Friday, January 8, 2016

Best Reads of 2015 Part 2

I read nearly 300 books in 2015 so when I decided to do a Best Reads feature it was very difficult to narrow it down.  I finally decided on 3 books for each month broken into four parts, here is part 2 of my favorite reads of 2015 each containing my original review.  Click here to check out Part 1.

Crash & Burn by Abigail Roux
It’s been five years since Special Agents Ty Grady and Zane Garrett first worked together to solve the Tri-State murders, and time has been both harsh and kind. Engaged now, they face the challenge of planning a deeply uncertain future together. Zane is at the pinnacle of his career with one last mystery to solve, while Ty is at sea in a world where he’s no longer the tip of a spear.

There’s just one more hurdle in the way of their happy ever after: a traitor from their inner circle who threatens to burn their world to the ground.

Squeezed between the Vega cartel, an unknown mole, and too many alphabet agencies to count, Ty and Zane must gather all their strength and resources to beat the longest odds they’ve ever faced. To make it out alive, they’ll need help from every friend they’ve got. Even the friends who might betray their trust.

Where do I begin without giving any spoilers?  With Crash & Burn we get to see nearly all of the characters we've come to love and a few we didn't love so much.  At the heart of this story, we have the love and partnership of Ty and Zane, but just like the other installments of the series, that love is only part of the tale.  We find truths that were so deeply hidden under mountains of lies that you find yourself questioning every character and their true motives and loyalty.  The passion that has always been a huge part of these stories is still there as is the wit, the puns-some intentional and some not so much, the arguing, the laughter, and the friendships that hold this ragtag group together.  I can honestly say that I don't think I've ever read a book that had me saying "Oh my God!" so many times.  Some times it was said out of despair for what the character was contemplating, other times it was out of laughter not being able to believe the character said this or that, and a few times because I was on the edge of my seat trying to figure out how they were going to get out of the situation they found themselves in.  A true masterpiece and a definite must add to your personal library.


Hoarfrost by Jordan L Hawk
Sorcerer Percival Endicott Whyborne and his husband Griffin Flaherty have enjoyed an unprecedented stretch of peace and quiet. Unfortunately, the calm is shattered by the arrival of a package from Griffin’s brother Jack, who has uncovered a strange artifact while digging for gold in Alaska. The discovery of a previously unknown civilization could revive the career of their friend Dr. Christine Putnam—or it might kill them all, if the hints of dark sorcery surrounding the find are true.

With Christine and her fiancé Iskander, Whyborne and Griffin must journey to the farthest reaches of the arctic to stop an ancient evil from claiming the life of Griffin’s brother. But in the rough mining camp of Hoarfrost, secrets fly as thickly as the snow, and Whyborne isn’t the only sorcerer drawn by the rumors of magic. Amidst a wilderness of ice and stone, Griffin must either face his greatest fear—or lose everyone he loves.

How is it possible that after all their adventures, Whyborne & Griffin keep getting better?  I guess Miss Hawk really knows how to bring the chemistry between, not only our favorite couple, but also Griffin and his newly found brother, Christine and Iskander, and even how Iskander is fitting in with our heroic trio, to life.  In Hoarfrost, as it was in Necropolis, we get to see Whyborne away from his element and home of Widdershins, not always a good thing but he deals with it as only Whyborne can. A story filled with passion, intrigue, mystery, and of course all the good and bad that defines paranormal.  Of course, not everything or everyone is as black and white as it seems, there's always layers to sift through to find the truth.  I loved seeing Griffin finally able to deal with his past, although watching him have to face his parents rejection is heartbreaking, having Whyborne and the little family they have soothes not only Griffin's heartache but the reader's too.


The Tin Box by Kim Fielding
William Lyon's past forced him to become someone he isn't. Conflicted and unable to maintain the charade, he separates from his wife and takes a job as caretaker at a former mental hospital. Jelley’s Valley State Insane Asylum was the largest mental hospital in California for well over a century, but it now stands empty. William thinks the decrepit institution is the perfect place to finish his dissertation and wait for his divorce to become final. In town, William meets Colby Anderson, who minds the local store and post office. Unlike William, Colby is cute, upbeat, and flamboyantly out. Although initially put off by Colby’s mannerisms, William comes to value their new friendship, and even accepts Colby's offer to ease him into the world of gay sex.

William’s self-image begins to change when he discovers a tin box, hidden in an asylum wall since the 1940s. It contains letters secretly written by Bill, a patient who was sent to the asylum for being homosexual. The letters hit close to home, and William comes to care about Bill and his fate. With Colby’s help, he hopes the words written seventy years ago will give him courage to be his true self.

I'll start off by saying you will definitely need tissues when you read this story.  When William found the letters from 1938 that Bill wrote to Johnny and started reading them, my heart broke.  William's story isn't exactly all balloons and unicorns but those letters really touched me.  Now, in regards to William's story, I would have liked to have a bit more insight into exactly what he dealt with in his youth when he was being "cured" but I understood that it wasn't necessary for the tale to move forward.  Colby is a delight, his lessons for William are upbeat and adds moments of much needed lightness.  Having said that, I think Colby is a complex character that most readers, myself included, pre-judge him as a bit flakey.  Colby and William's interactions are a lovely heartwarming companion to Bill's heartbreaking letters. This is a story that will definitely put the reader through the wringer but it's a ride that is worth every page turning(or tablet swiping) minute.


The Door Behind Us by John C Houser
It’s 1919, and Frank Huddleston has survived the battlefields of the Great War. A serious head injury has left him with amnesia so profound he must re-learn his name every morning from a note posted on the privy door.

Gerald “Jersey" Rohn, joined the Army because he wanted to feel like a man, but he returned from the trenches minus a leg and with no goal for his life. He’s plagued by the nightmare of his best friend’s death and has nervous fits, but refuses to associate those things with battle fatigue. He can't work his father's farm, so he takes a job supervising Frank, who is working his grandparents’ farm despite his head injury.

When Frank recovers enough to ask about his past, he discovers his grandparents know almost nothing about him, and they’re lying about what they do know. The men set out to discover Frank's past and get Jersey a prosthesis. They soon begin to care for each other, but they'll need to trust their hearts and put their pasts to rest if they are to turn attraction into a loving future.

This is an amazing story of love, friendship, and overcoming both physical and emotional difficulties.  Added on top of all that, it was a time when a gay relationship was not only shunned but illegal.  Jersey and Frank both have their own issues to overcome that linger after returning from the war, alone they just manage to "get by" but together they find strength to not only get by but also grow and overcome.  I loved the way the author dealt with their individual issues and meshed them together at the same time.  Not all the characters are likeable but they aren't suppose to be and the author writes them in a way that is understandable, at times leaves the reader wanting to shake them till they realize what they are saying and doing could do with some rethinking.  A definite must for those who love historicals and for those that enjoy a good romance and character study, because you just might find something that makes today a little brighter, I know I did.


The Truth Be Told by Jeanne McDonald
From the moment Andrew Wise and McKenzie Evans first met, they tried to fight the magnetism that pulled them together.  No matter how hard they struggled with their feelings, their love was a force so strong that neither of them could deny it.

The news of Olivia Hamilton’s pregnancy, and the understanding that Drew is the father, led McKenzie to flee with the hope of rectifying her secret betrayal of falling in love with her best friend’s boyfriend.  However, when Drew showed up and declared his undying love for her, McKenzie could no longer deny the truth.  She and Drew were destined for each other.

McKenzie now has no choice but to face Olivia in order for her and Drew to move on with their lives together.  Secrets and lies may have kept them apart, but now, in the light of the truth, their legacy shines as pure as their love.

For as long as Drew can remember, there has always been tension between him and his father, Jonathan.  This time is proving no different.  Since sharing the truth of his past with McKenzie, Drew is emboldened by her unwavering love and acceptance of the man he is.  He’ll do anything necessary to protect the woman he loves and the life he’s come to understand she deserves.  With Jonathan and Olivia teamed together to rip them apart, Drew and McKenzie, along with the aid of some unexpected allies, must join forces to overcome the obstacles that will inevitably come their way.

In this much anticipated final installment of The Truth in Lies Saga, Drew and McKenzie will unite together to conquer the past, face the future, and uncover the truth in lies that threaten to destroy them.  Love brought them together and love will set them free.

I'm completely torn with this one.  Not torn because of it's content or it's quality but because it's the end of McKenzie & Drew's tale.  As with the other installments in the series, Truth is beautifully written and the author has once again captured the reader's heart with her words.  Not only is this a tale of love but also friendships, good and bad, and how those friendships can make us better even if some of those "friends" intent is not for the better.  If you haven't been reading this series either because you were waiting for it to be complete or because you just hadn't found it before, well now is the perfect time to get started.  Trust me, if you like romance and good storytelling, then this is definitely one you need to check out, you will not be disappointed.


The Forgotten Man by Ryan Loveless
In 1932, after Captain Joshua Pascal’s family loses its fortune, the Great War veteran’s sense of duty compels him to help his mother convert his childhood home into a Jewish boarding house. He’s lived openly as a homosexual among his friends, but now Joshua must pretend to be a “normal,” and hiding his nature is a lonely way of life. But in the middle of Chanukah, Joshua meets Will, a street musician with a ready smile, and wonders if he might deserve a chance at love.

During the cold December nights they find comfort in each other. But the specter of the workhouse and the possibility of family and personal ruin hang over them, making their every move dangerous. Which would they rather lose: their lives as they know them... or the promise of a future together?

This tale set in the early '30s is wonderfully written.  I related with Joshua for having to move home and help his family, some people just don't understand that but I really felt the author did and tackled the concept perfectly.  As for Will, how can you not love him for all he's dealing with and doing so the best way he can.  When these two meet finally, the connection is already there, you can just feel it through Joshua's inner monologue describing their "eyes meet" emotion.  As usual, there are obstacles that they have to overcome and watching them skirt the mine field that they have found themselves in is interesting and well written.  If you love historicals then this is definitely one for you and if you're on the fence whether you want to try a historical for the first time, this is a perfect one to get your feet wet with.  This is the first time I've read this author but it won't be the last.


Winter Kill by Josh Lanyon
Clever and ambitious, Special Agent Adam Darling (yeah, he's heard all the jokes before) was on the fast track to promotion and success until his mishandling of a high profile operation left one person dead and Adam "On the Beach." Now he's got a new partner, a new case, and a new chance to resurrect his career, hunting a legendary serial killer known as The Crow in a remote mountain resort in Oregon.

Deputy Sheriff Robert Haskell may seem laid-back, but he's a tough and efficient cop -- and he's none too thrilled to see feebs on his turf -- even when one of the agents is smart, handsome, and probably gay. But a butchered body in a Native American museum is out of his small town department's league. For that matter, icy, uptight Adam Darling is out of Rob's league, but that doesn't mean Rob won't take his best shot.

Once again, Josh Lanyon doesn't disappoint.  This has everything a great mystery, hell everything a great story period, should have: a tale that not only keeps the readers attention but keeps them on the edge of their seat with every turn of the page, or swipe of the screen.  There's also interesting characters that have you wondering what secrets lurk under the service.  Scenery that helps set the mood but isn't overbearing that keeps you from picturing the scene yourself.  Agent Darling and Deputy Haskell just set your heart on fire even when they aren't in a scene together, Mr. Lanyon has a way with words that let the reader know they're thinking of the other just under the service.  A definite winning combination and of course the little mention of Tucker in passing as Adam's ex is a great connection for fans of the author's Fair Game series.


Running with the Wind by Shira Anthony
With the final confrontation between the island and mainland Ea factions looming, Taren and Ian sail with Odhrán to investigate a lost colony of merfolk in the Eastern Lands. Upon their arrival, the King of Astenya welcomes them as friends. Odhrán, however, isn’t so quick to trust the descendent of the man who held him prisoner for nearly a decade, especially now that he has someone to cherish and protect—the mysterious winged boy he rescued from the depths.

Armed with the knowledge he believes will save the Ea, Taren returns to the mainland. With Ian at his side, Taren convinces Vurin that their people must unite with their island brethren before it’s too late. When Seria and his men attack, Taren must call upon the ancient power of the rune stone to protect his comrades. But using the stone’s immeasurable power commands a hefty price—and Ian fears that price is Taren’s life.

I am so torn about Running with the Wind, on one hand I couldn't wait to jump in the minute it showed up on my kindle but then I also knew it was the finale and that it would be the end of Taren and Ian, so I wanted to take it slow.  Who am I kidding?  I jumped in and read until I swiped the final page.  To see Taren come into his own and realize that he is so much more than the slave he saw himself as at the beginning of Stealing the Wind really made my heart burst with complete and utter "Yay!" and of course Ian hasn't exactly stayed stagnate either.  As individuals they have come far but because of the other they also became stronger.  Not because they needed the other to be who they were but because the strength and passion they recognized in each other spoke to their own levels of passion and created a determination that not only helped themselves but also their friends, shipmates, and fellow merfolk find a place in the world.  This is truly a trilogy for those who love fantasy and for those who love an all around well written story.


Lessons for Idle Tongues by Charlie Cochrane
Cambridge, 1910 

Amateur detectives Jonty Stewart and Orlando Coppersmith seem to have nothing more taxing on their plate than locating a missing wooden cat and solving the dilemma of seating thirteen for dinner. But one of the guests brings a conundrum: a young woman has been found dead, and her boyfriend is convinced she was murdered. The trouble is, nobody else agrees. 

Investigation reveals that several young people in the local area have died in strange circumstances, and rumours abound of poisonings at the hands of Lord Toothill, a local mysterious recluse. Toothill’s angry, gun-toting gamekeeper isn’t doing anything to quell suspicions, either. 

But even with a gun to his head, Jonty can tell there’s more going on in this surprisingly treacherous village than meets the eye. And even Orlando’s vaunted logic is stymied by the baffling inconsistencies they uncover. Together, the Cambridge Fellows must pick their way through gossip and misdirection to discover the truth.

When I found out that there was going to be, not one but two, new entries in the Cambridge Fellows Mysteries this year I was so excited.  Within 36 hours of the arrival of Lessons for Idle Tongues on my Kindle, I reached the final page and can I just say that Charlie Cochrane did not disappoint.  Jonty and Orlando are faced with another intriguing mystery that may or may not be an actual mystery but that doesn't stop their investigation.  Now I'm even more hungry for Lessons for Sleeping Dogs and October is seeming way too far off.

As for the overall series, Cambridge Fellows is a great historical mystery with humor, romance, and characters that mesh together perfectly, even when they seem more enemy than friend.  I came across this series last summer when I was searching for historical fiction and even though there were 10 books to the series, I decided to give it a try.  Well, less than 30 days later I had finished all 10.  I will say that the publishers label them as standalones and I guess as far as the mysteries go, yes they do qualify as standalones but because of the growing relationships amongst the different characters, and not just Jonty and Orlando, I highly recommend reading them in order of the chronological timeline, which I included below after the excerpts before the author bio.


Crash & Burn
Chapter One
Zane Garrett sat in his cushy chair in the Baltimore field office, staring at the frosted glass on his door. It read Special Agent in Charge, and it was the title he’d been working toward since he’d entered the academy. Aside from a post in Washington, it was the pinnacle of any agent’s ambitions. In charge of one of the fifty-six FBI field offices.

Five years ago, Zane would have been doing a Snoopy dance behind his closed door the moment he’d taken possession.

Now, though, Zane hated—no—Zane despised sitting behind this desk all day.

He tossed his feet up and clunked his heels on the corner, leaning back in his chair. Fuck this desk.

Zane glanced at his watch. It was a gift from Ty, a surprise from last Christmas. Underneath, the engraving read simply “Yours.” Classic Grady: succinct, romantic, and not at all incriminating. It made Zane smile whenever he checked the time.

He still had ten minutes to his nebulous lunch hour, so he pulled out his phone and dialed Ty.

“Grady,” Ty said after just two rings. Even though he’d resigned from the Bureau a year ago, he still answered his phone as if he expected someone to be calling him to go kill something.

“Hey, doll,” Zane drawled. “How’s your day going?”

“Pretty good, actually. What’s up?”

“I had a thought.”

“God help us,” Ty said under his breath.

“Do you think Burns was the endgame?”

On his first day in the new office, Zane had swept it for bugs. He’d only found one, which rather surprised him. He’d already known it was there, hidden beneath the desk; Richard Burns himself had shown it to Zane and Ty before he’d died. Zane had destroyed it: an opening gambit in a game of chess where pawns were people and kings lived or died on how soon they realized they were playing.

Ty was silent for a few heartbeats. “What?”

“I sweep this office every fucking day, waiting for another bug. Nada.” Zane rocked in his chair and rolled his head from side to side. “Nothing on our phones, either. Do you think it’s possible we were being watched because of our connection to Burns? That he was the target, and I’m just spinning my wheels here when I could be in bed with you all day?”

“Well. Are we still going with your chess metaphor?”

“I like my chess metaphor.”

Ty laughed, and the sound warmed Zane to an unhealthy degree. “Okay. Isn’t chess all about patience and strategy?”

Zane groaned and rubbed at his temple.

“You’re going insane, aren’t you?” Ty asked fondly.

“I feel like this must be what your brain does all the time. Squirrels juggling knives in there.”

Ty snorted. “I think, on the larger scale, it’s our move. You know? We’ve been quiet since Scotland. You’re stuck behind a desk, I’m playing Mister Fix-It. What’s there to spy on?”

“But how would they know that if they’re not spying on us?”

Ty made a clucking sound. “Maybe they are.”

When Zane hung up a few minutes later, having secured a dinner date with his fiancé, he was still frowning. Maybe they are.

Ty’s words haunted him for the rest of the day. Maybe they are. But how? He scanned the office one last time with his device, but registered nothing. He waited until most of his agents were gone for the day, until the floor was clear, and he walked through every cubicle, methodically checking every nook and cranny. He even checked the bathrooms.

Well, at least he knew the entire fucking building was clear of listening devices now.

Finding their mole was Zane’s final mission, and it was eating him alive. The mole who’d been spying on them for God knew how long. The mole whose connections and motivations were still mysteries to them. The mole who’d damn near gotten them killed in New Orleans.

The mole who’d caused Richard Burns to be murdered.

He stood waiting for the elevators, muttering to himself as he checked the batteries in the damn detector. “You’re obsessing, Garrett. You’ve been spending too much time with Ty.”

He shoved the batteries back into the thing and tucked it into his leather satchel as the elevator dinged. He glanced up, eyes wide as he realized what he’d just said.

Why the hell would anyone bug Zane at work if half of his or her interest was in Ty? It had been effective when they were partnered; they’d been together all the time. But now? Ty wasn’t here. Ty was at home.

Home. The row house.

