Saturday, May 30, 2015

Saturday's Series Spotlight: Psycop by Jordan Castillo Price


Once upon a time if you told doctors you heard voices, they'd diagnose you as schizophrenic, put you on heavy drugs, and lock you away in a cozy state institution to keep you from hurting yourself or others.

Nowadays they test you first to see if you're psychic.

The PsyCop series by Jordan Castillo Price features frazzled psychic medium Victor Bayne and his smokin'-hot boyfriend, Jacob Marks. Fifteen years ago, Victor studied at Heliotrope Station, one of the original residential psychic training programs in the U.S. The only thing he learned in that facility was how to be a better liar.

Now he's part of an elite PsyCop unit. Solving murders should be a snap when you can talk to the deceased. But since no one's ever given him a lucky break when they were alive, why would they start now ?


Inside Out #.1
Summary:
Bureaucracy can suck the fun out of anything, even a PsyCop meeting. Undaunted, Jacob Marks would never miss a chance to meet some of the city's most mysterious crime fighters in the flesh, since now he'll finally be able to put names to faces...if Carolyn doesn't make them miss the whole thing because she's so focused on fixing him up with a musician from Boston.

Among the Living #1
Summary:
Victor Bayne, the psychic half of a PsyCop team, is a gay medium who’s more concerned with flying under the radar than in making waves.

He hooks up with handsome Jacob Marks, a non-psychic (or “Stiff”) from an adjacent precinct at his ex-partner’s retirement party and it seems like his dubious luck has taken a turn for the better. But then a serial killer surfaces who can change his appearance to match any witness’ idea of the world’s hottest guy.

Solving murders is a snap when you can ask the victims whodunit, but this killer’s not leaving any spirits behind.

Thaw #1.1
Summary:
Victor Bayne is a PsyCop, a psychic medium who sees dead people as plainly as if they were alive. People assume that Vic's psychic abilities are his only talent, but in Thaw, he shows his boyfriend Jacob that he's got other secret skills up his sleeve.

Criss Cross #2
Summary:
Criss Cross finds the ghosts surrounding Victor getting awfully pushy. The medications that Victor usually takes to control his abilities are threatening to destroy his liver, and his new meds aren't any more effective than sugar pills.

Vic is also adjusting to a new PsyCop partner, a mild-mannered guy named Roger with all the personality of white bread. At least he's willing to spring for the Starbucks.

Jacob’s ex-boyfriend, Crash, is an empathic healer who might be able to help Victor pull his powers into balance, but he seems more interested in getting into Victor’s pants than in providing any actual assistance.

Striking Sparks #2.1
Summary:
Andrew's life is spinning out of control, and he's desperate for some guidance. He's heard there's a palm reader in Wicker Park who's the real deal: a certified, honest-to-God psychic. He's confident that she'll tell him exactly what he needs to hear.

Too bad he didn’t account for how long it would take him to find parking.

The psychic's gone, but one of the other shopkeepers in the building has a sympathetic ear. He's pretty easy on the eyes, too.

Striking Sparks is set in the PsyCop storyverse, but it stands alone. Newcomers can hop right in and try it. Veteran PsyCop fans will be treated a good, long look at one of PsyCop’s supporting characters.

This adult novelette is approximately thirty pages long.

Many Happy Returns #2.2
Summary:
The holidays.

Food. Family.

Returns.

In this short story, Kenneth moonlights part time at SaverPlus to earn enough money to buy himself a state of the art computer system. He just wants to do his job and go home. But a sexy blond customer is looking for service, and he won't take no for an answer.

Mind Reader #2.3
Summary:
Fascinating things can be learned on a field trip. Crash has something to prove to one of his internet colleagues. Luckily he knows a level-five medium who can debunk the theory that mummification ties a spirit to the material plane.Vic is perfectly willing to go to the museum with his lover's ex-boyfriend, but it seems like nothing he says or does will satisfy Crash.

Free, through the author's website.

Body and Soul #3
Summary:
Thanksgiving can't end too soon for Victor Bayne, who's finding Jacob's family hard to swallow. Luckily, he's called back to work to track down a high-profile missing person.

Meanwhile, Jacob tries to find a home they can move into that's not infested--with either cockroaches, or ghosts. As if the house-hunting isn't stressful enough, Vic's new partner Bob Zigler doesn't seem to think he can do anything right. A deceased junkie with a bone to pick leads Vic and Zig on a wild chase that ends in a basement full of horrors.

The Stroke of Midnight #3.1
Summary:
Jacob Marks has noticed that crimes are committed whether or not he happens to have a social engagement on the agenda. Date another PsyCop, and the likelihood of having a successful night out are cut in half.

Of course Jacob feels sorry for the poor sap in the Fifth Precinct who's been shot. But did he have to go and get himself offed on New Year's Eve?

Free, through the author's website.

Secrets #4
Summary:
Victor Bayne’s job as a PsyCop involves tracking down dead people and getting them to spill their guts about their final moments. It's never been fun, per se. But it's not usually this annoying.

Vic has just moved in with his boyfriend Jacob, he can’t figure out where anything’s packed, and his co-worker is pressuring him to have a housewarming party. Can’t a guy catch a break?

On a more sinister note, Vic discovers there’s absolutely no trace of him online. No trace of anyone else who trained at "Camp Hell," either. Everyone Vic knows has signed a mysterious set of papers to ensure his “privacy.” The contracts are so confidential that even Vic has never heard of them. But Jacob might have.

What other secrets has Jacob been keeping?

Camp Hell #5
Summary:
Victor Bayne honed his dubious psychic skills at one of the first psych training facilities in the country, Heliotrope Station, otherwise known as Camp Hell to the psychics who've been guests behind its razorwire fence.

Vic discovered that none of the people he remembers from Camp Hell can be found online, and there’s no mention of Heliotrope Station itself, either. Someone's gone through a lot of trouble to bury the past. But who?

GhosTV #6
Summary:
For the past dozen years, Victor Bayne has solved numerous murders by interrogating witnesses only he can see—dead witnesses. But when his best friend Lisa goes missing from the sunny California campus of PsyTrain, the last thing he wants to find there is her spirit.

Disappearing without a trace in a school full of psychics? That’s some trick. But somehow both Lisa and her roommate have vanished into thin air. A group of fanatics called Five Faith has been sniffing around, and Lisa’s email is compromised.

Time is running out, and with no ghosts to cross-examine, Vic can’t afford to turn down any offers of help. An old enemy can provide an innovative way to track Vic’s missing friend, and he enters into an uneasy alliance—even though its ultimate cost will ensnare him in a debt he may never manage to settle.

In the Dark #6.1
Summary:
Halloween is fun...at least, it's supposed to be. Costumes, candy, trick-or-treat, even jaded Victor Bayne can get behind those sorts of antics. Too bad this year's Halloween is a grownup event. Not only must Vic don a suit and endure a disco-obsessed DJ, he has to mingle with friends of Jacob's he would much rather ignore.

Vic thinks he has the party's host all figured out--but as he so often realizes, once he looks beneath the surface, things are seldom what they seem.

Spook Squad #7
Summary:
Everyone enjoys peace and tranquility, and Victor Bayne is no exception. He goes to great lengths to maintain a harmonious home with his partner, Jacob. Although the cannery is huge, it’s grown difficult to avoid the elephant in the room…the elephant with the letters FPMP scrawled on its hide.

Once Jacob surrendered his PsyCop badge, he infiltrated the Federal Psychic Monitoring Program. In his typical restrained fashion, he hasn’t been sharing much about what he actually does behind its vigilantly guarded doors. And true to form, Vic hasn’t asked. In fact, he would prefer not to think about the FPMP at all, since he’s owed Director Dreyfuss an exorcism since their private flight to PsyTrain.

While Vic has successfully avoided FPMP entanglement for several months, now his debt has finally come due.

Partners (#1 - 2)
Summary:
Featuring two PsyCop novels, Among the Living and Criss Cross, this volume will leave you on the edge of you seat, wanting more.

Property (#3 - 4)
Summary:
Victor Bayne sees dead people. Working homicide is a cinch for him, since the victims can finger their killers, and give the how, when and why of their own demises. So work is no big challenge. It's the rest of Vic's life that gives him problems. PsyCop: Property contains PsyCop stories 3 and 4 (Body & Soul, and Secrets).

Inside Out #.1
A year, four months and eight days before Maurice Taylor retired from the Chicago Police Department…

“Honestly, Jacob. A meeting is a meeting. It’s nothing to get worked up over. Believe me.” Carolyn flipped down the passenger-side visor and gave her subdued peach lipstick a quick check. “Seriously. It’s like watching paint dry. Probably even more tedious than that.”

“But this is a PsyCop meeting—my first one. That’s got to count for something. And if it’s so dull, why’d they keep the Stiffs in the dark for so long?”

“Who knows? Maybe someone in brass just realized it can count toward your continuing education credits so it saves them the expense of paying for a class.”

Jacob reached for the handle to open the car door, but he noticed Carolyn didn’t. He paused.

“Did you talk to Keith?” She asked.

The lie came to him first—I left a message. He’d never considered himself a liar, but the very first conversation he’d had with Carolyn was a real eye-opener. Over the past few months he’d been trying to mend his ways, but it was a work in progress. No doubt everyone lied—to spare people’s feelings, to avoid coming off like jerks. But everyone didn’t work with a telepath.

