Copyright © 2018
Nick Auspex stared at the small house while dread curled in his gut like a snake. He didn’t want to knock on the front door. He didn’t want to disturb the pretty wreath hung against the bright red paint, and he certainly didn’t want to confront a grieving man, but his duty had forced him here. He wasn’t about to ignore his responsibilities, no matter how much he wished he could. His loyalty lay with the Council, and, more specifically, with Theo Fraser, who’d been a friend where he’d never expected to find one. Theo was Council Head now, and Nick would do this task Theo had asked of him, even if it meant he’d have to face every last one of his personal demons to do so.
“You’re being melodramatic,” he muttered to himself, and then he shook his head as he undid his seatbelt. His life wasn’t as bad as all that. Investigating a murder wasn’t an impossible job, mostly because the people were already dead. It wasn’t at all like trying to keep someone alive. He wasn’t a bodyguard for this job. He didn’t need to take a bullet for someone. He just had to find out the facts after the death had already happened. No big deal. Nick got out of his rental car and stretched muscles crammed into too small a space for too long of a time. Midday wasn’t busy in this area, and he hadn’t expected it to be. He walked across the quiet suburban street and knocked on the door that only last night had turned to flames in his latest vision.
Jeff froze when he heard the knock from the front of the house. “Not again,” he said, frustrated and pissed off. He shoved the papers he’d been perusing away from him with a bit more violence than was strictly needed. He wished he could set fire to this damned house and all the things inside it, but he knew his parents would never forgive him if he did, not that they had a say in anything, anymore.
“Because they’re dead,” he muttered to himself as he got up from the table, feeling as old as dust. “So you could set fire to this place, if you really wanted, but what would be the point?” The knock sounded again before he could answer the summons, and he scowled at the peeling varnish on the worn wood. “I’m coming,” he said sourly, hand on the doorknob. He swung it open and frowned. He’d expected to see yet another neighbor standing on the other side of the door, bursting with questions and useless compassion, but instead his eyes landed on a man with an expression that seemed as haunted as his own must be.
“Jeff Wright?” the guy asked, low and resigned as if he really didn’t want to be here. His hazel eyes stared out from beneath neatly trimmed brown hair. The bright intelligence in them was at odds with his tone of voice.
Jeff stared. He had no idea what to say. The grief in his throat tended to steal his voice at the most unexpected moments. “Yeah.” He coughed. “That’s me. Can I help you?” He stepped back. The man didn’t follow him inside. Points to him for having some sense of decency, Jeff thought, remembering last night’s debacle with the woman down the street. She’d wanted to see inside the place where her boring old neighbors had committed a murder/suicide. Over my dead body, Jeff had told her, and she’d almost called the cops on him, the nosy bitch.
“I’m Nick Auspex,” the man said, as if that meant something to Jeff. It didn’t. The man glanced up the street for a moment, then frowned. “May I come in?” he asked.
Jeff shook his head, tearing his gaze away from the man’s impeccably defined torso. Who wore sweaters that tight? Models and actors, and this guy didn’t look like either of those types. His face was too weathered. His expression was too shadowed. “Your name doesn’t mean zip to me, Mr. Nick Auspex,” Jeff said, but the guy wasn’t even looking at him as he replied. “I don’t let strangers into my parents’—” He caught himself, swallowing hard against the reminder that his parents were dead. “I don’t let strangers into my house. State your business. I have things to do.” He knew he wasn’t being particularly pleasant, but screw that. He’d had enough of politeness in the past few weeks to last him from now until forever. He wanted answers, not pleasantries.
Nick stared at him, then sighed. “I’m from the Craft Council. I’m here to help.”
Fifteen minutes later, Jeff still couldn’t figure out what Nick was supposed to be doing to help him. “The cops said it was a murder-suicide. Or maybe just a suicide-suicide. They can’t seem to make up their minds. I don’t know what you think you can add to that.”