Ty paced through the living room of the row house, listening to Zane’s voice mail greeting for the fourth time in the last hour. Zane was hours late now. He was never this late.

“Oh, I’ll leave you a message, you son of a . . .” He left a one-word message at the beep this time: “Asshole!”

He tossed his phone at the couch as he prowled by. He hated being stuck like this. And Zane knew he hated it! Zane never did anything even remotely dangerous without calling Ty first, because he knew Ty would rain down hellfire on Baltimore looking for him if he went radio silent. The cartel was still out there, lurking. And Ty didn’t have Zane’s back now.

He stomped out to the back stoop and threw himself down on the top step. This step had seen him through many of his dark moods over the years, and now he sat out here a lot, staring at his Mustang, while Zane was at work. She was Nightmist Blue, a hauntingly beautiful and historically accurate deep hue, with two thick white racing stripes going up her center and a white interior to match. She was finally done, inside and out, and Ty had stuck with vintage parts right up until he got to the electronics, when he’d found pieces online made to look vintage but that were entirely modern. She could sync with an MP3 player, keep your ass warm in the winter, and start up with the press of a button from the comfort of your home.

She was so beautiful that Ty hadn’t had the heart to cover her up since he’d finished her, even though the weather this winter had been especially harsh and dark.

Ty was fairly certain that was more about his state of mind than the weather, though. And now it seemed that Zane was going to start disregarding their dinner plans and not bother to tell Ty when he’d be late coming home.

Ty shook his head. One pass, that was all that bastard would get before Ty threw a fit of epic proportions.

He could only sit here for a few minutes before concern and restlessness got to him again and he headed back inside, going for the cabinet under the kitchen sink where he kept his new stash of Cubans.

His sharp ears caught the scratch of keys at the door before he could reach his stash. He stomped to the front door, prepared to give Zane an earful. The door didn’t open, though. Ty heard the keys jangle and a soft curse from the other side. He threw the dead bolt and yanked the door open, and Zane stumbled inside as he tried to get his keys out of the lock.

“Where the fuck have you been?” Ty shouted.

Zane waved a hand at him, and the smell of alcohol wafted off him with the cold wind.

Ty gaped. “Are you . . . are you drunk?” he asked, voice going higher.

“If I am?” Zane challenged as he leaned against the open door.

Ty opened his mouth to respond but nothing came. He stood blinking at the man in his doorway like it wasn’t the man he’d been living with for almost three years.

“God, Ty, don’t be so fucking uptight,” Zane said with an exaggerated roll of his eyes. He discarded his wool overcoat and his suit jacket and kicked the door closed. Snowflakes wafted in with him, drifting to the wood floors as Zane tossed his satchel aside.

Ty couldn’t even decide if he was awake right now, much less what to say if this wasn’t some sort of hallucination. The last time Zane had fallen off the wagon, he’d tossed Ty through a table. The time before, he’d ignored Ty’s bid for assistance and left him alone to be hung over the side of a cruise ship by two Italian goons. Zane wasn’t exactly a good person when he drank, which was why he’d been working so fucking hard at sobriety.

Zane was digging in his pocket for something, and as he scrounged around for it, he took hold of Ty’s arm and pushed. Ty moved with him more out of shock than anything else, gritting his teeth as Zane shoved him against the wall.

“God, did you swim in it? What is that, tequila?” The smell was so strong he could have licked Zane and gotten buzzed. Anger began to boil deep in Ty’s gut. After everything that’d happened, after everything that could still happen, and Zane had just . . . decided to go out for a drink? The rage came out in a shout that echoed off the brick wall of the row house. “You don’t even like tequila! What the hell is wrong with you?”

Zane pulled a piece of paper from his pocket, then brought his finger to his lips in a shushing motion. Ty growled at him, but Zane raised the paper before Ty could rev up for a retort. Ty read the note with barely concealed contempt.

House is bugged. Play along.

Ty blinked at the paper, and then Zane kissed him. There wasn’t a hint of alcohol on his lips or tongue; the scent was coming off his shirt. Ty had taught him that trick. Zane shoved the note into Ty’s pocket, then grabbed his hip and pressed him hard against the wall to deepen the kiss.

The row house was bugged? Ty wasn’t quite sure how Zane pretending to be drunk would help with that, but he was willing to play along until he could get a better explanation. Mostly because Zane had him shoved against the wall and was kissing him like he had when they’d first met: sharp and messy, mean and desperate.

Ty returned the ferocity of the kiss, pushing back. It was rare that he could convince Zane to really manhandle him, but it was fun. Zane doing it without provocation was downright legendary.

Zane ground against him, rough gasps escaping as they kissed. It was as if he were trying to eat Ty alive, a sort of passion they’d kind of forgotten about over the years.

Zane started pawing at Ty’s shirt. “Fucking buttons.” The volume of his grumbling was exaggerated, but it worked to make him sound inebriated. He shoved his hand into Ty’s pants as he rubbed himself against Ty’s thigh.

“Hey,” Ty barked, and he swatted at Zane’s hands. He lowered his voice to a bare whisper, speaking against Zane’s cheek to further muffle his words. “Careful with the goods there, Hoss, you break it, you bought it.”

“I already bought it,” Zane whispered, smiling against Ty’s lips. “You got to fight back a little if this is going to work.”

Ty scowled. Zane went to work on his neck, licking and sucking, and Ty’s eyes drifted closed as a thrill ran through him. Zane wanted a fight that sounded bad enough for Ty to kick him out of the house without alerting anyone that they knew about the listening devices. And he apparently thought a nice violent round of sex would do.

Fair enough. If there was one thing Ty and Zane knew how to do, it was abuse each other for fun.

Ty gave Zane’s shoulder a shove and sneered at him. “Go sober up! I’m not dealing with you when you’re drunk.”

Zane nodded encouragingly, looking relieved that Ty had caught on. He mouthed the words, “I love you.” Then he shoved Ty’s shoulders back against the wall. “Hold still,” he ordered in a tone he so rarely used that for a moment Ty did exactly as he’d been told rather than putting up the fight he was supposed to.

This was some next-level role-play. Ty bit his lip against a grin. Fuck, this might turn out to be too fun. They could have accomplished the same thing by throwing shit at each other and shouting, but this at least gave them a chance to whisper to each other, to get a little bit of a plan together. And hell, when had they ever passed up a chance to maul each other?

Zane pushed at Ty’s pants, then grunted in frustration when he couldn’t get the fly undone. Ty had spent most of the day at the bookstore, tearing out its insides, and he was wearing a pair of work pants stiff enough to protect him from sharp edges and hot surfaces. They weren’t exactly made for being groped in. Hell, they were more suited to being burned alive in, as tough as they were.

Ty gave Zane a taunting grin. “What’s wrong, Garrett, got butterfingers? What else is limp tonight?”

Zane retaliated by grabbing Ty’s work shirt and ripping it open. A button flew up and pegged Ty in the chin. He closed his eyes and snorted, then let out a muffled grunt when Zane’s lips met his. Zane bit him hard enough to sting.

“Ow! Jesus, Zane!”

“Get these off.” Zane tugged at the pants.

“Get them off yourself! You can’t handle a fucking zipper, you sure as hell can’t handle me.”

Zane gave him a pointed look and tugged at the zipper again. He leaned closer and whispered, “No seriously, I can’t get these off.”

Ty rolled his eyes. So much for a spontaneous mauling. He tugged at the zipper to his work pants, but they were stuck. He glanced up at Zane, his cheeks heating as he bit the inside of his lip, trying not to laugh. “Uhh.”

Zane didn’t waste more time on buttons. He pulled his dress shirt over his head, tossed it away, and slid one of his knives from its sheath at his wrist.

“Garrett.” Ty held up a hand, trying to press himself further into the wall. He didn’t have to fake the fear in his voice. “Don’t you fucking dare! Not the knife!”

“Hold still,” Zane ordered again with a hint of sadistic glee.

Ty squeezed his eyes closed and turned his head away. If he was going to lose a chunk of himself in a sex-related accident, he definitely didn’t want to watch. Zane sliced his waistband cleanly, though, the cold edge of the knife against Ty’s hip sending a shiver up his spine.

Zane shoved Ty’s pants down his hips, his fingertips gliding reverently against Ty’s skin. The knife blade was still down there somewhere, but Ty forgot all about it when he met Zane’s eyes. They were nearly black, not their usual warm shade of brown, and filled with real heat. It made Ty’s breath hitch.

His eyes flicked to the knife still in Zane’s hand. “You think you need that?”

Zane hummed and pressed his bare chest to Ty’s. He rubbed his nose against Ty’s jaw, then ran it up to Ty’s cheekbone, his lips grazing skin. Ty’s eyes drifted closed when Zane kissed his cheek.

He was peripherally aware of Zane putting his knife back into its sheath, then removing both of them from his wrists and setting them on the table next to the door where they kept their keys, badges, guns, and miscellaneous weaponry. Ty held Zane’s gaze, though, and Zane smiled warmly. How many times had they fucked and forgotten to disarm first? It had caused some odd injuries over the years.

Zane’s hand slid down the taut muscles of Ty’s stomach, fingers grazing the juncture of his hip and the base of his cock. Ty was only half-hard, but Zane would soon remedy that if he continued in this manner. He nosed his way along Ty’s jaw again and nuzzled against Ty’s neck to kiss and nip at his favorite spot right above Ty’s collarbone.

“Zane,” Ty begged. Then he remembered they were supposed to be fighting and he was supposed to be angry, not begging Zane to touch him. He grunted in frustration. This wasn’t going to work.

Zane winked at him, his eyes sparkling with mischief and lust. God, how Ty loved the man. He had to dig deep for harsh words that would sell their little act.

“It’s going to take more than a couple licks and a sloppy handjob to get me off, jackass.”

Zane raised an eyebrow, a smirk flitting across his lips. Ty mirrored the expression, offering a silent challenge. What, Zane thought they were going to fake angry sex and not get down and dirty for this one? Please.

Zane jerked open his fly and shoved the fabric out of the way. He jutted his chin out to kiss Ty, then with one last squeeze, let go and spun him around to thump his chest against the wall. Then Zane kicked his ankles apart, gasping as he curled one hand over Ty’s shoulder and shoved his hard cock against Ty’s ass, nudging between his cheeks.

“Fuck,” Zane whispered, and they both groaned. Zane rested his forehead against the back of Ty’s shoulder, their bodies pressed tight from thigh to chest, warm and hard and familiar. When he spoke, he muffled his words by pressing his lips into Ty’s skin. “We’ve got to figure out how to move this upstairs.”

Ty nodded. If they weren’t careful, they’d enjoy this too much and forget to sell the conflict. “You think you’re fucking me without lube, you’ve lost your damn mind.”

Zane laughed almost cruelly. “Can’t have you bitching because you’re sore.”

Ty shoved away from the wall, and Zane stumbled back. He barely caught himself before he tripped over his satchel on the floor. Ty kicked out of his ruined work pants and his briefs, and then yanked his shirt off his shoulders. They were never going to find all the damn buttons to it anyway.

“Go to Hell, Garrett, go sober up somewhere,” he snarled, and he stomped off toward the stairs. When he reached the foot of the steps, he glanced over his shoulder to find Zane following him, head cocked, blatantly leering at Ty’s bare ass. Zane met his eyes and winked. Ty gestured for him to come at him. They’d make another scene here to sell the charade . . . and Ty was pretty sure there was some lube stashed in one of the kitchen drawers, within reach if they wound up getting carried away.

Zane moved in front of Ty, and then trailed the backs of his fingers down Ty’s cheek, giving him a chaste little kiss before he stepped back and shoved Ty into the wall. The rough brick bit at Ty’s skin, and Zane’s body hit him a moment later, knocking the breath out of him.


Zane kissed him, silencing him, and Ty’s fingers found their way into Zane’s mess of dark, curly hair. He hitched one leg up Zane’s hip, and Zane grabbed the back of his thigh, thrusting their cocks together. They both groaned, loud enough that even a discount listening device from Walmart could have picked up the sound.

“Right here,” Zane growled, and he raised a bottle of lube he’d grabbed from somewhere.

“Where the fuck did that come from?”

“My bag.”

“You take lube with you to work?” Ty shouted, genuinely outraged.

Zane bit his ear and whispered, “It’s from the trip to Seattle, baby.”

Ty’s body responded to the memory of that particular business trip. Zane had taken Ty with him, knowing he’d have more downtime than work to do. They hadn’t exactly spent their free time sightseeing.

Ty set one foot on the stair railing and pushed, helping Zane to hoist him up the wall. Zane was jacking himself with one slick hand, coating himself in preparation. He bit down on Ty’s collarbone hard enough to make Ty cry out, then he did it again as if the sound had spurred him on.

Zane was either actually losing control, or he was pretending so well even Ty believed him. And Ty liked it. A lot. “Come on,” he whispered, and he rose up onto his toes, pushing harder against the stair rail with his other foot.

He tried at the same time not to tense, but it was near impossible when he was holding himself against the wall. Zane shoved one slick finger into him, and Ty gasped. Yeah, this was going to hurt a little. He scrabbled against the rough brick for something to grab, then settled on grabbing Zane.

“Okay?” Zane whispered against his ear.

Ty nodded.

“Tell me to stop if you need to,” Zane bit out before jerking his finger free and lining himself up.

Ty nodded again, and Zane started to push in. He was going to leave his mark on Ty tonight, fake or not.

Then Zane stopped, his body stiffening and the head of his cock just barely breaching Ty. He shuddered in Ty’s arms, and his cock pulsed, pushing at tense muscles. He dug his fingers into Ty’s thigh and set his forehead against Ty’s neck. “Fuck, Ty.”

“Zane,” Ty gasped. Then he grinned, nipping at Zane’s ear. “Sell it, baby, come on. Fuck me.”

Zane raised his head, his dark eyes flashing.

Ty shivered with anticipation and nodded. “Hard.”

Zane huffed and snapped his hips, once, twice, forcing himself in with a low growl. Ty banged his head against the brick wall, eyes squeezed shut, gritting his teeth through the burn of the entry. “Come on, Garrett,” he taunted even as his voice trembled. “That the best you got?”

Zane thrust in again, his cock spreading Ty open further. The brick dragged against Ty’s skin, and his muscles were screaming as he tried to hold himself up with the banister. Zane’s grasping fingers found their way into Ty’s hair and yanked his head to the side as he shoved deeper into him.

“Fuck!” Zane finally shouted, sounding frustrated when he couldn’t get Ty’s body at the right angle to sink all the way in.

Ty grunted and tried to push against him, but he had no leverage. Zane was gasping with each thump. He growled and bit down on Ty’s shoulder, his teeth dragging over bone. His thrusts grew even more frenzied as he used all his strength, taking more of Ty’s weight.

Ty threw his head back and groaned wantonly. It was as close to getting mauled as he could come. Zane gripped him tight, aiming to bruise, to maim and claim, and bit down harder as his breathing went ragged.

It seemed like Zane was close to coming, and they’d forgotten to keep up their little charade. Ty’d forgotten to make even a peep of complaint over the fake abuse, and Zane had forgotten to abuse.

“God damn it,” he ground out. He kissed Ty again, the heat banking to a low simmer, his thrusts slowing until the swollen head of his cock once again pushed at Ty’s muscles until he wanted to scream for Zane to move. Zane pulled out, loosening his hold. Without the solidity of his body or his hands holding him up, Ty had to thump his foot back to the top step. His entire body throbbed with need and pain and frustration.

He swallowed hard. “What’s wrong,” he managed to ask. “Can’t even finish?”

“Get your ass upstairs,” Zane snarled.

“Or what?”

Zane grabbed his jaw, holding his head still as their eyes met. “Or nothing,” he said, voice pitched just loud enough to be picked up.

Ty gazed into his eyes, a smile growing. “So hot,” he whispered.

Zane’s lips twitched, and he nodded his head toward the stairs.

Ty had to slide against Zane to take the first step up. The way Zane was looking at him, all fire and desire, sweat dripping down his temples, Ty sort of felt like a squirrel slipping past a big dog. He only made it two steps before Zane’s resolve apparently went up in smoke, and he tackled Ty to the stairs.

Ty grunted when he hit. Zane was on top of him before he could even try to right himself, biting at Ty’s shoulder, dragging his teeth against the skin until he could place a kiss on Ty’s neck.

Ty cursed loudly, struggling to hold back a groan. Zane had a hand on Ty’s hip, pulling Ty’s ass toward him, and his damp belly and chest were pressed against Ty’s back.

The head of his cock pushed against Ty again, his hands digging into Ty’s ribs as he held him still, and he only waited long enough for Ty to push his ass against him before he shoved inside again.

Ty cried out, turning it into an outraged scream for the sake of the bug. Zane’s hand smacked against the step beside Ty’s head, and Ty grabbed for it, holding on as Zane moved inside him, his thighs slapping against Ty’s, his free fingers grasping Ty’s flank and leaving stinging trails behind as he tried to hold Ty’s body still for those brutal thrusts.

Ty raised his head long enough to look up to the doorway where a nice cushy bed was waiting for them. Instead, he was on his fucking knees on the stairs, gripping the iron railing as Zane fucked him into the sharp corners of the steps. Then Zane’s cock hit his prostate, and he screamed.

Zane grabbed his hair and yanked his head back, forcing Ty up onto all fours. Zane kissed his neck, then his ear. “Why haven’t we fucking done this before?” he panted.

“Broken bones,” Ty whispered back, huffing a laugh as Zane buried his face against Ty’s shoulder and groaned.

“You know you fucking love it,” Zane said, voice louder.

Ty gritted his teeth, fighting off the very real pleasure to try to find the right words. “Just get off and get out, for Christ’s sake,” he finally growled.

Zane shook his head. “Not that easy.”

His hand snaked around Ty’s body, groping, lingering in the sweat forming on Ty’s tense muscles. He pulled Ty close, then shoved his weight sideways. He wound up sitting on a step, lounging with his long legs reaching the floor, and Ty straddling him.

His hand closed around Ty’s cock, and he leaned back, taking Ty with him. Ty’s USMC ring clanged when he grabbed for the railing. Zane’s cock boring deeper into him as his weight pushed him down had him close to coming.

“Move,” Zane ordered.

Ty banged his head against Zane’s shoulder. “Go to Hell. You want to get off, you do the work.”

Zane laughed, and though it wasn’t genuine, he did a good job of selling the evil chuckle. He wrapped his slick fingers around Ty’s cock, sliding them around the head and down the shaft.

Ty groaned, not even sure what sound he’d intended to come out. He jutted his hips toward Zane’s hand, moving Zane inside him. “Fuck you, Zane. Fuck you so much,” he murmured, earning a very real, gentle chuckle that he felt against his back.