Among the Living #1
Once upon a time if you told doctors you heard voices, they’d diagnose you as schizophrenic, put you on heavy drugs, and lock you away in a cozy state institution to keep you from hurting yourself or others.

Nowadays they test you first to see if you’re psychic.

Maurice was a sixty-two year old black man who had a lot more gray in his hair at his retirement party than he'd had when I first met him. We’d never been close in a way that some partners at the Fifth Precinct are. We didn’t hit sports bars after our shift for a shot and a beer. We didn’t watch the game at each others’ houses. We didn’t invite each other to family functions—not that I have any family to speak of.

Maybe it was the race difference. Or the age difference. But despite the fact that we didn’t connect on any sort of deep, soul-searching level, I was gonna miss working with the guy.

I stood behind the kitchen island and watched through the glass doors that led to the deck as Maurice ambled by. He laughed as he tried to balance a Coors Light, a styrofoam tray of bratwurst and a small stack of CDs. He looked genuinely happy. I supposed he was ready to retire—not like those guys you hear about that are forced out, along with all of their years of honed experience, in favor of some young buck who’ll work for half the salary.

Maurice set the CDs in a sloppy, listing pile next to a tinny boom box and drained his beer in one pull. I wondered if being retired would entice him into a long slide down the neck of a bottle, but then I felt a little guilty for even thinking it. Because Maurice never, ever made comments about my Auracel—whether I had taken any, or was out, or was rebounding after a weekend of “accidentally” doubling or tripling my dosage. Nothing.

Maybe that was the actual reason I was gonna miss him so much.

I turned away from the deck and made my way back down the hallway, and tried to remember where the bathroom was. I veered accidentally into the rec room and a bunch of black kids, mostly teenagers, all fell silent. I nodded at them and wondered if I’d managed to look friendly or if I just came off as some creepy, white asshole, then headed toward the basement where I remembered there was a half bath off Maurice’s seldom-used woodshop.

“That’s him, Victor Bayne,” one of the kids whispered, so loud that it was audible to my physical ears. Not that my sixth sense would’ve picked it up, given that I was pretty far into a nice Auracel haze, and besides, I wasn't particularly clairaudient. “He was my dad’s partner on the Spook Squad.”

I quelled the urge to go back into the rec room and tell Maurice’s kid that his dad would probably shit a brick if he heard that expression in his home. But that’d lead to a long-winded discussion of civil rights, yadda yadda yadda. Plus I’d be absolutely certain to come off as a creepy, white asshole then, in case there was any doubt at all.

I groped around the cellar wall at the top of the stairs for several long moments for a light until I realized the lights downstairs were already on. I made a mental note to rib Maurice about the availability of light bulbs greater than 40 watts come Monday. Except Maurice wasn’t gonna be there on Monday. Damn.

My eyes adjusted and I took the cellar steps two by two. I imagined what Maurice’s kid was probably saying about me to his cousins and friends. It was pretty plain that I was the psychic half of the Maurice/Victor team, since Maurice was about as psychic as a brick wall, and damn proud of it.

A pair of opposites forms a Paranormal Investigation Unit. The Psychs—psychic cops—do the psychic stuff, just like you’d expect. And the Stiffs—look, I didn’t name ‘em—are oblivious to any psychic interference a sixth-sensory gifted criminal might throw out there. It was rough at first getting used to riding around with a guy who put out about as many vibes as a day-old ham sandwich. But I got used to it, and eventually I grew to see the practicality of pairing us with each other.

Halfway down the steps I reached into my jeans pocket and found a tab of Auracel among the old gum wrappers and lint. I felt around some more, but only managed to locate the one. I’d brought three with me. Had I taken two earlier? I only remembered taking one in the car. Oh, and there was the one I took when Sergeant Warwick came in. The irony. Popping pills within spitting distance of someone capable of cutting off my precious supply.

I swallowed the Auracel, grabbed hold of the bathroom door and barely caught myself from slamming face first into Detective Jacob Marks, the golden child of the Twelfth Precinct Sex Crimes Unit.

He was a big, dark-eyed, dark-haired hunk of a guy with a neatly clipped goatee and short hair that looked like he had it trimmed every single week. He’d always looked beefy to me from afar, standing in the background, tall and proud, as his sergeant praised his work on high profile cases during press releases while the cameras flashed and the video rolled. But up close it was obvious that he was as wide as two of me put together, and it was all solid muscle.

I think I excused myself and staggered back a step or two. The Auracel I’d taken on the stairs was stuck to the roof of my mouth and I swallowed hard, worried that its innocuous gelatin coating would dissolve and give me a big jolt of something bitter and nasty. The Auracel didn’t budge.

“So,” Marks said, deftly swerving his bulging pecs around my shoulder as he maneuvered past me. I stood there gaping and trying not to choke. “Lost your Stiff.”

A comment about the crassness of calling Maurice a Stiff stuck somewhere around the last Auracel, as I realized that Marks not only knew who I was and what I did, but that he seemed to be flirting with me. Detective Marks—queer? Who knew? And besides, he was a Stiff, too.

Or maybe he was just a jerk and the flirting notion was merely something that my mind constructed from the high it’d gleaned from two Auracels and a few fumes.

Thaw #1.1
I’m the last guy in the world who cares about sports, whether we’re talking about the Cubs, Sox, Bulls or Bears, or for that matter anything even remotely athletic. So I was a little surprised when Jacob suggested that we take a trip downtown to go ice skating. But nowhere near as surprised as he was when I told him I thought it was a great idea.

What Jacob didn’t know was that I’d played pee-wee hockey the winter I was eleven. (I didn’t give a rat’s ass about hockey. I had a crush on the goalie.) And what I didn’t know was that the ice rink would look so cool after sunset. All the bare trees along Michigan Avenue had been wrapped in white Christmas lights, and the whole Chicago skyline blazed behind them. Millennium Park was insanely cold, but it was gorgeous.

Jacob must have figured out that I could skate before we even got out on the ice. Not only is he smart that way, but I’m about as easy to read as a billboard. Even so, he still spent more time checking me out than he did enjoying the scenery. It’s weird, the way he stares. He doesn’t stop when I catch him at it. He just smiles a little.

Criss Cross #2
It was a pretty good day, for October in Chicago. The weather was warm enough that I could get away with wearing just jeans, a T-shirt, a flannel shirt, and my threadbare jean jacket. I could see my breath as we set the rowboat in the water, Maurice in his knee-high rubber boots, steadying the small aluminum boat so I could climb in. Water squished through my black Converse high-tops. Not the best shoes to wear fishing, I gathered.

But I’d never been fishing before, so how the hell would I know?

Maurice heaved himself over the side, thrust an oar into the slimy green water on the bank of the Calumet, and shoved off. And he did it with an ease that reminded me that even though he was graying, he was still in reasonably good shape.

Maurice Taylor had been my partner in the PsyCop Unit for a dozen years, and now he was retired. We’d been quintessential opposites when the force had matched us up: him, a mature black man without a lick of psychic ability, who’d inched his way up to detective with years of hard, honest police work. And me, an impulsive white kid with no friends, whose sixth sense was always tuned to eleven unless I was on an anti-psyactive drug cocktail.

Maurice was still old. And he still had his common sense, far as I could tell. Me? I wasn’t a kid anymore, but at least I’d managed to make a few friends. Other than that, I couldn’t really vouch for myself.

“Give that oar over here,” Maurice said, stretching his hand out to me. “We be goin’ in circles all day, if I let you just splash it all over the place like that.”

I didn’t argue. Maurice is more stubborn than I am. I know this.

Maurice took several deep breaths as he rowed us farther from shore. The Calumet’s current wasn’t particularly fast in the fall. It had pockets of reedy marsh along the banks that seemed like ideal places to just sit in your boat and while away the day. A train clanged by to the north of us and the scream of a siren drifted by from a stretch of elevated highway. Nature.

“Smell that fine air,” Maurice said.

I grunted. It smelled like algae and exhaust fumes to me.

Maurice pulled a few more strokes with the oars and then eased our anchor—a hunk of metal that’d been part of a barbell in another existence—over the side.

“Shouldn’t I have, uh...a lifejacket on?”

Maurice smiled and started fiddling with his rod. Or reel. Or whatever the fishing pole thing is called. “S’okay, Victor. Water ain’t but waist high.”

I glanced over the side of the boat. The water was opaque green. Hard to tell if Maurice was exaggerating.

He put the fishing pole in my hand and pulled out another. “Just set there and wait until I show you how to cast. Else you’ll tear your eye out with the hook.”

I looked down at the hook. Maurice had squished a worm onto it. A worm spirit didn’t appear and immediately start telling me about the moment of its death, so I presumed I was safe from the spirits of bugs. But then it moved and I realized it was still alive. Gross.

Maurice cast his own line with a fairly straightforward explanation of what he was doing, then exchanged it with me for the first fishing pole, which he also cast.

I stared out at the little red floaty things that marked where our hooks had sunk and waited for more instructions.

Maurice wedged his fishing pole into a groove on the floor of the boat and unzipped his duffel bag. He pulled out a thermos and a battered plastic travel mug.

“What next?” I asked him.

Maurice poured some coffee into the mug and handed it to me. The early morning sunlight filtered through the steam that curled up from the surface of the coffee, and I felt like the two of us were in a Folgers commercial. Maurice poured another cup for himself, screwed the stopper back onto the thermos, and sighed. “We wait,” he said.

