”
Caleb let out a bark of bitter laughter—then clapped his hand over his mouth when he realized what he was doing. “Damn it,” he said, dropping his hand. “It’s talking to me again.”
Starkweather looked concerned but not alarmed. He’d probably been trained to keep his reactions off his face. “What does it say?”
“He was thinking his day hadn’t gone as planned, either.”
The agent chuckled. “I see. You said ‘he?’”
Fuck. “I didn’t mean to.”
“Does he think of himself as male?”
“He, she; male, female. Mortal nonsense.”
“Not exactly.” Caleb scrubbed at his eyes. “I’d rather not talk about it”
“Anything you can tell me about Gray might help.”
“A name. More mortal nonsense.”
“But not right now,” Starkweather went on, oblivious to Caleb’s distraction. He rose to his feet and held out his hand. “Come on. Let’s get you some food and coffee.”
Caleb stared at the agent’s hand for a moment. The fingers were short, blunt, and strong, the nails carefully manicured. The white cuff of his dress shirt bore a smudge of dirt from the filthy house. A tiny crescent of skin showed where the sleeve had ridden up slightly, revealing the very edge of a red scar on his wrist.
How had it come to this? Caleb’s entire future in the hands of a Spec. He either cooperated with the government and kept some measure of freedom, or he told them to shove it up their asses, starting with Starkweather, and ended up in lockdown.
Sitting in a cell wouldn’t get him anywhere. Maybe, if the agent could exorcise Gray, he would have a chance to run afterward. Make a break for it and start over somewhere. Melanie’s friends seemed like the type who would know how to create a fake identity.
They also seemed like the type to beat the shit out of a mal, registered or not. Or put a bullet in his head. But only if they found out.
Caleb clasped Starkweather’s hand. The other man’s skin was warm, and his palm tingled, as if a spark had jumped between them. “Coffee sounds good,” he agreed.
The agent grinned and pulled him easily to his feet, before leading the way to the sagging doorway. The gray-violet light of dawn shone between the deserted houses and burned-out shops.
A new day.
Wrapping his arms around himself, Caleb walked out of the house where he had died and wondered if anything would ever be the same.
Caleb squinted against the blinding glare of the rising sun. The eastern sky burned with bands of color: pink, gold, violet, and blue, all of them so intense it took his breath away. He’d spent most of his life painting or sketching, and yet he couldn’t remember a palette this vivid.
“There are so many colors.”
Of course. This was Gray’s doing. How much of this sense of wonder, of seeing with new eyes, came from the drakul?
“Is there anyone we need to contact?” Starkweather asked from the driver’s seat.
Caleb blinked and tried to concentrate on the interior of the sedan. It was a typical featureless government-issued vehicle, no frills except emergency lights and a big engine, and a complete lack of bright colors. The texture of the cloth seats grated against his fingertips. He folded his arms over his chest to avoid touching anything.
“Guess not,” he said, not bothering to hide his bitterness. “I had a job back in Charlotte, but there’s no point contacting my boss, since she’ll fire my ass as soon as she finds out I’m a registered mal.”
The agent winced. “Don’t call yourself names.”
“What? You lot are going to have me registered, right?”
Starkweather rolled his eyes. “You know what I meant. Not ‘registered.’ ‘Mal.’”
“Fuck.” Caleb folded up his long legs and rested his feet on the dashboard. “It’s what we are, isn’t it? No sense in sugar-coating it.”
“What’s your gift? If you don’t mind my asking.”
Caleb snorted. “Gift. Right.” What a damn drone. “Hold onto your hats, ladies and gentlemen.”
An empty waxed paper coffee cup nestled in the cup holder. Narrowing his eyes, Caleb focused all his concentration on the cup. He pictured reaching out, imagined his fingers wrapping around it, lifting it—
The cup rattled in the holder.
“There you go. I know it was impressive; try to hold your applause.” He could shake a two-ounce coffee cup without touching it, ooh, ah. But it was still enough to get him on a list for the rest of his life. Enough to get him legally fired from any job in 38 states, no more reason required.
“More than I could do.”
“If you’re trying to be nice, don’t. I’m barely a mal—sorry, ‘paranormally-abled’—at all.” Caleb shrugged and glanced out the window.
“Are you sure you’ll be fired?”
They were driving down King Street, and the shell pink, mint green, and soft peach of the buildings caught Caleb’s attention. They almost glowed in the early light, so bright, so—
Fucking demon. He transferred his gaze determinedly back to his shoes. “I’ll be fired. Whatever.” Having a job to go back to was the least of his problems right now.