Zane jacked him harder, forcing his hips to move and his body to contort. He grabbed a handful of Zane’s hair and yanked at him, begging for a kiss. When Zane curled down to deliver, he shifted inside Ty, hitting his prostate again. Ty broke the kiss by shouting Zane’s name against his lips.

“That’s it, Grady, come on!” Zane yelled against Ty’s cheek.

Ty growled for the benefit of the listening devices, and Zane’s grip tightened on his chest, nails digging in.

“Move, Ty, for God’s sake,” Zane pleaded with short, gasping breaths.

Ty shimmied his hips, then dropped down, crying out as he reseated himself. Zane lost his hold on any remaining composure, bucking his hips and pulling Ty back to lie flat with him as he came inside him. Zane’s hand never stopped moving on Ty’s cock, though, and Ty struggled against the coming orgasm. It wouldn’t really sell their fight if he got off in the end. He turned his head toward Zane, desperately seeking anything to muffle the sounds.

Zane clapped a hand over his mouth, and that was all it took. Ty bucked his hips, squeezing his eyes shut and grasping at Zane’s hips and ribs as Zane jacked him through it. He spurted over his stomach and thighs, and his toes curled as he moaned against Zane’s hand.

They were both panting and sweaty when it was over, and Zane was straining beneath him as he tried to keep them both from sliding down the stairs. Ty’s breathing was ragged against Zane’s hand, and Zane let him loose cautiously, as if releasing a wild animal.

Ty arched his back, forcing Zane out of him. They both bit back their groans, and Ty rolled to his belly again.

“Fuck, Garrett,” he said softly.

Zane put his hand to his ear as if he hadn’t heard.

Ty growled, then pushed to his hands and knees. “Fuck!” he shouted. He slammed his hand against a step, and Zane jumped. “Fuck you, Garrett!”

Zane whirled his finger in the air, telling Ty to continue, then pushed himself to his feet and darted to the front door, not making a sound. Ty watched him for a moment before taking a deep breath and starting in on a loud, rambling rant that would cover any sounds Zane made as he moved around the lower floor. He had his bug detector in hand now, moving past all the usual places.

As Ty was bitching loudly about how Zane never did the dishes anyway and fuck him, Zane signaled to an electrical outlet near the kitchen.

“Get your shit, and get out until you can fucking handle yourself, Jesus Christ!” Ty shouted.

“Whatever, Ty,” Zane said as he headed for Ty and the stairs. “Work’s hard enough. I don’t need your whiny bullshit on top of it.” He stopped long enough to grab Ty and kiss him, whispering something unintelligible against Ty’s lips. Then he stomped up the steps.

Ty followed, silent on the balls of his feet. When he reached the landing, Zane indicated the table on Ty’s side of the bed. Ty nodded, then headed back downstairs.

A few minutes later, Zane thumped down the steps, wearing sweatpants and one of Ty’s T-shirts, a gray one with stylized pink writing that read “The 3rd rule of fight club is have fun and try your best.” He had a garment bag and Ty’s go bag full of emergency supplies slung over his shoulder.

Ty pointed at it, frowning. “Mine,” he mouthed.

“Mine now,” Zane said back, smirking as he gave Ty one last kiss and then headed for the kitchen. Their little scene ended with the slamming of the back door and the revving of Zane’s Valkyrie.

“How many to a bed, did you say?” Whyborne asked, sounding a bit faint.

I put an expression of mild concern on my face, although in truth I wasn’t surprised in the slightest. Having been to many a frontier town—albeit never one so damnably cold—I’d guessed our accommodations would be a far cry from our hotel in Threshold, let alone Shepheard’s in Cairo. But, as with the scurvy, I’d neglected to mention the details when discussing it with Whyborne.

Not to suggest I’d truly wished to deceive him. Nor had I omitted things because I feared he would otherwise refuse to come. But Christine and I quietly agreed that this way, we would only have to listen to Whyborne’s complaints once we actually arrived, as opposed to the entire trip here.

“Four,” Iskander replied, rather apologetically. We stood in the cramped front room of the hotel, which doubled as a saloon and restaurant. Men sat at rough-hewn tables, and a few of the town’s women circulated among them. The air stank of wet wool, raw lumber, and unwashed bodies.

“Four,” Whyborne repeated.

“The beds aren’t narrow—they’re made extra wide,” Iskander offered. “They aren’t what one would call comfortable, and of course there’s the danger of lice, but they’re quite warm at least.”

Whyborne paled at the mention of lice. The color looked particularly bad when paired with the puce scarf.

“We’ve roughed it before,” I said, patting his arm. “Egypt was hardly a pleasure jaunt. And it is only for one night.”

My reminder didn’t serve to cheer him. “Not that I’ll sleep a moment of it. I don’t mind living rough, but…”

“Don’t you worry,” Jack said. He gave Whyborne a bright grin. “St. Michael might be rough, but it’s no Skagway. None of these fellows will try to rob you in your sleep, I promise.”

Ival’s look of alarm confirmed my guess he hadn’t even considered the possibility until now. “Oh, do stop complaining, Whyborne,” Christine said. “We’re all exhausted, and standing about isn’t going to change things.”

“Easy for you to say,” he muttered. Christine would of course be bunking with the two or three other respectable—or mostly respectable—ladies who had come on the steamer with us. I suspected their small room in the back of the hotel would be far more comfortable than ours, if only because it wouldn’t be packed to the rafters with snoring men.

“Perhaps we should turn in,” Iskander suggested. “An early start and all that.”

“Yes, quite.” Christine looked as if she wished to say something further to him, but felt constrained by our presence. It must have been difficult, having been separated for so long, but unable to touch or speak openly without inviting scandal. At least Whyborne and I could slip away alone without causing comment.

Of course, once they married, Christine and Iskander would be expected to sleep in the same bed, and do so openly. I pressed my thumb against the heavy band on my left hand, the gold warm from the heat of my body. There was no reason to resent Christine; it was hardly her fault, and she’d been nothing if not staunchly loyal.

Still, it meant this trip would probably include an extended interlude of celibacy, unless we were exceedingly quick and discreet about things. Another fact I hadn’t mentioned to Whyborne.

The Tin Box
GRAVEL crunched under the tires of William Lyon’s ancient Toyota. The boxes and bags holding his worldly possessions rattled and shifted. He rolled up the window to avoid the choking cloud of dust kicked up by the Volvo ahead of him, but that left him feeling suffocatingly hot. The AC in his car had died long ago. That had rarely been an issue in the Bay Area, but it was going to be more problematic here in the Sierra foothills.

The road curved around grassy hillocks already gone brown in the late spring heat. Off in the distance he saw a few cows standing placidly in the shade of sprawling live oaks. With mild interest, they watched the cars pass by. The road turned once more as it rose slightly, and William got his first look at his new home.

Jelley’s Valley State Insane Asylum sprawled imposingly across several acres of mostly flat land, with a steep hill rising behind it. The grounds were surrounded by a tall metal fence. The facility comprised several buildings, although he couldn’t take a good inventory of them as he tried to avoid the road’s potholes. But he certainly noticed the largest building, a three-story white stucco monstrosity with a columned front portico and an ornate tower perched in the center of the roof. Even in the glaring sunshine, the building managed to look vaguely sinister. Maybe it was the heavy bars on all the windows, the cracked and peeling paint, or the hollow look common to abandoned buildings.

“Great setting for a horror movie,” he said aloud, then frowned. Talking to himself wasn’t healthy.

The Volvo stopped at a gate in the tall fence. William watched as Dr. Merrick—no, William reminded himself, Jan—got out of her car, pulled out an impressively large set of keys, and unfastened the padlock on the gate. Jan put a little muscle into pushing the gate open, got back into her car, and continued toward the main building as William followed.

The parking lot in front of the main building was paved, although weeds grew lushly through cracks in the asphalt. Jan parked the Volvo at an angle, straddling several spaces, but William pulled in carefully between two faded white lines. He turned off the engine and straightened his tie. He considered donning his suit jacket too, but the mere thought of additional clothing made the sweat drip down his forehead.

Jan was waiting for him by the front steps, a broad smile on her face. She was a tiny woman, almost a foot shorter than him, with her graying hair cut in a practical bob. “Gorgeous building, isn’t it? It’s on the National Historic Register.”

He nodded, hoping his face didn’t look too sour. If the place weren’t historic, he supposed they’d have razed it long ago. In his opinion, just because something was old didn’t mean it was worth keeping, and this heap was a prime example of that. What use was a defunct mental institution in the middle of nowhere? It wasn’t as if people drove by to admire the architecture.

Of course, he didn’t say any of this out loud. Instead, he offered a neutral observation: “It’s big.”

She laughed. “It is. It once housed more patients than anyplace else in California. Not for many years now, of course. They closed it down completely back in eighty-two.”

“It’s, um, a lot of space.”

“Don’t worry. A grounds crew comes a couple times a month to hack back the biggest vegetation, and there’s really no reason for you to step foot in the smaller buildings. C’mon. Let me give you the nickel tour.”

He didn’t especially want a tour. He’d have preferred to move his things inside and get settled. But he tagged along dutifully as she led him across the parking lot toward an open space that reminded him of a grassy village square or a park. She pointed across the space, at a large house that might once have been a Victorian wonder but was now mostly a pile of weather-beaten lumber. “That was the director’s house. Important visitors used to come from as far away as San Francisco and Sacramento and the directors would host fancy parties there. Some of the patients—the better-behaved ones, I guess—would act as servants. There are pictures in the online archives if you want to take a look.”

“It looks like a fire hazard.”

She chuckled. “The board of directors has been trying to raise enough money to restore the house. We’re not far from our goal.”

“You better hurry up.”

She continued around the side of the stucco building, where there was another entryway, this one considerably less grand. It somehow looked a little secretive to William, as if it had been used to furtively move people in and out. More buildings were visible around the back.

“Those were the shops,” Jan said, pointing at a long, low structure that was newer and uglier than the main one. “Roof’s mostly caved in, so avoid it. There’s nothing worth preserving there. A big water tower used to be right next door, but it was dismantled years ago. Don’t worry, though—you’ll have a modern water system. There’s a well.”

That was a belated relief, because it hadn’t even occurred to him to worry about whether he’d be able to take a decent shower. Then another thought hit him. “There is electricity, right?”

“Of course,” she said with a laugh. “They first ran power out here in the thirties. And there’s satellite TV with Internet. All the mod cons.”

They continued to wander around under the increasingly brutal sun, Jan pointing out features as they went. There were a few more buildings, mostly storage for supplies and vehicles, and a row of little cottages that had once housed some of the more capable inmates. Another falling-down wreck of a building had been apartments for the asylum staff. She told him that one building, in moderately good condition, had originally been the women’s facility but had been put to other uses over the years.

“What’s that?” he asked, pointing at another open space near the main building, this one surrounded by a low iron fence. The grass and shrubs inside the fence were badly overgrown, and a few lanky trees stretched their limbs out mournfully.

She sighed. “That’s the cemetery.”

“I don’t see any gravestones.”

“There aren’t any. Most of the people here didn’t have anyone to come visit them while they were alive, let alone after they died. The hospital kept some records of who was buried where, but they’re really incomplete. We know this isn’t the only place where they laid people to rest, but we’re not sure where all the graves are. About ten years ago someone was considering buying the property for some kind of resort, but when they did some digging near the edge of the property they ended up unearthing a bunch of skeletons.”

William shuddered. “Ugh.”

“That’s what they thought. They backed out of the deal. Nobody’s been interested since.”

Well, William could certainly understand that. But again he held his tongue, and he was relieved when she took them back to the front of the building. She pulled that enormous key ring out of her purse and handed it to him with a little flourish. “You won’t need most of these. The ones for the front door and gate are marked and there’s a list inside that tells you what the others are for. Mostly they’re for interior doors.”

She let him lead the way to the large and ornate front door. He fumbled with the key a little before he managed to turn the lock. The door made a scraping sound as if the hinges were rusty. It probably didn’t get opened very often.

The entry hall was much grander than he expected, with marble floors and ornate wainscoting. The ceiling soared at least twenty feet. An enormous chandelier hung in the middle, thickly festooned with cobwebs and dust and clearly unused for decades. The room was bright with sunlight that poured in through the large windows set high in the walls, and in more recent years someone had installed a series of ugly but functional lights. The space was bare of furniture, but he could see scuff marks on the floor, and he figured there had once been a reception desk and probably some benches or chairs. He wondered whether new patients had entered this way or through the ugly little door on the side.

“You’re free to poke around the building all you want,” Jan said. Her voice echoed off the room’s hard surfaces. “It’s mostly just a lot of empty rooms, or jumbles of old furniture and things. The morgue’s pretty interesting. It’s up on the second floor in the west wing. That was the medical wing. The records room is right near your quarters. We’ve archived only a small portion, so if you get bored and want to pitch in, be my guest.”

“I’ll be working on my dissertation.”

“Of course. I’m sure that’ll keep you plenty busy. Fred tells me that you have quite an impressive data set.”

Fred was Fred Ochoa, supervisor of William’s psych dissertation. He was the one who’d found William this job. “It’s perfect!” Dr. Ochoa had enthused one afternoon two weeks earlier. “I know you like to work in peace and quiet and you’ll have plenty of that. And you’ll get a place to live rent-free.” He cleared his throat. “You’re still, er, a little at loose ends, aren’t you?”

If sleeping in his tiny office at the university and showering at the gym meant loose ends, William most certainly was. He hadn’t really wanted Dr. Ochoa to know about the pending divorce and his precarious situation, but the man was nothing if not observant.

“I don’t think I’d make a very good caretaker,” William had protested. “I’m not a fix-it kind of guy.”

“Not a problem. Basically, your job is just to keep an eye on things. Make sure vandals don’t overrun the place, stuff like that. You’ll have an emergency number to call if something important breaks. You’ll have a lot of room to spread out, William, plus they’ll pay you enough to squirrel a little cash away if you want to.”

William hadn’t said yes right away. But after three more days of a sore back from sleeping on the office’s lumpy love seat, and with no good prospects beyond a half-dozen noisy roommates, he’d taken the offer.

Now, Jan watched him with her head slightly cocked. “What’s your research subject, William?”

“The influence of word frequency and item arrangement in serial recall. I have some other independent variables too, like elapsed time and number or complexity of interfering events. It’s a fairly intricate experimental design.”

“Uh-huh. It sounds very interesting,” she added, but without conviction.

It was interesting—to him, anyway. And not only might his study have some intriguing theoretical repercussions, but there were practical applications as well, such as in the courtroom. But he didn’t bother to explain that now.

“Where do I sleep?” he asked. Almost anyplace would be better than his cramped, slightly mildewy office—well, anyplace but the morgue.

She smiled. “We have a nice apartment set up. This way.”

The double doors near where the desk had once stood were unlocked. Beyond them was a long, gloomy corridor with scuffed floors, peeling painted walls, and more utilitarian light fixtures. The corridor was lined with doors, and the far end appeared to meet another hallway that led off to the right and left. Jan opened the first door they came to, an imposing-looking one made of carved dark wood. “This used to be the director’s office,” she explained.

It was a very large room. Built-in bookcases lined two walls from floor to ceiling, the shelves mostly empty apart from a sad little row of ratty paperback spy thrillers. A few brightly colored rugs—incongruously modern in what was otherwise a very antique-looking room—covered parts of the scuffed oak floor. The chandelier matched the one in the entryway, although this one was smaller and dust-free. Heavy tieback curtains let in the light from two large windows, mercifully unbarred. A grand fireplace was centered on one wall, a sizable pile of logs set into place even though William wouldn’t need a fire anytime soon.

The furnishings were solid and comfortable-looking: a bed flanked by a pair of nightstands, a leather couch and matching armchair, a tall dresser, a mirrored armoire, an enormous desk with an equally enormous padded chair. Two wooden chairs hugged a small round table. Mismatched lamps had been placed on the desk, near the bed, and on a shelf near the armchair. The small, old television didn’t bother William; he’d never been much of a TV-watching guy. Three electric fans stood ready to help move the still, hot air. The inside of the building was cooler than outdoors, but not by much.

Still, this was definitely better than his university office, William concluded.

Jan must have noticed his approval, because she grinned. “Not bad, huh? There used to be a private exam room adjacent. We’ve made that into the kitchenette and bathroom. Come see.”

The small door off to the left led directly into a tiny kitchen, housing a miniature stove and oven, a microwave, a sink, four feet of counter space, and a pair of cupboards. “You might have trouble cooking a feast for twenty in here,” Jan admitted.

“I’m not much of a cook anyway.”

“Well, if you decide to take up a new hobby, the old kitchens—the big ones that cooked for the whole hospital—are on this floor. I doubt any of the appliances work, though.”

“That’s okay.”

The bathroom was basic. No tub, just a tiled shower stall. The sink looked ancient, but the faucet gleamed and the mirror was in good shape. A stacked washer and dryer stood in the corner.

When William and Jan returned to the main room, she cocked her head at him. “So? What do you think? Is it going to work?”

“It’ll be fine,” he said confidently.

“Good. There’s a binder in the desk full of instructions and maps and things like that. The key list is in there too. Oh, and that phone works.” She pointed at a big black phone that looked like an escapee from an old movie. “Cell coverage can be a little spotty out here.”

Fine with him, as long as he had Internet.

She scratched her head. “Let’s see…. Is there anything else you need to know? There’s no mail delivery out here, but you can pick it up at the post office in town. There’s a general store there too. For bigger shopping you’ll need to drive into Mariposa or Oakhurst, but you can get the basics here. The little Mexican restaurant’s not bad. Try their tamales. And call me if you need anything. It takes me a couple hours to get here, but I can probably help you out long-distance. I stayed here myself as caretaker for six months, back when I was writing my dissertation. It was a lovely experience, although I grew lonely at the end.”

William wasn’t worried about that. He was used to lonely.

He walked her out to the parking lot. “Are there, um, animals around here?” he asked.

“Nothing that will eat you. Actually, the wildlife is quite interesting. I learned to bird-watch when I lived here. There are deer and coyotes nearby, but the fence keeps them out. And of course you’ll have your neighbors, the cows.”

“I’ve never lived so… far from things before.”

“Well, it’s wonderful if you like peace and quiet. Now, can I help you carry in your belongings?”

“No thanks.” He didn’t have that many things anyway, apart from his books and papers. He and Lisa hadn’t been able to afford much in the way of material goods, and she’d kept most of their things after they split. At least she’d had an apartment to keep them in, and he thought she deserved to salvage what she could from the marriage he’d botched.

“Okay, then. I’m going to head back. I’ll lock the gate when I leave.” She put out her hand and he shook it. “Good luck, William.”