I noticed he was smiling, a soft, kind of distant smile as he gazed out over the water, conveniently ignoring the beer cans and plastic shopping bags that floated around us. Retirement suited him.

We drank our coffees together in silence, and we stared at the water while I tried to control the shivering, me sitting there in wet canvas sneakers in October. It was warm for October, but not that warm. I wedged my fishing pole into the groove in the floor as I’d seen Maurice do and poured myself another coffee. I contemplated pouring out the rest of the contents of the thermos onto my freezing cold feet, but I figured it would only feel good for about a minute, and then the coffee would cool and pretty soon my feet would just be wet again. I saved the coffee for drinking, instead.

“So,” Maurice said, after he finished his coffee. “Warwick find you a new partner yet?

“Yeah, a couple days ago. Some guy. His name’s Roger Burke.”

I really couldn’t think of much to say about Detective “please, call me Roger,” Burke. He was kinda like white bread. When I was a teenager, I would have been pretty eager to get him down my throat. But now that I was looking at forty, I found him a little bland.

Don’t get me wrong, Roger was cute. He had a ready smile that he lavished on me at the drop of a hat. His thick hair was naturally blond, cut short and smart. His eyebrows and eyelashes were a darker blond, framing greenish hazel eyes.

I’d never seen him in anything less than a sport coat, but judging by the way it sat on his shoulders and buttoned smoothly over his nipped waist, I was guessing he probably exercised regularly, and was hiding a set of washboard abs under his perfectly pressed dress shirt.

It was difficult to say if he’d pitch for my team or not. Once upon a time I assumed that all the other cops except for me were straight. That was before Detective Jacob Marks cornered me in the bathroom at Maurice’s retirement party.

I was still too fixated on Jacob to really give a damn if Roger Burke slept with men, women, or inflatable farm animals, for that matter.

Striking Sparks #2.1
Andrew circled the block for the fourth time. He hadn’t realized parking would be so horrible downtown. He thought he would get there in plenty of time if he left work at three, but he’d had no idea he should have given himself half an hour to find a parking space.

He went one block deeper into the side streets and spotted a gap in the parked cars. He was halfway in before he saw the fire hydrant beside the curb. He stared at the hydrant in disbelief, as if it had just appeared there to make his life miserable. Didn’t it know how important today was? Didn’t it realize that by this time next week, Andrew would be married?

Didn’t it realize that he was scared to death?

The blast of a horn snapped Andrew back to attention. He glanced in his rearview mirror. The guy behind him was Mexican, or Hispanic, or whatever the correct term was. He looked tough. And not very happy to be waiting around while Andrew tried to park his car.

Andrew circled for eighteen more minutes before he found a spot. He walked as fast as he could. Even so, when he got to the storefront he’d been circling and circling, by the time he reached the front door, the rectangular fluorescent sign that said “open” had been unplugged.

The Tarot Card Palm Reader sign was off, too. “This can’t be happening.” Andrew pressed his face to the plate glass window and cupped his hands beside his eyes. There! There were candles burning inside. That meant the psychic wasn’t gone yet. Because nobody just left candles burning, not with the possibility that they’d start a fire and burn down the whole building. Right?

Though this psychic, from what he’d heard, was real. Why shouldn’t she leave candles burning if she knew the building would be safe?

Something moved inside the storefront, maybe—or maybe people passing him on the sidewalk were casting reflections that he mistook for motion inside. Andrew pressed his face into the glass harder, ignoring the gritty feel of the grime-coated glass against his forehead. “Hello?” he tapped on the glass to see if maybe the palm reader was still there, and maybe he could get her attention. Nothing moved. No lights came on. Andrew knocked harder, with his knuckles now, rather than his fingertips. “Hello?”

“It’s closed.”

Andrew jumped and spun around to face whoever had snuck up on him. His hand went to his wallet, patted it to make sure it was still where it was supposed to be, in his pocket.

The man who’d scared Andrew half to death wasn’t even looking at him. He had a hand cupped around a cigarette and was busy attempting to light it despite the wind. He wore a leather biker jacket covered in safety pins and small, round badges with band names on them Andrew might have heard of, might not, and his bleached blond hair was spiked out stiff like dozens of sharp nails.

He stopped flicking his lighter and glanced at Andrew. “What?”

Andrew had been staring at his silver nosering. “Someone might still be in there.”

“Nope. Saw her leave.” The unlit cigarette bobbed as he spoke. “Lydia hates to miss the 5:07. You’d need to shove a big wad of money into her hand by five to keep her off that bus.” He cupped his hand around the end of the cigarette and started flicking his lighter again.

“Damn it.” Andrew kicked the building’s concrete foundation.

The smoker stopped flicking the lighter for a moment, raised his eyebrow, and then went back to trying to light his cigarette. “What’re you so stressed about? Having your palm read is usually something people do for fun, you know.”

“It’s just…I drove all the way here from Arlington Heights. I had to get time off to leave early and everything. And now this.”

“What’s the big deal? Just come back tomorrow. You don’t work Saturdays, do you?”

“Oh, Forget it.” Andrew turned toward the sidestreet that led to the other sidestreet where he’d eventually parked his car. Obviously, he wasn’t going to get a reading.

“Hold on,” said the smoker. “Help me get this thing lit.” He handed the lighter to Andrew and shielded both sides of his unlit cigarette from the wind. Andrew flicked the lighter; the metal wheel was already warm from striking sparks. He managed to get a small flame. The wind blew it out.

“C’mon, I won’t bite. Block the wind.”

Andrew repositioned himself and flicked the lighter a few more times. Cigarette met flame, and the edge crackled as the smoker inhaled. He blew a stream of smoke over Andrew’s shoulder. “Want one?”

“No, I don’t sm…I never really picked up the habit.”

“It’s never too late to learn. How about a drag?”

Andrew stared at the glowing cherry of the cigarette. The fingers of the other man’s hand were stacked with silver rings. Some had esoteric-looking symbols etched into them, and others were set with stones. There was a gigantic hunk of jade on his forefinger, pale green, the color of the sugared almonds that Meredith had been bundling into tiny mesh bags all week. Two green, two blue, and a white, tied with a pale green bow and a pair of fake plastic wedding rings. There was even a poem that went with them:

Five sugared almonds for each guest to eat.
To remind us that life is both bitter and sweet
Five wishes for the new husband and wife
Health, wealth, happiness, children, and a long life!

Andrew took the cigarette, placed it to his lips, and inhaled. His fingertips smelled like butane.

Many Happy Returns #2.2
Kenneth shot a plastic tab through the seam of a hideous sweater. He wasn't sure why he bothered. It wasn't as if the sweater hadn't been returned at least three times. Not that it was defective, per se. It was just so ugly that no one would ever want it.

But Kenneth was only there to earn enough money to buy a new computer. Part-time, seasonal work seemed harmless enough, or at least it had, the day he'd accepted the job of staffing the most obscure return desk in the least-known subbasement of SaverPlus.

He shot a plastic tag through a baseball cap, and wondered what type of person would return a hat. Someone with a head that was really big, or really small? He decided that he thought too much. Always had.

The clock clunked. It was an industrial piece of electronics, circa 1953, and it was far too retro to simply tick. Eight fifty-nine. He turned around and looked at the piles of clothes that had accumulated during his shift. Time to fold up the ugly returns and punch his timecard.

Forty-two years old and punching a time clock. Kenneth tried not to spiral down into a haze of self-pity by distracting himself with another thought, since his brain was so insistent on thinking.

Flat screen monitor. Bluetooth keyboard. Relax. Breathe.

The sharp ring of a call bell sent images of new computer systems scattering to the edges of Kenneth's mind. He looked up at the return desk, startled, and found a man in a leather jacket with spiked blond hair leaning over the counter on both elbows, chewing gum. He smiled at Kenneth. More of a devilish smile than an expression of actual happiness.

"We're closed," Kenneth said. "They've shut the lights off."

The customer peeked back over his shoulder, as if something had snuck up on him while he was trying to get Kenneth's attention.

"Sure," he said. "But look, maybe you can do me a favor."

Kenneth resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He couldn't imagine what would prompt him to do a favor for a total stranger, particularly at this purgatory of a job, and especially at 9:01 pm.

"This shirt," the customer said, swinging a plastic bag onto the counter. "I need a large."

Kenneth sighed through his nose and reached into the bag. He had a big enough pile of returns. If he had the shirt in a large, he could scan them, swap them, and send the gum-chewer on his way.

He pulled the shirt onto the counter. It was, in Kenneth's opinion, the only decent shirt that SaverPlus carried. He owned three, himself.

"Whoa," said the customer, pointing. "You're wearing the same one." He levered himself up onto his palms, leaning over the countertop, into Kenneth's personal space. "That's pretty wild. Don't you think?"

"We haven't got this in a large," Kenneth said. "Not in black, anyway."

"But I need black," he said. "The shirt's from my mom. And she'll get all weird if I don't wear it the next time I see her."

"I'm sorry, sir...."

The customer snorted. "Call me Crash." He squinted at Kenneth's name tag. "Kenny."

Kenneth composed himself. Bluetooth. DVD-RW. Five hundred gig hard drive.

"These shirts are sold out in black large. They have been since November. If you'd like the shirt in mocha, I can do the exchange, but...."

"Gimme yours."

Mind Reader #2.3
I leaned over the display case and stared down through the glass.

"Pretty messed up," Crash said.