Nick pushed the glass of water Jeff had fetched him away, untouched. “The Council told me it was a murder, not a suicide.”
And how would they know, from so far away? Useless bunch of idiots. They didn’t help my parents when they were alive, and they want to help me now that they’re dead? Jeff pursed his lips. “I found my parents in their bedroom.” He gestured behind him, to the room past the stairs. “Neither of them had a mark on them.” He shook his head. “My parents would never kill themselves. It was murder, just not the kind of murder the cops know how to look for.” He raked a hand through his hair. “And I don’t have the power to figure it out. I’m human.”
Nick nodded as if he’d expected that answer. “Did they check for poison?”
Jeff glanced at the folder Nick had placed on the table. The corner of a photocopied autopsy report peeked out of the side. He pointed at it. “You know they did.” He felt his phone buzz, and eased it out of his pocket. He’d sent a quick text to an old buddy of his who worked for the Council. He wasn’t about to volunteer information to a stranger without some sort of assurance that the guy was who he said he was. “Huh,” he said, reading the text.
Nick sat back in his chair, one eyebrow raised.
Jeff typed out a quick acknowledgement on his phone, then put it away. “Seems you are who you say you are. Bodyguard to the Council Head, no less, says my friend. He’s a security guard at the Council Building,” he explained.
“Bodyguard.” Nick scowled, looking like he was about to choke on the word. “Not anymore, I’m not.”
Jeff shrugged. The guy clearly had issues, but they weren’t his problem.
“Would you allow me to examine your parents’ bodies?” Nick asked, not entirely unexpectedly.
Jeff swallowed as the grief caught him again, squeezing his esophagus. “Can’t. They were cremated last week.” He cleared his throat. “If the Council had been on top of things, sure, I would’ve let you see them, but the cops closed the case. I couldn’t keep them in limbo indefinitely.” He shut up. There was no way he could talk about his parents’ cremation. Not now. Maybe not ever.
“The Council had a bit of a problem at the time and couldn’t respond properly,” Nick said, shaking his head. “I’m very sorry for your loss.”
A problem? He calls the attempted assassination of the Council Head a “problem”? Jeff snorted. “I read about that in the news. Theo Fraser, new Council Head, shot. Terrorists trying to pressure the Council into … what? What exactly did they want?” Jeff rubbed his eyes. “Doesn’t anyone find it weird that the father of the guy now in charge of the Council was trying to overthrow it?”
Nick sighed. “It was a mess. Theo’s father wasn’t trying to have him killed. He just wanted to control him. The guy who shot Theo was a rogue. He’s dead now.” He stood up, pacing to the back door where he stared out the window. He tapped on the glass. “You buried them out back?” He sounded surprised as he took in the newly turned ground near the tree at the edge of the property.
Jeff had no desire to talk about his parents anymore. He wanted to drink himself into oblivion and then sleep for a week, or maybe a month. But the guy is here, and he’s offered to help, so… Fuck it. “Yeah, I buried them out back. They wanted to go side by side under the sycamore tree.” He stood up and joined Nick at the door. Outside, his backyard backed up against a nature preserve, with a small creek separating the properties. The large sycamore tree had stood there, near the water, for as long as he could remember. He’d even had a rope swing when he was a kid. The pungent scent of the leaves used to remind him of how much he’d loved playing out there, but now he knew it would always remind him of his parents’ death. Childhood seems like a century ago, and I’m only twenty-five. Christ. He rubbed his eyes against the burn of sorrow. He’d fashioned a small memorial stone to mark his parents’ burial site, as if the freshly disturbed earth wasn’t a dead giveaway. “I know it’s not legal, but I don’t give a damn. Their ashes aren’t going to hurt anyone.”
Nick turned to him. “You’ve always lived here?”