He watched as she drove off. Even after her car had disappeared around a bend he could see the clouds of dust billowing behind her. That left him alone with his carefully parked car in the otherwise empty lot. He opened the Toyota’s hatch and began to unload his things. “This is good,” he said out loud, and then bit his tongue as he vowed to stop talking to himself.

The Door Behind Us
Chapter 1
THE YOUNG man still had a dressing over one ear and a crust of blood inside one nostril. The doctor paged through the chart. Notations recorded progress as good as could be expected for such a recent amputee. “Mind if I look?” He pulled back the sheet and noted the wound drained normally. “How’d he rest last night?”

The resident pulled at his narrow tie. “Poorly. He was yelling and thrashing around. That’s why I asked for you to look in.”

“Hmm. Has he been given anything to help him sleep?”

“No, he even tried to refuse the morphine.”

“That’s interesting.” He watched the steady rise and fall of the muscular chest. “He’s a sergeant. Was he a squad leader? Do you know what happened to him?”

The resident shook his head, yawning. “Nope. He hasn’t said much.”

“Does he know about the leg?”

“We told him there was too much nerve damage.”

“The nightmares started before the surgery?”

“Before.” The resident yawned again. “From the first night he was here.”

“There’s not much I can do for him until he wakes up. You’ll have me paged?”

Chapter 2
FRANK CAME into the barn sniffing the air like the scent might tell him whether the place was dangerous.

“About time you got here. Saw the note, I take it? Any questions?” Charlie watched the boy take in the stone barn, from hayloft to the three-legged stool where he sat. “Questions?” he prompted the boy a second time.

Cocking his head as if sorting through a stack of mental index cards, the boy eventually picked a pair of questions. “What happened to me? Why can’t I remember?”

“You received a head injury, maybe from a shell explosion. That’s what the quacks at the hospital told us. But that doesn’t answer your question, does it? Why don’t you remember anything? I don’t know. Here, grab a bucket. I expect your hands remember how to milk a cow, even if your head don’t.” Charlie watched the boy’s hand creep upward to touch his head. “Queenie knows you, even if you don’t know her.”

Frank picked up a bucket hesitantly.

Charlie nodded at a Jersey cow that stamped impatiently at her stanchion. “She’s waiting.”

What was it like for the boy to discover who he was every morning from a note tacked to the door of the privy? If the boy had any feelings about it, he never told Charlie.

THE BOY discovered the note after waking in an unfamiliar room. Pale light filtered through a dusty window at the end of a tunnellike dormer. Feeling exposed even under a woolen blanket, he slid to the floor and rolled part way underneath the bed. More comfortable with the solid frame looming over him, he stayed for a time, staring upward. As the light strengthened, he let his gaze follow the lines of wood grain in the window frame. The builder of this house had cut matching pieces for the verticals, their patterns mirrored on either side of the window.

Eventually he rose and struggled out of the tangled bedclothes. A small writing desk, cluttered with loose sheets of writing paper, a fountain pen, and an inkpot, was tucked into the dormer. A stack of unopened envelopes lay next to the writing supplies. The first was postmarked in July of 1918, and the last in October of the same year. Why didn’t this fellow, Francis Huddleston, open his mail?

Gut fluttering like an anxious bird, he peered under the bed for a chamber pot. Finding none, he rushed down to the second floor looking for a toilet or the way to the privy. Steps led down toward either end of the house. The set in the back were coarse and painted rather than finished, a servant’s stair. He knew the term, even if he didn’t know where he’d learned it. Down again, he found a large kitchen and heavy door framed in pantry shelves. He ran out into the yard. A well-worn path led to a small, clapboard structure with high windows. A minute later, as he tried not to breathe the acrid stink, he noticed a ruled sheet of writing paper tacked to the door in front of him. GOOD MORNING was blocked out in square letters.

Your name is Francis “Frank” Huddleston. You are a soldier, returned from the war in Europe. The white-haired man milking the cows in the barn is your grandfather, Charlie Clark. He will welcome your help with the chores. When you return from the barn, the gray-haired woman in the kitchen will give you breakfast. She is your grandmother, Edith “Eddy” Clark.

Charlie continued to milk his own cow and watched as Frank began to squeeze a stream of milk from Queenie’s teats, the familiar act calming the boy. Soon the milk squirted steadily, and Frank fell into a kind of trance, his movements automatic, until a diminishing stream and restless stamp from Queenie signaled time to change to a new pair of teats. Shifting to a new set, he rested his head against Queenie’s side and continued mechanically.

Charlie finished first and went to stand behind the boy. When Frank was done, he placed his hands on his knees and looked around. Charlie held his breath and watched Frank’s face. But there was only a tightening around Frank’s mouth and a narrowed gaze. Charlie sighed and placed a hand on Frank’s shoulder. “It’s all right, boy. I’m your grandfather, Charlie Clark. You’re Frank Huddleston, come home from the war with a head injury. That’s why you don’t know me. Let’s go in and meet your grandmother. She’ll give us something to eat. Are you hungry? Don’t forget your bucket.”

EDDY’S SPOTTED hands twisted in her lap as she spoke. “Charlie isn’t a young man anymore. You’re a great worker, Frank, but it’s the forgetting. With one of us staying with you all the time to answer your questions, we can’t….”

Frank fidgeted in his chair and let his gaze wander over the worn fixtures and scarred wood of the kitchen. He wondered if they would ask him to leave, the strangers who had fed him for months, judging from the thick wad of notes in his hand. Would their faces ever be familiar?

“… so Charlie and I, we’ve posted a notice at the Grange Hall. We hope to have someone here by the harvest.”

Frank became aware the room had fallen silent—except for the tap dripping in the sink and the birds calling outside. Eddy and Charlie. They watched him closely as if they expected something, as if they were unsure of his response. He didn’t know why. Eddy’s careful announcement seemed to have little to do with him.

“Will you hire someone I knew… before?”

“No, Frank. You were with your parents in Philadelphia before the war. Nobody around here knows you.” Charlie looked away. His voice took on a rote quality. “They thought you might be more comfortable here with us while you recovered.”

“Will the new person stay with me or work with you?”

Charlie rubbed fingers across his forehead like he was trying to erase the wrinkles there, but Eddy answered in firm tones. “We have to be careful with our money, Frank. It may be cheaper to hire somebody to keep an eye on you and to help you remember when you have one of your spells. Charlie will work around the house.”

Frank fingered his notes again. “So… you want me to keep feeding the horses and milking the cows?”

“Yes, you’ll do that and other work as well.”

“Now, Eddy.” Charlie’s voice was gentle. “The boy’s still recovering. I’m not dead yet.”

“He’s strong as a bull, Charlie.”

“I don’t mind doing more, if that’s what you want.” Frank shifted from face to face until he focused on the sharp furrows at the side of Eddy’s mouth. “Just tell me what you want.”

“That’s what the new man will do,” Eddy said, looking at Charlie.

Charlie’s gaze dropped to his callused hands.

The Forgotten Man
Chapter One
Saturday, December 24, 1932
First Night of Chanukah
WITH hats pulled tight around their heads and hands shoved deep in their coat pockets, pedestrians bustled up and down Lexington Avenue. Joshua pulled his Burberry scarf around his nose and mouth to guard against the biting wind and stepped out of Bloomingdale’s into the rush of people.

Set apart from the horde, a number of casual strollers admired the Christmas display in the store’s windows. One mannequin dressed in holiday attire held up a newspaper bearing the photo of the newly elected president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt would take office at the beginning of March 1933. In the meantime, the country held its breath, waiting and praying for an end to the dark days of the past three years.

Joshua stuffed his mother’s Chanukah gift into the pocket of his watch coat. Someone would snatch the half-dollar earrings if given the chance. The first night of Chanukah began at sunset, just as Shabbat ended. The Jewish papers were again full of advertisements for chocolates and toy trinkets. The movement to sell Chanukah as an alternative to Christmas in a “Look at all the gifts; eight days of gifts!” enthusiasm found its stride when Joshua was in his late youth. As a boy, Joshua had known only a few families who marked it; his own had done it without the blessings and focused on chocolate, candles, and dreidel-spinning. He had preferred exchanging secular Christmas gifts with his school friends. However, his mother had started taking in lodgers. Now children lived in the house again, so Chanukah had been revived at home, for the first time with the full complement of blessings, singing, and food.

After growing up secular, Joshua had reclaimed some of his Jewish identity during the War, a result of not wanting to die without knowing his heritage. He had no particular desire to keep kosher or acknowledge Shabbat beyond lighting candles and eating challah bread and drinking wine, but he also no longer felt that exchanging Christmas presents with his friends was appropriate.

“Captain! Captain!”

Joshua’s shoulders thrust back of their own accord, his hips and feet snapped themselves into a perfect line, and he schooled his face against expressing the turmoil that grabbed him in response to that shout. Joshua saw them on the streets sometimes, the men in his unit. Some of them were missing legs; Isaac Schwartz, he’d lost an eye; Benjamin Bakker, his left foot. “Hey, Captain,” they’d call. “Remember me?”

It had only been fourteen years. Of course he remembered them. He remembered every single one, including those who were no longer there to call to him. Especially those men.

It was Isaac. He gave Joshua a lopsided smile—the result of his facial injury—and held an apple out. “Best one, Captain,” he said. “Picked it just for you.”

As Joshua approached, men at identical plywood stands loaded down with apples tried to lure him away, but Joshua kept his focus on Isaac. “Here.” Joshua handed him a dime and received the apple. He tucked it into his empty pocket. “Thank you.” He reached out to shake Isaac’s hand, but Isaac saluted instead. He had been handsome once. It wasn’t his eye that took away his beauty, but the hard times that followed. With the old familiar guilt inside him, Joshua returned the gesture.

“It’s good to see you again, Captain.”

“Take care of yourself,” Joshua said. He turned toward the subway entrance, eager to get away.

He almost wished they’d ask him for something, but they never did. He could give them money. He had money: more than they had, at least. What he couldn’t do was return their smiles or pretend to be as delighted to see them as they were to see him. He would wave, call them by name to show he remembered, and walk on as he heard them say to his back, “Great man. Best captain a fellow could hope for.”

Joshua hadn’t come out unscathed. A bullet nicking the back of his leg had gifted him with a limp. Most days he could hide it, but when he felt tired, or the rain came down, he needed his cane.

His family lost their fortune in April 1932 when Samuel Insull’s company collapsed. Joshua hadn’t realized that his parents, Chicago natives, had had so much money tied up in the utility magnate’s empire. On the heels of that blow, his father lost his job at Columbia University, but found another teaching philosophy at Harvard. He moved up to Cambridge in June, promising to send money. He hadn’t sent anything, not even a note. The good thing, the saving grace, was that they owned their house. It had been Joshua’s idea to convert it into a boarding house. He had moved out of his Washington Square Park apartment to help with it.

Things were tight, even with the house full, and for a while Joshua found himself playing the role of the heavy, knocking on doors and saying, “Pay up or get out.” Most of those tenants tried to argue with him, got high and mighty because they were just like his family—the money was gone but not the attitude. These were the ones diving off buildings. Sometimes Joshua worried that his younger brother Asher would be like that, except that Asher seemed oblivious to their change in state. Despite being almost thirty years old, Asher still lived at home. He was as cocky as ever, and Joshua had stopped thinking that it was an act so their mother wouldn’t worry. It seemed more like willful ignorance.

They had family dinner every night and for a small fee added on to the price of the room, the lodgers could join them. Asher acted like life was a game, and in a way Joshua was jealous of that. His mother had paraded him around in his uniform once he got back. She was putting him up as marriageable material. A lot of the fellows were going around in their uniforms picking up wide-eyed girls who wanted to hear heroic stories. Joshua discovered that if he pretended to care about a girl, he could buy himself “recovery” time between her and the next one. His mother thought he was healing his broken heart. He saw it as a reprieve from wearing the mask that only he and a select few other men could see. It wasn’t until he lived in his own apartment that he was able to keep the company he wanted. His landlady didn’t allow a man to take a woman into his rooms, but she wouldn’t bat an eye at another man.

Moving back home, he’d had to put the mask back on. It was why he was thankful for the little spot on Fifty-Third. A quiet drink, a nice sit-down with the fellows, and Flo singing—that was his idea of a good evening.

It was early yet, not quite two in the afternoon, but the club would be open, even on Christmas Eve. He could go in for a quick drink and be home in time for candle lighting at four. Bypassing the subway entrance, he headed west toward Park Avenue, crossed over it and Madison, and turned down Fifth. From there, it was less than five minutes’ walk. Shorty’s Club was unmarked on the outside, no different from the brownstones bracketing it. Inside, it was a decadent paradise with a touch of class. Joshua knocked and whispered the password (a farce—anyone could get in if he showed enough cash) and slipped inside. It was dark, lit only by the candles on the tables, plus a gaslight over the bar and the spotlight on the stage. He signaled to Johnny for a glass of his usual and took his table against the wall a few feet from the stage. Sometimes someone sat down beside him, and a hand might wander where it shouldn’t, and a soft voice asked him to buy her a drink, or a deeper voice requested the time. Sometimes he went along with it. Depended on the hand. The girls figured out after a while that as ratios went, they’d have a better chance with someone else.

He nodded at one of the regulars. Another lay slumped over his table, face buried in his arm. Joshua usually came into the club feeling a tired kind of good, but he didn’t feel it now. Flo hadn’t slid her rich voice into “How About Me” yet, even though she perched on her stool next to the piano with her knee up just enough to make the slit in her dress fall a little and give the men a hint of smooth caramel-colored leg.

When Johnny brought Joshua’s drink, he held on to the glass until their fingers touched. Joshua let the connection linger a bit before pulling away.

“All right, darling?” Johnny asked. He bent to wipe the table with the towel tucked into his apron string.

“Yeah,” Joshua said. He could have told Johnny the truth. Johnny was a good egg. However, if he told him that he felt empty, Johnny would probably just welcome him to the party.

Halfway through his first glass, he figured it out. Every day for as long as Joshua had come to the club, there had been a man on the corner of Fifty-Sixth and Fifth across from Childs Restaurant playing a battered guitar with aplomb, smiling and nodding at people as he belted out “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue.” Because of his tendency to sing this song, Joshua had nicknamed him “Blue.” Sometimes, Blue couldn’t be seen through the crowd of people rushing past, but Joshua always heard him. Whenever he bought one of the pancakes that Childs made fresh in their window, he lingered at their picnic tables to listen while he ate. On those occasions, he made sure to give Blue a dime. Blue didn’t stop singing, but he’d smile with his brown eyes, and Joshua would walk away feeling warm.

Today Blue was not there. Joshua could blame it on the early hour. Or the holiday. Maybe Blue had family to celebrate with. Still, having his routine interfered with was odd; acknowledging that Blue was part of that routine, when he rarely thought about him otherwise, was more strange.

Funny how he had never connected Blue’s unabashed delivery of that frustratingly catchy song to his own good mood. Flo asked “Why Was I Born?” from the stage. Joshua drained the brandy at his fingertips.

He caught Johnny looking at him, so Joshua got up and went over to the bar to stand beside him. He bumped against Johnny’s hip, and Johnny reached over to touch his waist. “Twenty minutes,” Johnny said. Then he pulled his hand away, and he acted like Joshua wasn’t beside him. Joshua slid past, and signaled to Shorty for another drink, violating his one-drink rule. He blamed it on his mood. On Blue not being there and throwing him off.

He and Johnny had a thing. He wasn’t sure what to call it. They were friends for sure, had dabbled at something more, but it hadn’t worked out. But Johnny was willing and pliable, and Joshua supposed he was the same. Johnny didn’t care about money or anything that went along with it. He never talked about the Crash or the War or Joshua’s family losing their money or Johnny’s family kicking him out after he got arrested for “perversion,” caught red-assed when a suspicious landlord called the police after noticing that he never had female visitors but that men went through his apartment like it had a revolving door. Discretion was not one of Johnny’s strong points.

Sometimes Joshua thought about asking Johnny to keep his eye out for work, since Johnny surely got wind of opportunities given the diverse clientele at the club. Joshua had a master’s degree in history from Columbia University and worked as a tutor, but his students were dropping. He was down to two. The kind of work Johnny might find for him would undoubtedly be different, but as long as it wasn’t too physical or illegal, Joshua was open to almost anything. His mother needed him to help her run the house, though, which was a job in itself. With his new drink, Joshua went back to his table to wait for Johnny to finish.

“Sing us something sweet, pretty little whore.” Joshua turned and saw the man who had been sleeping now on his feet, swaying.

Flo stopped singing as soon as the jibe was thrown out. It was true that actresses, singers, and prostitutes—women in lipstick—were regarded as one and the same, but that didn’t mean a person could go around hurling insults. There was a second of silence. Then she asked, “What did you say?” And the word was shouted again, this time with a mocking laugh behind it. Flo sauntered off the stage down to the man’s table, picked up his drink, and tossed it in his face. She walked right past him out the door. For another minute, no one moved.

Shorty came out from behind the bar and grabbed the man. “Come back when you know how to treat a lady,” he said as he tossed him out.

Flo returned five minutes later in a different dress. She sashayed back to the stage and sang “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” as if nothing had happened. After, she came and sat down across from Joshua.

“You shouldn’t have to put up with that,” he said.

“Seems to me I didn’t.”

“I meant it shouldn’t happen.”

She shrugged. “Honey, that’s life.”

Joshua ignored his budget even more to buy her a drink. “So, Captain,” she said, “you ever had chocolate in bed?”

It took him a few seconds to figure out what she was talking about. “No, ma’am.” He drawled it out, not serious. There had been some whisperings that Flo did this—not that she was a whore, God no, but that if she liked a fellow well enough, she might take him up to her room—so he wasn’t too surprised when she squeezed his hand there on the table.

“No, not you. You’re a friend of Mr. Porter, I think,” she said, meaning Cole, who had a wife he didn’t sleep with and men that he did, if rumors were believed. Flo sat back and looked at him as if he were an object of curiosity.

Joshua smiled, trying to cast off the feeling that he was being read. He looked down at the shadows the candle flame cast across the table. “Never heard it put that way before.”

“Well, there you are,” Flo said. She patted his hand and got up, taking her glass with her as she returned to the stage. Joshua noticed Johnny standing near the door that led to the back staircase. Leaving his glass on the table, he pushed a dollar under it, pulled his coat on, and got up.

Going up the stairs, he kept his hand on Johnny’s back, just above his waistband. Johnny’s trousers were too big, held up by suspenders and gapping at his waist. Joshua slipped his fingers in and rubbed the small of Johnny’s back.