“May I ask what your job was?”
“We’re not friends, okay?” Caleb shifted his glare from his shoes to Starkweather’s profile. The agent kept his eyes fixed on the road, but the corner of his mouth—his very nice mouth, Caleb couldn’t help but notice—twitched slightly. “You people have completely fucked up my life. Don’t try to make nice with me.”
“I’m trying to help you, Caleb.”
“What would’ve helped me would be if SPECTR had bothered to look into Ben’s body disappearing from the damn funeral home! But oh no—too busy chasing down unregistered mals who are minding their own business and not hurting anyone.”
Starkweather winced. “That isn’t true. And even if it was, does it hurt to make small talk? We’re stuck together for a while, and I’m curious about you.”
Was this some kinder, gentler interrogation? “Fine. If you have to know, I worked as a barista in the coffee house, because I couldn’t make a real go of my art. Had to maintain a low profile, so I could keep my job and my apartment and my fucking civil rights. Except, oops, it’s all gone anyway.”
“You’re blaming the wrong people. I’m on your side, believe me. I work for rights for the paranormally-abled whenever I can.”
“Whatever,” Caleb muttered.
The agent sighed—again—but let the conversation die a merciful death. Eventually, he pulled onto an honest-to-god cobblestone street and parked the sedan.
“Home sweet home,” he said, gesturing to a long, two-story brick building. Iron-railed balconies decorated the second floor, and a series of front doors were painted a cheerful shade of red. “It was built as a warehouse in 1747, then broken up into condos in 1942.”
Caleb reached up to adjust his glasses, remembered he wasn’t wearing them and might never again, and dropped his hand back limply into his lap. “Nice,” he said grudgingly.
“I like it.” Starkweather got out of the car and removed the black canvas bag with his exorcism supplies from the trunk. The cut of his jacket didn’t quite conceal the holster under his left arm, and the silver athame was sheathed at his hip. In case Gray went crazy and he needed to get to it fast?
Caleb got out of the car and followed the agent through an iron gate and down a short walkway to the front door. Starkweather unlocked it and beckoned him in.
Caleb stepped inside and stopped. He’d expected something to match his mental image of a government-controlled mal: beige, bland, and scrubbed free of personality.
He’d been wrong. The interior was gorgeous: an enormous half-circle of a window let in a flood of light from the rising sun. The front wall was painted a deep, rich crimson, while the back showed off the ancient brickwork to full advantage. A large brick fireplace took up most of the wall nearest the door. Beside it, an iron staircase spiraled up to the second floor. Directly across from the huge window, a doorway the same half-circle shape let out onto what looked like a small courtyard garden, and he realized the window and door had once been archways to allow carriages to pass through.
The furniture all consisted of pale colors and clean lines, which stood out against dark wooden flooring. Original, maybe? Certainly it creaked loudly enough beneath Caleb’s feet. As for the decor…it was eclectic, to say the least. Blown-glass witch balls hung in the windows, throwing ovals of colorful light across the floor. Glass cases displayed pottery jars, amulets of silver and iron, and wands of wood and bone. As he passed by, a colorfully-painted gourd rattle suddenly shivered, as of its own accord.
“Interesting,” Starkweather said, leaning over to peer at the rattle. “It’s reacting to Gray’s presence, even though he isn’t manifesting.”
Caleb sidled away from the rattle. “Which means…?” His voice cracked, and he winced. Fuck, now he was jumping at…well not inanimate objects, exactly.
“Probably nothing,” Starkweather said with a reassuring smile. Stepping away from the case, he led the way upstairs. The stairs emerged into a loft area, which was clearly used as Starkweather’s office space. “The shower is at the end of the hall. Or take a nice long soak in the tub, if you feel like it. Use whatever you need. As for clothes, you were staying with your sister-in-law, right?”
He didn’t know what Melanie had gotten mixed up in, but he didn’t want to discuss it with the agent. Carefully not meeting Starkweather’s piercing blue eyes, he asked, “Is she in trouble?”
“Not as far as I know, but she hasn’t returned home.”
Caleb fought to keep his expression bland, even though his stomach cramped with worry. A visceral memory of his—Gray’s—fangs sinking into her arm flashed through him: the force, the savagery needed to break through cloth. And skin.
The taste of blood, so different from a demon’s.
“Please tell me if you find her,” he said quietly. “I’m worried.”
Starkweather nodded. “I understand. In the meantime, I’ll send someone out to get clothes for you. Just tell me your size.”