Jeff frowned. “No.” He wasn’t going to get into his bad breakup with Vivian last year with some guy he didn’t know. At least she hasn’t shown up at my door like the neighbors, looking for gossip. He’d told her where he’d grown up while they were dating, but he had no idea if she realized he’d moved back in with his parents. He sure as hell hoped not. “I moved out after college. Moved back in last year.” He shrugged. “I liked my parents. They liked me. We got along. It worked.” Easy words to gloss over the hell of my adolescence, but they’re true enough now, I suppose. He strode back to the kitchen table and sat down. It was old. The whole house was older, and he probably should think about updating things, but he just couldn’t imagine it. He eyed the scratched linoleum surface beneath his hands and sighed. He could afford it. His sculptures had been selling for a damned fortune lately, and surprisingly, his watercolors were starting to take off, too. He’d never expected to make it big in the art world, but that was how life worked. Sometimes you got lucky. And sometimes your parents died unexpectedly, for no apparent reason.
“Are you okay?” Nick asked.
Jeff shook his head. “No. No, I am not okay. My parents are dead, and no one knows why, including me. None of this situation is okay.”
Nick slowly stood up. “I’m sorry. I can come back tomorrow if that would be easier.”
Jeff stared at him. Nick looked tired. Dark rings shadowed his hazel eyes, and he needed a shave. “No,” he finally said, standing up, too. He would rather show the guy his parents’ room and get him the hell out of his house, instead of dragging this out. “Their room is this way.” He walked out of the kitchen and around the steps to the bedroom on the first floor. His room was upstairs, along with an en-suite bath that also needed renovation. His parents had used the first floor. The house was small, but cozy, and the location was amazing. He liked it here. He didn’t want to move, no matter how horrible the memories. He took a deep breath and turned the doorknob. “I found them in here, on the floor.” He pushed the door open, grimacing as the stale scent of his father’s aftershave hit him dead in the face. He held the door, and waved Nick through. “Go on.”
Nick walked inside, unerringly heading right for the spot where Jeff had found his father cradling his mother at the foot of the bed. Not a damn thing marked the floor where they’d breathed their last: no blood, no scuff marks, no nothing. There was just the patterned rug over the hardwood floor and the quilt his mother had sewn ten years ago smoothed over the mattress like nothing had ever happened in here.
“It looks clean,” Nick said, turning to inspect the dresser set near the window.
Jeff shrugged. “My mom liked it neat.” He wandered inside, mentally cataloguing his parents’ things: his father’s cufflinks on the dresser, his mother’s jewelry box, the photo of his maternal grandparents, long deceased, propped up against a stack of paperbacks on his mother’s bookshelf. She’d liked to read romance novels, of all things. It didn’t fit the image of a highly educated microbiologist, but then, his mother hadn’t really given a damn about what other people thought.
“No,” Nick said, frowning. He crouched down to inspect the floor. “Not neat. Wiped clean. A professional did this.” He touched the floor, then the polished oak of the bed. He peered beneath the mattress, and then stood up.
Jeff froze. “Wait, what?”
“The autopsy report said they found nothing in their system to indicate poisoning. There were no marks on the bodies. Nothing in here is disturbed.” Nick walked to the window and looked out, creasing the blinds between his fingers for a moment.
“How does that indicate murder? They could’ve just died on their own. They were soulmates, after all. My father probably had a heart attack, and my mother would have gladly died with him.”
“I know they mentioned heart disease on the autopsy, but I’m not buying it, and I bet you’re not either,” Nick said, sitting on the bed. “May I?” He pointed to the nightstand.
Jeff nodded, even as his mind raced. “Go ahead.” His parents had been researchers. They had minimal Craft power, and counted themselves lucky to have found each other, and been able to bond. Jeff had been born without any Craft power, and it had driven his father crazy. “They always said it wasn’t fair that I was born human,” he told Nick.
Nick looked up from the nightstand drawer. “It bothered them?”
“Yeah.” He ran a hand down his face. “They spent their lives researching genes, and the biomarkers that signified Craft versus human traits.”
“And what did they discover?” Nick asked.