“Not yet,” Johnny said. He tugged Joshua’s hand out as he opened the door to one of the rooms. Joshua followed him in and glanced around, took in the couch, a sideboard set with bourbon in a crystal decanter and two glasses. A small table with chairs on either side was positioned beneath the window. Johnny pulled away, stripped his suspenders down his arms. He pulled a tin of oil from his trouser pocket and let them fall. “Come on,” he said. “Don’t have much time before I have to get downstairs again.” He opened the tin and began preparing himself as he bent forward over the back of the couch.

Joshua opened his trousers, focusing on the small of Johnny’s back, pale and smooth below the hem of his shirt. When Johnny reached backward for his wrists, Joshua allowed himself to be tugged forward to place his hands on Johnny’s hips. In moments, his troubled thoughts drifted away, replaced with warmth and heat as he leaned over Johnny, his chest to Johnny’s back, and pressed into him. He moved his hips as Johnny sighed and went slack beneath him.

“Forgot how big you are,” Johnny said.

To Joshua’s haze-muddled ears, it sounded like he was underwater. For a moment, he remembered Jones, who had drowned crossing a river in France, swept away by the current. His shouts still echoed in Joshua’s dreams. Joshua squeezed Johnny’s hips, using the pressure to push the memory away and fall into the safety of nothing again. “You say that every time. I might start getting a big head.”

“Why not? You’ve already got a big—”

The door crashed open, probably helped by a boot, and swallowed the rest of Johnny’s sentence.


Joshua’s pleasant feeling disappeared, swept away by tight fear. He couldn’t be arrested. Could not be. It would ruin his family’s reputation, and if he were put into the workhouse, what would they do? He didn’t dare turn around, praying instead that whoever was at the door would leave. “I… I have money,” he said. “I can pay if you’ll just go….” Quite a few fellows had gotten out of shackles by greasing a cop’s palm. Joshua wasn’t above it, not when he knew the stakes. He kept his grip on Johnny’s arms, tight like he couldn’t let go—he was scared to try in case it proved true. Meanwhile, Johnny had gone rigid beneath him. Looking down at the tensed shoulders, Joshua felt a sliver of guilt breaking through the fear. The workhouse would be worse for Johnny than for Joshua. It was a small miracle that Johnny had come out the first time unscathed. A second time might undo him. Joshua wanted to say something that would give him some relief, but couldn’t do anything with the prospect of his own future staring him down. If anything, he squeezed Johnny’s arms tighter.

“Captain?” The voice that had shouted before now sounded uncertain, almost frightened. Joshua raised his head. He didn’t have to turn around to see the man it belonged to in order to recognize him; Corporal Lewis had shouted in his ear often enough in the trenches to earn a permanent place in Joshua’s memory. Lewis had been frightened then too, but brave and precise as well. He went over the top of the trench more than once to drag back men trying to desert. He believed in rules, followed them as closely as he followed the tattered Bible he kept with him. With Lewis finding him, Joshua was fucked; that was the short of it. Lewis would never accept a bribe. The only way out of this was through the courts. He held on to Johnny a moment longer, grasping for his unashamed life as it crumbled away. Finally unable to put off the inevitable, he fitted a mask of confidence onto his face and turned to his former subordinate.

“If you’re going to arrest me, Corporal, wait until I’ve finished, would you?” He used his most commanding voice and hoped it would have the same effect here as it had in the trenches.

Johnny began to rise up from his bent position over the back of the couch. Joshua petted his arms and soothed him back down. Johnny looked warily over his shoulder toward the corporal and then at Joshua. He squeezed his buttocks tighter around Joshua, pulling him deeper inside him, as if signaling his agreement to go along with whatever Joshua had in mind. Joshua had nothing in mind outside of asserting a long-forgotten authority. He could only pray that it would be enough. His hips snapped forward of their own volition until he was spent and soft as his mind raced, searching for options to get both himself and Johnny out of the situation with their names untarnished. Joshua reached completion after what seemed like interminable minutes.

Peeling himself from Johnny’s body, he turned around. He faced his former subordinate with his cock hanging wet and half-limp out of his trousers. Corporal Lewis flicked his gaze downward, nervous, but gathered himself and snapped his focus back up to Joshua’s face. Joshua pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket to clean himself before he buttoned up.

Joshua looked over to see Johnny standing up and tentatively flexing as if to remind his muscles what the upright position felt like. He pulled his trousers from the couch and began to dress too, keeping his face averted from Lewis’s.

“Now look, Corporal,” Joshua said, using Lewis’s former title and not the “sergeant” his policeman’s uniform afforded him. If he was to get out of this, Lewis needed to remember their relationship. He waited until Lewis looked at him before he continued, even though this meant that Lewis now had Johnny in his line of sight and was watching him dress—a circumstance that didn’t seem to please either of them. “You can arrest me if you like, but I would appreciate it if you would leave my friend alone. We were all young once, and obviously he’s just made a mistake.” Despite his bravado, Joshua felt his cheeks heating as he spoke. Given the frequency with which he entered into these situations, he’d always known he would one day be caught. He hadn’t expected to be bare-assed in front of one of his men, though.

He glanced at Johnny and saw that Johnny had finished dressing and stood with his hands clasped behind him like a schoolboy. Joshua had never seen him so silent.

“Get out,” Lewis said. Joshua didn’t know who he was talking to, and from the way Johnny dug his heel into the carpet, he guessed that Johnny was uncertain as well. “You,” Lewis said, which wasn’t a clarification, but he pointed at Johnny a second later, and Johnny darted out of the room without a glance at Joshua. He slipped past Lewis without touching him. Lewis came into the room and shut the door.

“I haven’t paid him,” Joshua said, “so you can’t arrest him on prostitution or anything like that.”

“No one’s going to arrest him. We’re here for the booze. Shorty knows the routine.” Although the door was closed, Lewis remained where he had been. Joshua forced himself into movement and dragged his feet over to the wall, where he poured himself a drink from the sideboard.

“Are you going to arrest me for this?” He held the glass up without looking at Lewis.

“No,” Lewis said from behind him. “If I did, I’d have to arrest every person in the city.”

“Good.” He made one for Lewis too, more out of a need to keep his back turned for a few seconds longer than any call toward manners. He put it on the table nearest to Lewis and stepped away.

“You look good,” Joshua said. He gestured toward Lewis with a halfhearted wave. His confidence slipped down with the grimace that reached Lewis’s mouth. “I don’t mean…. Given the context in which we find ourselves, I hope you won’t take anything inappropriate from that comment.” The bourbon slid down his throat. It did nothing for him but gave him an excuse to stop speaking for a moment. “It’s been a long time, is all I meant. I didn’t know you’d joined the police. I’m not surprised.” Protecting the men beside him had been second nature to Lewis in the trenches. “I imagine you’re good at it.”

“I enjoy it.” Lewis didn’t seem as locked into place as he had been. Joshua supposed this was a slight relief. “I knew,” Lewis said. “I’ve known since Paris.”

It took Joshua a moment to realize that Lewis wasn’t talking about wanting to be a police officer. “You knew?” he asked.

“You remember? We had a few hours of leave, and a group of the fellas went to a bordello. You didn’t go, even though they invited you, and we all knew you didn’t have anyone waiting for you at home. That’s when I started suspecting.”

He remembered. He had gone to see Jean-Paul instead, a boy he’d met in a bakery on his first leave in Paris and returned to visit each leave afterward. “And the others? Did they suspect?”

Lewis shrugged. “I told them it was something to do with your religion. Jews having different views on sex than Christians.”

A flutter of ruefulness touched Joshua’s mood. He’d taken his share of anti-Semitism in the army, even as an officer. He pushed it away, as always. “I don’t know that that’s true. Seems to me that Christians are the ones hung up on sex.”

“It stopped them from thinking you were an invert,” Lewis said, as matter-of-fact as ever.

“And what do you think of me now, Corporal?” Joshua let a hint of challenge touch his tone.

Lewis straightened slightly. “I think that you led me through battle time after time and that I am alive because of your leadership and bravery. Sir.”

At this, Joshua’s body snapped to attention before he was even aware of it, that damned habit kicking in, and he was thankful that he held the glass in his left hand, because if not, he would have smacked himself in the head as his right hand popped out a salute. Lewis reacted just as quickly, saluting back. When their hands fell, Joshua was sure that his smile looked as awkward as Lewis’s. It was certainly how he felt.

“Well,” Joshua said, “are you going to have that drink now?”

“I am still on duty,” Lewis said, though he looked at his glass with regret.

“Later then? Assuming you’ll want to be seen with me?”

Lewis’s eyes went hard. “I can’t think of anyone I’d want to be seen with more than you, sir.”

“You can call me Joshua now. I haven’t been in the army for some time.”

Lewis took a step forward and extended his hand. “And you can call me Christopher. It would be my great honor if you did.” He squeezed Joshua’s hand.

“Thank you. Christopher. You will make sure that Johnny isn’t arrested? It would be his second time, and really, it’s not his fault…. I’m afraid this time it was my indiscretion.”

“I’ll make sure,” Lewis said. He stood away from the doorway and gestured Joshua through. Downstairs, a few tables were turned over, but there was no broken glass, no one lined up in handcuffs. Flo sat on the piano bench looking bored. Behind the bar Shorty lined up shots of whiskey for the waiting policemen. Lewis frowned in disgust as he walked Joshua to the door.

“Johnny?” Joshua asked again when he didn’t see him.

“I promised, didn’t I?” Lewis said. “Your friend probably high-tailed it out of here. You should do the same.” He pushed Joshua gently but firmly forward and closed the door on him.

Joshua squinted in the gaslit street. He’d been inside longer than he’d thought. There was no sense of time in Shorty’s. It was a place to go when he wanted to escape time. He hailed a cab on Fifth Avenue. He told the driver to take him to the subway. He’d save money by taking the train the rest of the way home.

He looked for Blue as he rode past Childs. The restaurant’s sidewalk teemed with young men and women in all states of dress from suits to blue jeans, but no Blue. Joshua strained to see because he couldn’t believe that Blue wouldn’t be in his usual place. It didn’t make sense. A sick feeling stuck in his gut that something had happened. He reached into his coat to massage his stomach. He didn’t understand why it hit him as hard as this. Blue was an unnamed stranger, and people left all the time these days.

At Fifty-Ninth Street, he took the Third Avenue IRT to Seventy-Sixth Street. From there, it was a five-minute walk home. When he arrived, his heart sank upon seeing the front window. Three menorahs perched there, including his family’s, with the burned-down remnants of the first Chanukah candle inside them. Elizabet, the downstairs girl who kept the kitchen and washroom working, would chip off the dried wax in the morning. She was smart but hadn’t been to school. To justify all the time he spent in the kitchen, Asher claimed he gave her reading lessons, but based on the disarray of her stockings and blush in her cheeks whenever Joshua walked in, it seemed that Asher’s teaching methods were somewhat unconventional. Joshua wasn’t sure why they still called her the downstairs girl. There was no longer an upstairs girl. The staff now was Elizabet and a woman who came in once a week to wash Joshua’s mother’s hair and shave Asher’s beard. She would do the same services for any lodger who would pay. In the army, Joshua had grown accustomed to doing things on his own, so he kept his shaving to himself in order to hold on to a bit of autonomy, as well as to save himself and his family from the expense.

Patting his pocket with his mother’s gift, he mounted the steps. On the outside, his family’s townhouse still held its sheen of prestige, but the inside was a different matter. It had broken his mother’s heart to turn it into a lodging house, but it was either let people in or turn themselves out. There was no contest when it was put that way. Asher had given up his room to take a smaller one, and when Joshua moved back in, he took what was basically a closet. Laura had cried, but Joshua hadn’t allowed himself to. He had been in the War. This wasn’t something that would make him lose control of his emotions.

Every week the papers had a story about a man who jumped out of a building to his death, and all Joshua could think was that those men didn’t know what struggle really was. They’d never crawled on their bellies through mud with fifty pounds on their backs and ten-pound rifles or shotguns in their arms. They’d never been shot at or had their friends’ blood splattered on their faces.

The front door opened into a foyer with polished wooden flooring that shone even in the darkness. Joshua walked past the staircase with its solid wooden banister toward the parlor. Most afternoons he could find his mother there playing mah-jongg with visitors and sometimes tenants. Tonight, he found Herr Rothstein snoring in the straight-backed chair.

In the kitchen, he made a sandwich from a hunk of cheese and bread. Guests rarely entered the kitchen, so the decor was strictly utilitarian—a rectangular table that was a block of solid unfinished wood, which was used more for food preparation than consumption; three stools; a large metal sink sunk into the marbled counter; a stovetop with four gas burners and a wood-burning oven beneath it; and pots and pans hanging from metal hooks on a contraption that resembled something found in medieval torture chambers, which could be lowered from the ceiling via a pulley system. On a small chalkboard over the icebox, Elizabet had written reminders to herself regarding the requirements of the kosher tenants.

Joshua sat at the table to eat his sandwich. Grease had soaked into the wood over the years. He traced the stains with his fingers, feeling the raised smoothness as it contrasted with the table’s rougher surface. He was hiding, sitting here where they rarely ate, without even a candle burning. The darkness brought no relief from the sick, stomach-turning feeling that increased the more he thought about his near-arrest. If not for Lewis, his life—his family’s reputation—would have been ruined.

Five two-gallon ceramic jars lined the counters, each covered with a towel and full of raisin wine in varying states of readiness. Joshua didn’t care for it, but as long as the head rabbi at the synagogue his family occasionally attended refused to petition for wine on his congregants’ behalf, even though it was allowed by a provision in the Volstead Act, Joshua was stuck with it. He’d offered to bring actual wine home, but since the rabbi’s stance came as a result of the rampant corruption borne of interactions between certain other rabbis and the mafia, his mother had shot that suggestion down.

Each jar needed one week to become unfermented wine. The one on the farthest end would be used at the next night’s dinner. Licking breadcrumbs from his fingers, he went over and lifted its towel. He stirred it and set the towel back down. Moving down the line, he repeated the action for the other four jars. Sensing someone behind him, Joshua looked up to find his brother’s reflection in the window above the counter.

“Where were you?” Asher asked.

Joshua turned around. He wanted to be angry, to snap that Asher could say hello at least. However, the look on Asher’s face silenced him. It probably mirrored the one that Joshua had directed at Asher too many times to count—superiority mixed with disdain. He pulled the jewelry box out of his pocket and handed it over. “I got Momma’s present.”

Asher opened it and gave it a brief glance. “They look cheap.” He handed it back.

“They were the nicest I could afford. Could have done better if you’d pitched in like you said you would.” Joshua stuffed the box back into his pocket. “You get that we don’t have any money, right? You understand that?” Having their roles reversed bothered him more than he had expected, possibly because he had never expected it. Asher gloated, which made it worse, satisfied beyond belief that for once he was the one their mother could point to as the “responsible” son.

“Yes. I get it,” Asher said. “But Momma was still worried about you. What were you doing out so late?”

It was only a little past seven o’clock, so Asher wasn’t upset about the lateness, but the fact that Joshua had missed the candle lighting. Chanukah shouldn’t have been that important to his family—it never had been before—but for some reason this year it mattered. Maybe it was because his father had left and everything was in the dumps.

Joshua knocked Asher’s hand off the front of his shirt, where Asher had started to fist the fabric. He pushed past him out of the kitchen and started up the stairs, stomped halfway up before he stopped, and turned around to see Asher standing at the bottom. “It’s none of your damned business.” He turned away from Asher’s sarcastic “well, la-di-dah,” and continued upward.

He touched the doorknob of his former bedroom as he walked past. Herr Rothstein and his wife lived in there now, sleeping on his bed and hanging their laundry over his furniture. He moved down the hall to his new room. He ducked as he stepped in so he wouldn’t knock his head against the sloped ceiling. There was only room for a slim cot that his feet hung off when he slept, a single-person table and chair squeezed into the space between the head of the cot and the corner, and a wardrobe on the opposite wall. The door was in the center of the wall, giving a view of the cot when it was opened. A toothbrush and tube of toothpaste tied up in blue and silver lay on the center of his cot along with a silver bag of chocolate gelt. He unwrapped one of the chocolate coins and let it melt on his tongue. He was relieved that his mother wasn’t so upset that she was withholding gifts. Not that he wanted gifts. Joshua had told her that he and Asher didn’t want anything (“Gifts are for children.”), but she’d been adamant about it (“You are my children.”). He’d only given in when she promised to keep the gifts small. Setting his gifts aside, he undressed and sat down on the creaking cot. He eased himself down on the thin mattress and picked up the book that he had left on the pillow. Three pages into Fitzgerald, despite the early hour, he was fast asleep.

Winter Kill
They were silent as they reached a spill of rocks.

“You think Tiffany had a crush on Bill, and maybe Bill didn’t know about it?” Rob was watching Bill. As though feeling the weight of Rob’s gaze, Bill glanced over at them. Rob nodded at him in greeting.
Self-consciously, Bill nodded back.

“He may or may not have known about it,” Adam said. “I don’t think he gave her that photograph. You have a scenario where she wants a photo of him—assuming it wasn’t the Watterson kid she was interested in—but doesn’t have access through the normal channels.”

“Access through the normal channels,” Rob said wonderingly. “Is that FBI-speak? Whatever happened to simple English? You mean she couldn’t ask him so she snagged it from somewhere else?”


“Possibly the target of her emotional interest was not equally engaged and experiencing reciprocity?” Rob suggested.

“Oh, shut up,” Adam said.

Rob laughed. He patted Adam on the back and dropped behind to speak to a couple of volunteers who were starting to lag.

Bill was looking his way again. Adam nodded politely. He didn’t blame Constantine for feeling uncomfortable. Even innocent people started acting paranoid when they came under the scrutiny of law enforcement.

“Do you think we’ll find her?” Bill called.

“We’ll do the best we can,” Adam replied. Equivocation was a big part of the job description. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. That was one of the lessons they didn’t teach you at the Academy. You learned it facing the bereaved families of the victims you failed to save.

“We’ll find her,” Buck Constantine said grimly.

His son didn’t look reassured.

“Let’s try and keep this line together,” Rob directed. “We want to be sure that we’ve covered every inch of ground in our sector.”

Everyone assented. They were losing volunteers from their eight-member team. The terrain was too rough, and people were starting to say aloud what Adam privately thought: that there was no way Tiffany had come this far. Not at night. Not in the pitch dark.

Regretfully, apologetically, some of the older and less fit searchers were turning back. Rob’s radio crackled into life and he stopped to answer it.

He whistled sharply. Adam glanced back and Rob waved to him.

Adam turned to start back down the slope. The combination of snow on pine needles didn’t provide much purchase for the soles of his hiking boots. His right foot slipped, the rocks under his left foot crumbled away, and the next thing he knew, he was crashing face first down a ravine.

Somewhere in the distance he could hear Rob yelling. It happened so fast Adam didn’t have time for much more than a gasp—mostly of disbelief.