I thought for a second that he was reading my mind, but then I realized he was talking about the display. I shrugged. The mummified babies were just some brown, withered husks. I'd seen worse, lots worse.

"What does it say about a culture, that they're so obsessed with their dead that they go through all this preparation and ritual to preserve the body?"

I glanced up at a small sign on the wall I'd noticed that said something about it. "They, uh, thought they'd need this stuff in the afterlife. Just being thorough, I guess."

Body and Soul #3
“Uncle Jacob? Did you get to shoot anybody since last summer?”

Jacob’s nephew, Clayton, asked this with the eagerness and joy of a kid who’d just learned that school was cancelled. Clayton was in fifth grade. I have no idea how old that would make him.

“You shot someone last summer?” I muttered, smoothing my napkin on my lap to the point where I probably looked like I was playing with myself. Not exactly the impression I’d wanted to make on Jacob’s family on our first Thanksgiving together.

The muttering? Not usually my style, but I was feeling uncharacteristically mouthy. It seemed like the moment I had a thought, it made its way through my vocal cords and out my mouth before I had a chance to pat it down and make sure it wasn’t going to jab anyone. I’d been this way since I’d stopped taking Auracel and Seconal over a month ago. Here I thought I’d been mellowing all these years, when really, it had just been the drugs.

“No,” Jacob answered patiently. “I try to avoid shooting people.” And then he looked at me. “Carolyn and I walked in on an armed robbery in progress at the convenience store on California and Irving. It was a clean shot to the leg.”

Departmental policy allows us cops to decide whether to go for a lethal or a non-lethal shot when a criminal’s got an unarmed civilian at gunpoint. If Jacob had shot someone’s leg, I had no doubt it was exactly where he’d been aiming. Jacob is a Stiff, the non-psychic half of a PsyCop team, and not only are Stiffs impossible to influence by sixth-sensory means and impervious to possession, but they’re usually crack shots. The Stiffs who I know, anyway.

I’m the other half of a PsyCop team, the Psych half. Not Jacob’s team; Carolyn Brinkman was Jacob’s better half, on the job at least. I didn’t currently have a Stiff of my very own. Maurice, my first partner, retired—although I still lean on him way too much. Lisa, my second partner, was kicked off the force when they discovered that she was as psychic as Jean Dixon. She’s off being trained for the psy end of the whole PsyCop business now, out in California. Technically she’s just a phone call away, and yet sometimes it feels like she’s on an entirely different planet. Even when she gets back, I won’t get to partner with her, since they only pair up Psychs with Stiffs.

And then there was my third partner, Roger. The bastard kidnapped me for some under-the-table drug testing, and I’d been so gullible I’d practically given him a key to my apartment. Roger was rotting in a jail cell, last I’d heard. The whole affair was pretty hush-hush. Maybe I could’ve gleaned a few more details, if I was the type to obsess about the little things, like where one’s arch-enemy is incarcerated, and whether or not he’s shown up for roll call recently. But, frankly, I’ve never found details very comforting. I think about them, and I just get overwhelmed. Roger went bye-bye, and I came out of our encounter intact. That’s all I really need to know.

Six weeks later and I was still on medical leave. I felt fine, probably due to the amount of actual blood cells coursing through my system in lieu of the drug cocktail I was accustomed to.

“Did you ever shoot anyone?” Clayton asked me, eyes sparkling.

“Sure.”

“Wow. Did you kill ‘em?”

Clayton had Jacob’s phenomenal dark eyes. Or Jacob’s younger sister Barbara’s eyes. Which were Jacob’s father’s eyes, as well as the eyes of the wizened old lady at the head of the table who was about a hundred and five. She’d been giving me a look that could probably kill an elephant ever since we’d gotten there and Jacob had introduced me as his boyfriend.

I think he’d primed his family over the phone. But still. He had to go and say it out loud and rub it in. Because that’s the way Jacob is. Not that he’d be bringing a man home for Thanksgiving for any other reason. But that’s beside the point.

“Clayton Joseph,” snapped Barbara. She might have had Jacob’s eyes, but she certainly couldn’t hold a candle to his cool composure. “That is not an appropriate question for the dinner table.”

Grandma Marks glowered at me from the head of the table, her dark eyes, half-hidden in folds of wrinkled skin, threatening to pierce me right through. I’d figured she hated me because I was doing the nasty with her grandson. Maybe she had a thing against psychics. Hell, maybe both. I’m usually just lucky that way.

The Stroke of Midnight #3.1
It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Famous last words, I know. But originally we would’ve had four hands to carry the six-pack of microbrew and the sub platter. Then we got a call (okay, Vic got a call). There was a body, and he had to go…which left me by myself trying to figure out how to ring the doorbell. I could’ve knocked on it with my foot, but I really wasn’t in the mood to hear SWAT team jokes for the rest of the night. I really wasn’t in the mood to be there at all anymore, but it seemed better than sitting alone in that minuscule apartment with a platter full of subs.

I managed to connect my elbow with the doorbell, and pretty soon a silhouette filled the frosted glass window. I hoped it was Manny. That surprised me. Keith might have been the one I’d known forever, but Manny had an easygoing way about him that Keith had never managed. Sure, Keith tried, or maybe he just tried to fake it, but all those bitchy remarks he made and then later claimed to be “just kidding” about, all the backhanded compliments and derisive eye-rolls—they added up. The front door opened. Keith. “Oh, here, let me get that.”

He wrangled the platter through the door, then did a sudden stop as I mounted the single stair so he could peer over my shoulder. “Where’s this Victor person we’ve been hearing so little about? Parking the car?”

“He got called in. You’ll have to make do with me.”

Secrets #4
“You don’t need the futon,” Jacob called from the living room. My living room. The one he’d been sharing with me since an incubus exploded in his swanky Lakeview condo last fall. I was in the kitchen at the time, trying to determine exactly how attached I was to the corkboard next to the phone, the one where I stick small pieces of paper until I forget what the notes scrawled on them were supposed to mean. “I have a living room set,” he said.

I vaguely remembered Jacob’s living room set. I’d seen it at his old condo maybe twice before it’d gone into storage. I’d been too busy ogling his naked body to pay much attention to his dΓ©cor. When I wasn’t busy shooting at the incubus who’d followed him there, anyway.

I worked the yellow sticky note I was holding between my thumb and forefinger, rubbing it, creasing it down the center. It was so damp with sweat, it molded to the shape of my palm. I shook it loose and it landed on the countertop. I scrubbed my palm against the leg of my jeans, and wondered if I’d managed to leach all the sticky out of the note. Stupid of me. I’d made a deal with Jacob that I’d only keep the things I marked with a yellow paper tag. It had seemed like a big stack of stickies, at the time. But my stack had grown awfully thin. There aren’t as many sticky notes in a pack as you might think.

It was the week of my thirty-ninth birthday, and there I was, poised to move out of my bright white apartment and into the old brick loft building, a turn of the century cannery, that I now owned with Jacob. I’m not sure which part was weirder—that it had taken me so long to find someone I was that serious about, or that it had even happened to me at all. I’d always figured I was too screwed up to do the whole long-term relationship thing with anybody. Ever.

“Vic? The futon.”

I looked down at the soggy paper square on the countertop. Maybe Jacob was right about the futon. Almost-forty-year-olds didn’t generally have cheap futons as the focal point of their living rooms. Especially not when there was actual furniture around they could be using. Besides, it would free up that sticky note so I could mark something else I wanted to keep.

I touched the seat of the barstool under the kitchen counter. Vinyl and chrome. I liked my barstools. Did I need to put a sticky on each of them, or was it understood that they were a set?

Jacob appeared in the doorway, flashing his washboard abs. He wasn’t trying to seduce me; he was mopping sweat from his face with the hem of his black T-shirt. Still, he was distracting, to say the least. “Bedroom’s packed,” he said, tugging his shirt back down. “Where are those barstools supposed to go?”

“The…kitchen?”

He frowned. It was more of a thinking-frown than a cull-your-shit-already-frown. I think. “Maybe. Or maybe we can put a bar in the basement.”

If we did put a bar in the basement, Jacob would be drinking at it alone. Not because I don’t drink, which I don’t, but because I don’t do basements. They’re creepy. Even the ones that’ve been finished with paneling, indoor-outdoor carpeting and dart boards.

But I didn’t argue. I don’t do confrontation any better than I do basements, or shots of JΓ€germeister.

“Why don’t we just take it all and sort it out once we get there?” I suggested. Jacob hadn’t thought it was a good idea the night before, but it couldn’t hurt to try one more time and see if I might wear down his resolve. “There’s plenty of room.”

Jacob went to the sink and held his hands under the tap. He splashed cold water on his face and performed another ab-flashing maneuver that would bring any card-carrying queer to his knees. “How many times do you want to end up carrying this stuff?” he said. “We don’t need two of everything.”

And my furniture was all cheap pressboard crap, while his was real. Yeah, I knew that. But still. I had a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that the hundred-year-old cannery, a bizarre student attempt at Egyptian revival, was my new home. I pressed a sticky note onto a narrow white plastic end table in the corner and heard Jacob sigh.

“What?” I said. “That’s where I keep my keys.”