Jeff shrugged. “I’m an artist. I don’t understand any of that shit.” He said the lie easily. He’d been repeating the same lie for a year now, to various people, and only his parents remembered that he was anything but a simple artist. He had the ability to understand his parents’ work, but he didn’t have the desire. He didn’t miss working for a pharmaceutical company. He didn’t miss having Craft power. He wasn’t obsessed with either of those things, even though his parents lived for their research all throughout his childhood.
He glanced at the small sculpture of a tree that he’d given them last year. It sat by itself on a shelf attached to the wall. The bronze had aged to a deep brown, and he liked the way it looked against the striped wallpaper: solitary and permanent. He wished his parents had had longer to enjoy it. He wished they’d seen how much he enjoyed working with his hands instead of being trapped in a lab. He reached out and took it down, holding it until it warmed against his skin. “I majored in chemistry to please my parents, but my true love is sculpture. Painting.” He looked up, and made a sudden decision to share a little of his background. That way, if his previous experience ever came out, it would be less like he was lying, and more like he was just avoiding the topic. “I even worked in a lab for a while, but I hated it. So I quit.”
“So you don’t understand any of their research?” Nick asked, reasonably enough.
Jeff looked up. He could tell that Nick wasn’t buying his explanation, but he knew better than to elaborate. The more you deny a thing, the more you look like a liar, he reminded himself, shrugging.
After a moment, Nick turned his attention back to the nightstand, and Jeff relaxed. “Are you almost done?” he asked.
Nick nodded. “Almost. I assume the cops went through all of this?” He pulled a stack of papers out of the drawer.
Jeff nodded. “Yes.” They hadn’t found anything out of the ordinary.
Nick frowned as he extracted an envelope out of the stack of documents. “This is addressed to you.” He held it out.
Jeff stared at it. He hadn’t been in here since he’d discovered his parents, and the cops hadn’t mentioned anything about an envelope. “Open it,” he told Nick.
Nick frowned at him.
“Shit. Wait a sec.” Jeff walked over to Nick and grabbed the letter-sized envelope. It wasn’t thick. He folded it in half and stuffed it into his pocket. He’d look at it later. “Is there anything else you need?”
“Yeah.” Nick stood up. “We need to leave.”
Jeff nodded. “The front door is right back out that way.” He jabbed his thumb over his shoulder. He was more than ready to show this guy the door. He wanted a beer, and his bed, and not necessarily in that order. So what if it’s only four in the afternoon? There’s no one around to care what time I go to sleep. Not anymore. He thought briefly of his ex-girlfriend, more because he missed the companionship and sex than because he missed her.
“You misunderstand me,” Nick said, rubbing his hands on his pants. “We both need to leave.”
What? Is he serious? Jeff snorted. “Yeah, no. I don’t think so.”
Nick strode over to him, stopping close enough for Jeff to see the golden flecks in his hazel eyes. A flicker of—apprehension? attraction?—prickled his spine as he stared back. The guy was seriously built, not that Jeff had the energy to care, right now. He just wanted him gone so he could go back to doing whatever the hell he’d been doing before the knock on his door had interrupted him. You were wallowing, he reminded himself.
“I’m sorry, but you aren’t making sense, Mr. Nick Auspex.” Jeff carefully stepped back before he did something he regretted. Never let it be said that I don’t know when to hold, and when to fold.
Nick didn’t back down. In fact, he followed Jeff until he had nowhere to go. Jeff’s shoulders pressed against the doorframe uncomfortably, and he had a split second’s thought that he was going to regret opening his door today. He inhaled, completely unnerved as a bolt of arousal shot through him, surprising him thoroughly. He’d never been so attracted to a guy before. He’d never wanted to be attracted to a guy, so this sudden weirdness meant nothing but trouble for him.
Nick lifted a hand and touched Jeff’s shoulder. “Your parents were murdered, and I’m worried you’re next, Jeff Wright.”