“Shit!” His landing knocked the wind out of his lungs and cut short his protest. Brush and snow softened the collision, but he saw stars. His ears and nose seemed stuffed with snow, and for a few dazed seconds he feared he was going to smother.

“Adam? Adam!” Rob’s voice floated down to him. He sounded as short of breath as Adam.

Adam rolled onto his side, heaving in a mighty lungful of oxygen. Pain flashed along his ribs, and his gloved hand hurt where he had smacked it hard on a rock.

He wiped snow off his face. A few glittering flakes stuck to his eyelashes. “I’m okay,” he croaked.

“Are you okay?” Rob yelled.

“Great!” Adam yelled with more force. Fucking fantastic. Why do you ask?

He looked up. The ravine was not nearly as deep as it had felt like when he’d fallen down it. Maybe twelve feet. At most. Rob was kneeling at the edge, gazing down at him, eyes wide in his alarmed face.

“Don’t try to move. I’m coming down.”

Someone ought to tell Rob how great he looked in that vaguely western style sheriff’s deputy hat. Then again, he probably knew.

“No. I’m okay. Stay there,” Adam called. In fact, he felt okay enough to be mostly incensed with the whole situation. What the hell was it that people loved so much about the great outdoors? It was just one fatal accident after another waiting to happen.

Other heads were popping up alongside Rob as the rest of their search team arrived. He began to receive unsolicited advice on how to climb out even as Rob cautioned everyone to stay clear of the edge.

Adam sat up, and the brush and snow he had mistaken for the floor of the ravine gave way. He dropped another foot, landing on his tailbone in a pile of rocks and rubble.

That hurt and he swore loudly.


“Still here,” Adam yelled.

And he wasn’t the only one.

He sucked in a sharp breath. Not rocks and rubble. Or not only rocks and rubble. He had landed on the rotting remnants of an old backpack.

“Haskell, you better get down here,” he called. He got to his knees and crawled forward.

The outcrop of boulders and tree roots and brush made a nice dry, sheltered recess, and in that recess was another pile of rags. Rags and scattered bones. A skeleton.

Heart thumping, he sat back on his heels. Hollow, empty eye sockets met his own.

Running with the Wind
IAN LEANED over the railing as the morning sunlight warmed his shoulders. A few feet away, Taren wrapped a blanket around the shivering boy, who sat with his knees hugged to his chest. He tenderly ruffled the boy’s fiery red hair. The boy leaned into Taren’s touch and made a satisfied sound much like the purr of a cat.

Not a boy, Ian reminded himself. Bastian. An Anuki. The heavenly brethren of the Ea. A dragon shifter reborn from the ashes. True, this freckle-faced dragon child looked nothing like the full-fledged beast who’d nearly killed them the day before, but they knew little of the Anuki. Had it only been a day since Seria’s men had attacked them and they’d lost Rider to Seria’s bullet?

Ian met Taren’s gaze and his grief eased slightly. Taren smiled back, his warm brown eyes hooded with exhaustion and grief, his shoulder-length hair having dried in a tumble of waves. From where he sat on the deck, Bastian watched Odhrán, keenly interested. The sphere they’d discovered not long after the destruction of the Sea Witch—an egg, Ian now knew—had dissolved beneath the water. Bastian had been choking and spluttering when Odhrán had carried him aboard. Since then, Bastian had done little but watch Odhrán with rapt attention.

Like a baby bird watches its mother. Ian frowned at his folly. How easy it was to forget this pathetic creature had destroyed the Sea Witch and nearly killed them all. If Odhrán hadn’t killed the dragon Bastian had become, they’d all have died. And yet Bastian had been reborn.

Bastian glanced up at Taren, blinked several times, then shifted his gaze back to Odhrán, who spoke in hushed tones to one of his crew. The long blond braid down Odhrán’s back dripped onto the deck and left the back of his woolen jacket sodden. Despite the bright blue of his eyes and his youthful features, Odhrán appeared as exhausted as Ian felt.

“A moment of your time?” Ian said after the crewmember trotted off toward the stairs, leaving the four of them alone on the foredeck.

Odhrán nodded and followed Ian amidships, far enough away that Bastian wouldn’t hear.

“Do you think this is wise?” Ian asked with a quick glance back at Taren and Bastian.

“What would you have me do? Leave him to drown?” Odhrán, too, appeared weary. Ian knew he still regretted having killed the fully transformed Bastian.

“He couldn’t live without Rider.” Taren’s words echoed in Ian’s mind. Rider—Ian’s oldest friend—had taken a bullet in Ian’s stead. There’d been no time to grieve.

“No.” Ian sighed. “Rider would have wanted us to care for him.” Taren would never have forgiven him for suggesting they leave Bastian to drown, and they’d lost too much to even consider it.

Odhrán nodded curtly and turned his gaze eastward. Now calm in the wake of the storm, the water sparkled with sunlight. Nothing remained of the Sea Witch but a few bits of broken timbers floating restlessly on the waves. Later, all of the men now aboard the Chimera would gather on the deck to remember the Witch’s captain, but for just a moment, Ian could almost imagine Rider at the wheel of his beloved ship.

I’ll miss you, old friend. More than you’ll ever know.

Ian shrugged off his dark thoughts and walked back to Taren. “You should get some sleep.” He squeezed Taren’s shoulder. “Odhrán and I will not let Bastian out of our sight.”

Taren pressed his lips together and nodded. How tired Taren must be that he didn’t even argue!

“I’ll join you in a bit.” Ian pressed his lips to Taren’s warm cheek.

Taren retrieved the blanket that had fallen off Bastian’s shoulders and wrapped it around him again. Naked as Bastian was beneath, Ian caught a glimpse of the wings they’d seen when they’d discovered him on the ocean floor. No longer scaled as they’d been when they’d first pulled Bastian from the water, Bastian’s wings were now covered with feathers and shimmered red, yellow, orange, and fuchsia, iridescent in the sunlight.

“I’ll be back later,” Taren told Bastian with a barely repressed yawn. “I promise.”

Bastian’s eyes revealed little understanding. Had he forgotten everything of his former life? Perhaps he was still too overwhelmed from the shock of the past day’s events to fully comprehend his situation. He’d not uttered a word since they’d brought him aboard.

Taren kissed Ian—a fleeting kiss, but one Ian needed to reassure himself that all had not changed—before heading belowdecks to rest.

Ian met Odhrán at the bow. “He’s like a fledgling,” Ian said, inclining his head in Bastian’s direction, “watching you like a bird might his mother.”

Odhrán’s brow knitted. He’d clearly noticed it as well. “I’ve asked Garan to reinforce the enchantments on the ship’s masts and sails. There’s nothing more to be done.”

“Aye. But if Bastian threatens the ship—”

“Then I’ll be forced to subdue him. Not a prospect I relish, although in his current state, he appears far less powerful than before.” Odhrán studied Bastian once again. “For now, at least, he’s content to be in our company.”

“What do you know of the Anuki?”

“They’re much like the Ea in their ability to shift to human form. I met one centuries ago, but he was nothing like this. Not a child. But what happened with Bastian….”

“Reborn from the ashes.” Ian’s heart ached once again for the loss of Rider.

“My time with one of their kind was brief.” Odhrán stared past Ian as if remembering.

Ian didn’t press the issue. Later, perhaps, he’d ask Odhrán about that encounter. “And his memories of his life with Rider?”

Odhrán shook his head. “I don’t know. I suppose only time will tell.”

Ian clenched his jaw. The realization that Bastian might not remember anything of his love for Rider made Ian’s grief that much greater.

“You wish to speak to me about Taren,” Odhrán said.

“Aye.” Ian still dreaded the conversation. “I had hoped that now that you’ve seen my thoughts, you might be more inclined to discuss his future. That you might trust my motivations.”

Ian chuckled and shook his head. Much as Odhrán could read Ian’s thoughts now, Ian had been able to hear Odhrán’s thoughts when Odhrán had transformed. Then Ian had sensed nothing other than Odhrán’s concern for Taren’s well-being and his hope for the same deep friendship with Taren that he’d shared with Treande centuries before.

“What do you find so amusing?” Odhrán asked irritably.

“Your belief that either of us have any say in Taren’s future.” Ian drew a long breath and ran a hand through his hair. “If there’s anything I’ve learned throughout this ordeal, it’s that much as I might wish to direct his actions, Taren will do what he feels is right. I underestimated his strength and his conviction. I won’t do that again.”

“Aye. In that way he is much like Treande was.” The hint of a smile played on Odhrán’s lips, and he relaxed visibly. “It seems I underestimated you too, Captain.”

Ian shrugged. “It’s a lesson I’ve been slow to learn.” He saw nothing lost in the admission. “I’m fortunate he has a forgiving heart.”

“What do you know of Taren’s abilities?”

“Other than his gift of sight, I know very little.” Ian suspected Taren’s gifts stretched far beyond his ability to sense the past, although he’d tried to push those thoughts aside.

“But you’ve sensed his command of the wind.”

“Aye.” Ian’s gut clenched as it often did when he thought of Taren’s powers. He drew a long breath and imagined his fear floating away on the waves.

Odhrán glanced over at Bastian, then back at Ian once more. “Taren was meant to recover the stone and wield it.”

Odhrán spoke the truth Ian already knew in his heart. Still, the words left him cold. “And what of it?” he demanded, more out of fear and exhaustion than out of anger.

“If we’re to reach the Eastern Lands ahead of the storms, we may need his help.”

“The Eastern Lands? You intend to sail there?” Ian had all but expected Odhrán would deposit them on the mainland and return to his island stronghold.

“I have no need to return now.” Odhrán offered Ian a smile, and Ian realized he’d underestimated Odhrán yet again. “Taren believes the answers you seek are in the lands where the dragons once ruled. I’m inclined to agree. Besides, it’s high time I returned to face my past.”

BY THE time Ian headed belowdecks a short time later, Bastian was curled up asleep in a pile of blankets not far from Odhrán’s side, his head tucked beneath a wing like a bird. “I will keep watch,” Odhrán said stiffly. “Should he speak or need Taren’s attentions,” he added as he shifted from one foot to the other and rubbed the back of his neck, “I’ll have one of my men wake you both.”

Ian undressed and slipped naked between the blankets. Taren rolled over and wrapped his arms around Ian, murmuring in his sleep. It was not Owyn’s name Taren spoke, as he had on many an occasion, but Ian’s. Ian sighed and kissed Taren’s forehead.

“We will do this together, love,” he whispered. “You and I.”

Lessons for Idle Tongues
Chapter One
The Stewarts’ home, London, 1910
“Thirteen for dinner. It’s desperately unlucky, Jonathan.” Mrs. Stewart pronounced the fact as though it were gospel truth that disaster must follow upon such a situation. “It can’t be countenanced.”

Jonty Stewart — expert on Shakespeare’s sonnets, distinguished fellow of St. Bride’s College, Cambridge, but apparently barely more than a seven-year-old boy as far as his mother was concerned — rolled his eyes. He was obviously already in trouble, given her use of the full version of his name.

“Thirteen’s certainly a cursed number,” Orlando Coppersmith agreed. As the most brilliant mathematician at the same august institution, he should have been in the best position to know, but he usually had no truck with associating luck — good or otherwise — with ordinal numbers.

Jonty rolled his eyes again. “You’ve changed your usual tune.”

Orlando drew himself up to his full, impressive height, his exceptionally handsome appearance complemented by the perfection of his dinner jacket. His abundant locks were, as usual, only just being kept under control. He’d always been a fine-looking creature, and at last he had begun to believe it, which added to the overall impression.

“If you’d let me finish,” he said, “I was about to say it was cursed in people’s minds, from full-blown triskaidekaphobia to simply not wanting to live in a house bearing the number.”

“I’d agree with that.” Mr. Stewart nodded enthusiastically. He was a splendidly handsome creature as well, even though his head bore barely a hair. Given the splendour of the costumes on show and the natural good looks of the four people wearing them, anybody peering through the window of the Stewarts’ drawing room might have labelled the tableau A typical representation of the cream of the new Georgian society, seen in its home.

But there was nothing typical about the Stewarts. Mr. Stewart was a lord but refused to use his title; Mrs. Stewart was the daughter of an earl but had been known — in her younger days — to lay out unwanted suitors with a right hander that wouldn’t have disgraced a prize fighter; and the youngest Stewart was not only a Cambridge fellow, but indulged in amateur sleuthing with his colleague.

And, of course, the least typical thing about them was that Jonty and Orlando were lovers, a situation of which the Stewarts were aware and seemed supremely unbothered.

It had become a matter of routine for Jonty and Orlando to spend part of the long vacation in the company of Jonty’s parents, usually en route to more exotic climes. This summer was no exception, the south of Italy being on the menu and a few days in London being a delightful hors d’oeuvre.

“I think it’s the superstition itself that brings bad luck, like it probably does on Friday the thirteenth,” Jonty said airily. “All those people looking over their shoulders, worrying about the slightest thing; it’s bound to make something daft happen, isn’t it? Maybe all the little mishaps which occur every day of the week get counted that particular Friday, in the same way they might be counted when someone’s walked under a ladder. And maybe exactly the same mishaps would be forgotten about if they happened on Tuesday the twenty-first, or after the person concerned had gone round the ladder in question.”

Mr. Stewart nodded. “Excellent point. Like so many things, it’s all in the mind. It must go back to the Last Supper, of course,” he continued.

At the theological reference, Jonty switched onto automatic mode, nodding and saying, “Oh, yes, I see,” and taking little notice. It tended to be the most effective strategy when being lectured. He’d had plenty of practice, during all those hours when Orlando was twittering on about vectors or random numbers or some such nonsense.

The Last Supper — yes, Jonty had always suspected there’d been more people milling about than reported in the gospels. And hadn’t Judas gone sneaking off at some point to leave just the twelve, which made the unlucky number aspect all a bit illogical? Whatever the reasoning behind it, the thing was just bloody stupid.

“I said, ‘Wouldn’t you agree, Jonathan?’”

“Absolutely.” Jonty nodded enthusiastically. He hadn’t actually heard his mother’s question, but — statistically, as Orlando would appreciate — there was a ninety percent chance that it was safest just to agree with whatever she had said.

“I was saying that I shouldn’t feel cross at Dr. Roberts’ having let us down at the last minute,” Mrs. Stewart continued, in a manner suggesting she was perfectly aware that her youngest son hadn’t been listening. “I’m sure he didn’t intend his appendix to explode, or whatever appendixes do to themselves to require being removed immediately.”

“Of course he didn’t.” Mr. Stewart, who had been having his annual check — ensuring the working of his engine, as he described it — at the time, had witnessed it all. “He was midconsultation when he just keeled over, face like a ghost. I thought he’d died.” Mr. Stewart had called for an ambulance, the physician in question clearly not being able to heal himself.

“I’ve sent him flowers” — Mrs. Stewart made a helpless gesture — “but they won’t be any use in rustling up a guest for tonight at the last moment. I suppose we’ll have to find somebody to draft in. I did wonder about Simon Bouverie, seeing as he’s in town.” Mrs. Stewart seemed to be deliberately avoiding her nearest and dearest’s gaze. “If he wouldn’t mind —”

“If he didn’t mind, then he damn well should.” Mr. Stewart rapped a tattoo with his knuckles on the chair arm.

“Language, Richard.”

“Sorry, Helena, but poor Simon gets a bad enough deal from this family. Ignored eleven-twelfths of the time and then expected to drop everything just to help us out.” Mr. Stewart turned to Orlando with a frown. “You won’t have met Simon, will you? He’s been abroad most of the time since you hove onto the horizon.”

“Richard, Orlando is not a battleship! He did not hove onto the horizon or any such nonsense.” She favoured Orlando with a charming smile, as a consequence not seeing Mr. Stewart rolling his eyes and grinning, which was just as well or he’d have had a full broadside. Mrs. Stewart could always be relied on to take her not-quite-son-in-law’s part against all comers, even in precedence to her husband’s and son’s. The smug little grin — quickly hidden — on Orlando’s face acknowledged how much pleasure he drew from that fact. Jonty didn’t begrudge him it, not really — he’d had precious little affection from his own family.

Mr. Stewart took up the account again. “Simon had the bad luck to be born to a wastrel of a father, Charlie Bouverie, a one-time friend of my uncle. He always hung about with us when we were younger. Nice lad. Officially he was Charlie’s ward, but then it turned out he was the natural son, born the wrong side of the blanket. Poor Simon became a bit of a . . . social embarrassment might be the best way to describe it. I mean, my family was very polite to him, of course, didn’t ban him from the house or anything, but there was always an air of being tainted by association. Or condescension, which is possibly worse.”

“Poor chap.” Orlando spoke with evident feeling. The Stewarts could have found him an embarrassment, or an object for pity, but he’d always been treated as Jonty’s equal. Mrs. Stewart circulating the story that he was her ward had, naturally, helped to keep up that standing with society as a whole. Had anybody discovered the truth about Orlando’s father’s bastardy and suicide, and then dared use that against him, the full might of the Stewart family would have come down upon them.

“Can we please get back to the matter of my dinner table and how I avoid disaster?” Mrs. Stewart wrung her handkerchief. “Is there nobody you could conjure up for me?”

“What about Dr. Peters?” Orlando said from the direction of the bookshelf, where he’d been greedily eyeing a book about the use of codes by Queen Elizabeth’s secret agents.

“Is he in town?” Mrs. Stewart’s distressed tone had disappeared, to be replaced with girlish enthusiasm. Dr. Peters, the master of St. Bride’s, was charming, handsome, and erudite. “Could you get him to come? He would be an ornament to any woman’s table.”

Not least because he was remarkably good-looking, Jonty thought, but wisely kept to himself. His mother had an elastic arm that could slap one of her offspring, irrespective of age, at about twenty yards. It was a shame that Ariadne, the master’s sister, wasn’t in the city; she would provide the erudition and charm without reducing Mrs. Stewart to drooling.

“He’s advising on an exhibition at the British Museum,” Orlando said. “I believe we should be able to contact him via the St. Bride’s porters’ lodge. Would you like me to try?”

“Please do, dear.” Mrs. Stewart beamed. “Avail yourself of all our facilities. Say there’s a lady who needs a white knight. Or a man on a white horse. Or something.”

Unfortunately, all the facilities at the disposal of St. Bride’s couldn’t actually connect Orlando with his quarry, although a message was left at his hotel to ring the Stewarts as a matter of urgency.

“What about the cat?” Mr. Stewart suddenly asked, in the sort of voice and with the sort of expression Archimedes must have used when he discovered his principle.

“What cat?” Orlando and Mrs. Stewart replied in unison.