Jacob stepped back from the sink and eased his way toward me. Sweat made his fitted black T-shirt cling to his body, and his deep olive skin glistened in the greenish light cast by the fluorescent overhead fixture. He kept on coming at me until he’d backed me into the wall, where the plastic table threatened to warp under the weight of my thigh. The smell of new sweat was heady, and it turned my furniture frustration to thoughts of sex. I felt a warmth deep in my belly. No, lower. Damn him. Neither one of us needed to resort to arguing. We each had our ways of trying to get what we wanted.

Camp Hell #5
“So. You’re here to gloat over how you’ll nail me with your civil suit.” Roger Burke nailed me with the world’s smuggest grin, and when I didn’t accommodate him by being lured into some sort of argument, he added, “I’d just like to see you try.”

My civil suit. I checked that phrase against the known phrases in my admittedly limited catalog of things-I-knew-about, and came up blank. I was coasting on the sweet spot of my Auracel and I didn’t feel the immediate need to tell Burke that I had no idea what he was talking about, so I stared at him instead.

He’d been grinning at me. His smile faltered. “Don’t give me that look.”

I attempted to look even more like I currently did.

“Go ahead and sue me. I’ve got less than five thousand dollars in the bank. And believe me, I’ve got my countersuit all planned out. You could’ve given me a stroke by shooting me up in the neck. I’m prepared to testify that a long-time drug user like you would know that.”

It had never even occurred to me to sue him. I pressed the heel of my hand into my right eye. It felt great, and then it hurt, and then I saw a flash of pretty colors. “Would you shut up for half a second?”

“Think you’d win over a jury? Maybe they’d sympathize with you on the drug angle if you did your ‘boo-hoo, I’m a medium’ routine. But once my attorneys parade in that big, smug, steroid-pumped gorilla you play house with….”

“I was planning on talking about a way we could avoid the courtroom, but keep running your mouth, and my next phone call is my lawyer.”

Burke crossed his arms over his chest as far as his handcuffs would allow, and he glared. He had a hell of a glare. I’d never seen him use it during the time he’d been my partner at the Fifth Precinct. He’d spent over a month projecting a wholesome, helpful, non-threatening persona as the Stiff half of our PsyCop team, and I’d been totally sold on his good-cop act.

Now that I knew him for what he was, I had no idea how I ever could have seen him as harmless. His eyes, which once seemed unguarded and approachable—at least, for a homicide investigator—now looked so cold and calculating that I wondered why I’d ever thought it was safe to get into a car with him, let alone accept a drink he’d bought without my surveillance.

He sat across the plastic table from me in the visiting room, with his pale, reptilian eyes trained on me so hard that I felt like I needed to go take a shower under a water cannon to wash off the evil. There was a repeater in the corner, the ghost of a former inmate who’d died pounding on the two-way mirror, who continued to slam his fists into the glass long into the afterlife. I’d been spooked by him when I first came into the room and discovered I hadn’t taken enough Auracel to block him. Now I found his presence almost comforting. It meant I wasn’t alone with Roger Burke.

I controlled my revulsion toward him enough to plant my elbows on the table and lean forward. I’d been hoping to buy his information with Marlboros, but the guards wouldn’t let me bring cigarettes into the visiting area. His hissy fit had given me an idea, though. “Here’s the deal. I promise not to sue you, if you tell me what you know about Camp Hell.”

I did my best not to look too full of myself, but I had to admit: a promise to refrain from any future lawsuits seemed a lot more valuable than a few packs of smokes.

Roger eased back into his chair. I wouldn’t say he looked exactly comfortable, but he was interested enough to stay awhile, if only to taunt me about things that he knew, and I didn’t. It was a start.

“I assume that you’re not talking about the new Heliotrope Station. You want to know about the real deal. Where you trained.”

In name only, Heliotrope Station lived on. It was now a series of night-school classes they held over at the Junior College. None of it was even remotely like the original Camp Hell—not the administration, not the staff, not the location. Hell, not even the textbooks. Still, even the old name made me start to sweat, and swallow convulsively.

Roger’s smug grin was back. “You’d need to talk to me ‘til my release date to find out everything I know about Camp Hell. And given that they haven’t even set my sentence, who knows when that’ll be?”

Posturing. That was good. It meant that he wanted to seem like he had something valuable to dangle over my head. Unfortunately, I already knew that he did. Lisa’s si-no talent had told me that Roger could not only tell us why stories about Camp Hell had never made it to the Internet, but who’d managed to bury them.

“I’ll be checking out what you say to make sure it’s true,” I warned him. “I smell bullshit, and I’ll see you in court.”

Roger smiled. There was some genuine pleasure in that smile, along with all the malice. My creeped-out meter ratcheted up to eleven. “April eighteenth,” he said. “It’s a mild fifty-five degrees outside. The subway tunnels are being drained from a freakish flood incident that occurred when an old access tunnel collapsed and the Chicago River poured in. And twenty-three-year-old Victor Bayne was transferred from the Cook County Mental Health Center to Heliotrope Station at approximately fourteen hundred hours. In a straightjacket.”

My right eye throbbed. I jammed my thumb into the corner of it at the bridge of my nose, and reminded myself to breathe. “Big deal.”

“Could anyone else have told you that story? Your co-workers? Your lover?”

He said the word lover like it was something rotten he’d found stuck between his teeth. “You know things about me,” I said. I think my voice sounded normal. Maybe. “I’d be surprised if you didn’t, since you and Doctor Chance schemed to kidnap me for, what, a year? Maybe two? That doesn’t mean you know Camp Hell.”

GhosTV #6
Chapter 1
 Sunshine, fresh air and junk food. I told myself I could enjoy those things— or that’s the line I was feeding myself, anyway. This was the reality: my underwear was soaking wet and my head was ringing; I’d taken one too many Auracel and spun around a few too many times. If I was careful, really careful, the best I could hope for was keeping the chimichanga and the fried Snickers bar from making a reappearance.

I wasn’t obligated to talk to any dead people. I supposed that was something to be thankful for.

I did, however, feel somewhat obligated to talk to Jacob’s sister, Barbara. But only somewhat.

“…scored two goals during the first half of the game. You’d think the coach would have been proud, right? Instead, he said Clayton wasn’t a team player. That he didn’t pass the ball.”

“Must run in the family.”

Normal sounds, like screaming children, screaming adults, and the general wall of screaming humanity, continued on. But the conversation Barbara and I were diligently attempting to have fell down dead between us.

It belatedly occurred to me that I’d spoken aloud.

“I mean, uh, that’s what I like about Jacob. If he’s good at something, he doesn’t stand around waiting for someone else to take a turn at it. That’s fine for little-league soccer, maybe, but when it’s life or death, you want the best guy on your team to step up to the plate.” Okay, I was mixing baseball metaphors with my soccer, but I really didn’t know shit about soccer.

I risked a glance around the side of my cheap plastic sunglasses toward Barbara. She was watching me, which made me want to squirm—despite my damp underwear. Over at the Gut Scrambler, or whatever they were calling the latest ride that neither Barbara nor I were willing to be strapped into, Jacob and Clayton disembarked. They were quite the pair, all flushed cheeks and smiles. They stopped to peer at a bank of monitors that snapped shots of all the scream-laughing riders getting scrambled like a bunch of eggs.

“Aw, jees, he’s gonna talk Jacob into…” Barbara stood and cupped her hands around her mouth. “Clayton. You do not need a ten-dollar picture of yourself on that ride. I took plenty of pictures today with the phone.”

Clayton set his jaw, and holy shit, I hadn’t really seen it when I’d met him last November—but now that he was half a year older, I totally did. That was Jacob’s stubborn-look. In spades.

Genetics can be kinda creepy.

“Tell ’im he’ll wreck it on the log flume,” I muttered.

“You’ll get it wet on the log ride, and then what? You want to be stuck carrying that thing around all day?”

A tinge of bewilderment touched Clayton’s mulish expression. Jacob said something, maybe a promise to stand in line another half hour, ride again and get a photo on the way out. He probably didn’t want to be stuck carrying the thing around all day either—but he also had only one nephew, and as far as he was concerned, kids were made for spoiling.

Jacob and Clayton approached without the photo. One small success. Although I wouldn’t have minded being the photo carrier; it would’ve excused me from riding rides.

“I wanna go on King Chaos,” Clayton whined. He had exactly two modes of speech: whining, and bragging.

Our small group milled for position, and before I could drop to the rear, Jacob looped an arm through mine and pulled me against his side. “What do you say, Vic? You choose the next one after that.”

“I’ll, uh, keep my eyes open.” The list of rides I could actually stomach was pathetically small. Fast spinning and Auracel didn’t mix well. The act of getting strapped into anything and my own demons didn’t mix well, either. Even thoroughly potted on Auracel, I had no desire to ride through long, dark tunnels where God-knows-what might pop out. And my legs were too long for those teacup things. That left log rides. I tried to tell myself they were fun, but it seemed like every time my underwear finally dried off, I ended up sitting on one of those wet seats again—plus, as the tallest guy there, I was always the one to get nailed in the face with the funky, chemical-laced water. But at least it didn’t look like I was too wussy to ride anything.

The contraption Clayton was angling for was some mad scientist experiment that took a row of people and whipped them upside down like they were riding around inside a big bicycle pedal —though in addition to the “you must be this tall” sign, there was also a maximum height.

Yes.

“Gee, sorry,” I said. I was a good two inches taller than the sign, and even Jacob would need to seriously slouch to fake his way through it.

Clayton turned plaintive eyes toward his mother, who said, “Not in your wildest dreams.”

