I stepped off the airplane and followed the flow of traffic out of the terminal. The world felt unsteady after being twenty thousand feet in the air, as if the ground were as soft as a cloud and I’d sink straight through. I looked around. Port Columbus International Airport was a hive of rushing civilians. My grip tightened around my carry-on as a man in a cheap-looking suit slammed into my shoulder. Someone’s hand caught my arm and steadied me. I looked back and flashed Carlos a grateful smile as he steered us out of the stream of bodies.
“You got everything, corazón?”
“Yeah. Let’s get our bags and head home. I’m exhausted.” A yawn escaped me, almost as if to emphasis the fact. We were both jet-lagged, in need of a shower, and stiff in every way but the good one. All I wanted was some food and our bed.
For the last two weeks we had taken a much needed—and painfully earned—vacation to Madrid, Spain. It was a long-overdue celebration of our anniversary. I still had trouble believing that in four months, we’d be celebrating two years together. It was a feat I had never thought possible.
“Come on, baggage is this way.” Carlos dropped a quick kiss on my lips and started moving toward the luggage carousels.
I quickly caught up with him, letting my shoulder bump his as I passed. Warmth unfurled in my stomach and pushed away my fatigue when I looked over my shoulder. Carlos had loosely braided his black hair from his face; the pleat draped down his back to just past his shoulder blades. He had become disheveled during the flight, his black tank top wrinkled and his poured-on jeans riding low on his narrow hips.
We had come a long way since we first met. It had been a rocky beginning, filled with denial, then followed by hesitation. That rocky beginning, which had become stronger and more cemented during the past two years, had laid our foundation. Somehow, between almost dying and all our fears, we had found happiness. Now I was terrified to think of a life without him.
“Try to keep up, mutt,” I goaded teasingly.
Carlos’s smile deepened at my challenge, and we all but ran to the baggage area, making our way down the escalator without mishap. I slid my cell phone out and powered it up as we waited for the baggage carousel to start. The flight had been a taxing ten hours with a layover in New York City. We had made it in on the 742 by eleven, but I didn’t think we’d make it home officially until after midnight.
I called Aunt Claire as soon as my phone finished loading. I knew she’d be waiting to hear that we’d landed safely. Once I’d let Aunt Claire know we’d returned, I sent Carlos’s sister-in-law, Sofia, a quick text. Everyone else could wait till tomorrow.
“How’s Aunt Claire?”
“Good. She said she’s going to bed and that she sends her love.”
A light over the carousel lit up, followed by an alarm. Ten minutes later, bags in hand, we were on a shuttle bus to the long-term parking lot. My cell phone started ringing just as we stepped off the bus. Carlos quirked a brow at me, his chocolate eyes almost black in the night darkness. I glanced down at the caller ID.
“Chief,” I announced.
Technically, we were still on vacation for another day. I hit Talk on reflex. I saw Carlos scowl, but he didn’t say anything.
“You boys landed?”
Even through the phone, I could hear the wheeze of the pack of cigarettes he’d smoked today.
“We just got our bags.” I passed Carlos the keys to my Challenger. I had broken down and traded in my Mustang when it had been on the receiving end of one too many lycanthrope attacks.
“Good. Vacation is over, then. I need you down here at a new scene.”
There was something tight in his voice that made a fist squeeze my stomach until it felt like my airplane pretzels were going to come back up.
“On our way,” I said. Chief rambled off a location and disconnected before I could end the call.
“What’s going on?” Carlos asked as he popped the trunk with the key fob.
“Not sure, but Chief wants us to see a crime scene.” I passed him my suitcase and bag. After we quickly loaded up, I took the keys back and slid into the driver’s seat. My hopes of a shower and bed were blown away with the exhaust as I peeled out of the parking lot.
Carlos and I were partners on the Columbus Police Department’s Preternatural Task Force, or PTF for short. The supernatural have lived among us as legal citizens for years now. It was my and Carlos’s job to investigate any crimes that arose among the arcane dark side of Columbus.
It worked for us because we each had our own ties to the inhuman. Carlos was the leader of the local werecoyote pack, though at the moment, his standing was a bit shaky. I was a Phantom, a human with the combined powers of telekinesis and bilocation. Creating doppelgängers was my specialty.
“Well, the break was fun while it lasted,” Carlos said as he leaned his seat back. I reached over and patted his thigh encouragingly. It would have been nice to ease back into work, but there was never rest for the maleficent.
I got on I-670 and worked my way west, making a loop to I-70. The interstate was dead this late on a Wednesday night, giving me clearance to test how high the gauge on my speedometer could go.