“The cat they keep at the Dauphine Hotel. Great wooden monstrosity that gets wheeled out when there aren’t the required number of people at dinner and some superstitious soul wants to make the numbers up. He takes the fourteenth place.” Mr. Stewart looked suitably pleased with himself. “We could ask to borrow him.”

“Him? Are you sure he’s wooden and not some horrible moggy?” Orlando had no great love for feline creatures, or indeed for small furry animals of any sort. Apart from Jonty.

“He’s wooden all right,” Mr. Stewart assured him. “You can rap him on the head and check if you want. Would he work, Helena?”

“He certainly would. If you could ask, please, Richard.” Mrs. Stewart sounded and looked as she must have done when they were courting, all girlish enthusiasm and a dimpled smile. No wonder Jonty’s papa had been so smitten.

“I’ll get round there right now and talk to the manager. I’m sure he couldn’t resist an entreaty on behalf of a damsel in distress. Come on.” He gestured to his sometime fellow investigators. “You can add your most persuasive voices to the entreaty.”

“I’d love to, but I think I should stay here.” Orlando returned to his chair. “Just in case Dr. Peters returns our telephone call.”

“Excellent point, dear.” Mrs. Stewart reached across to pat his arm. “And you can keep me from fretting. I can always lay a fifteenth place if we end up with both Dr. Peters and the cat, but thirteen will not happen.”


Jonty hadn’t been in the Dauphine in years, but it didn’t seem to have changed that much. His father always averred that it was almost the same as when he used to take Jonty’s mother there — chaperoned, of course — in their courting days. The Stewarts still wandered over sometimes to have dinner, and not just for the sake of nostalgia.

“Mr. Stewart!” A tow-haired chap, maybe Jonty’s age, greeted them as they came through the revolving door. “A pleasure to see you, sir. Will you be gracing us with your presence at lunch?”

“No, alas, Mr. Chuter.” Mr. Stewart spoke to the man with the same easy respect with which he addressed anybody, from highest to lowest in the land. “Taking the nosebag at home today. You’ll not have met my youngest, Jonty . . .” He effected the introductions between his son and the deputy manager of the hotel with his usual practiced grace. “Is Mr. Wilmot available, by any chance?”

“Not at present, sir. Would I be able to help you?” Chuter looked disappointed at being passed over. He also eyed Jonty with a slight degree of trepidation, something that was becoming common now that the combination of Stewart and Coppersmith — not Coppersmith and Stewart, the cadence was all wrong with that combination — were gaining such public notoriety for their feats of amateur detection.

“I’m sure you would.” Mr. Stewart nodded sagely. “It’s about the cat. Montgomery.”

Chuter couldn’t have looked more relieved if he’d been in the thick of things at Mafeking when the siege was lifted. “Oh. Begging your pardon, gentlemen, but I assumed you were here on . . . detective business. I was concerned that one of our guests or — heaven forfend — one of the staff had blotted their copybook.”

“Nothing like that.” Mr. Stewart patted the man on the shoulder. “Although we’ll have blotted ours if we return home empty-handed. Montgomery’s services haven’t been booked for this evening, by any wonderful chance?”

“Not that I’m aware of, sir. Do you need him at your table?”

“I’m afraid I’m seeking more than that. We wondered, Helena and I, whether we could take him home and let him be our guest for dinner? We’d bring him back first thing tomorrow,” he added, maybe in case Chuter thought they’d never see the cat again.

“That should be quite in order.” Chuter smiled, inclined his head at Mr. Stewart’s profuse thanks, and summoned over a porter. “Launchbury, could you fetch Montgomery? He’s going to have an outing.”

“Well done, Papa.” Jonty tipped his head to one side, admiring, in an abstract sort of way, the neat cut of the porter’s trousers — or maybe the neat line of his backside. “Looks like your plan’s going to save the day. Maybe we have time for a snifter?”

“Oh, that sounds an excellent idea. Mr. Chuter, might we . . .” Mr. Stewart’s question died on his lips as Launchbury reappeared, looking alarmed and going at the fastest lick acceptable on the marble of the Dauphine’s entrance hall. He shattered all their plans on that same floor.

“He’s not there, Mr. Chuter. Montgomery.”

“Maybe he’s just been moved, or taken for cleaning,” Chuter said airily, although his wrinkled brow suggested concern.

“That’s what I’d have thought, sir, if it weren’t for —” Launchbury produced a piece of paper. “This was left where he should have been.”

Chuter unfolded the paper, looked even more alarmed, then handed it to Mr. Stewart.

Montgomery has gone on his holidays. He’ll be back once he’s helped light some fires.

“He’s been nicked!” Launchbury immediately corrected himself before Chuter could. “Purloined, I should say.”

“It certainly looks like it.” A gleam had appeared in Mr. Stewart’s eye that Jonty associated with the thrill of the chase.

“Mr. Stewart, Dr. Stewart,” Chuter said, addressing each man in turn. Jonty knew what was coming next. The deputy manager had At least we have the right men for the job on hand written all over his face. “I know such a matter would probably be beneath your notice, but would you consider helping us to find him? He’s an asset to the hotel and . . .” He spread his hands helplessly.

Jonty hid a smile, aware that Montgomery gave the Dauphine an advantage over other similar establishments, and that business might suffer due to his absence.

“He’s been taken on a previous occasion, I recall?” Mr. Stewart looked at the note again.

“Yes, it must be thirty years ago.” Chuter wrinkled his nose. “A rugby dinner. Blackheath. He was returned the next week looking slightly worse for wear but with money to cover French polishing. I just hope that bit about lighting fires isn’t literal.”

“I’m sure it isn’t.” Jonty felt less optimistic than his words suggested. “Not if he’s supposed to be coming back. We’d be delighted to help you find him, although I suggest it’s always best to start on your own doorstep. My colleague Dr. Coppersmith often loses things and then finds they’ve just been moved slightly, probably by him. He’s walked past them half a dozen times, taking no more notice than if they were part of the wallpaper pattern.” If the same could be said of Jonty, he’d keep that to himself for the moment. “I’ve no doubt that you will look everywhere, unlike Dr. Coppersmith, but it’s entirely possible Montgomery’s been moved by somebody to another location within the hotel. Note notwithstanding.”

“Good thinking, Dr. Stewart. We’ll scour the place for him and let you know if it turns out your services are not required.” Chuter nodded, then added ruefully, “He went halfway round the world the last time he was taken.”

“Let’s hope his wanderlust has been assuaged and he manages no farther than the home counties, then.” Mr. Stewart still eyed the note as though it should be telling him something but he couldn’t quite work out what. “The lads can’t manage to search the entire world before Michaelmas term.”

Chuter left them with the note in their custody, a poor substitute for the cat. He was clearly dreading having to report Montgomery’s disappearance, but at least he could also report securing the services of a distinguished pair of amateur detectives, should they be needed.

“The Dauphine will sorely miss that cat,” Jonty said, once they were alone.

“He went before. He’ll return. Whether with our assistance or without it.” Mr. Stewart had the voice of total confidence, even though the look he gave Jonty suggested he expected the game would soon be afoot.

“Let me tell Orlando about helping to find Montgomery.” Jonty cuffed his father’s elbow. “It’s been a while since he had a proper case to dig his teeth into, and he might get a bit upset at having another one that he feels is beneath his powers. Lost items pale into insignificance compared to murders or codes.”

“Point noted.” Mr. Stewart produced a sympathetic smile. “Maybe we could put his mind to this.” He held out the piece of paper.

“What’s bothering you about that note?”

“I don’t know. What is it I’ve heard you say? It’s like an insect buzzing about my head, that I can neither identify nor swat.” Mr. Stewart studied the piece of paper yet again. “It rings a bell — although whether that’s because I’ve seen the writing before, or the wording is familiar, or something else entirely, I couldn’t tell you. But it’s damned annoying.” The use of such a strong word, in public, illustrated the depth of his perplexity.

“That note won’t help you when we get home.” Jonty shuddered. “We’re still only thirteen. Should we go and drag somebody off the street so Mama doesn’t have to spend all evening waiting for somebody to drop dead? Or pray that Montgomery will return, maybe by magic, within the next thirty seconds?”

“We could pray for a miracle.” Mr. Stewart looked ashen. “What on earth are we going to tell her?”


They manfully resisted going for a drink at the bar, having come to the conclusion that it would delay them and this was the sort of crisis in which time was of the essence. More significantly, any alcohol would be sniffed on their breaths, and they’d both be sent to bed with no dinner, on a charge of dereliction of duty. Jonty tried to persuade his father that would solve all their problems in one fell swoop, given it would reduce the numbers around the dinner table to eleven, but the argument fell on deaf ears.

The journey home was the longest short walk Jonty could ever recall. Worse than having to go to see the master of St. Bride’s back in his undergraduate days about the incident involving milking a goat in the porters’ lodge. A gating couldn’t be as bad as facing his mother’s wrath.

They entered the house with trepidation, to find Mrs. Stewart with a beaming smile on her face, Orlando at her side, and a marvellous lack of concern at the nonappearance of a suitable wooden feline. The miracle had obviously happened, even if it hadn’t involved the return of the cat.

“No Montgomery, I see? Well, never mind. Your Dr. Peters has come up trumps.” Mrs. Stewart rubbed her hands gleefully.

“You’ve dragged him away from his hieroglyphics or cartouches or whatever he’s poking around with?” Jonty asked, much relieved. “I’m not surprised he —”

Whatever Jonty was or wasn’t surprised at was interrupted by Hopkins’s announcement of luncheon.

“I’ll tell you at the table.” Mrs. Stewart took Orlando’s arm and led him triumphantly into the dining room.

“Unfortunately Dr. Peters himself can’t grace us with his presence, as he has a dinner appointment already,” Mrs. Stewart said, once they were settled and lunch had been served. “But he has suggested an admirable replacement. His cousin’s boy — an Oxford man, like Orlando — who’s helping with this exhibition. The young man hadn’t been invited to the dinner, and Dr. Peters was feeling very guilty about not being able to entertain him adequately when he’s been working so hard. He was on the verge of having to get his sister to come down from Cambridge to look after him, so we were the answer to each other’s prayers.”

“I bet you were,” Jonty thought. Ariadne wouldn’t have been best pleased to be dragged away from her nematode worms or whatever she was annoying at the moment.

Mr. Stewart nodded enthusiastically over his omelette. “What’s his name?”

“Barritt. With an ‘i,’ not an ‘e.’” Mrs. Stewart delicately loaded her fork with salad. “I don’t know the family. But he’s said to be very keen to meet you.”

“I suppose Dr. Peters’s recommendation should be enough,” Mr. Stewart replied. “Even for — excuse me, Orlando — an Oxford man.”

Orlando smiled, fully aware that any aspersions cast on his university were just part of the ancient rivalry. “I can provide some further information. He’s just come down this year with a glowing first. Bright as a button, keen on cricket and Egyptian mummies, in that order.”

“Well put, dear.” Mrs. Stewart offered Orlando a dish of mushrooms. “The physical description we’re uncertain on, Richard. We could hardly ask Dr. Peters for a set of Bertillon measurements, could we? So we’ll have to assume that any young man who turns up at the right time and in appropriate dress will be young Barritt, rather than somebody collecting for the dogs’ home.”

“He sounds fascinating,” Mr. Stewart replied, eyeing the mushrooms, rather like a spaniel might, until his wife took pity on him.

“And if he isn’t, then we need never invite him again, need we?” Mrs. Stewart helped her husband to the chanterelles.

“Pragmatic as always, dear.” Mr. Stewart smiled.

“He’s keen to meet us, is he?” Jonty gave Orlando a quick glance and a wink. “That sounds very promising.”

“You scent the possibility of a case at every juncture.” The glint in Orlando’s eye showed he’d considered the possibility too. Shame he’d have to settle for something more mundane in the meantime.


The afternoon was supposed to be given over to a walk in the park, but a sudden shower of rain put paid to that. Orlando settled for a second best activity of sitting in the study and reading up a small tome on obscure forms of coding — but a certain large furry pest came in and interrupted his concentration, wittering on about small furry pests.

“We’ve been asked to investigate a missing cat?” Orlando rolled his eyes, then looked daggers at Jonty. “That’s what we’ve been reduced to? Missing pets. I suppose somebody will have misplaced their rabbit next and we’ll be expected to look down every hole in London to find it.”

“I do wish at times you’d listen. Properly. But I guess that’s what I deserve for waking you up to tell you something.”

“I was not asleep. I was in deep thought, working out if one of the codes in this book” — Orlando tapped the tome, as though it would bear witness to the truth of what he said — “was actually usable or whether it was stuff and nonsense.”

Jonty muttered something along the lines of, “There’s only one load of stuff and nonsense here,” before saying, with his usual devastating smile, “Forgive me for interrupting your contemplations.”

“You’re forgiven.” Orlando gave a gracious wave of his hand.

“This cat is not your average moggy. It’s Montgomery, from the Dauphine. I know how much you dislike the feline genera, but as it’s only made of ebony, could you please view it in a favourable light?”

“Oh. That cat.”

“Yes. Of unknown current whereabouts. And the good people at the Dauphine want the matter rectified.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Not an unusual situation; Jonty rarely seemed to show evidence of an orderly mind.

“That’s because I haven’t had the chance to tell you about our adventure at the hotel.” Jonty produced a neat and surprisingly logical account of the events. “So it’s a nice little puzzle, with just that note and Papa’s bee in his bonnet to go on.”

“It strikes me that if he can’t pin that bee down — don’t tease me about mixing my metaphors, this is neither the time nor the place — then we’d likely be on a wild-goose chase.”

“Quite a menagerie!” Jonty sprawled in a leather armchair with the sort of smile that set Orlando’s heart — and trousers — all aflutter. How could a man concentrate on matters investigational when matters carnal pressed (quite literally) for his attention? “Mama and Papa are very fond of the Dauphine. It would be a shame to let them — or the hotel — down. I wouldn’t ask such a thing if it wasn’t important to them.”

“No, no indeed.” Orlando would do anything within, or without, reason to oblige the Stewarts. Of course Jonty knew that and made use of it, the toad. “Do you think there might be more to this than meets the eye? That bit about lighting fires is interesting.”

“It is. I can’t promise hidden depths, but if something’s itching in Papa’s investigational cortex — if that makes any sense outside of my head — then we should give our very best to scratching it.”

“You do talk twaddle.” Very attractive twaddle, it had to be admitted, but twaddle nonetheless. “Why should anyone take the thing? I guess it’s just some sort of a prank.”

“There could be many other reasons,” Jonty said insouciantly, evidently well aware he was further baiting the trap. Orlando was happy to fall into it. “What if the cat was hollow, and something was hidden inside? It would be blooming heavy if the whole thing were solid wood. What if that something is so important that somebody needs it back before anybody else can find it?”

“It could be.” Orlando ignored the lack of evidence and gave conjecture free rein. “What if it’s actually worth a fortune and had been given to the hotel as a form of safe keeping until it could be reclaimed? Which it now has been, to light the darkness of those in poverty or something. Or what if it’s been used as a weapon, and has to be hidden so the discovery of said crime can be delayed? Lighting the fires of revenge?”

“Extraordinary.” Jonty shook his head. “So many theories. Not a scrap of evidence for any of them. No wonder your dunderhead students love you so much. You’re as bad as they are.”

“I will not honour that remark with an answer. I was merely suggesting reasons why anyone might purloin an article, not offering you solutions to this mystery. Anyway, you little swine, you’ve done what you wanted to do.” Orlando laid aside his stuffy expression in favour of a lascivious grin. “I should know you can play me like a violin. Well, I’m interested. Does that suit your purposes?”

“You always suit my purposes.” Jonty leaned closer and dropped his voice. “Is there any chance of going back to Cambridge right now and making use of that rather large and lonely bed I have in my room?”

“I will not honour that remark with an answer, either. Do your thoughts never veer above your trouser line? No, don’t answer that,” Orlando added, with a raised hand and a worried look. “I suppose it’s all the time you spend reading that smut Shakespeare churned out.”

“Shakespeare knew what he was about. Smut gets laughs. Smut gets patrons on seats or standing in the pit. Smut makes money, as do violence and fights and high drama. He knew his business, which was entertaining an audience.” Jonty sighed. “Sometimes what I do seems entirely pointless, analysing why the man wrote a certain scene or what it signifies, when its only significance was probably entirely mundane, like allowing a costume change for the principal characters.”

“It’s never pointless.” Orlando cuffed Jonty’s sleeve. “I know nothing about Shakespeare, but I’ll wager there were always two sets of thoughts going on in his head. It’s like solving a maths problem. There’s the problem itself — that’s the expedient bit, like him having to get people offstage so they can change the scenery, or having to write a play that will steal customers from their rivals — then there’s the bigger picture, the beauty of the numbers and their relationship. That’s the bigger, hidden meaning he’ll have woven into his words.”

“You never cease to amaze me. For somebody who says they know nothing of the Bard, you’ve made an eloquent case for his genius. I shall watch some of those scenes with a fresh eye.” Jonty rubbed his forehead, looking confused and heart-meltingly attractive. That settled the matter.

“I’ll help find the cat.”

“Thank you. I know it’s not a proper use of your brains, but it’s a start. Maybe it has been used to kill someone, and you’ll find a murder en route. You’d like that.”

Orlando would like that. While he always felt a stab of guilt at hoping a murder would land in their path, he couldn’t deny one would be very welcome. It was far too long since they’d had a proper case.

Chapter Two
Jonty was just coming down for dinner as the doorbell sounded. There was a particular point on the stairs where, he’d discovered as a boy, one could see who was waiting outside through the window in the hall, and he habitually stopped there to have a look. This time he immediately flew down the rest of the flight to open the door — much to Hopkins’s chagrin — and found his sister on the step waiting to be scooped into his arms.

Lavinia Broad had blossomed with motherhood, and her firstborn child, George, was the family’s favourite. And now she was blooming again, with a brother or sister for him due to arrive in the autumn. She entered the house like a great galleon, with her husband, Ralph, like a frigate in her wake.

“Hello, stinker.” His sister kissed him affectionately. “Are you behaving yourself?”

“Of course I am, spoilsport.” Jonty laughed, disentangling himself to shake hands with his brother-in-law. “Ralph! How’s my godson?”

“Thriving. We’d have brought him tonight, but he’s got a slight snuffle. Will you drop in and see him tomorrow?”

“We will, won’t we, Orlando?” Jonty said over his shoulder, as his lover descended the stairs.

“Of course.” Orlando came over to shake Ralph’s hand, then waited for Lavinia, who was being embraced by her father, to kiss his cheek.

“George has a favour to ask of you. Or would if he could speak,” she added, patting Orlando’s hand. “Would you stand godfather to his younger sibling? We can’t guarantee it’ll be a boy, but . . .”