A train pulled up beside us with lots of fake steam and recorded clanging, and Jacob looked at it, and then at me, and raised his eyebrow.

Clayton whined, “I don’t wanna go on that stupid—“

Barbara said, “Give Uncle Jacob and Vic a break for ten minutes, okay? We’ll get some popcorn.”

“I dunno why they wanna go on that stupid….”

I climbed onto the emptiest train car, with only one other rider in it who was staring out at the amusement park and keeping to himself. “Thanks, Barb,” Jacob said. He gave his sister and nephew a little wave. Clayton gave me the evil eye in return. I hoped psychic ability didn’t run in Jacob’s family like stubbornness did.

Without much thinking about it, I sucked white light and put up a barrier between myself and Clayton’s scowling face. I didn’t really feel the power—not like I would have if I weren’t on antipsyactives—but psychically shielding myself was second nature to me by now, like blowing on my coffee to lessen the scald factor or positioning myself upwind of a rotting corpse.

Jacob eased an arm around me and said, “I’m really glad you came.”

I didn’t see why, but I did my best not to sigh or roll my eyes. I’d figured it wouldn’t kill me to sit there for a day and zone out on meds if this family time meant that much to him. “Long as you don’t mind me being a spectator.” I hadn’t realized the buckles and straps would trigger a restraint-reaction from me. I told myself it was just a seatbelt, but my subconscious didn’t buy it, and I ended up bowing out before the spiral flingy upside-down coaster got going.

It was easiest to say the Auracel wasn’t sitting right. In theory, sharing your burdens should make them lighter. But in practice, I hate watching it register on Jacob’s face when he catches me in a Camp Hell flashback.

The train chugged through some Mardi Gras section that looked like a cartoonist’s vision of pre-Katrina New Orleans, and then a stand of palm-looking trees that had absolutely no business growing in the suburbs of Chicago. Jacob pulled me closer and nuzzled my hair. “Next time we both get a day off at the same time, you pick. Anything you want to do.”

I leaned into him. It felt risky, like someone might pop out of the fake woodwork screaming for his autograph, the famous Jacob Marks, darling of the local media—and there he’d be, rubbing up against some guy. But people you see on TV look different in person. Over the airwaves, they’re taller, tanner, younger, and more coiffed. And people were accustomed to seeing Jacob in a suit instead of a sloppy, faded T-shirt and cargo shorts. He’d grown his hair out maybe an inch, and while it had started its day immaculately combed, the whirling and scrambling and whipping around and splashing had left it no better off than mine—and given the relative failure of my most recent haircut, that was saying a lot. For today, at least, Jacob was just a regular guy.

A hot as hell regular guy who was breathing in my ear, but a regular guy, nonetheless.

“You can be my slave for the day,” I suggested.

“Really?” he purred, directly into my ear. I’d been kidding—but maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea. “What’ll that entail? Feeding you?” His breath was warm on my cheek. “Bathing you? With my tongue?”

“I don’t know yet. Gotta keep you on your toes.” No doubt about it—between Jacob and me, he’s got all the testosterone. And yet, maybe he really would get off on the idea of waiting on me hand and foot—and tongue—like that. Problem was, experimenting in bed was kind of like riding amusement park rides. Sure, they were fun, but sometimes you rued the day you ever got in that line.

A big-kid ride roared past us and the wall of scream trailed along in the wake of the metal cage full of freshly flung people. Jacob and I watched. Horror and delight, all mingled together.

I wondered if I would’ve liked rides—if my life hadn’t been…my life.

“So how’re you hanging in there—really?”

“It’s uh…I dunno. It’s fine.”

“You had a look.”

I shook my head. Sometimes I got really sick of myself. “I’ve always got a look. Never mind. I’m having fun.”

We chugged through a really artificial-looking garden, with flowers in colors you never see in nature planted in rows with military precision. Popcorn bags and paper cups drifted against the planter and mounded around the bases of the garbage cans that were set in every few feet, with yellowjackets swarming their swinging lids.

“It’s too bad about the Auracel. Remember those swings?” Jacob nodded at an older strip of rides with much shorter lines than the new, popular attractions. The swing riders were achieving liftoff as they spun in a big circle. “They had those back when we were kids.”

“Did they?”

“Sure. Those, and slides, and bumper cars, and wooden coasters.”

“And funhouses.” I couldn’t be sure if I actually remembered being in a funhouse or if I’d just seen one on TV. My patchwork brain likes to keep me guessing.

“Now it’s all how fast and how far you can fall.” Jacob pulled me against him tighter. “Don’t let me say that in front of Clayton. I probably sound as old as my dad.”

I gave his knee a squeeze. King Chaos loomed up ahead of us. Cripes. I was glad I was too tall to ride. It looked like a stiff neck with Valium written all over it, even from the ground. The train tooted and chugged and pulled up to the spot we’d first climbed on. Jacob turned to give me a hand down, and then didn’t bother letting go of my hand. This was unusual for him. He’s not really into public displays of affection. But he was having a sentimental kind of day.

Barbara and Clayton both stood and walked over. Clayton said, as if we were all talking about whether the clouds would turn to rain, or if we’d prefer pizza to burgers, “This kid Tyler at school says that faggots are perverts and they should all be put in jail.”

Barbara went white. I let go of Jacob’s hand not because I gave a rat’s ass what an eleven-year-old snotnosed punk thought of me touching his uncle, but because I wanted to attempt to catch his mother if she fainted.

“Clayton Joseph,” Barbara barked. She sounded like Jacob telling a crackhead to drop his weapon. “You apologize this very second.”

“But that’s what he said.” Clayton’s whine cut through my head like a dentist’s drill. “I’m not making it up.”

Barbara put her face directly in her kid’s. “You are old enough to know when you’re repeating something that will hurt somebody’s feelings.”

“Barb.” Jacob sounded…I couldn’t quite place it. Maybe he sounded like I did when things went south—not like I’d been expecting anything better, but maybe I’d held out a glimmer of hope that it didn’t necessarily need to be all that bad. He sounded weary. “Clayton’s going to hear things. I’d rather he heard them from me.”

He put his arm around Clayton, and what a relief, the kid didn’t flinch. I suspected he might not be at the point where he really got what sex was even about, not deep down in his balls.

I might’ve noticed other boys “that way” when I was his age, but come on. Back then Teen Beat was full of boy cheesecake, and I was assailed by images of smooth chests, long, feathered hair and limpid, dreamy-eyed smiles at the checkout line every time I grabbed a pack of gum. And maybe I was just ahead of the curve in that department—or maybe you’d have to be dead not to notice.

Jacob walked Clayton toward the snow cone stand while I jammed my hands in my pockets and wandered in a holding pattern, and Barbara dug around in her purse as if she might unearth the answer to all our problems there, if only she looked hard enough. Instead she found some clear lip gloss, the kind with the sponge tip applicator, which she applied with a vengeance.

“It’s not like it’s news to him that Jacob is gay,” she said. “We’ve always been upfront about it.”

My wet underwear clung to me like a trick who’d worn out his welcome. “Uh-huh.”

“I don’t know who this ‘Tyler at school’ person is.”

“Does it matter? I mean, if it’s not him, it’ll be someone else. Right?”

Barbara spotted a bench covered in cartoon characters and sat down hard. I hovered behind her. Ten yards away, Jacob handed Clayton a green snow cone. The kid took it and gave it a lick, all the while looking daggers at us. At me. The snow cone vendor handed Jacob another one. Red. Jacob caught my eye and pointed at his blindingly red snow cone as if to ask me if I wanted one. I shook my head.

“It’s nice of you to sit out all the rides so that Clayton can be with Jacob. He idolizes my brother, you know. It probably doesn’t seem like it, what with that outburst.”

“No, I um…” I perched on the back of the bench and my wet underwear rode up my ass. “He’s probably, uh, y’know.” Damn it. Words were so useless sometimes. I did my best to figure out a way to say he was just being especially bratty because some fag was monopolizing his uncle—without coming out and using those exact words. “He probably feels…things…more intensely. Because they’re so close.”

She gave me a sideways look, one of those zingers where I totally saw Jacob around the eyes, the type of look he’d give me when he knew I wasn’t being polygraph-level truthful with him. Then she sighed and re-settled her purse in her lap. “Yeah. Probably.”

“I’m not so big on rides anyway.”

Another Jacob-ish look, a notch or two more analytical. “Is there some medical reason…?”

“No, uh…not exactly.” Was Post Traumatic Stress Disorder medical? No doubt. But I’d been diagnosed by my backstabbing ex, and not a real doctor—although Stephan was technically a health care professional nowadays. The whole thing made me want to break out in a cold sweat. “Maybe.”

“Huh.” She found a pair of sunglasses in her purse, blew the lint off the lenses, and put them on. “I always pictured Jacob with someone a little more athletic.”

What was that supposed to mean?

Jacob and Clayton had taken the long way around the food court, and they approached the bench, Clayton with green-tinged lips, Jacob with a wicked red mouth. Jacob stopped a couple of steps back and Clayton shuffled forward. I’d figured he was going to ask his mother for something, but then I realized he was aimed, more or less, at me. Neither one of us cared to initiate eye contact.

“I’m sorry I said something rude about gay people,” he said. There was no inflection in the sentence, as if he’d read it, poorly, from a teleprompter.

“Yeah, uh…” what was I supposed to say? Apology accepted? You’re forgiven? How queer. “That’s okay.”