Carey Wayland Elementary, where Chief had asked us to meet him, was just off Livingston, two blocks down from the High Street intersection. I coasted to a stop behind a police car and cut the engine. The crime scene was crawling with officers. A perimeter had been set up around the school, blocking a few curious bystanders from treading on the evidence.
The fist around my stomach clenched into a vise. I had an inkling that whatever was beyond the police tape was something I didn’t want to see. I grabbed the keys and pulled myself out of the car. Carlos followed behind me as I approached the tape and slid my badge out.
Like my gun, I always kept my badge on hand. I had secured both Carlos’s gun and mine in a lockbox and brought them with us to Madrid. I never knew when the shit would hit the fan, and the bad guys didn’t care if we were on vacation.
“I’m Detective Bourne, and this is my partner, Detective Ramirez,” I said to the officer standing watch. He glanced at my badge and lifted the tape for us.
The school’s playground had a ten-foot, chain-link fence wrapped around it. Spotlights had been set up at various points, illuminating the crime scene with a harsh fluorescent flood. Police lights spilled across the pavement and over the rusted swing set and jungle gym, which looked like they dated back to the nineties. A stifling breeze rattled the swing chains.
We were just about to head into July, and the summer so far had been anything but merciful. Even after two weeks of being gone, none of the humidity had abated. Sweat had already begun to form along my back. My black T-shirt clung to me like a second, soggy skin.
Chief Pratt waved us over to a tall slide. Chief was a cross between a walrus and a boar: heavy on the Italian and horns. Over the years, his hair had thinned out and left him with a laurel of steel hair. He puffed on his cigarette like a steam engine and talked around the cancerous stick in his mouth.
“It’s about time you showed your asses.”
“Sorry, next time I’ll try not to be on vacation,” I said and turned to the cadaver. After years of solving grisly murders, it was natural to keep my game face on, but it never made it easier to see the victims. The acid in my stomach soured in the summer heat, even though there wasn’t the usual tang of blood that lingered around cadavers. Of course, that didn’t mean the scene wasn’t any less violent.
A girl, Caucasian and no older than ten, was stretched out along the bottom of the slide, her arms crossed over her chest. Her hands had been removed at the wrists, and her skin had taken on the ashy pallor of death. Her eyes stared blindly up at the sky, searching for a hope that had been too late.
“Shit,” I heard Carlos hiss behind me. I held my hand out and took the set of latex gloves Chief passed me.
“Has she been photographed?” I asked. With a snap, I slid the gloves on and crouched beside the body. “So who is she?”
Chief nodded. “Stacy Markegarde, age ten. She was reported missing a week ago by her father after she didn’t come home from gymnastics class.”
I ran a finger along the incision on her wrist. The skin was slightly puckered and shriveled back, like it would be from a burn, but otherwise the incision was clean. I could see the bone and muscle of her arm. The muscle had dried to a reddish brown, and I watched as a june beetle crawled across the tendons. I brushed it off and continued my examination up her body. As I lifted her arms, I noted they had begun to stiffen.
Carlos crouched beside me, his own set of gloves on, and observed her torso and face. “No marks up here.”
“Looks like the only wounds are her missing hands. My guess is she died from blood loss, but the medical examiner will be able to verify. Rigor mortis has already begun to set in, so it had to be fairly recently; I’d say, not more than three hours ago. The burn wounds look fresh. The killer must have used a heated utensil to remove her hands.”
I rose to my feet and turned to Chief. “What I want to know is, why are we here? I get that it’s a terrible crime, but this looks like it’s more for Homicide than PTF.”
“A couple of teenagers were the ones to discover the body. They said they were passing by and saw Stacy floating in the air,” Chief replied. He put out his cigarette on the heel of his dusty boot and then placed the crumpled bud back in the pack. “Stacy Markegarde was also a Phantom.”
I glanced at her lifeless body. It was small, built like a tiny doll. She had probably just discovered her powers. My throat closed with thick emotion.
“Detectives Yu and Heinmiller were originally handling Stacy’s case. Her disappearance matched the same MO as Jeremy Duran, a seven-year-old who went missing back in May and was discovered a week later with his legs removed.”
“Why wasn’t this reported to PTF earlier?” Carlos asked.
“Ask yourselves,” Chief said and looked over his shoulder to where two detectives were questioning a watery-eyed teenage girl. “Yu, get over here!”
Detective Yu said something to his interrogating partner and walked our way. He was dressed in a gray suit that clung to his tapered body. His blue dress shirt had sweat stains down the front. If it had been me, I’d have lost the tie long ago and undone a few buttons. Yu apparently kept everything primly done up. He stopped a few feet short of us, his thin lips pressed into a grimace. Chief waved his hand between us as a type of introduction.