“I would indeed,” Orlando said with the extreme stateliness that always indicated he was fighting to hide deep emotion.

“Splendid.” Lavinia slipped her arm through his to lead them to the drawing room to join the other guests.

“You’ve made his day,” Jonty whispered to Ralph as they followed. “He’s a bit low, as usual when we haven’t had a case for a while.” He was interrupted by the sound of the doorbell ringing again, and Hopkins almost sprinting to answer it. “I’ll tell you all, later. I wonder if that’s Mama’s knight in armour?”

It was, and Jonty knew that Barritt had been given the seal of approval before the chap even sat down. Mrs. Stewart — who’d always had a fond spot for handsome young men — was positively purring over him. Even Lavinia had stationed herself in prime position so that the man, when he’d got his glass of sherry, would be perched between the two ladies of the household.

He could see the appeal. Barritt was tall, willowy, elegant, with a charming smile and a slight lisp, which gave his deep voice a soft edge. Not that he was smitten, of course, but a man couldn’t help noticing these sorts of things.

Mrs. Stewart had invited various ladies in their capacity as board members of her charity for fallen women (or those whose mothers had fallen in the begetting of them), and these ladies soon began peppering Barritt from all directions. This meant the other gentlemen could get on with discussing weightier matters, like the best prospect for the cricket county championship.

Mrs. Stewart graciously allowed Barritt to take her in to dinner, which earned her at least one envious look from a woman old enough to know better, but that was a hostess’s privilege.

The topic of triskaidekaphobia and the cat inevitably came up over dinner; Mr. Stewart related the adventure at the Dauphine with relish, and all the ladies assured Barritt that they’d rather have him than an ebony moggy any day.

Barritt, clearly becoming a little unnerved by the gushing female attention he was getting, said, “The Dauphine is my parents’ favourite hotel when they get up to London. Lovely place. I’d forgotten about Montgomery.”

“You haven’t by any chance got him about your person? It would be wonderful to solve the case for them in under twenty-four hours.” The wine — or maybe the young man’s extreme good looks — seemed to be loosening Orlando’s tongue. Maybe, with any luck, it would be loosening his trousers later.

“Alas, no. His disappearance is recent, and I haven’t been in the place for months. Although,” Barritt added in the tone of voice that always set the investigational part of Jonty’s heart leaping, “some friends of mine were there quite recently. They might know something.”

“Not rugby players, perchance?” Jonty asked.

“No-o.” Barritt was evidently uncertain of the significance of the question. “No, it was my maiden aunt and her companion, neither of whom play the game, although some might say they have the build for it. I doubt they purloined him.”

“I should hope not.” Orlando grinned. “They didn’t notice any rugby players acting suspiciously?”

“Not that they said. Just a rather staid lot of chaps called the Company of Leg-breakers. No —” he raised his hand to allay the ladies’ fears “— not ruffians. Just cricketers. I could ask my aunt if she or her friend noticed anything amiss. Maiden aunts often notice things. Women in general do, I find.”

“Quite right. Lavinia’s the brightest among us,” Jonty sailed in on a tide of fraternal affection. “The things my sister knows about amphibians would put most of the dunderheads to shame.”

“What a lot of nonsense you talk.” Lavinia burned crimson, but she was clearly delighted. “I must apologise for my family, Mr. Barritt. They have the annoying habit of talking in riddles. When I was just a little girl, Ralph famously threw a frog at me. My annoying pest of a brother —” she squeezed Jonty’s hand and gave him another dazzling smile “— calls it love at first amphibian.”

“Eccentricity possibly runs in your family too.” Jonty nodded at Barritt, quickly adding, “Not that I’m thinking of Dr. Peters, but his sister is certainly a pearl without price.”

Barritt smiled, affection shining in his eyes. “We all say she takes after one of our dim and distant ancestors, who’s said to have taken her life in order to avoid marrying a man she didn’t want. Only it turned out she hadn’t died at all, just pretended to have.”

“How extraordinary.” Mr. Stewart shook his head.

“So she was free to marry somebody else? Maybe the man she had wanted to in the first place?” Orlando posed the question that many of the company must have had in mind.

“No.” Barritt shook his head. “That would be terribly obvious, I think.”

“But isn’t the obvious and the mundane what usually happens?” Jonty cut in, aware that Orlando had begun to heat up at Barritt’s offhand remark. “In our experience, it often is something terribly simple at the bottom of a problem, something so simple you pass over it. Occam’s Razor and all that.”

Barritt, flinching slightly under Jonty’s polite assault, inclined his head. “You’re quite right. I apologise. One must never discount something just because it is so evident. But truth, you’ll agree, can extend into areas where fiction — were it to replicate it — would be said to be far-fetched.”

“It can.” Orlando pressed on. “So what was so extraordinary about this case?”

“She didn’t marry anyone at all. She went off travelling across the world, where it was said she — I hope the ladies will excuse me if I’m totally frank — spent some time in the seraglio of an eastern potentate. She used the opportunity to free herself from all shackles, not just those of an undesirable suitor.”

“How monstrous!” Mrs. Stewart said, so belligerently they all jumped. “No, not the seraglio bit — that must have been between her conscience and God — but faking one’s own death in order to escape. Her poor family. They must have been heartbroken.”

“Perhaps they were the monstrous ones, Mama.” Lavinia gave Jonty a quick smile. “Not every child is blessed as we have been.”

“You’re quite right.” One of the other ladies, who’d clearly tired of Stewart family speak, proceeded to launch into a discussion of the good works the charity had done, which lasted until they’d left the table.

Once they’d all returned to the drawing room, Ralph, whose wheels were by now well-oiled, asked, “You don’t feel inclined to share any stories about Dr. Peters, do you? He’s always struck me as being about the most perfect man I know. Surely he has a dark secret or three?”

“Ralph, dear, your nose for scandal will get you into deep waters one day.” Lavinia struck her husband lightly on the arm. “Ignore him, Mr. Barritt. He’s just envious of your cousin’s brains and looks.”

“We all are, I’m afraid. Even his sister says —”

“He’ll be back, once he’s helped light some fires!”

Thirteen faces turned towards Mr. Stewart, all dumbstruck except for his wife’s.

“Dr. Peters will be home when he’s lit which fires, dear?” she asked.

“Not Dr. Peters.” Mr. Stewart wagged his finger. “Montgomery. That’s what the note said.”

“Yes. Indeed.” Now Jonty felt as perplexed as his mother had.

“Sorry. I’ll explain. Remember that thought buzzing in my head, Jonty? I’ve swatted it.”

“I think we’ll leave you to your sleuthing, Helena.” Lady Sheringham rose regally from her chair — much to her husband’s dismay, as he clearly wanted to hear the story — and the party members made for their carriages or to call for cabs. Lavinia looked tired, so all family talk centred on ensuring she took care of herself, with Mr. Stewart insisting his own driver take her and Ralph home.

By the time everyone was gone, it seemed like the business of sleuthing would have to be put off to the morrow, so Jonty was surprised to hear a knock at his bedroom door, followed by his father’s voice.

“Are you too tired to talk cats?”

“Never.” Jonty hastily slipped on a dressing gown over his underwear and opened the door. “Excuse the state of me.”

Mr. Stewart waved his hand. “Never mind about that when we need to get down to business. The missing cat.”

Jonty grabbed his father’s arm, pulling him into and along the corridor. “Don’t tell me yet. Orlando’s cross enough at being asked to solve a case beneath his dignity, but missing out on your revelation would infuriate him.”

Orlando already looked infuriated when he opened his door to their knock.

“Something up, old man?” Jonty asked, concerned.

Orlando ushered them in. “I’ve dropped a collar stud, and now I can’t find the bloo . . . blessed thing.”

Jonty immediately looked up, towards the top of the wardrobe.

“What are you doing?” Mr. Stewart shook his head. “That collar stud won’t have defied gravity.”

“Sorry, Papa. Force of habit. I’ll explain at some point, when other things aren’t so pressing. Let’s find that stud or Orlando will never be able to concentrate properly on what you have to say about the cat.”

Orlando’s eyes lit up. “No, leave the stud. What you have to say is clearly worthy of note if it can’t keep until morning, so maybe it will help fire my investigative powers.”

Mr. Stewart beamed. “I’ve worked out why the note was bothering me. Those words. ‘He’ll be back once he’s helped light some fires.’ Particularly the ‘lighting some fires’ bit. It was an expression an old pal of mine used when he was referring to putting people right on things: lighting the fires of knowledge. I know that seems tenuous, but there’s more to it.”

“And this friend is . . .” Orlando looked less bothered at the loss of the collar stud by the second.

“Edward Faversham. And it gets better than that. Young Barritt mentioned that cricket team, the Company of Leg-breakers, didn’t he?”

“Yes.” Orlando was positively straining at the leash to hear more.

“The Favershams were very big in cricket. His team were an offshoot of J.M. Barrie’s team. Faversham felt his lot didn’t take the game seriously enough.”

“Scandalous,” Jonty said, for once not being facetious. “There’s only one way to play cricket — or rugby — and that’s as if it’s the most important thing in the world.”

“Absolutely, my boy.” Mr. Stewart beamed again, with parental pride at the filial values being espoused.

“Is Faversham’s team the Company of Leg-breakers?”

“I think so.” Mr. Stewart nodded. “Although I wouldn’t swear to it in court. His team had an outlandish name, and they always used to have their dinners at the Dauphine. It’s a tentative connection, but . . .”

“Tentative but worth pursuing.” Orlando’s brow creased in thought. “Is your friend the sort to go purloining things? Like cats?”

“Not him. Not now, anyway.” Mr. Stewart shrugged. “But the younger members of the family have always been less restrained than their elders, as the generations have progressed. Rather like us,” he added, with a look of innocence that wouldn’t have fooled a blind man. He’d played many a high-spirited prank in his younger days.

“So we’ve got a lead. Any chance of making use of it before Jonty and I go off to Italy?” A much-anticipated holiday, in search of more of Orlando’s long-lost relatives — they couldn’t put it off for a wooden cat.

“Quite possibly.” Mr. Stewart’s great mind had obviously been at work on this. “I’ll drop into my club tomorrow and see if I can find out if the Company of Leg-breakers have a match this weekend. I’ll get us invited to watch it.”

“That sounds excellent. Then we can interrogate them.” Jonty rubbed his hands gleefully.

“And if there’s no match? Or nobody to invite us to it?” Orlando still habitually expected the worst.

“In the first case, then we’ll have to defer investigations until after your sojourn abroad. In the second, we just turn up,” Mr. Stewart said, with a smile and a shrug. “Between us, we’re bound to know somebody there.”

“Although how a wooden cat can scotch any rumours or —”

“What’s that?” cried his father.

“What’s what?”

“That thing under the bed.” Mr. Stewart may have needed glasses for reading this last thirty years, but he could tell a hawk from a pigeon at a hundred yards.

“Maybe it’s your —” Jonty bent down, reached under the bed, and produced a small object “— collar stud! Well done, Papa. You’re on top form today.”

“Make sure you tell your mother that. I’ll need all the goodwill I can muster.” Mr. Stewart edged towards the door. “The last time I was in the vicinity of Faversham and his cricket cronies, I became rather . . . um . . . tired and emotional. She won’t welcome me renewing the acquaintance.”

“Orlando will tell her it’s essential to the cause of investigation. She’ll deny him nothing.” Jonty made a theatrical flourish.

“And if I can’t charm her, we’ll ask young Barritt,” Orlando suggested, as Mr. Stewart took his leave.

“What a nice lad Barritt was. Class clearly runs in that family.” Jonty dallied by Orlando’s door, unsure whether to stay for a while or wend his weary way to his own bed. “I hope he finds himself a nice girl. Or a nice chap if that’s his preference. Somebody to make a home with or for.”

Orlando nodded, suddenly seeming to have lost his voice, or maybe to trust it not to betray his depth of emotion. He could have written a book on being alone, prior to Jonty sweeping into his life and turning everything upside down.

“A chap, I think.”

“I beg your pardon?” Orlando jolted out of his thoughts and, looking a bit confused, nearly dropped the stud again.

“For young Barritt. I think he’d prefer a nice chap to a nice girl.” Jonty, leaning against the doorpost in a deliberately seductive manner, smiled mysteriously.

“And on what do you base this statement?”

“On the fact that he was surrounded by women, if that’s not topsy-turvy. Having a whale of time talking to them but not being flirtatious.”

“They were none of them available, and all far too old for him. Even your Lavinia.” Orlando sniffed. “So what logic you have in your argument eludes me. I’ve never particularly liked women, for a start.”

“Ah.” Jonty slipped into the room and lowered his voice. “But you can’t escape the fact that he kept eyeing you up. Quite smitten, I’d have said.”

“Nonsense,” Orlando protested, although his self-satisfied smile — quickly hidden — showed it was secretly a pleasing thought.

“Well, maybe you’re right. Perhaps it was just your brains he wanted you for. Your investigative facilities,” he said, then waited for the import of the words to sink in.

“Oh. And what makes you think that?”

“This.” Jonty reached into his pocket and produced a piece of paper, which he let Orlando unfold and read. “He slipped it into my hand before he went. I assumed it was a billet-doux.”

Once you’ve completed your present investigation, I’d be very grateful if you’d consider letting me consult you. Cousin Ariadne says you’re the men for the job.

“Just as we’d suspected. I wonder what he wants.”

“I have no idea. So we’d better find that damned cat as soon as possible. This could be a proper case.”

Orlando smiled, even more smugly. “It could indeed.”

Author Bios:
Abigail Roux
Abigail Roux was born and raised in North Carolina. A past volleyball star who specializes in sarcasm and painful historical accuracy, she currently spends her time coaching high school volleyball and investigating the mysteries of single motherhood. Any spare time is spent living and dying with every Atlanta Braves and Carolina Panthers game of the year. Abigail has a daughter, Little Roux, who is the light of her life, a boxer, four rescued cats who play an ongoing live-action variation of 'Call of Duty' throughout the house, a certifiable extended family down the road, and a cast of thousands in her head.

Jordan L Hawk
Jordan L. Hawk grew up in the wilds of North Carolina, where she was raised on stories of haints and mountain magic by her bootlegging granny and single mother. After using a silver knife in the light of a full moon to summon her true love, she turned her talents to spinning tales. She weaves together couples who need to fall in love, then throws in some evil sorcerers and undead just to make sure they want it bad enough. In Jordan’s world, love might conquer all, but it just as easily could end up in the grave.

Kim Fielding
Kim Fielding lives in California and travels as often as she can manage. A professor by day, at night she rushes into a phonebooth to change into her author costume (which involves comfy clothes instead of Spandex and is, sadly, lacking a cape). Her superpowers include the ability to write nearly anywhere, often while simultaneously doling out homework assistance to her children. Her favorite word to describe herself is "eclectic" and she finally got that third tattoo.

All royalties from her novels Stasis, Flux and Equipoise are donated to Doctors Without Borders.

John C Houser
John C. Houser’s father, step-mother, and mother were all psychotherapists. When old enough, he escaped to Grinnell College, which was exactly halfway between his mother’s and father’s homes—and half a continent away from each. After graduation, he taught English for a year in Greece, attended graduate school, and eventually began a career of creating computer systems for libraries. Now he works in a strange old building that boasts a historic collection of mantelpieces–but no fireplaces.

Jeanne McDonald
Jeanne McDonald is an author, a mother, a wife, a student of knowledge and of life, a coffee addict, a philosophy novice, a pop culture connoisseur, inspired by music, encouraged by words, and a believer in true love.  When she's not spending time with her family, she can be found reading, writing, enjoying a great film, chatting with friends or diligently working toward her bachelor's degree in literature.  A proud Texan, Jeanne currently resides in the Dallas/Fort Worth area with her family.

Ryan Loveless
Ryan Loveless is a farmer's daughter. She has a B.A. in English from a private college in Illinois and is pursuing her master's degree in library and information science with an archival certificate from a university in New York. Raised in a conservative family, she was shocked and relieved when her coming out was largely uneventful, at least compared to some. She has been writing since she could read and has always drifted toward M/M because she enjoyed the relationship dynamics between men, even before she understood what sexuality was. It's possible that her first story was about G.I. Joe. She wishes she still had that story.

Josh Lanyon
A distinct voice in gay fiction, multi-award-winning author JOSH LANYON has been writing gay mystery, adventure and romance for over a decade. In addition to numerous short stories, novellas, and novels, Josh is the author of the critically acclaimed Adrien English series, including The Hell You Say, winner of the 2006 USABookNews awards for GLBT Fiction. Josh is an Eppie Award winner and a three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist.

Shira Anthony
Shira Anthony is a complete sucker for a happily-ever-after, and rarely reads or writes a story without one. Never a fan of instalove, Shira likes to write stories about real men with real issues making real relationships work.

In her last incarnation, Shira was a professional opera singer, performing roles in such operas as “Tosca,” “Pagliacci,” and “La Traviata,” among others. Her Blue Notes Series is loosely based upon her own experiences as a professional musician.

Shira is married with two children and two insane dogs and when she’s not writing, she is usually in a courtroom trying to make the world safer for children. When she’s not working, she can be found aboard a 36’ catamaran at the Carolina coast with her favorite sexy captain at the wheel. She’s given up TV for evenings spent with her laptop, and she never goes anywhere without a pile of unread M/M romance on her Kindle.

Charlie Cochrane
As Charlie Cochrane couldn't be trusted to do any of her jobs of choice - like managing a rugby team - she writes. Her favourite genre is gay fiction, predominantly historical romances/mysteries, but she's making an increasing number of forays into the modern day. She's even been known to write about gay werewolves - albeit highly respectable ones.

Her Cambridge Fellows series of Edwardian romantic mysteries were instrumental in seeing her named Speak Its Name Author of the Year 2009. She’s a member of both the Romantic Novelists’ Association and International Thriller Writers Inc.

Happily married, with a house full of daughters, Charlie tries to juggle writing with the rest of a busy life. She loves reading, theatre, good food and watching sport. Her ideal day would be a morning walking along a beach, an afternoon spent watching rugby and a church service in the evening.

Abigail Roux

Jordan L Hawk

Kim Fielding

John C Houser

Jeanne McDonald

Ryan Loveless

Josh Lanyon

Shira Anthony

Charlie Cochrane

Crash & Burn
B&N  /  KOBO  /  iTUNES  /  ARe


The Tin Box
B&N  /  KOBO  /  iTUNES  /  ARe

The Door Behind Us

The Truth be Told

The Forgotten Man
B&N  /  KOBO  /  iTUNES  /  ARe

Winter Kill
B&N  /  KOBO  /  ARe  /  iTUNES

Running with the Wind

Lessons for Idle Tongues