The tension was thick enough to cut with a spork, but then, as if nothing had just happened, Clayton suddenly brightened, turned to Jacob and said, “If we can’t go on King Chaos, can we ride the Scrambler again?”

In the Dark #6.1
I don’t hate all of Jacob’s friends. Just the ones he’s slept with.

No, wait, that’s not true. As much as I fight off the urge to knock Crash over the nearest piece of low-lying furniture, I must enjoy spending time with him, because a couple times a week I look up and realize I’m at Sticks and Stones, and the two of us are eating some vegetarian takeout and maybe laughing about something together, or at least performing a synchronized eye-roll.

Maybe I just hate the ones Jacob’s slept with, but conveniently omitted mentioning that he’s slept with until I’ve met them for like the ninth or tenth time. And then later on he’ll throw in a thing like, “When we were dating.” Because Jacob’s not a liar—at least, not about things like that. He wouldn’t say, “No, I’ve never been with him,” if he actually had. But having a lie detector for a partner all those years has made him an old pro at skirting around any facts he doesn’t want to deal with at the moment.

I’m a realistic guy. It was pretty clear that neither of us were blushing virgins when we hooked up. Not him. Not me. At our age, it would be suspicious if we were. But I’d been in the dark this whole time, and what was nagging at me now was the way I’d accepted “Keith and Manny” as some unit who’d been a couple forever. That I’d invented this whole history between the two of them that spanned back a good twenty years when, in fact, they were together for two. And that it used to be “Keith and Jacob.”

Funny, I even used to have trouble telling Keith and Manny apart.

Not anymore.

Manny’s the nice one. Keith is the one who gives me “that look.” Now that I understand the reason behind that look, I can’t see how I ever mixed them up. Sure, they’re both shaved-headed and bulging with muscles. But given that one’s part Hispanic and one’s white—and the white one’s always giving me the hairy eyeball—the difference is suddenly crystal clear.

At first I’d been disappointed that this Halloween party of Keith and Manny’s I promised I would go to was a suit-and-tie thing rather than a costume thing. It’s easier to scare up a cheap costume than it is to arrange for one of the jackets that actually fits me to be clean. But since it was a non-costume event, I’d get to demonstrate my newfound grasp on the muscular bald guys’ identities by calling each of them by name when I greeted them.

No doubt that would earn me a “look” too.

Spook Squad #7
CHAPTER 1
I often wonder what I might have done with my life if I’d never become a cop. There was this kid who sat behind me in fifth grade. His name is long gone from my patchy memory, but I do recollect two things about him. One, he annoyed the hell out of me by wiggling his foot against the leg of my chair all day long. And two, he knew exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up: a garbageman. Not in an ironic kind of way, either. Careers in sanitation fascinated him. He drew pictures of garbage trucks like other kids drew rocket ships or unicorns. On trash day, he would set his alarm early so he’d be waiting there in the alley to get a glimpse of his heroes. If you gave him a box, he wouldn’t make something useful out of it like a car or a teleporter. He’d make a dumpster.

When I hear the pneumatic wheeze of a garbage truck’s air brakes, I occasionally think of this kid, whatever his name was. I wonder if he ever did manage to live the dream, or if his parents talked him into being an accountant, or maybe a doctor.

At one point in my prepubescent life, I had aspirations of joining the military. Not because I’m pro war, and certainly not because I’m good at following orders. I suspect my subconscious was grooving on the idea of being dumped into the plastic bag with a few dozen other little green army men and losing myself in a tangle of arms, legs and rifles.

Real life being as disappointing as it often is, my chosen career (or the career that chose me) turned out to be a continual display of territoriality and machismo rather than teamwork. Other than my partner, Bob Zigler, I’ve never really grown comfortable with anyone at the precinct. The feeling is mutual. Sometimes the evidence of exclusion is subtle, like when conversation ebbs as I cross the threshold. Sometimes it’s overt, like finding every last pen gone from my desk when the fully stocked supply room is a hell of a lot closer to everything else, and Zig’s desk is untouched.

It says something about how awkward things were that I preferred being at a crime scene to reporting back to the station and dealing with all the other cops. This aversion to groups probably started early. I grew up in group foster care with a rotating stream of snotty kids—troubled kids, I know now. I’m sure they acted like they did not because they were inherently jerks, but because they’d been starved, beaten, and molested, or at the very least, neglected. Sure, we had toys, but they were nasty second hand toys. Naked dolls. Games with missing parts. Dirty plastic action figures with the paint rubbed off.

One thing I don’t remember attempting to play with is a jigsaw puzzle. I’m sure we must have had them, probably with a good handful of pieces missing from each one. But I couldn’t dredge up any specific memory of putting together puzzles.

Maybe eventually I’d get the hang of it, although probably not tonight. It was already past six—and while I’d been focused on my project, the cannery had grown dim.

“I’m home,” Lisa called from the foyer. My heart did a little relief-flip every time I heard her say that. Even now. All these months after we coaxed her out of the greedy clutches of PsyTrain.

“I’m in here.” My voice was phlegmy from staring so hard I’d forgotten to swallow.

Lisa tracked in melted snow and frowned down at the dining room table. “You’re not done with that thing yet?”

To be fair, it might be my first jigsaw puzzle…as far as I knew. “I didn’t realize there was a time limit.”

“That’s not what I mean.” Lisa tousled my hair and went back to hang up her coat. “Me and Jacob gave up after the first hour. But you’re still at it. Thought you said those guys aren’t your type.”

Judging by the box lid, the puzzle seemed like it should have been fun. It featured male dancers with bare chests, bulging muscles, sparkly bowlers, clingy slacks, bow ties fastened around bare necks, and ginormous baskets. Yeah, not my type. But kitschy and stupid in a way I could appreciate. Figuring out which tab fit into which hole was a welcome distraction from the way I’d spent my day: figuring out which vehicle must be covered in minute traces of a distressed murder victim’s blood.

Cops need a solid chunk of time to unwind when they clock off. I hadn’t been actively searching for something to deaden my brain after work. It just happened to be there. Jacob’s gym pals had presented him with the goofy gift at his private retirement party—the one that guys on the force weren’t privy to—along with a card that read, We’re puzzled that you’re retiring. Don’t go soft on us!

Lots of people were puzzled. Not me, though. I knew exactly which carrot Regional Director Con Dreyfuss had dangled in front of Jacob to get him to join the FPMP, and more importantly, which stick he’d subtly suggested might beat Grandma Marks to death.

I tried and rejected yet another piece. “They’re all skin-toned or black.” Maybe I should have started with something easier, like a bouquet of differently-colored flowers. As it was, I’d been staring at one particular dancer, a guy with a dorky come-hither look on his face, for the better part of an hour. There was a big puzzle-shaped hole in his gut where his six pack should have been. You’d think I could spot a set of washboard abs without much problem. But with masses of spray-tanned skin cut into jigsaw pieces, the body parts eventually started to blend.

Lisa turned on an overhead light and joined me at the dining room table. The puzzle and I had been monopolizing the tabletop for a while now, but none of us actually ate there anyway, since meals happened on the coffee table and TV trays. Usually the big table was home to books and newspapers. Now the books were on the floor and the papers in the recycle bin…and somehow, inadvertently, I’d ended up with a new hobby.

All it took was a critical need to unwind and a major life change in my partner that neither of us had seen coming.

Lisa and I sat together and stared down at the die-cut cardboard pieces, and eventually she found a piece of someone’s thigh and clicked it into place. And then a smoky bit of background. And then an oiled shoulder. All the while, I continued searching for my abs. Then she found three nondistinctive gray background pieces, one after the other. Click, click, click. “Are you using the sΓ­-no?” I finally asked.

She looked up, startled. “No. Why would I…?” She laughed and cuffed me on the arm. “That would take all the fun out of it.”

Right. Fun.

I was trying to finesse a not-quite-right bellybutton into position when the doorbell made us both jump. Since the cannery’s bell was meant to be heard over the drone and clang of heavy equipment, its chime wasn’t exactly what you’d call melodic. You don’t want to be caught holding a hot cup of coffee when it goes off.

I collected my sidearm before I answered, not because I’m a paranoid nutcase, but because I’m a realist. Since I wasn’t expecting anybody, I’d need to be prepared for the possibility that some whacked-out anti-Psych had decided to visit—with a shotgun. But it turned out this time my caution was unnecessary. Yes, my visitor was scary. But at least her gun was holstered.

“Is Jacob here?” Carolyn asked.

“Uh, no. He’s…” I glanced at my watch. Nearly seven. Ideally he’d be home by now, but no big surprise that he wasn’t. “Not yet.”

“I figured. I didn’t see his car out there.”

Oh. Here I thought she’d been looking for him—not looking to avoid him. I stepped aside and let her in.

“So he left some stuff in my car.” Carolyn began dropping things on the catch-all table beside the front door. A leather-bound notebook, some fancy pens, an MP3 player. I considered mentioning that maybe she should stay awhile, since Jacob would be really glad to see her. Unfortunately, I sensed her reply might be phenomenally awkward, given that she can’t whitewash the truth like the rest of us can. She’d probably considered mailing his effects—I know the idea would have crossed my mind—but that would seem too weird. Easiest to engineer the drop-off while Jacob was at work. She seemed eager to rid herself of his things and then bail, but when Lisa drew up beside me to see what was going on, Carolyn paused, cocked her head, and looked Lisa up and down. “Are you just visiting,” Carolyn asked, “or do you still live here?”