“Detective Yu, this is Detective Ramirez and his partner, Detective Bourne.”
Yu shook our hands. “Detectives.”
“Why wasn’t this case brought to PTF’s attention sooner?” I asked.
Yu’s grimace darkened into a bitter scowl. Because you didn’t want us to know.
It was as I suspected: a power play. They hadn’t wanted to share the information, because even if it had been our territory, they wanted to reap the glory of nabbing the killer.
“We didn’t think it was a PTF case. We don’t believe the fact that she was a Phantom has anything to do with her abduction.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “As soon as you realized what she was, you should have alerted us. It’s our job to decide whether her being an arcane is a factor. And from the sound of it, you have a killer who isn’t in your jurisdiction. Floating bodies aren’t exactly done by your run-of-the-mill murderers.”
“No, that’s only for the freaks, I guess.”
I narrowed my eyes as Chief ordered, “I expect all your reports on Bourne’s desk by tomorrow morning. This case will be handled by them from now on.”
Yu’s jaw tightened and began to tic. I could see the frustration warring in his eyes. It was a wild beast that wanted to break from its restraints and trample me.
“Understood?” Chief asked when Yu didn’t respond.
“Yeah, I do,” Yu spat out.
Chief remained where he was for a moment, as if sizing Yu’s anger up, and then said, “You’re dismissed.”
Yu’s nostrils flared as he glared venomously at me and Carlos. We’d just walked in from out of nowhere and snatched his case from beneath his nose. Yu being pissed was an understatement.
“Do you think you can just walk in here and take our case? You goddamn ghoul chasers think you can claim every case is fucking preternatural.”
Chief’s voice boomed, a crack of deafening thunder. “Enough! I won’t repeat myself, Detective. Pack your shit up, and get off my crime scene before I decide to take your shield.”
I turned away from Yu and crouched beside Stacy’s body again, vaguely hearing Yu grumble as he retreated. I wanted to inspect her a little further.
Carlos waved down a cop and snitched the officer’s flashlight. He moved past me as he clicked it on and looked over the area around the slide. “There’s no kind of disturbance. No footprints. If the kids saw the body, why didn’t the killer come after them as well?”
“He either didn’t care, or he was transporting the body from a location that didn’t allow him to see,” I said.
Stacy had on a pair of jeans with sequins sewn down the sides and a short-sleeved shirt that had a popular character printed on the front. The examiner would check for any bodily fluids, but from the lack of bruising I could see, I didn’t suspect rape. It was a small comfort.
“You said Jeremy was missing his legs?” I asked Chief. I stood up. My thighs burned in protest, still stiff from the long flight.
“Cut off just below the knee.”
I nodded, mentally logging the information away. I wanted to take a look at the information Yu and Heinmiller had collected.
“Theo, over here.”
Carlos waved me over to where some thick shrubs hugged the side of the school. He parted the waxy leaves of the bushes and pointed a beam of light over a small purple lucky rabbit’s foot caught on the branches. I reached in and carefully extracted the rabbit’s foot.
“The vic came from the west,” I said. I passed Carlos the rabbit’s foot. He dropped it into a bag a lingering officer supplied.
I took a few steps back and looked up at the roof of the school. Power rolled down me. It was like breathing; just an intake of air, and my body floated up to the roof of the building.
Carey Wayland Elementary School was a giant building made of mortar and brick, with rusty vents protruding from the roof like the horns of a beast. Various bits of debris from the nearby trees were scattered over the rooftop. I turned around and looked over the edge of the roof at Carlos. “Give me your flashlight.”
Carlos held out the Maglite. I pulled my gloves off and summoned the light to me. It was just another release of energy that flowed from me with every breath. My power was like extending millions of invisible hands. I grabbed the flashlight from the air when it reached me and switched it on.
A beetle scuttled past my foot and vanished into a pile of twigs. I walked the length of the roof, searching for a clue that could point us in the right direction. I looped around and doubled back toward the playground end of the building, passing the access door that led down into the school. The light slid a harsh yellow corona over the dirt-caked cement. Embedded in the muck was the faint outline of a footprint.
“Find anything?” Carlos called up.
I headed back to the roof’s edge and grabbed the side, swinging over. A small release of energy slowed my descent enough for me to land carefully on my feet.
“I hate when you do that,” Carlos grumbled. I flashed him a smile and bumped his shoulder with mine as I walked back toward Chief.
“We got a footprint up there. Might be the perp’s, so let’s have someone go up there and get a copy.”
Chief nodded as he lit another cigarette. He shook his lighter in frustration when it refused to ignite, and then sighed when it finally did. A warm breeze tickled across my cheek and blew out his hard-earned flame. Chief let out a growl, cupped his hand over the end of his cigarette, and finally got another ignition so he could light it.
“Let’s talk to the kids, and see what they have to say,” Carlos said.
I passed the Maglite and my gloves off to a random officer and trailed behind Carlos to the shaken teens huddled next to the fence. The guy twitched like he was ready to pull a knife out any second. I eyed him speculatively, appraising the extent of his agitation. He was probably shaken up more by being around so many cops than seeing a floating dead body.
The girl beside him hugged her pale arms tightly around her body as if she could hold everything in. Her eyes held the distant shine of fading innocence. There was nothing like seeing a murder to rip away the last shred of a person’s childhood. She absently reached up and tucked a blonde curl behind her ear.
Carlos stopped in front of them, removed his gloves, and introduced himself. “Hello, I’m Detective Ramirez, and this is my partner, Detective Bourne. How are you guys holding up?”
The one thing that worked between Carlos and me was the dynamic we had set up. He was the good cop, and I was happy being the bad cop. He could turn on a thousand-watt smile that was capable of charming a nun into his bed and have witnesses eating out of his hand in a matter of seconds. He handled the press and the friendly bullshit I couldn’t stomach. I cracked my knuckles and roughed up the suspects who didn’t want to listen to reason.
It worked for us.
“When can we go home?” the girl asked. Her voice was rough with tears. She rubbed her eyes, their blue even brighter from being bloodshot.
“Yeah, we already told them other detectives everything we know. Ain’t right that you’re keeping us here. We ain’t did nothin’.”
The guy glared at Carlos, his mouth twisted into a vicious snarl. It was a tough mask to hide the fear that sparked in his eyes when his gaze drifted too close to Stacy’s body. His dark mocha skin glowed beneath the streetlamp. A bead of sweat rolled from his temple and built along his upper lip. He swiped the back of his hand across his mouth and pulled the girl closer.
Carlos never broke composure. “I understand. I know you’ve been through something rough, but we just need to ask a few more questions. Once we finish here, you can go home. Has an officer called your parents yet?”
The girl nodded. She looked between me and Carlos, her face ashen and pure. She seemed so small surrounded by all the darkness. A shudder ran through her, and she turned closer to the boy, who I assumed was her boyfriend.
“Good. May I have your names?” Carlos asked. He reached for his pocket and paused when he realized he didn’t have his usually ever-present notepad. We hadn’t needed a notepad in Madrid. I pulled out my phone and accessed the voice recorder.
“E-ellie, my name is Ellie Reynolds, and this is Felix.”
“You got a last name, Felix?” I asked.
Felix eyed me sideways and answered reluctantly. “Jacobs.”
“So what were you two doing here this late at night?” Carlos asked.
Felix snorted indignantly and looked away. They both couldn’t have been older than sixteen—too young to see any of this.
“What’s it matter why we were here?”
I was ready to throttle the punk. Ellie shifted, her arms constricting even tighter.
“We were…supposed to meet someone here.”
“Who? Did they show?” I asked.
She bit her bottom lip. After a few seconds, she shook her head. “No. Probably saw the police and left. Just a kid from school.”
“What was his name?” Carlos pressed. His tone was more coaxing.
Ellie grimaced, but she was easier to pry than Felix. “Artie Paulson.”
Felix eyed us critically, waiting for us to ask what they were meeting up for, but it didn’t take much to deduce what they’d sneaked out for. Busting them for drugs was the last thing I was concerned about.
“Okay, so you got here to meet Artie. You walk by the playground, and then what?”
Ellie looked up at Felix, who gave a slight nod of affirmation. Ellie pressed closer to him, and her voice cracked as she continued.
“We stopped and were talking, just…bullshitting, ya know? I looked over, I don’t know what made me, and there she was. Just floating in midair. At first I didn’t realize she was dead. But then when she lowered, I just knew. She was so…so…still
“We didn’t see anybody, though. Ain’t no one was here. She just appeared,” Felix added almost defensively, like he expected us to call a bluff.
“You sure you didn’t see anyone? No one on the roof? In the playground?” I asked.
“No,” Felix said.
“Did you notice anything other than the body? Maybe not a person, but anything strange?” Carlos asked.
They both shook their heads. They were too rattled to think straight, and even then, I knew they didn’t have much. Whoever had deposited Stacy’s body on the slide had known what he was doing.
“Okay, we’re done. You two can go wait for your parents to get here. Thank you for your help,” Carlos said.
We turned around and began to walk back toward Chief, who looked like he’d been run through a meat grinder. Carlos ran a hand down his face.
“This is one pile of shit to come back to.”
“Nothing says welcome home like a corpse,” I deadpanned.