“For now,” Lisa began, while in my panic I talked over her and said, “It’s really not a problem. We have plenty of room.” Because I’d been through too damn much to get Lisa back, and I wanted to keep her right where I could see her. I didn’t want Carolyn fucking that up with any inconvenient truth. “All kinds of room.”

Carolyn looked pointedly around the foyer, then said, “Room, but not many walls. That’s not exactly an ideal situation for three adults.”

Now, Lisa and I may not possess the type of talent where we could feed thoughts back and forth without other people being any the wiser. But we can read each others’ body language like a front page headline. Lisa shifted forward slightly. So did I.

As if that wouldn’t just pique Carolyn’s curiosity.

Hey, I said Lisa and I were in synch. Not that we were adept at steering a conversation. Carolyn strode past us like we’d just told her there were warm brownies in the living room that needed eating. Lisa and I turned away from each other. I shrugged. She sighed.

“How long have you…?” Carolyn’s voice seemed overloud against the hardwood and brick. “Whose idea was this?”

We followed her into the main room and shot guilty glances at the big blue dome-shaped tent in the corner. Yes, it’s not something you see every day. But if it worked for the three of us, who was Carolyn to make us feel like a bunch of weirdos?

I’m not even sure who’d suggested the tent. Just that after Lisa spent a few weeks on our couch, there’d been an edge to the “I should probably find my own place” discussion that sounded pretty serious to me. And Jacob’s tent was going to waste rolled up in the basement.

And if you have a room big enough to hold a living room set, a dining room set, and an entertainment center with space left over for a four-person tent…why shouldn’t you pitch it? “It’s just a privacy thing,” I said. “Not a fashion statement.”

Carolyn glanced up at the loft, where we’d be able to see down over a room divider with ease, and then looked me over to see if I was being truthful. Apparently she was satisfied; she didn’t challenge me on it. But she did subject Lisa to additional scrutiny. “Are you running from something, is that what this is? Or did something happen in California that nobody’s talking about? Because the three of you troop out there, and when you get back, suddenly you’re playing living room adventurer and my partner hands in his—” she broke off and turned away with her hand clasped against her mouth, and I realized with a sudden and awkward certainty that I was about to see hard-assed Carolyn Brinkman cry.

“I’m not running,” Lisa said. Unlike me, she wasn’t moved to awkwardness the minute anyone teared up. But exactly like me, she’d seen way too much weird shit at PsyTrain to sleep without a nightlight…and she didn’t like to discuss the big, fat, ectoplasmic mess any more than I did. “And I’m not bothering anyone either. If Victor don’t want me here, he’ll say so.”

“I do want you here.”

“So don’t be judging me.” Lisa punctuated her statement with a ghetto-tastic side-to-side head move that made me realize I was seriously outclassed in this discussion.

“Is that what you think this is about?” Carolyn snapped back. “I’m not judging you—I’m worried. You lost your PsyCop badge, you skipped out on PsyTrain, and you’re sleeping in a tent in your ex-partner’s living room. Does that sound healthy to you?”

“I’m no quitter,” Lisa said—and she was even bringing out the big ammo now, the no-finger, which she proceeded to wag in Carolyn’s face, bangle bracelets jingling. “Don’t you ever call me a quitter.”

“I’m not—”

“I got suspended helping you people. And PsyTrain is none of your business.”

Although Carolyn was about as white bread as a person can be, Lisa’s “talk to the hand” posture didn’t daunt her. In fact, instead of backing off, she took an even closer look. “How many carats are those diamonds?” she said.

Since Carolyn doesn’t do her shopping at SaverPlus like Lisa and I do, she doesn’t realize that the best one can hope for at the second floor jewelry counter is rhinestones and crystal. Lisa’s idea of adornment is big plastic sunglasses and a little diary-type key she wears around her neck. She buys her bling from spinner racks, not glass cases. Even so, she backed off from Carolyn, startled—and she took her hand and its bangle bracelets with her. But instead of educating Carolyn on the ways of the budget conscious shopper, she said, “What does it matter to you?”

“Four carats? Five?”

Carats? Right. I was fully aware that Lisa had answered the question with a question to dodge Carolyn’s built-in polygraph—but before I could ponder why she would suddenly feel defensive about wearing costume jewelry when everyone knew it was fake, the front door banged open.

Jacob. Great timing.

“Carolyn?” He dashed into the living room as if he was in danger of missing her—as if he didn’t stand between her and the only escape route. “I just left you another message.”

Carolyn turned and looked at him coolly, though an unshed tear still glittered in her eye. “I know.”

His shoulders sagged, though so imperceptibly I was probably the only one who’d noticed. His impeccable suit, his carefully honed physique, even his ramrod posture, everything about Jacob was rigid, controlled perfection. A man of steel…but not inside. I’ve never wanted to be an empath—too damn confusing—but at that moment I could have really used the insight, ’cos it was a real struggle to figure out how emotions had tanked so fast. Here Lisa and I were contentedly fitting pieces of half-naked cardboard men together, and before I knew it, the atmosphere was soupy with anger, frustration, resentment and hurt. The stupid part was, we were all on the same damn side.

“Look,” Jacob told Carolyn. “What I’ve been trying to get you to hear is, there’s no reason we can’t keep working together.”

“Other than the fact that you retired.”

“Come on, think about it. You’d help a lot more people if you would—”

“No, Jacob. I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t help more people, I’d help a different kind of people. If I followed you to the Federal Psychic Monitoring Program, I’d be looking out for Psychs—and it would be a hell of a lot more dangerous than what I’m doing now.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Yes, I do. The majority of my perps are single guys, acting alone. Once we find them, once they’re charged and arraigned, they’re not my problem anymore. You’re dealing with big, organized groups. They’ve got money behind them, they’ve got widespread religious support, and worse than that, they’ve got their fears that one day all the NPs will wake up in a slave state where they do nothing but bow down and serve their evil psychic overlords.”

I don’t know how she got that sentence out in a single breath, and I think she didn’t either. She stopped and blinked, and then the thought occurred to me that Carolyn didn’t really have much of a knack for hyperbole, thanks to her talent keeping tabs on her truthfulness. And then I realized she wasn’t exaggerating.

That’s how Carolyn actually thought the Non-Psychs saw us. And it scared the crap out of her.

“My daughters aren’t even in high school yet. They need their mom.” She dropped her gaze to the floor. “I can’t work with you. Not at the FPMP.”

“If there is a threat out there, don’t you want the best Psychs in the world on your team? Besides, you’re overestimating your opponent. They’re not nearly as organized as all that. Tell her, Vic.”

How was I supposed to make Carolyn feel better when I’d just answered my door with a Glock in my hand? “Uh, I don’t know. Safety in numbers?” It was the best I could do, at least to Carolyn’s face.

“More like a bigger target,” she said.

This was so not the way I’d hoped Jacob’s reunion with Carolyn would play out. I said, “Listen, it’s late. We’re all tired. I can order us some pizzas and maybe once we eat, we’ll all be thinking straight.”

“Actually,” Jacob said, “I need to put in a couple of hours at the firing range. Night training. You want to come with? I can make a call, see if there’s room—”

“I’ve just put in a ten-hour day,” Carolyn snapped. “Now I’m going home. To my family.”

Jacob looked to Lisa and me to see if either of us would tag along. I could definitely use the practice, especially at night. The Fifth Precinct requires one firearms session a year. That’s right: one. Since I’m not an overachiever, initially I didn’t put in any extra time on my own. Not until I failed my first recertification—and you only need to hit seventy percent of the targets to pass that thing.

I should have jumped at the chance…but I didn’t want the FPMP to think I was easy.

Jacob looked to Lisa. She said, “Actually, I already have plans.” She gave a sheepish shrug. “Sorry.”

Carolyn didn’t call her out on these purported “plans,” so they must have existed. The awkwardness between the four of us was thick enough to cut with a spork, but at least Lisa was no longer going Jerry Springer Baby Momma on Carolyn, and Jacob wasn’t tooting the Federal Psychic Monitoring Program’s horn. I gave the ropy muscles at the back of my neck a couple of squeezes, said, “Well, I guess I’ll go see if Crash wants pizza,” and turned to retrieve my phone from my overcoat.

“Vic,” Jacob said. I tensed, because I really thought I’d successfully weaseled my way out of that awkward conversation without resorting to an untruth, but I didn’t bolt when he reached toward me. I was prepared for a caress, or maybe a hug, some sort of attempt to entice me to stay and keep trying to convince the girls we were all still one big, happy family. But instead he just plucked something off the back of my shirt and handed it to me.

It was a puzzle piece with a tacky smear of jelly on the back of it. I turned it photo-side up. Fake tan flesh-tone—and it looked suspiciously like a set of washboard abs.

Author Bio:
Author and artist Jordan Castillo Price is the owner of JCP Books LLC. Her paranormal thrillers are colored by her time in the midwest, from inner city Chicago, to small town Wisconsin, to liberal Madison.

Jordan is best known as the author of the PsyCop series, an unfolding tale of paranormal mystery and suspense starring Victor Bayne, a gay medium who's plagued by ghostly visitations. Also check out her new series, Mnevermind, where memories are made...one client at a time.

With her education in fine arts and practical experience as a graphic designer, Jordan set out to create high quality ebooks with lavish cover art, quality editing and gripping content. The result is JCP Books, offering stories you'll want to read again and again.


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